***These profiles were written by Ellen Wolff and Ramin Zahed for the April 2018 issue of Animation Magazine No. 279***
We are so proud to highlight this year’s talented, diverse and incredibly creative Rising Stars. If there’s anything that these brilliant men and women have in common, it is their passion for creating highly original animated projects that entertain and inspire audiences around the world. Animation Magazine salutes this dynamic group (presented in alphabetical order by last name) and hopes to track their amazing careers in the coming years.
The Twinkling Tree, awol animation
Animated school projects can be fantastic industry calling cards. Just ask Corrina Askin, whose Royal College of Art project Godspeak was bought by Channel Four and jump-started her toon career. “I was bursting with ideas, and whimsical characters to develop, and this gave me the confidence and support I needed,” recalls the County Tyrone, Ireland native.
Askin, who went on to create the animated show Joe and Jack and co-exec produced Castle Farm, is currently working on a charming new series called The Twinkling Tree for Paris-based distributor awol. Details are currently under wraps, but we’ll keep you posted as soon as we hear more about this project.
She is also developing a series called Louie and How to Just Be. Askin explains, “It’s about a unicorn who lives on a small island with his unsinkable friend, Bird. It’s a feel-good emotional guide about not taking yourself too seriously. Louis is wise, vulnerable, foolish, funny, vain, over-confident and lacking in self esteem, all at the same time. That’s why we love him. I post a story moment most days on my Instagram feed-corrinaaskin!”
The talented artist says the inspiration for her new work comes from her real-life adventures. “I spent some time in Paris, The City of Light, at the Irish Cultural Center of Ireland, and met all kinds of wonderful artists, writers and musicians. I found it the most inspiring place, with Louis starting as a doodle during that playful, thought-provoking time.”
Looking back at her childhood, Askin says British Saturday morning TV was a huge influence on her developing a love for animation. “It was four blissful hours of kids’ TV before my mother dispelled the magic with the hoover. Bagpuss, Noggin the Nog and The Clangers were full of completely believable whimsy and promised exquisite moments in life, yet unknown. They connected with me in a way that I still feel today, along with a distrust of hoovers!”
And what are Askin’s glorious words of wisdom for aspiring animators? “Get inspired, travel, talk to interesting people, do new stuff, create and go to the markets,” she offers. “Create the stuff that brings you joy and makes you happy. If it’s authentic and true, it will connect with someone else — hopefully, a commissioning editor!”
Poles Apart (National Film and TV School)
When Paloma Baeza accepted the BAFTA for Best Animated Short Film, it focused major attention on her fledgling animation career. Her award-winning stop-motion film, Poles Apart, was her graduation film from Britain’s National Film and Television SchooI. Yet, she was hardly a newcomer, having acted in many projects and also directed live-action shorts. “I do come from live action,” she says. “But I always had a love of animation, and I made puppets to experiment with. Eventually I decided to apply to the NFTS, which runs an incredible animation masters course.”
The mother of two was accepted, and paired with students from other filmmaking disciplines to make the 12-minute Poles Apart, which took 15 months of work. The short is an enemies-become-friends tale of a grizzly bear meeting a polar bear in the melting arctic wilderness, with comic — and poignant — results. Baeza was inspired to write the script after learning that habitat loss from climate change is actually making such encounters possible.
“My desire was to make a film that had humor and strong characters, with a universal message as its backdrop,” she notes. “It was completed in 2017 and has screened at festivals all over the world. It won The MacLaren Award at Edinburgh Film Festival, the Best Short Animation prize at the Rhode Island Film Festival, and the Annie Award for Best Student Film. That says something about the range of audiences that have responded to it— from film festival audience awards to jury prizes.”
Baeza’s idea was realized with characters built by acclaimed puppet-makers MacKinnon & Saunders (ParaNorman, Fantastic Mr. Fox) and her script attracted veteran British actors Joseph May and Helena Bonham Carter to voice them. “Luckily, the puppets were very good actors,” Baeza jokes. “Attracting great actors to animation is probably an easier task than in live action, since the time commitment is pretty small. As long as the script is interesting, you can aim very high in terms of talent.”
Her polar bear has since enjoyed a second life as the dancing star of a music video for “Sex Music,” by Geoff Barrow’s band Beak. (Barrow previously scored Ex Machina for Baeza’s writer-director husband, Alex Garland.) Unlike Poles Apart, she did everything for the video in her basement herself. Baeza explains, “It was hugely liberating animating lights, creating strobe effects, and generally trying out different trippy things.” Wherever her stop-motion ambitions take her next, she is certain of one thing: “Animation is a marathon, not a sprint.”
Via (Blue Zoo Animation)
Growing up, Blue Zoo Animation concept artist Izzy Burton was obsessed with Disney’s 101 Dalmatians. “It’s still probably my favorite 2D animated movie, because of the sketchiness and the London environments,” she recalls. “I’ve also been a huge fan of Ratatouille and The Aristocats for the Parisian backgrounds … Come to think of it, most of the films I love are down to the environment art, which seems very fitting.”
The creative 24-year old recalls writing stories and illustrating them even as a child, growing up in the Cotswolds of England. After attending Bournemouth University, Burton realized that she could merge her passion for computers and the arts and pursue a career in CG animation. Before long, she landed a job as concept artist at BAFTA-winning U.K. studio Blue Zoo, where she directed the acclaimed short Via, a painterly, poetic take on a man’s journey through life.
“I love that I’m doing something I didn’t even think was possible for me to do,” says Burton. “I’ve always worked hard, but I feel so completely lucky every day to be a concept artist and have the opportunities I do to direct my own short film. I see so many talented people struggling to find jobs, so the fact I’m here it’s crazy — literally living a bizarre but amazing dream.”
Via’s great reception has encouraged Burton in many ways. “I’d spent so many years trying to be cool and like everyone else, only to realize that it was my kookiness and bonkers ideas that made me me,” she admits. “The response from Via taught me that my way of seeing the world isn’t all that crazy or airy-fairy, and I’m starting to trust in my ideas more.”
Burton says she hopes to direct more short films, and even try her hand at live-action projects in the future. “At the moment, there’s a big commotion over female directors, and I’d love to be one of the next generation of women directors that helps the industry change and progress.”
Apple & Onion (Cartoon Network)
“In the initial stages of creativity, I try to remember to just do whatever comes to me, because that is me and that is my voice, whether I like it or not,” says George Gendi, the creator of Cartoon Network’s charming new limited-run series Apple & Onion. “If I can do anything better than anyone else, it is to be me, because no one else is me. I can test it on other people later!”
The 35-year-old Egyptian-born artist first realized he wanted to work in animation when he took an illustration/animation course at Kingston University. Upon graduation, he got his first big break doing storyboards for The Amazing World of Gumball.
“At the end of the first season of Gumball, I saw a little illustrated story that my older brother roughed out about an apple who decided to leave his tree and follow his dreams to the big city,” recalls Gendi. “I developed the idea and wrote and storyboarded an animated film. After I finished the board, I realized that the film would take a very long time to complete with the limited resources I had, so I gave the short red apple a tall green spring onion friend, changed it into a show pitch for Cartoon Network and took the plunge.”
Gendi, who cites Aardman’s Creature Comforts as one of his favorite animated projects, says he hopes to continue forward in the direction he’s going. He adds, “I don’t even know what’s around the next corner!”
Mr. Magoo (Xilam)
French animation director and storyboarder Hugo Gittard has worked on many of Xilam Studio’s popular toons, including Space Goofs, Oggy & the Cockroaches, Go West: A Lucky Luke Adventure and Zig & Sharko. But his career kicked into high gear recently when he began directing episodes of the studio’s much-heralded new adaptation of Mr. Magoo.
After studying at the Maximilien Vox School of Printing and Graphic Arts, and graduating from the Duperré School of Applied Arts, Gittard jumped at the chance of creating characters for Xilam. Before long, he was writing and directing the studio’s other new properties Rintindumb and Mr. Baby. He then created and directed Xilam’s Hubert & Takako, a show about a clean-cut pig and his hyperactive best friend, a fly.
“I first became interested in animation when I saw Akira at the Annecy festival back when I was a student at art school,” Gittard tell us. “My first big break was when I was hired to design characters for Xilam’s Space Goofs.”
Gittard says working with an iconic character like Mr. Magoo has been both challenging and fulfilling. “Magoo is the ideal character for which to create absurd misunderstandings and crazy visual gags. Defying the laws of physics and logic is always a big pleasure for a cartoonist. The key is to reinvent and modernize the characters, while keeping the fantasy of the characters alive.”
Noting that his animation idol is SpongeBob SquarePants creator Stephen Hillenburg, Gittard says he loves the spirit of teamwork that film and TV animation encourages. “I also think that it’s most important to dare to do the impossible to succeed in art. The best advice is to practice your design in the academic style. Once you get it, try to find your own personality and don’t hesitate to get off the beaten tracks. Always remember that a cartoonist is a performer!”
Chris and Shane Houghton
Big City Greens (Disney Channel)
Comic-book fans know Chris and Shane Houghton as the creators of the popular bear-riding cowboy Reed Gunther. This summer, a new audience will be introduced to their mad genius when their show Big City Green debuts on the Disney Channel. Executive produced by Emmy winner Rob Renzetti (Gravity Falls), the series centers on a mischievous country boy named Cricket Green, who moves to the big city with his sister, Tilly.
“Ever since we were little, we’ve always loved reading comics and watching Saturday morning cartoons,” says Shane. It was their successful comic-book series that led to their work on Nickelodeon’s Harvey Beaks.
“Reed Gunther opened a lot of doors for us and eventually led to working in animation,” notes Shane. “The show is loosely based on our lives. We grew up in the country with dirt roads, corn fields, and lots of animals. When we moved to Los Angeles, it was a huge culture shock and took some getting used to. Lots of folks have had a similar experience, so hopefully they can relate to the Green family finding their way in Big City.”
The brothers are quick to offer some tips for animators. “Make stuff!” says Shane. “Chris and I started making short films, then comics, and eventually TV pilots together. We learned from every project we completed, and each project informed the next. Anyone who wants to go into a creative field should start making stuff today!”
The Houghtons believe that the people working in the animation business make it all worthwhile. “Animation just seems to breed good folks!” says Shane. “I may be biased, but the crew of Big City Greens is filled with the most delightful and talented people who inspire us with their great work every day.”
So, what is it like to work with your brother every day? “It’s awesome!” says Chris. “Shane is my favorite writer. He’s smart, incredibly talented, and a lot of fun to work with!” Shane agrees without missing a beat. “And Chris has great taste!” [Note: They both high five!]
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (Sony Pictures Animation)
Having grown up obsessed with comic books and animation, Miguel Jiron is thrilled to be working on Sony Pictures Animation’s upcoming Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse feature. The 33-year-old storyboard artist says the characters and ideas he gets to play around with in the film are a total dream. “I’m really honored being part of this team to bring Miles Morales into features,” he tells us. “As a first-generation immigrant, it’s very meaningful for me to see characters like Miles out there — not only being a hero, but being Spider-Man. That’s a very inspiring idea.”
The Baton Rouge native says he became interested in animation thanks to Disney movies and Looney Tunes cartoons. “I drew compulsively throughout my childhood, lots of Uncle Scrooges, Roger Rabbits and my own characters,” he says. “As I grew older, I became more interested in filmmaking and contemporary art, but at some point, I wanted to make my drawings move and tell stories. I eventually went full circle and went to graduate school for animation at USC, focusing on story art.”
Jiron started working as a story artist right out of grad school, landing a job at Illumination Entertainment on The Secret Life of Pets. “My portfolio wasn’t particularly the strongest, but I think the roundabout way I settled into animation intrigued them, along with my personal work,” he says. “I learned so much working there.”
In the future, Jiron hopes to finish producing and co-directing his horror-comedy short set in the backwoods of Louisiana about body swapping and a coven of chickens.
He is also generous with helpful tips for animation job-hunters. “I’ve found that having a unique point of view and personal sensibility that rings loud and clear in your work is even more important than your portfolio,” Jiron offers. “Not only will your personal work reflect you and your voice, it’s also the fastest way of learning skill and craft!”
Slug Riot (Cartoon Hangover)
The new Cartoon Hangover series Slug Riot is about a guitarist “reeking of failure and sewage who returns to his hometown full of fans who want him dead to save his sister from following in his moldy footstep.” Mike Rosenthal, the brilliant 27-year old who came up with that awesome concept, says he knew he wanted to get into animation in middle school. “In math class, I figured out my TI-83 calculator lets you draw on graphs, so I’d save graph drawings and make a program that displayed certain graphs to do little animations,” he recalls. “And I still got an A in that class. I’m very good at algebra!”
The Bucks County, Pennsylvania native also spent a lot of time watching Nick shows and online toons such as Homestar Runner and Weebl & Bob. “Early Adult Swim was also really big for me,” Rosenthal admits. “Basically, anything that was weird and beautiful and made me feel like being weird and beautiful was important. Now that I’m a sophisticated adult I just watch Frasier.”
Rosenthal wrote and drew comics for his college newspaper, and he turned one of those strips into a short for Frederator’s Cartoon Hangover back in 2013. He says, “That was my first big break, and I pitched the short in a cold email. Turns out you don’t necessarily need to know anyone or anything to get something made!”
Slug Riot is actually based on some of Rosenthal’s own experiences of being in a short-lived punk band as a teen. “We couldn’t even get into the school talent show because we were so bad,” he remembers. “The show is also about my hometown and my family, in an abstract way — except all the covered bridges stuff. Bucks County is famous for old covered bridges and nothing else.”
What does he love about working in animation? “There was a moment during the character design stage of Slug Riot where we had to discuss what a character’s butt looks like,” he says. “It was Very Deadward’s butt, which peeps out of his pants. Someone paid me to critique a butt. It’s in the budget somewhere. ’On this day, for several minutes, Mike will be paid X amount of the budget to critique a butt!’”
Noelle Stevenson recalls the first movie she saw in theaters. “It was DreamWorks’ The Prince of Egypt, and I was obsessed with it,” she says. “My parents were pretty strict about what I could and couldn’t watch, so I couldn’t watch the Disney princesses — except for Cinderella — but for some reason, Scooby-Doo made the safe list!”
While studying illustration at the Maryland Institute College of Art, she created the popular Nimona webcomic, which was then turned into a graphic novel and optioned by Fox Animation in 2015, followed by the Eisner Award-winning LumberJanes comic. After moving to L.A., she was approached to write an episode of Bravest Warriors, which led to a writing gig on Craig McCracken’s Wander Over Yonder at Disney TV. “I was 22 and had no idea what I was doing, but they gave me a shot, and I’m so grateful for it,” she tells us. “It was a great experience and I miss that show all the time.”
These days the talented 26-year-old Columbia, South Carolina native is busy running one of the hottest shows of the year: the upcoming Netflix reboot of She-Ra. “I’ve always been hungry for fantasy and sci-fi that heavily featured women,” says Stevenson. “She-Ra was ahead of its time in that sense, and we still don’t see action/adventure with female leads nearly as much as I would like these days. That’s starting to change, which is very exciting. It’s the perfect moment for She-Ra to return!”
Stevenson love all the possibilities that a mostly female cast open to the creative team. “We’re not constrained to having only aspirational female characters, they can be heroic and villainous and silly and emotional and angry and loud and strong and weak — you know, human.” So, what can fans expect to see in the new series? “Rainbows, spaceships, pirates, sparkles, tears, robots, magic, technology, mystery, mythology, teen angst, and just so many super-powered princesses,” she promises. “Just so many!”
When Marion Strunck was a young girl growing up in Hanover, Germany, she was fascinated by the fantasy creatures in Harry Potter movies and loved the slapstick humor of Donald Duck comics. Years later, after she took a 3D animation class by Kyle Balda (Minions, Despicable Me 3, The Lorax), she began to realize the possibilities of working in animation. After graduating from the Animation Workshop in Denmark, she began interning for Framestore, working on the first Paddington movie. Following the gig, she was hired as a junior animator. “I have been on several shows since then, although the biggest part of my career as been working on this year’s Mowgli movie by Andy Serkis,” says Strunck. “Now I am even leading a team of lovely animators on this movie!”
Strunck says one of the best parts of her job is working with passionate, perfectionist artists. “The projects often have incredible stories and characters which you can be part of and form and develop,” she notes. “My teammates are from all over the world. That’s why we are a big, fun mix of creative, imaginative, curious artists. Plus, I love brainstorming sessions at the pub!”
The hard-working 26-year old says she hopes to advance her skills and develop more of an overview of the whole film pipeline in the near future. “The great thing about animation is that you can do anything imaginable, everything is possible. At some point, I would love to make my own film.”
Strunck, who counts Glen Keane, James Baxter, Andreas Deja and Doug Sweetland as her idols, says it’s important to know the basics and keep practicing in order to succeed in animation. “You should never give up. Once you know your animation principles, you can build on those and build a library of movements in your head from references that you analyze,” she says. “I think it is important to explore lots of different styles of animation and experiment too. Be patient, young Padawan!”
Aquarium, Mr. Carefree Butterfly (CalArts)
Throughout his childhood, Yonatan Tal was always known as the kid who drew. He even created little animated projects using PowerPoint slides back when he was in elementary school in Israel. “Every kid loves animation, but I was clearly obsessed,” says the 27-year-old animator. “I totally wore out my VHS tapes of Space Jam, Toy Story and A Bug’s Life!”
Citing Chuck Jones, Brad Bird, James Baxter and Edgar Wright as some of his idols, Tal says his work is often influenced by live action and other art forms, as well as observations from his daily life. “I love the idea of being able to imagine something and then bring it to life with only a pencil and a paper,” he says. “There is this idea that being an animator is like playing God. To me, creating animated films or just animating characters is more like giving birth to a lot of little kids. They are all vague reflections of who you are or a combination of you and your team. Hopefully you end up being flexible, accepting them and loving them for who they are.”
Tal got his first big break during his second year at CalArts, where his gay-themed short Aquarium received much praise and festival awards. “It was based on a very fragile time in my life when I had a relationship while still being in the closet,” he recalls. “For me, the actual achievement was receiving personal messages from strangers who watched the film and how it affected their lives. It’s empowering to realize that something I created can make a positive difference in people’s lives.”
For the next 10 years, he hopes to be experimenting with new technologies and storytelling methods. “I want to be where great, innovative and honest content is created,” he says. “I’m personally tired of trite Hollywood scripts and the same old jokes. I hope that this technological evolution will bring a change in storytelling. I see myself as a part of the change in leading this transition. I am certain that in 10 years the industry will look nothing like what we know today!”
As final words of advice, Tal says, “Just be who you are and stick to your guts. Work hard, travel, have some life. Go through rough times, it makes good art. And spend less time on Instagram!”
Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck-It Ralph 2 (Disney)
Moving up the ranks at Disney Animation — the studio that’s won three of the past four Oscars for Best Animated Feature — means proving you merit. So, it’s notable when an animator gets tapped to be the art director of characters on her first feature film assignment. That’s just what happened to Ami Thompson with her gig on the studio’s 2018 feature Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck-It Ralph 2. Working with director Rich Moore, an Oscar winner for Zootopia and nominee for Wreck-It Ralph, finds Thompson pinching herself. “Since it’s my first feature, when Cory Loftis, the production designer, offered me the position, I couldn’t believe it. It was April 1, so I thought, ‘Is this a prank?’”
Not a surprising reaction, given that Thompson’s only prior Disney credit was as character designer on the animated short Inner Workings. Of course, she’d been mentored by veteran Disney animator Mark Henn (Mulan, Big Hero 6) during an internship while she attended Sheridan College. She also interned previously at Studio Ghibli, so she had seen animators working at the highest level. Still, when she landed the job at Disney three years ago, Thompson admits that she wondered if she was good enough to make it there. “But I got to work with Mark Henn again, and be surrounded by inspiration from him and other animators.”
Her work confirmed that she was up to the job. Thompson not only contributed character designs to Inner Workings, but the film featured her hand-drawn animation as well. “At Sheridan, I had learned mostly 2D, but I also learned the basics of CG, since I knew the animation industry was moving to CG.” Now her role on Wreck-It Ralph 2 puts Thompson in the thick of 3D, handling the beloved title character and his sidekick Vanellope as they venture beyond the confines of arcade games onto the internet.
“Before this film, Ralph was designed in a classic ‘big ape’ style in a game world,” notes Thompson. “This time, it’s a new world that is so big, and there are so many random things. We wanted to reflect that in the designs, and take these beautiful characters to the next level.”
A visit to Thompson’s Instagram page reveals that she’s a gamer herself, and clearly a digital native. “I do feel related to this movie,” she says. “Not just games, but the internet. That always comes with me.”