David Knott

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What is your name?
David Knott

What would you say has been your primary job in animation?
Supervising Director.  Although I’ve spent the better part of my career in Animation as a Storyboard Artist.

What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of? 
Kim Possible was a watershed show for me.  I grew exponentially as a board artist on that show, gaining valuable experience in boarding action sequences, which, up until then, I had not done much of.  This was also due in no small part to the series’ Director, Steve Loter, whom I consider to be one of my mentors.  He challenged me to get into the head of the characters and to make that inform whatever gags or actions I had them do.  I’m also indebted to him for turning me onto ʺCowboy Bebop.ʺThe other project that has stood out for me is the one I’ve been on for the last 3+ years, The Penguins of Madagascar.  Not only is it a challenging CG show involving cinematic action sequences, slapstick pantomime gags, and even heartfelt ethos, but it is just damn funny.  It makes me laugh even on the umpteenth viewing of an episode that I have seen through every stage of production. Mark McCorkle and Bob Schooley are the best EP’s I’ve ever worked for, and I would work on anything they touch.   The other great thing about Penguins has been the crew.  No ego trips, very collaborative, very fun, and uber-talented.  I loved coming to work every day on this show, and  I will miss them all terribly when I have to move on.
How did you become interested in animation?
As far as the early influences I soaked up hours of Bugs Bunny and Looney Tunes.  In my teen years, it was Battle of the Planets and Robotech.  And like any artsy nerdling, I collected gobs of comic books, some of my favorites being the X-Men and their various spin-offs, the Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli Daredevil comics, and Groo the Wanderer.  Then, after seeing Star Wars, I felt this incredible urge to make movies.  I had all these plans to stuff home-made props full of firecrackers and set them off for a laser battle finale.  But the actual prospect of making all those props and sets in my garage proved too daunting.  Instead, me and a couple friends would make Monty Python-esque shorts on my parents camcorder on the weekends, just for our own amusement.  It was great fun.

Then, I enrolled at the University of Michigan, and, when looking for an Humanities elective, I saw F/V 236 The Art of Film.  I couldn’t believe my eyes.  I signed up, and it became the first step towards making my film career real.  It was like someone opened up a secret doorway to another dimension, and the magician that held that key was my film prof, whom I am still in contact with today.

Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I moved out here from Michigan in 1993.  But not for animation.  I came out to become a screenwriter.  I toiled away on live action film sets as some form of a PA, hoping to get that magical networking moment that would get me that big break.  Well, after 2 years of sporadic work with punishing hours, I was ready to throw in the towel and move home.Then I saw an ad for some Animation Job Expo at Universal City.  I had always drawn all my life (various gag cartoons, mini-comics, and other silly stuff,) so I decided to try to whip up a professional-looking portfolio and give it a shot.  I did a ton of life drawing in cafes and checked a bunch of ʺHow to Draw Cartoonʺ books out of the library and started scribbling.  In truth, it was a pretty sorry looking portfolio, so it wasn’t a surprise when, table after table, I was told ʺNo. You need more experience.ʺ  Until the last table:  Hanna-Barbera.  As a last-ditch effort, I showed their recruiter a video tape of a 1 minute cartoon I did at U of M (a Coyote/RoadRunner-type toon, in which I drew with the mouse and timed it with Macromedia Director.)  It was actually pretty decent for what it was.  What I didn’t know was that he was looking for candidates that had some art background coupled with computer savvy to start up an animatic department from the ground up.  With training!    And that was it.  He hired me.  I was trained as an animatic editor.Two years later, after seeing all these storyboards come across my desk, I got the bug to do that.  I knew that was what I had to do.  So I took every storyboard class that I could afford, and then started taking tests from whatever show would let me.  Then, if they didn’t hire me, I would have a sample for my severely anemic portfolio.  Finally, the same guy that hired me at the expo became the recruiting director at Disney TV.  He let me know they were hiring into a training program for storyboard artists.  Luckily, over that summer I had done a couple freelance boards for this goofy property called ʺThe Pillow People.ʺ  It was a typical toy-into-a-cartoon type thing.  I don’t think it ever got fully produced.  But it was all I needed to get me over the hump.  Dan, the Recruiting Director later told me that he looked at the rest of the recruiting panel and pleaded with them, ʺLook, if anything, we’ve got to save him from having to do any more Pillow People!ʺ  Luckily, it was low risk for them; if I didn’t make the cut after the training, they could let me go.  But there was no way I was going to let that happen, and at the end of the training, I was placed on first season of ʺRecess.ʺ  And I was in!

What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
Each day is a bit different, depending on the day.  There are script handout meetings, where we amuse ourselves by trying to read the script doing all the voices correctly.  There are storyboard thumbnail pitch meetings, where the board artist pitches us the panels he or she’s done, and I go over it pointing out the larger problems like jump cuts, unmotivated acting choices, better camera angles that could be used, and other technical stuff like making sure the right prop or set is used.  The greatest part of my time, though, is crafting the shipping animatic (the last animatic before the animators take over.)  With the help of a couple revisionists, I make sure the acting is as strong as it can be as well as making sure all the filmmaking works, punching up any weak moments.

What part of your job do you like best? Why?
I really love targeting certain sequences and putting my mark on them, trying to make them as special as they can be.  Then the reward for that is the moment at the end of editing the animatic, where you watch it and it just works, achieving a whole new level of life.  Seeing people laugh when they should, especially in a room full of producers, writers, and execs who have seen it all, is nothing short of thrilling.

What part of your job do you like least? Why?
Whenever I get gripey and become complainer-man, I try to stop and remember the two summers I spent operating a drill press in a ladder factory to raise money for college.  I could still be doing that. But, if I were to choose, I would say my least favorite part is encountering difficult personnel issues.  As a director, one must manage a team of artists.  I love the part about motivating and mentoring and challenging artists to do their best, but it’s really hard when dealing with someone who is not pulling their weight, or they are unhappy in their position, or something like that.  It’s extremely challenging to strike the right balance between the manager that needs to get things done, and the empathic people person that recognizes what this person might be going through.

What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
I’m an optimist by nature, and always try to keep a positive outlook.  So, it’s really difficult for me when I encounter severe negativity, especially when people are arguing opposite points.  I think differences in opinions are fine and can actually be constructive to solving problems, but only when there is respect and politeness involved.  Shouting and name-calling is counter-productive to achieving anything and is just downright unpleasant.

What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis?
I work on a Cintiq and love it.  I work with Photoshop and Bridge.  I have Animate and can’t wait to try it out on one of my little projects sometime.  You know, with all the free time we all have.

In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
When I worked at Hanna-Barbera, I bought one of the Art of Hanna-Barbera books and took it in to Bill and Joe to sign.  Bill kinda signed the book and went back to work.  Joe, however, waved me into his office, invited me to sit down on his couch and started regaling me with stories of the old days:  “And this guy here…that’s Fred Quimby…that sunofabitch…”  Then he asked me if I had his autobiography yet (it had just come out.)  I stammered that I hadn’t but was on my way over to the store to get it.  He opened a closet.  It was stacked with copies of his book from the floor to the ceiling.  He grabbed one, signed it, and handed it to me.  “That’s yours, son.”  I will always treasure that book.

Maurice Noble came in one day and just spun stories for hours in my training days at Disney.

Recently, I ran into Dean DeBlois at a conference.  I went up to him like a starstruck fanboy, telling him how much I loved “How to Train Your Dragon.”  I came away from our conversation feeling like a peer, all because of his great humbleness and generosity as a human being.  He couldn’t be a more easy-going gentleman.

I’ve also brushed shoulders with a lot of amazing voice talent:  James Woods, Burt Reynolds, Eartha Kitt, Rip Taylor, and a lot of the unsung heros of voice talent like Jeff Bennett, John DiMaggio, Kevin Michael Richardson, Patrick Warburton,  JP Manoux, Fred Tatasciore, Candi Milo, and many others.

Describe a tough situation you had in life.
A few years ago, my parents passed away, within one year of each other.  Each time, my supervisors on Penguins told me to just “…go home and do what you need to do.  Keep us in the loop but take as much time as you need and your job will still be here for you when you return.”  It was an amazingly supportive thing for them to do, and a very human thing, because a lot of different people on the show had to take up extra work in order for the show to keep moving while I was away.  I will be forever grateful.

Any side projects you’re working on you’d like to share details of?
I’m storyboarding a silly short I’ve developed.  Unfortunately, it’s slow going.  There’s also a couple other things in various stages of ʺdevelopmentʺ:  a childrens book, a graphic novel, some ultra-shorts…Hopefully, something will get done before I die.  I will post artwork of the projects, as I’m ready to on my blog:  http://daveknott.wordpress.com.  I just created it, so there’s going to be growing pains…please be patient with me.

Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
Never give up.  If you want it bad enough, you’ve got to work and work and work at it.  It takes many years to develop strong enough skills to be successful in this business.  I was lucky in my early days.  There aren’t any more training programs.  Shows don’t wait for your skills to mature.  You’ve got to hit the ground running.With that in mind, perhaps you need to be your own training program.  Start creating your own shorts (just keep them SHORT and simple, so they’re doable.)  If shorts are too much, just do sequences that have a beginning, middle and end.  That way you can create a few different ones in a comparably short amount of time (action sequence, comedy sequence, emotional moment…etc.)  We just hired a guy that had done just that.  Of course this might not work for someone who has to pay the bills.  There is no right answer for everyone.  Each path will be different.Always be respectful.  What goes around comes around; it’s a small business with long memories.  Glean as much advice and information as you can from those more experienced than you.Once you get a pretty good stream of income, start an unemployment fund.  The target should be about 3 months living expenses.  This is to ride out the down times that will come inbetween shows.  It’s a fact of life in this business, so you might as well prepare for it.Never be complacent.  Always try to sharpen your skill sets.  There’s always some new software package around the corner.  Best of luck!

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One Comment

  1. Great interview, Dave! It was illuminating to find out a little more about your background and career path. Kind of inspiring, actually. Great advice, as well. Perhaps, some day, we’ll get to know each other a little better and we can re-contextualize that poor first impression.

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