2013’s crop of up-and-coming animators proves there’s still room for originality and inventiveness in the toon landscape.
Co-director, The BoxTrolls (LAIKA)
When Graham Annable began his stint at Portland studio LAIKA in 2006 as a storyboard artist on Henry Selick’s Coraline, he probably didn’t guess that in a few years he’d be co-directing the studio’s much-buzzed-about third feature, The Boxtrolls. The Sheridan College graduate had spent many years directing popular videogames such as Star Wars: Obi-Wan, Sam and Max: Culture Shock and Bone: Out of Boneville. The chance to storyboard on Coraline brought him to Portland, which also led to work on the studio’s 2012 acclaimed hit ParaNorman.
“It’s been exciting and terrifying at the same time,” says Annable, who is co-helming Boxtrolls with Anthony Stacchi. “I tell people that while doing storyboards, I got really good at flying paper airplanes, and now I’m in cruise control of a Boeing 747. It’s been a massive learning experience but everyone has been really supportive and unbelievably exciting.”
A life-long fan of Charles M. Schulz’ Peanuts comic strip as well as the dramatic films of Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch, Annable says he always loved drawing cartoons.
“I also loved film, so animation was the perfect mix of the two—creating something with sound and music,” he says. “I had been doing some comic books too, and that’s what led Henry Selick to bring me on board to work on Coraline.”
The new film, which is based on a children’s book by Alan Snow, centers on a young orphan who is raised by cave-dwelling trash collectors and his battle against an evil exterminator. Annable says the film’s amazing characters had him hooked from day one.
“I remember how Tony [Stacchi] and I worked together in the beginning to board out some sequences in the early stages of the movie, and it was such a blast. The big hook was always the wonderful concept and the unforgettable characters.”
Comparing 2D and CG animation with stop-motion animation, Annable says he has always been in awe of the labor-intensive process.
“Animation is hard, no matter how you look at it, but while stop-motion is probably the most difficult, there’s something undeniably satisfying about working with tangible characters in a real set. Everything exists. It’s all right there in front of you.”
He also believes that these are amazing times to be part of the animation world, regardless of style or format.
“If you have a good idea, you can execute it on your own and put it out there on you YouTube or other outlets,” he notes. “However, make sure you develop strong organizational skills if you ever direct a feature. As clear as any idea may seem in your head, you will have to step through many, many logistical challenges along the way to realize your vision.”
Director, The Day My Butt Went Psycho (Nelvana)
Matt Ferguson’s official entry into the animation world happened pretty early on his life: He was only 12 when he got into a special children’s animation workshop which allowed kids to create a two-minute cartoon at Canadian kids TV network YTV.
“My dad had managed to get transferred to the Toronto office for the summer so he and I could live out of the Days Inn, and I’d spend my days cutting out paper dolls and moving them frame by frame under the Super-8 camera,” he recalls. “The coolest part was that at the end of it, our cartoons aired on YTV and we were in the TV Guide and everything.”
That summer, Ferguson got bit by the animation bug in a major way.
“I hounded every bookstore for copies of books by Preston Blair and Shamus Culhane,” he says. “I started making cartoons in my basement. Now 22 years later, I’m working for a company that includes YTV and I’ve been able to make ever more cartoons for the network. I’m even in the TV Guide…well, the digital TV listings. It’s not quite the same but it’s still cool!”
After studying animation at Sheridan College, Ferguson got his first big break through Nelvana’s internal pitching program. He created a short series called Harold Rosenbaum: Chartered Accountant Extreme which he describes as a noir-inspired serial, animated in the style of cheap ’70s era superhero shows. That led to directing gigs on popular Nelvana shows such as Grossology, Spliced and most recently Scaredy Squirrel.
His latest project is the hilarious The Day My Butt Went Psycho, which is based on the books by Aussie author Andy Griffiths.
“It’s about a time when the butts of the world have had enough being on the bottom so they separate from humans to take their rightful place in society,” he explains. “So, you know, it’s a period drama!
“It’s been a fun show to work on, and a big challenge to draw walking, talking butts in a way that’s going to work for children’s TV. At its heart, the show is a crazy comedy about a boy and his butt—what’s not to love about that?”
The talented 34-year-old director admits that he’s a real animation junky.
“I’ve loved Chuck Jones and Looney Tunes for as long as I’ve loved the National Film Board of Canada and Norman McLaren,” he says. “I don’t really make a distinction between the highly commercial and the highly personal. In fact, I really admire the artists who are able to make a personal mark in a commercial space. Trust me, it’s hard! The exciting thing for animation fans like me, is there is a lot of this going on right now. Pendleon Ward, Tom Moore, Henry Selick, Brad Bird, Ari Folman, Hayao Miyazaki, etc. etc. etc. are all making it happen!”
Ferguson adds that if he were forced to put forward his absolute favorite piece of animation, he’d have to go with Richard Condie’s Getting Started.
He explains, “Not only is it funny, and really well timed, it’s exactly how I feel when I sit down to work sometimes.”
When it comes to offering advice, he has this to say to those who want to pursue a career in animation.
“You just have to do it, do it, do it,” he says. “When I was a kid, I had to find an old camera, and hunt down a handful of books and photocopied notes that got passed around from animator to animator. Now it’s easier than ever to learn, make, and display your work. If this is what you really want to do, you know that the joy is in the making of stuff. So go ahead and play!”
Director, The Legend of Smurfy Hollow (Sony Pictures Animation)
Throughout the past couple of decades, Paris-born animation veteran Stephan Franck has worked on numerous acclaimed studio features from Osmosis Jones and 9 to The Iron Giant and How to Train Your Dragon, as well as the DreamWorks shorts Kung Fu Panda: Secrets of the Furious Five and Monsters vs. Aliens: Mutant Pumpkins from Outer Space. But perhaps nothing has brought him closer to his childhood days than the new Sony Animation project The Smurfs: The Legend of Smurfy Hollow. The 22-minute 2D/CG project, which will be released on DVD in September and will air on TV in time for Halloween, took the director back to his youth when he was crazy about the little blue guys.
“The Smurfs were one of the first comic books that I read back when I was seven years old in France,” he says. “The funny thing is that when I was storyboarding the second Smurfs movie, it all came back to me. I knew all the characters. I just knew what Brainy would say or what Vanity would do. It really felt like a homecoming.”
The veteran storyboard artist, who also created the popular Millimages animated TV series Corneil and Bernie, says he loves the fact the new TV special focuses entirely on the Smurfs and zeroes in on their relationships.
“It really centers on their dynamics, which is a lot like sibling rivalry. They remind me of my own kids. I tell them, yes, your siblings get on your nerves, but they’re your brother and sister, and you will always have this life-long connection. That’s what I love about the Smurfs. They have their conflicts and adventures, but at the end of the day, they would do anything to save each other from harm or danger.”
Franck, who has been with Sony Animation for over four years now, says he loved the way CG and classic 2D techniques were mixed seamlessly on his Smurfs project.
“We have all the sophistication of modern filmmaking at Imageworks, and then we also have the wonderful talent of Sergio Pablos Studio in Spain and L.A.’s Duck Studio to create the 2D animation. It’s a bit ironic, because the original TV series was just a typical Hanna-Barbera show from the 1980s, in terms of design.”
Along with The Smurfs, Franck grew up up reading Tintin books, but it was Will Eisner’s acclaimed comic book The Spirit and the Gerald Potterton’s classic 1981 anthology Heavy Metal that inspired him to create a five-minute animated short during his teen years.
“I just thought that movie was amazing,” he recalls. “I saw that movie when I was 13, and I came back home and began to build myself an animation camera right away!”
After studying animation at Gobelins, he moved to England and began working at Steven Spielberg’s Amblimation studio on films such as An American Tail: Fievel Goes West and Balto— which in turn led to more work as animator and story artist work on major studio releases.
Franck, who spends his free time working on the beautifully drawn noir Dark Planet comic-book series, Silver, is a firm believer in instilling the essential ingredients of good storytelling in every animated project.
“Techniques will change, where the movies or TV shows are made will change, but the story will always remain the heart of every successful project,” he says. “This year at the Annecy festival, I saw a lot of portfolios from students and job-seekers, and eight out of 10 wanted to be character designers. The problem is that they only need one character designer for each movie, so I’d tell them to look into becoming story artists. That’s something that will always be in demand and is very hard to find!”
Valerio Veneras & Lili Cabrera
Creator/Producers, Mr. Trance (Recreo Studio)
Madrid based animator Valerio Veneras first came up with the hilarious character Mr. Trance about 18 years ago. He wanted to create a hero who could change reality by sheer force of his imagination and music. Now that he and his Recreo Studio partner Lili Cabrera have launched the first season of the snappy 26 x 5-minute series, they’re ready to let the debonair, purple-suit-clad fellow charm audiences around the world.
The cool character first began his life as a comic-strip published in newspapers and magazines in Spain. Before long, the popularity of the comic led to a radio show on Spain’s Radio 3, as well as a graphic novel titled Tales from Sr. Trance, so creating an animated TV show based on the character seemed like a no-brainer.
“Mr. Trance is my alter ego, his life resembles mine, so I feel like a cartoon,” says the Madrid-based artist. “I’m naturally very proud of it!”
The series, which is co-produced by Recreo in Madrid and Señal Colombia in Bogotá, seems to be an instant attention-grabber.
“We guess the originality and the graphics are the show’s strength,” note the producers. “But we think that Mr. Trance is someone that everyone can relate to: He’s an urban hero with the same problems as everyone else!”
Veneras and Cabrera both have a huge fondness for the Saturday morning world of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera.
“They taught me a lot through their fantastic and charismatic characters,” says Veneras. “I will always be grateful to them for bringing characters like The Flintstones, Yogi Bear and The Jetsons to our world. I am also a big fan of DePatie-Freleng’s cartoons. Nothing was the same after The Pink Panther…Henry Mancini and the best animation team you can possibly think of…jazz and cartoons—now that’s awesome.”
Producing the 2D digital show has taught the duo certain lessons along the way.
Veneras says, “It’s important to be as free as your imagination can be. Also, before beginning any animated project, invest your time wisely in the best production schedule you can come up with.” Cabrera adds, “You also need to have a lot of patience.”
That’s something with which the ever-so-cool Mr. Trance would agree.
Creator, Golan the Insatiable (Fox ADHD)
Fox TV’s late-night ADHD block has already created a lot of buzz with its edgy, adult-oriented toons such as Axe Cop and High School USA. Audiences will be able to learn about a wonderfully twisted and new toon cast of characters when the show Golan the Insatiable debuts in January. Based on a popular web series created by Josh Miller and illustrated by Ali Horn for SomethingAwful.com, the show centers on a fish-out-of-water monster that finds himself stranded in the way-too-nice world of a Minnesota small town.
“I thought it was a great premise to have this horrible monster who used to be a powerful ruler in his own dimension, being stuck in this place, which is renowned for having overly polite residents,” says Miller. “So to get his wrath out, this jackass-y monster keeps writing letters to the editor of the town newspaper! I had done enough of these stories that I had a really clear idea of what Golan was going to be all about, and I just happened to be at the right place at the right time: ADHD was in its infancy, and the idea really appealed to the studio’s head honcho Nick Weidenfeld. It also really helped that we had this great existing artwork by Ali Horn as a starting point for the show.”
The Flash-animated series, which is done in-house at the ADHD Hollywood studio, also showcases the comic talents of a terrific cast, which includes Mikelle Mary, Mack Budge, Vincent Kartheiser, Ken Marino, Mandy Moore, Megan Mullaly and Patton Oswalt, and is exec produced by toon veterans Dave Jesser and Matthew Silverstein (Drawn Together, The Goode Family). Miller says the show is in the vein of the classic Addams Family cartoons and TV series, albeit with a more adult twist.
“It’s not a wholly family-friendly series, but we also don’t want to be shocking just for the sake of being shocking either,” he explains.
The 34-year-old former Minnesotan says he started showing a huge obsession with comics and animation at a very early age.
“The first thing I ever wanted to do was to draw comics,” he recalls. “My parents tell me that I refused to go to preschool because I didn’t want to miss Scooby-Doo on TV. Disney’s Duck Tales was another huge favorite. And like most comic writers, The Simpsons was one of my biggest influences.”
So what about that famous Minnesota accent? Is everyone on the show going to sound like they just came from a lutefisk buffet? Miller says, in fact, two of the lead actresses are from the “land of 10,000 lakes.”
“It wasn’t intentional, but we auditioned a lot of people and they just happened to be the best choices for the parts. In the end, there is something about that Minnesota sensibility and vocal quality that is the perfect counterpoint to Golan.”
So, yah, this is a show we can all get yousta watchin’ every week, you betcha!
Creator, Steven Universe (Cartoon Network)
Back in July, Cartoon Network’s audience got their first taste of a new comedy adventure premiering this fall and created by former Adventure Time storyboarder/writer/songwriter Rebecca Sugar: Steven Universe. The show’s hero, based on Sugar’s younger brother (a background artist for Adventure Time and the new series) as a child, is a chubby, happy-go-lucky kid who is the youngest (and only male) member of the intergalactic hero team Crystal Gems, helping to save the universe, often while plucking a tune on his ukelele.
Sugar’s love of animation was inspired by her dad, a huge fan who brought home hoards of classic and indie toons on laser disc. She later became entranced by the creative storytelling power of comics, which she held onto while studying animation at SVA in New York. Her first big break came when SVA alum and Adventure Time designer Phil Rynda came to the school for a panel on finding work in industry.
“I came up to give him some of my comics after his panel, and he was like, ‘Oh, we have to get a picture!’ I was like, what? And I keep standing next to him for this picture … Then I realized he meant a picture of the panel, and I was standing in front of them! I kind of just dropped all my stuff and ran out, it was mortifying.”
But, Rynda was impressed with the comics despite the awkward introduction, as well as with her student film Singles, and saw to it she got a storyboard test for Adventure Time.
The 26-year-old show creator says her goal for the series was to mix regular life experiences with the extreme fantasy, wish-fulfillment elements she loves about cartoons and comics. The look of the show is inspired by her love of ’70s animation and simple silhouettes for her characters.
“I had a dream for a no-frills, stocky, solid quality for the way these characters could be. [They have] simple, three-dimensional, specific shapes … but they have depth and are flexible.”
Sugar’s “meat-and-potatoes” animation style is set off by indulgent, often sparkly, backgrounds rendered in a loose painterly style the art team came up with.
To aspiring animators, Sugar says that although the demands on creativity are challenging, the process is also inspiring.
“You have to come up with so many ideas in a short amount of time, and you want them to be coming from a real place … It can kind of tear you apart making sure everything you’re coming up with is good,” she admits. “But that’s the challenge that I like … You have to keep coming up with stuff to the point where, when you’re out of stuff, you learn something about yourself because you have to keep pulling it out.”
Creator & Co-Exec Producer, Star and the Forces of Evil (Disney Channel)
Next year, Disney Channel will introduce viewers to a new magical super-heroine who’s not afraid to tussle with the biggest baddies in the universe. Her name is Star Butterfly, and creator and co-executive producer Daron Nefcy’s new series Star and the Forces of Evil follows her adventures after relocating to Earth to live with a normal human family, where she continues to battle villains across the galaxies and in high school–mostly to protect her powerful and mysterious wand.
“I was obsessed with Sailor Moon as a kid and was pretty convinced that one day a talking cat would come and tell me I had magic powers and had to save the universe,” says Nefcy, a CalArts Character Animation grad who got her start as a designer on MAD and recently animated and co-wrote a segment for the anthology comedy film Holiday Road. “That never really panned out, but that desire for magic powers inspired Star and the Forces of Evil!”
Nefcy discovered her love of drawing and cartooning at an early age, and says she was fortunate that in fourth grade she was able to take an after-school animation class taught by working artists. Although the 27-year-old notes that despite her experience and passion for the artform, it was difficult at first to find a home for Star.
“At the time I was pitching [the show], most networks were not interested in a cartoon with a female lead. Luckily, Disney was open and excited about the idea!”
Happily the up-and-coming animation star has found a supportive home at Disney Television Animation where she can fulfill her lifelong dreams of using her magical powers, and says she gets a kick out of working with her talented crew. Together, they just might save the kids’ TV animation universe.
Obie Scott Wade
Creator, SheZow! (Hub Network); CEO, ObieCo Ent.
The announcement earlier this year that Hub Network had taken on a new 2D animated series about a boy who discovers a superpower-endowing ring–with the catch that the ring is meant for a girl and grants him a feminine evil-fighting outfit–caused quite a stir with conservative bloggers and raised questions about whether it was “kid appropriate.” Luckily, Hub poo-pooed the haters, and Obie Scott Wade’s creative twist on the superhero genre, SheZow!, has been on the air in the States since June.
Wade, who bears no relation to Obi-Wan Kenobi but still may be a Jedi, says he was fortunate enough to learn the animation trade on the job.
“I first began drawing when I was three years old, and my artwork still looks like that, so I don’t draw,” he jokes (SheZow! is designed by Australian artist Kyla May).
As a writer, Wade learned the artform at the elbows of May, Anna Chambers, Paul Frank, Wayne Harris, Paul Tippet and Mike Moon.
The creator, whose previous credits include Disney’s Deer Mike, Turner’s Al Roach: Private Insectigator and Warner Bros.’ Baby Looney Tunes, was inspired to pursue animation by the work of Chuck Jones and Hanna-Barbera, and by the freedom of Internet distribution, co-creating the webseries Julius & Friends with a talented production team honing their craft as they went. His big break came when he was developing a concept for WBA–the show didn’t get made, but the process opened a lot of doors and created many key friendships in Toon Town.
Wade says he came up for the idea for SheZow! when he was just 10 years old:
“One Saturday morning, I wondered, ‘What would happen if I had found the amulet belonging to Isis and put it on? Would it work on me, a boy?’ I also wondered what would happen if Captain Marvel accidentally said she-zam instead of sha-zam. Would he get a girl’s outfit? If so, would he care? Would you?”
He says the biggest challenge of creating the show is having all the production outside the U.S. (in Canada and Australia). But seeing the final product and how kids react to it is always worth it.
The writer—who is also working on a kids’ book and is being tapped by Disney for a new toon—proves that sometimes, young creatives just need to let their natural selves shine through:
“Years ago, when I first got into the business, I called a TV production company looking for a job. The nice man on the phone told me that there was no work to be had because everyone was on hiatus. When I innocently asked him if ‘hiatus’ was an island, he laughed and hired me to write comedy.”
Steve Borst & Gary “Doodles” DiRaffaele
Co-Creators, Breadwinners (Nickelodeon)
Whether it’s because of their sassy quacking, amusing swimming tricks or just because they’re easy to draw, ducks have been well represented in animation for almost as long as there have been serialized toons. Now Nickelodeon will be offering audiences some new feathered friends, having ordered 20 episodes of Breadwinners from Gary Doodles and Steve Borst earlier this year, based on their hilarious short film.
“I love to draw ducks and bread. Steve loves to write funny stories about ducks and bread. So, we merged our talents, and presto! Breadwinners was born,” Doodles tells us. The 30-somethings are both veterans of MAD–Borst as a writer, Doodles (an SVA Animation grad) as an animator/director. Borst also did writing duty for the comedy superhero show Teen Titans GO! “As a writer, animation is amazing because there are no limits to the stories you can tell, or the scenes and gags you can write,” says Borst. “If you can imagine it, you can pretty much do anything in animation.”
Doodles shares that he was first hooked on animating in high school, when his art teacher introduced him to the janitor, who was taking animation classes at SVA. The young artist created his first short film in 30 days as part of a senior study program and says once he say the playback from the pencil test machine, he knew all he wanted was to make cartoons. Doodles’ first toon gig came right after college, doing production work on a pilot for MTV. Borst got his first taste in 2003 writing promos for Nickelodeon in New York.
While a tight TV production schedule and the stress of juggling many responsibilities to bring Breadwinners to air are challenging, the creative team hopes to keep the web-footed fun rolling as long as possible. As for the fun parts, Borst loves collaborating with the talented and hilarious people on the show crew. And Doodles can’t get enough of the constant flow of creativity:
“Whether coming up with a funny doodle, a silly song or a ri-duck-ulous story idea, it’s all about making something from nothing and watching it take on a life of its own.”
Creator, Bee and Puppycat (Frederator Studios)
Fans of Cartoon Network’s popular toon Adventure Time are already familiar with Natasha Allegri’s talents. The 27-year-old artist got her big break in the animation biz designing characters for Pen Ward’s candy-colored 2D series (and even inspired the gender-swapped “Fionna & Cake” episode when her designs proved an internet hit). Now, Allegri has her very own oddball, hilarious–and great-looking, of course–show on Frederator’s “Cartoon Hangover” YouTube channel, Bee and Puppycat.
Allegri says the webseries, which follows a somewhat typically Millennial heroine who doesn’t quite have her life together and the strange, adorable creature she takes in which turns out to have some pretty amazing abilities, was inspired by a number of things.
“Frederator asked me to pitch them an idea, and I realized that if I was going to pitch something it was going to have to be something that involved all the things that I loved at the time,” she explains. “And I was absolutely in love with my cat, magical girl anime … and eggplant. I had just learned how to make a really amazing baked eggplant parmesan. It’s really good.”
(Pay attention, aspiring animators: the secret is to steam the eggplant before you bread and bake it.)
The recently initiated show creator, whose love of animation was inspired by Sailor Moon, Garfield and King of the Hill, says she loves how understanding and supportive the Frederator team has been as she takes on this new project. Allegri says her favorite part of working on her debut show is getting texts from industry vet and Frederator’s VP of development, Eric Homan, who we assume is pretty funny even in text form.
While a colorful comedy about a girl and her magical pet can’t be considered truly autobiographical, Allegri’s favorite self-incriminating story from her career shows how she comes up with Bee’s bumblings in the cartoon:
“At Cartoon Network on the third floor there’s a really amazing soda machine,” she reveals. “To get to it from the second floor, where I worked, you had to go up this spiral staircase … After hours I was coming downstairs trying to balance this huge cup of Diet Coke and leftover birthday cake–and I slipped, and it went everywhere, dripping down the staircase. The birthday cake was OK … I cleaned it up as best as I could, and it’s really cool, because I learned that Diet Coke doesn’t really get sticky, since it’s all chemicals … so, there: my darkest secret.”