Jennifer Harlow

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What is your name and your current occupation?
My name is Jennifer Harlow and I’m an animator at DreamWorks Animation SKG, where I’m currently working on “The Croods” which is due out March 2013.


What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?
Prior jobs have included working at Subway with the job title of “Sandwich Artist”—a fancy name for the not-so fancy job of making the customer’s order. I was also an assistant manager on Sundays, so I kept the business running from 6 a.m. until almost 9 at night when the other manager would take over. I also worked for 2 years at Target as a cashier, but I also spent time in the photo lab and behind the customer service desk. I have a lot of wild stories from my time there, ranging from encountering a homeless woman who was convinced Target employees like myself were stealing her freshly purchased toilet paper, the chaos that is Black Friday, to random strangers pulling my curly ringlet-like hair because they thought I was wearing a wig. A slightly crazier job was during the summer after my second year at CalArts, while staying at my home in Oregon I worked as a freelance caricature artist and this led to one memorable event where I was hired for a wedding. Nothing stranger than drawing tons of already self-conscious strangers for about 4 hours. Everything went very well though, the crowd was extremely nice, and I had a fun time—though I made it a point to make the caricatures a little more flattering than my usual style.

What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
It’s still pretty early on in my career to be able to state a specific project. I’m really enjoying working on my first feature project, “The Croods.” It’s been a really wonderful experience, and the crew is very supportive and awesome. But I’m proud of everything I accomplished during my time at CalArts and while my students films are less than perfect, I’m glad I have them. They were each a huge learning experience.


How did you become interested in animation?
I always drew as a kid, even before I can really remember, my Mom likes to tell this story about how she found me in the living room drawing with a big red crayon on the white carpet right in front of the fireplace. Instead of getting mad at me, she saw how proud I was of my piece and just made sure to keep a giant supply of paper in front of me. All family road trips usually involved me in the back seat drawing up a storm, even at the risk of making myself extremely carsick. I also loved to watch cartoons, my brother and I would always tune in for our favorite Warner Brothers and Disney shorts on Saturday mornings (big fan of any Chuck Jones short). We also enjoyed the classic Disney feature films as well. However, I never thought of a career in animation or even art in general. For the longest time I wanted to be a veterinarian, my childhood was spent raising a wide variety of pets: dogs, cats, turkeys, rabbits, guinea pigs, tropical fish, ducks, a horse, etc. Goats and parrots being my favorite—and sheep being my least. I even spent a few years between middle-school and high school volunteering at a couple clinics, attending surgeries, etc. At 15 though, my interest started to fade, a lot of a vet’s schedule was spent spaying, neutering, or having putting a beloved family’s pet to sleep. I eventually decided to pursue my other interest, drawing. Around this time various articles and podcasts started popping up online and that’s when I started learning about the animation industry and picking up names like The Nine Old Men, Glen Keane, and especially CalArts—I toured CalArts just after my 16th birthday, and after seeing the artwork on the walls, hearing the echoes of animation paper being flipped in the cubes above the main hallway, and chatting with a few current students—that was pretty much it. I also started animating on my own, using Macromedia Flash because I didn’t have the space for a good ol’ pencil/paper setup. It was a very cool feeling seeing my drawings move for the very first time—my very first attempt was a running horse, wish I still had the file because I’m sure it’d be entertaining to look back on.
Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I was born in Richmond, California, but my family moved up to Southern Oregon when I was 7. I left high school early to continue my education at Rogue Community College and later, Southern Oregon University where I was able to take life-drawing classes and build up my portfolio to apply to CalArts. I was rejected on my first try, but was accepted on round two. Once at CalArts, it was literally 24/7 animation boot-camp for 3.5 years. I animated with both 2D and 3D tools during my attendance, and had a blast—even during the rough days when a Maya file would corrupt losing hours of work, or having an especially bad drawing day. I learned so much throughout the good and tougher times and met so many wonderful people that were there by my side during the heat of crunch-time, overall it was an absolutely amazing experience that I wouldn’t trade for the world. During my third year, I completed my film called, “Bothered Bot” that led to the exciting opportunity to be a part of a summer internship at Pixar. I had a wonderful, and intense 11 weeks there where I learned so much! I returned to CalArts, where I graduated in December 2010, and in January 2011, I started working at DreamWorks Animation in Glendale. Still very hard to believe everything that has happened in the past few years and that I’m now getting paid to do what I really love—animating!


What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
I usually arrive to work by 8:30 a.m, grab a little breakfast from the commissary, and head up to my desk. I start animating by 9 a.m. and continue working until 11:30 when I join my co-worker buddies for lunch. Lunch usually wraps up by 12:30 and I’m back at my desk animating until about 6 pm. Depending on how my shot is coming along, my day could be spent entirely at my desk or spending more of my time meeting with supervisors and attending dailies/various meetings that might pop-up during the day.

What part of your job do you like best? Why?
I really enjoy just about every part of my job, but those early days on a shot are usually the most fun, when the sky is the limit. It’s always exciting getting to brainstorm the best way to convey the directors’ vision, and using a variety of methods to plan out the best way to communicate the goal in a shot. When I’m just starting a shot, I definitely spend time planning out the actions, whether thumbnailing it out on paper, pulling online reference, or shooting my own reference—those early stages on a shot usually take a good amount of time before I start moving a character around. It’s extremely nerve wracking showing my shot for the very first time and hoping that I hit the right nerve and meet everyone’s expectations, but the reward of getting that reaction whether it’s one person or 30 is a great feeling. I also really like the variety of work I’m assigned, I never know what I might be doing during any given week—always seems like something different is awaiting me on the next shot.

What part of your job do you like least? Why?
Having worked in a variety of food and retail related jobs, and having had my fair share of less than pleasant experiences. I don’t dislike any part of my job, there are certainly challenges that can come up with any given assignment, but I’m always happy for Monday to roll around and work to begin again (though weekends and nights are awesome too. Good to have that break.)
What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis?
I work on DreamWorks’ proprietary animation software. But also use pencil and paper to plan out an idea. At CalArts, I worked with Maya, but also After Effects, Final Cut Pro, Photoshop, and of course pencil and paper.

What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
Really the most difficult part can be the politics. This certainly applies to school too, I don’t like dealing with all that oftentimes pointless drama, I personally prefer to just focus on my work.

In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
While at CalArts, I was able to attend many incredibly inspiring lectures and meet a wonderful array of artists, both those that were visiting the campus for 1-night, but also those that were my dedicated teachers every week, especially Scott Wright and Ted Ty. Also a special nod to Miles Inada who first introduced me to the possibilities of Maya while I was attending Southern Oregon University. And at DreamWorks, I’m fortunate enough to work in a department full of very talented artists who use their vast wealth of history and experience to keep pushing the quality of their work to be as cutting edge as possible. Which is very humbling to experience every day, but incredibly motivating.


Describe a tough situation you had in life.
I don’t have a particularly tough situation. I was bullied a lot, definitely the outcast, and this was something that started back in elementary school, and it was one of a couple reasons why I left high school. But despite a lot of obstacles and other difficult situations I encountered while growing up, things are really great now. I’m very happy I have such a wonderful group of family and friends who support me.


Any side projects you’re working on or hobbies you’d like to share details of?
I’m slowly revisiting an old idea I had for a potential film. But it hasn’t developed much more than a few thumbnails and storyboards as I relearn how to draw the characters.  As far as hobbies go, I play the violin. I used to be apart of a few youth symphonies and during CalArts I took a break, but now that I’ve graduated I’ve started rekindling my interest in music. Even to the point where I take the occasional request from a coworker since I enjoy the challenge of learning a new tune—either by ear or with the aid of sheet music.  Now that I have more time on my hands on the weekends, I also like to take little day trips around Southern California and draw whatever I might see. Whether I’m visiting a local museum or hitting Venice Beach to sketch the many colorful characters that decorate the boardwalk, LA has a lot to offer. I’m about 7 pages away from finishing off another sketchbook.  I’m also branching out in my culinary skills, I’ve now refined a pretty killer chicken pot-pie recipe and adore my slow-cooker. Cooking in college was pretty much whatever required the least amount of effort, but with the maximum amount of fridge life. Or in really dire situations, a handful of wheat thins. I’m also reading more and am catching up on various TV shows/movies that have been recommended to me over the years.


Any unusual talents or hobbies like tying a cherry stem with your tongue or metallurgy?
Nothing very unusual. I’m an avid whistler, but other than that, not much else stands out to me.


Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
The best advice I can think of is to pursue what you truly enjoy doing and to not get discouraged along the way. Just because one door closes, doesn’t mean another one won’t open. The industry is very challenging and getting accepted into a school (CalArts or otherwise), is just the first step and definitely doesn’t mean you’re set for life. I’m always pushing myself to work harder, and those whose work I admire the most, all seem to do the same thing of constantly pushing themselves. I’m always learning a new technique or how to avoid making a mistake again. It’s a hard field of work, but I really enjoy it. Other advice would be to strive to create a balance in life—it’s dangerous to become too focused on work. I learned that very quickly at CalArts, I’ve since made sure to try to stay as balanced as possible—to take breaks and get out to enjoy and observe life. Being able to bring my own observations/experiences so far, have really helped me stay fresh and focused while I’m animating.

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  1. Pingback: Jennifer Harlow – Great Women Animators

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