Kevin O’Neil

What is your name and your current occupation?
Kevin O’Neil and currently a freelance special effects animator.

What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?
Being a bank courier, picking up bank checks from all the big banks in downtown Chicago, for Jet Courier services in Chicago, back in the 80’s. I worked at Midway and O’Hare airports in the middle of the night, 1 am to 5 am. Also before that, I taught guitar for 6 years, and played in a few bands in Chicago. I was a full time musician before going back to art school at age 28. So I don’t know if they were exactly crazy, just jobs.

What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
One of my favs was Iron Giant at Warner Feature, and Hercules and Mulan at Disney Feature. Working at Disney TV on The Tigger Movie was also a lot of fun, and working with Jun Falkenstein was a great experience. I was glad I got to work at Disney if even for a short time. Brad Bird at WB, John Musker and Ron Clements at Disney. Great people if you ask me. Proud to be a part of those films. The caliber of artists at these places is just great. Actually the caliber of artists at most of the studios is great, it’s just too bad a lot of the stuff we saw in the studios is art that never makes it to the screen.  I also worked at Warner’s Classics back in the 90’s as a character animator. We did a lot of commercials. I worked with Keith Baxter, Jeff Siergey, Spike Brandt & Tony Cervone. The place was fun and I got to draw Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. How could that not be great?  More recently I had a lot of fun on the Priest animated prologue for Genndy Tartakovsy. I did most of the effects on that except a couple of shots. It was fun because it wasn’t your normal efx, there was a lot of blood and guts and I got to blow things up. I finally saw an unedited clip of the whole thing online. I guess for the movie, it was tamed down.

How did you become interested in animation?
I guess just watching and growing up with the usual cartoons like everyone else. I leaned towards Warners. But I got into rather late, in my late 20’s. I was undecided in art school whether to pursue fine art – watercolor painting, or animation. Cartoons won out. But what prompted me to get a job in it was watching seeing Bluth’s American Tail. I did not go to school for animation, like people who go to Cal Arts or Sheridan. I learned everything on the job.
Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I guess I’m sort of from Chicago, because that’s where I lived the longest full time before moving to LA. But I’m originally from Erie, PA. I got my first job in animation right out of art school at a place called Kinetics, a studio in Chicago . I got a job illustrating and animating (if you could call my early stuff animating. . .) on a educational series of videotapes. Worked there and a couple other places in Chicago for two years, working on things like Cap’n Crunch commercials, mostly assistant work, before getting hired in Dublin Ireland at Don Bluth on All Dogs Go To Heaven in 1988. Worked at Bluth both in Ireland and LA for almost 5 years before going onto other jobs and studios in town.

What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
Well, if I’m freelancing, I get up rather late, like 10 am. I tend to stretch the work out during the day, as I have kids. One is a teenager who is homeschooled. So my work schedule varies from day to day. But I usually work later at night when it’s quiet. My wife is a nurse, so all this goes in between her schedule too. If I’m in a studio, then it would be their hours, the usual 9 – 6 or something.
What part of your job do you like best? Why?
The drawing of course. The planning out is cool too. Designing the effects is a lot of fun. I like to research too what I’m going to be doing. If it’s explosions for instance, I’ll look up a lot of stuff online for ideas. Mythbusters is great too, because they are always blowing up stuff, and they used high speed video so you can really see an explosion from the beginning. I’ve always been lucky to have worked with a lot of great effects artists over the years like Dorse Lanpher (an efx legend), Mauro Maressa, Joe Gilland, Michel Gagne, Joey Mildenberger and Tom Hush and many others. I assisted a lot of efx animators early on, so I got to learn a lot from many different people. Seeing what others can do is probably the best aspect of this business. You learn so much by just watching what they do, and how they work and asking questions. When I started as a character animator, I was an assistant too, and learning from all the different animators is a big plus in this business. That’s what was great about Bluth, as it was a learning studio, on the job training. You inbetweened, assisted, animated. You worked your way up. There were so many great people that I met there and respect in animation. Some are now even teachers at Cal Arts, Sheridan and Vancouver animation schools. The teaching continues.


What part of your job do you like least? Why?
The paperwork, the x-sheets. Sharpening my pencils. Picking up my erasers when they drop under my desk. Cleaning my room either at home or at a studio, after a big bunch of scenes. Lots of paper!! The driving to work if I have to go to a studio. I usually try to stay within non-freeway distance to my jobs. Doesn’t always work out that way especially in Los Angeles. Working at home is easy, but not as rewarding, as you aren’t around all the other artists.  But if I have to drive to Santa Monica or Culver City that can be a drag as you know on LA freeways.


What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
Looking for work. I hate that part. It’s much more frequent to look for work than it used to be, as jobs are shorter and being at a studio a long time is somewhat of a luxury these days. Being freelance means you are constantly on the look out for new work coming up, or trying to hear what’s on the grapevine and it seems like effects in itself is being used less frequently than it used to be. Or just a few scenes here and there.
What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis?
Mostly just Photoshop. I tried learning Flash, couldn’t get into it too much. I also know Maya fairly well. First learned it back at Disney when it wasn’t even Maya. But I don’t animate too much in 3D, mostly I use it for modeling. Outside of animation when I’m dealing with music then I use Apple Logic Pro.
In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
Well Brad Bird for one. Working with him directing on Iron Giant was great. But almost anyone in the business is like a brush with animation greatness I think. There are so many greats in this biz. When I finally became an animator at Bluth on Thumbelina, my boss was John Pomeroy, so I learned a lot there as a new young animator. I’ve only ever gotten to meet some of the classic older animators at book signings and the like. I’ve met Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas. Or I’d see Glen Keane or Andreas Deja in the hall when I was at Disney. When I was at Warner’s Classics, Norm McCabe was still working on some of the tv shows, and he was in his 80’s at least! But anyone you work with now, will someday be old, so don’t discount their kindness & talent because some of them, if they aren’t already, will be ‘animation greatness’ as you put it. Ask them questions whenever you can. Show them your stuff, it’s highly unlikely they’ll rip it to shreds. Maybe.
Describe a tough situation you had in life.
I guess closest to that would be nearly losing my daughter in a freak sliding glass patio door accident that nearly cut her arm off and she lost a lot of blood. That scared the crap out of us. She was 12 years old. She’s fine now and 22 and now just tells people that the scar on her arm was a shark attack. She likes to see their reaction. She’s probably a perfect candidate for this business.
Any side projects or you’re working on or hobbies you’d like to share details of?
Just my band. We’re a local LA based rock band called The Status Seekers, trying to get work in LA. As far as any side projects dealing with animation, I rarely do them on my own, like make my own shorts or anything. Sometimes I’ll help others, like I did with Bert and Jennifer Klein’s short film Pups Of Liberty. I’d rather just draw or paint watercolors on my free time. Been working with another artist at Nick on a book for quite some time.

Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
Stay out of it if possible!! Run away! Far, far away!! Or, I guess, Go for it, I’ve yet to figure it out. It’s a love hate relationship. It’ll only make you frustrated, stressed, happy, sad, angry, sometimes not paid enough, sometimes paid enough, but mostly you’ll find it’s a great bunch of people that love to draw and make cartoons. Remember, although you’re always better than someone else, there’s always someone better than you. So don’t be a jerk. Keep your chin up and be nice to people. That p.a. you are working with now will probably be your boss one of these days and may want to hire you.


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