Doug TenNapel

What is your name and your current occupation?
Doug TenNapel, story teller.

What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation? 
I once shoveled molten cow fat in an underground chamber at one of California’s largest chicken farms. At this same job I had to shovel maggots from under truck scales in the summer heat.

What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
I’m probably the most proud of my graphic novel work. Making Creature Tech and Gear were some of the most satisfying work I ever did as a graphic novel author.

How did you become interested in animation? 
I never wasn’t interested. But I was raised in front of the television, where those moving drawings came to life. It was all magic to me. When I first saw Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer as a kid I knew there was a God, I knew there was a voodoo we call animation and I thought it would be great to get to do that myself some day.

Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business? 
I was born in Norwalk, California but raised in Denair, and outskirt of Turlock, an outskirt of Modesto! I did my own flip books and shot some puppet animation on my father’s 8mm camera. The results were disastrous, of course, and it taught me that mere will and love of animation wasn’t enough to be an animator. It would require gaining something that doesn’t come naturally…skill. I worked hard to learn to draw, and I still consider myself just okay at it. I couldn’t get work in animation for most of my life, but I could draw well enough to be in illustration. While getting illustration jobs in San Diego I got my first animation job at American Film Technology where I did animation for Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and got my first job in the video game industry at Blue Sky Software. Once I created Earthworm Jim as a game character it made kicking the door down in animation much easier.

What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
I start penciling pages by 8am, inking by noon. If I can get a good 8 to 10 hours of work done in a day I can crank out at least two good pages of comic.

What part of your job do you like best? Why? 
I like to break the initial plot of a story, because that’s where the heart and soul of a story take place. From those first note cards it’s either a story that ought to be told and deserves to exist, or it’s a waste of time and no amount of work should be wasted on it.

What part of your job do you like least? Why? 
I don’t like to polish anything so it’s pretty hard to put the final touches on things. Just because a project is finished doesn’t mean it’s done-done. So I’m usually ready to start my next story when I still have to oversee the digital pre-press, address editor’s notes, even fix bad drawings. But great work needs proper care all the way through to the end. I need to work on that some more.

What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business? 
By far the most tough thing is having a wife and 4 great kids but not having steady income. There are times that I long to collect garbage instead of working in the arts because the trash man knows what his pay will be for the rest of the year.


What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis? 
I have to use Photoshop and Manga Studio on a regular basis. I also use the internet a lot for finding good reference of things I don’t know how to draw.

In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
One of the greatest guys to help me was the great Disney artist Bob Smith:  He was a fellow Christian and had just retired in 1990 when I was trying to get into animation. He basically looked at my portfolio and told me I stunk! That was news to me, because like many young artists I had a pretty high view of my own achievements being a big fish in a small pond. Smith told me to throw out my portfolio and dive into figure drawing like it was a religion. I’ve been doing that every since. I learned that there is a level of greatness so far above me that I need never fall in love with my own art. I’ll never be good enough, I’ll always need more skill. He helped me mentally shift my gears to treat art more like something risky, beautiful and unattainable than something I could claim with authority was mine to own and declare myself lord.  I once had lunch with John K. which I consider a brush with animation greatness. He’s an intelligent, aggressive animator that doesn’t sit back and let other people determine what he’s going to draw on any given day. His personality type brings out the rebel in me, because his work so clearly pioneers where few animators are willing to go. He’s also a clown, and ultimately, the animator is a great fool for the masses. We go juggle, or tell jokes, whatever will move the hearts and minds of our audience. During our lunch, John was scribbling little Mickey Mouse thumbnails on 8.5 X 11 inch paper. He said he was trying to learn how to draw small because he was used to big field paper. So here’s another example of greatness in animation, an accomplished, famous animator crippling his way through a new way to draw because he’s the eternal student. It’s actually a form of humility to never assume you’ve arrived.

Describe a tough situation you had in life. 
This is really tough for me because I’ve had some real low times in my life. There are times where I was a walking disaster, and just a self absorbed, narcissistic, hateful person. But without going to the very worst times in my life, I can tell you that there’s nothing tougher than being an artist, applying for a job, knowing you can do the job but are interviewed by people who don’t think you can do it. So it’s tough for me to deal with the free will and opinion that others have of my work. I’ll never agree with an expert, no matter how accomplished, that I can’t do a job I think I can do.  I can barely even go to those places that were tough. Just before I married my wife was a really hard time for me. I didn’t think anyone would ever love me, and I was convinced I would die is I didn’t learn how to interact with people and  love others better. As a teen, all I had was my art. I felt like I was going to die of loneliness and self hatred. The only thing I knew was that I could draw well. That kept me alive. I could tell stories, and create monsters and situations and I think I was empathizing with a creator God at that point. He carried me through that. Just before I created Earthworm Jim I was terrified that we were going to lose our apartment and not be able to provide for my wife. That kind of failure can shake a man to his core and it’s why I’ll never poo poo any artist who succeeds or makes a living at his craft. I named Earthworm Jim after all of the strong, great men in my life, particularly my big brother James…a coal miner. Jim is a very personal creation because he’s this mushy, stupid, weakling resting in an invincible super-suit. That’s as close to an allegory for my life as I could ever come up with.

Any side projects or you’re working on or hobbies you’d like to share details of?
I have a G.K. Chesterton reading group at my house on Sunday’s after church. About ten of us guys get together and read through his books and we usually get through about a chapter or two a week. We smoke pipes, drink beer, have a meal together and try to think in a way that would make Chesterton proud. What’s great about it is that we’re generally reading documents written 100 years ago, and it’s all more relevant today than it was then. It’s also encouraging that most of the guys in the group are in their late 20s early 30s and work in the industry.

Any unusual talents or hobbies like tying a cherry stem with your tongue or metallurgy?
I can juggle. I raise newts in my basement studio. I ran 3 marathons in 2009.

Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
This is the same advice I got, and it’s the same advice I give to anyone who asks me to help them. I say that you have to work on your skills while you work to get a job. Most of life is spent waiting for something to do, and it doesn’t cost us anything to pull a sketchbook out and draw while we’re waiting. When you submit your portfolio, spend the rest of the week figure drawing, writing stories or studying design concepts. You may spend the rest of your life waiting, but if you work on yourself while you wait within a few years you’ll only increase your appeal to any employer. There’s no time for watching TV, not time for video games, but there’s always time to develop relationships with people.

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  1. Great article! Why is the imdb connected to Bob Smith versus Doug Tennapel?. Keep up the good work., looking forward to reading more articles like this.

  2. Fantastic interview! I never get tired of hearing what goes on behind the pen of my very favorite artist. 🙂

  3. Pingback: Doug TenNapel | Animation Insider – Interview

  4. Great interview! Doug’s a great storyteller and graphic novelist that keeps hitting them out of the park!

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