What is your name and your current occupation?
Matt Novak. Children’s Book Author and Illustrator. (Occasional animator)
What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?
Can’t really say I’ve had any “crazy” jobs. In high school and college I was a puppeteer and an actor. Our puppet troupe was called “Pegasus Players” and we performed at amusement parks, birthday parties, flea markets, farmers markets and anywhere else that would pay us a few bucks to make kids laugh. Also, acted on stage and in a nationally syndicated radio show called “Willow Crossing.” I played the part of a freckle faced kid named Billy, which was very convenient since I was a freckle faced kid at the time.
What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
I think my favorite animation project to have been a part of would hands down have to be “Beauty and the Beast.” To be part of the team that created the first animated film to ever be nominated for “Best Picture” That’s pretty cool. Of course, I’m proud of ALL the books I’ve created as well.
Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I grew up in the small coal mining town of Sheppton, Pennsylvania. (Population at the time, about 700) I was always interested in animation. Even before kindergarten. It was the closest thing to magic that existed in my world. As I grew up I watched a lot of cartoons and devoured any books about Walt Disney and the animation process. Tried making some of my own films but my resources were limited. It usually ended up being a frustrating endeavor. When I graduated high school I went to SVA and studied animation and illustration. My animation teachers were Howard Beckerman and Gil Miret. A lot of folks reading this probably know who these guys are, but, if you don’t, please look them up. They’re great guys with great reputations. SVA was also my first exposure to children’s book illustration. Didn’t even know that was a job before attending college. During college I was able to intern at Disney World. They had a small animation dept in the 80’s before Disney MGM had the bigger studio and tour. After graduating I had a few children’s books published and sort of went that route until Disney was looking for artists to staff the new studio at Disney MGM in 1988. Applied for that and was accepted, trained, and placed as part of the opening crew, working as an inbetweener alongside a team of awesome people on a Roger Rabbit short entitled “Rollercoaster Rabbit.”
What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
I’m mostly a self employed freelancer. Hit my studio at 9am and work till 6pm. Try to keep my mornings for writing and thumbnailing new ideas. If that spills over into the afternoon then I roll with it, but, if I need to work on final art for something, afternoons are the time for that. Usually take weekends off unless I have a pressing deadline. Same schedule applies when I get the occasional animation job.
What part of your job do you like best? Why?
Writing and storyboarding. I have found that I really am a storyteller at heart. Doesn’t really matter the medium. Whether it’s books, puppets, or film I enjoy creating characters and breathing life into them. I guess that’s why I was always drawn to animation. It’s that one very powerful medium that allows an artist to create that “Illusion of Life” (Wow, nice phrase, maybe I’ll write a book with that in the title sometime.) Kidding aside, that book “The Illusion of Life” by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, was perhaps the most profound influence in my development as an artist.
What part of your job do you like least? Why?
Marketing. As anyone who freelances knows, there is so much more to being a self employed artist than just making the art. You have to promote yourself. It used to be relatively straightforward. You’d produce a postcard, send that out to art directors, editors, etc… and then follow it up with a phone call or a visit. Hopefully they would hire you for something or publish that book dummy you sent them. Now there are so many avenues via the internet to market yourself, that it can be somewhat overwhelming (and distracting) at times. I do have a great agent who covers me on much of that front, but I’m on Facebook, Blogspot, Twitter, Youtube etc… and trying to keep everyone posted on what I am doing.
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?
Mostly Adobe Photoshop and In Design for book projects (Sometimes Corel Painter)….Mostly After Effects and Maya for animation projects. ON the animation side it has impacted my work because one person is now able to create projects that would’ve only been possible with a small team at the minimum years ago. Also, I do enjoy creating art digitally as it provides a lot more flexibility. Definitely miss the ability to “undo” if I am working traditionally.
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
In terms of the animation side of things I would have to say that trying to get clients, especially locally based clients, to understand that quality animation does not come cheaply. A lot of people want Disney or Pixar quality for next to nothing.
In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
Tons of brushes with animation greatness. When I was training at the Disney Glendale studios I got to learn from the best. Glen Keane, Mark Henn, Andreas Deja to name just a few. Doug Krohn was my mentor and taught me more in 4 months than I probably learned in total up to that time. In Florida I worked alongside some folks who “became” great. Bob Walker and Aaron Blaise (Directors of Brother Bear) Tony Bancroft and Barry Cook (Directors of Mulan) These are really just the tip of the iceberg of all the great folks I worked with. Now, who did I get to “meet” along the way? Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, Ward Kimball, Ray Harryhausen, Ralph Bakshi, Bill Plympton, and Frank Frazetta. WOW! I’m just a little old name dropper, huh?
Describe a tough situation you had in life.
I grew up relatively poor. Dad left when I was 12. Mom did her best to provide. Really admire her for that. Going to college wasn’t easy. Had to work my way through, pay off loans afterwards, etc… Everything after all that was, relatively speaking, smooth sailing.
Any side projects you’re working on that you’d like to share details of?
Always working on new book projects. Have a new book coming out soon about a robot. That’s all I will say.
Any unusual talents or hobbies like tying a cherry stem with your tongue or metallurgy?
I often think I should develop something like that, but so far I’ve been able to make a living with my writing and art skills. Many might consider these unusual talents or hobbies.
Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
Having taught animation and illustration for many years at the college level I definitely do have some strong opinions on this matter. The first thing I would say is, “Don’t expect someone else to care more about your art than you do.” So many aspiring art students (Not all of them by any means, but definitely far too many) think that somehow art is supposed to be easy. They expect to knock something off in a couple of minutes or a couple of hours and have everyone “oooo” and “aaaa” over it. This is hard work if you are going to do it right, and, just remember, if you’re not putting the time and effort into your work, the guy or gal sitting next to you just might be working their tail off. Guess what? They’re the ones who are going to get all the work when you’re out in the real world. No one can impose a work ethic on you. You either develop that for yourself or you need to think about another line of work. This should be at the core of everything you do. Animation especially is incredibly demanding. You have to really love it to do it well. Also, don’t expect to be a “lead” anything on your first job. You must prove yourself all day every day, and that work ethic plays into this as well. Start small, but keep thinking big. Always keep an eye out for small opportunities to keep your hands in the business but keep applying for those dream positions at the same time.
Very insightful interview! The advice to students really hit home with me. So much so, that I’m going to save that advice to my collection of quotes for future reference.
Thanks for taking the time to share your story! 🙂