What would you say has been your primary job in animation?
For most of my Computer Graphics career (Since the early 90’s) I have been a 3D artist. I have done my share of animation, video, short corporate films, and web media. The smaller the company I work for, the more animation I seem to do. I often have to wear an Animators hat when its called for. So, I would say I primarily do 3D Pre-Visaliaztion Animated films, well at lest I did for many years before I started working in the game industry.
What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century (DIC-1999?) – mostly because it was early 2D/3D mixing on a project that was supposed to be another cheap DIC p.o.s. The show was typically short handed but everyone involved really got into it and I think it shows. It was Emmy nominated and still gets airplay 10 years later.
Curious George (TV series Universal 2006-2010) Kids and adults like it despite PBS’s educational mandate. Fun crew to work with. It’s a character I remember fondly from my childhood, so it’s been a privilege to ‘play’ in the world.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Fred Wolf Films – early 90’s) It was my second job in animation. A real trial by fire because of the insane schedule that first year. I had to learn a lot fast to survive, so I guess the pride comes from that…survival. We did something like 95 1/2 hours of animation in one year – Turtles, James Bond Jr., Toxic Crusaders… it wasn’t all pretty – but it got done.
How did you become interested in animation?
I was assisting doing comic books – which meant spotting blacks, doing backgrounds…doing grunt work. It didn’t pay shit but it got me out of the vacuum I’d been drawing in. One of the guys at the little studio we worked at was doing freelance props for DIC. I asked him how well it paid. He drew a quick ellipse inside of an ellipse and said, ʺ See that? That’s a plate. That’s $35.ʺ I knew then I had to get out of comic books and into animation. Sounds kinda whorish to say it that way, but you do what you have to to survive. What I knew about animation at that point could fit in a dixie cup, but once I got into it, I really enjoyed it and it was a natural fit. Would I have stayed in comic books/graphic novels if I could have made a comparable living? maybe – but I would have missed out on a lot of friends and fun along the way.
Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I’ve been drawing and painting all my life. My mother was very artistic and encouraged me. My older brother distinguished himself as the academic – I was the artist and musician. Art and band classes were my ‘easy A’ to balance out my crappy grades in math. I went a couple years to Cal State Hayward where I took a lot of art classes . Bored with school, I joined the Army to see the world. I was in training in Ft. Bragg, NC when I broke my collarbone practicing martial arts. While I healed, I painted murals in the mess hall. I traded my 1st Sgt a painting him and his Dobermans for an assignment at Pan Mun Jom, Kore where I planned on continuing my martial arts training. 6 months later, my brother was diagnosed with leukemia. I needed to be home to be ready to do a bone marrow transplant for him. The Army considered they owned my body and didn’t want to go along with that – so I ended up getting a hardship discharge. My brother never made it into remission. I returned to school – this time at Cal state Long Beach, intent on getting through the prerequisites this time. But money ran out and I ended up joining the Santa Monica Police dept. where I worked patrol for the next 8 years. While there, I did lots of cartoons of screwups the officers did and even did a crudely animated segment on a training video using a VHS camera and two VCRs to make the edit. When my first marriage crashed at 30, it was time for a new career. I returned to my roots – intent on doing some kind of art for a living. To help pay the bills, I sold water filters (YECH!!). At a party where I was hawking the filters, I ran into legendary comic book artist Howard Chaykin. We talked for a while and he invited me to bring my pathetic portfolio over to his studio he shared with two other artists – Mike Vosburg and Shaun McManus. I ended up assisting Mike with various comics – Iron Man, Buck Rogers, and few others. Shaun was doing freelance work for DIC at the time – see story above – and put me in contact with Larry Houston, who was directing Captain Planet at the time. He needed help with revisions on storyboards done originally in Japan (vertical instead of horizontal). He asked if I could storyboard. I said ʺSure!…um – show me what you want done and I’ll do itʺ. He must have seen something in my portfolio or was really desperate for help because he hired me. This was 1990. The rate was $450 a week. It doesn’t sound like much, but considering I was making 250-300 for comic book work, it was a definite improvement. I worked there until all the episodes were shipped out for animation – all of 3 or 4 months – but it broke my cherry in the business and I still have good friends from that first job.
What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
Right now I’m just freelance storyboarding, which means strapping my ass to a chair with a pot of coffee on the side, a movie or tv show playing on the computer monitor, and drawing. If I’m boarding on the computer using photoshop or storyboard pro, I’ll set up my lap top to the side with a video or something on. Sure it can be distracting, but the pace is an easy one. Netflix and Hulu are my friends. If I am really under the gun, I’ll just play music in the background. I have somewhere over 120 gigs of music collected – never a loss of things to listen to. It’s a solitude existence – I’d rather be working at a studio.When I’m directing in studio, there is no set schedule – certain things like voice over recordings are usually set for a specific time each week, say tuesdays from 2 to 5. Otherwise, it’s a constant juggle of time spent in the editting room finessing an animatic or final picture with the editor, handing out new scripts to artists for boarding, going over models – marking them up for corrections or approval, correcting storyboard roughs to be sent back to the board artist for clean up, going over exposure sheets (x sheets) to correct any last minute problems before they are sent overseas, dealing with client notes and THEIR changes… you have to be good at multi tasking or at least quickly changing gears when directing. All this is in the ‘2D’ animation world. CGI has some different aspects to it, but it’s basically juggling slightly different balls. Funny stories? hmm – trying to think of one that is at least PG rated….there are lots of R ones. During the recordings, the actors can rattle off some really funny stuff that never makes it on screen. One of the actresses I really like tends to lean towards ‘bawdy’ humor (most of the veterans will if given half a chance).Staying in the character of the 12 year old girl she was playing, she responded to Curious George after a fouled up take – ʺWanna come over to my place after school, George? I’ll let you come on my face – I’ll just tell my mom it’s conjunctivitis!ʺ . I love her!
What part of your job do you like best? Why?
Putting the animatic or final picture together in the editting room – it’s the least labor intensive – meaning I’m not drawing, the editor is doing all the heavy lifting – but very creative. Timing is everything. How and when the dialogue lays down can make or break a show. It’s also when everything comes together… designs, storyboards, voice acting all meld into one product. Trimming it all down to size in one entertaining story – shedding the boring stuff. It sucks when the storyboard is short – but that rarely is not dealt with by this time.
What part of your job do you like least? Why?
Ya know that animatic I was just talking about? When the execs have to pee on your work or the clients insist on making silly changes it can make me nuts. Educational content can be taken to the absurd level. I’ve had to change pears into to apples because some exec thinks there’s too much sugar in a pear (not true – there’s more sugar in an apple) and that’s not good for children. I’ve had execs sit in the editing room and ask to add ‘one more frame – oh yeah – that feels betterʺ. One more frame?!! that’s 1/24th of a second ! a friggin’ blink takes 4 to 6 frames. Scripts that have characters running through the Super Bowl while the marching band does maneuvers on the field? NOT cool – pain in the ass to board and the animation will invariably suck. Especially in a stupid montage that leaps all over the world – like the designers have nothing better to do than design downtown Tokyo or the Eiffel for one shot.When the film comes back, it should be pretty representative of the animatic. Of course, that really depends on who did the animation. You can only call so many retakes before you run out of time or money. Sometimes you can cut around ugly animation, sometimes you can’t. Being in the business for 20 years, I know a lot of the smaller problems I see are not going to be noticed by 98% of the viewers. One of my childhood favorites ‘The Grinch Who Stole Christmas’ is painful for me to watch now. I love Chuck Jones’ stuff but there are so many paint flashes and mistakes in Grinch it’s crazy bad. Before getting into this business, I didn’t notice or didn’t care. By the same token, when something is brilliantly done – like The Incredibles or Iron Giant – I can appreciate it more because I know of all the labor that goes into making something so perfect. Oh – something else I hate but still do – Storyboard tests! I’ve been in this business for 20 years but your show is so new/cool/cutting edge that no one has every done anything like it before so I might nor be able to do it? Really?! And you are blowing smoke up my ass because you already plan to give the boards to your buddy Stan or Bob who’s rolling over from another show or there really ISNʺT a spot open but Human Resources has to justify their jobs by building a LIST of artists who could do the job IF one actually ever became available? Oh yeah… I just LOVE story board tests!
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
Hmmm – I’d have to say that was in the ranting above – having to make changes for people who don’t know how animation works or just make lateral changes for the sake of justifying their positions. I’m trying to be more zen about it.Honestly though…down time between gigs. When I’m working, my brain gets used to operating at full speed. When the gig is over, a little decompression is good. But then you start stressing about when the next job is coming…. Last year I started off with 3 different director gigs lined up. One by one they fell off the table. I ended up freelancing story boards all year.
What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis?
pencils paper erasers-
I liked Blackwings but you can’t find them anymore – if you do run across some old stock they are priced stupid high. An acceptable replacement is the Tombow Mono 4B – nice and dark, glides well.
Mechanical’s I like .7mm with a rubber grip at the end – right now that’s a Pentel Energize. I have a permanent ditch on the first digit of my middle finger from drawing – if I don’t have the rubber grip it can get painful. Early on in my animation career, it would get so sore it would start to bleed. I’d wrap it in gauze and keep going. Really.
erasers : Staedtler Mars plastic (white), for noodling tight stuff the Sakura Electric Eraser is awesome – takes 2 AAA batteries.
When I’m directing, I correct boards with a red ballpoint or Sharpie fine point. And post-its…. lots and lots of post-its.
Computer: I’m a Mac guy – always have been. I use Adobe’s Photoshop and Storyboard Pro from Toon Boom. I make do with a Wacom Intuous tablet – the next good gig I have I’m going to buy a Cintiq. Those are 2 grand so not in the budget right now. My Mac is a newer Imac i5 27 incher. Storyboard Pro needs a good graphic processor – I tried using it with Mac Mini and it would crash every 5 minutes. Even my old Macbook Pro 17 did better than the mini. It still crashed with SB Pro – just not as often. I love my old MB Pro – it looks like hell from being dropped : I have the corners taped together and the DVD drive won’t burn/play sometimes, but it’s great.
In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
I worked closely with Joe Ruby and Ken Spears (Ruby Spears) when they had a studio on Victory in Burbank. Both great guys who had a long history of working with Hanna Barbera. Joe loves his cigars and I smoke cigarettes so we set up a little p.o.s. plastic table in the garage where we would go over storyboards for hours. We were doing a series called Cowboys of Moo Mesa, also Mega Man at the time. Mega Man had a dog robot (Ruff? I think that was the name). Joe was constantly channeling Scoobie Do through him, adding dialogue as he went in his Scooby voice. It was another one of those minimal staff for maximum stretch of the dollar shows – but sometimes those can be the most fun because you have to wear a lot of hats.Speaking of H & B, Joe Barbera would come around in a wheelchair sometimes for meetings at Warner Bros. in Sherman Oaks – I think it was about the Tom and Jerry stuff they were doing at the time. This was in the early 2000’s – so he would have been in his early 90’s. Joe was known for being a ‘hound dog’ with the ladies and never conceded to the whole sexual harassment thing. There was a PA on my show that was well endowed in the breast department. She ended up the elevator up with Joe – kind of in awe of being so close to the ‘animation legend’. Joe just leered at her and said ʺNice tits, Sweetie!ʺ. She was so flustered , she off the elevator without saying a word.
Describe a tough situation you had in life.
I used to be the kid who forgot to bring something to write with to school… yeah an artist without a pencil isn’t worth much at all.
Any side projects you’re working on?
Not that I can talk about. You have to be careful showing your ideas to the studios. A couple times, I’ve had my partner show a project to a studio and they pass on it. 6 months later and they are working on a show that is REMARKABLY similar.
Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
Computer skills are becoming more and more important to have in your tools ‘quiver’. Flash has it’s fans, Maya and Toon Boom (there is a proprietary version of that at Disney) has theirs. Lightwave and 3D studio Max are mostly the tools of the gamers. Gaming is cool, but it’s a different world.
That said, knowing how to draw is still very important. If you don’t know how a body works or perspective, a computer won’t be the cure all. Keep a sketch book to jot down a funny drawing or silly looking person you see. Find life drawing classes if you aren’t in school now – they are usually only $10 or so. Talk to other artists during the breaks – most artists tend to be introverts by nature – our inner ‘fantasy’ worlds are always more comfortable than putting yourself out there to be possibly scorned or rejected. But to be successful, you will need a friend and co-worker base where you share openings and news about whats happening in the business. You can be a friggin’ Rembrandt, but without the contacts, you’ll most likely be impressing yourself in your bedroom. Human Resources at the studios try to wield their power to control who gets hired for what. Most of these people don’t know what the hell they are looking at. Friends on the ‘inside’ will always be able to push for who they want to work with. In 20 years, I think my portfolio has gotten me 2… maybe 3 jobs. Everything else has been either people who’ve worked with me in the past or referred by people who have worked with me.
Which brings up a final point – work ethic. DON’T FUCKING FLAKE! If you draw wonderfully that’s great – but turn your work in when it’s due. Stay up all night if you have to to get the job done. Failure to do so will haunt your reputation like a pirahna pit bull chewing chunks out of your butt. You’re drawing skills will improve with time – mine certainly have though I’ll probably never be happy with my own work – but if you get the reputation of someone who’s not reliable, no one will want to hire you. Your work is a small part of a big machine. That big machine can only work when it has all it’s parts. You’ll not be screwing just yourself, but everyone else at the studio who is relying on you so they can make that impossible deadline. There are lots of better artists than me out there – I’m the first to admit it – but I am dead nuts reliable, know how to stage to tell a story, and know who to call to help to get it done – that’s why I get hired. Okay – I’m going to make a caveat here. Some of those schedules ARE impossible. Studios try to jam more and more production into less and less time to increase their take and the artists suffer for it. If you can’t make a deadline, let the production manager or director know as soon as possible. They may be able to squeeze more help or money at the problem.