I currently work at DreamWorks Animation as a feature writer and director. Most of my 25 year animation career I’ve worked in the story department, drawing storyboards. You could argue that even though I slowly transitioned from boarding into writing and directing, I’ve never really left the story department.
WRITING – Although animation is a visual medium and during the initial exploration of an animated concept there is quite a lot of art generated, ultimately it all begins with a script. It has always been this way. I know an artist at Disney that found an old script for Bambi in the back of one of his desk drawers. I write with a program called Final Draft, which is screen writing software that quickly organizes and formats dialogue, screen direction and action. After a first draft of a script is submitted, revisions begin. It is also likely that within a few days or weeks of that script submission, storyboarding will also begin.
Storyboarding for feature animation is different that that for live-action, in that the drawings are generally simpler, and include no screen direction.
In feature animation, boarding and writing are so inexorably tied together that they work in parallel and tandem throughout the rest of the production of the film. Generally speaking, there will be far fewer writers than board artists. Writing is easier, and boarding is vastly more time-consuming and labor intensive. Writing and boarding on the average feature can take anywhere from one to three years, in unusual cases even longer. Writing and boarding will likely continue to within a few months or even weeks before the completion of animation.
DIRECTING – There probably isn’t a more frequently asked question than, “How does one direct an animated film?”
Picture a live-action set. You’ll see combinations of actors, sound engineers, cinematographer, special FX, camera operators, grips, lighting, casting directors, set designers, composers, set construction, painters, board artists, pre-vis artists, etc.
Now separate it all. Same people, but instead of being in a sound stage or mountain in New Zealand where everyone can see and hear everyone else, they’re divided up into departments and scattered within a complex of buildings where they usually can’t see or hear each other. That’s animation. Animation directors do the same thing a live-action director does – we just visit all these different people separately.
I may start my day writing, then go to a recording session with an actor, then visit the layout department, animation department, and finally editorial. A director is the living repository of the story in its current form, and the conduit that connects all these different artists. If an actor does something unusual or changes something during a recording session, a director transmits that change to board artists and animators. Or perhaps something is cut out of the story in editorial – again, that change is transmitted to story artists and layout artists and actors the next time we see them.
Animation directors repeat themselves a lot.
First of all, there’s no mystery to it. Initially the most important thing for you to do is make some decisions about where you’d like to end up. If working for Disney is your dream, then you will have to leave Romania, if that’s where you happen to currently reside. It sounds weird to say this, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received email from someone saying, “I want to work for Pixar but I live in a cave in Iceland,” whereupon the person subsequently asks me what they should do. Well, you’ll have to leave Iceland, or Colorado, or wherever it is that you live if there is no animation studio where you are.
But BEFORE you pack your bags for San Francisco or Burbank you’d better have some idea what exactly you want to do. Storyboarding, for example, is quite a bit different from character animation or visual development. Animation is a cover-all term comprising many different arts, and they’re all fairly specialized. It’s a good idea to receive some training in the discipline you’re interested in. Not only for the pure sake of learning and practicing, but hopefully to come into contact with people who have or are doing exactly what you’re interested in. When I went to Cal Arts I primarily studied character animation, but I came into contact with story artists and former students that had recently been hired at different studios. This, for example, is how I knew to turn down a job offered me by Don Bluth. But most importantly, in school I was amongst other artists that shared my interests, and I dare say I learned as much of more from all of them as I did from my instructors.
There’s another aspect of school that’s helpful – you’ll accumulate a lot of finished work that will be helpful in creating a reel or portfolio. My first job was at Marvel Productions. I was offered that job by an art director that saw my student film at our Cal Arts end-of-the-year screening.
Follow your talent. A lot is made in television and movies about how you should follow your dreams, believe in yourself, etc. I think it much wiser to understand where your talents lie, and go in the direction they point you. Even though I spent most of my time at Cal Arts learning character animation, I never felt I was very good at it. I found I was more comfortable in story. That’s where I built my career. Story led to writing, and that led to directing.
Most people that approach me want to get a job in visual development. This is common for what I think are two reasons –
1 – Visual development sounds creative, undisciplined and fun.
2 – When people don’t know exactly what job they really want, they just say “visual development.”
Visual development jobs are not plentiful. There are far fewer vis-dev artists at a studio than, say, story artists or animators. This is because vis-dev doesn’t last the length of the movie like story or animation. Visual development artists exist only on the “front end” of the movie, moving to another film in a matter of weeks or months. A few visual development artists can cover several films quickly, so a studio doesn’t need a lot of them. There also may be a film with specialized needs whereupon a studio hires specific artists to develop that look, letting them go after that movie is complete. And finally, if you want to apply for this position, know that you will need a portfolio that shows strength in character design, background painting, layout drawing.
Studios list current available jobs and hiring criteria on their websites. When the time comes to submit a portfolio or reel, you can get specific directions from these sites.
One last bit of advice: when constructing a portfolio, consider who will be looking at it. And then edit the hell out of it. After I was laid off at Marvel productions I learned from a roommate that there was one job opening at Disney studios for – you guessed it – visual development. I didn’t have any idea what comprised a vis-dev portfolio, so I tried to construct one that would show strength in character design and story. After gathering what I considered to be appropriate drawings, I did two of the smartest things I ever did in my life…
First, I edited a forty-page portfolio down to probably only ten or twelve pages. I reasoned there shouldn’t be any weak work in it. I wanted people to think I could DO this job. Ten strong pages are better than a thousand so-so pages.
Second, I created a wordless narrative within the portfolio. I made sure that when anyone turned a page they would be refreshed by seeing something very different than the page before. I wanted whoever saw the portfolio to stay interested, to keep turning the pages to the end. Color work followed pencil drawings, smaller drawings were followed by a larger lavish page, animals followed people, etc. I omitted life drawings because my life drawings weren’t strong, and I mercilessly removed anything less than my best. I spent a few days just deciding what order things should fall in, even tuned up where they fell on the portfolio pages.
It worked, and I got a call from Disney to come in for an interview. The time I spent on that portfolio literally altered the course of my life.
I prefer to draw on paper rather than a computer. Certainly a big part of this is that I drew on paper for most of my life, before tablets and Cintiq were even an option. So I’m quite comfortable with it. But while increasingly sophisticated and convenient digital options are always being offered, there is one thing a computer will never produce - ever.
So, on to what I use:
When sketching rough ideas I use Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils on Bristol with a plate finish.
For revisions and adjustments to those sketches I use vellum overlays held in place with regular tape that, because of the robust nature of the vellum and Bristol, is removable.
When inking I use Series 7 Winsor & Newton sable brushes, usually a size 1. Ink is Winsor & Newton black Indian ink - NOT the bottle with the dragon, which is useless, chalky and NOT waterproof. I ONLY use the sort with the spider on the bottle, which is as black as midnight and contains varnish which makes it truly waterproof.
A quick story concerning brushes - back in the vicinity of 1989, I became interested in inking my drawings and comics. I didn’t know a lot about it so I dug up my best brushes and bought some ink. I struggled for months to get something to look the way I wanted, to no avail. No matter how much effort and time I poured into it, my inking just seemed to stall at a certain, ugly point.
The answer to my problem came one fateful night at Disney as I was staying late at my desk trying once again to figure out the whole inking thing. Richard Vander Wende, a production designer, was strolling the floor and discovered me there. I chatted with him while trying to use my arm to cover up the embarrassing mess I’d made with my brush and ink. Eventually he asked me what I was doing and I said, “Oh, just trying to teach myself to ink. But it’s not going very well.”
“Do you mind if I give you some advice?” he asked.
I didn’t want him to see my drawing, which resembled the aftermath of a herd of badgers stampeding barefoot through fresh road tar, but as I had nothing to lose and had genuinely been wondering of late if I simply didn’t have the proper DNA to do this sort of thing, I leaned back to show him my inking, and said, “No, please, go ahead. I can’t seem to get this to look right.”
Then he said the simplest thing in the world, something that didn’t make me feel bad at all, and changed my artistic life forever.
“You’re using a really cheap brush,” he said.
I had never ever suspected that the problem wasn’t me. He went on:
“Spend twenty dollars on a real sable brush. It can make thin and thick lines, can be molded with your fingers and still snap back into shape, and will last for months with a little care."
Boom. There it was.
I went to the store the next day, bought a Series 7 sable brush, and immediately I could ink. It was like having peddled a bicycle for years in frustration and then one day someone passed by and mentioned it would go farther and faster if I added wheels.
So, if you’re going to draw and ink, spend some money on good supplies and your life will be better, and you will be happier and more productive.
If you use sable brushes and Indian ink, you MUST also use a good brush soap or the ink will foul the brush within a few sessions.
After inking, rinse the brush in water and then follow the instructions on "The Masters" Brush Cleaner and Preserver. Soap the brush generously and rinse it till the lather is free of ink, and then lather it once more, drawing the hairs to a fine point and leaving it to dry that way. The soap will stiffen and protect the brush while conditioning the hairs. Next time you use it, just soak it a little while till the soap liquifies and you're off and running again.
My wife, Jessica Steele-Sanders, has edited together two marvelous videos demonstrating how I ink a drawing using the above-mentioned materials. The first video shows how I enlarge, clean up, and transfer a rough sketch to Bristol in preparation for inking; the second video documents the inking itself.
For coloring, I frequently DO use computers – specifically Photoshop. Infinite revisions mean I can boldly try color variations I never would with real paint. That way I don’t ruin everything I just did.
For writing, tone, inking, and drawing the best hands in the world, my greatest influence is Charles Schulz. For energy and power, Frank Frazetta. For sheer madness, imagination, and drawing ability beyond mortal men, Heinrich Kley. For disarming sweetness, and naughty behavior, Beatrix Potter. For charm and powerful, simple grace, Earl Oliver Hurst. For work ethic, storytelling ability, and artistic prowess, Carl Barks and Norman Rockwell. For inking and funny furniture, Bill Watterson. For opening portals to eerie, enchanted places, Arthur Rackham. For huge drawings, mass, audacity, and the best animals in the world, T. S. Sullivant. For artistic range and fearlessly drawing mobs with individual expression and character, Will Crawford.
And for confidence and encouragement, my father, who told me when I was young that there were limits to what men can create and build, but that you can draw anything.
I frequently get requests for pin-up drawings, tattoo designs, and strangely, even offers for me to draw people’s comics for them – for free! Unfortunately, I don’t have the time for personal commissions. This includes sketches of Stitch (the most common request), at least until I get that cloning machine to work and can create a second Chris who will do nothing but draw things, pay bills, and mow the lawn.
Regretfully, the same goes for the many requests I receive for interviews, portfolio reviews, career advice, and the like; there just aren't enough hours in the day to reply to them all, but I'm honored by and appreciative of each letter even if I can't respond to them. Thank you for thinking of me!
Professional commissions will be considered on a case-by-case basis. Interested companies can email firstname.lastname@example.org.