Janet Hetherington talks to professionals in the animation, TV and film industries to find out what they did before they landed their dream jobs.
The saying goes: to get to the top, you have to start at the bottom. For many professionals in the animation, TV and film fields, paying your dues -- including working at some very glamour-free jobs -- helped to pave the way to current success.
"I used to bag groceries at Safeway," says Clint Eland, president and executive producer of Mercury Filmworks. "Packing all that fresh fruit built up my forearm muscles, and that helped with my drawing," he jokes.
In fact, Eland has been involved in the production of animated television and feature films as an artist, teacher, and producer since the age of 19. But before he became the youngest faculty member to teach at Vancouver Film School, Eland worked at a company called IVS, animating crappy interactive children's videos.
"People would send in a picture of a child, and we'd put the kid's head on the character's body," Eland remembers. The quality of the photo sent was often dubious, and part of Eland's job was to try to make the picture of the child look better. "It was my first gig doing animation, doing grunt work, and it was pretty awful," Eland says.
However, Eland also cites working at IVS as having a profound effect on his career. At one point, his supervisor, Nick Vallinakis (a respected name in animation) pulled him aside and told Eland, "Be nice to everyone you meet on the way up, because you're going to meet them again on the way down." It's a lesson that, to this day, Eland remembers and passes on to his own employees.
Eland says that he was fired from the IVS job after six months. "My heart wasn't in it," he says, and notes that the Natterjack Animation Co. was located across the hall from IVS. "Steve Evangelatos was working on the Brothers Grunt, doing über-cool animation for MTV," Eland recalls with envy.
In the end, Eland learned what he didn't want to do in the animation business, which made him steer toward the business side. Today, Mercury Filmworks is actively creating quality children's entertainment, including shows like Wilbur (produced by Mercury Filmworks for Wilbur Ent. Canada) and Weird Years (produced by Mercury Filmworks for Lenz Ent., and directed by Jerry Popowich.)
Not Run of the Mill
Director Jerry Popowich, who is also a Mercury partner and evp, didn't follow his animation dream until he was 28. For the better part of his 20s, Popowich worked in a paper mill in Thunder Bay, Canada, "making the pulp for the paper he would soon be drawing on."
"I always wanted to be a cartoonist or animator," Popowich says. However, apart from small gigs designing T-shirts and providing art for a local advertising company, there were no creative jobs available in Thunder Bay.
Then Popowich learned about an animation course in Ottawa. He did a drawing test and was accepted into the two-year stream at Algonquin College. Upon graduating, he went to Vancouver, working in animation but, "it was sketchy," Popowich recalls. Popowich then returned to Ottawa, where he worked at Funbag Studios for several years -- progressing from key animator, character designer and storyboard artist to director.
Later, Popowich met and partnered with Clint Eland to form digital studio Mercury Filmworks. The timing was perfect, because, as Popowich notes, "Clint knew the business side and I knew all the people."
"It's all in the timing," Popowich says.
The timing couldn't be better. Mercury Filmworks is currently celebrating its contributions to its clients' eight 2007 Awards of Excellence nominations from the Alliance for Children and Television for kid-friendly productions, including Wilbur and Weird Years. The nominated series include both live-action and animated productions, and the winners will be announced on May 31, 2007, at CBC's Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto.
Slave Girls From Beyond Infinity
For Mark Simon, owner of Animatics & Storyboards, Inc. and founder of SellYourTvConceptNow.com, his entry into the animation business actually led Simon to work in live-action for many years.
"I did an animation test at Filmation and messed up my timing, so that went nowhere," comments Simon. "Then I got to show my reel to Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera. They told me I needed a lot of work before I could work there. Reality started to set in, and I decided to work in live-action while I developed my animation."
Simon learned to design and build sets at Serrurier & Assoc. in Pasadena. "I left there to become a construction coordinator on a sci-fi film at Corman's Studio, Beyond Infinity," he remembers. "A week later, I got the actual script to find out it was really called Slave Girls From Beyond Infinity. As production started, I was made one of the art directors -- on my first film!"
"While I was designing at Nickelodeon, many years later, digital ink-and-paint started to come out and I started playing with it," says Simon. "My first professional job was producing and animating Tinker Bell for the Disney Cruise Line."
As for his current animation workload, Simon says, "We always have many storyboard jobs going on at once at Animatics & Storyboards, Inc. We're producing over five minutes of original animation for a new website concept. We're also promoting our latest short, Creepers through festivals as we finalize funding for a feature version."
An Ultra Force Entry
Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, chairman/ceo of Platinum Studios -- which boasts the world's largest independent library of comic characters -- saw his first entry into animation with the animated TV series, Ultra Force in 1995.
"It ended up being a very highly rated animated show," Rosenberg says, "but it was rough because we didn't know what we were doing and had to learn along the way."
"At the time, I was doing it as founder and president of Malibu Comics Ent.," Rosenberg explains. "But because I didn't know what I was I doing, I didn't know that when we received offers for the show from some of the networks that it was dumb to say no. But I did."
"What I wanted were partners we could market with," Rosenberg continues. "We ended up making the deal with then Bobot Action Block, where we raised all the money through licensees. We bought the timeslot and promoted it through all the comic book stores and MTV, which was very popular at the time, with an 800-number call-in for free stuff. All of this marketing stuff was easy for us, because of our comicbook industry marketing."
Rosenberg says that because there were no preconceptions about how difficult the process can be, things worked their way along. "Probably because we didn't know any of that, we ended up with strong ratings, a terrific-looking show, a toy line and a lot of different merchandising in the stores, and the show essentially paid for by licensees at the time that we wanted, on the day that we wanted," Rosenberg says.
Rosenberg notes that, overall, "it turned out to be a fantastic experience." Currently, Platinum Studios is developing several films that mix CG and live-action, such as Cowboys & Aliens and Unique at Disney and Dead of Night (based on the horror comic of the same name), Dylan Dog and many other productions. "So the experience keeps on growing," comments Rosenberg.
Cartoon Quest for a Cel-Stretcher
Oscar-winning animator Gene Deitch says that his first animation job horror story is more a "first-job-butt-of-joke" story.
"I suppose it was typical of the time -- 1946 -- when I first became an apprentice at UPA Hollywood," Deitch says. "I was given over to the technical tutelage of Bill Hurtz, who right away told me he was glad I was there to help him because he'd made a mistake on a Pan layout, and the finished art was ready for camera. The only thing that could save the scene at this last minute, he said, was the studio's Cel-Stretcher. He sent me to background artist Herb Klynn, whom he thought had it. Of course I ran to him, but Herb said that in the meantime, production manager Ade Woolery had taken it. When I dashed to Ade's office, he told me it was broken, and he'd just sent it to the camera room, where they were clever enough to repair it. And so it went. I was sent scurrying to just about everybody in the studio, trying to get my hands on that elusive Cel-Stretcher, hoping on my first day to prove my usefulness."
"Thinking back on that day, over 60 years ago," Deitch says, "I keep wishing that I'd found that Cel-Stretcher, as I've very often had the need for it!"
More recently, Fantagraphics Books compiled and published Deitch's vintage comic strip Terr'ble Thompson, restored in an all-new volume.
Chel White, partner/director, Bent Image Lab, recalls that his entry job was a good experience. "I got started as an assistant animator for music video director Jim Blashfield on a Paul Simon video called, Boy in the Bubble," White says. "Getting to know Jim was a curious thing. He would stroke his beard and come up with ideas that seem to just come out of the blue."
"I can remember an interesting assignment where I was to go out and collect a bunch of decent-sized rocks that I would then animate in 360-degree rotations," says White. "After coming back with a box full of likely candidates, Jim took a look one them and simply said, 'They need to be more rock-like.' I learned a lot from Jim."
Lately, White has been busy finishing Wind, a short film on the topic of global climate change for the organization Live Earth and Al Gore. "The film centers around an allegorical Spanish poem from 100 years ago, read by Alec Baldwin," White says. "Wind features the amazing time-lapse photography of my long-time friend and cinematographer, Mark Eifert."
Wind will screen on July 7, 2007, as part of seven live concerts taking place simultaneously in seven cities worldwide. "The event is to promote awareness and action towards curbing our dependence on carbon-generating energies," explains White.
"Super Boring" Cel Painting
Tony Leondis, director of Igor (Exodus Film Group), says that his first "industry" job occurred when he was taking some courses at a Boston Film School. "I took a job painting cels for a company that was doing the title sequence to a new network called, ironically enough, Cartoon Network," Leondis says. "I remember painting a black-and-white checkered pattern, or something like that. It was super boring and I couldn't paint in the lines well enough, so they fired me. Funny, because I don't remember ever getting paid -- I think I volunteered... kind of like that Seinfeld episode when Kramer gets fired from his volunteer job. Ah... the good 'ole days!"
"My real entry into the industry came a few years later," Leondis recalls. "I wish I had some impressive 'war story' about my entry into the business, but I don't -- thanks to a very talented director/storyteller named Brenda Chapman. Brenda was my 'story' teacher at CalArts, and I was thinking about leaving the program to get a job in the industry. Brenda offered me an internship on her movie at DreamWorks. The movie was The Prince of Egypt. There, I was mentored by Brenda, Lorna Cook, Kelly Asbury and Ronnie Del Carmen. They were very generous with their time and talent, and I will always be indebted to them. After six months I was offered a full time position. Thank God when you storyboard, you don't have to paint in the lines!"
Leondis is currently in Paris, directing Igor, a CGI movie that Exodus Film Group is producing and that the Weinstein Co. is distributing. Leondis says, "It's a world filled with mad scientists, evil inventions and... an Igor. Not just any Igor though -- an Igor who wants to be a scientist, but can't, because he was born with a hunch on his back. When he finally gets his chance to create the world's most evil weapon, something goes wrong and his monster doesn't want to be evil at all. She wants to be an actress!"
Even now, Leondis is bringing his early cel-painting education to bear seeking the new and different. "Olivier Besson and Loic Rastout are my art director and production designer (in that order). The look for Igor is going to be like nothing we have ever seen before." Leondis says that there is a new look for the project that have not yet been released. "My character designer's name is Valerie Hadida and she is amazing," Leondis comments. "We're trying to bring a fresh new look to the American market, but still keep it accessible."
Animation professional/lecturer/author Tom Sito (Drawing the Line: The Untold Story of the Animation Unions from Bosko to Bart Simpson) shares another cel painting story. "In 1976, at 19, I was hired on to the Richard William's feature film, The Adventures of Raggedy Ann & Andy, as a night shift cel painter," Sito says. "I came in when the day crew left around 5:00 p.m. and worked until 11:00 p.m. I got paid $115 a week -- take home $74. Trying to paint red polka dots on Raggedy Ann's dress and Andy's red-white and blue plaid pattern shirt had me seeing colors in my sleep on the train home at night."
"When I was promoted into clean-up with the day crew my night supervisor bid me farewell by saying: 'I'm happy for you but I'm more happy for us, because you were a pretty lousy painter!'"
8 Mile Trial
Daniel Arcana, partner, head of production, Exopolis, says that his firm's first really big job came about in 2002, when it was hired to design the website for the feature film, 8 Mile, from Universal Pictures. "Back then, we were three people working out of our houses, designing CD packages and building small websites for music artists," Arcana says.
"The Universal job came about this way: my business partner, Kat Egan, attended a big, fancy Brentwood dinner party where she ended up sitting next to Universal's head of finance. They exchanged business cards, and Kat thought that was that," Arcana recalls. "Shortly afterward, we were contracted by Interscope Records to design a website for Eminem's personal label, Shady Records. During the course of that project we got the tip-off that Eminem was about to make his acting debut in 8 Mile. I remember sitting down with Kat and telling her this was the moment to call her contact at Universal to see if he could get us into the pitch. Kat's contact got us in touch with Universal's online marketing department, who allowed us to put in a proposal. We had a week to put it together."
"We'd never done a proposal for a movie site before, but we spent the next six days working around the clock to brainstorm concepts and write out a proposal," Arcana continues. "We delivered the proposal promptly a week later, and then basically sat by the phone. I remember him calling Kat back on her cell about 48 hours later and telling her that, to his complete surprise, he thought our proposal was actually great and had a lot of really original ideas, and that we had won the job -- and that the budget was four times the amount of anything we had ever done before."
"He also told us that the vp of marketing wanted to meet with us and our 'team' in two days," says Arcana. "Well... we didn't have a team, of course, so we called all our friends and asked them come with us. We managed to get six people together, all dressed in our best clothes, and went in for the meeting. They weren't too rough on us, but they were definitely testing us to make sure we were legit before they handed over a project of that magnitude. We passed the test and got the gig, and that was the project that essentially launched our company. We've done numerous websites for Universal since then, and we've grown in staff from three to 30."
As for current work, Arcana says, "We just wrapped a redesign of all the in-flight graphics for Delta Airlines as a part of the company's overall re-brand, and we're just finishing up a completely animated TV spot for the new Sprint Pivot phone via Chiat Day NYC."
Other projects coming down the company's pipeline include an online ad campaign for Smirnoff, an on-air promo campaign and show package for a Sundance Channel series called, Live from Abbey Road, and the new T-mobile campaign for Publicis in Seattle.
"We're also working on the Major League Baseball campaign, which will run until the World Series," Arcana notes.
In Deep in the Pool
Jean Ann Wright, animation professional/author (Animation Development: From Script Development to Pitch), offers a tale from her first days at Hanna-Barbera. "I entered the animation industry through a Hanna-Barbera training program," Wright says. "I had no animation training or experience whatsoever prior to that. I had been attending a four-night-a-week company training program since February. We were trained in in-betweening, simple animation, character and background design, etc. It was mostly a basic overview of the industry."
"In May, the company hired some Canadian animation graduates, but not us," remembers Wright. "Our trainers were mystified. They told us to start taking our portfolios around to other studios. We did."
"Finally, in July, I was called in by the supervisor of all assistant animators and told that I could start work the next day," Wright says. "I was the first one from class hired that year. A day or so later a few others in the class were hired as well. The studio was extremely busy. We were hired simply because there was no one else to hire. We were placed in a room in the center of the building with about 30 or 40 other animators... no cubicles. Every so often the lights would go out in the entire building, because we were overloading the circuits. When they did, we wouldn't be able to see our pinkies in front of our faces. Our completed footage was carefully monitored. I came in early every morning, worked through most of my lunch hour and stayed late. I turned in my first three scenes. My footage was good. But I had been given one scene with tiny figures about an inch high, so that if the drawing was off even the width of a pencil line, the figures would wiggle. I didn't know that. I was given another scene with Superman landing in perspective. My drawing skills weren't yet up to that task. I was given a third scene with a propeller spinning on a kid's hat. I in-betweened the propeller, which makes it spin improperly."
"We had been given only easy scenes in class," says Wright. "The teachers had assumed that we would be shown how to do everything once we began. All three of my scenes had something wrong. One had to be completely redrawn by someone else. A few days later I was paged by the supervisor. Another assistant had been fired a couple of days earlier. I thought that I was going to be fired."
"I'm going to have to let you go,' the supervisor said. Tears started to run down my cheeks," recalls Wright. "Well, he was only going to transfer me to another department! In the new department, I received lots of help and training. And the conditions were much better. I was so lucky to get out of the assistant pool!"
Extreme Learning Curve
Mark Shimer, senior visual effects artist, Zoic Studios, says that his first job in television was at Foundation Imaging as a LightWave generalist, working on Roughnecks: The Starship Troopers Chronicles.
"I had been working in LightWave professionally for a few years in Kansas City at this point, but never on anything that could have prepared me for the breakneck pace of producing broadcast quality animation for a weekly series," Shimer says. "I had also never worked for a company large enough to have all the awesome plug-ins like Relativity and Worley Labs James K. Polk Collection that I had previously only read about in industry magazines."
Production was ramping up quickly when Shimer started, and he found himself working with the biggest, most complicated character rigs and spaceship assemblies that he had ever seen.
"I was responsible for creating automated character walk cycles and landing gear assemblies that were driven by null objects and all sorts of things that I had no idea how to do," Shimer says, "and due to the large number of artists brought on for the show, the manuals for all these awesome plug-ins were always unavailable. Needless to say, I was asking my supervisor questions all day long. It didn't take me long to notice though, that I was the only one on my team who was asking all these questions."
"At first I didn't think much about it," says Shimer, "but as several weeks went by and I was still the only one getting tutorials from my supervisor about every 20 minutes. I started to get really insecure."
"This went on for about a month," Shimer continues, "and by then I was positive that I was gonna be fired at any minute and forced to return to the Midwest with my tail between my legs.""Then it happened," Shimer recalls. "One of my teammates came to me and asked me how to use a plug-in that he was having problems with. Then another teammate had a question about a different plug-in. Slowly I started to realize that after all this time I had been pestering my poor supervisor, I had become the resident plug-in go-to guy for my team. I was even fielding questions from other teams as well."
"What had started out as a terrifying ordeal for me did finally pan out to be a really great learning experience," Shimer says, "and I consider the time I got to spend with the incredible artists at Foundation Imaging to be some of the greatest years in my professional career."
Shimer's recent projects at Zoic include The Sarah Conner Chronicles and cinematic sequences for the upcoming videogame, Halo 3.
Tech Wiz Gets the Call
For Jarrod Davis of Zoic Studios, his initial entry into "the business" started in technical support at Newtek. "I worked the phones and email for a year," Davis says, "answering questions about LightWave from users ranging from hobbyists in the Midwest, to Hollywood types, to one guy who was previzing the Rolling Stones' stage set-up using the brand-new plug-in called 'Steamer'."
Davis says that from there to Hollywood was almost a dream entry. "Through working at Newtek, I had networked with some people, and got a call offering me a job at Foundation Imaging working on Roughnecks: The Starship Troopers Chronicles," comments Davis. "When I started working, my very first task was to take a collection of surfaces that had been created up to that point, and render out small swatches of texture to be pictures in a reference library that never really got finished. It was monotonous drudgery indeed."
Davis' next job was painting cloud maps for planet "Hydora," the water planet. "This consisted of clone brushing a bunch of cloud stills into 3000x2000 cylindrical image maps," Davis remembers. "Meanwhile, being the new guy and from Newtek, I'm taking guff from everyone in the company about all of LightWave's shortcomings and failures, as if I was the cause of them! A lot of those were just people's mistaken impressions of how 'things should work,' though some of them were real. But LightWave has come a long way since then; today it's the best it's ever been!"
Davis notes that he is currently working on, "various and sundry commercial, film, and TV projects," including acting as CG supervisor on the short-lived Fox show, Drive.
Davis stills views his early years through rose-colored glasses. "I was 24, and I didn't know how things in Hollywood worked," Davis says. "I worked crazy hours, but it was all just so exciting, I didn't care! I'm more cynical now, but I still have to put things in perspective and say that of all the jobs I'm qualified to do -- which is pretty much either visual effects or lawn care -- this is by far the best!"
Animator Richard O'Meara remembers working at Midway Games when the internal cinematics team was tasked with doing the introduction to Mortal Kombat Deception. "Sadly, we let go of a bunch of people before starting the project so we were already down in manpower," O'Meara says. "Well, my boss came walking into my office and informed me that Midway had let go of one of their fx artists and that they needed me to switch from animation to fx. Mind, I had never even opened the dynamics module in Maya, so I had no clue how to do special fx for cinema. I let him know that, and his response was, 'Yeah, good luck,' and he walked off."
"You can imagine my terror... I am still a newbie to the company, they had just let go of a seasoned fx artist, and I was to pick up his torch," comments O'Meara. "It's at this point that I give a hearty thank you to the guys a Gnomon, because without their video tutorials, I would have never been able to produce the fx that I did. All in all it turned out good and the team was happy with the work I produced, but immediately after finishing that project, I requested to return to animation."
From Wedding Videos to Harry Potter
Paul Franklin, senior visual effects supervisor/co-founder of Double Negative, started out in 1989 after graduating with a degree in fine art. "The vfx and CG industry in the U.K. was very much in its infancy at the time," Franklin says, "and to make things worse, the country was in the middle of a recession, so jobs were very thin on the ground. After six months of scratching around, unemployed, I got hired by a tiny, little, corporate video start-up. It was a bit of a cowboy operation; there were only three of us. None of us had any real clue about what we were doing, and the kit was ancient 1970s vintage -inch video."
"One day a little light bulb in one of the decks broke down," Franklin recalls. "The official Sony replacement part was quite expensive so we substituted the indicator bulb from a Morris Minor. It worked okay -- for awhile! Our first proper job was editing someone's super 8 wedding footage from the 1960s. There wasn't enough money for a proper telecine transfer, so we projected the material on a bed sheet and re-recorded it with a camcorder."
"After a bit of a struggle, I cut it all to an orchestral version of the Beatles' 'Yesterday'," Franklin says. "We were paid £50 in cold cash... my boss was so excited that he shoved a tenner in my pocket and ordered me to 'get down to the pub, now!'"Franklin notes that during the year that he worked there, he got to do pretty much everything -- including shooting and editing the promos as well as answering the phones, running errands and making the tea.
"The best thing about the job was that they had an Amiga 2000 computer, and in my spare time after work, I taught myself how to use Delux Paint (2D animation) and Sculpt Animate 4D (basic polygon 3D modeling and animation package)," Franklin says. "This later stood me in good stead when I applied for a job as a junior artist at a U.K. videogame company in Liverpool called Psygnosis, which later went on to become the core development team for Sony Computer Ent. in Europe."Franklin is currently supervising Double Negative's work as lead vfx vendor for The Dark Knight, the sequel to Batman Begins. He also served as Double Negative's vfx supervisor for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
"We made approximately 950 vfx shots and a team of over 200 people," Franklin comments. "It's a bit of a contrast to the little video company -- the biggest team we ever had was four people -- but there's a lot that I learned all those years ago about self-reliance and hard work that's still relevant to what I do today."
Janet Hetherington is a freelance writer and cartoonist who shares a studio in Ottawa, Canada with artist Ronn Sutton and a ginger cat, Heidi.