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An Intern’s Story: What I Wish They Taught in School

John Cawley speaks candidly with various interns regarding what they wish they taught in school now that theyve gotten a taste of the working world.

Work is never quite what you think it will be when you first start out. Photo courtesy of iStockPhoto.

For years companies have used intern programs to give students a chance to see the workings of a business. Animation studios are no different, as several offer programs to expose animation students to the rigors of studio production. One such studio is Cartoon Network, in Burbank. And one such intern is Intern X.

This year, Intern X begins his senior year at an animation school in Burbank, California. The schools curriculum includes both handmade and computer animation. The school has a teaching staff of retired animation veterans and professionals still in the business. Along with classes, Intern X works part time at an art supply store.

So far my classes have included Storyboard, Character Design 1, Animal Drawing, Animation Drawing, Gesture Drawing and Speed Drawing (from beginning to intermediate to advance). At his school, Gesture Drawing is being used in lieu of Life Drawing. Working with live models, the artists do quick sketches of the gestures done by the models, eventually working up to full figure sketching. Animal Drawing was a weekly trip to the Los Angeles Zoo. Each session included discussion on animal structure as well as sketching animals in the zoo. For the final, we had to come up with our own animal design. I mixed an elephant with a chameleon.

Ive also taken Computer Animation. Were working with Maya and they have us doing character design, rigging and finally putting in the joints and making the character move. But Im not very much into CGI. I feel the problem with computer animation is the computer does too much of the work. Look at the old school animation of classic cartoons like Tom and Jerry or even silent cartoons. You can see the love and work put into each drawing. Some of the expressions are amazing. I like that. With the computer you have a character and you just click here and click there to make it move. Computer cartoons are fun to watch. They just dont have the personal touch.

One of my favorite classes was Illustration. It was very free spirited. The instructor would suggest an idea, like the three pigs. You would come up with the concept and design a poster. You could use any media you wished like charcoal or watercolor. I did a lot of watercolor and really learned about color. I also got a lot of feedback on creating strong composition, use of color for mood and emphasis and how to create a style, etc.

Over the summer of 2005, Intern X was accepted into the intern program at Cartoon Network. He worked directly with the Production Development department. That is the division that oversees production of shorts and animatics being evaluated for possible series. It offered Intern X a chance to interact with a variety of talents and facilities used in the production of TV animation.


After working at the studios, interns quickly learn that theres more out there than just classic Disney and Warner Bros. animation. Pinocchio image © Walt Disney Enterprises. Looney Tunes image © Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Animation.

I didnt even know there was an intern program at Cartoon Network. I had actually gone to the studio to drop off my portfolio and discovered they had an intern program. In fact, after I found out about it, I told a lot of friends. They began signing up for the program also.

I didnt know much about Cartoon Network shows as I hadnt really watched much of the network. I was more exposed to the Warners and Disney cartoons as I grew up. About all I knew of Cartoon Network was their style. Cartoon Network looked so 2D, so flat. When I began working there, I did a lot of photocopying of art and storyboards. I suddenly saw that each show and each creator really had a different look. I mean, they were all in a similar 2D style, but each artist used it in a very unique way. It surprised me how much variety you could get. One creator used it effectively on a dark, gothic-style project, while another was able to get a goofy, silly style. Some filled the art with details, while others kept the designs really clean.

The insight of actual studio production gave Intern X a new perspective on his teachings. At school, we are shown a style of art and then simply taught to follow the standard use. At Cartoon Network I discovered that any style could be adapted into many variations that would allow the artist to make a completely unique look. I think the teachers at school dont take the time to show students how much variety there is in each type of animation.

Intern X particularly learned how his schools discussion of production varied from the way an actual production gets completed. The thing they stress at school is once you get into a studio, you will have to work in a team. The teachers tell you that you never have a lot of control. You have to follow everyone else. But at Cartoon Network, I could see it is really more about communication. Everyone is talking with everyone. Even if you may not be in charge of the show, many of the creators are interested in hearing the opinions of those on the show. There is so much information. Most of the folks there encourage and welcome comments from other people in the studio. It surprised me.

The studio also showed me how everyone specializes. At school, you have to do everything. In studios, you need to be more focused on a specific skill. There are those who just do color or just do character design or just do clean up. You do find folks who can work in all sorts of areas, but most of the time they are working on one task on one show. It would really help if the schools offered more advanced classes in specific areas like storyboarding or character design. Those are areas that really affect the final show.

I think the thing I learned most, and I wish it was more evident in school, is the amount of people and work needed on the technical end. I went to recordings, and was amazed at how much work it was to get things recorded. There are contracts, voice people, scripts, booth techs, pick-ups and ADR. And during the recordings the actors do take after take after take and there is even re-writing of lines. It is so much more work and coordination than I expected.

And I attended an audio mix. Again I saw how much effort and how many people were involved. At school, we just use a friend or classmates to put together an audio track. At a studio you are shown how they build up multiple effects tracks, place dialogue, work with music and more. Like recording, there are a lot of things to consider. I wish the school went more into all the details and skills in these outside aspects.

Artistically, there are differences too. I learned a lot about storyboarding. My instructors always push to use lots of angles, and to break down all the poses. They tell you to avoid medium shots. When I got to Cartoon Network, I found some shows use lots of medium shots, with just an occasional cut in. This is especially true with the shows in Flash. However the action shows at Cartoon Network do break down more of the poses and use more angles.

At school, they teach it is more about always keeping things visually moving, while in production it is about how to tell the story. At school, they give you rules about what to do or what not to do when doing storyboards. But here, actually seeing how the artists tell the stories, you see there are lots of ways to get an idea across. Sometimes they do it by breaking a rule.

This year I will be taking more computer animation. I will also complete a final short film, around two minutes long. If we have time, well drop in some dialogue, after the animation has been done. The film is not in color. But with all the things Ive seen at Cartoon Network in storyboard pitches, I think I have a better idea of how to get more out of the time I have to work on the board. At a studio, you dont have a lot of time, so you learn how use that time to get more out of the drawings you do have time for.

Having been through years of schooling, and some real production experience, Intern X is hoping his future will lead to a career in design or storyboarding.

One thing I found at Cartoon Network was how the job situation works. When one show is done, you have to find another show to work on. I also saw that a lot of freelance artists are used.

Hands-on experience encourages even action fans of Batman to find a love for younger-oriented comedy like Fosters. Batman image © Warner Bros. Animation. Fosters image © Cartoon Network.

I want to eventually work in storyboard or character design. My favorite cartoon character of all time has been Batman in the Warner Bros. shows. I hope to be able to eventually work at Warners or Disney.

Actually, since being at Cartoon Network, I have had a chance to see more of their shows. In fact, I find Fosters Home For Imaginary Friends to be very funny. I like the designs and look of the show. Again, it surprises me how unique a show can look, even when the style is simpler than say a Disney feature. But I still would like to be at Disney.

Perhaps the strongest advantage of these programs is the ability they give a student to interact with folks in the business. Every how to find a job seminar or book will tell you the key to finding employment is through contacts. It is in this area that intern programs can prove their largest benefit.

When I first came to Cartoon Network, I thought, Im an intern and Ill just be doing a lot of copying and not be noticed. But once there, I found everyone so open. I got to meet all sorts of creators and artists and production people. Everyone seemed interested in helping. And I got to talk directly with so many folks doing what I want to do. I mean at school, the instructors are all professionals, but they are often giving information and not a lot of feedback. At the network, I actually watched the creators design characters, do boards and paint backgrounds. And I could spend time not only talking about what they were doing but why. I could even talk about what they like, what they want to do and such. I really got to know the people.

Intern X hopes to get a second intern assignment after he has finished another year in school. By then, he hopes to have built up a stronger portfolio that he can show around the studio as he works. Between what he learns at school, and what he observes at the studio, he should be well prepared for a career in animation.

John Cawley is a producer of animation (television and features) at Cartoon Network Studios in Burbank. John is also a writer ( Dexters Lab, Bugs Bunny, Disney Features), an author ( Encyclopedia of Cartoon Superstars, Cartoon Confidential), an editor ( Get Animated!), a publisher ( Faster! Cheaper!), a lecturer and a performer.