What is your name and your current occupation?
My name is Alisa Harris and I’m a freelance character designer and traditional Flash animator in New York City.
What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?
One summer during college, I painted carousel horses in Canarsie, Brooklyn. It was pretty awesome. Some of the carousels I worked on are at the Willow Grove Mall in PA, Bryant Park in NYC and overseas. When I first graduated from art school, the animation industry had tanked. I ended up doing data entry for two years at an insurance company specializing in mental health and substance abuse. I like to joke that it prepared me for working in the animation industry.
What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
One of my favorite projects was my first lead design position at Flickerlab in NYC. It was a web series for Ritz/Nabisco on how to have cheap family fun in the summer. It was the first commercial project that I designed characters and props in my own style. There was a lot of freedom in designing the families and I enjoyed creating a more diverse cast. Because it was a small studio, I also boarded half of the episodes and did some of the Flash puppet setup. It was really cool to see my own designs and staging come through to the final episodes.
How did you become interested in animation?
As a kid, I loved Looney Tunes, classic Disney films, The Muppet Show and Rankin Bass Christmas Specials. In the ’80s, my family would watch The Disney Sunday Night Movie and I was riveted to the behind-the-scenes clips of how animation was created. It was around when The Little Mermaid came out that I realized being an animator was an actual job people had as adults. The Lion Kingwas released when I was in high school and I made a makeshift light table using a glass table in my house. I would sit for hours drawing Simba over and over, trying to make him move.
Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I grew up in a small town in Northeastern Pennsylvania and was always drawing and writing stories as a kid. I started taking art lessons in 5th grade with a wonderful local watercolor painter, Sue Hand. By the time I was looking at colleges I knew I wanted to be an animator. All my books on animation said animators needed to be great at drawing. I wasn’t very confident in my drawing skills and had never taken a life drawing class. I enrolled as an undergrad at Kutztown University for two years for Fine Art. It so happened that my freshman design professor also taught the experimental animation class. He’d had former students (including Tom Warburton) go on to the School of Visual Arts in NYC and get work in LA. I took the animation class as a freshman and also as an independent study class the following year. I applied and was accepted to the School of Visual Arts in New York. I graduated from SVA in 2002 with my Bachelor of Fine Arts in Traditional Animation. While at SVA, I interned at Stretch Films on Courage the Cowardly Dog and met a bunch of great artists like Martin Wittig and Tom Evans whom I politely pestered with questions. At this point, most of them have been my colleagues at one studio or another. As I mentioned before, the industry went south right before I graduated, so while I was working a day job, I kept my ear out for any freelance prospects. I got a few gigs doing animation cleanup at night after my other job, and worked on an animated music video that a former classmate directed. I did an unpaid stop-motion internship that led to my first paid animation gig making props for a commercial. These little jobs built up my resume and reel and before long, I was more relevant to full time animation work.
What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
The last project I worked on was as a Flash animator for an 11 minute pilot, so I’ll run you through a typical day there. I commute about an hour on the subway into Manhattan. I grab breakfast from a deli or food cart near the studio. My work day usually starts between 9:30 and 10 am. I start up my computer, log in and get a nice big glass of water. If I don’t already have scenes assigned from the previous day, I check in with my production coordinator to get some work. Most studios work from a central server which is where I pull the Flash files from. The files are already set up with audio, storyboards or a clip from the animatic, and layout drawings. I go over the new scenes with the animation director who tells me any additional acting cues that are needed and I ask any questions that I have. I watch the rough scene through once or twice and often the scene before and after to get the bigger picture and check scene hookups. If there are already layout drawings done, I check that they match the storyboard beats and make any necessary model changes. Working from the layouts, I do my rough key drawings. Depending on the complexity of the scene, I show the director my rough animation before I start cleaning it up. Unless I’m doing lipsynch, I like to listen to music from my Pandora station while I work. I take lunch around 2 pm and like to get out of the studio for at least a half hour walk if we’re not under a huge deadline crunch. Most of the scenes on the pilot were pretty short, so I was able to clean them up the same day I started the rough animation. We didn’t have a cleanup and coloring team, so each animator was responsible for finalizing their own scenes. I was one of about 9 animators and the only female animator for this project. I take a tea break in the afternoon to re-caffeinate. Sometimes it’s also a snack break if one of the coordinators has baked fresh cupcakes or muffins. The rest of the day is spent either finishing a scene or starting a new one once I’ve gone over it with the animation director. The production coordinator usually checks in during the afternoon to make sure everyone has enough work. Sometimes the executive producers and show creator also come around in the late afternoon to see progress. I leave work around 7-7:30 unless we have a deadline, in which case I stay till about 9 pm. Then I have an hour commute home, make dinner, shower, sleep and repeat until the project is done!
What part of your job do you like best? Why?
I like the variety of projects I get to work on. Because most of the studios I work for are small, I also get to do a variety of jobs. One week I may be designing characters, the next month I might be animating on a pilot. Some people might find this frustrating, but I’m rarely bored with my work. I also like the people I work with and meeting new people at different studios.
What part of your job do you like least? Why?
I really hate having to chase down clients to get paid. Freelancers often have contracts specifying a one to two month window of time after they invoice in which clients have to pay. Because studios are often waiting on payment from their client, the waiting trickles down to the artists.
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
At one point I would have said the down-time is difficult, but I really enjoy that now. It gives me time to work on my own projects. That being said, stressing out about money isn’t fun. I guess the future forecast of the business is the most difficult part. There’s a pay ceiling with animation where a higher skill level stops meaning more money and you level off financially. If it weren’t for my partner, I wouldn’t have health insurance. I don’t know any animators who are able to retire, they just keep working into old age, start teaching or find some other line of work to pay the bills.
What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis?
Most of my client work is digital, so I work on a PC (sometimes a Mac if I’m in studio) with a Cintiq tablet. The main programs I use are Flash, Photoshop and sometimes Sketchbook Pro.
In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
I’ve been traveling for years to the Ottawa International Animation Festival and have heard many amazing creators speak including Michael Dudok de Wit, Joanna Quinn, Michel Ocelot, and Stephen Hillenburg, to name a few. Being a part of the NYC animation scene means bumping into filmmakers like Bill Plympton, Jackson Publick, John Canemaker, Fran and Will Krause and PES at Asifa events. SVA has invited a number of international filmmakers to speak including The Brothers Quay and Yuri Norstein. I also heard John Lasseter, Bill Cone and Ralph Eggleston speak at MoMA for the Pixar retrospective a few years ago. One of my favorite teachers and thesis advisor at SVA was Howard Beckerman. He worked at Terrytoons and Famous Pictures back in the day. We were practically neighbors for a while and I’d bump into him on the train sometimes. He is a wealth of knowledge and I’d ask him about his experience running his own studio in the 70s and how he dealt with lulls in the industry. In his house he has a drawing of Betty Boop signed by Grim Natwick. He had worked with the guy who created Betty Boop! Howard is the closest I’ve come to meeting one of the 9 Old Men, a gateway to animation history.
Describe a tough situation you had in life.
As I’ve mentioned, the animation industry in New York has lots of ups and downs. That awesome job that you thought was your golden ticket will probably end sooner than you realize. This happened to me at my first in-house job that was supposed to be for 6-9 months. The show was cancelled 3 months in. If you’re prepared for it, that time off can be used to your advantage. That first time, I wasn’t prepared and ended up living off of credit cards until I could get another gig. I generally have between 3 and 6 months of unemployment per year. It works for me because I’m frugal with my paychecks when I do have a job and can work on my own projects during the time off. It’s really important to save your money when you do get paid, expecting that will be your lifeline for the part of the year when you’re unemployed. Also, be aware that in NYC, you will most likely be a subcontractor which means you’re not entitled to unemployment checks from the state. I think a lot of people are proud about this point and don’t like to talk about unemployment in the NY animation industry, but it’s a fact. If you have to get part-time work to pay your bills, do it. You really have to hustle and keep up your contacts in different studios to have constant work year round. A lot of people I know have moved to LA for work, but it’s not for me.
Any side projects or you’re working on or hobbies you’d like to share details of?
I self-publish comics and sell them at small press expos like MoCCA in NYC. Urban Nomad is a collection of auto-biographical stories of my life in New York. Counter Attack chronicles funny and annoying things my two cats do. I just finished posting a travel comic I made about visiting the Annecy Animation Festival last summer. I’m also working on a webcomic about vegetarian cooking called Cooking Up Comics that should be launching by the fall. Comics fulfill my need to create something from start to finish and tell my own stories, something that is rare in animation.I also organize the NYC branch of Worldwide Sketchcrawl, started by Pixar artist Enrico Casarosa. We meet up and draw at different locations around the city. You can find out more about upcoming Sketchcrawls at their website.
Any unusual talents or hobbies like tying a cherry stem with your tongue or metallurgy?
I have a ridiculous ability to quote lines from B movies like Airplane and Clue. I also know the lyrics to just about every song from a Disney movie prior to Aladdin. But I’m not a great singer, so please don’t ask me to sing them for you!
Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
Practice drawing, draw every day. That’s the hardest thing for people to hear, but it’s the thing that will make you better and the advice I was given. Be patient and persistent with seeking out work. Getting your foot in the door of your first studio is the hardest part, but you will always have to keep hustling for work. Take an internship while you’re still in school or right after you get out. A lot of companies hire people who were great interns to work on paid projects. Be aware of when you’re being taken advantage of though, and know when to stop accepting unpaid work. Networking is great and so much easier to do now with sites like Linked In, Twitter and Facebook (to some extent). Seek out animation groups like Asifa and go to their events. Hand out business cards, but try not to be too overbearing or pushy. Be a nice person and don’t make enemies in school or at work. The industry is very small and that person you’re bad-mouthing may be in the position to hire you or give a recommendation someday.