Luke Gustafson

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What is your name and your current occupation?
My name is Luke Gustafson and these days I do a lot of storyboarding for 2d and 3d broadcast animation.
What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?
In junior high I worked as a labourer for my dad, who did construction. My pay was McDonalds for lunch. Which was awesome. In college I did dozens of low, to no pay, rip-off art and design jobs for low lifes. Which was massively educational.
What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
My first job was for DreamWorks as a 2d FX assistant, that was 2000. We animated on paper. The movie was Joseph King of Dreams, the follow up to super hit, Prince of Egypt.  In 2001 I got to storyboard (sort of, I mainly fixed bgs and did revisions on the boards) for AKA and Danny Antonnucci on Ed, Edd and Eddy, Cartoon Networks longest running series. Many, many superpower artists and directors grew out of that studio. It was a trial by fire kind of place. Many artists had a very hard time there. My success today is because I worked and trained at AKA for one season. Over the past 15 years I’ve boarded, directed, designed and animated a dozen or more short films. Some were mine exclusively, most were for clients. Some won awards and got into prestigious festivals like Annecy, Ottawa and others.  In 2007 and 2008 I got to board and direct some award winning shorts based on the illustrator, Bruce McCall’s work.  In 2009 I developed the visual side of Eric the Tiny (created by Russell Marcus with E1). I had the pleasure of doing everything. I designed the bible, designed the characters, the line ups, the locations, storyboarded, cut the animatic, directed the pilot, and animated parts of it also. It never got picked up by a network.
In 2012 I got to board on Slap Happy’s “Nerds and Monsters”. Which was an honour and a pleasure because the show was so funny and well written by an upstart new company.  In 2013 I was asked to board on NerdCorps “Endangered Species”. This was an amazing opportunity where I was encouraged to play with the story and script. I loved being allowed to push the gags and to seek out and add tropes and homages to classic cinema and popular genres. Thanks to Andrew Duncan, the director and my supervisors (and buddies), Steve LaCoulliard and Rob “Boots” Boutilier.
In 2014 I’m boarding a pilot for a hilarious new show for a big network in animation and an awesome company. I don’t want to say too much, just that this is like the top of Mount Everest. I’m so honored to be asked to board this new show. I feel like I’ve finally made it after 15 years.
Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I’m basically from British Columbia, Canada. During my first self despising years in art school (Emily Carr University of Art and Design), I took a part time course in animation. I spent all my sulky time sitting at a spare animation desk. My instructor and mentor-to-be Martin Rose said, “you should be here.”  Since my father was a carpenter, I understood the clear relationship of labour in and labour out of animation. I greatly enjoyed the struggle and the painstaking time and effort in making animation, the multi-faceted challenges of storytelling, design, animation, direction, audio, music composition, voice recording, post. Each aspect of production with it’s own combination lock of difficulty.  It’s so hard to become even barely competent at just one aspect of animation that this was the mountain I was looking to move for my entire life.
What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
This might sound bizarre but it makes a lot of sense for me. Firstly, I work from a home office so I have no commute. When I have double or triple contracts I work from 9am to 9pm, 7 days a week (weekends I work half days). When I have one contract then I just do 9 to 5 and no weekends.  I generally break for lunch for an hour, I break for dinner for 2 hours to be with my wife and three young kids. I work in 90 minute bursts, I call pulses, with 5 to 20 minute breaks in between. On a long day I’ll do 6 pulses that takes me to 10:30pm maybe.  My start at 9am is a 30 minute, intense workout. Currently I like to lift weights and do body weight training. It requires little equipment and must be done quickly to be effective, which suits a double contract schedule. I mention fitness because it’s a secret weapon. I also don’t eat wheat or sugar. I eat a lot of vegetables, fruit, nuts and proteins. Sounds weird maybe, I know, but after years of experimenting with diet and fitness to improve productivity and general success I find that fitness and clean diet are huge factors. With intense fitness and a clean diet I’m able to overcome fatigue, anxiety, sleeplessness, stress, burnout, counterproductive behavior, will power challenges and nameless amounts of distractions.  Animation success depends on clarity of will and lot’s of drive. Excellence in animation requires vast amounts of effort and time, willfully focused on improvement.
What part of your job do you like best? Why?
The constant challenge of improvement, learning new styles, learning new skills, the challenge of finding new contracts, meeting new people in the business. The challenge to excel and to do well.
What part of your job do you like least? Why?
Downtime between contracts because when you aren’t making money everything is stressful and feels uncertain. Even if you have a pile of cash. It’s still stressful to be out of work.
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 have a basic laptop and a 12 inch cintiq. I often travel to visit family and friends. I take my work with me wherever I go. It’s amazing. One year we went to Arizona, one year we went to Nova Scotia. This year we’ll go to New York!
Because of the technology, I can work literally twice as fast as on paper. I foresee many more changes coming to animation. I predict that animators will become more generalists. Like right now animation is still fairly siloed. You’ve got script dept, board dept, editing dept, design dept, layout dept, animation dept, revision dept, post dept. In the near future you’ll be required to do more overlap. I predict technology will support that. Toonboom storyboard pro for example allows an artist to draw the boards AND time out an animatic that is then integrated into all the depts moving fwd. Toonboom has some bugs to fix in their basic drawing tools (thus their adoption rate by freelance artists is a bit slow, I’m not bashing Toonboom, I love those guys), but they or a company like them will likely disrupt and upend the current animation production model. I encourage all young artists or artists who like to maintain an edge, to educate themselves in using this type of software. You can trial all of toonboom’s stuff for free I’m pretty sure.  Ultimately though it’s not the software, what I’m saying is that more rounded artists will be required. Specifically artists that are strong in story. I’m not just saying that because I’m a story artist. I’m saying that because story will be the last piece of the puzzle that a computer or algorithm can’t do as well as a human. Animators will be the first to go. We’re seeing it now with better mo’cap, better animation engines and programs etc.
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
Saying no to quality companies with quality shows. I’ve gotten myself in deep, deep binds by saying yes to every contract. It’s dangerous to say yes to everything.
If you could change the way the business works and is run how would you do it?
It’s hard to answer that because I think personal, subjective perception is deceiving. To think that you can change a massive process is folly, to think that you can surf a wave however is more plausible. I see our industry as a wave merging in with more and more technology, which is another massive wave. What will always be required however is top notch storytelling and concept design (character, environment, location development). Animation will likely be handed over completely to AI in the next 10 to 15 years but design and storytelling will take longer. Until artificial intelligence can create stories as compelling as humans, designers and story artists will have jobs.
In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
In 2000 my very first job out of school when I worked on “Joseph king of Dreams” I got to work under Steven Burch the FX supervisor for the Iron Giant. In 2001 I got to work for Danny Antonucci whose standards are legendarily grueling, but Danny shaped some of the greatest artists in the animation business today. Most of the artists (who survived) that I worked with at AKA are now giants. I’m grateful to count them as my associates and friends.  I can trace back all that I have attained in my career because of Martin Rose (my instructor), Steven Burch and Danny Antonucci. When I was leaving AKA I gave Danny a small parting gift and thanked him for my time there, he said, “Well… I hope you learned something…” I had. I had learned everything I’d need for the rest of my career. I learned that excellence is very hard and requires relentless dedication. Right now I’m working with Ian Freedman (animated on Heavy Metal) who has taught me immensely in the last 6 months about better angles, better cutting, better perspective, better motivation, better story. To think that after 15 years I would go through the wringer again and have to relearn some basics about boarding has been a humbling experience. I’m very grateful to Ian for helping me continue to grow as an artist. Both Danny and Ian worked at Rocket Ship for the legendary Marv Newland. Danny, Ian, J. Falconer. These names come to my mind easily because you know when you’re witnessing greatness. It’s very clear because before your eyes you notice all these intensely difficult components coming together with seeming ease under the influence or at the direct hand of one person. Greatness is amazing to witness, it comes from dedication, devotion and an intense desire to improve your craft and the people who work with you.
Describe a tough situation you had in life.
I used to get up at 11am, get to work for noon, eat some garbage, wade through my job for a while, start drinking at 3pm, eat some garbage for dinner, go back to work bagged and half ripped, drink and work till 10pm, stumble home, pass out, repeat. I would then go to work on the weekends because I wasn’t very effective at getting my work done during the week for obvious reasons. I did that for roughly ten years. I was 50 pounds overweight, with liver and kidney problems, my blood pressure was a mess, I was pre-diabetic, I had out of control addictions for the worst food, I would drink a case of beer a day and smoke a pack of cigarettes. Every day. I was forever broke because my lifestyle was a mess! I felt like an absolute failure even though I was moderately successful in my career. Slowly, very slowly I changed all that.
Any side projects you’re working on that you’d like to share details of?
I co-founded StarAcer Academy, an interactive, science and space comic for kids.
We’re currently drawing another 20 page comic that we’ll turn into more awesome, interactive, learning experiences for kids. We got some financial help from the Canadian Space Agency and NSERC: PromoScience.
Any unusual talents or hobbies like tying a cherry stem with your tongue or metallurgy?
I used to compose and record music. I learned to play drums, guitar and keyboards as a kid. My dad and brothers are musicians. I’ve made many albums with many musicians over the years. These days I like to put that energy into my health and my kids. However, I’m getting the itch to compose and record more music.
Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
I get asked this a lot by young people because I trained dozens and dozens of animators, designers, board artists etc over the years. I’m still close with many of them and so I get to listen and get asked for advice from these young friends of mine. I’ve watched some of them go from pimply faced, needy, self centered interns to giving and generous leaders.  Step one – Build an online portfolio make the link part of your email signature. Your site does not need to be fancy or filled out, but it needs to be yours. Do not have your portfolio on your school’s site. Use weebly, blogspot, tumblr, wordpress, behance where ever. Do it asap. There is no excuse to not have an online portfolio.
Step two- Remember that your entering into a life long relationship with the animation industry. If you show up needy that’s a bad way to start a relationship. I speak from experience. I know you need a job, you want to get in, but I don’t want to hear that. No one does. Step three – Make friends, ask questions and listen. If you want to work at a studio, research it and every person you can that works there. Try to make a friend there. The Human Resources person at that studio is a good place to start. You can find out a lot on Linkedin.  Step four – Brush up on your skills at an online animation school. I do not want to see your demo reel with old school work on it. I want to see self motivated projects. They don’t have to be miraculous, I want to see drive, determination and motivation. I don’t care why your project isn’t completed or what have you. I do care that you’re self motivated to improve. You don’t need to make excuses for yourself. No one wants to hear excuses. Get out of the habit of ever making an excuse again.
Step five – Get your butt on Linkedin, make your profile and start making friends there. Join every animation group on linkedin and post your questions there. Introduce yourself. Ask questions, ask for advice.Communicate. If you don’t communicate then you don’t exist, it’s a fact.  Go to every animation function you can. I’ve been offered jobs after a brief friendly conversation with a stranger who turned out to be the HR person or a producer or director. Don’t ever expect that to happen, however. I have 15 years experience with solid companies, that’s why I get job offers after brief conversations. The key to communication is questions. Questions and listening to ask more questions. When you ask questions and listen then you’re perceived as bright and courteous. Read “Making friends and Influencing People”. I’m not kidding. Want to communicate better? Read that book.
Step six – Do all of the above simultaneously and with vigor. When I want to hire someone, I look for their linkedin and online portfolio, I expect their online presence to be plugged together and interlinked. I mean that their blog leads me to their linkedin and vise versa. I expect to be able to find out about them and their skill level in five minutes. If I can’t do that then I look for someone else. If you’re too incompetent to make a simple online portfolio and have a linkedin profile then you won’t work in animation. In closing – You never know when your opportunity is going to present itself. You must be ready. But guess what? If you’re not ready then learn from not being ready and get ready for the next opportunity. Remember that opportunities don’t manufacture themselves, you manufacture them with your behaviour and willingness to communicate and willingness to fail and willingness to ask for help. There is no such thing as luck there is preparation meets opportunity. So prepare now because your opportunity is coming. One last thing – And… be prepared to forgive yourself for everything. You will make huge bungling mistakes. You will make spectacular failures that will hurt you deeply. You will never forget them and sometimes they’ll haunt you. What will set you apart from everyone else is that you will get up, assess your failure or mistake, and move forward with a new plan while many will stay seated.  Success and prosperity are the result of tenacity and persistence. The persistent inherit the earth, not the meek. Fall down? Give it a good cry and then stand up and dust yourself off.


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