Joshua Taback

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What is your name and your current occupation?
Hi, my name is Joshua Taback, I recently became episodic director on Randy Cunningham, 9th Grade Ninja.

What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?
Nothing too crazy. I worked at an AMC Movie Theater in high school and some of college.  It was perfect job to geek out at, especially when home video wasn’t as convenient as it is today.  When I was in school in Philly I worked at another movie theater that was more artsy. Blockbuster Video one summer.  All of which fed my film fanatic-ness. Besides that, camp counselor when I was younger, clerk in the humanities office at college.  I heard those folks talk a lot of dirt.  Then I “went west, young man” on the cupboard wagon of animation.

What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
Since I had been on The Simpsons for eons, I would have to site specific episodes and sequences. The Wizard Of Evergreen Terrace, in which Homer becomes an inventor inspired by Thomas Edison, was an episode where I really hit my stride. There were a lot of great acting opportunities as well as action bits where I had a lot of fun and I think the episode turned out great. Also, being a fellow New Jerseyan I liked giving Edison a plug. As far as the shows I was an assistant director on, Homer The Moe was a show we really attacked and did well.  There were a lot of great bits and we did a lot of good animation.  I also did a good deal of storyboarding on that episode.  That’s about the time in my A.D. career that I began to have my hands on almost all the aspects of a show.

There was a couch gag that I came up with.  Usually the writers come up with the couch gags and we storyboard them and lay them out, or board artists pitch an idea.  Peter Jackson’s King Kong had just come out and I thought of doing a spoof on that.  Susie Dietter and myself put it together and I did the layout for the scene and the animation of “Homer Kong.”  It came out great.  Ashley Bamburg mimicked the color scheme from the movie and Tim Bailey did the animation of the bi-planes attacking Homer by hand, before CG had taken over. Our background artist Tops Cruz, did a fantastic job on the New York skyline.

Being there for as long as I was I had the opportunity to train a good number of people.  Over the years artists that were or had been on the show would mention the influence I had on their work.  That feels great.  Recently an old friend/colleague who now gives drawing demonstrations to large groups of people, told me some younger people have spoken to him about how his demonstrations were a big reason they went into art themselves. My friend expressed to me that I had a great influence on him during our Simpsons time together. That feels great, It’s great to help people and collaborate, but knowing you made a ripple in the artistic waters that reaches beyond you is something special.

How did you become interested in animation?
I’ve always been interested in animation from when I was young.  I watching all the Looney Tunes and the Disney films and loving them.  I think the first time I was aware of how animation worked was when I got the Fisher Price Movie Viewer.  It had removable cartridges that had small film footage (super 8m I think) of clips of Disney films and some of entire shorts.  You turned the crank and watched the movie.  If you turned it fast it’d be like old timey Keystone Cops and if you turned it slow it’d be in slow motion and if you turned it real slow you could watch the frames go by one by one.  It made perfect sense to me as a kid and, surprisingly, it didn’t break the magic for me.  In fact it made it more magical.  I remember I had the Disney shorts Lonesome Ghosts, Clock Cleaners and a clip from The Fox & The Hound.  I think a clip from Snow white too.

I was always drawing growing up and as I got older. Senior year of High School on a trip to Disneyworld in Florida I went on an attraction they had at the time which was a walk through tour of the working animation studio  It was nicknamed “The Fishbowl” in the industry because you would watch the animators through glass from above. Having people peering over you all day probably wasn’t something the artists liked, but I was in awe, and hooked – although I didn’t know it yet.  An animated cartoon starring Robin Williams, who gets turned into a cartoon version of himself as a Lost Boy from Peter Pan, leads you through a pane of glass from department to department of the studio where you could see some of the artists actually working away, as well as some other “exhibit-like” stuff to explain the process.  This was all before computers had even begun infiltrating the ink and paint process.  It was amazing.  Who Framed Roger Rabbit came out soon after that and my mind was blown again.  At that point, my course was pretty much set.

Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I grew up in the suburbs of Northern New Jersey in a little community called White Meadow Lake in the town of Rockaway.  I went to college at University of the Arts in Philadelphia majoring in Animation & Film. Senior year, one of the internships I applied for was the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (the Emmy people) which was sponsored by Film Roman back when Phil Roman still walked the halls. I was extremely fortunate to get the internship based on my submission of a work in progress thesis film, as well as my portfolio.  In the following years, I was honored to give back a little and be on the internship review board at Film Roman.  The late Phyllis Craig, a wonderful woman who had been an Ink and Paint Girl at “Disney’s” back in the day, was in charge of the internship on the Film Roman end. There I was mentored by Jim Schuman who nowadays is an accomplished Director at Nickelodeon. I worked on some Bobby’s World storyboards as well as the Felix the Cat’s resurgence boards. I also did did clean up on some Felix interstitial bumpers. One that was animated by Peanuts animator Bill Little John and future Disney animator Bert Klein.  Toward the end of the Internship I took tests for both The Critic and The Simpsons, and was put on The Critic doing character layout and props.  Toward the end of that season of the Critic, I did props and a couple character layout scenes for The Simpsons also.  The Production manager came over to me and said “Uh, we don’t have money for you anymore.”  I was like “Oh.”  Then he asked if I wanted to go over to The Simpsons.  It must have been a rhetorical question, although he didn’t seem to know that. So, then they moved me there full time.  There I stayed for a about 16 years.

What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
As a crew member My day would be as such:

Get to work.  If I have work left over from the day before, I either pick up where I left off or start a new scene. When I get my roughs to a point where I like them I show them to my director or assistant director.  They give me notes and I head back to address them and take the scene to fruition. Depending on how confident I am, I show them again for review or they go on the “IN” shelf. I’ve been on both sides of the the direction fence, so it has varied over the years depending on which role I had. As an A.D. I’d have to get approval from myself a lot of the time.

These days the shelves have been replaced with virtual folders on the server and scene folders and paper have been replaced by Cintiq tablets, but the main ins and outs are pretty much the same.

Starting a new show as a director:
There is a lot of management involved.  Keeping an eye on workflow and what the needs of the show and the crew are in order to deliver.  Every week there is either a Storyboard Pitch (or two), or an Animatic due.  Storyboard pitches are usually in the morning, where myself, the supervising director, the show runners and writers watch the storyboard artists “pitch” their sequence (as well as myself if I happen to have a sequence that I boarded)  The Storyboard is played on a screen controlled by the artist who describes out loud what is happening in the scene: Dialogue, Action, etc.  Then after the applause, we all go through the board and listen to the show runner’s, writers’ & supervising director’s notes.  Myself and the artists will chime in a bit here too.  Afterwards, I’ll meet with the artists to go over any notes of my own: make this shot a little wider here, tighter on that one, move that character over there, that shot didn’t play so well, how about a shot like this, that bit played great let’s do more of that here, and so on.

Then they go off to work on their board, and I get back to one of my tasks – which is usually doing revisions on the boards for another episode that has already had it’s final Storyboard pitch. Or going over revisions that have been done by the revisionists.  Here we get the show ready for Animatic.  Which is the show in it’s rough drawing form on video.  The Storyboard images are put into editing software where they are synced up to the voice track so we can see how the episode flows.  This is where I do the bulk of my work.  After the editor does their pass on the episode, I sit with them and work on the timing of the drawings and scenes.  We also add sound effects and temp music.  Here we can also see where more poses may be needed or if scenes that seemed to work “on paper” don’t play as well.  Then the revisionists, or myself, add the poses or revise the scene.  Oh yeah, and around this time I will get the notes back from Disney from a previous Animatic, which will include questions they have or changes they want.  I respond to the notes, and put them in my book to get to as soon as I’m done with the animatic I’m working on.  And that happens over and over.  As I write this I have six, 11 minute episodes under my supervision.  My days are usually spent bouncing back and forth between the editing room and my art desk. “Ah, alright, hang on, lemme throw you another drawing for that.” is a common utterance.  That being in between “Try that drawing for 4 frames, no that one, yeah, and that one for 8.  How about a zoom on that?  Maybe not that much.”

If I’m not working on a sequence myself or editing I’m going over work that has been handed in.  There I will “plus” anything that may need it. Tweaking the animation or add some poses. So, I will be juggling between those tasks throughout the days, as well as some managerial things. In the beginnings of the series I had a little more time and I was able to go to some voice record sessions.  It’s great to see how the actors are when they record, it can really help influence our drawing to bring the characters to life.

What part of your job do you like best? Why?
Drawing! The acting aspect of animation was always the biggest appeal for me.  Having your drawings come to life as thinking and feeling beings!  Magic! And you get to draw while doing it.  A few seconds ago that was a piece of paper, now it’s a ninja who is battling mutated monsters and trying to help his friend!

Collaborating really gets the inspiration going, it’s like swimming an an idea pool.  Having people to bounce stuff back and forth with make you feel a part of something, and if you dig what you are working on, being a part of something you love. Of course it’s possible to have too many cooks involved, but having a few brains on something can really bring out things that wouldn’t be there otherwise. It’s a social environment where you get to play and work at the same time

What part of your job do you like least? Why?
Lateral notes.  When the higher ups want something changed just because they thought of something else.  It doesn’t improve upon what was there and what was there was already done.  The time, which ends up being money, that is spent to make arbitrary changes is the industry’s Achilles’ heel.

What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
The business bullying the craft.  Decisions being made by people “in charge” who know nothing of the process or the hands on productions.  Not realizing how one “request” can unravel people’s work and well being.  But that’s present in a lot of fields.

At this time, the state of Traditional Animation can be disheartening.  Until recently, all of the facets of the field/s could be done if you had pencil and paper.  And it could, and would, take years to develop your talent and skill to a point where it needs to be in order to be a consummate professional. Now that’s not enough. Now you not only have to decide which software package to learn, you may also have to learn the software package the studio you work for uses.  And the two may not be compatible.  All the jobs have become just as much of a technological job as they are artistic jobs.

What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis?
Apple/Mac computers, a Cintiq tablet/monitor, Storyboard Pro for work and mostly
Photoshop for my personal work.  I try to sketch in my sketch pad when I have the energy, there I’m using … uumm… I think it was called … PAY–PUR? and a pen — CIL, that’s right a pencil.  Some antiquated thingamabob.

In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
There is a lot of greatness all around the animation realm.  At every studio.  Depending on the production and/or the limits of the production a lot of folks’ work just doesn’t get recognized individually.  There were some great artists over at Simpsons.  I’ve seen some beautiful drawings and animation that I would marvel over.  We would cross our fingers that what came back from the Korean studios would do it justice, a lot of times it wouldn’t but it would come close.  I’d start naming names but there are too many and I would feel bad leaving some out.  I also get the gist of your questions is more about animation legends.  Eric Goldberg gave a talk at The Animation Guild which I was front and center for.  There were a lot of great artists over at Simpsons.  The closest I’ve come was I did a drawing on Ollie Johnson’s desk.  A colleague and friend of mine was a friend of his and he ended up acquiring Ollie’s desk.  I remember standing at it like it was the Lost Ark of the Covenant.  I sat down at the desk and drew a picture of Tramp as best I could from memory and wrote on it “I drew this on Ollie Johnson’s desk.”  It’s in one of my files somewhere.

Describe a tough situation you had in life.
When I fought the evil Dr. Zarknov.  It was on a skyscraper rooftop which was condemned.  That was pretty hairy.

Any side projects or you’re working on or hobbies you’d like to share details of?
I’ve been working on a teaser comic book for a larger story.  It’s Sci Fi oriented.  I’ve learned a lot from it so far, mostly working digitally. Now and then I’ll do some personal illustrations, finishing up a sketch into a final piece.  I’m also tinkering with an idea for another comic book idea, but I’m waiting to finish what I have started to put anything down on paper – I mean screen.

Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
Draw, draw, draw then draw some more.  Write as much as you can and study movies even more so.  You can never stop learning and growing.  And if you think you know enough or are good enough, you might as well put your pencil down.
Learn how to deal with the business side of things. You can be the best artist in town, but you need to know how to move and shake, keep tabs on your finances and understand the “mentality” of the business you are in, so you can give your talent and skill the platform it deserves.

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  1. You were great years ago, but your many experiences and work ethic have made you even greater.

  2. Pingback: Mike Milo's Journal » Randy Cunningham 9th Grade Ninja!

  3. I really like this, especially about the interview with Ted Stearn. Like him I am a very late bloomer as well and I am trying my hardest to get in to the animation business. I just turned 30 and would really like to become an animator. I have my own cartoon script and I am starting to draw my comic book for it and just hope to get a huge fan base for it.

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