I’m primarily a character designer. I watch films for the characters and study costumes and sets during exhibition scenes. However, I also love film, especially short form and music videos. Design is enhanced when it is moving and I love to make short films. My powers are limited, however. I am not good at Falstaff archetypes. I left Hollywood before I was fully trained because the industry was leaning in that direction. I think characters should admirable, so you won’t find a Homer Simpson or Peter Griffith among in Animatress’ repertoire. You’ll find Fry Farnsworth and Dilbert in the studio work layout archive, but please, Animatress specializes in joy and beauty, not catharsis.
My favorite studio jobs have been as a designer. Warner Bros. spoiled me, but good. While it’s true that one should not dwell in their comfort zone for too long, it still doesn’t do to work in genres that I am not suited for. I’ll draw everything to be my best of ability, but I can’t act for Chris Griffin. I would’ve avoided him in high school….
Lola Bunni was a stumble upon dream come true. I’ve always drawn Bugs in drag and Honey Bunny as a child, so I was thrilled to combine my comic characters Nami and Klashka and help define Lola Bunni for Warner Bros. Lola was originally written as an acerbic meter maid unhappy in her job because she was getting hit on by slime balls every time she bent over to place a ticket in a windshield. There was a smarmy lizard at first who was later supplanted by Pepe Le Pew who needed more screen time in the film. As the script evolved further and further into seemingly countless revisions, Lola’s part was whittled down to a sports bunny with no background who walks into the gym. So be it. I was not good enough at story at the time to suggest anything better. I hated the “my hero” sequence where she kisses Bugs—all girls know how guys will try to commit acts of kindness until they are rewarded with sex and I didn’t want MY character to be brought around that way. Despite everything, I put my all and my own characters into the girl sports bunny and I think she turned out well considering the obstacles and confines of the film.
My second gig was Another Goofy Movie, or as it was later named, An Extremely Goofy Movie. I was recruited to design the girlfriend of yet another classic character. People look at Beret Girl and think she was my concentration, I loved her, but no, Doug McCarthy and Dana Landsberg took care of her…my task was girl next door, Sylvia. Sylvia’s original designer was a storyboard artist who was tasked with most of her scenes. However, she was a little too much like Goofy’s sister: she was tragically tall and gangly. It makes sense, but, you don’t want a dweeb dating the hip chick. The dynamic raises suspicions of escort services, but I felt she can be a little imperfect or plain as well appealing. A nice older girl next door. Once again, my comic’s wealth of characters came to the rescue. I was developing a character based on Drew Barrymore and a few friends of mine named Tabitha Soleil. I combined and older Tabby with Madeleine Kahn’s character in Bill Cosby’s final television show, “Cosby”, for Sylvia’s demeanor and style thus Sylvia was born. Happy director, happy me. Thank you, Madeleine Kahn. If you have not returned to us by this time, Pleasant Journey.
I was also tasked to design all of the incidental characters in the coffee shop and club sequences. Right up my alley. This gig was perfect for me. I only wish my nascent professional drawing skills were more perfect for it. Perfecting one’s clean up line takes years, it can’t be forced, and unfortunately my honed clean up line didn’t show up until it darned well pleased in 2006. By that time, the hand drawn industry had shrunk like a Shrinky Dink in favor of CG.
My second and third gigs were fish out of water trench work productions. I had skipped learning character layout, by accepting the Space Jam internship over the Simpsons (where all CalArtians interned their second year at the time) and the hard lesson I was to endure for two seasons finally caught up with me. I was no favorite on these productions and I very well thought I was going to be chased out of the industry for my incompetence. Thankfully, John Kricfalusi rescued me.
The last month before Dilbert was cancelled, John’s produced hired me as a storyboard artist. I was scared to death: storyboard artists get yelled at more than any other functionary in the industry. Character layout tightens the scenes and pulls everything on model, but storyboard is the backbone of the film. Storyboarding is how productions save money by not shooting useless scenes that end up on the cutting room floor. One continuity error can ruin a shot. An unpunched joke can bore the audience. Staging exposition scenes ( which are always difficult to board in a way that is interesting) can make people start snogging in the back of the theatre or worse, change the channel! The list of responsibilities go on and on…and the most difficult director in the industry wanted me to give it a try.
Thank goodness for my comic. John wasn’t impressed with my portfolio, but a few flips through my sketchbook colored roughs for my comic and he was sold. He didn’t care about my insecurities and just gave me the script, which in a return to grace was made just for me. The Heartaches was about a girl band headed by a cute, yet oddball girl who was constantly bullied by the town queen bee and heir bitches in waiting. I boarded the sequence in two days and John thought I was terrific. It’s a pity the network gave Spumco more money to produce the Ripping Friends or I would’ve stayed. I was so spooked by my failures with male characters on Futurama and Dilbert that I thought John wanted me to go. I learned later that he did not.
Lesson, wait until you’re fired lest you fire yourself prematurely and disappoint an entire crew.
While I was toiling away on Dilbert, I noticed that #1 I needed a tax shelter and #2 there were people working on the Powerpuff Girls and Dilbert simultaneously! I certainly wanted to do that! The studio you want to work for always calls you a month after signed at a “survival studio”. So, in the summer 1999, Animatress was born. I was free to pursue girl cartoon projects with reckless abandon! Spumco was my first client with the Heartaches and Polly Pocket commercials, my second client was Mondo Media on the fabulous Piki and Poko’s Adventures in Starland. This gig taught me that working directly writers is not only best for a greater accuracy in interpreting the script, but super FUN! Rowan Cutler and Marcus Ewert and I are friends to this day because we sat around a table and acted out the scenes together. The writers of Pinky and the Brain would give table reads and liked my work, but Warner Bros. outsourced animation production from layout to post, so although the writers and board artists would’ve had a lot of fun thumb nailing our gags at table reads, what could actually be animated would be tougher to convey to an artist who lived half a world a way in Korea. This was the 90’s. Skype didn’t exist yet.
Piki and Poko is about an open-minded popular girl and an insular girl’s friendship as superheroes in an alternative universe called Starland. It was great to be back in San Francisco, my favorite city, but I was soon learn the long and hard way, that the gigs that I like do not pay and that the Bay Area will always bankrupt me. I never should’ve given up my LA apartment. If I hadn’t, i would’ve re-entered the LA animation industry in seamless synchronicity instead of banished to the periphery. LA is the region of training budgets and the studios don’t cotton to an investment running away just because she doesn’t like to draw dumpy looking boys.
No matter, I learned a lot wherever I went. While the sea change of animation industry wrecked countless livelihoods, I worked in retail which reinstated my humility and earned my masters. During that time I worked as an art director on a few projects, which honed my story skills. Storytime Pictures was helmed by a director who worshipped Miyazaki who is rumored to not work with a script. Little did the director realize that Miyazaki had a long career as a director on the famous Lupin III series, therefore structuring a story was was well in his muscle memory. The director dug in his heels anyway insisting we revise the story using boards instead written revisions of the first draft of the script. So, I drew upon my sophomore the junior year story development assignments from CalArts and structured Jules Marino’s script. It would begin a greater appreciation and understanding of storytelling for me—but also a hard lesson in how quickly an art director is expected to produce results from their crew. No one had the same story assignment which was industry standard. The younger crew was open to developing a production bible (so learned in second year story) but some new managers who came onto the crew too recently for me fully acknowledge their significance, wrecked my efforts and the director and producer was not around to aid my rebuttal.
Lesson: Roget’s Rules of (whatever it is) states that all managers must have meetings before advancing stages in corporate life. Not to do so, disrupts synchronicity and bruises egos. It also gets managers fired for “creative differences”. All over a missed meeting, after another meeting, after another meeting.
Now you know why it takes so long for recruiters to follow up on your submissions….it’s rare for key players to be in the same room at once!
Animatress’ long first decade was arduous and sporadic. Grad school was expensive, but it taught me work life balance (CalArts was monastic) and rejuvenated my image in the minds of directors in search of cheap recent graduates with fresh technical knowledge. In the end the Academy of Art opened the door for THE opportunity to work for my ultimate studio: The Sesame Workshop.
The Sesame Workshop is like working at an open life drawing studio: anything goes. Techniques are not set in stone, production structure is looser, which seems like fun until one noticed that it takes a director and producer 45 minutes to convey ideas. I would thumbnail storyboards of their intent in a fraction of that time. The Sesame internship was a true internship, low paid. I starved for The New Electric Company on $35 a day. However, as an intern one gets to know production admin who you only get to see the
tail end of and in blurs as a well paid trench artist. There is also more opportunity for advancement. Low pay, high perk. I graduated from being an intern living in a Central Harlem room to working from home in Nevada as a contributor: I was granted the commission to make two films. An independent animator’s dream. The starving of the summer of 2009 and murderous Central Harlem roommates and bed bugs were worth it. Animatress earned a bump up with my name on two Emmy nominations. Not bad…Not bad.
Animatress still accepts commissions from studios, but for the sake of taxes, I prefer to be a statuary employee for studios for longer projects. The next chapter of studio work is as a game artist. While film is impacted and shrinking, games are expanding. Newgent, D2C Games and Kizzang have taught me the less really more and the effort lies int he sparkle punch in the eye. Like the Sesame Workshop, there is room for 2D artists in games, but the newer managers either don’t know or don’t think to ask for pre-production artists. Furthermore, the new generation calls pre-production artists by different titles of their own. Visual development artists are illustrators, story artists DESPERATELY need to replace the 45 minute instructional lecture creative directors speel off and expect you to remember—to every last nuance and game design documents need script trained writers and again storyboard artists.
Lesson: Directors aren’t gods. Stand up for yourself by not regarding them as divine and call them out on their mistakes.
The adventure moves on. It’s observed that animators die at their desks. This animator, on the hand, intends to drill through one last stint into her fifties, this time as a producer so I can retire as securely as accountants who have the power to bolt out of their offices like bats out hell at the stroke of 5pm.
2 thoughts on “Film Studio Work”
This was a beautiful. A stark description of the immense hardships faced by someone who has become what many people dream becoming adorned with their aspirations and skilled art. Your work is really fantastic.