What is your name and your current occupation?
James McDermott, currently I’m the Character Design Lead on a newPrimetime FOX series being produced at Bento Box called “AllenGregory”.
What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting intoanimation?
My first job, I worked as a kids counselor at a summer camp when I was 14. I was incharge of twenty 6 year old kids every week. Looking back on it I’mnot quite sure how I did that but I did it with joy. I once was asked to dress up as a feltfilm strip character in front of a boardroom full of people, selling itas a brand hallmark for a movie theater chain, I forget which one, for$100 while in art school. Needless to say it was very embarrassing atthe time as a teenager.
What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been apart of?
Well even though it was cancelled, my time on “Neighbors from Hell” was probably one of the better experiences I’ve had in production. I loved the style of the show, so much fun to draw. I had the opportunity to work with extremely talented Dreamworks designers that I learned a lot from. “Eloise”, which I earned an Emmy for has to be one of them. What was really nice about the show is we could do what we wanted with it. We didn’t have the common problems of being micromanaged by people who don’t know what they are talking about. They just let the artists run with it. I recently finished my first pilot for Adult Swim which I created along with 3 friends. It was an invaluable experience, and seeing things from both sides of the table, one as a creator and one as a grunt helped put things in perspective for me for future productions no matter what my role may be.The one difference that I loved was that as a creator that can actually draw and design, the revision process was easy since I could draw it the way I wanted the first time and be done with it. If only my day job was that easy! I’m really proud of what we accomplished and can only hope the next 2 will get even better.
How did you become interested in animation?
Chuck Jones…..nuff said. I fell in love with all the classics as a kid like anyone else who loves animation. Bugs Bunny, Tom and Jerry, Roadrunner, etc… those cartoons were made the way the craft was intended. Unfortunately those days seem to be a thing of the past at least for television animation. Of course all the early Disney animated films are pretty amazing as well. I think when I created my first flip book of a Godzilla version of one of my teachers in crude poses and gestures I was hooked!
Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I’m actually a native born angeleno. Being born in Los Angeles exposed me to whats possible at an early age and that you can do anything you really want if you focus on it enough. I love to travel and have always fancied the idea of finding animation work abroad, but haven’t found an opportunity yet since I’m always working. When I went out looking for my first job I knocked on a lot of doors for 4 months, only to hear kind no’s, until a friend of mine told me that Film Roman was hiring at the time. I originally wanted to be a background artist, and oddly enough the littlest character art I had in my portfolio at the time landed me my first animation job as a character layout artist on “King of the Hill” at 19 years old. Must not have been a very good bg artist!
What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
Bucket of coffee with a side of crazy. I’m pulled in 40 different directions everyday. So trying to stay focused on one thing, and finessing a good drawing is constantly disrupted which I try and get better at dealing with. I get the most done around 7 when everyone has left for the day. Then I go home and work on my pilots till odd hours. So its a tough schedule currently but when the opportunities are there you have to go for it otherwise they will pass you by.
What part of your job do you like best? Why?
Collaborating with creators and ‘one-uping’ each others idea and seeing it evolve into something special can be really rewarding. Nailing down designs that convey a funny idea, or recalling a unique person I see on the street or drawing people at work and implementing real life experience into some weirdly distorted cartoon world. It gives you a sense of ownership. It gives you a boost when things are clicking on all cylinders.
What part of your job do you like least? Why?
Easy. Taking art direction from bean counters or being middle managed is a big inspiration killer for me. Office politics are never fun, but always plays a part of the business. Bad writing can be a joy killer too, but thats where the artists have to plus it up and find a way to make it interesting for the product and themselves.
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
Theres never a sure thing in this business except that production deadlines are becoming tighter and budgets are being cut in half. People are working tons of free overtime just to meet their deadlines and keep their jobs. Its common, but its part of a bigger problem causing a higher output precedent. The bar has been raised on running people ragged, to deliver in ways that lets the studios say ‘well if the crew was able to make this product for x amount of money and time, we can squeeze it even more for the next project’. I haven’t worked in feature, so I can only speak from tv experience.
What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis?
As much as I enjoy working on a Cintique I still like to draw out initial designs on paper, then scan it in and manipulate it. I use Photoshop, and Illustrator to flesh out the designs and stylize them further. I intend on learning Z brush this summer.
Describe a tough situation you had in life.
My parents splitting up. My mom took off for a couple years when I was 5 and that scarred me for some time. Seems like a common enough story these days but people have no idea how one decision can cause another person long term issues. I forgive them.
Any side projects or you’re working on or hobbies you’d like to share details of?
As far as other projects, I have a great writing team with some long term friends, and have sold a few projects we created recently. We finished a full 22 minute pilot for Adult Swim last September, which was a great learning experience for everyone. We also have a couple other projects in various phases with SPIKE and the FOX network that I’m really excited about. Other than that I’ve done some gallery shows, exhibiting paintings I’ve made. I have a great studio to work in whenever I want in Venice. Its a gallery/artists loft workspace that has plenty of room to paint in that a good friend of mine lets me use whenever I want. Theres a lot of community projects to take part in around my area. I have a line of Urban Vinyl dolls I designed that I would love to see come to fruition, but its a costly venture I found so hopefully one day. As far as my hobbies, during the summertime I lead mountain climbing trips through the Sierra Nevada mountains. I love to be outside especially after being cooped up all week working. I grew up climbing with my parents and spent every summer either on their back as a baby or scaling up walls right behind them. I’ve climbed Kilimanjaro in AfrIca, nearly summited Aconcagua in Argentina, and led a trekking group through Patagonia for 8 days. I’m planning on taking a trip to France this Septmeber to do Mt. Blanc, and if I can’t take as much time as I would need, then I will try to squeeze in a scuba diving trip somewhere in Central America.
Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
Whenever I meet kids right out of art school, it seems like they want to do everything since thats what they know from making their own films in school. If your just starting out, pick your favorite part of the process and focus on mastering it. At some point you’ll get bored with it, and when that happens its important to keep challenging yourself, look to move up and learn the next trick of the trade so you ultimately become indispensable. Don’t be complacent, sometimes you just might need to work on a different project to re-inspire your craft. I always kept myself interested with creating stories or figuring out new ways to approach design and style, and if your interested in continuing to make your own films nothing says you have to stop.