In this edition of her bimonthly column, Nancy Cartwright interviews animation veteran and Annie nominee Jeff Snow, who currently runs a training program at DreamWorks.
Jeff Snow has been in animation since 1991 and has held various jobs with different studios, including layout artist, storyboard, design work, overseas supervision and head of story on several feature films. After an initial stint as key animator for the noted Batman series on Fox in the early 1990s, Jeff continued to work on television series for studios like Film Roman, Warner Bros. and Marvel. He broke into feature animation in the mid-1990s working for the Walt Disney Studios as a storyboard artist on features such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Mulan, Hercules and Tarzan. He left Disney in 1998 for DreamWorks, receiving an Annie award nomination for his work on The Road to El Dorado. His most recent DreamWorks projects include story credits on Shrek 2 and Shark Tale. Currently Jeff is running a training program at DreamWorks.
Nancy Cartwright: What was it that inspired you as a kid? What individuals? What cartoons? Did you always see yourself as an animator?
Jeff Snow: I loved comic books as a kid. I used to draw them all the time -- obsessed with super heroes. Even my bed sheets were Super Friends. I would draw abdomens. I loved this artist, Neil Adams -- he did Batman and was one of the most influential people in the comic book industry. I would try to draw exactly like certain people. I also loved the Disney cartoons, like Peter Pan, Pinocchio, Sleeping Beauty -- because of the dragon. I loved The Jungle Book. I also really loved the old Hanna-Barbera cartoons like Johnny Quest. Alex Toth did a lot of those designs and I think he is one of the preeminent animation artists [of all time]. I always wanted to work as a cartoonist. I decided at a very young age that that was what I wanted to do.
NC: When did you know that you wanted to be an animator?
JS: I’ve drawn my whole life and by the time I was eight or nine, I had read The Hobbit and knew that I wanted to do animation.
NC: How did you land your first job?
JS: I always drew, but I studied music in college and worked as a musician. After college I worked professionally as a musician in the Disnneyland bands and I met an animator. He showed me around the Disney Studios in Burbank and told me about the local cartoonist union, where I took some basic classes. It was a short “intro to the industry” course and after I finished that I got a list of all the animation studios. I put together a portfolio and beat the streets.
The first place I went was Disney and they said, “Come back in three months.” I was supporting myself by doing caricatures and cruise ship gigs as a musician. I was pretty much starving in L.A. and about to pack it in when I landed my first gig as a layout artist on Batman: The Animated Series. I was making no money, was starving, thin as a rail, and had $100 to my name, but I was working for Warner Bros.!
NC: What is your greatest challenge regarding your work?
JS: My biggest challenge is trying to please everybody (including myself!) -- to keep people motivated and give directors what they want. The work flow lines aren’t always the smoothest and that can be frustrating at times. For the most part, everybody I work with wants a great product and that is a good thing to keep in mind.
NC: Do you believe that to be an animator you should study anatomy, physics and acting?
JS: I believe you should definitely have a working knowledge of them. It sort of depends on what you are trying to focus on as an animator. It is certainly important to be able to act through your drawing. Oh, and physics doesn’t apply to the cartoon world anyway. LOL!
NC: The animation industry has a reputation for being a very tight-knit group, from writers to animators to voices. What does it take to be successful in this part of the business?
JS: Be able to work as [part of] a team. You need to be able to get along with people. You have to be flexible because it is a group effort to make these unwieldy features.
NS: Give me five “dos” and five "don’ts” regarding working in the animation industry.
JS: Dos: 1) Be flexible in your creative viewpoint. 2) Develop your ability to draw and tell stories. 3) Be cool -- you have to get along with people. 4) Understand that other people have viable viewpoints, even if they differ from yours. The more you understand others and communicate with them, the better you can get a unified vision. 5) Send me a million, whoever is reading this, c/o Nancy Cartwright.
Don’ts: 1) Don’t burn any bridges. 2) Don’t be a prima donna. 3) Don’t make the mistake of thinking the show can’t run without you -- it certainly can! 4) Don’t be so inflexible that you can’t appreciate another’s viewpoint, even if you don’t agree with it. 5) Don’t forget to send me the million dollars. Nancy is waiting.
NC: Do you think a university degree is important for someone wanting to work in animation?
JS: Not at all. Art schools can destroy more artists. Seriously, art schools could have a lot to offer, but it is very important that the instruction is useful and not invalidate people who are trying to develop their creative voice.
NC: What is your proudest artistic achievement?
JS: I really liked Tarzan when I was at Disney. I thought it was one of the better movies I worked on. One of the movies I feel my personal contribution was highest on was DreamWorks’ Over the Hedge. Generally speaking, I don’t try to think much about the shows I work on… I just try to do the best I can while I am doing it. I try to keep my integrity on whatever I am working on at the time. I don’t even see the movies I work a lot of times -- I am already on the next show.
NC: Is there anything about the industry that you would like to share?
JS: I love working with other artists. I find them inspiring and, as a group, I would love to develop a stronger unity with them. I think artists can tend to get really invalidated and burn out in this industry. Artists are the ones who are making these movies, so it’s important that they be creatively protected. These products don’t get made without artistic people and I am really proud to be one of the people who gets to do this for a living.
Nancy Cartwright is best known as the voice of spiky-headed Bart Simpson on The Simpsons. She has voiced dozens of cartoon characters in a career that has spanned more than 20 years. Currently, she can be heard as the voice of Rufus the Naked Mole Rat on Disney's Kim Possible and Todd Daring in Disney's The Replacements. To learn more about Nancy's career, listen to her audio book My Life as a 10-Year-Old Boy.