James Caswell

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What is your name and your current occupation?
James Caswell. I’m a freelance storyboard artist in Toronto (the GTA.) I also occasionally instruct at Sheridan College in Oakville.


What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?
I’m not sure if it is crazy but I worked at a Famous Players cinemas (3 screens) for 7 years. This is where I first experienced multiple viewings/study of the same movie. (pre VHS and DVD days.) However, our cinema was targeted with mid 70’s action movies –Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, The Devil’s Rain and lots of early kung fu- Five Fingers of Death. Tarantino territory. I did get passes to all of the chains other theatres, so I also saw the other classics of the time as well. And I learned to make great popcorn.


What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
I like working on different styles of projects with different directors. I like action comedy but these days, it is mostly pre school work. In the early ‘90s, I worked on Project Geeker. It was a show on CBS created by Doug TenNapel. I loved the mix of action, science fiction and goofy comedy. It was really fun to board and I was sorry when it ended. I also really enjoyed working with Brad Goodchild on Pepper Ann. Surprisingly, on a recent trip to China, it was the show in my resume the audience most responded to the most. The Disney machine exposes the world to different products and one never knows which will resonate.


Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
Born in the wilds of northern Ontario, I learned to draw from a mix of Marvel comics (Jack Kirby) and MAD magazine (Jack Davis.) After I moved to southern Ontario, I studied briefly at Sheridan College in a comics program they had in the late ‘70s, then graduated in advertising illustration at the Ontario College of Art (now OCADU.) Asked by a prof what I was going to do after graduation, I replied: “I just like to draw.” I was hired from school into the television commercial division of Nelvana, a local Canadian studio. There began my animation education.


What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
I work on a Cintiq and in Storyboard Pro in the main. I like Toon Boom’s product for its’ data management aspects; the way text and panels can be copied, pasted, and shuffled as well as it’s export tools. Some clients require Sketchbook Pro whose drawing tools are more natural look but the data has to be fussed with more. When I’m on a board, it is usually 8 hours a day and 6 days a week. I work from a home studio and listen to CBC radio all day especially the commuter road reports.


What part of your job do you like best? Why?
I love the problem solving aspect of storyboarding. I like taking the script and the character designs and staging the sequences while balancing the need for fast drawing, good gesture, and communication to the audience to deliver on time.

What part of your job do you like least? Why?
Revisions. As I often quote: “I like a director with vision; not revision.” Good director gives you …well, direction. How they want to see the script executed. Sometimes, they will even thumbnail out their favoured compositions, poses, etc. Bad directors look over the roughs and then give their notes. Directing is a tough job, but the best ones know when to advise and when to let go. A writer I read a while ago referred to revisions as “washing garbage.’ That fits.

What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis, how has technology changed in the last few years in your field and how has that impacted you in your job?
The production companies used to messenger or Fedex a board artist paper, Post-its, and even the pencils. Now, board artists are expected to be their own IT department. I’m relatively comfortable with technology and am not shy to ask to help if I need to. When beta testing Storyboard Pro at Nelvana a few years ago, I drew into it for 3 days and then opened it to a blank board on the 4th. I learned to backup up a board multiple times on multiple drives. I miss the way I could estimate my work day. I used to know from the stack of blue penciled roughs, how many I had to get through to make my quota. Now, the digital mystery box makes it hard to estimate the day’s work.


What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
Being freelance means one is always looking for the next gig. I have been lucky with only a few longish layoffs. Freelancers are always the first to go and last to be hired. It takes a while to figure out the up and downs and the changing shape of the freelance economy. I have no control over the Greek debt crisis or economic meltdown, but they affect my business.
In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
The closest brush I had with true greatness was in 1978. I went to my regular drawing class at OCA and the studio was taken over by a graduate to teach drawing. I left because at the time, I didn’t know who Richard Williams was. I still kick myself.
Describe a tough situation you had in life.
The toughest situation I had in my boarding life was telling a director –a good friend- that I couldn’t do the board I promised him. Other work overwhelmed me and I just couldn’t do it. That was a difficult call to make. As the freelancer, I hate promising and not delivering.


Any side projects you’re working on that you’d like to share details of?
My Master’s thesis, which is why I bowed out of the boarding gig, is about building online animation development models. I still have hopes to get back to that one day.
Any unusual talents or hobbies like tying a cherry stem with your tongue or metallurgy?
Nope, but I make great popcorn.
Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business? Dig in. Learn from all your peers as well as your teachers. We learn more from trying and failing than from early success. Sounds lame but I always recommend Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” http://www.emersoncentral.com/selfreliance.htm.” It is still fresh and essential reading for living the freelance life. “Every man is a consumer, and ought to be a producer.” Stop looking at blog art and start making it.


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One Comment

  1. Great interview. Smart questions, smart (and somewhat modest) answers. I’m a freelance STB artist in Munich, Bavaria. Seems like things are the same all over the western world…

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