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Animag’s 2020 Rising Stars of Animation

Animation Magazine's Rising Stars of 2020

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Animag’s 2020 Rising Stars of Animation

The 14 women and men we profile in this year’s Rising Stars feature in Animation Magazine‘s April issue come from a wide range of backgrounds and disciplines. What they share is a passion for the art and craft of animation and storytelling, deep respect for the trailblazers before them and a burning desire to make a difference in their specific field of expertise.

Julien Bisaro

Julien Bisaro

Julien Bisaro

Storyboard Artist/Director, Xilam Animation

One of French storyboard artist and director Julien Bisaro’s earliest movie memories goes back to the time he was seven or eight, when he saw Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, along with the stop-motion animated short Bluebeard by Olivier Gillon. As he describes it, “It was a baroque profusion of creativity and unbridled imagination that left a deep mark on me!”

The 38-year-old Saint-Avold native studied at the Beaux-Arts Academy of Epinal and went on to train at the prestigious La Poudrière animation school. Soon, he found himself working as a background and layout artist on Brendan and the Secret of Kells; animator and chief layout designer on Ernest & Celestine; storyboarder and co-graphic designer on Le Tableau; and most recently as an Annie-nominated storyboard artist on the multi-award winning feature I Lost My Body.

Bisaro’s animated short Bang Bang! was nominated for a César and was a festival favorite in 2015. His most recent half-hour short Shooom’s Odyssey was released in French theaters in January. He’s now developing his first feature with Xilam’s CEO and producer Marc du Pontavice.

He tells us that he loves the storyboard and animatics stages of an animated project. “For me, it’s like writing with images,” he explains. “You can experiment with so many things, design a film’s shape. It’s a pleasant stage in the work, because it doesn’t require massive investment. You can get rid of whatever doesn’t work and start over again until you reach the emotion you’re after!”

Bisaro maintains that kicking off a new project is always a challenge. “I just finished a medium-length feature for preschoolers,” he points out. “We wanted to create a first film experience for very young children (three-year olds), a non-anthropomorphic view of animals in nature. The new feature film I’m developing also focuses on nature and animals, but this time, we aim for an adult audience. Though the subjects are very close, the issues and intrigues are completely different, and that’s what makes it very stimulating.”

He is quite modest when we ask him to share some career advice with us. His response is, “I don’t feel that it’s entirely appropriate for me to offer advice about working in animation, but I’d recommend that you mustn’t forget your personal motivations, the ones that led you into the business. It is very important to maintain a space of personal creativity.” Now these are words to keep close to your heart.

Gyimah Gariba

Gyimah Gariba

Gyimah Gariba

Show Creator/Designer, Big Blue, Guru Studio

When Gyimah Gariba was a young boy growing up in Accra, Ghana, he was influenced by a wide range of animated shows and movies, from Dexter’s Laboratory and Wacky Races, to classic Looney Tunes cartoons and Disney features. When he was 18, he got accepted into a B.A. program for illustration as well as animation. “My best friend helped me choose animation because I was really into film at the time. It seemed like a good way to engage storytelling, music and acting while also getting to have input on visuals,” he recalls.

His first big break happened when he interned as a character designer on the first season of Black Dynamite at Titmouse alongside some of his draftsman heroes. These days, he is overseeing his own show Big Blue at Toronto’s Guru Studio. “Growing up, I loved The Little Mermaid and that generated an interest in the mystery of the underwater world,” he notes. “The whole idea that it is as much of an unexplored mystery as outer space was always really exciting to me. I also always wanted to tell a story that revolved around kids being there for each other and having the space to learn from one another in the absence of adults.”

Gariba says he loves that the solutions of his job are usually hidden in silliness. “Story points and strong character jokes are deceptively simple to string through a good story,” he explains. “The comedy forces us to take a step back from the project and find the simplicity in the gag and not over think it all too much. The only way to know that what we’re doing is working is when we’re laughing. It’s a nice way to balance out the stress of building a world on a tight deadline.”

“I’m inspired by Richard Williams, Genndy Tartakovsky and Brad Bird,” says the 27-year-old artist. “They all have an amazing ability to take an idea and find the comedy, the heart and the action in it while still delivering a fresh story. They do a good job of finding balance in their work and they tend to function on a kid level just as well as on an adult level.”

He also has great plans for the future. “I hope to become a better storyteller and to move into writing. Having been a part of productions at different levels, I’m really interested in how each department can elevate the next. I’m interested in getting into the core of an idea first on the page — then seeing it through to its visualization.”

He also leaves us with a great piece of advice: “To consider the responsibility and privilege of helping others dream is not a skill to take lightly.”

Flávia Güttler

Flávia Güttler

Flávia Güttler

Animation Director, Carmen Sandiego, WildBrain

“I learned everything on the job and gained a lot of experience from the animators and supervisors around me,” says Flávia Güttler, the dynamic animation director of WildBrain’s Carmen Sandiego series for Netflix. Born in Petrópolis, in the Rio de Janeiro municipality of Brazil, the 33-year-old artist says she was very fortunate to find her first job at a small studio which had a traditional animator as its leader. She recalls, “We always talked about how cut-out animation could be more and how much potential it has, should only traditional methodology be applied to it. That has forever stuck in my mind and it’s a philosophy I carry with me to this day, influencing my work entirely.”

Güttler says she was deeply influenced by the classic live-action Batman series from the 1960s when she was growing up. “That series basically shaped my silly sense of humor and righteousness towards the world. It also made me love neon-bright characters and heroes, plus that crime-fighting, frilly bike that Batgirl had was just too ridiculously awesome not to make a lasting impression. It was the perfect synthesis between power and action with feminine aesthetic, and it stuck with me to this day!”

Not surprisingly, she fell in love with Bruce Timm’s Batman: The Animated Series when she was a little older. “With great character development and storylines, it used silly villains and hero archetypes to explore bigger themes of the real world, society and even psychology. All that in a cartoon for kids! I was hooked and, again, forever influenced by it,” she notes.

Güttler always loved to draw but was often told that she couldn’t make a decent living through art, so she dropped out of fine arts school. She worked as a designer and web programmer for a few years, and when she was assigned to design and draw animated web banners, she realized she wanted to pursue animation as a career. “I was doing a few doodles and experimenting with Flash when an online friend (from DeviantArt, of all places) told me about an animation studio he worked at. They were desperate, so I went there with just a handful of drawings under my arm and got a job as a junior animator!”

She says she loves her current job at WildBrain because it allows her to develop a show’s animation style, finding the characters’ personalities and building the rules that make the show look unified. “As the animation director, it’s really great to be the one witnessing it all, taking those ‘a-ha!’ moments and sharing with others, electing the ones to be followed, scooching everyone towards the direction you envisioned and what fits the show.”

Her special career tips? “Work, work, work! Hard work pays off and is recognized,” Güttler advises. “If you are at a really small studio and you are either not being recognized or too good for it, move on. Find a bigger, more challenging one, change countries in search of opportunity … Also, do anything you can to keep the drawing flame alive and keep practicing. What many new animators fail to see is that even though we have very stylized cartoons and a lot of cut-out animation on the market, your work will be a thousand times better, more creative and original if you draw and have strong traditional skills to back it up.”

Sunil Hall

Sunil Hall

Sunil Hall 

Co-Creator/Exec Producer, The Mighty Ones, DreamWorks Animation

Sunil Hall’s impressive list of TV credits includes high-profile shows such as Gravity Falls, Pickle and Peanut and The Penguins of Madagascar. But 2020 could be his biggest and busiest year ever, since The Mighty Ones, the show he co-created and exec produces, will debut on Hulu and Peacock.

The show’s origins go back about seven years ago when Hall’s friend Lynne Naylor showed him a series of loose cartoon ideas. “She had a sketch of some tiny creatures — a rock, leaf and stick — which I was totally drawn to. They were these side characters in a bigger story. I suggested we focus on those little guys and what their lives are like. Something about these tiny creatures having to navigate a giant unpredictable world really appealed to me. They are inspired by a lot of the interesting eccentric people we have met in the animation industry!”

Hall’s interest in animation had a gradual build. “I’ve always been drawing, and I started taking serious art classes when I was 10. At about 12 or 13, I got into drawing comics. Around that time my mom got a video camera, so I started making films and animated projects. In high school we had a small animation program. My teacher told me about CalArts and I went to an open house. Seeing all the student work was huge for me. I think that was the moment I was like, ‘Yeah, this is what I’m doing with my life.’”

After graduating from CalArts, Hall accepted an internship at a small startup studio called StickyFlicks. “I mostly did cleanups, a little design work and I got Starbucks coffee for people. Then I spilled a ton of coffee down my own back. After that, I didn’t have to get coffee anymore. My first long-term job was as prop designer on Nickelodeon’s My Life as a Teenage Robot. It was an amazing crew. I’m still friends with many of the people I met on that show, and several of them work on The Mighty Ones.”

Hall says one of the things he loves about his job is that he gets to make stupid jokes and draw with a bunch of funny, talented people. “The show has really grown and changed into something much better than what we started with. Watching all these amazing designers and story people take ownership and push the show to new levels is really awesome,” he offers. “The tough part is that no one teaches you how to run a show, they just kind of drop you in.”

One of the people who left a lasting impact on Hall was animation director and designer Chris Reccardi, who passed away in 2019. “Chris’s work was really influential on me when I was in school. I got to know him when I was at Nickelodeon, and we used to go on snowboarding trips together. He introduced me to his wife Lynne (another animation idol I was lucky enough to work with) on one of these trips, and that meeting kicked off our creative collaboration on The Mighty Ones. Chris boarded and wrote part of our pilot episode. I am really lucky to have known him.”

Hall also leaves us with some sage advice. He says, “Learn to pace yourself so you don’t burn out. Enjoy down time when you can. Get home before your kids go to sleep.”

Niki López

Niki López

Niki López

Creator/Producer, Santiago of the Seas, Nickelodeon

A native of San Juan, Puerto Rico, Niki López put a lot of her own cultural heritage and background into the world of Nickelodeon’s upcoming series Santiago of the Seas. The colorful toon, which is infused with a Spanish-language and Latino-Caribbean culture curriculum, centers on the adventures of a brave and kind-hearted pirate who searches for treasures and keeps the high seas safe from villains.

López, who grew up watching Disney movies such as Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid, says she was also deeply influenced by the 1992 feature FernGully: The Last Rainforest. “I guess that inspired the little environmentalist in me as a kid,” she says. “I studied illustration and computer animation at Ringling, and I really wanted to further develop my skills and dig deeper into doing creative work, but I was open to anything.”

After a brief stint in advertising, López decided to really start exploring her options in animation. A meeting with a Nickelodeon recruiter at an animation event led to her landing an internship at the studio in 2009. “I grew up a Nickelodeon kid and the energy and personality of the studio really resonated with me, so I really wanted to be part of it,” she recalls.

The internship led to gigs on Kung Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness, The Fairly OddParents and Harvey Beaks. “I was really inspired by what edgy and fun shows the preschool team was working on. Because the studio has an open-door pitching policy from the staff, I decided to pitch them some ideas, too. After all, what was the worst that could happen? I even took a month’s sabbatical and traveled to Puerto Rico and New Orleans to get the right inspirations for the pitch.”

The development execs at Nick really liked her pitch, and Lopez’s show is set to debut on the cabler later this year. “I am really proud of how cinematic the series looks,” she admits. “I love the rich greens and blues, and how the colors are so vibrant and dynamic.” She also says that she has learned a lot of great lessons along the way. “As a first-time showrunner, you discover that there are lots of challenges, but they can be huge lessons to help you in the future,” says the wise and brilliant 35-year-old artist. “The most important thing is to trust your gut. It’s easy to get off track and forget the reason you decided to do something in the first place. Animation is a team effort, but you have to make sure that your voice doesn’t get lost. Always be open to collaboration, but don’t lose sight of the real core of your vision.”

Kyle McQueen

Kyle McQueen

Kyle McQueen

Production Designer, The Willoughbys, Netflix

If you want to get a sense of Kyle McQueen’s keen artistic eye, you’ll have to check out the new Netflix/Bron Studio movie The Willoughbys this spring. You will get a good sense of his unique aesthetic style in almost every frame. “The look of The Willoughbys came out of wanting to create a visceral and immersive experience for the audience,” he says. “We looked at toys, puppetry, stop motion and mid-century children’s book illustration to help us build something that felt handmade rather than digital. After all, The Willoughbys is an old-fashioned story about kids raised on books!”

Born and raised in Cambridge, Ontario, Canada, McQueen grew up loving shows such as Batman: The Animated Series, Ren & Stimpy, Rocky and Bullwinkle and movies such as Akira, The Iron Giant and Disney’s Robin Hood. “And about 6,000 others … If it was animated, I was watching it,” recalls McQueen. “I just always knew that if I could draw for a living, then I could be happy. I do remember watching The Lion King and thinking, ‘Yup, that’s what I’m going to do!’”

He went on to study classical animation at Sheridan College. “I was part of a graduating class of heavy hitters, including Jon Klassen and Vera Brosgol. It took me three tries to get in. So, kids (and adults): Never give up on your dream,” says the 38-year old. His first job out of college was working as a layout artist on an animated series called Being Ian in Vancouver, which led to other industry jobs, including production designer on the 2016 movie Sausage Party.

McQueen names Chuck Jones, Michael Maltese, Ward Kimball, Maurice Noble, Craig Kellman, Lou Romano and Genndy Tartakovsky among his growing list of animation idols. He also tells us that he loves creating a harmony between story and style, even though working on movies requires a lot of patience. “These movies take a long, long time to make!” he adds.

The in-demand production designer has some very practical tips for those who want to pursue a career in animation. “Leave the sketchbook at home, get outside and experience life. Like, really experience it. Go see bands. Eat weird food. Read books that aren’t about animation. Be spontaneous. Make mistakes. Allow yourself the time to truly absorb it. Experience, good or bad, will make your ideas more honest and inspire new ones. The narrower your view of the world, the narrower your contribution to it. Also, leave your ego at the door and don’t be a jerk!”

Stephen Neary

Stephen Neary

Stephen Neary

Creator, The Fungies, Cartoon Network/HBO Max

David the Gnome. Gumby. Batman: The Animated Series. Fraggle Rock. Animation creator Stephen Neary says he loved watching these four shows when he was a kid growing up in Fort Wayne, Indiana in the early ’90s. “Watching animation as a kid is a totally different experience,” he recalls. “Everything felt so saturated and warm. Later, Cartoon Network shows like Dexter’s Lab and The Powerpuff Girls were a huge influence: They were subversive and weird while still checking off all the boxes for a kid’s cartoon.”

These days, Neary is in charge of his own colorful and immersive world. He is the creator of The Fungies, a clever new animated series which debuts on HBO Max later this year. “I was reading about these ancient fungi that grew on Earth about 400 million years ago,” he tells us. “Thinking about the world in its ‘youth’ made me think about being a kid, and what it’s like to gradually become more aware of your feelings as your world grows larger and larger. I wanted to explore these ideas in a show that had a sincere tone but was still weird and funny, like other ‘creature’ shows.”

Looking back at his early fascination with animation, Neary says he didn’t even know working in animation was a realistic goal. “But I loved cartoons, drew a lot, and made little stop-motion movies in iMovie,” he says. “I was studying live action at NYU when I started taking animation classes and fell in love with the medium all over again. Every time I watched a storyboard pitch from a movie’s DVD extras I thought, ‘That’s my dream job.’”

Then in 2005, when his professor Rob Marianetti asked him to help out with some cartoons for SNL’s TV Funhouse series, he jumped at the chance. “I was so bad at drawing but helped composite and scan animation. Fueled by coffee and Jamba Juice, we’d stay up all Friday night to finish the cartoon for broadcast the next night. It was insane, but Rob and his studio partner Dave Wachtenheim were very pragmatic and calm about surfing the waves of chaos.”

When asked to name his animation idol, Neary mentions Genndy Tartakovsky. “He does original shows, adaptations, movies — everything. Primal was incredible, and it’s cool to see industry veterans continue to push the envelope through their careers. It makes me excited to keep learning!”

So, how does it feel to be in charge of his own Fungies world? “Making the show is a dream come true,” he notes. “I work with so many talented artists, writers and production folks. But if I’m awake, I’m probably thinking about the show on some level. I’m doing the dishes and bam, I remember we need to change something about Scene 141 in episode 26. I love distance running and use that as an excuse to zone out and recharge!”

“I remember telling a recruiter when I was 18 that I wanted to be a director,” he recalls. “Very politely, they told me to never tell anyone that: ‘A big studio isn’t looking for an 18-year-old director.’ First, I needed to be able to understand one part of the process inside and out. After that, I tried to focus more on the storyboarding and storytelling aspect of animation. This seems obvious now, but at the time, I was extremely naïve!”

Lindsey Olivares

Lindsey Olivares

Lindsey Olivares

Production Designer/Lead Character Designer, Connected, Sony Pictures Animation

When Lindsey Olivares was a young girl growing up in San Diego, California, she used to love to draw the cover images from her favorite Disney VHS movies from the 1990s. “I loved The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and really loved to draw those characters. My parents encouraged me to draw, and soon I realized that it was possible to have a career in animation.”

Olivares attended a CalArts animation program one summer and got accepted to Ringling College’s computer animation program. Then she landed an internship at Disney Animation during her sophomore year. “I learned so much about visual development during that internship,” recalls the talented 32-year old. “It was all about taking things beyond just the craft and learning how to use real storytelling to bring your character to animated life.”

After landing a position in the art department of PDI in the Bay Area, Olivares worked on DreamWorks’ Madagascar 3 and learned a lot about production design, color keys and art direction from industry veteran Kendal Cronkhite. She then did some early development work on movies such as Penguins of Madagascar, Trolls and The Emoji Movie. Her career took a huge leap forward a few years ago when she was recommended to director Mike Rianda, who was just beginning to work on his new feature Connected at Sony.

“We started to work together and I just loved his sense of humor,” says Olivares. “His pitch for the movie (which follows a typical family who have to save the world from a global robocalypse) was incredible. I did some character design work for the pitch, and they kept bringing me back. After the movie was greenlit, I was hired as production designer!”

She says she loves the movie’s quirky sense of humor and authenticity. “It tells a very honest story, and its observational sense of humor really aligns with a lot of the things I love about art and storytelling,” she admits. “The job is very satisfying creatively, and you get to work with this amazing team, so it blends the personal and the creative in a nice way. I also loved working with the 3D team so that the illustration work really comes through in the final render.”

Pointing out animation veteran Glen Keane, his daughter Claire Keane and production designer/art director Kendal Cronkhite as three of her idols, Olivares recommends doing the kind of work that you are passionate about. “I was creating animated gifs of day-to-day life and putting them online on my own, and that’s what resonated with the movie’s director,” she points out. “It helps you land the kind of work that you would like to do eventually!”

Katie Rice

Katie Rice

Katie Rice

Director, Animaniacs, Warner Bros. Animation/Hulu

Next time someone tells you that you’ve got to go to one of the usual prestigious schools to get a career in animation, remember the example set by brilliant director Katie Rice, who is currently working on the new Animaniacs series from Warner Bros. Animation. The Marin County native tried to get into CalArts twice, but when she didn’t get in the second time, she decided to move to L.A. and look for animation work. “I failed, so I moved back home, saved up money from waitressing, and then tried again! The second time stuck,” says Rice.

Rice, who has worked on shows such as El Tigre and DC Super Hero Girls and the feature The Book of Life, says she has always been in love with all things Disney as long as she has been conscious. Then, she adds, “But when I was about nine years old and the original Nicktoons debuted, I knew I wanted to make art like that myself!

“My first job was inking traditionally and doing other odd jobs at a small independent studio,” Rice recalls. “That was about 20 years ago, when inking was still done on paper!” Now that she’s working on the reboot of Animaniacs, she finds the enthusiasm and the collaboration of her team quite wonderful. “This is one of the best crews I’ve worked with,” she admits. “I feel like I’m surrounded by super-talents who are also incredibly nice. It’s very inspiring and makes coming into work easy, despite the challenges of working on a show as big as this.”

Of course, adapting to the cinematic quality of a Spielberg-produced cartoon has its own challenges. “It can be a bit intimidating, especially for someone who is used to working in a flatter, more traditional comedic style. But overcoming artistic challenges is extremely rewarding, and I do feel like working on Animaniacs has allowed me to level up as an artist!”

When asked about her idols, Rise says, “I have always looked up to Lynne Naylor, whose drawings are just so full of life and appeal, and Mary Blair for being so talented that she was impossible to ignore, even during the ink-and-paint-girl days. Right now, my biggest idols are everyone who’s doing their best to make our industry more inclusive, kind and safe.”

Her future plans include working to help other people’s shows, but one day Rice hopes to run her own productions and telling her own stories. “I’ve got a lot of them in me!” she says, and we know she’s not kidding.

Shion Takeuchi

Shion Takeuchi

Shion Takeuchi

Creator, Inside Job, Netflix

Shion Takeuchi, the creator and showrunner of Netflix’s upcoming animated series Inside Job, knew she wanted to pursue a career in animation when she saw her first pencil test at the School of Visual Arts’ summer program. “It was incredible to see my drawings brought to life, and up until then I really had no concept that you could make a living as an artist in animation,” says the talented 31-year old. “After that, I immediately began plotting on my campaign to ask my parents if I could go to art school. Luckily, they were very supportive!”

After studying character animation at CalArts, Takeuchi landed a job as a storyboard artist on Cartoon Network’s popular series Regular Show, which led to more opportunities on shows such as Gravity Falls, We Bare Bears and Disenchantment, as well as story artist gigs on Pixar’s Monsters University and Inside Out.

The inspiration for her upcoming series? “When I came up with the idea for Inside Job, the 2016 election was around the corner, and it felt like a lot of reality as we knew it was going off the rails,” she recalls. “In the past, I’d always pictured the classic Shadow Government portrayal as kind of terrifying, all-powerful. I found myself thinking that a nice, stable, hyper-competent shadow cabal that would seamlessly puppeteer the world order might actually be a comforting thing, which is crazy. Of course, if human beings are going to be in charge of anything, it’s going to be a raw, chaotic, hot mess – and then I thought, that’s a workplace comedy I’d like to watch!”

For Takeuchi, the best thing about being a showrunner is having so many talented people around her. “I love collaborating with my team and seeing the show and characters take on a life of their own,” she says. “That, and the fact that my day is never boring. It can be crazy, amazing, horrible, wonderful – but never boring. Sometimes, a little boring would be nice!”

She says she’s also forever grateful to the women who struggled and fought tooth and nail to break the glass ceiling before her. “People like Brenda Chapman, Lauren Faust, Jennifer Yuh Nelson and countless more – because the industry I see today is far more welcoming of female creators than ever before,” she notes. “Because of their fight I was lucky to have arrived at a time where I can speak my mind, have a vision that is trusted, and feel safe and valued, which many pioneer women before me never got to. We still have room for improvement as an industry, of course, but I am confident that we are moving in a positive direction.”

What about long-term plans? “When this show is done, I know I will desperately need a vacation, a haircut and some new creative goal to work towards,” she says with a smile. “But I can figure that out later!”

Denise van Leeuwen

Denise van Leeuwen

Denise van Leeuwen

Creator, Pol the Pirate Mouse, Submarine

When Submarine studio founder Bruno Felix was seeking an artist to help him with a pitch for the animated show Wellie Wishers, he reached out to Denise van Leeuwen after seeing her work online. “He thought I was a good fit for the project, so I worked with him and we won the pitch,” she recalls. “I didn’t expect it at all, because I had never worked in animation before. The task was to adapt the look of Mattel’s vinyl doll into a 2D drawing style for animation.”

Growing up in the Netherlands, van Leeuwen was enamored with Disney classics such as Dumbo and Mary Poppins, and loved catching The Wonderful World of Disney series on TV. “I didn’t even think that it would be possible to work in animation back then,” she says. “Drawing was my hobby and eventually I found myself working as an illustrator. Then came this call from Bruno out of the blue, and I found myself working with so many talented people on this animated show. It was a welcome change from drawing in my studio alone for a decade.”

She soon found herself wanting to go back to the world of animation, so she came up with the idea for a new animated show, called Pol the Pirate Mouse, which she and the team at Submarine presented at Cartoon Forum in France last year. “I had drawn this mouse character for a personal [piece] for the ‘National Mouseum’ (Nationaal Muiseum), where artists share their personal artwork about mice,” says the gifted artist. “Then I showed it to Bruno and I kept drawing, and the project grew. Gaumont Animation is involved as well, and we hope to get a broadcaster involved as well.”

For now, van Leeuwen is hoping to continue watching her images come to animated life. “In illustration, you just do work on one drawing and then move on to the next one,” she says. “In animation, you have more time to create a bigger world, and it’s so exciting to see your drawings come to life. It’s truly a magical experience.”

Prasansook “Fawn” Veerasunthor

Prasansook “Fawn” Veerasunthor

Prasansook “Fawn” Veerasunthorn

Head of Story, Raya and the Last Dragon, Disney

Never underestimate the powerful impact a high school visit from an animator can have. Just ask Prasansook “Fawn” Veerasunthorn, the head of story on Disney’s winter 2020 feature release Raya and the Last Dragon. “I didn’t even think a career in animation was possible, until a Thai effects animator who was working at Disney Animation came to give a talk at my high school in Bangkok. His career and story inspired me to apply to art college.”

Veerasunthorn, who has previously worked as a story artist on Disney’s Ralph Breaks the Internet, Zootopia, Moana and Frozen, studied at Columbus College of Art & Design. “Although I knew next to nothing about baseball or football, I got my first job as an animator at a scoreboard animation company in Ohio called Jamination!” she says.

She names a wide variety of animated movies and TV shows that have inspired her through the years, and they include Dumbo, I Lost My Body, Detective Conan, Sailor Moon and Crayon Shin-chan.

“I love the challenge of starting from a blank page and having to come up with something interesting to engage the audience,” she adds. Of course, she’s most excited to reflect the rich colors and visuals of her own culture in Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon. “I’m super excited to bring the beautiful Southeast Asian cultures to the big screen. I’m especially excited to be drawing a female teenage warrior being unapologetically athletic and awesome. I can’t wait for the world to see what we’ve been up to.”

The 37-year-old Thailand native says she would love to direct her own project one day and leaves us with this helpful advice: “The best career advice I got was to apply for a job you want, even if you might not feel ready,” she shares. “And the worst advice was to settle for a comfortable job instead of the one that challenges you!”

J. P. Vine

J. P. Vine

J. P. Vine

Director, Ron’s Gone Wrong, Locksmith Animation

“Don’t overthink your skill level, and always bring a willingness to learn. Your colleagues will possess massive skills to help you grow. When you are starting off as an animator and are receiving notes from creatives, ask yourself what they care about the most. What’s most important about a shot, sequence or piece of art? It’s a focusing question that will make the process flow!”

Those excellent words of advice come from J.P. (Jean-Philippe) Vine, who is directing his first animated feature Ron’s Gone Wrong, Locksmith Animation’s maiden project (slated for a 2021 release). Vine, who was born in Curepipe, Mauritius, says he loved Aardman’s shorts growing up, but his biggest influences were French comic books and British classics by Raymond Briggs and Roald Dahl. After studying theater design in London, he found himself building sets and props for companies such as the Royal Shakespeare Company.

“Through prop work I found my way to work on Aardman’s Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit as a set dresser,” he recalls. “On that movie, the dressers would all watch the previous day’s rushes in dailies, and I realized the animators were having the most fun. I started bugging them for tips and took old characters home to teach myself. I was hooked. I even got some shots in the film. They were only rabbits, but hey!”

He also directed episodes of Aardman’s Shaun the Sheep series and worked as a storyboard artist on The Pirates! Band of Misfits, Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur. His upcoming movie Ron’s Gone Wrong is set in a world where walking, talking, digitally connected “bots” have become children’s best friends, and tells the story of an 12-year-old boy who finds that his robot buddy Ron doesn’t quite work.

“I love working with performance: whether it’s with an actor, an animator, a story artist,” notes the 43-year-old helmer. “I love the energy that erupts when we get excited about an idea … And I love working with design. Lots to love. The challenge is the volume of decisions that have to be tracked throughout the whole film. We’re working all over the film at all times so it can be challenging to hold it all in place.”

His take on the state of animation worldwide? “I’m delighted that more creators are being backed on streaming platforms, and that animation tools are becoming so much more accessible. My nine-year-old has just started animating in Procreate, which I love!”

Priscilla Wong

Priscilla Wong

Priscilla Wong

Visual Development Artist, Trolls World Tour, DreamWorks Animation

When you catch the new DreamWorks’ feature Trolls World Tour in theaters or on demand in April, look out for the amazing “scrapbook” pages showcased in the picture. These are terrific examples of the artistic talents of Priscilla Wong, the 30-year-old visual development artist who also worked on the first Trolls movie and the 2014 feature Mr. Peabody & Sherman. The pages were all initially made by hand with felt, fabrics, etc., and then each page was scanned digitally and used in the dazzlingly colorful feature.

“I love that I get to express myself through art,” says the San Francisco-born and raised artist. “I love that DreamWorks has embraced my exploration of different mediums, knowing that freedom of expression is what pushes the envelope in animation. Any chance that I get to share my experiences with other people through art is a blessing in life. The most challenging aspect of the job is topping my last project!”

The San Jose State University graduate says it’s her passion to create a world that audiences have never seen before, and counts Sailor Moon, Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Spirited Away, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Hey Arnold!, Rugrats and SpongeBob SquarePants as some of her earliest influences. “Hayao Miyazaki, Kendal Cronkhite and Sean Charmatz are my animation idols. All artists who are deeply passionate about their craft, succeed by embracing teamwork and, maybe most of all, are kind.”

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