What is your name and your current occupation?
Joe Apel, Flash Animator at Cartoon Network Studios
How did you become interested in animation?
I loved to draw and I loved cartoons as a kid. My favorites were (and still are) the Looney Tunes, Fleischer’s Popeye, Donald Duck, Tom and Jerry cartoons and the Disney animated feature films. Recently I found an assignment from when I was 6 stating what I wanted to be when I was older and I put “cartoonist” on it. I guess it stuck with me ever since then.
Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I’m from Troy, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. I struggled for years trying to get my foot in the door of any studio. Being in Michigan it made it more difficult. I mailed my portfolio and reel to studios, mostly in California, but didn’t have any success (I still have most of my rejection letters). I sent my portfolio and reel (which was all college work) to Calabash Animation in Chicago. They called me saying they liked my work and to stop by the studio the next time I was in Chicago. Immediately I planned a trip to Chicago to meet them. From that meeting I got to freelance as a traditional clean-up and inbetween animator for Calabash on a Trix commercial and eventually a Lucky Charms Commercial and a Mastercard Commercial that premiered during the Superbowl. My first full-time job was as a Flash animator with Soup2Nuts in Boston on the NBC/Discovery Kids series, Time Warp Trio.
What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
At my current job, I typically come in and view the scene that I’m about to work on in animatic form. At that point, I bring in all assets (characters, props and backgrounds) into the scenes. I then place the characters in their respected positions. I will then draw VERY rough keys on a separate layer as I scrub through the dialogue. When I’m happy with the keys, I’ll pose the characters in the key positions, and then inbetween the characters. When I’m happy with the animation, I’ll go into the head symbol and do lip sync and any facial gestures (eye and eyebrow movements) I think they character needs.
I generally meet with the animation director and animation supervisor at least twice per episode for any retakes that I may need for the scenes.
What part of your job do you like best? Why?
My favorite part of my job is bringing life to the characters. It’s very rewarding to see the finished piece of everyone’s work
What part of your job do you like least? Why?
My real passion is drawing, and as a flash animator I don’t really get to draw, besides the rough keys and maybe some assets.
I also have been working mostly on Adult Swim or Adult Swim-like series, and I much prefer working on series for families and kids.
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
The most difficult thing about the animation business is never knowing where my next job will be. There isn’t a lot of stability in the industry. Most Flash animated series only need the animators for about 5-7 months (depending on the episode order), then there is a break, which can be anywhere from 4 weeks to 4 months, between seasons IF there is another season to follow. So even though you’re employed, you still feel like you need to keep looking for work.
What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis?
Currently, I solely work in Flash on a Cintiq. Past jobs I’ve worked in Photoshop and Sketchbook Pro.
In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
As I said, I’m from Michigan, so it was rare to meet any animation greats. Having said that, I feel I have been completely lucky to meet so many at a young age. When I was 14 years old, I won a contest through the Disney Channel’s Mickey Mouse Club. They flew my mom and I to California to meet, interview, and spend the day with the late Jim Henson and other muppeteers on the set of Muppetvision 3-D, which was being film at the Walt Disney Studios. It was a completely amazing experience and one that I will never forget. Sadly, Jim Henson passed away a few months after I met him. I also attended Disney conventions starting at the age of 17. Through these conventions I got to meet and speak to 4 of Disney’s Nine Old Men: Ward Kimball, Ollie Johnston, Frank Thomas, and Marc Davis. One of my favorite moments was at the Disneyland Hotel in 1995. I was walking near the pool and I saw Ward Kimball walking by himself. I walked up to him and introduced myself. I told him how I wanted to be an animator and he stated it was kind of a crazy business, but rewarding. He said to keep drawing and don’t give up. It was a short moment, but one that has stuck with me.
Describe a tough situation you had in life.
One of the toughest situations I had to deal with in my career was deciding on moving to Boston to work at Soup2Nuts. I knew it would be my first full-time job in animation, but I didn’t know a soul in Boston, the pay wasn’t great, I wouldn’t have a car there, and health insurance wasn’t included initially with the job. Ultimately it was a great experience. First, it gave me the experience I needed in the industry and Secondly, I created great friendships with people that last to this day. Most of these friends are working as professional animators in LA now as well!
I’m constantly working on side projects. I have various friends who are aspiring writers and/or comedians not in the animation community that I’m working on a few animated projects with. It’s always a struggle to keep motivated to finish my projects, so I’m still learning how to balance work, life, and personal projects. I love to draw. I sketch all the time and I still feel like I’m learning and growing as an artist.
Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
Draw a lot and draw well. Don’t just copy other people’s drawings. Although you can learn a lot from breaking down other people’s character designs, it is important to come up with your own characters, draw them in funny situations, draw people as you watch TV, go to the zoo and draw, draw at the mall… Draw, Draw, Draw. I know it can sound redundant, but it really is important. I think something else that is important, especially in this day and age, is to learn new software. Having knowledge of artistic software, be it Flash, Photoshop, Illustrator, After Effects, Maya, Storyboard Pro, Toon Boom, etc. The more you know, the more in demand you’ll be.