inside job

I was interviewed by Animation Insider.com last month! So nice of them to get in touch with me and let me ramble on even MORE. You can read more interviews with animatory types on their website, all of them interesting in their own ways. Sometimes you can tell a lot about people by the way they answer the questions that everyone else got. It’s always great to see someone giving people their 15 minutes of acknowledgement in a largely anonymous business. Thanks to Laura Milo for the interview!

I’ll post the Q&A below just for easy reference about my sorry butt, but be sure to visit their site:

What is your name and your current occupation?
Warren Leonhardt, story artist at Blue Sky Studios

What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?
Worked as a logger, prep cook at a truck stop, janitor at a hospital and a shoe repairman for a day. I thought about going into amateur kickboxing in 1993 or 94 after being invited by my coach to train in Thailand, but I’m too darn lazy (and scared) when it comes right down to it.

What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
It’s not so much the gig as the folks I’ve been lucky enough to work with. I’ve been on great crews such as the one we had at Red Rover studios up in Toronto in the early ’00s. We had a blast making Puma, Mexican Gerber commercials, and concert videos for R. Kelly when he was just on the cusp of going completely bonkers. I had to draw his recently deceased mother as an angel who talked to him, which was awkward, to say the least. As far as movies or recognizable credits go, I’d have to say those guys at Sony who made ‘Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs’ were really awesome for the short time I was on that movie. Still pals with a few of em. But there were fun crews in Ottawa, Copenhagen, LA, or Toronto that I’d like to gather together in a room again anytime, regardless of the job.  Of course I have high hopes for the movie that I’m working on right now. The crew at Blue Sky has some really bright and eccentric people here, which is always awesome to be around. Makes for good comedy bits.

How did you become interested in animation?
Same as anyone else, I guess. Television reruns of classic Looney Tunes and Disney shorts, mostly. There was one Disney special every Sunday evening when I was a kid. I was also a “Saturday Morning” kid, but I really liked waking up really early weekday mornings and watching original Tom & Jerry cartoons, Looney Tunes on Saturday morning and these Disney specials on Sundays. On one of those behind the scenes things, Walt Disney revealed that real live people made these cartoons with pencils and paper! I decided to try to become one of those guys even if it meant I had to figure it out myself. I’d have made a crappy chemical analyst anyway. My dad’s job was not for me. I got my hands on Preston Blair’s book and copied stuff from that and comic books.  And there was this other thing, too My one granddad had emphysema and was hooked up to an oxygen tank. He was a WWII mechanic and laughed his ass off at those Bugs Bunny cartoons as if it was the first time he’d seen them. He had already seen them in theaters in front of newsreels and the like, of course, but these television reruns brought back a lot of memories for him.  He’d tell me some racy story after one or two of these cartoons, and forget all about his illness for an hour. Even as a kid, I sensed that I wanted to be able to do that for people; I knew that a good laugh was always worth it. I’d never seen a grownup laugh that hard at a cartoon. Even my other humorless grandad who was a retired drill instructor for the military laughed at Yosemite Sam. It was weird to see. He normally just yelled at everyone all the time, including the TV, but he got a bang out of the same thing I did. I was hooked.

Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I was raised in a tiny town just west of the Canadian Rockies. Getting into this business was a bit tricky. The real turning point for me was after I dropped out of Alberta College of Art & Design in Calgary, Alberta out of sheer frustration. I was moping around campus as I was still living in the dorms there, working two jobs at the time. Must have been about 19 years old or so. Anyways, I stumbled across an alumni magazine of the nearby tech college. On the cover was an image from Disney’s “Aladdin”. This college was known for putting out mechanics, meat cutters, and architectural students and I couldn’t imagine why this was on it. I picked it up and read a feature article about this guy named Don Paul. He had gone through exactly the same thing I did – ran into a wall trying to learn animation in this part of Canada. Don created his own curriculum and made a few films before getting into Disney’s and he was head of special effects there at the time. I went to the tech college’s alumni office and asked to talk to the reporter, explaining my situation to the clerk there. He came back with Don’s contact info and just told me to come back and let him know what happened. I wrote Mr. Paul a three page letter, and three days later he called me! I couldn’t believe my luck. After talking with him, I applied to Sheridan College. I don’t know how I would have found out what to do without his phone call. The Internet barely existed then.  At the same time I was taking night courses at an artist run co-op in Calgary, Alberta. It’s called Quickdraw Animation Society and at the time there were classes taught on the basics of all types of animated movement. Kevin Kurytnik, the instructor at the time, is someone whom I still keep in touch with time to time.His course had prepared me so well for Sheridan that the first year there was a repeat of material I had already learned. To this day, Quickdraw has the largest collection of animation from around the world I’ve seen in one place, outside of the Internet, anyway. I saw a lot of rare  European, Asian, African and South American animation there. After graduating Sheridan, their recruiting drive wound up and I chose Disney Canada in Toronto over ILM. I wanted to draw and make stuff up, not animate CGI mudflaps on Star Wars revamps.

What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
In the Blue Sky Studios by around 9:30, get a lowdown on the latest stories and tell bad jokes & bits over coffee, get a handoff from the director sometime in the AM. Lunch, then draw my hand off till the group pitches in the afternoon. Then crank out more boards till I’m done, done enough, or it’s time to go home – whichever has the priority that day.

What part of your job do you like best? Why?
Just jamming on a sequence. Tossing ideas around to see what might work. In the right room, with the right people, it’s pretty amazing. Doesn’t matter if it’s  a television show, movie for a major studio or a baby food commercial. I’m a junkie for that part of the gig.

What part of your job do you like least? Why?
The constant relocation. Depending on where you live, you might have to move around a bit to chase decent paying work. At first it’s all fun and games, but after a while, especially when you’ve got family, it can wear on you a bit. We were never too crazy about moving to LA (we love winter), so we’ve been trying to find alternatives and still stay paid. Freelancing is fantastic these days with the internet being what it is, but for some of these movie gigs which pay better, I’ve been away from my family for two of the last five years because movie producers always want you in the studio, which is fair enough. So this studio gig in upstate NY is a great fit for us. It’s a good gig and we’re all in one spot for a while. And it snows here.

What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
Reading or listening to people complain about working in it, and some of the animation snobbery that can abound online. There are worse things in life than doing this line of work. Expecting studio animation work to fulfill all of your creative urges is setting oneself up for disappointment. I just think it’s a really fun way to make a living.  I gave myself an antidote to all the bad mojo by starting to write for an animation website based in Canada called, oddly enough, Canadian Animation Resources. Mike Valiquette up in Ottawa is trying to do a solid for the home team, so I try to help him out from time to time. Anyone can do it, but few people bother. Mike is the real deal, I respect that and stepped up to help out when I could. It’s all about upping morale north of the border, as there’s a lot of heavy talent frankly wasted on poor budgets and production methods. And yet, new stuff pops up in Canada that’s worth talking about every week. So I’ve been trying out interviews and posts previewing festivals and such. I’m not very good at it, but it beats complaining.

What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis?
Photoshop, Adobe Bridge on a Cintiq and a Mac. Lately I’ve been getting assignments with just an outline to work from, so I’ll just bang out some beats to the sequence with a Sharpie marker on some index cards and pitch those until the sequence has some shape I can work into digitally. Then I go home and built stuff out of mashed potatoes with my toddler or something.

In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
I’ve worked with a lot of really great talents, none of them ‘famous’ in the traditional commercial animation sense. No ‘Nine Old Men’ stories or ‘Termite Terrace’ stories from me. I haven’t worked in LA long enough to meet anyone like that.  My personal geekout happened in Denmark when I was lucky enough to work there on ‘Asterix & The Vikings’. I got to meet the co-creator of Asterix, Albert Uderzo! Shook his drawing hand, and even got a Danish translation of that story autographed by him. I think it’s funny that only two or so countries on this planet have never heard of Asterix & Obelix. Those characters have been a part of worldwide pop culture for over 40 years, and I got to show one of the co-creators my work with his characters and he liked it! It was one of the few times I’ve been starstruck.  Sorry, not quite ‘animation’ greatness but like I’ve said, there’s a ton of fantastic talents out there right now. I’m a fan of too many contemporaries to mention.

Describe a tough situation you had in life. 
Once I got hit by a one ton pickup truck while crossing the street, and was thrown about 10 feet into a snowbank after trying to high jump the hood. I just got a charlie horse out of it rather than a broken pelvis, so it wasn’t too bad. There’ve been tougher situations but I don’t want to be a downer.

Any side projects or you’re working on or hobbies you’d like to share details of?
Kids are a pretty awesome side project. Highly recommended hobby. I write a lot of stuff. Never judge it coming out, so sometimes it’s kids books, teen graphic novels, screenplays, children’s puppet shows and what have you.  I really like doing volunteer work with art classes for kids and such when I came carve out the time. You tend to forget that what we do is a bit of a magic trick to most people. Up in a small town called Collingwood in Ontario, Canada, I did some classes for kids for a couple of years. It was so awesome! Kids are just random associated imagination, kings and queens of the Jam Session.  I think it’s fantastic to work face to face, idea to idea, collaborate with them and make stuff. Adults are frickin boring, man. We don’t come up with stuff like a superpowered baby watermelon who shoots lasers from it’s eyes and get that idea accepted, built upon and improved, a whole world built around it in twenty minutes. Not without drugs or alcohol involved. But that jamming headspace is a natural state for most kids once they know that no one will make fun of them for trying it.

Any unusual talents or hobbies like tying a cherry stem with your tongue or metallurgy?
I can tell some pretty inappropriate jokes at well-heeled garden parties. Does that count?

Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business? 
Stop treating it like a ‘business’! Sure you need some negotiating chops if you’re freelancing or trying to build a cartoon empire, but really you just need to get good. This whole ‘who you know’ mentality doesn’t count for anything if you can’t do the gig. Turn down the suck and turn up the good. And always ask questions. The good gigs will follow if you pay attention to your craft, first and foremost. Oh, and don’t be a jerk. Who wants to work with jerks?!

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