Rising Stars of Animation: Class of 2009

Throughout the year, we learn about numerous talented animators who are revitalizing the industry with their bold, original visions and inspiring projects. Although we could devote an entire issue to these emerging artists and creators, we are happy to spotlight a dozen of these brilliant men and women in this special piece. Be sure to remember their names because we have a feeling they’re going to be even more in demand in the years to come. By Mercedes Milligan and Ramin Zahed

Pendleton Ward

Creator, Adventure Time (Cartoon Network)

It seems like an urban legend in our industry: A scrappy young artist doodles a character, turns it into a series and is picked up by a major network barely a year out of college. But that’s what happened to Pendleton Ward, the 26-year-old creator of Adventure Time. The San Antonio native says he was encouraged from an early age by his mom, an abstract painter. Though he was exposed to painting and figure drawing, he was always drawn to cartoons and spent a lot of time making elaborate flipbooks. Citing The Simpsons and Ren & Stimpy as his biggest influences, Ward says their intermingling of adult and childish humor is something he strives for in his own work.

After graduating from CalArts’ character animation program, Ward and some college pals got an apartment in Burbank and started churning out animation tests, looking for gigs. During this time, the struggling artist put pencil to paper and drew a little boy with a bear hat who would launch his career. ‘I like to doodle these interesting characters and kind of figure out what their story is, and how they relate to each other,’ Ward says of how he developed Adventure Time from this first sketch. Other strange beings like a bubblegum princess and a bandit-masked fly populate the show’s post-apocalyptic bizarro world, providing plenty of escapades for the bear-hatted youth.

Developed as part of Fred Seibert’s Random! Cartoons pilot program, Adventure Time attracted Cartoon Network’s attention, who eagerly approached Ward about creating a series. The pilot was also nominated for an Annie Award. Though it took some adjusting after flying solo, Ward says he feels comfortable working with what he describes as a talented, fun-loving team, who are churning out an episode every nine months. Even though production gets demanding, sometimes exhaustion is a blessing: After a few all-nighters at the studio, Ward and his art director were brainstorming in the lounge, but whenever he was asked what a group of characters should be wearing, Ward nodded off. ‘He got really frustrated, because he hadn’t slept either, and started kicking the couch,’ Ward recalls, ‘Finally I said, ‘I don’t know, but I can tell you my dream answer’they’re wearing houses.” That was good enough for his colleague, and the house-wearing folk can be seen in the completed episode.

As for other up-and-comers, Ward’s advice is tried and true: ‘Never stop reaching for the stars. If you want a show, don’t ever stop trying.’ He also advocates using Flash and Internet communities to create and share your work. ‘And draw. Draw, draw, draw’take your sketchbook everywhere! My drawings were primitive, but after five years of constant drawing ‘ well, they’re still primitive, but better.’

Lauren Montgomery

Director, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern: First Flight (Warner Bros. Animation)

Although there’s a general misconception that the world of animated comic-book superheroes is a boys-only club, you certainly won’t get that impression after chatting with super-achieving artist/director Lauren Montgomery. The gifted director of Warner Bros./DC animated movies Superman: Doomsday, Wonder Woman and the upcoming Green Lantern: First Flight makes it all look too easy.

‘My career owes a lot to luck and timing,’ she says modestly. ‘I was in the animation program at Loyola Marymount College and one of my teachers was Jay Oliva, who at the time [2002] was working on a TV revamp of He-Man. After I graduated, I called him to ask for advice and he actually offered me a job.’

Montgomery’s impressive work as a storyboard artist on Justice League, Ben 10 and Legion of Super Heroes eventually led her to helm those challenging superhero DVD projects, where she’d work alongside legends such as Bruce Timm. ‘Working on Wonder Woman was truly a dream come true, because she is the foremost heroine in this genre. I was a girl, she was a girl, it was perfect!’

The soft-spoken Orange County native says what she loves about her job is that she gets to draw all day! ‘When I was younger, I was into all those 2D animated Disney movies,’ she recalls. ‘As soon as The Little Mermaid was released, I wanted to draw her exactly as she looked in the film. When I got home from school, I’d finish my homework and then I’d draw the rest of the time.’

She says she really enjoys working on projects that tackle grown-up themes. ‘It’s wonderful that adults can also enjoy these projects and that animation is seen as a medium, not just cartoons for kids. I think what we see is that many of the people are greenlighting these movies grew up with comic-book based shows on TV, and now they’re making the movies they like to watch.’

Montgomery admits that when she started her career in animation, she was too na’ve to realize that men outnumbered the women in the business. ‘By the time I got into it, it was too late to turn back,’ she jokes. ‘But I think I’ve been very lucky since I’ve never experienced sexism or people taking me less seriously as an artist because I’m a woman. Now we see more women are working in this field. Comics are more mainstream, and more women are moving up in the ranks. And that’s all very cool.’

Chris Miller

Phil Lord

Co-Directors, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (Sony Animation)

Last time Chris Miller and Phil Lord were in the news, their animated series Clone High had sparked protests on the streets of New Delhi. You may recall that their short-lived series had some fun with beloved Indian leader Gandhi (the toon’s high school had a curious student body made of genetic spin-offs of Gandhi, Lincoln, Cleopatra and JFK). The show also put them on the map in a big way and created a sizeable cult following.

Five years later, the two mischief-makers are at it again, as they put the finishing touches on Sony Animation’s big 3-D, CG-animated movie about food falling out of the sky, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. The fall release is based on a 28-page children’s book by Judi and Ron Barrett which is short on words and long on imagination.

‘We tried to capture the memorable moments and whimsical tone of the book,’ explains Miller. ‘We wanted to quote from the book with the images and set pieces, just like the Pirate of the Caribbean movies reflected the Disney ride,’ adds Lord.

Before coming to Hollywood, the two filmmakers studied liberal arts at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. During his senior year, Miller got a life-changing call from Disney Studio in his dorm room. ‘Michael Eisner had read this article in one of the school’s alumni publications about a short I had made, and he’d told Disney TV Animation chief Barry Blumberg about it. It was like, ‘Hey these are Eisner’s boys!’ So we came to L.A., had some meetings and got offered a development deal.’

After working on several un-produced Saturday morning toons, they opted to target an older audience and hit the jackpot with Clone High. Then they segued into live-action sitcoms, including the CBS hit How I Met Your Mother, but now they’re happy to make the leap into the world of 3-D big-screen animation.

‘We could come up with a high level of abstraction in TV animation, and we want to bring a lot of that to the 3D world,’ say Lord. ‘We are lucky to have Carey Yost (Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, The Mighty B) the same character designer we had on Clone High on the movie, and you’ll see a lot of the energy, principles of cartoon timing and going off models that we had in the 2D world.’ Miller adds, ‘We were inspired by the Muppets: They work very well in 3D!’

Lord believes that this is a new golden age of animation. ‘Look at the great variety of genres and styles we had on the Oscar short list in the past few years. The same is true for TV and online. You have total flexibility to tell any kind of story.’ Miller chimes in, ‘Everyone wants to see something that’s fresh and new, so my advice for future animators is to make something that you really like and not something that you think others are going to like. Create a calling card that truly represents who you are and what you can do!’

Kirsten Lepore

Animator/Director, Sweet Dreams

It’s a rare treat to find an animated short that makes you laugh, makes you feel, and makes you hungry all at the same time, but independent animator Kirsten Lepore’s stop-motion Sweet Dreams‘a heartwrenching tale of a cupcake who longs for adventure, has an exotic fling with a carrot and manages to save its sugary town from destruction, all in just under 10 minutes’is just such a delicious distraction. The short has been wowing audiences at fests around the country, and took home a prize at South by Southwest earlier this year.

Lepore, a 24-year-old Jersey girl, says she has always wanted to combine her loves of art, music and motion, which she weaves together in her 2D and stop-motion projects. As a child, Lepore would draw up her ideas in the old Kid Pix program and put it on slideshow mode. ‘[I put it] on the fastest setting so it might look like really slow framerate animation,’ she explains, ‘You can imagine my excitement many years later when I discovered that Flash existed!’

The East Coast artist began animating in earnest in high school, and studied experimental animation at the Maryland Institute College of Art. After graduation, Lepore began freelancing while she applied to studios, but, she says, ‘In the end, I never heard back from the studios, and the freelance work kept coming!’ But she isn’t concerned, preferring the variety of freelancing to cleaning up piles of key frames.

Completed in 2007, Sweet Dreams was inspired by Lepore’s experiences studying abroad in Italy, and by a unique approach to set design: ‘I really liked the idea of using kale as foliage, so I came up with a story that allowed me to animate with food, and,’ she says, ‘at the same time, use those foods’ natural properties to convey the messages I had in mind.’ The tasty materials create a colorful backdrop for Lepore’s story of two cultures coming together.

While Sweet Dreams is travelling the festival circuit, Lepore keeps busy with commercial work’at the moment, an overseas ice cream spot. She looks forward to having some time to work on new independent projects, and hopes to travel the world looking for more inspiration. We’ll be here waiting!

David O’Reilly

Animator/Director, Please Say Something

It’s hard to imagine that David O’Reilly, the creator of the sophisticated short Please Say Something, is only 23. The thought-provoking six-minute-long project, which has already won numerous festival awards and is competing at Annecy this year, was created by the young Irish animator in only six months.

‘I’m based wherever I can keep doing my work,’ says O’Reilly, who has been living in Berlin for the past two years. ‘I’m not the biggest advocate of current educational practices in animation, being a college drop-out myself. I really believe you can teach yourself everything on the subject, just watch a lot of films and get a computer. If you can, try to work with people you admire and respect!’

O’Reilly’s short touches upon a lot of heavy themes’life, death, illness, the comfort and heartaches of relationships in the modern world’all seen in connection with its two characters, a primitively animated cat and mouse which would easily feel at home in a 1980s-era video game. When asked about the reasons the short connected with audiences, he replies, ‘It wasn’t that hard to stand out. Frankly, audiences are used to being treated like idiots with 3D animation. Most of the stuff they see is polished garbage that looks and plays the same. I can’t tell you what audiences want, but I know they don’t like to be patronized or disrespected!’

He points out that he finds it interesting that according to stats on imdb.com, women give the short much higher ratings than men. ‘Women also find it obvious that the cat is female’a lot of men never get it!’

The articulate animator counts Pat Sullivan, Max and Dave Fleischer, Osamu Tezuka and Matt Stone and Trey Parker as some of his artistic heroes. He also likens the process of creating to a phenomenon close to a religious experience and is secretive when it comes to his methods. ‘To me the software isn’t that important. Technically my tools could have been a decade old and just as easy to get hold of’the only thing different is the way I’ve used them and the kind of story I told!’ Judging from the short’s success, there’ll be a lot of more haunting stories coming out of his Berlin studio.

Caroline Desnoettes

Catherine Le Guen

Creators, Carefree Capers

French artist Caroline Desnoettes and writer/singer/working stage clown Catherine Le Guen have Josette the cow to thank for bringing the two of them together. ‘I got into animation through a fortuitous sequence of events, the first of which was meeting Catherine who fell under the spell of Josette and used her as a video character in her live children’s show.’ Le Guen says cartoons were the logical next step for the humorous, colorful stories she enjoyed to tell. ‘For me, it was love at first sight with Caroline and her cow. I love to make children dream and laugh’sometimes with my red clown nose!’

Soon after, the two women formed Marguerite Productions and created a brightly animated (26 x 5) children’s series called Carefree Capers, which premiered on Disney Channel in Japan a few months ago and will also air on Al Jazeera’s Children’s Channel, Cap Canal in France and TV Escola in Brazil this spring. ‘We wanted to create a show that is truly in touch with children’s natural rhythms: It had to be musical, well-written, and both funny and tender,’ explains Desnoettes. Le Guen says it was also very important to be both timeless and universal, far from the dictates of trends and fashions. ‘In one episode, for example, Paulette the Chicken rips her pants while climbing a tree and hides so that no one can see her’emotion, embarrassment and humor all come into play for young viewers.’

One of the big stand-out qualities of their show is its eye-catching and na’f illustration style, but when we ask them about the production techniques, the two offer enigmatic responses: ‘Our team of cartoonists uses a special ‘recipe’ adapted to our needs, starting out with mainstream animation software,’ says Desnoettes. Le Guen adds, ‘We like home-made recipes based on concentrated cows!’

Finding buyers in this tough economic climate remains a big challenge for independent animators, but Desnoettes and Le Guen remain positive. ‘Our creative signature has so far mostly attracted foreign TV channels. In France, we have a proverb that says no one is a prophet in his own country!’ says Desnoettes. ‘In general, broadcasters don’t like to take risks, but we’re very optimistic about the acquisitions for the rest of 2009,’ chimes in Le Guen.

Of course, being both very artistic and French, the duo has much to offer about what it takes to thrive in this particular milieu. Desnoettes believes one should develop a capacity for exceptional, enormous patience, and exercise regularly to stay Zen! For Le Guen, it’s important to allow yourself have great affinity for your creations. ‘Always love your characters, pamper them, and fall asleep next to them when it’s too stormy outside, so that all cares will disappear during dreams!’ Bon mots, indeed!

Eric Robles

Creator, Fanboy and Chum Chum (Nickelodeon)

When it comes to fantastic career changes, Eric Robles’ turn from Police Academy trainee to hot new show creator for Nickelodeon really takes the cake. It turns out that this young, talented animator was actually training to become a Burbank law enforcement officer when one of his teachers noticed the drawings he had done on a piece of paper after an exam. Since the teacher’s sister-in-law happened to be animation industry veteran Stephanie Graziano, Robles was able to get a meet and greet interview at her studio, Graz Entertainment.

‘They asked me whether I had a portfolio, and I’d done all my work on napkins ‘ so over a weekend, I filled up a whole sketch book!’ says Robles. The sketches must have been pretty impressive, because the then-19-year-old landed an internship at the studio. It only took him a week to be promoted from intern to design team member, once they saw how well he could draw.

Now after 14 years in the business and working on numerous shows at MGM, DreamWorks, Universal, Cartoon Network and Disney, he’s getting ready to launch his own toon on Nick in the fall. Titled Fanboy and Chum Chum, the playful CG-animated show centers on the adventures of a couple of ‘nerdish’ friends who are the kind of kids who like to wear their Halloween costumes all year round! ‘I like to think of it as creating something from a complete kid’s p.o.v.,’ he explains. ‘I wanted to do a show about everything that I grew up with as a kid, what I loved about being a kid.’

He remembers getting that awesome call from Fred Seibert, the man behind shows such as The Fairly OddParents, Chalk Zone, Wow! Wow! Wubbzy!, who asked him to have lunch with him and to wanted to see if he had any pitches for a new show. ‘I had this idea for Fanboy, but I wanted to totally polish it and be ready, so I said I don’t have anything right now, but four months later, I came back with the show concept and we created the pilot for Frederator Studio’s Random! Cartoons shorts program. ‘

The one important piece of advice he likes to share with job-hunters out there is this: Persistence pays! ‘It’s all about how bad you want to set yourself apart,’ he offers. ‘The reason I was able to go from intern to designer quickly was because I took the model sheets from the show home with me and I drew and drew and drew. Then I left copies of my work on the director’s desk, so when they needed someone to do model sheets, my drawings were all over his room! There was no way he couldn’t see my work!’

Juanma S’nchez and Jose Luis Ucha

Creators, The Secret Life of Suckers (BRB Internacional, Screen21)

Sometimes getting stuck in traffic and paying attention to what you see on the road can be a good thing for imaginative minds. Just ask Juanma S’nchez and Jose Luis Ucha, the creators of BRB’s CG-animated series The Secret Life of Suckers, who came up with the concept after seeing so many cars displaying cute critters on their windows. ‘We wanted to start our own production after doing service for seven years at Genoma Animation (located in Granada, Spain), so we asked for ideas from all our studio’s crew and artists’and the premise of these toys won us over unanimously,’ says S’nchez.

The team worked around the clock to create a teaser for the show in 2007. ‘Initially, we came up with our main hero, Travis, and then defined and designed the secondary characters that reinforce the show’s spirit of urban mischief,’ adds Ucha.

The 36-year-old S’nchez is also the founder of Genoma Studio, which he started up after finishing his studies in computer engineering. The Cadiz-born Ucha joined Barcelona’s Screen21 after getting his MBA. ‘Two years of hard training as an animator taught me that I wasn’t made to be an animator,’ admits the 32-year-old. ‘That’s when I was lucky enough to embark on my Screen21 adventure and since then have been developing, writing, directing and consulting on shows such as Bernard, Angus & Cheryl, The Imp and Khudayana.’ According to S’nchez and Ucha, about 40 young animators work in Flash, 3ds Max and Adobe CS3 to bring the happy, shiny cast of Suckers to life.

Each character in the series has been developed based on references and ideas culled from major cities around the world. Sanchez believes that because the sticky toys are all different in terms of looks and personality, everyone will see part of themselves reflected in the characters, regardless of where they are from.

Like many of their American counterparts, S’nchez and Ucha are quick to sing the praises of Disney, Looney Tunes, Hanna-Barbera and Pixar, but they also throw in references to more esoteric faves such as BRB’s Around the World with Willy Frog, David The Gnome and Bruno Bozzetto’s Signor Rossi in the conversation.

As parting words of advice, they have this to offer to future practitioners of their craft. ‘Work hard, work smart’and have lots of patience, because animation and creativity cook better over a low heat,’ says the wise Mr. Ucha. ‘Our motto is never rush and never stop!’

Rikki Knight-Trembath

Animator, Jungle Junction (Spider Eye/Disney Channel)

Around the Spider Eye animation house in Cornwall, U.K., 23-year-old Rikki Knight-Trembath has a reputation for being the secret weapon for the studio’s upcoming Disney Channel preschool series, Jungle Junction. He first learned about the company from his dad who told him about a company BBQ right after he finished college. ‘At the time, they were working on the Cramp Twins series,’ he explains in an e-mail exchange. ‘The studio founder Morgan [Francis] recommended that I go to Bournemouth University, where he continued to supply me with work and advice.’

After leaving Cornwall for the siren call of the big city, Knight-Trembath decided to return to his hometown to work on Jungle Junction which is created by Trevor Ricketts (Shaun the Sheep). The series is a CG-animated project about a group of fun-loving animal/vehicle characters (Zooter the pig scooter, Elly the Ellvan and little jungle Beetlebugs, to name a few) which teach kids about protecting the environment.

‘I can’t divulge too much, but I think that I can say that it’s a jungle full of fun,’ he reveals. ‘Our characters get into all sorts of tight spots that kids can identify with and hopefully learn from. It’s a very colorful piece and engages the children with puzzles to solve and catchy tunes for them to sing along to, which I think will be good. I believe we’ve had good responses so far, so fingers crossed.’

Knight-Trembath says he’s quite lucky to have found a home at Spider Eye as there’s a friendly family vibe about the studio, where everyone is encouraged to do their best. ‘I really enjoy bringing the characters to life. We use SoftimagelXSI to animate the characters. I tend to thumbnail out and draw a few of the harder shots to help me foresee the actions I need and the key poses I want to hit,’ he explains. ‘But in general, there isn’t a lot of time for that in TV, so I tend to do it mentally and quickly shuffle in my chair as I act it out, then a few small thumbnail/notes before quickly translating it to the computer.’

Tex Avery and Chuck Jones cartoons are among the great sources of inspiration for the young Cornish animator. ‘I knew I wanted to be an animator when I saw Tom and Jerry on TV. What they brought to the screen was amazing. I also liked to watch Postman Pat ‘ and Disney’s Robin Hood when I was a kid. I think I really wore out the VHS for that one!’

Pierre Core

Co-Creator, Mister Otter (La Station Animation, TV-Loonland)

Who was the inventor of potato chips? Why do you always mount a horse from the left hand side? What are the origins of the didjeridu? These are some of the interesting subjects discussed in Pierre Core’s new CG-animated series, Mister Otter. The 40-year-old French animation veteran, who runs La Station Animation with his partner Christian Ronget, says he was pitched the idea by author Marguerite Sauvage and director Ahmidou Lyazidi as ‘a show about an otter who teaches general knowledge classes!’

Co-produced by thriving animation outfit TV-Loonland (The Owl, Leon, Little Princess), Mister Otter is set to debut in France in July and is also one of the shows competing at Annecy this year. “We were really perfectionists with Mister Otter,’ says the Paris-based exec producer. ‘When writing the scripts, we worked hard on surprising both young and old viewers and tried to find funny stories about historical facts and events. The idea is to be able to tell your family about it at the dinner table and impress your parents.’

Core says the biggest challenge was the animation, which has a 2D look although it’s actually done in SoftimagelXSI. ‘Our little otters hardly talked’or didn’t talk at all’so the quality of their movements was extremely important. It was almost like doing a mime show incorporating really precise, graceful, funny poses.”

The toon pro, who lives in Paris with his wife and five children, says he is always impressed by Pete Docter’s incredible imagination and the poetic visions of Hayao Miyazaki. When it comes to his studio’s raison d’etre, he says he strives to invent strong and original concepts and to respect the public. ‘We’re lucky in France to have distributors that can support our work,’ he adds. ‘They really understand that viewers want something new and that the old formulas are getting stale. The world needs new heroes and new stories.” And knowledgeable, semi-aquatic, fish-eating teachers, like Mister Otter!

Stephen Irwin

Director/Animator, The Black Dog’s Progress

The haunting story playing out in endless flipbook scenes in Stephen Irwin’s short, The Black Dog’s Progress, was inspired by a news item the 29-year-old London-based animator saw some years ago: After several attempts to get rid of the family dog, a woman sets the creature on fire, only for it to set the house ablaze, killing her children. ‘I wanted an original way of telling the story, and came up with the idea of laying the entire narrative out on the screen all at once,’ Irwin explains, ‘I love the repetition of optical toys such as zoetropes and flipbooks ‘ I also wanted the violence to be very cartoon-like and made up of as few frames as possible.’

Black Dog was created for Channel 4′s Animate Projects program in 2008. The artist was previously been commissioned by the BBC and U.K. Film Council (Dry Lips, Bows & Arrows), receiving commendation for these as well as his graduate film Dialog. He says he is inspired by many different creative icons, from director Stanley Kubrick, to Russian animator Yuri Norstein (Hedgehog in the Fog), to comic book creator Chris Ware, to iconic movie title designer Saul Bass.

Irwin’s success in the animation scene comes with a surprising side note: Although he studied at Central St. Martin’s College of Art and Design, his toon technique is self-taught’using hand drawings manipulated in Adobe After Effects. ‘I experimented with live-action shorts at university, but preferred the greater control I had over the animations I was making,’ Irwin says, ‘With a fairly basic computer and a few pieces of software I was able to make some rudimentary Gilliam-esque cut-out animations. From there, my interest developed and I began to experiment with different techniques, and continue to do so.’

While he continues to pursue commercial projects, Irwin has two new shorts in the works. ‘One of them is much bigger in scale and ambition than any of my previous works ‘ it will be shot in pixilation with actors and sets, as well as 2D drawn animation, so I need to find funding before I can start production,’ he shares, ‘The other is an animated double bill, but with the two films playing simultaneously on top of each other.’