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Concept to Creation: Interview with Rachelle Lewis — Animation Recruiting

Mark Simon concludes his series of 12 excerpts from his new book, Producing Independent 2D Character Animation: Making and Selling a Short Film.

All images are from Producing Independent 2D Character Animation: Making and Selling a Short Film, by Mark Simon. Reprinted with permission.

This is the last in a series of 12 excerpts from Mark Simons book, Producing Independent 2D Character Animation: Making and Selling a Short Film. This book is a full-color, concept-to-pitch guide that teaches animators, students and small studios the art and business of producing short, cel animated films. Animation producer Mark Simon has detailed the process in an accessible how-to manner using his award-winning series, Timmys Lessons in Nature, as a guide. This 432-page book contains more than 600 full-color images, interviews and a CD-ROM containing sample animation, animatics and sample software described in the text.

Back in 2001, I interviewed Rachelle Lewis, who was the director of recruitment for Klasky Csupo where she oversaw all of the artist recruiting.

Since they started the studio in a spare bedroom in 1982, graphic designer Arlene Klasky and animator Gabor Csupo, both passionate advocates of artistic experimentation, have built a company housing more than 300 employees. The studios signature style embraces the wit and eccentricity of life through boldly imaginative uses of the animation arts. Winner of five Emmy awards, two Cable Ace awards, and numerous commercial, art and production honors, Klasky Csupo has created hit television series including The Simpsons, Rugrats (along with Paul Germain), AAHHH!!! Real Monsters, Duckman, Santo Bugito, The Wild Thornberrys, Rocket Power, As Told by Ginger and two Edith Ann specials. It is also the home for the UKs Stressed Eric, Class-Key Chew-Po Commercials, and the record labels Tone Casualties and Casual Tonalities, as well as Klasky Csupo Publishing.

Rachelle Lewis

Klasky Csupo initially distinguished itself with its work on logo designs, feature film trailers, TV show titles, promos, and spot IDs for a wide variety of clients, earning a reputation, in the process, as the industrys most imaginative and innovative studio. Building on its success, the studio opened its first facility in Hollywood in 1988 at the corner of Fountain and Highland Avenues. The studio soon grew to include six buildings that have become well known in Hollywood in true Klasky Csupo style, the exterior walls of the buildings are decorated with large murals of its characters.

In 1999, however, due to Klasky Csupos exponential growth and after an exhaustive regional search for an appropriate facility to consolidate its operations, the studio relocated to 6353 Sunset Blvd. Committed to remaining in the district, Klasky Csupo chose a building on the corner of Vine Avenue in the heart of old Hollywood. With this move, the much-heralded new Hollywood now boasts one of the industrys major animation studios.

Mark Simon: What do you look for in portfolios for both animators and directors?

Rachell Lewis: Well, the bottom line is talent, obviously. For directors we look for strong composition and staging. We like directors who can see things with more of a cinematic sensibility. Acting is of course extremely important for directors as well.

M.S.: Klasky Csupo have a very specific look, do you worry about style?

R.L.: In a portfolio we look for a wide range in styles, because, at this studio, not only is our style very different from other large studios, but the way we have our TV production model set up is different. You might be drawing on Rugrats on Monday and then drawing on Rocket Power the next week. Even though theyre slightly similar, there are differences. In a portfolio you have to be able to show that you can draw in a wide range of styles, and that you can draw quickly and with a strong line.

M.S.: How would you describe the look of Klasky Csupo animation?

R.L.: I think its quirky. I think its very identifiable. I mean you can certainly turn on your TV, and if youre looking at something coming out of Klasky Csupo, you would know it right away. Were definitely heavily influenced by eastern European artistic sensibilities. Obviously that influence comes from Gabor Csupo whos Hungarian, and we also have a lot of eastern Europeans working at the studio. We love that kind of different style that they bring to the table.

M.S.: So whats the best way for someone to approach Klasky for work?

R.L.: The best way is through our recruitment department. Unlike other studios, we are not a corporate-run studio. Were an artist studio. We dont have terribly strenuous rules about how often you can put your portfolio or reel in, although we encourage people to submit no more than once every six months, since that is a reasonable amount of time for an artist to show progress. You can submit your portfolio any day, Monday through Friday, and we will take a look at it and give you some feedback. At least youll be in the system.

A lot of times people think, Well great, I submitted my portfolio to a studio and nothing came of it, and they just give up, which is ridiculous. Its an ongoing process. If youre an artist, youre always growing. If youre doing your work and drawing every day, your portfolio will show that growth. If youre a beginner and you really want to be in this industry, you should be walking around with a sketchbook. Drawing well is like playing a musical instrument with practice you can always get better. And it is a lifelong craft.

The Klasky Csupo building on Sunset Blvd in Hollywood, California.

M.S.: When people drop off portfolios, is there ever an in-person interview first, or is it just a drop-off.

R.L.: No, the first step is to drop off the portfolio. If we are interested in your work after checking out your portfolio, we may meet with you at that point. Once or twice a week, depending on how busy we are, we look at the portfolios that have come in. We get anywhere from 200 to 400 portfolios a month. We take those portfolios and, from them, choose 20 to 30 of the best artists, the people that we feel would be a good fit with Klasky Csupo, and who can also bring something a little different and innovative to the table.

Then we have a review board that meets once a month, and that basically is comprised of all of the producers and directors from every division of our studio: feature, television, Internet, commercial and our record label. Someone comes over from each division and checks out the artists, even if were not hiring at that time. Its just a way for everyone to keep in touch with the amazing art that is coming to our studio, and we receive incredible portfolios here.

M.S.: You look for more than just animators?

R.L.: Yes, were looking for everybody. In television we look for strong storyboard artists, character designers and background designers. Were famous at Klasky Csupo for growing our own talent. We promote heavily from within. Most of our directors came up from working as a board artist or a BG [background] designer or a character designer on television. They understand how all those jobs work and how it all comes together, and they make great directors. Plus they know the Klasky style. Theyve been doing if for years, and they just know it. They can immediately see whether or not that board is right, how thats going to play out for a Klasky show.

In feature we look for character layout, BG design, and BG layout. We love to hire animators to do character layout for us because of the way we produce our features. Our character layout artists are really doing a lot of animation. We love people that come from a strong animation/animator background.

Rugrats. © 2002 Viacom International Inc. All rights reserved.

Rugrats. © 2002 Viacom International Inc. All rights reserved.

M.S.: Are most of your artists freelance or staff?

R.L.: We hire a lot of freelance artists for our commercials division, but in TV, most of our artists are staff. For features, its a different situation, because the artists have contracts, as is typical with feature productions.

M.S.: So you do the keys in-house and ship the rest overseas?

R.L.: Yes. Our storyboard artists, and I know that I may seem prejudiced, but I think they are the strongest in the industry because our boards for a 22-minute show are just fat [many more pages] compared to what other studios might ship. Also, our board artists are great storytellers and actors. They understand the punch line. They put a lot into the storyboard that is just totally coming out of their imagination. Sometimes its something that isnt even mentioned in the script, but it adds a lot to the story.

We record the voice first, and then board it out. Some studios board first then record the voice. I think we would lose so much if we worked that way. We have some amazing voice talent at this studio. I mean we have Tim Curry, this fantastic actor who brings so much to the script. Why in the world would we not record him first? He brings so much to a very simple line of dialogue. It just inspires the board artist to put even more acting and great poses, etc., into the scenes.

M.S.: Weve run into situations where we were boarding on a project and we read a line with one intonation, but when the actor recorded later it was totally different. The same line could be either shy or cocky, and it needs to be boarded completely different for each reading.

R.L.: Absolutely, because boarding is all about the acting, the posing, and the staging. How can you possibly do that without the actors input? Good actors bring so much to the table with one simple tweaking of the way theyre delivering the line that it can completely change the emotions of the scene.

M.S.: How important is education to you?

Earthlink commercial by Klasky Csupo. © 2002 Earthlink. All rights reserved.

Earthlink commercial by Klasky Csupo. © 2002 Earthlink. All rights reserved.

R.L.: Its important. With education, I know that the person is going be able to communicate with other people. I know that they have done something that they have completed. That they play well with others. But talent really overrides education. I mean, we do have people working at the studio who have no formal art education, but who are just huge natural talents who have come up through the system and just picked it up.

The majority of people working here do come out of art schools. Certainly in my job, 60% of what I do is developing relationships with art schools throughout North America and Europe so that I can bring in the best young artists. But every once in a while you see a portfolio of someone who has no professional training but has incredible talent, and, needless to say, Im not going to discriminate against that artist because he or she doesnt have a college degree. That would be absurd.

M.S.: A college degree doesnt mean theyre going to be any good.

R.L.: Well, were talking about art, so theres a subjective element to what we consider good and bad. Certainly, if I see that someone has graduated from an art school with a strong animation curriculum, Im going to assume that they have a higher level of understanding regarding the different aspects and disciplines of animation. However, just because someone graduates from a great art school does not necessarily mean they will be a great artist for Klasky Csupo and the projects we produce. Just because someone graduates with a law degree, that doesnt mean theyre going to be a great attorney, either.

M.S.: Does having a really fancy portfolio or graphically well-designed resumé make any difference?

R.L.: No, not to me. This is where if you had a panel of recruiters such as Frank Gladstone from DreamWorks, whos wonderful, or Tiffany from Disney, or Jay Francis from Film Roman, or anybody else, we would all have our own thing to say. Although there are aspects of a portfolio that pretty much every studio wants to see (for instance, everyone likes to see life drawing skills). However, because we are all different studios artistically, we look for different strengths in portfolios. For me, I could care less about a graphic design on a resumé, or how beautiful the portfolio case is.

For the resumé, the most important aspect is, is it easy to read? Does it tell me clearly where, when and in what capacity you worked? Also, a lot of companies scan in resumés. For every resumé we get, we manually import all the information that we need and put that person into a database. I have heard other recruiters say, Please just give me plain white paper, because if its textured paper or if these are tons of fonts with bolding and all this fancy stuff, especially if there is a graphic, it wont scan.

The Wild Thornberrys Movie. Courtesy of Paramount/Nickelodeon.

The Wild Thornberrys Movie. Courtesy of Paramount/Nickelodeon.

So the most important thing with a resumé is clarity. Is it easy to read? Is it clear where you worked? What did you do, and when did you do it? With a portfolio its very funny, sometimes we get people that bring in absolutely outrageously fancy big gigantic hand-painted boxes. Even though I understand that the artists intent was to make the portfolio stand out, we look at every portfolio that comes in here anyway. Were not judging whether or not were going to open up a portfolio by the looks of it. Some of the best portfolios Ive seen look like theyre about to fall apart.

However, when I open them up theyre well put together with all their life drawings together, and theyre focused on how theyre marketing themselves to the studio that makes a difference. For instance, if I open up a portfolio and I see life drawings and amazing characters with turnarounds and expressions, I know that this person wants to do character design and is very focused. On the other hand, if I open up a portfolio and see a little sketch of a character here, and the next page is a life drawing, and the next page is a BG, and the next page is something that looks like it belongs in a comic book, then Im thinking, What does this person want to do?

I always tell artists, specifically students just starting out who dont really have the professional experience, that there are a lot of very experienced professionals on the street right now, and you dont have the luxury of just being able to present yourself as an all-around-artist. You have to present yourself as a character designer, or a storyboard artist or a BG designer. Otherwise, there is just no way to compete with the other portfolios that we see.

M.S.: When youre looking at reels that people include with their portfolio, do you prefer to see pencil tests or a finished project?

R.L.: To be completely honest, and I can pretty much say this is universal for the other studios as well, we really dont look at reels unless the portfolio blows us away. I simply dont have the time. Of course Im talking about 2D artists, obviously, not 3D. For 3D of course the reel is the piece to look at. For 2D artists I will only look at their reel if their book blows me away. I just do not have time to look at every single reel. If I see a portfolio that is really good and I do watch the reel, pencil tests are always nice to see but you dont need four minutes of pencil tests!

By the way, put your best work first on your reel. You have got to sell yourself in the first 30 seconds, because if it isnt there in the first 30 seconds, nobody is going to see it. So put your very best stuff up front on that reel, to really pow this is my best work. Also, dont worry about the audio; nobody really listens to the cool, funky techno music that is playing in the background. We turn the audio down. We dont care about your audio ability or your taste in music. Were looking at you as an animator and what you can bring animation-wise.

M.S.: No one tells students this stuff.

R.L.: Nobody ever tells them this in school. However, at the World Animation Celebration, we organized numerous events, one of which was the following: we had all the major studios come in and give their 90-minute recruitment spiel. We had Jay Francis from Film Roman, who was up there speaking, Okay, this is Film Roman and this is what we do. And if you want to get a gig at Film Roman this is what you need to send me; A, B, C, D and E. Do not send me the following list A, B, C, D and E. Then we had Frank Gladstone from DreamWorks, who gets up and says, Hey, Im Frank from DreamWorks. I want to see A, B, C, D and E.

We put this together, because as an industry why should we make it such a mythological search, to try to figure out what Disney wants, or try to figure out what Warner Bros. wants, or Klasky Csupo wants, etc. Lets just tell them, because, as recruiters, it just makes our life harder if people are sending us stuff in a confused state. I want them to know that at Klasky Csupo this is what I want to see and this is what I dont want to see. Send THIS to me and it will help your portfolio move through the system here, which, in the end, will get you seen by producers and directors and get you a job here.

M.S.: Give us your dos and donts.

R.L.: For Klasky Csupo, do put in life drawings. That should always be the very first thing in your portfolio, if you are a beginner. If you have professional experience, put that professional experience first. Do put in quick sketches and contour exercises. That gives us a chance to see how you think as an artist. Because if you have that contour exercise where the pen never leaves the page, we can follow how you brought that life model onto the page, and see how you think as an artist.

Dont put in any original pieces [oil paintings, originals of life drawings, etc.]. Weve never lost a portfolio since Ive been here, but you never know. These things are flying all over the studio, and even though we track them like hounds, you never know. You could end up losing all of your work, and that would be horrible. So never put originals in; always submit copies. Do focus on one area for which you want to present yourself.

If you think youll be a good character designer at Klasky Csupo, only put in your character designs. Dont have a bunch of loose stuff flying around in your portfolio. The biggest dont, for me, is dont represent yourself as an artist who only draws in one style. Specifically I am talking to character designers. For instance, if I see one more big-breasted swordswoman, Im going to kill somebody. Its OK if big-breasted swordswomen are your thing, but just put only one character of that style in your portfolio. Otherwise youre representing yourself as somebody who really only wants to draw that particular style.

If your thing is anime, fantastic. But we may only have one or two anime jobs in our commercials division a year. But if you can draw anime and you can draw in other styles, I might consider you for a character design position on a TV crew. Do not only show one style, show a ride range of styles because youre showing your versatility as an artist.

To read the remaining interview with Rachelle where she covers bad portfolios, festivals, internships, training and gives advice to students and animators, check out Producing Independent 2D Character Animation, published by Focal Press. It can be purchased at any bookstore or online.

Producing Independent 2D Character Animation: Making and Selling a Short Film, by Mark Simon. Burlington, Massachusetts: Focal Press, 2003. 432 pages. ISBN: 0-240-80513-5.

Mark Simon founded and owns A&S Animation, Inc., an award-winning cel animation house in Florida, which develops and produces character animation for commercials, TV, training videos and the Web. He also owns Animatics & Storyboards, Inc., the largest storyboard house in the southern United States, which has provided work on more than 1,200 productions. Marks accomplishments include owning an award-winning advertising firm, being a syndicated cartoonist, production designer of film and TV, writing entertainment industry books and lecturing on both animation and storyboards. Winning more than 30 animation awards for his efforts, Mark has directed Timmys Lessons in Nature (which he sold as a TV series), My Wife is Pregnant, numerous commercials, training videos and television series special effects.