Rising Stars of Animation: The 2010 Edition

Picking a handful of rising stars in animation gets more difficult every year simply because there are so many more outstanding new shorts, TV series, web toons and movies coming our way. So please take this year’s selected profiles as our way of highlighting a few cool patterns in the exciting patchwork that makes up our animation world in 2010. Judging from what they’ve come up with so far, these talented people are going to keep on rocking our world for a long, long time.

Noah Z. Jones,

Creator/Co-Exec Producer, Fish Hooks [Disney Channel]

Noah Z. Jones knew at a very young age that he loved drawing monsters and dinosaurs. He couldn’t get enough of Hanna-Barbera Saturday morning cartoons and children’s books by Maurice Sendak and Richard Scarry. Now after years of doing freelance animation work and outstanding illustrations for books such as Not Norman and The Monster in the Backpack, he is getting ready to share his talents with a much wider audience.

‘Disney Channel’s [development VP] Mike Moon contacted me out of the blue, because he had seen some of my work on the Internet and liked my character designs,’ says the talented 36-year old. ‘He wanted me to pitch a show, so I came up with a bunch of ideas and one of them was Fish Hooks! That’s one of the beauties of the Internet’that a big muckety-muck at Disney finds you across the country, and gives you the chance to pitch ideas for an animated show!’

Jones’ original idea for the show centered on a punk rock band of fish, but since Disney Channel had a lot of music-themed shows, they asked him to tweak it a little. ‘So now the basic premise is a group of fish in high school ‘ in a pet store,’ he explains. ‘They have their share of normal high school problems and friendship, but they also have rival schools’The Geckos, and the big city is Hamster Wood’all different areas of the pet store.’

Jones says he loves the fact that he was able to be part of the show that he had originally envisioned. ‘They never stand in the way of the humor,’ he adds. ‘The show is going to be very funny’and it also looks like nothing else on TV at the moment. The backgrounds and all the non-aquarium animals are collage-based, so visually, the show looks different from what’s out there. The team at Canada’s Mercury Filmworks use Toon Boom Harmony, and they’ve done a really amazing job.’ As fate would have it, another one of Jones’ great concepts called Almost Naked Animals is also being produced as an animated show by Toronto-based studio 9 Story Entertainment this year.

‘I guess I always knew that I wanted to be an artist, but never knew that I was going to make it in animation,’ says Jones, who studied illustration at the Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon. He advises those who want to get into animation to keep polishing their drawing abilities. ‘If you have a love for what you’re doing, and it shows, then opportunities will present themselves. It may sound corny, but if you want to get better, you just have to draw all the time!’

Soo Kim

Creator, Team Umizoomi [Nick Jr.]

Soo Kim can easily be the poster girl for every pre-med student who ever dreamt of getting into animation. The multi-talented creator, producer, design director and writer of Nickelodeon’s inventive preschool series Team Umizoomi tells us that it took a while for her to realize that she had a future in TV animation. ‘I guess the point of my story is that you never know where the road takes you,’ says Kim, who came up with the idea for Nick Jr.’s interactive show about a tiny of team of math superheroes after working on Blue’s Clues for several years.

Born in Seoul, Korea and raised in the Bronx, Kim gravitated to a career as a designer and writer after studying biology at William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. She got her first break at MTV Animation at a time when everyone was beginning to experiment with new media. ‘We were working with Photoshop 2.01 and building things from scratch,’ she recalls. ‘Then, I got to work on Blue’s Clues from day one’we did the whole show in After Effects, and it was a great time to figure things out as we went along. I loved the challenge of having live-action components mixed with drawn elements.’

After Blue’s Clues wrapped production in 1996, Nick Jr. started to look for a new interactive property. That’s when Kim and co-creator Michael T. Smith pitched the idea for their show, Team Umizoomi, which premiered in January. ‘We have retained some of the live-action elements of Blue’s Clues, but we also use beautiful Photoshop backgrounds and use as many different types of media as possible. We use real photographs taken by the artists and layer them with origami patterns and use Flash to animate the show, with some CG elements in Maya.’

Kim says bringing all the multi-layered pieces together is one of the big challenges of the show. ‘Nick Jr. has become very good at creating properties for the preschool interactive medium and interpreting your artistic vision for two to five year olds,’ she adds. ‘It’s a fun challenge to see the world through the eyes of a three year old. When I was growing up, I watched Sesame Street, The Electric Company and Schoolhouse Rock. I see all of those shows as influences as well as stop-motion favorites such as Davey and Goliath and Wallace & Gromit.’

So what’s her tip for the next generation of animators? ‘I think creating great relationships in the workplace is one of the most important things you can do,’ Kim points out. ‘There’s a lot of talent out there’but you want to surround yourself with people who have great energy because you work with them 10 to 12 hours a day. When I was starting out, there were people who had bigger and better portfolios than I did, but I think I had the passion and people knew I worked hard and gave 150 percent. Your spirit and drive is what really matters.’

Marc Beaujeau Weppenaar

Animator, The Last Airbender [ILM]

When ILM animator Marc Beaujeau Weppenaar was only 15, he was blown away by the visual effects magic on display in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. That’s when he knew he wanted to work in the visual effects business. ‘I grew up in a small town in the west coast of France, but my dream was to end up working on big Hollywood movies in California.’ The talented 35 year old has already realized this dream after delivering top-notch vfx work for movies such as The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, Transformers 2 and this summer’s highly anticipated M. Night Shyamalan pic, The Last Airbender.

After studying art and design at Brassart, taught himself how to do 3D modeling, texturing and animation. He put together a portfolio of his work and landed his first job at a video game company in Paris and eventually got to work on the European animated series and movie The Ugly Duckling and Me and Universal’s 2008 release The Tale of Despereaux. ‘I was always interested in integrating CG characters in live-action movies,’ he notes. ‘It’s also very exciting to give life to a CG-animated character.’

When a friend told him that ILM was hiring, he sent them a demo real, and soon found himself working at the studio’s Presidio-based headquarters. For The Last Airbender, he worked on the flying bison Appa and the monkey known as Momo. ‘I had to make Appa swim in the ocean and we had to create dynamic simulation of water,’ he explains. ‘I also worked on shots of a soldier riding the komodo dragon and he is throwing balls of fire, so that was quite challenging.’

Ask Weppenaar how he made the leap from being a relative newcomer to working as an animator on a big summer Hollywood blockbuster and he’s quite modest about it. ‘I think what helped me along the way was that I was able to draw,’ he replies. ‘You just have to discover what you’re good at and try and develop your craft. Of course, you also have to have a little bit of luck! If I hadn’t met the right people at the right time, I don’t know if I would be working at my dream job today!’

Daniel Baxter and Tina Alexander

Creators, How It Should Have Ended [Starz Media]

It makes total sense that in today’s D.I.Y. climate, some of the best movie spoofs would be created and animated by indie film buffs working outside the Hollywood system. That’s why it’s such good news that Starz Digital Media picked up How It Should Have Ended, the toon series created by Dallas-based animator Daniel Baxter, along with his pals Tommy Watson and producer/writer Tina Alexander. Baxter, who came up with the idea with Watson after sitting through the movie Flight of the Navigator about five years ago, says being able to create the shorts and putting them up on YouTube has given people like him a lot of freedom. ‘I have been fascinated by cartoons my whole life,’ he says. ‘I grew up watching Looney Tunes and Hanna-Barbera shows.’

Since the partnership with Starz, the team has been able to deliver one animated spoof per month’a big change of pace from the earlier days, when the team created 19 episodes in a three-year span. ‘It’s great that I can do this now full-time,’ says Baxter, who worked in video production for local TV news and cable access shows in Dallas while working on these toons on weekends and holidays.

Using simple After Effects tools and a keen sense of humor, the How It Should Have Ended team has taken on popular fanboy titles such a Lord of the Rings and Spider-Man 3, which have generated more than 6 million hits. More recent titles include clever takes on Avatar and Twilight. Next up is a spoof on Predator (‘Our third Arnold project!’ exclaims Webster) and a suggestion for how the TV series Lost should have concluded.

Baxter says the hardest movies to parody are the ones that are quite flawless. ‘Take last year’s Star Trek, for example,’ he explains. ‘I feel that the movie was pretty much perfect and despite the jokes that we made, it’s a perfectly told movie.’ Both Baxter and Alexander point out that they hope fans realize that they are also huge film fans and that their spoofs come from an affectionate place. ‘We realize that movies such as Twilight, Avatar and Transformers have huge fan bases, so we always try to be respectful and funny at the same time,’ says Alexander.

In the future, Baxter and Alexander would like to try their hands at long-form projects and original content. ‘Creating animation has become so easy these days,’ says Baxter. ‘There are lots of opportunities out there, so it really makes sense to create your stuff and put it out there and listen to the feedback from the online community.’

Of course, it’s more fun to get positive feedback, especially from people who are the targets of your spoofs. As Baxter recalls, ‘We were excited when we found out that actor Brandon Routh who played Superman said in an interview that he thought our ending was actually better than the movie!’

Pepper Sue and Elastik Jane

Creators, Sally Bollywood [Tele Images, Je Suis Bien Content]

It’s not surprising that the Paris-based duo behind the hot new anime-inspired series Sally Bollywood use the colorful monikers Pepper Sue and Elastik Jane. The two talented ladies have already generated quite a buzz for coming up with a great heroine for the new multicultural Europe’a resourceful Indian girl who solves mysteries in a big Western metropolis.

Pepper Sue, who says she got her nickname because she’s a fearless, spicy brunette, spent most of her youth traveling the world, filling notebooks with her sketches. A serious car accident at 24 made her realize that she wanted to focus all her energies into getting into the animation field. ‘Without a portfolio or background, but with lots of confidence and nerve, I knocked at the door of my very first animation studio in France and for four years, I worked as character designer on various projects,’ recalls Sue. ‘Then one Christmas Eve, I sketched the first draft for my first series Chocotte Minute, and with Elastik Jane, we began our adventures in animation.’

Jane (she earned her name because she’s very tall and slim) used to work as a coordinator for an advertising agency before teaming up with Sue. ‘We wanted to adapt the private eye universe to the world of a little girl whose father is also a famous detective,’ she notes. Sue says she loved to play detective when she was a girl so the idea came to her quite naturally. ‘Our garage was my headquarters, and I would use my bicycle to trail the suspects,’ she remembers. ‘I saved my parents’ car for the big action sequences.’

Next up for the duo is a new show called Roz Mary Zapata, Citizen of the World that encourages kids to think about ecology and saving the planet. They call it a cross between SpongeBob SquarePants and Happy Tree Friends, and their pitch line is ‘Viva la revolucion against la pollucion! Ole!’

As parting words, they leave us with this inspiring advice: ‘Work, rework and never stop with your first idea!’ says Jane. Sue adds, ‘Accept criticism only if it’s constructive’and when you have creative worries, relax, go outside and take a walk.’ True that.

Jeremy Zag,

Founder and Exec Producer, Zagtoon

It’s been only a year since Jeremy Zag joined forces with animation veteran Jacqueline Tordjman and formed a new Paris-based company called Zagtoon’but the young French entrepreneur is poised to reap the rewards of his efforts. With six shows in various stages of development, Zag says his company is lucky enough to be able to satisfy the different demands and needs of TV channels and publishing houses that they’ve approached.

Zag, who has a background in web design and development, says he has always been a fan of animation, but a TV show about Tordjman and Haim Saban really sparked his interest in the business. ‘That’s when I realized that there was a job for me behind this world of stories and dreams’that of a producer! My training was watching hours and hours of animation and being quite a kid at heart.’

One of the top shows on his plate is a TV series adaptation of Luc Besson’s phenomenally successful Arthur and the Invisibles. Also moving full-speed ahead is Rosie, a 102 x 1 toon about a temperamental pear-shaped girl who likes to torment everyone in her life’which has been picked up by French channel Gulli. Other projects include Sweetpower, a show about a new breed of superheros who are aided by vitamins found in their fruits and veggies, and Transylmaniak, which tells the story of young human-vampire hero.

When asked about the advantages of working in animation, Zag says he thinks the technologies available in the business today provide amazing opportunities to make one’s dreams come true. ‘For me, working in animation is like playing like a kid all day,’ he says. ‘I often leave our office after three in the morning and want to get back in as early as I can the following day. That pretty much sums up with I like best about this game, uh, I mean job!’

Tom McLaughlin

Creator, N.E.R.D.S., Little Molly Mysteries

A clean sketch pad, a scratchy dip pen and a fresh pot of tea. That’s what puts a big smile on British illustrator/animated show creator Tom McLaughlin’s face. With three children’s series in various stages of development and production and a new illustrated book on tap, the former political cartoonist and freelancer illustrator is having quite a productive year.

McLaughlin is working with Honeycomb Animation on a CBeebies show called Little Molly Mysteries, which centers on a young girl who is great at gathering clues and solving puzzles. His other show is called N.E.R.D.S., which is a comedy about a gang of supernatural uber-geeks and is being developed by Edinburgh-based Red Kite Animation.

So what drew the talented 34-year-old illustrator to animation? ‘I was working as a political cartoonist, I got so sick of caricaturing the good, the bad and the ugly of politics, I began to invent my own make-believe world to keep myself sane,’ he explains. ‘I think children love adventure ‘ It’s important that they see the world as full of wonder and possibilities, that’s what both Little Molly Mysteries and N.E.R.D.S. are about. Although they’re very different, it’s about capturing that moment as a child when the world you occupy becomes a place of great excitement and mystery.’ McLaughlin says he got his first break after he moved to Exeter after studying illustration at Falmouth College of Arts. ‘I won a bursary to animate and direct a short poem I’d written called The Girl with the Pink Shoes. I was lucky enough to be mentored through it by Honeycomb Animation, who asked to see more of my work, and from there things have grown and grown.’

Like many of the top animators working today, McLaughlin says he is a big fan of Nick Parks’ stop-motion classics and old Hanna-Barbera shows. ‘Throw in some Tom & Jerry, Looney Tunes, The Pink Panther and a few chocolates, and you’ll have my perfect childhood afternoon,’ he offers.

And what has he learned about the business of animation thus far? ‘You can be the best artist in the world, but unless you know how story structure works, it won’t mean a thing,’ McLaughlin points out. ‘Books teach you how to create, develop and polish characters and concepts’that will make you a better artist as well as a writer. It’ll also make you more interesting at parties.’

J.G. Quintel

Creator, Regular Show [Cartoon Network]

Don’t be so fast to put those stepping-stone student films behind you, kids. If it weren’t for two shorts he completed at the California Institute of the Arts, animator J.G. Quintel wouldn’t have created the ecclectic cast of his first series, Regular Show (set to debut later this year).

The 27 year old, who grew up ‘in the middle of nowhere’ in Northern California, knew he was destined for animation from an early age. ‘Watching cartoons as a kid, really the only thing I ever wanted to do was make cartoons. And I’d always be drawing,’ he recalls.

At CalArts (from which he was rejected’twice!) Quintel made his shorts The Na’ve Man from Lolliland and 2 in the AM PM, creating characters who later became Mordicai, Pops and Benson the irritible gumball machine in Regular Show. ‘Once Cartoonstitute came around and they wanted new things, I kind of threw all the characters together and tried to make up a story,’ he laughs. ‘I was like, man, I want to use them again, because I don’t like to do character design’it takes a long time!’

Quintel credits his break into the big leagues of TV animation to his friend, The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack creator Thurop Van Orman. The two worked together on Camp Lazlo before Flapjack was picked up. It was during his stint as creative director on the show that Cartoon Network’s Cartoonstitute program sprung up and, well, the rest is history.

When he’s not caught up in one of the CN animation department’s extemporaneous wrestling matches (Who wouldn’t pay to see that?), Quintel imagines his future in TV animation. ‘The part of working in TV that I like is you kind of do it, and they take it away from you because you’re out of time, and you just hope it works! I really like making shorts, and TV is the closest you can get to that.’ As for those who wish to follow in his footsteps: ‘It’s just important to just keep trying,’ he advises. ‘Just because someone says ‘No’ at first doesn’t mean you can’t grow and change and create something later that people are really into. What you’re doing right now, you may be really into it but a year from now you’ll be like, ‘What was I thinking?’ Just keep at it. You’ll be rejected many times.’

Tarik Saleh

Director, Metropia

If we could award the title ‘Animation Mold-Breaker of the Year,’ it could easily go to Tarik Saleh. The 38-year-old Egyptian-Swedish director, a native of Stockholm, has been attracting mounds of praise for his film Metropia, unusual and innovative in both its look and story. The film uses morphed photographs as the basis of its animation, and centers on a disenchanted young man in a dismal future Europe who uncovers the bizarre truth about corporations’ control over humanity.

‘I think we’re living right now in a sort of Rennaissance of animation, because for years the industry sort of took the beauty out of animation. They industrialized the process so much that there was no soul left,’ Saleh explains. He cites the rise of CG as the turning point for large studios like Pixar and Blue Sky, and independent studios like his Atmo Animation as crucial to this Rennaissance. ‘Part of Metropia was breaking some of those conventions of how animation should be.’

The talented graffitti artist-turned-animation director has produced over 30 animated shorts. And it’s no wonder: Saleh grew up in his father’s stop-motion animation studio. Although, he almost gave it up entirely. ‘I was the guy who modeled all the heads, because we were doing like 350 heads to make all the expressions. It took like a year,’ he elaborates, ‘And then [my father] came in one morning and just said, ‘I think we can do this with 30 heads,’ and I sort of snapped. I was like, f*** you, f*** animation forever!’ Happily, that feeling didn’t stick.

Saleh, whose influences range from Yuriy Norshteyn to Tim Burton to Disney’s Dumbo, considers himself ‘a mix between Steven Spielberg and David Lynch. I see Metropia almost as my Eraserhead. I think I will do big films, that maybe appeal to more people than Metropia does, because it is so specific, so personal, I don’t expect everyone to understand it.’ He says he has his next three films already in mind, although not all are fully animated projects.

‘It’s not about patience,’ he says of working in the animation medium, ‘It’s about loving every step, and feeling like you don’t want each step to end. Don’t ask permission to do your film, take permission. Give yourself the permission.’

Tessa and Sascha Hartmann

Writer and Director, Sir Billi

Most parents of four would want nothing more on their plate at the end of the day than a hot shower and heavy sleep. But husband and wife team Sascha and Tessa Hartmann managed to craft Scotland’s first fully animated feature film, thanks in part to their hectic parental roles. ‘We created Sir Billi after the kids went to bed, at the ktichen table over a glass of wine. That one evening was the inspiration,’ Tessa, who was born and raised in Glasgow, explains.

With their combined backgrounds in marketing and special effects, the couple founded Glasgow Animation in 2000 and created the U.K.’s first virtual pop icon, T-Babe. And a very successful one, at that! ‘We call her our guardian angel, because she gave us the opportunity to create the film company,’ says Tessa.

Sir Billi tells the tale of a super-active, skateboarding grandpa’the local veterinarian’who helps a hapless beaver escape her tormentors in lush the Scottish Highlands. One of the world’s most recognizable Scots, Sir Sean Connery, has given an incredible boost to the film by voicing the lead. In fact, Tessa shares, it was Sir Sean’s suggestion that the project be made into a feature!

Sascha, an artist and illustrator who was born in Switzerland, believes that the secrets to their remarkable success are pure tenacity, creativity and having a firm plan from the get-go. ‘Our approach was very paranoid in the sense that we were so structured and systematic about the whole thing,’ he recalls. Tessa refers to herself as the ‘wall’ that protects her creative husband from the nitty-gritty of fundraising and business dealings. ‘People must realize that it doesn’t matter how many doors you knock on’because believe me, I’ve knocked on all of them!’ she laughs, ‘[Rejection] is water off a duck’s back to me, I just keep going ’til I get the answer I want!’

The animation community will definitely be keeping an eye on this dynamic duo, who already have plans for Sir Billi 2 and other projects on their docket. As for their first feature effort, it’s like another child: They just hope they’ve brought it up right and that other people love it as much as they do. ‘We hope that the passion and emotion, and blood, sweat and tears really show up in the film,’ says Sascha. ‘It’s about heart’that heart beat that goes throughout the whole film. And we just hope that it translates.’