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Meet Our Rising Stars of Animation 2021

Rising Stars of Animation
Rising Stars of Animation

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Meet Our Rising Stars of Animation 2021

***This feature originally appeared in the May ’21 issue of Animation Magazine (No. 310)***

One of the highlights of this publication’s regular coverage of the animation scene is our early spring spotlight on the year’s up-and-coming talent. The class of 2021 is certainly one of the most impressive, diverse and creative groups of shining stars in recent memory. It’s so encouraging to see so many brilliant artists exploring new ways of telling their stories and expressing their true visions in different media today. We can’t wait to see what they’ll share with us in the months ahead. (Don’t forget to visit our website for a special hour-long video spotlight on these 16 scene-stealers this Friday, April 9th) Drumroll, please:

Carlos Baena

Carlos Baena

Carlos Baena
Director, The Tiger’s Apprentice [Paramount]
Stats: 46, born in Canary Islands and raised in Madrid, Spain.

I knew I wanted to work in animation: When I moved to the U.S. in 1993 to study art. While growing up in Spain, I was not aware one could actually work in the field of animation even though I loved movies from a young age. It wasn’t until I watched the films Nightmare Before Christmas and Toy Story that I wanted to learn more about animation and film.

First job: I just finished a 2D short film and a bunch of 3D animation exercises in early 1998. For about a half year I was sending old VHS demo reel tapes and resumes to many places unsuccessfully. This was a challenging time because if I didn’t find a job, I’d have to return to Spain due to my visa status. Though later that summer I was lucky that I was hired by Will Vinton Studios to work on the M&M’s CG commercials. During the day, I’d work on the computer, and during the evening, once my day job ended, the studio allowed me to practice stop-motion animation on one of their unused sets. It was a great first job that gave me wonderful memories.

What I love about working on the movie: Many things. I feel fortunate I get to work on something unique and learn from my co-workers constantly. I’m also very thankful we have the support of Paramount Animation when pushing towards creating something different, as well as having a truly dedicated team around the world. It’s an important film for me because of personal reasons. The film is based on a beautiful book written by Laurence Yep, and also portrays an inspiring message that I love, especially in a time where there’s been so much division in our country.

Toughest part: Nothing comes easy in animation, that’s for sure! Even projects or shots that I thought at times would be simple, ended up surprising me. Additionally, I found things tend to take a lot longer in 3D animation to produce and not necessarily in the most affordable way, which makes it challenging to try things outside the box within our medium. But I personally have liked the challenge over the years. If it’s too easy, I feel like it’s missing something.

Favorite toons growing up: I wasn’t big into animation growing up. I remember watching the old versions of The Jungle Book and The Sword in the Stone as well as Takahashi’s Captain Tsubasa anime. It was definitely during and after college that I started studying it seriously. Since then I’ve really enjoyed and been inspired by films such as The Iron Giant, Spirited Away and the works of Satoshi Kon.

Best advice: I’d say, to not get ahead of yourself. Not to rush. I’ve made that mistake a few times, and it always makes me want to take a few steps back. So take your time learning different things at whichever pace feels right to you. Additionally, leave room for learning, even if you made it to your dream job. And lastly, don’t forget to have a life outside the computer screen. Those experiences will give you the best animation material you can ask for.

Future plans: To hopefully continue telling stories as well as pushing our medium forward. There is truly so much more we can do in this medium, so many different stories we can tell, that not only we get the kids to enjoy it, but adults can embrace the experience just as much. I want to tell stories that not only use comedy to hook audiences, but also have depth, substance and thought-provoking themes.

Alfonso Blaas

Alfonso Blaas

Alfonso Blaas
Production Designer, Trollhunters: Rise of the Titans [DreamWorks]
Stats: 42, from Granada, Spain.

I knew I wanted to work in animation: Back in 2001, I had the luck to visit my brother at Blue Sky Animation studios and meet some of the crew during the production of Ice Age. Blew my mind to see what a collective group of artists could achieve, that was my turning point.

First Job: I worked hard my last two years of Fine Arts creating a portfolio with my own artwork. At that moment there was an animation fever in Spain, producing several projects and demanding a lot of local talent. I was hired as a matte painter at Filmax Animation Studio.

What I love about working on the movie: Since I heard for the first time about Guillermo del Toro’s Trollhunters, back in 2012, I thought right away it was the type of show I loved to watch and experience when I was a kid. Being able to collectively give shape and form to this universe during the series has been wonderful. Creating this movie with much more visuals and creative ambitions with an amazing team is a dream come true.

The toughest part: Balancing the best visuals we can get and the time we have, both collectively and personally.

Fave toons growing up: Akira, Sherlock Hound, The Jungle Book, Batman: The Animated Series.

Best advice: Building your own reference library or tools to be able to understand what the creator wants and how to communicate that idea to others.

Future plans: Watching as many movies and shows as I can.

Shabrayia Cleaver

Shabrayia Cleaver

Shabrayia Cleaver
Production Manager, Spirit Untamed [DreamWorks]
Stats: 30, L.A. native (Northridge, Calif.)

I wanted to work in animation when: I didn’t realize being in animation was my dream career until I interned in animation. As a film major at Cal State Fullerton, I needed an internship to graduate, and it just so happens DreamWorks Animation was posting for interns. With absolutely no knowledge in animation, I applied for the internship not knowing what that meant. When I was called in for the interview, I just knew they were going to ask me to draw and they’d find out I was a fraud! I was stressed. Spoiler alert, they didn’t. I was brought on as a production intern on How to Train Your Dragon 2 and that’s where I truly discovered that animation was my forever home. The people I met and interacted with during my first week were so welcoming and vibrant – I knew this was only an environment I could get in animation.

My first job in animation: I remember being on the set for So You Think You Can Dance when I got the call about an open position as a lighting production assistant on the movie Home. Fresh out of college, I knew it had to be fate because the film featured a young Black girl navigating a strange new environment.

What I love about the job: Being at DreamWorks specifically, it’s the culture, the people, the evolving landscape. Because animation is so collaborative, working together and helping each other just becomes a part of the culture. I’ve had the opportunity to meet some of the most brilliant and talented people from all different backgrounds. Someone at DreamWorks said something to me, and it really stuck: “If you’re not having fun, you’re fired.” If you’re not having a good time making animated films, then you’re not doing something right.

Toughest part: As a production manager, I am overseeing the whole production, so I am involved in every aspect of pulling the film together. As challenging as this is to juggle being involved in all the little details day to day, it has also been the most gratifying to be the person who knows where everything is at. Production managers are constantly challenging the theory that “you can’t be everywhere at once.” Since I am naturally the middle woman between the creatives who are driving the look and story and the crew who has to carry out the execution of making the film, I’ve really been able to enhance my bartering skills! It’s all about finding creative solutions to make everyone happy.

Favorite toons growing up: I loved animated films that were a bit edgier because I always thought I was more grown than I was. That’s why I watched more DreamWorks movies like Shrek and Megamind, which I felt were rooted in wholesome underlying themes with just a touch of subtle adult humor. My after school series regulars were shows like The Proud Family. It was a perfect coming of age show because I literally was Penny Proud — trying to juggle school, my nagging family, hanging with my friends, boys!

Best advice: Stay on top of your game. This industry is ever changing and evolving. Find ways to stay ahead of it by studying new softwares and techniques and sharpening your soft skills. A lot of what makes you successful in this industry is your interpersonal skills and your ability to communicate and work on a team. Although there is a severe lack of representation in animation, don’t be intimidated by that. Use that to propel you forward and motivate you to break into this industry so that you can open doors for other people who hadn’t been given the opportunity because they didn’t fit the mold. Just because the space isn’t filled with people who look like you, doesn’t mean you don’t belong in that space. And lastly, bring yourself fully and authentically to everything that you do. Being you is what makes you unique. Don’t ever feel like you need to fit into a cookie cutter mold.

Future plans: Although I’ve been in the animation industry for six years, there is still so much I have yet to learn. Every role is different, every film is different. As I’ve progressed in my career, each role has been more fulfilling than the last. I am not limiting what I can achieve and I know this is just the beginning.

Wendell Dalit

Wendell Dalit

Wendell Dalit
Art Director, Vivo [Sony Pictures Animation]
Stats: 32, from San Jose, California

I knew I wanted to work in animation: When I was in college I spontaneously decided to take a 2D animation class. The assignments were incredibly challenging, and I had no idea what I was doing but I truly enjoyed the projects. Towards the end of that class I came to the realization that I’ve put more time and effort into these assignments than anything else I’ve ever done — and had a great time doing it. I changed my major to animation the next semester.

First job: I was very lucky to connect with Jana Day, the recruiter for Sony Pictures Animation at CTN animation eXpo. I was able to keep in touch with her, and towards the end of my time in school she got me going on my first project as a visual development artist on Smurfs: The Lost Village.

What I love about working on Vivo: Music and dance have always been a passion of mine, and to be able to work on a project that embraced the two was an amazing experience for me. Additionally, this project was a great opportunity to explore a variety of visual styles that enhance the emotional beats for each musical number in the film.

The toughest part: The toughest part about working in animation is … animation! It never comes easy, and I feel like I struggle every day but it is also what I love to do. One of our biggest challenges on Vivo was to make each musical number feel unique in its own way. It is an incredibly challenging task — to try new things in a CG animated film — but there’s a feeling of accomplishment and pride I get once things start to click into place. Seeing how all the amazing artists working on the project executed the cool new ideas on screen is truly a rewarding experience for me.

Fave toons growing up: Dexter’s Laboratory, Doug, Hey Arnold!, Toy Story — all favorites from my childhood.

Best advice: Be open-minded and don’t stop learning. There are always going to be new things to learn that you can add to your animation toolbox.

Future plans: I would love to kick my feet up on a hammock and retire somewhere by the beach … but in the meantime, I would love to art direct another project.

Megan Dong

Megan Dong

Megan Nicole Dong
Creator, Exec Producer, Centaurworld [Netflix]
Stats: 35, from Diamond Bar, Calif.

I knew I wanted to work in animation when: One of my earliest memories involves repeatedly pausing The Little Mermaid on VHS and trying to figure out how to draw Ariel on my Magna Doodle. I always loved watching Behind the Scenes footage and thought it would be amazingly cool to draw cartoons for a living.

First job in animation: I interned at Titmouse studios and then went on to work there for a couple of years. I got to touch a lot of projects and learned a ton from my peers (a couple of whom went on to work with me on this show!).

Inspiration for Centaurworld: I grew up in an academically competitive community. My freshman year of high school, I was supposed to play violin in my school orchestra, but I had a schedule conflict with one of my honors classes. The only extracurricular that fit my schedule was show choir and it completely changed my life. It really made me fall in love with theater, music and performance, and it cemented the idea that I wanted to pursue an arts-based career. I wanted to tell the story of a character who truly believed she had to live her life one way dropped into a silly, strange new place that fundamentally changes her. I am passionate about a lot of different things, and I wanted to make a show that melded genres together, but most importantly, it had to be a musical series with songs interwoven with the narrative.

Toughest part: There are so many moving parts and so much to juggle! Maintaining a clear creative vision is extremely important, but knowing how to clearly communicate that vision to those around you is also huge. It’s also important to know what to prioritize, how you’d like to spend your time creatively, and where to step back and really trust those around you. Trust is a big deal for me and I believe people do their best work when they are given a bit of breathing room and more agency to bring themselves to a project. It’s easy to get tunnel vision, but it’s important to remember that human beings are working with you to make your idea a reality!

Fave toons growing up: I consumed a lot of Disney and Miyazaki movies. The Little Mermaid and My Neighbor Totoro were probably the two films I watched over and over again during my formative years. I also loved all things Looney TunesDragon Ball and most Saturday morning cartoons.

Best advice: I think a lot of artists err toward being shy and self conscious. Find some way to get used to sharing your work with others, being collaborative and putting yourself out there! I’m naturally a shy person, but for Centaurworld I pitched the storyboard for our first episode to a lot of the people we brought onboard. It generated a lot of productive conversation/ideas early on and even though it was a lot of work, I wouldn’t have done it differently. I’m a big believer in hitting things hard up front, so that things are easier as the process goes on.

Future plans: I have no immediate plans, but I’ve learned so much from the experience of making Centaurworld. I’ve been working in series for the past few years, but I’d love to direct a feature someday.

Megan Ferguson

Megan Ferguson

Megan Ferguson
Assistant Director, Hilda [Mercury Filmworks]
Stats: 35, from British Columbia, currently living in Ottawa.

I knew I wanted to work in animation when: To be completely honest, I didn’t really ‘know’ I really wanted to stay in animation until I had already worked on a few shows. Animation was something I followed as a career because I felt like drawing was my strongest skill, and while I did enjoy it as an audience member, I really struggled with understanding it. I knew enough to get through and hired, but I had moments where I questioned my choices. It wasn’t until I got more experience with it did I start to find more joy, and then the passion grew from there.

First job in animation: Mercury Filmworks happened to be hiring when I graduated. I handed them in a demo reel and got in. Completely standard! Ha!

What I love about working on Hilda: I love that I’ve had the ability and space to really grow, make mistakes and take ownership of my choices. We have a lot of creative voices on this show but none of them are so strict there isn’t room for flexibility. The trust I get from my crew to make hard decisions or implement new structure has been invaluable, and it’s really shaped what kind of director I want to be if the chance comes up. The creative aspect of the show has been huge, but what I really get my energy and joy from is just seeing everyone around me on this journey and having us all grow together.

Toughest part: Knowing how much I affect the crew is a tough thing to wrap my mind around sometimes. I want to feel like I’m just an individual, but the reality is how I react and act on a day to day basis can really trickle down. It costs nothing to be patient, address something more thoughtfully and not let a bad mood get in the way of how I communicate with my crew. I’m better at it now than I was when I started, and making those mistakes right away helped me realize that I play a huge part in overall team morale.

Fave toons growing up: Watching ReBoot was a tradition in my childhood. My mom was into 3D animation, and it was something we watched together all the time. She encouraged my hobbies, so a lot of my early teenage years were spent consuming random anime subtitled VHS tapes she found at Blockbuster or from her friends. Just random genres and series that were probably aimed for an older audience than me at the time.

Best advice: Advocate for yourself and be confident, the deadlines are fast, budgets are tight and pressure can get high. It’s easy to tie up our sense of self-worth in our job, so when there are so many factors out of your control in TV animation, it’s easy to burn out. Keep one foot out of the whirlpool by keeping your health in check and having a good support system outside of your studio role. Community and relationships keep us from losing our identity to this job.

Future plans: I generally always roll in the direction of whatever gives me the biggest chance for learning something new. My only solid plan is to continue to work on my community group O.A.T.S [Ottawa’s Animators Talking Socially], which some friends and I run to connect artists in our city. We do skill sharing, live talks and charity events and being able to grow it has been something that’s kept my feet out of the whirlpool for about two years now.

Valtteri Heinonen

Valtteri Heinonen

Valtteri Heinonen
Art Director, Moominvalley [Gutsy Animation]
Stats: 37, from Helsinki, Finland.

I knew I wanted to work in animation when: I’ve been drawing and making little animations ever since I was in third grade, but the first time I felt a serious inclination towards working in animation was probably when Toy Story came out. Before then, I just enjoyed watching animated films, but after seeing Toy Story, every time I watched an animated film, I spent half the time enjoying the story but the other half trying to figure out how they did every little thing.

First job: In school we were required to do a four-month internship in a company of our choosing, and I actually applied to the biggest animation studio in Finland but didn’t get in. Instead, I found a placement in a production company that worked in advertising. I came from a 3D graphics school, so at first they gave me 3D animation work, but after completing a digital painting assignment, they felt I was much more valuable as an illustrator — after the internship they actually hired me in such a role. I then spent 10 years working in advertising until Marika Makaroff asked me to join Gutsy Animations on the Moominvalley TV series.

What I love about working on the show: I love my working relationship with production designer Sarah Hauldren. I think she’s exactly the kind of counterpart that I needed to elevate my work to a new level. I feel like I act as a sort of bridge between her traditional ways of working and the digital world, and so I get to dip into both sides. It’s also great that I get to do lots of different things on the show, including set design, character design, texture painting and animation.

Toughest part: The biggest challenge is to paint images to serve multiple purposes. I mostly work on images that are primarily meant to show the animation studio what is in the scene and how it looks in flat lighting. This means there can be no interesting angles or lighting to make it artistic, yet they will be used as part of the show’s marketing and brand licensing activity, which means they can’t be completely sterile either.

Favorite toons growing up: Oh, I had hundreds of favorites. If I were to choose ones that really shaped me, they’d be The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, Alfred J. Kwak, Starzinger, The Secret of NIMH, The Sword in the Stone and Aladdin.

Best advice: My advice, apart from endless practice, is to try and find a person you can develop ideas with. A lot of the time it’s out of your hands and down to a little bit of luck, but generally just trying to work with people rather than for them is a big step in the right direction.

Future plans: I’ve actually just been promoted to an art director at Gutsy Animations, so I think one of my plans has already come true! Now I think my plans are to focus on making some great visuals, and hopefully someday remove the ‘art’ from my title and becoming a director.

Manny Hernandez

Manny Hernandez

Manny Hernandez
Exec Producer, We Baby Bears [Cartoon Network]
Stats: 35, from San Diego, Calif.

I knew I wanted to work in animation when: I’m not totally sure, but there was this one time in second grade where the assignment was to draw a frog. I remember this little girl sitting next to me and when she saw my drawing she said, “Wow! That looks just like a frog!” That might have been the first time I got recognition for being an artist. It made me happy.

First job in animation: I was accepted into the Pixar Animation Studios internship program. I must have made a good impression because they hired me right after I finished the internship. In fact, I was told that I wasn’t hired for my artistic skills. They said that my personality and sheer gumption is what got me hired.

What I love about working on We Baby Bears: There are too many reasons to love working on the show. First off, I couldn’t ask for a better crew. Seriously. Second, is that I love being challenged. And nothing challenges me more than having to explain my vision to a bunch of people within an incredibly limited time frame.

Toughest part: Having to explain my vision to a bunch of people within an incredibly limited time frame.

Favorite toons growing up: The Simpsons is my favorite American TV show. Dragon Ball was the first anime I ever thoroughly watched (in Spanish). Looney Tunes was my childhood therapy, and One Piece will always be my favorite anime. Animated movies: The Lion King (basically I watched every Disney movie religiously). Princess Mononoke was my first Miyazaki film — I chose it from a Blockbuster shelf because the movie quote on the cover said “the animated Star Wars“! Toy Story was the first film I ever watched that made me feel like the movie knew more about what I was like than I did.

Best advice: The best advice I can give is to learn how to keep yourself motivated. Start a project, do it, then finish it. The more you do the more you learn. In my opinion, I would say to start by trying to copy a master you look up to. Then once you’ve mastered that, go beyond that said master.

Future plans: I plan on continuing to make animated films. Lots of them I hope. And to keep pushing myself and my amazing peers to our artistic limits.

Dou Hong

Dou Hong

Dou Hong
Model Supervisor, Young Justice: Phantoms [Warner Bros. Animation]
Stats: 31, from Cincinnati, Ohio.

I knew I wanted to work in animation when: It was a relatively late decision; I was already a junior in college, working as an intern. My boss mentioned that my work would easily fit into the animation world, which I had never seriously pursued. His words made me re-evaluate my trajectory and in addition to my automotive design major, I began to take the animation career seriously with personal side projects.

First job: Social media was a burgeoning platform around the mid-2000s, and I began posting my art online. I communicated with a few people in the industry who were able to help point me in the right direction and promote my work. My big break was during college. Cartoon Network hired me to work on Ben 10 Omniverse, which was an absolute blast. What I learned on that show and networking allowed me to eventually move to other studios like Nickelodeon and Warner Bros. Animation.

What I love about working on the show: I love working on YJ because I was allowed to be more involved than just design. I was able to sit in during episode handouts with overseas as well as ink and paint meetings. Working with the showrunners Greg Weisman and Brandon Vietti to establish the current season’s design and hearing their ideas on developing stories and motivations was amazing. It constantly blows my mind that I’m the model supervisor for a show that I loved to watch in college. My connection to the show went full circle, and I am so proud to be here.

Toughest part: The toughest part about animation for me is actually not the job itself. I use a lot of creativity when I’m working, and sometimes I don’t have the energy to work on personal stuff after. It’s a bit difficult to work on fun side things if the time and energy are not there. It’s a fine balance of making sure you’re doing the most for your current project but also maintaining the passion that got you there in the first place.

Favorite toons growing up: Anything related to superheroes is my jam, and I have a special affinity for anything related to DC comics (Teen Titans, Justice League, Green Lantern the Animated Series). Musical films (anything Disney, Swan Princess, Quest for Camelot, Anastasia) are also a favorite of mine, as well as shonen anime (Ultimate Muscle, Yu-Gi-Oh!, Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure)

Best advice: Embrace your passion and be proud of your work. My passion for art led me into a career that I love and an industry that’s always innovating. Don’t be afraid to post your work online and be open about what you like. Animation is a visually-based medium, so opening yourself and your art to others will give you greater chances of being seen. Loving what you do definitely helps.

Future plans: I would like to one day become a showrunner for either my own original series or one of my favorite IPs. While I’ve helped develop looks for shows over the years, I’ve found that working on world-building and bringing these characters to life through storytelling is where I’d ultimately want to focus my energy. The animation industry is a fun, exciting, and challenging industry, and I’m going to stay as long as I can.

Grace Kum

Grace Kum

Grace Kum
Visual Development, Stillwater [Gaumont/Apple TV+]
Stats: 28, born and raised in L.A.

I knew I wanted to work in animation when: It was quite early on. I joke about how I give fault to my dad for buying me hundreds of VHS tapes and the coveted Black Diamond Disney collection for me since I was a wee kid. Including things like Candy Candy, Future Boy Conan, The Rose of Versailles, Sherlock Hound, Wolf’s Rain, and so much classic anime, I was fed a lot of different kinds of media as a kid onward (I was a Lord of the Rings nut).
First job: I was surrounded by some of the best and kindest instructors and an all-star group of best friends during my time at Art Center and we were in a very giving group setting where we would update each other with advice and news on different gig openings. My instructors had also helped us so much in updating us on any places that were looking. I ended up landing a storyboarding/prop design test for Disney TV’s Big Hero 6 series.

What I love about working on the show: I got to draw so many animals. Who doesn’t love drawing cute animals in cute clothing?! I believe the biggest plus for me was the team and people I had gotten to work with on this production. Alex Soto, our executive producer, and Tommy Kim, our art director, were such a huge support and guidance to the team work. Every production is a small family so it was a blessing to be able to have people who were willing to check in on each other. Sunshine and rainbows would be ideal, but it’s fun to have people you can sprint with together down Sunset Blvd. with a Cintiq pen in one hand and a cup of boba tea in the other.
Toughest part: Probably tackling the sheer number of characters along with cultural and animal research that had to be applied. We were on the clock, as is the state of most series productions. I cannot stress how grateful I was to have had my character assistant, Sophia Chen, come on to help keep me afloat and wailing with me on the cushy beanbags of our offices. Lin Huang, a visual development artist, was my officemate and partner in crime in this journey and we were there to witness all of our ups and downs on the job.
Fave toons growing up: Of course I grew up with the usual Disney/Pixar/DreamWorks, but I do have to say that I have a special place and memory for all the Ghibli films and all the work that had come out of Studio Bones. I was the kid who would stay up past bedtime to watch shows on adult swim such as Detective Conan, Wolf’s Rain, Paranoia Agent and Ghost in the Shell. I highly doubt kid me could understand what was going on fully, but I did manage to recognize early on the diversity of what film is capable of. I have the trifecta of nerdiness with Star Wars, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings burned into my DNA as well!
Best advice: I would advise everyone to go at the pace that suits them the most. Have fun with the work. Just like how we take different supplements and vitamins to keep us healthy, we need a balance of study, hobby, self-care, art and leisure to keep yourself going for as long as we can. Don’t worry at all about having to nail a style that will emerge over time based on the things you like and enjoy. You can always grow out of a method and style and that is how you build yourself up to create work that suits you the best.

Christina LaFerla

Christina LaFerla

Christina LaFerla
CG Supervisor, Big Nate [Nickelodeon]
Stats: 36, from Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

I knew I wanted to work in animation when: I have always been passionate about cartoons, games and technology. As a kid, I was either making movies with my friends or playing on the computer. Being good with computers allowed me to put my passions together and get into CG animation.

First job in animation: Thanks to a college alumni, I was able to intern at Nickelodeon Movies on the Paramount lot in 2006. I used every opportunity during my internship to work hard, network, learn and tour other studios to meet with recruiters. Before graduation, I was sending Nickelodeon recruiters monthly emails letting them know I was open to any opportunity that was available in order to get my foot in the door. My persistence paid off and I was hired on as a production assistant for one of Nick’s first CG TV shows, Tak and the Power of Juju, shortly after graduation.

What I love about working on Big Nate: Adapting a 2D comic into a CG world is a group effort. I love that I get to be a part of each step in the CG animation pipeline. We have an awesome crew and I’m able to work with writers, designers, board team and directors, modelers, look development, animators, lighting and compositing teams as well as our vendor studio teams in India. It’s great to see a script come to life in CG after months and months of teamwork.

Toughest part: Building a team and starting a brand new show from home during a pandemic brings new challenges. I have found that communication with my team as well as with our team in India has been essential in keeping our show moving forward.

Favorite toons growing up: I never missed an episode of The Simpsons after school. I loved Disney classics, like Sword in the Stone and The Lion King, but once Toy Story and Monsters, Inc. came out, I knew I wanted to work in CG.

Best advice: I was probably obnoxious, calling people, writing people, emailing companies I liked for any opportunity they’d give me. If I watched a cartoon I liked on TV, I’d go to their website and email them about an internship. I was annoying, but it got me to where I am today.

Future plans: I’d love to run my own CG animated show one day. Until then, I will continue to learn, grow and make a difference while at work.

Katie Lyons

Katie Lyons

Katie Lyons
Development Designer, Odo [Sixteen South]
Stats: 28, from Dublin, currently living in Belfast.

I knew I wanted to work in animation when: I honestly don’t think I ever wanted to do anything else! I was basically born holding a pencil — drawing and creating is just something I’ve done my whole life. As a kid it was always going to be a toss-up between becoming an artist or becoming a professional biscuit-taster … My uncle also works in the industry and it’s definitely thanks to him that I’ve always been kind of immersed in animation

First job: Coming out of college I worked on a variety of short projects before ever setting foot in an actual studio. It was a really helpful way to build up my portfolio while also applying to any animation jobs I came across. I actually count working as a background designer on Claude for Sixteen South, as my first proper‘ animation job where I was on the whole series as a designer from start to finish.

What I love about my job: My favorite thing about Odo is that it’s basically a soup of all of the best things — wholesome stories, stunning artwork and the sweetest cast of characters you could ever ask for! When I was in college, I worked for two summers as a camp counselor up in Maine and there are so many moments in the episodes that remind me of my own little campers. All I’ve ever wanted is to be a part of a show that does good, that helps bring goodness to the world. There’s something kind of amazing about helping to create a show that will hopefully instill such a special message.
The toughest part: The toughest part is also one of my favorite parts — working on so many different projects at the same time (usually around five or six!) you really have to learn how to juggle between a variety of design styles and stories.
Favorite toons growing up: Growing up in a house without a TV, cartoons were a treat saved exclusively for summer holidays and the occasional sick day spent on the couch down at my Nana’s. As a child of the ’90s, we were completely spoilt for choice with animated shows — The Rugrats, The Powerpuff Girls, Dexter’s Laboratory, Hey Arnold!, Recess and As Told by Ginger are a few favorites. We also had the odd VHS tape lying around, my absolute favorites being The Brave Little Toaster and (even though it scared me silly!) Disney’s The Black Cauldron. 
Best advice: Absorb everything! Working in development is all about ideas. It doesn’t matter if those ideas are beautiful backgrounds you draw, or scenes that you write — the most brilliant ideas come from what we know best! Read things, watch films, go for walks, observe those around you. Take in the art of the every-day. Write down or sketch-out your ideas as they come and capture even the tiniest things that you find interesting. You never know what is one day going to be useful! Be kind, make nice art … that’s all you really need.
Future plans: I’m so grateful we’ve been able to continue our work remotely this past year because there are so many fun projects coming through the development pipeline at Sixteen South, including the first show I’ve ever written: Spaghetti Sisters, which is all about siblings, summertime, spaghetti and a last-ditch attempt to save the failing family pasta restaurant.

Beatriz Martin

Beatriz Martin

Beatriz Martin
Character Animator, The Snoopy Show [WildBrain Studios]
Stats: 39, born in Madrid, currently living in Vancouver.

I knew I wanted to work in animation when: I do not remember a time when I was not drawing and inventing my own stories, but fine arts (or anything creative really) was frowned upon as a career, so since I was also interested in science, I ended up attending medical school. In the U.S., I also discovered improv theater and was immediately drawn to the thrill of instant collaborative storytelling and acting, and the (crazy) idea of mixing story with drawing and pursuing a career in animation started to take shape.

First job: After finishing animation school, I was unable to find an entry-level job as an animator or get a story internship. One day, my school organized an industry night for recent graduates, and although I did not feel motivated to attend, I did, and had the opportunity to meet Nadine Westerbarkey, animation director of My Little Pony: The Movie. She had seen my student short film but what she enjoyed the most and we ended chatting about the animal sketches and studies I had been drawing around Maplewood Farm, Granville Island. Because of my on-locations sketches, I was invited to take a test and shortly after, I joined WildBrain.

What I love about working on The Snoopy Show: I did not grow up with Peanuts, so I have been enjoying a second childhood. The stories are engaging, super fun and witty, and the characters are simply endearing. I particularly love the friendship between Snoopy and Woodstock and how much they express with no words. I like how honest and sincere the stories are, with no hint of sarcasm nor cynicism. I feel very fortunate that I can work with super fun, creative and supportive people.

The toughest part: I often find myself overcomplicating things, but I think this is just how I am as a person. Being on model is very important for such an iconic show. I am very fortunate to have an incredible supervisor and team, so every struggle feels like a learning opportunity.

Favorite toons growing up: I grew up watching (and singing along to) Disney animated films on VHS and wanting to be a mermaid with long hair. I also loved Who Framed Roger Rabbit and All Dogs Go to Heaven. Some animated TV shows I remember fondly were: The Littles, Captain Tsubasa, Once upon a Time… Life, David the Gnome and Around the World with Willy Fog.

Sound advice: When I was younger, I was very worried about choosing the right path, and did not know where to even start. Today I worry less, because I know there is time for everything. Every single experience adds up and will make your portfolio and artistic style unique. Luck happens, but hard work, perseverance and passion eventually lead to new opportunities.

Future plans: I feel I still have a lot to learn as an animator and visual storyteller, so I continue learning about story, sketching outdoors, attending life drawing and challenging myself. I am developing workshops for young people on nature illustration to support their creativity and artistic development. I hope it helps debunk the myth among young people that art and science are not compatible.

Antoine Rota

Antoine Rota

Antoine Rota
Director, Billy the Cowboy Hamster [Dandelooo]
Stats: 34, from “a little village in the fabulous mountains of Switzerland.”

I knew I wanted to work in animation when: I’ve always wanted to draw, but to my family drawing is not a profession. They still don’t understand what I’m doing.

First job: It was at Cube Creative on the French TV series Kaeloo. I started at Cube Creative as a storyboarder and a few months later I became co-director of the show. I think I only got it because I looked like a nice guy (and maybe also thanks to just a little bit of hard work).

What I love about working on the show: Our team is great! It’s always nice to work with people you can have a laugh (and a beer) with. When Dandelooo presented me with the project, I loved the touch of absurdity that Catharina Valckx (author of the books) wove into the tone. On the graphic part I also love that her skies are pink not blue, the grass is yellow not green, etc. – it’s different from the norm. And though I didn’t really care much about hamsters before (they’re too small), I do love cowboys. So, I hope my nephews will watch Billy and his friends in the mornings, eating their cereal, just as I watched my favorite shows as a kid.

Toughest part: The fact that we must have planning. And, we do have to respect it. The job of a director comes with a lot of work, and it can sometimes be hard to do everything in the right timing.

Fave toons growing up: Mickey Mouse cartoons.

Best advice: Regarding the storyboards, many newbies tend to think that they have to deliver something perfectly clean. I think it’s better to give and put in as many intentions as you can, rather than having clean drawings. One thing for me that is important to remember is that we’re doing animation projects! With mostly great and nice people! There’s no point in stressing out too much.

Future plans: Developing many other great and fantastic projects, especially adult animation projects (shorts and series).

Eastwood Wong

Eastwood Wong

Eastwood Wong
Art Director, The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder [Disney+]
Stats: 32, born in San Francisco, raised in L.A.

I knew I wanted to work in animation: When I watched Sailor Moon and found out that someone’s job was to draw her.

First job in animation: When I graduated from Art Center College of Design, I was lucky and had the opportunity to intern at Pixar. After the internship was over, they hired me as a sketch artist to help with various Toy Story and Cars shorts.

What I love about my job: It’s so exciting to work on a show I grew up watching and love! I get to work with a fun, collaborative and diverse crew and also contribute to the meaningful storylines that are being told on the show. It also feels super surreal to work with [series creator] Bruce Smith. During meetings, we get to watch him give animation notes and do draw-overs and it’s like attending a master class for free!

The toughest part: The schedule of TV animation can be very demanding and it is important to check in with yourself mentally and physically. If things get too much it’s okay to ask for support from your production.

Favorite toons growing up: Sailor Moon, Neon Genesis Evangelion, The Little Mermaid, Pokémon, Ratatouille, The Incredibles.

Best advice: Draw and paint what you like, stay true to your aesthetic and your true self and your art will follow.

Future plans: I would love to get a chance to tell my own stories in a form of an animated show, comic or video game. These are my favorite media, and I would love to channel my own stories through them.

Michael Yamada

Michael Yamada

Michael Yamada
Production Designer, Back to the Outback [Netflix Animation]
Stats: 41, from Pasadena, Calif.

I knew I wanted to work in animation when: I was studying industrial design in college and saw Lilo & Stitch in theaters. I really connected with the heart and emotion in that movie along with all the cool spaceships, and beautiful backgrounds. It flipped a switch in my brain — “I want to work on something like that!”

First job: I was lucky enough to be taking a visual development class my last term of college. Both my teachers were art directors at DreamWorks and we all idolized them. Breaking into animation was my five-year goal and I was surprised when one of my teachers asked for a copy of my portfolio and I started working on his movie a month after graduation.

What I love about the job: Australia is such a diverse and beautiful place. It’s like a mini-vacation each time we design a new set or learn about a new location in the movie. We’ve done such a deep dive that google thinks we live there!

Toughest part: For me, it’s balancing out short-term and long-term goals. There’s always a lot to do every day, but you really need to know where your input can make the most impact on the project. Moviemaking is tough, but it works out if you plan for those difficult days.

Fave toons growing up: Robin Hood, The Secret of NIMH, DuckTales.

Best advice: Invest in learning about all the different parts of filmmaking as well as your skills as an artist. Making a movie is definitely a collaborative process and that broad understanding helps you best communicate the vision and intent of your director(s).

Future plans: I’m always excited when I get the chance to do this role and I hope I get the chance again. I love all the potential and excitement as the movie takes form as well as seeing the art being realized. It never gets old seeing everyone’s art come to life.

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