What is your name and your current occupation?
Thomas E. Richner, Associate Professor of Animation at the Columbus College of Art and Design
What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?
Its not too crazy, but I worked at McDonalds the summer before I started graduate school at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television where I studied animation. I’m not sure why I decided on McDonalds, but I’m glad I did it. I learned that I really wanted and needed to ‘make it’ in animation after that experience.
What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
I’m very proud of episodes of ‘The Simpsons’ that I worked on. Working on a high profile show is fun because you know a lot of eyes are on your work. However, I’m also very proud of the smaller projects I’ve done, like a commercial I created a couple years back here in Columbus, Ohio. Directing your own work is very rewarding as well.
How did you become interested in animation?
I started off as a biology major in college, but half way through college I switched my major to art. There were actually a number of us that migrated from the sciences to art that year. I think there is definitely a connection between those two fields. I’d always enjoyed TV and the movies, but I was a little strategic in choosing animation as a career path and thought, ‘I like TV and movies; I can draw; animation studios pay good salaries; I could maybe get a stable job there… That’s where I am going’. I did love animation growing up, so there was passion for the medium there as well, but I was a bit pragmatic (the scientist in me) and wanted to be creative but also make a living. Bringing drawings to life was also very attractive to me. Once you see your drawings move, it really hooks you.
Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I am from Cleveland, Ohio. I graduated from Denison University with a BFA in printmaking and drawing, where I also created two animated films through independent studies with the Cinema Department. I applied to a number of graduate schools but UCLA was my ‘dream’ school. When I got in, I knew that was where I was going. After my first year there, I got to go to an animatic screening for ‘The Simpsons’ with a friend who was a writer/ producer on the show that I got to know through UCLA Masters Swimming. I went to the meeting with my portfolio in hand… Just in case. I did raise my hand during one of the discussions and Mike Scully called on me. Everyone looked at me like “who is this person?” Firstly, I think I raised my hand because I felt like I wanted to be involved in the coversation and felt like I could add to it. Secondly, I think I spoke up to leave an impression. After the meeting, I talked with Mike Scully, who was the show runner at the time, and he said they needed artists. I mentioned I was an animation student and that I had my reel with me. I gave it to him and a week or two later, I got a test for the show. I took it and got hired right when I finished my first year at UCLA. I was able to work in the summers while I went to school and finished my degree, then went back to Film Roman full time after I graduated. A funny note about that experience. I had originally intended to send home the video that I gave to Mike. I had written a note on the front, which I didn’t realize until I got the video back after I had been hired at Film Roman. It said, “Here’s my animation! Hope you like it. Love Tom”. Guessing he probably didn’t even read it. But, maybe he did and that helped him decide to pass the video on since it was such a nice note. Who knows…
What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
As a layout artist, I would always start my day reviewing my scenes from the previous day before turning them in by lunch. I would also start roughing out the two scenes I planned to layout that day (our quota was always ten scenes per week). As a layout artist, you are responsible for all the key poses to the animation. I tried hard to meet my quota from early on, and I think that helped me get used to the speed at which I needed to work. I learned a lot from the artists there. It was really like a second masters degree in animation. As a professor, I try to spend a lot of one on one time with my students. I modelled one of my classes after my experiences on the show. In the Layout and Timing Class at CCAD, I have my students produce an animatic for a film they might want to produce at some point. We stick to 24 scenes and after we write the story and board it, we take eight weeks to produce an animatic (three scenes are due each week). On Wednesdays, I hold one on one critiques with students just like you’d experience with a director at a studio (I have the students look at their scenes in my office). I try to replicate an industry experience for them so they can get a picture of what that experience is like.
What part of your job do you like best? Why?
(on Simpsons) I loved seeing my work on TV on a regular basis. Stopping at Best Buy to make a purchase and seeing your work on all the TVs was a neat feeling! (as a teacher) I think I knew back in college that I might one day want to teach. I enjoy helping students pursue their dreams. Having been in the industry (and currently freelancing when I can and working on my own projects), I feel like I am able to give students a real world perspective on our field. I enjoy passing on what I’ve learned. And seeing your students move into the industry is a very rewarding thing!
What part of your job do you like least? Why?
The day to day stress of performing on a tv show, when you’re in the moment, is a challenge. It was good and bad at the same time. You had to be on your A-game everyday, which wasn’t always easy, but I knew it was making me better at my craft. You also learn how to get yourself to a place where you can be creative on que (again, not always that easy, but you work at it). Today, as a teacher, I miss that everyday critique of my artwork. I look back now and really appreciate the experience that I had on the show and would probably approach things a bit differently today than I did in my 20s. The constant feedback on your work, which wasn’t at all sugarcoated, makes you a better artist. This is a big reason I have started working on my own films again in the last year or two.
What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis?
Toonboom Products and Cintiqs. I miss working on paper a bit, but the flexibility that the computer gives you is amazing! I also use Adobe products quite regularly in class and on my own projects.
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
As a full time professor, the challenge is to stay relevant in the industry. I believe its important to maintain your connection to what’s going on in the industry so that you can pass on a current perspective to your students. If you stop making art as a professor, you stagnate and become irrelevant. I’m currently working on an animated film now, so I’m really excited to get that film into festivals and to feel that rush as your titles come up on the screen before an audience.
In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
I got to meet and talk with Brad Bird at a Simpsons Premier party one year. He and his wife sat with my wife and I and we talked for twenty minutes before I realized who he was (‘The Iron Giant’ had just come out and he had left ‘The Simpsons’ the year before I had arrived). Then, once everyone knew he was there, he started to get mobbed a bit. But, looking back, it was pretty neat to just sit and chit chat with him and see him as a regular guy. One of our alumni from CCAD, Nathan Greno, who just directed ‘Tangled’, visited us at school this past fall. He was very giving of his time as he spent two days with us on campus. I got to spend some time with him and it was GREAT to hear his thoughts on things and how he got to where he is today. One of the most refreshing things he said was that we can’t all be experts at everything and that we have to rely on good people who might have skillsets that differ from our own to do their jobs.
Describe a tough situation you had in life.
Industry related, there have been a few. The first time I was involved in a pitch for a tv series, I froze. We had arranged for a number of meetings around town (L.A.) and the first place we were going was probably the place this idea had the best chance to get picked up. When we started the meeting, I went first and bombed. We had another couple meetings that day which went well, but blowing that one that counted is an experience I haven’t forgotten. I like to pass these types of experiences on to students because it was definitely one of those life learning experiences. I have done a number of presentations and pitches since then, and I’ve certainly learned to relax and enjoy the process much more.
Any side projects or you’re working on or hobbies you’d like to share details of?
I just recently self-published a book, the first in a series for kids, entitled, ‘The Saga of Captain Cheeseball’. Animated projects take so long to complete, that I wanted to work on something I could completely quickly and have a lot of fun with. The story is based on bedtime stories I’ve been telling my kids for a while. I decided to write this one down, illustrate it and put it into book form. The story is about a misfit pirate who is searching for a treasure for the king of his island home of Flinginghamdunbergville. I am also working on a seven minute traditionally animated film. I have been working on the story for the past two years and have revised it many times because I want to make sure that story really works. I’m in the storyboarding stage right now, so the film probably won’t be out for a couple years. However, I am VERY excited about it and look forward to having it in festivals across the country and maybe around the world. That is something I am really looking forward to.
Any unusual talents or hobbies like tying a cherry stem with your tongue or metallurgy?
None that I can really think of. I was a swimmer in college. I always liked Grim Natwick’s quote about how he thought being an athlete made him a better animator because he was in touch with his body. I do think being able to act and move your body is important, and I always try to communicate to my students the importance of getting up and feeling a pose. Move around and act it out!
Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
I think making friends is really important. Instead of thinking about connections and contacts, think about making friends. Don’t be afraid to ask for help/ learn from people around you. ESPECIALLY the first few years you start working. Let people know you want to be a contributing member of a crew and tell them to honestly critique your work. I think people appreciate that. I tried to ask a lot of questions early on, and I think it helped me figure things out quicker. Ask for what you want. Don’t be afraid to speak up in a meeting, talk to someone who’s work you admire or ask if you can assist in an area you’d like to move into. You don’t want to be a nuisance or too pushy, but if you don’t ask, nothing is going to be handed to you. You have to be proactive. One of our students who just started at Disney as a Look Development Artist, Alex Alvarado, came back to talk with our CCAD Student Animation Collective, a student animation group at CCAD, and was asked, ‘How good do you have to be to make it into the industry’. He said, ‘You know all those blogs that have all that amazing work on them… that good’. And he’s right. Different from the way it was 15-20 years ago, now there is artwork all over the web showing you exactly what level your work needs to be at. And there’s really no shortcut to it other than hard work. So, it can be disconcerting to see how many talented artists there are out there. But, on the other hand, you know exactly where the bar is. Strive for it!
Man that advice about making friends not contacts is so true! People can easily tell when someone is talking to them just to make a professional contact, and sometimes that can rub them the wrong way. It’s so much better to not worry about that and just try to surround yourself with good friends.
I think the best way to meet people in the industry (in L.A.) is to just get involved in things you truly enjoy and are passionate about. Join a running or bicycling club or volunteer at some other organization outside of the film industry. You’ll find that half the people there probably work in the industry in some capacity. Then, you’ve really connected with people on a genuine/ personal level and its not ‘schmoozing’ its friends helping friends.
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