What is your name and your current occupation?
My name is Alen Esmaelian and I work as a Background, Prop, and Character designer at Rough Draft Studios.
What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?
Nothing out of the ordinary. I’ve been working in this industry for 6 years and prior to that, I used work for Pizza Hut as a customer service representative (fancy way of saying that I used to take customer orders over the phone).
What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
Without a doubt, my proudest moment was working on Futurama alongside the very talented crew at Rough Draft Studios. I was particularly proud to see my finished designs for Bender’s robot monastery on episode nine of this current season.
Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I was born in Tehran, Iran but I’ve lived in the Los Angeles area (San Fernando Valley) since I was two. I started to exhibit a love for animation and design at the tender age of 5, when I used to sit in front of the TV with a sketchbook and try to copy what I would see on my favorite shows and commercials. It was then that my parents enrolled me in local art classes and the rest is history.
What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
My days at the studio are much like a caffeine induced blur. Depending on whether we’re starting a new episode that week, we’ll have a design meeting, going over everything that is called out from script and on the design breakdown list. Then the fun part begins when I start roughing out thumbnail designs and show it to the director then the supervising director for approvals. Communication with my directors, coordinator, and fellow designers is conducive to the creative process and keeps me on the right track when it comes to the design choices I make.
What part of your job do you like best? Why?
I tend to relish every moment of my job, but my favorite is when I start seeing the image in my head coming together through my rough designs. In animation, I feel that it is always important to be satisfied with the end result, but don’t be too attached or obsess over it. After all, your design may end up being drastically changed or cut from the final product.
What part of your job do you like least? Why?
Seemingly unrealistic deadlines! It’s funny how my least favorite part of the job can also be my favorite part, depending on how you look at it. On one hand, it’ll be crunch time and we start getting retakes back for previous episodes which can throw me off because I have to stop whatever current episode I’m working on and revisit older designs, in order to make revisions because something was changed or re-boarded last minute. Though, on the flipside, I usually work much better under pressure and some of my best work is a result of this.
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?
Technology is ever changing and it is vital in this industry that we change with it otherwise risk getting left behind. As for me, naturally being a technophile, I’ve learned to embrace and adapt to any new piece of software or hardware that makes my job as a designer more efficient. When I started off in the industry, I used Illustrator and Flash to do cleanups. Then, when I did CG modeling, I was using Maya and Zbrush. But my go to for design work, is definitely Photoshop and the Cintiq. Currently, I’ve taken a step back at my studio and have been designing the traditional way, which is a rare opportunity in an ever-growing digital age where traditional animation light tables are being substituted for Cintiqs. What we don’t have a digital substitute for yet is pencil dust on the side of your palm!
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
The most difficult part about being in this business is when the project draws to a conclusion, and you get laid off. This is an imminent part of the cycle and it never gets any easier. The key to staying afloat is to avoid being a one trick pony. If you can wear different hats: background designer, character designer, CG artist, etc… you’ll always be a valuable asset to any studio you work for. Plus it doesn’t hurt to know people and keep networking!
In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
Definitely getting to meet Matt Groening is at the top of my list. Of course, meeting him was inevitable since I do work on Futurama, but that didn’t stop me from gushing like a little schoolboy. I’d have to say another great moment was when I also met Syd Mead. His prolific career has not only left a mark on the film/ sci-fi industry, but animation as well.
Describe a tough situation you had in life.
The toughest that comes to mind was before I got into this industry. I had graduated from college and was unemployed for a year before I landed a job doing what I love to do. The uncertainty of whether I would make it was what got to me.
Any side projects you’re working on that you’d like to share details of?
Nothing I can go into much detail at the moment, but I’m currently cooking up an idea I have for a feature animated film.
Any unusual talents or hobbies, like tying a cherry stem with your tongue or metallurgy?
As far as unusual is concerned, I can pick my nose with my tongue. But besides that, I play the classical as well as electric guitar.
Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
Always maintain a positive, upbeat, can-do attitude. Don’t sequester yourself to only a single aspect of this industry. Experiment and try different things, you may be surprised to realize that you’re actually talented in more than one thing. Being able to multitask and constantly learn new things can insure a long and fruitful career in animation.