What is your name and your current occupation?
Hello! My name is Jerry Suh and I am currently a Background Painter at Nickelodeon Animation Studios.
What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?
I went to Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), GA and we have a huge fashion program there. I was never interested in fashion before, but I applied for a modeling gig when they were looking for fitting/show models for their big annual fashion show for graduating seniors. It was quite crazy because there were hundreds of girls in the audition, from in and outside of Savannah. What was even crazier was that one of the juries was Miss J who is known for America’s Next Top Model. I don’t know how, but I did get in to be one of the few models to represent the SCAD Fashion Show. And yes, Miss J coached my walking! It was really fun and exciting experience that I did not expect to happen, and I am glad it did.
What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
Baxter is a 3d animation short directed by Ty Coyle. Working on Baxter as an Assistant Art Director / Lighter was a really rewarding experience. It’s probably because of the sense that we were really making a film together, and that every collaboration and individual contribution turned into a real result we could see. Ty was also an amazing director to respect our creative input for the film. I did a lot of concept art to set the overall mood of the film, then color scripted every shots to show crews the overall aesthetic of the film and help the lighting team lit their shots, then lit two of the highlighting shots of the film myself.
Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I am from South Korea but I moved to Boston. about 10 years ago. As cliche as it sounds, it’s been my dream to pursue animation since I cannot remember how long ago. But as I grew
up in a very academic oriented house, it was difficult to pursue a “starving artist” job. So I first went to Cornell University to study Architecture, which I thought was the fine line between Art and Physics. But I couldn’t give up on my dream to work for the animation industry, so I transferred to SCAD to study animation a year later. I didn’t land any jobs the year I was supposed to graduate (2014), so I stayed in school for one more year to spend more time on my personal portfolio. Then after so many doubts, tears and sweats, I got a contact from Nickelodeon that I got into their Nickelodeon Artist Program, which helped me land my first full-time job in the animation industry.
What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
I come into my office where there are four other really talented co-workers like Grace Young, Eunsoo Jeong, Jocelyn Liang, and Nichols Maniquis. (I also think it is pretty funny that all of us, the painters, are Asians). We usually spend the beginning of the morning catching up, and sipping coffee, chit-chatting a little bit, haha. Then our Supervisor walks in for the morning review, and each one of us gets individual feedback from our Design Supervisor and the Show creator for the work we submitted the day before. Then, I continue to work until noon and get outside to get some Green Tea Slushie from Sub King right in front of Nickelodeon. Our Pinky MaLinky team is very close to each other, so we either eat in the kitchen, sharing food or eat out together a lot. After lunch, we get back to work to paint more backgrounds until we are released at 6pm when the beautiful sunset comes in our office.
What part of your job do you like best? Why?
As a Background Painter, we get layouts to paint from the Background Designers every 2 weeks. When I open my task file, it almost feels like opening some type of gem or mini Christmas gift when I see some really exciting layouts to paint. I also like when I personally really liked my painting and it’s rewarding to see it to the end and click the save button and submit it for approval in the end of the day. If I get the approval from the director next morning, it feels even more amazing 🙂
What part of your job do you like least? Why?
I would say the length of the job can be quite short depending on which show you get to be hired for. So that can be challenging. You don’t quite know how long your job will last until you get to hear back from the top whether or not your show is green lit for the next season.
What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis, how has technology changed in the last few years in your field and how has that impacted you in your job?
I use Photoshop on a Cintiq. Since my job is not really technology based, I wouldn’t say that there were a lot of changes in the last few years in the field of Background Art. But I can definitely see how it could bring a huge change to visual effects field as the program and the technology are constantly changing.
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
The contract for the TV shows are fairly short and it can be challenging to have stability for one job after another. Usually, when you are hired as a staff designer at commercial agencies or a visual development artist at a featured studio, the contract is relatively long. But the stability of the positions for TV shows depends on a lot of factors. That being said, it’s not always bad because you can work on different, various projects in short amount of time, whereas if you work for a feature studio, you will most likely work for one show for a couple years. But since you might have to look for jobs quite frequently after show after another, it is very important to have good reputation and good relationships with co-workers wherever you go.
If you could change the way the business works and is run how would you do it?
I wish we had more variety of range of animation. I remember the director Mark Andrews said whoever makes the first featured animation film over PG-13 in the U.S. will get a lot of attention because the featured animation film industry is very saturated with sameness. Now that the Seth Rogen’s Sausage Party is coming out, I hope it works out well. Laika’s stop motion film looks amazing too. I wish more studios are going to be willing to try different stories, a sense of humor, style and medium.
In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
When I was interning at Pixar… Oh god, I was getting starstruck even on the way to go to bathroom. One of my absolute favorite (top 3) animation is Ratatouille. And I think a lot of it comes from the fact that my English nickname “Jerry” is from the cartoon Tom and Jerry. I was very fortunate to get a lighting training with my mentor Stefan Gronsky, who was a technical lighting lead on Ratatouille. When I asked him if he could show me his scene set up in Ratatouille, I was so blown away that I was looking at the original file of Ratatouille and see what was behind the curtain. It was beyond inspiring when he explained how carefully the lighting was set up to portray the story.
Describe a tough situation you had in life.
I think one of the tough situations I went through related to animation.. Was back in 2014. I was supposed to graduate with my friends, but had no job offer lined up. I think part of it was because I switched my career focus as a lighting artist to a visual development artist in my senior year, so I didn’t have enough time to build a portfolio from scratch for vis dev which I’ve never really done before. So I decided to stay in school for one more year, and that was pretty challenging because I felt like I was left behind while all my friends were graduating, leaving college and pursuing their goals. I stayed in the lab every night working on my portfolio on my own, and god that felt lonely. Sometimes, I wondered if drawing was really what I like to do because it felt like a lonely journey to get to where I wanted to be. It was like questioning my fundamental identity because I’ve never doubted that I love what I do, but then if so, how could this be so painful? And lonely? Then, I read a quote: “passion has little to do with euphoria and everything to do with patience. It is not about feeling good. It is about endurance.” I believe that pursuing to be an artist is really is about journey, not the momentary pleasure.
Any side projects you’re working on that you’d like to share details of?
I’d like to share my personal project that I put in my portfolio. I met an old man on the Fourth of July, and made a personal project inspired by him. On the Fourth of July of 2014, my family and I encountered this man in a wheelchair in the rain. That Fourth of July is particularly memorable because we had a serious thunderstorm. It was a mess. Police force was evacuating people, fireworks went earlier than the original scheduled time, people were running everywhere to avoid the rain, and most of all, it was POURING. I mean, pouring as if there were a giant hole in the sky. As we were rushing to the station in chaos, we ran into this man in a wheelchair looking for help. He was alone in a big chunky wheelchair stuck in the puddle. Couple of people stopped to help us to get him out. The guy seemed to have some sort of a muscular disability because he was having difficulties talking. When we finally got him settled down a little bit, we found out he came all the way from Salem which was 2 hours away Boston by train. We asked him if he was with anyone else and why he came here (to this chaos). He raised his glasses stained with raindrops and gave us a smile that was as innocent as a child’s. Then, he replied as best as he could. “No, I came here alone. I wanted to see the fireworks.” You can see more of my Old Man project at www.jerry-suh.com
Any unusual talents or hobbies like tying a cherry stem with your tongue or metallurgy?
I like traveling, I know this is not “unusual”, but I am really good at packing everything in the last minute and not missing anything that I need! I’m pretty proud of that, hahaha.
Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
Network. So important. Network, right now… And that, I mean not only Linkedin, recruiters, and current artists in the industry but most importantly your school friends. They will be the one rooting for you in a most genuine way, and will be the most precious connection you will get to have.
Breaking into the industry seems and is very difficult. But as I wrote it above, “passion has little to do with euphoria and everything to do with patience.” Believe in yourself and build a support group that can help you when you’re in doubt. I also try to hold onto this quote: “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass…It’s about learning to dance in the rain.” Try to enjoy the process no matter how hard it seems, and remember you’re pursuing what you love.