What is your name and your current occupation?
Hey there, my name is John K. Lei. I am an animation director and artist. I recently finished up Assistant Directing on Johnny Test, season 5. Currently I am freelancing design and development, and working on my website and blog.
What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?
Well, I worked as a graphic designer for a small company in Toronto. Of course, there were the long hours (my first day there was 15 hours) and crazy expectations (I had 3 days to conceive, create and put together all the art and signage for a fashion show). However, the craziest thing about that job were the unrelated skills I developed (fixing computers and photocopiers, painting the office, being the delivery boy and my favourite – fixing the phones). I’m surprised I got any of the design work done.
What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
I really like funny, zany shows like Johnny Test because our crew can have lots of fun. Also, working on features like Curious George is nice because we can afford time to create some beautiful artwork. I also liked illustrating the black and white art for some of the Franklin the Turtle books – it’s a nice break away from the typical animation production.
How did you become interested in animation?
Naturally, I got into animation by watching a lot of cartoons on television when I was a young kid. Some of my favourite shows were The Flintstones, Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies, Battle of the Planets (Science Ninja Team Gatchaman) and Starblazers (Space Cruiser Yamato). I was intrigued by the idea of making a still image move and the storytelling aspect of film. I always find myself connecting with good stories and characters. I’ll take a great story over great special effects any day.
Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I was born in Hong Kong; but my parents moved us here to Canada and raised my brothers and I in Timmins, Ontario (the land of Shania Twain) and Brampton (just outside of Toronto). I studied animation and graduated from Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario and then got my first job in the layout department at Nelvana Animation on the show Dog City back in 1992. When I first scouted and applied for jobs after college, there weren’t too many opportunities available. I was lucky enough that someone at Nelvana saw my portfolio and recommended me for a layout position that had suddenly been vacated. The funny thing is, I had no intention of getting into layout; my mind was pretty much set on design. Since the pickings were slim that year, I decided it was best to take the job anyways. Looking back now, it was a good decision and a great first step in the industry.
What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
I like to start my day of work with a hot cup of tea while I start the gears in my mind. While I was on Johnny Test, I would spend a few minutes sorting out the plan for the day (what and how things need to be done, and how to delegate work to the crew). Then I hit the ground running and would work hard until noon-ish, take a healthy lunch break, then continue on until 6 or 7 pm. Our lunch breaks were always important to me. I find everyone needs to take a break at some point in the day to relax and enjoy each other’s company. While working at home, I pretty much follow the same regimen – it’s the only way things can get done.
What part of your job do you like best? Why?
I always like the drawing aspect and being creative; but I also enjoy working with good people. They’re the ones that keep you sane throughout the productions. The friends I have made over the years have been amazing.
What part of your job do you like least? Why?
I think most people would agree when I say I dislike the politics the most. To be fair, any business has to deal with that stuff and everyone deals with it in different ways. It’s just unfortunate that it always gets in the way of the creative process.
Oh, I also don’t like that my eyes get very tired and sometimes my mind slows down to a crawl by day’s end.
What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis?
I’m a real techno-gadget-geek and nerd (I studied computer science and programming in middle and high school). I use Mac OS X on my Mac Pro and sometimes I use my Windows Tablet PC. I draw a heck of a lot on my Wacom Cintiq, using mostly Photoshop, Illustrator, Autodesk Sketchbook Pro and ToonBoom Storyboard Pro. For some of my personal work I also dabble with ArtRage Pro (which has some awesome natural brushes). Oh yeah, I also love photography – so I love my camera and lenses (okay, maybe not totally work related, but I thought I’d shout it out anyways)!
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
One difficult thing is the financial stability and consistency. As a contractor, I always have to be on my toes. I try to keep busy throughout the year, knowing that I have a business to run and possibly some employees to pay. Artistically, I would say it is sometimes difficult to find a voice. I guess what I mean by that is, being able to promote, advise and influence with the skills we have developed over the years. Realizing potential within one’s self and the others around you can be hard to do in a production environment; but I strive to do that as much as I can.
In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
Oh, I’ve met so many great people, it wouldn’t be fair to leave anyone out. I think everyone I meet is great!
Describe a tough situation you had in life.
Other than my purple ear incident when I was younger, I also had difficulty dealing with stress. It would manifest itself physically, so being thin and underweight I would get sick more often. As a young adult, it started to affect my ability to work. So, I went on a search to find a hobby to help me balance my mental and physical states (see second hobby question below).
Any side projects or you’re working on or hobbies you’d like to share details of?
I am always in the process of developing new ideas and pitches; and love to help others develop theirs too. I’m also trying to spend a little more time drawing for myself. Sometimes you get so caught up in work and life’s chores that you can forget to take time for yourself.
Any unusual talents or hobbies like tying a cherry stem with your tongue or metallurgy?
No tongue tricks, although I can wiggle my ears. Seriously, when I tell people I picked up figure skating as an adult, I usually get surprised reactions. I guess it’s not so common for an artist to take up something that physically challenging so late in life. Skating is great because it gets me out of the chair and moving (especially during the winters); although some of the falls are pretty brutal.
Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
Learn as much as you can from everyone and keep an open mind to everything around you. Stay focused, be positive and work hard. Most importantly, if you love what you do, you will enjoy your life that much more.