What is your name and your current occupation?
I’m Chris Cookson and I am currently a freelance animator, I work in Flash mostly but sometimes I get some AfterEffects and Photoshop work. I’ve been lucky enough where everything I’ve done before animation has been some kind of visual based work. The first job I did out of high school was making animated assets for the LED sign demo room at Trans-Lux (yes, that Trans-Lux of the 1959 Felix the Cat cartoon). It was a uniquely fun experience, they had this old LaserDisc system that would trigger all kinds of signs to light up in cue to music and audio, the audio was very much a product of the ’80s but they wanted me to modernize the visuals and make some colorful stuff for their new centerpiece display. Apart from that, I’ve done a good amount of web design work in my formative years. One of my clients was a Cuban percussionist who was really into anime and kung-fu movies. He even offered to pay me for making his site with a samurai sword, which to 15-year-old me, was the coolest thing ever. Though, if I were to ever come home with a samurai sword, my parents would probably kill me, likely with that very same samurai sword.
In terms of cool projects, a psychedelic TV ad for Linda McCartney’s line of frozen vegan foods has been really satisfying. What I loved was the ad had a different style than the usual aesthetic I get but had a lot of understated weirdness and quite a few distinct shots to work on. I got to meet Paul McCartney’s son-in-law and Rick Astley’s wife while on the project too which made me geek out pretty hard. A couple of months after I finished work on the spot, I started to see posts about it show up on sites like Motionographer, The Huffington Post and was linked by a lot of the sites I follow on Twitter, which made me feel real warm and fuzzy on the inside. I’m also really proud of a lot of the smaller commercial projects I have worked on at Shoulderhill Creative. For those, it’s great to work with a couple of my classmates from art school and since it’s not a part of a giant team, I feel a lot more creative ownership over what I’m making. It’s absolutely wonderful to have a chance to work more within my own style and have more room to experiment with the colors and see what kind of little visual jokes I can put in to the advertisement. Other projects like William Caballero’s documentary short film “How You Doin’ Boy? Voicemails from Gran’pa” were really great to be a part of. For that, he wanted me to make a squiggly text treatment based off of his grandfather’s handwriting to go up on screen in sync with actual answering machine messages left from his grandfather. Having the freedom to design the word treatment, as well as play around with text sizes was really fulfilling, the tone of some of the messages allowed me to really go crazy in some spots too, pushing the graphic element of it, trying to get it to match his grandfather’s own personal tone.
Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I’m from Stamford, CT and I’ve always wanted to either be a cartoonist or animator for pretty much my entire life. I taught myself how to use Flash when I was 12-years-old and would constantly look for an excuse to use it any chance I had, whether it be for making buttons or logos on the aforementioned web design projects I got or making short films whenever the opportunity arose. After making more and more stuff, over the years, my skills started to grow in that area. After High School, I attended Pratt Institute where I majored in 3D Animation. While at Pratt, I took a few 2D animation classes and as well as an internship at Augenblick Studios working on the first half of season one of Ugly Americans. From there, while I still like the process of 3D animation, my 2D skills were looking a lot sharper than my 3D work, so 95% of the work I got asked for me to do 2D animation. I don’t really mind this, I studied 3D because I felt there were more jobs for animators that knew 3D software but my heart has always been with 2D. It’s funny how things work out.
What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
If I’m working on site, I get up, hitch a ride on Metro North to New York City, listen to whatever podcasts I had downloaded for the day and get in the office. There I take whatever work is given on my plate, work through it, show the director, grab a soda, rinse and repeat. When I’m working off-site, it’s kind of the same thing, except I am sitting next to the warm glow of my Cintiq in my home office, constantly checking my e-mail and Skype for feedback, the great thing about working from home is it doesn’t matter whether or not you are wearing pants, which is a huge plus.
What part of your job do you like best? Why?
Finishing a project, I love seeing the culmination of everyone’s hard work come together in a big way. Just to be able to sit back and have the chance to take in the work and see that all the sweat and long hours were worth it, it’s a feeling that never gets old to me. On the other side of the coin, when a project just starts and the possibilities seem open and endless, it’s a great feeling to sit down and come up with something that didn’t exist before. It sparks my imagination and enthusiasm in a way that reminds me just how great it is to be paid to draw.
What part of your job do you like least? Why?
I always build my projects in a very organized way, anticipating that at any point, someone can ask me to change any aspect of it. While I understand I am making something for a client and whatever they ask is perfectly valid because it is their thing at the end of the day, sometimes implementing a suggestion can be very time consuming and may seem to me doesn’t justify the amount of hours of work for the subtle change. I appreciate the value of listening to notes as a necessary part of the creative process, just a particularly mundane task can bring a lot of the positive momentum to a halt. Not saying it’s bad or clients shouldn’t give notes, it’s hard to be excited about some suggestions.
What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis, how has technology changed in the last few years in your field and how has that impacted you in your job?
It has changed a lot in some ways and in others has stayed the same. Software wise, many studios I’ve worked at use older versions of Flash, most use CS3 but I’ve seen some places even go back to MX which is the exact same version of Flash I used when I was 12-years-old. However, in the last several years, Cintiqs have gotten nicer and nicer, great tablet laptops like the Surface Pro are having more artist-friendly features, and Flash is playing a lot nicer with programs such as AfterEffects and Photoshop in a way that escalates the work beyond the Newgrounds look everyone associates with it.
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
The business side of being a freelancer. While I have had a positive experience with most clients, there is always that rare client that simply doesn’t pay what they initially promised and from those few unpleasant experiences I always need to keep my guard up when dealing with a new client. I feel I learned a lot of valuable lessons going through this process, I just wish from my own art school background they would have covered more aspects of dealing with the business side of working in a creative field.
I wish there was more in place to protect freelancers, The Freelancer’s Union is a good step but I really want there to be more laws in place to assure that a client is actually going to follow through with everything agreed to upfront, especially when working off-site and across state lines. In a perfect world art would be valued more as a skill like any other that takes years of practice and training to perfect.
In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
Quite a few actually, most notably when I was 13-years-old, my middle school had everyone work on this year long term paper project that accumulated everything you learned in one singular thesis. The project forced us to look into all aspects of a future career and seek out a professional to interview to add more legitimacy to the paper. At the time, all I really knew was I loved cartoons, loved drawing them and watching them, so I went to the Curious Pictures website and asked if I could get Mo Willems, the creator of one of my favorite cartoon series, “Sheep in the Big City” to answer some questions for me. He said yes and was super nice the whole time. When the project was finished he let me tour his studio which was in production of the second season of “Codename: Kids Next Door”. It was a really grand gesture of him which had a pretty major impact on me for the rest of my life. Apart from that, my college once hosted an event where we got to watch Bill Plympton’s new movie, hear a lecture from him and he then invited the students to go out and have dinner. He was really thoughtful to reach out to people who were just starting out and he gave some really specific advice that applied to where we were at that stage in life. Another time, John Dilworth contacted me on Facebook, saying he liked my work and I should go to a screening/meet-up he had. I went with a lot of my friends, we all shook his hand, I was really nervous but it was a fun time nonetheless. Lastly, while not necessarily an animation great, I came across a syndicated comic legend a couple of times in my life. Living in Stamford, CT, I met Mort Walker of Beetle Bailey fame, he let me tour his house and pick his brain a bit about his creative process right before I went off to college. I’m going to butcher his words but I remember hearing him say “it really doesn’t matter how well something is drawn, if a character is drawn really well, and I don’t connect with them on an emotional level, it has failed fundamentally as a comic strip, the thing that matters the most is the story and that is also the hardest thing to nail down” this is something I will always remember.
Describe a tough situation you had in life.
I feel life is a tough ride and it doesn’t do you much good to focus on negative things from the past, but more what you have learned from them and how you will apply it to get better in the future. Not unlike a bowl of Lucky Charms, you go through it primarily for the tasty marshmallow bits but have to accept some less than favorable things to get there. Then later in life, when you find out you can actually buy a bag of straight up cereal marshmallows and try them in a bowl, you soon realize Lucky Charms without the those dreaded toasted oat pieces is actually kind of disgusting. I feel you need a good share of highs and lows to grow in life. Finishing my senior project at Pratt was by far the most difficult thing I ever had to go through. It was the first time I really worked on a long term short film project and wound up spending many sleepless nights on it, I made many story revisions throughout the entire production and tossed out a lot of work to try to get it to be the exact sort of film I wanted. I’m happy with a lot of the design I made for the project and I like the quirky humorous tone I was able to embed in it but had to go through hell and back to be able to properly hit all my school’s deadlines on time while still listening to the feedback from my professors. The thing is, even if the project at the end of the day wasn’t 100% what I wanted it to be, I learned a ton of things going through the whole trial-by-fire process of making it. A lot of people like to focus solely on success, but really you are going to have some awkward growing pains to get to the place you want to be.
I currently want to hone in my skills as a storyteller and perhaps in the future branch out beyond character animation into storyboard work. Right now, I’m in the early stages of writing and designing a character-based sci-fi social satire webcomic with the great James Sisti of Sidecar Comic. I’m not sure when that will be ready but I am really liking how it is shaping up so far. Apart from that, I may construct a personal project with the sheer goal of sharpening up my writing and storytelling skills a bit more, I want to round out and expand beyond what I already know how to do.
Any unusual talents or hobbies like tying a cherry stem with your tongue or metallurgy?
When I was at Disney World last year, late at night on a few separate occasions a bunch of drunk strangers came up told me I sound like Seth Rogen. I don’t know if that is a talent or not, I also like putting hot sauces on nearly everything and love experimenting and coming up with new food ideas. Not sure if either of those are a weird hobby but I’m working off what I have here.
Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?Everyone is different and there is absolutely no set in stone way to break-in or become successful beyond making truly excellent work. I’d recommend trying out a lot of things and then, when you find something that makes you the happiest, that you love doing, keep working on that. I’d say practice is the most important thing but also be willing to learn other parts of artistic crafts too. Anything you learn will give you a wider base to contribute to what you are already know and you might discover a new skillset you love doing as well. Keep an open mind and keep practicing. Spend a lot of time polishing your work, aim to make something that looks professional, as close as you can to the bar of quality you see on TV, aim for quality over quantity and be sure to present yourself well. Be fearless, don’t be afraid of failure but don’t dwell on it either. Work long on your demo reel until it is just perfect and understand that the first impression you make comes from this 2 minute montage of your work, so make it look as great as possible. My other piece of advice is to stay optimistic be nice and helpful to those around you and when giving critique, never come off as someone trying to knock someone’s work down a peg but talk from a genuine place that truly cares about making someone as great as you know they have the potential to be. Cynicism is an ugly, ugly thing, it’s a black hole that murders productivity and absolutely nothing good will come of it. Avoid using words like “this is bad” when talking to others, not only does that hurt someone’s spirit but it doesn’t communicate any real helpful feedback to the person you are talking to. Focus on what is good, why it is good and how to get the stuff that is not as strong to capture some of that same spirit. Seek out friends that are interested in making the same kind of thing you want to make and try to learn and grow on your own. Right now, there are a staggering amount of free tutorials for Flash and AfterEffects on sites like YouTube, and if you are willing to pay a pretty nominal monthly fee, sites like Gnomon and Lynda have a lot of great tutorials streaming online to learn from. If all that website stuff scares you, don’t be afraid to go in to your local library either and take out a book on Flash, drawing or cartoon animation, there’s an endless amount of knowledge between those walls.