The world of animation is endlessly changing, with many artists on the rise and making a name for themselves. Everyone has a different path into the industry and thanks to the digital age we live in, the range of visibility for talented artists has only gotten wider. With social media platforms such as Twitter, Tumblr, and DeviantArt, where you can upload your artwork and show the world what you’re made of, your chances for discovery are endless.
Just take it from these amazing artists: Simon Chong (Bob’s Burgers), McKenzie Atwood (Steven Universe), and Ashley Michelle Simpson (Star Vs. The Forces of Evil). These incredible artists who’ve worked on some of the biggest animated shows in television all got their start from doing fan art and animation of shows they loved. Here are their tales and tips on how they got into the field of animation and landed their dream careers.
What was your first taste of animation?
Ashley Michelle Simpson: I’ve always loved to draw. My dad drew a lot when he was younger and my oldest inspiration was a poster he drew for me of Beauty and the Beast. Still hangs in my cubicle at work! Never thought of drawing as a career until I saw the movie Ratatouille, and then my mind was made up.
Besides drawing for most of my life for fun, I studied four years at Emily Carr University of Art and Design. I got a Bachelors in Media Arts with Animation as a Major.
McKenzie Atwood: I've been video editing since I was in elementary school. My friends and I had a web show. When I was in elementary school and middle school, it was pretty bad. But that's when I taught myself Adobe Premiere Elements. I picked up things over time, just playing with different narratives and techniques, piecing things together in new ways for fun.
Then I had a blog for making fan content. That was when I really started making content for the Internet outside of my growing web show. I started making stuff for Tumblr, back in like 2014, just GIFs and videos and edits on the side.
Simon Chong: My mum would tell you that whenever I had access to a pen and paper, I just constantly drew. I didn't know what that meant career-wise until I saw Toy Story when I was 10. I was like, "I don't know what that is, but that's what I want to do." It put me on this path of wanting to tell stories through drawing.
When I was a kid and had my PC, my first taste of animating something was this Nickelodeon game on the PC. You could take characters from Nickelodeon shows and direct them however you wanted. That was my first taste.
I spent all my education learning constantly about animation. In college, not the American university type of college, I was taught the wrong software. I was taught a program called Macromedia Director, when I should have been learning Flash. Then I studied three years in the University of Teesside. I was learning 3D animation at the time on a program called Softimage XSI, when I should've been learning Maya or anything else. So I was learning the wrong software again. It was really bizarre.
Throughout all of my education actually, it turned out one way or another that I was taught the wrong software instead of what I needed to learn. So I moved to London, where I was left out of job interviews and told I wasn't the right person for any of these jobs. All of my education had been for nothing, so ultimately I started teaching myself.
How were you discovered?
AMS: I was a fan who saved up to go to San Diego Comic-Con one summer during college, and I decided to give one of my favorite pieces of fanart I had done to the creators of Phineas and Ferb. A few months later, I received a private message on DeviantArt asking if I would be interested in doing freelance character designs, based on my fanart that I had given to them. Of course I said yes, and I traveled to the US by train that following December for an episode pitch on what I was going to be designing. Two years following that, they released the episode on television, as the second to the last episode of the entire series.
MA: I went to studied computational media at Georgia Tech, where the Cartoon Network office in Atlanta was literally across the street from the school. I landed an internship there in the games QA department as a freshman, basically talking about how much I like the Cartoon Network games. I was also making videos about Steven Universe on my YouTube channel. It started off with just compilation videos and things like that, but eventually I got more creative in whatever I was making. It kind of all builds.
When I started doing social media freelance for Cartoon Network, it all came together when they asked me to go out to Burbank in the summer of 2017 to host the official podcast for the show because I had cemented my place in the fandom through all my side work. I was like, "Yes!" It's such an amazing show that really broke so much ground in terms of inclusivity in television, especially in animation. I jumped at the opportunity to go. I went from interning and my own thing to officially creating for the fan community.
SC: I found that I enjoy making my own passion animated projects on the side just to keep teaching myself animation. I'd find myself imitating other shows and other styles just to see if I could recreate it because I find the best way to learn is through imitation. I love the Book of Mormon, created by the guys who made South Park, and I thought, “What if I could animate one of the songs from the Book of Mormon in the style of South Park and have characters kind of cross?" I wanted to see if I could imitate the South Park style while learning more about how to animate.
I put it online and it went a bit viral. It spurred me on to think about what other shows had crossovers, so I put Bob in Bob’s Burgers in Archer. They’re both voiced by H. John Benjamin. Again, it was all just so I could teach myself specific animation techniques and transitions.
The day after I uploaded it, the creator of Bob's Burgers Lauren Bouchard tweeted me and offered me a job. Coincidentally, and I didn’t know this, I uploaded it while Comic Con was going on, so everyone from Bob's Burgers and Archer were in the same room.
Two months later, I sold all of my all my belongings, left London, and moved to LA working on Bob's Burgers as a storyboard artist. In three years, I am a director on season 11.
What was your first reaction when you were contacted being offered your dream job position?
AMS: I remember coming home from class and finding the message, offering me a freelance position. I typed madly to my best friend on Skype (back when it was cool haha) and then danced in the hallway of my apartment with my roommate. To say I was elated is an understatement. Then, a couple of years later, when I received an official job offer, it was ten at night and I woke up the entire house out of excitement. My mom thought I was in trouble, ha!
MA: I was at my parents house at the time because school had been let out, and I rushed downstairs to tell them. It changed everything in an instant.
SC: It actually was my birthday weekend, so I had a couple of my friends from home visiting me in London. We were all together in my living room. When the tweet came through and I got a response back that literally just said, “You want a job?” I couldn't believe it was happening. We all clinked the drinks in our hands. I took a selfie the moment when I tweeted this thing. It was the most surreal moment because I knew like it's such a small tweet, but the consequences were enormous. It meant quitting my business Headspin Media that I'd started alongside my business partner Kathryn. It meant leaving London, leaving all my friends, leaving my family, going to a place where I don't know anybody. It was very overwhelming, but I never felt for one second like I was doing the wrong thing.
What are some of the most important things you learned in the field that you didn’t know before? Something that you wished you knew prior?
AMS: Perspective. That’s the main thing I wish I had known beforehand. I had a grasp on it, but I remember staying one night at work until late, just reading up on perspective and drawing examples of it, until it stuck in my head. I still make mistakes today!
MA: The importance of just reaching out to people who are where you want to be and putting yourself out there. I was surprised how often people would be willing to talk to me or meet with me, even before the podcast happened. Making connections with people is so important and so valuable to sort of show you what kind of tests that aren't in the industry. I've gotten the chance to talk to a lot of different students who reached out to me and sort of asked me about my experiences. I'm still very much just getting started in my career, but I'm always really excited to tell them about what my path was. Everyone's path is so different. An unexpected connection could result in something a lot bigger than you can ever predict.
SC: It is a competitive industry. I found my way into a very unusual route and now that I'm here, I'm seeing how people traditionally get here. Like applying, doing the test for the job, all of that. But what it's taught me is that I can't for one second, let myself get complacent. We should always strive to be better at what we do. Because if you're passionate enough about it, then it's just a joy to work in this field anyway.
What are some tips and advice you have for other skillful and talented people artists wanting to acquire a job in the field?
AMS: It’s normal to have days that you feel like garbage, or you feel like your art is garbage. We all have those downs. You will have happy days full of confidence as well! Keep pushing yourself to improve. Don’t ever think you’ve learned all there is to know because you will always be learning.
MA: Reach out to people who are where you want to be, but also at your skill level. The people where you are are going to be the big names in a few years. It's so important to connect with your peers who have the same goals as you. It can also really help to motivate you to improve your craft. Build a network and just constantly be looking for ways to push yourself and try new things. There's a lot of different jobs in animation that we don't think about, so keep an open mind.
SC: Keep learning, always keep learning. Knowledge is such a gift. We have such access to free stuff on the Internet to learn, if you're passionate enough about it enough. I would say if you're doing animated work and personal projects, don't make something with other people in mind expecting it to go massively viral. Make the thing that you want to make for you. The wonderful thing about passion projects, especially now that I work in the industry, is that there is nobody above your head to tell you what to do. If a lot of people see it, awesome, but first and foremost you should make anything personal for yourself.