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Rising Stars of Animation: 2011
We searched high and low to find some of the brightest, bravest and most talented up-and-coming over-achievers in the toon scene.
Zack Keller & Ed Skudder
Co-Creators, Dick Figures
[6 Point Media]
Work goes faster when you have a good buddy helping you out—or hurling insults at you, or postulating zombie apocalypse survival plans. Luckily for the adventurous if a bit disturbed minds behind Six Point Harness’s Dick Figures web series, that’s exactly how their hilarious shorts get done. Written, directed and starring creators Ed Skudder and Zack Keller, the hilariously senseless and cuss-filled adventures of stick figures Red and Blue took a nice slice of the Internet pie when they debuted last year. Now into its third season, the show is distributed by Mondo Media under its Mondo Mini Shows banner.
The duo met while attending the University of Southern California, where Keller was studying live-action production, “Thankfully that’s where I met Ed, and he can draw!” While Skudder took a couple of classes at USC (“Where I met Zach, who can’t draw,” he adds), he describes himself as mostly self-taught in the art of animation. Skudder hit his first big break when his short The New Guy caught the attention of Six Point Harness. Keller took a different route, taking on an editorial internship at Pixar at the end of his college days.
“Though I had very little experience working in animation at the time, I absolutely fell in love with it after working there,” he recalls, “…I was not only exposed to their philosophy on character and story, but also what it’s like to work with unbelievably talented people who constantly strive to make the best movie and have a lot of fun while doing it.”
Skudder and Keller have worked on several projects at SPH, but it wasn’t until the studio went on an in-house quest for original projects that Dick Figures took shape. “We’re lazy,” jokes Skudder, “No, we were just looking for a simple way to tell a ton of crazy, funny stories quickly, and stick figures seemed like the best bet for a web series.” He notes that web videos like Xiao Xiao and SFDT helped inspire him, and that the main characters’ personalities pop out of his comic arguments with Keller. “Also, the good thing about stick figures is that whenever there’s fan art, it’s always on-model,” he adds.
Despite the frantic pace of producing a weekly episode (“Next season, we’re switching to mo-cap,” jokes Skudder) on top of being on the commercial director roster and working on several shows at 6 Point, including Electric City and MTV’s Good Vibes, the guys just love coming up with crazy new torments for their stick figure alter-egos. They are also currently moving forward on a film project called The Inventors which they came up with in college and has now attracted funding and some primo Hollywood talent. In the meantime, you can keep the “Panda Hat” episode on repeat.
Director/Creator The Critter Litter
[Oh Yeah Wow/Chocolate Liberation Front]
The toon biz craves fresh ideas constantly—and you’d be hard pressed to find a much fresher face than that of Australian claymation auteur Darcy Prendergast. A alumnus of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (where he now lectures on experimental stop-motion), Prendergast first blipped onto the radar when his graduate film Ron the Zookeeper (2007) was selected for Annecy. Since then he’s dabbled in other impressive arenas, working on kids programming at ABC, landing a lead sculptor position on Adam Elliot’s Mary and Max and crafting the long exposure “light painting” films Lucky and Rippled.
“I love drawing cartoons, I love story telling and I’ve always had a knack for sculpting. As I aged, I guess these areas of interest never really changed … and so I gravitated towards clay animation—a medium where I could combine all of these passions, plus more,” Prendergast explains, adding that working in animation makes him feel like “a kid in a candy store,” which isn’t that far off.
His latest sweet treat is the stop-motion kiddy show The Critter Litter currently in development at Nickelodeon. It stars a cute cast of clay animals—Lenny the Llama, Curtis the Crocodile, Tali the Turtle, Mansell the Monkey and Fish—whose daydreams in preschool lead to charming adventures. Prendergast notes that his father was a zookeeper for 28 years, leaving his son with an engrained love of wildlife—especially llamas. The ambitious animator feels it was his destiny to work with animal characters and share his love of the animal kingdom with young viewers. Of course, even the cuddliest llama sometimes spits on your shoes!
“Every time you create for a different audience, there is an inherent learning curve,” he says of the challenges of creating the show, “Just thinking about the various things that the younglings do, like how they pick a favorite character based on favorite color as opposed to animal. So for example, we’ll probably have to change Tali the Turtle’s colors as two greens—despite being different shades—is a no-no for the kiddies!”
But despite the quirks of making an appealing kids’ series, Prendergast is just happy to be able to use his creativity for something he loves. As to what we can expect from the up-and-coming Aussie in the next few years, Prendergast is optimistic about this project. “Critter Litter is my baby. Hopefully it’s a wild success and I’m still making kidlets chuckle in their lounge rooms for years to come. One can only hope…!”
Edward & Rory McHenry
Directors, Jackboots on Whitehall
[Entertainment Motion Pictures]
We’ve all seen our share of World War II films—sometimes several in a year—but trust us, you haven’t seen anything like the historical spoof that brothers Edward and Rory McHenry completed last year. The U.K. directing team’s feature effort Jackboots on Whitehall is a humorous alternate history actioner about a group of English villagers defending their country from a Nazi invasion. The impressive voice cast includes Ewan McGregor, Rosamund Pike, Tom Wilkinson and Alan Cumming. And it’s all done with puppets.
“It’s a mix between animatronics, rod puppetry and CGI,” the filmmakers explain. Servo motors in the 12-inch figures’ necks and shoulders were radio controlled, a rod puppetry rig helped them walk and vfx software aided facial expressions and lip synching. The inspiration for the feature came after a trilogy of similarly (if more crudely) crafted shorts about the Vietnam War—but the brothers realized in order to get U.K. funding they needed something closer to home. “So much British humor comes from that period and there’s such a rich palette of historical figures to spoof that it was a no brainer,” they add.
The McHenry’s interest in animation and puppetry, they say, stems from their love of character-driven stories and the feeling that the best characters are found in animation. They put a high priority on working with their sculptors to create expressive characters for Jackboots.
“It’s far more important to have great characters in animation because, as a filmmaker, you are challenged with the very daunting task of bringing an inanimate object to life—in live action you can put an actor on screen and the audience automatically knows they are watching a living person, in animation that is the first hurdle you have to jump,” they explain.
Self-taught filmmakers, the McHenrys first started making movies in the garden of their childhood home; blowing up action figures on camera. And not much has changed. They say some of the best fun they had was shooting the explosions, even though the special effects crew sometimes got overzealous. “One of the fireballs was so big it blew the lighting rig off the ceiling and blew the stage door open,” they recall, “We nearly burned the stage down when the Zeppelin exploded…”
Jackboots has earned some nods since premiering at Edinburgh last year, including the Stitges Film Festival’s Gertie award; more recently there were jackboots on U.S. soil as the film invaded Comic-Con. While their latest project was live-action short The Commuter (for Nokia U.K.), don’t think the toon world has seen the last of the McHenry Brothers: They tell us they’re very interested in doing a CG film. Just imagine what they could do without the danger of burning down a sound stage!
Assistant Director, Wendy
[Red Kite Animation]
From sunny South America to the blustery climes of the U.K., Hugo Cuellar has followed his thirst for animation. Born in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, Cuellar came to the United Kingdom to study animation at the Edinburgh College of Art. After honing his talents at the school, he was commissioned to direct and animate a short film project, Famine (2006). For this, he was allotted space at Edinburgh’s Red Kite studio. Five years later, he’s still there.
“It’s been great working at a studio where you are given a lot of freedom to develop your skills and evolve, just as the company has evolved over the past few years,” says the ambitious animator, who notes that he has worn many hats at the studio—animator, compositor, character/background designer and storyboarder—which lead to his natural transition to assistant director on the studio’s new teen drama, Wendy.
Based on the popular magazine serial published by Egmont in Germany and Scandinavia, Wendy follows a 15-year-old girl who lives at her family’s horse riding school, dealing with the typical ups and downs of teenhood.
“This is the first 3D series I’ve worked on, so there’ s a lot to learn and take into account if you’re coming from a 2D background,” says Cueller. “Nonetheless, one of the things that I love most about the series is the very fact that now there are so many possibilities that 3D offers in terms of cinematography and animation. It’s going to be a beautiful show.” Cueller adds that one of the biggest challenges of his new job is dealing with foreign partner studios, ensuring clear communication as to what’s needed, despite the distance.
Like many animators, Cueller grew up with a veneration for the classic Warner Bros. and Disney cartoons, with Ren & Stimpy, The Simpsons and Japanese anime rounding out his list of inspirations. “My all-time animation idols are Milt Kahl for his genius in animation, Brad Bird for excellent directing and John Kricfalusi for pushing the boundaries of sanity in animation … and of course, Genndy Tartakovsky for being so versatile and innovative,” he adds.
When it comes to advice for like-minded aspiring toonsters, Cueller stresses the importance of watching a lot of movies (not just animation) to sharpen your filmmaking skills, drawing constantly, studying the work of other animators and remaining true to your creative self. “Know yourself and what kind of person you are,” he declaims, “Tim Burton started working in Disney, but because of his ideals and personal vision, he left and went on to create some of the most amazing and timeless pieces of film out there!
“And, finally: Be a team player. You’ll learn more than you did in school while working with other people.” A truth exemplified by Cueller’s own rapid climb up the Red Kite ranks.
While his professional training was in interior design and architecture, Raja Masilamani’s big break in animation came in 2007 when international children’s channel KidsCo’s invited him to be part of a competitive pitch for its design work. Thanks to his successful pitch, Masilamani nabbed the key branding and marketing job for the broadcaster, and his distinctive, colorful designs are reflected in KidsCo’s logo and special event indents today. Since then, he also played a central role in the development of Boo and Me, the broadcaster’s first animated original production (a co-venture with Inspidea Animation). Masilamani is also working on a new co-pro with Chennai-based studio Image Ventures, which follows the adventures of a hero who solves problems without “violence, malevolence or excessive combat.”
The hard-working Malaysian-born artist says he finds his inspiration though rigorous research paired with a detailed understanding of the target audience. “I watch a variety of animated TV shows and features which can sometimes trigger ideas or concepts that I then develop into future characterizations,” he says. “I like to be totally original yet I also believe that nobody can completely reinvent the wheel!”
As a kid, Masilamani used to love watching The Flintstones. He also has a soft spot for Valley of the Dinosaurs and Inspector Gadget. “Inspector Gadget, was quite ahead of its time, because it tackled technology and environmental issues in a smart and cool way!” he adds.
He offers three pieces of advice for those who want to get ahead in the business: “Be passionate about what you do. Ensure you are able to sell your concept in a few sentences in a creative and entertaining way. Having a powerful show bible is absolutely critical!”
Regardless of professional challenges, Masilamani says he loves animation because it encourages creativity. ” “It is always exciting to see your characters come to life on screen, whether in 2D or CG animation,” he says. “And the cherry on the top is to see kids and families enjoying your creation. My only enemy is time. As a perfectionist I always want more!”
Creator, Gravity Falls
The gifted 25-year-old creator of Disney Channel’s new animated show Gravity Falls believes that everyone starts out interested in animation, but then, they grow up. “Only a select few adults are chosen by fate to never mature an turn into weird, cartoon-obsessed man- or woman-children,” he theorizes. “I am one of these lucky few!”
During his senior year at CalArts, Hirsch uploaded his short Off the Wall on YouTube. “The animation was crappy, but the story was funny and I think people really responded to the rough, spontaneous, home-made quality of it,” he admits. “It got me a ton of attention from the industry. I remember in one day I got a call from Pixar, Disney and Jeffrey Katzenberg himself. I’m not kidding!”
He says he went from unknown to underrated in the course of one day! He also got a call from his friend J.G. Quintel, who offered him a job on Cartoon Network’s The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack. He says he lept at the chance because he thinks TV is much more exciting than features. “It’s faster, more spontaneous, and has much more room for creative authorship. Plus, I got to be Pen Ward’s [creator of Adventure Time] board partner. What could be greater than that? I’ve been writing, directing, and doing voices for TV ever since!
His Disney Channel series is inspired by the long summers he and his twin sister Ariel used to spend at their great aunt’s log cabin in the woods. “Even though my sister was perpetually annoying and had the world’s worst taste in music, boys, and fashion, she was the only friend I had up there, and we actually bonded,” Hirsh recalls. “So maybe we were high on the thin mountain air, but those summers were some of my best childhood memories. I figured that there was probably a seed for a TV series in there: All I had to do was add some gnomes, monsters, time travel, and an insane old Shriner. Ta-da! Gravity Falls!”
Citing The Simpsons, Calvin & Hobbes, Bones and Adventure Time as his favorite sources of inspiration, Hirsch says he believes that I great children’s entertainment should be layered enough that the older you get, the more you appreciate it. He also has some great words of advice for future toon pros: “Don’t get too precious with your work- make stuff that’s rough, and bold, and fun, and don’t hide from feedback. Always show your work to an audience. Instead of spending 10 years trying to make one perfect film, spend 10 days making ten crappy films. I guarantee one of them will turn out hilarious!”
Director, Plankton Invasion & Angelo Rules
Up-and-coming TV animation director Chloe Miller remembers attending the famous Annecy Festival and meeting people who worked in the industry when she was in high school. The bright 32-year-old, who grew up in Chambéry (not far from Annecy) studied animation in Angouleme at EMCA and La Poudriere in Valence. “I liked animation from an early age and I knew I wanted to work in the field since I was in high school,” she tells Animag.
She finds herself very busy these days at thriving Frence studio Teamto. Not only is she directing an episode of Plankton Invasion, she is working on web projects for the show and a videogame for Angelo Rules. Miller will also direct episodes of the second season of Angelo Rules.
“I love working with a lot of creative and interesting people to produce the best show we possibly can,” says Miller. “When directing I work with a lot of different people and I have to make sure that everyone is working in the same direction. Sometime it can be difficult, because we don’t always agree, but it’s also challenging and motivating. I’m satisfied when every people working on the show is proud of the result.”
When asked about her animation influences, she mentions Japanese helmers Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki. “I think the messages and the emotions they convey in their films are amazing. I think Takahata’s work about relationships are very sensitive, while the universe of Miyazaki is magic and wonderful. I used to like Disney’s Little Mermaid when I was a young girl, but today, I’m much more fond of Nausicaa and Princess Mononoke!” In the future, the young director would love to develop a TV project that features a strong female lead in a more adult-oriented show.
Miller advises animation students to be curious about every thing and try to see as many films as they can without prejudice. She says wisely, “The best educational experience is seeing what other talented animators from all over the world have done.”
Al Di Leo
Director, The Boy Who Wanted to Be a Lion
Anyone who has created a poetic, beautifully crafted animated short knows that it’s not easy to get it noticed in a world full of noisy, commercially minded distractions. It’s certainly a good sign that Al De Leo’s wonderful gem, The Boy Who Wanted to Be a Lion, has been able to draw lots of attention and win some awards since its completion in 2010. Earlier this year, the short took home the prestigious prize for Best Graduation Film at the Stuttgard Animaton Festival.
Born in Peru and raised in Brazil, the 28-year-old animator studied graphic design in Sao Paulo and received a Masters in animation direction at London’s National Film and TV School. His graduation project, which centers on a young boy who has a life-changing encounter at the zoo, was inspired by a story by Jeremie Dubois. Working with a 6000 pound budget (about $9500), the film took about 13 months to finish.
“The short is all hand-drawn pencil on paper, but I used a big range of tools,” he tell us. “Most of the film was recorded as live action so that I had a solid realistic reference to animate and to play with. Some parts were rotoscoped, and some parts I used keyframes from the live action, while some were purely hand drawn. The backgrounds were mostly made in CGI and then redrawn on paper and colored digitally. The film is colored using scanned pieces of paper.”
He found the short’s sound and music the most difficult aspects of the job since the process turned out to be more complicated than he expected because of the delicacy of the ending and the subject. But overall, he absolutely loves working in the medium. “I especially love the fact that you can shape every single aspect of all the elements in order achieve the best possible direction for the story.”
It’s not surprising that his animation hero is indie Japanese artist Koji Yamamura, who also specializes in poetic, masterfully drawn shorts such as Mt. Head and The Country Doctor which have dazzled the festival crowds.
When we ask him about his future plans, he responds, “I directed and wrote a short live action film which is being edited at the moment. I have some ideas for the next short animated film. It’s hard to tell what is going to happen, but for sure I have the intention of making another short animated film soon.” We’ll certainly be watching, Al!
Creator, Secret Mountain Fort Awesome
The youngest of five children, Peter Browngardt fell in love with animation and making Super 8 and stop-motion shorts back when he was in grade school in Long Island, N.Y. The 32-year-old creator of Cartoon Network’s zany new offering Secret Mountain Fort Awesome, has been working steadily in the business since he graduated from CalArts’ character animation program. He has worked at Augenblick Studios, MTV, Futurama, The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack and Chowder, and is the man behind the offbeat Emmy-nominated short Uncle Grandpa. He even landed a computer animation apprenticeship at ILM. However, it’s the oddball gang of monsters he created that will put him in the pop culture limelight this fall.
“The new series is about a misfit gang of monsters that live underground and aren’t accepted by humans,” he tells us. “They have all kinds of misadventures and try to have fun, gain acceptance—and be awesome!”
Things started really happening for the talented animator after his Uncle Grandpa short began getting raves and a cult following. When Chowder creator C. H. Greenblatt took a look at one of the pitch bibles he had left behind at the studio, he offered him a job. “I knew Chowder was going to be a wonderful show because it’s written and drawn by animators. I always thought it would be fantastic to create cartoons the way they did in the ’40s,” says Browngardt, who grew up devouring MAD magazine, Gary Larson’s The Far Side and watching He-Man and Tex Avery shorts on TV.
What he loves best about his job these days is that he gets to work with creative people he admires and that they get to make people laugh and come up with fun ideas. “Our production schedule is really tight, so we have to manage our time really well and pick our battles,” he admits. “It’s all about learning to pick your battles, letting go and finding the right balance. Sometimes, you have to stop and ask yourself, “Is my grandma going to notice this?”
Browngardt’s advice for his those who dreams of creating cool animated shows for TV viewers? Don’t be narrow-minded and just focus on one kind of art form,” he says. “You can find inspiration in music and pop art or films—just look at the world around you. And draw a lot!”
Michelle Kim & Nuranee Shaw
It’s quite hard to resist the charms of Kioka, the arresting CG-animated preschool show created by Korean artist Michelle Kim and her Canadian partner Nuranee Shaw. The talented duo left their jobs in Canada to work with Korean producer Hong-ki Kim, who started his own studio Goldilocks to launch their show.
Kim says she wanted to create a preschool series that had a strong sense of fun and didn’t take itself too seriously, just like the ones she used to watch when she was a kid. “Michelle had the idea of a bright little girl who has a really unique way of looking at things, especially how she solved little situations that would come up with her toy friends,” says Shaw. “We really liked the way children can describe things, how imaginative and creative they can be.”
As a young girl, Kim used to love watching Tom and Jerry cartoons and Sesame Street on Korean TV. These days, she finds inspiration in two of her favorite books, The Art of Lilo and Stitch and The Art of Monsters, Inc. “I really like Chris Sanders’ and Dean DeBlois’ drawings,” she says. Shaw also praises Looney Tunes shorts and Disney movies such as Bambi and Peter Pan. “The classics have great acting and timing, and personality,” he points out.
Both Kim and Shaw admit that getting people to listen to their pitch, concept and vision is one of the most difficult aspects of the job. “Finding the right people who want to take a chance on your project, and also the struggles of financing are always challenging,” says Kim. “We were fortunate to find a company in Korea that believed in the show. Goldilocks Studio liked the concept and really wanted to make something that was different than what was being produced in the country at the time. Then, we were able to secure a local broadcaster first (KBS in Korea) and get a distributor who loved the show, AWOL Animation in France, led by Julie Fox.”
Kim says she loves animation because it’s a wonderful medium that allows people to tell stories that are universal. “I love the fact that kids can enjoy a show or movie, no matter what country it was made in.” Shaw chimes in, “Meeting and working with talented and creative people is another huge draw. Throughout my career, I’ve been fortunate to meet some great people from all over the world—some very funny and crazy people!”