#13. A Conversation with Brianne Drouhard
JA: So let's start with the time you spent at CalArts, where you attended school for Animation; what was that program like as far as the challenges it presented to you, the work you completed for your portfolio, and how it compared to Innerspark?
BD: Thanks Jason, for the interest and interview questions! I will try to answer them as best I can without sounding like a complete moron. I grew up in the boonies of eastern Washington State, so being able to attend Innerspark (or CSSSA at the time) was fantastic! I never had friends who held the same interests as me, or had access to equipment to make real animation. We had trips to art museums, exhibits, tours of studios, guest speakers, all in the span of one month. The animation program at CSSSA was headed by Christine Panushka, with Corny Cole, Gary Schwartz, and Ruth Hayes also teaching. Everyday after lunch, she would screen short animated works from around the world. It was very inspiring, and she would explain the techniques used, the artists that made them, and why they made them, it was very extensive. Our animation assignments at CSSSA would range from flip books, figure drawing, zoetrope cycles, pixelation, animating directly on film, a group film called Exquisite Corpse, and finally a short film, usually 30 seconds to a minute long, recorded on video, with Gary Shwartz's Frankenstein cameras. I enjoyed the variety of the assignments so much, I was actually thinking about applying to the Experimental Animation program at CalArts, but Christine recommended that I apply for Character, since they focus on more narrative work. Going back to high school the next fall, I knew where I wanted to be and what I could do to achieve it. My high school art teacher, Mr. Michael Lewis, was the one who recommended that I try for CSSSA, and he also helped me get my portfolio ready for CalArts. I think he is still teaching up there, I hope Othello knows what they have.
Going to CalArts though was pretty different. The Character Animation program seems to be changing all the time, not the same teachers or classes are there every year, so anything I experienced while attending may be completely different now. I'm pretty happy with my experiences at CalArts for the most part, and felt very fortunate to be there. Being out of state and unknown, going to CalArts let me have a group of close friends that I still see regularly in Los Angeles. The morning classes we had for character animation seemed more focused on fine art. They were mostly figure drawing, painting, and bg layout classes. The evening classes were more industry focused, storyboarding, traditional 2d animation, and character design. I often felt at odds trying to combine what was taught from the day time classes with night classes, but learned much from it. The first half of the year they taught us the fundamentals for animation, and had us figure out what our student films would be for that year. The second half of the year was juggling classes, animating, and completing a student film, with critiques and help from the teachers. There were a lot of late nights around the pencil test machines with fellow students, and I learned more from watching other people testing and sharing what they had learned in their different classes. I didn't sleep a lot, and spent all spring breaks animating and getting sick. For those of us straight out of high school, we were also taking "critical studies", doing papers on film theories, art history, cultural studies, literature and etc. I spent my summers with Internet classes to make up credits so I could spend more of my college time on art and animation. CalArts isn't going to wave a wand and grant animation knowledge. You have to push yourself there, the teachers aren't going to care if you don't show up for class, or if you don't turn in a film. I felt if I was there I had to do my best, or it would be a waste leaving home, especially if my family was helping me attend school.
By my sophomore year, I was pretty sure I would never have a chance having a job as an animator, especially when Disney axed their feature animation department the following year. I still learned as much about animation as I could, but started focusing more on design and illustration. My animation teacher for my Sophomore and Junior year was Mike Nguyen, and he let me intern at July Films on My Little World for a summer. So I still did get a chance to do theatrical animation, although I was pretty wobbly with it. There weren't many teachers working in TV animation at the time I was attending CalArts, so it was depressing my senior year having some newly unemployed teachers walking into class and telling us to try a new career. I had an animation reel when I graduated, but my portfolio was all over the place, I had no idea what people working in TV were looking for. The year I graduated in 2002, very few of us actually had found full time work in animation. I ended up at a 3rd party video game company in the boonies, but it was work and experience.
JA: You received special thanks for the production of X-Men: Next Dimension back in 2002, what involvement did you have there?
BD: None. They had just finished that game when I started up at that company. I think even the boss's dog got special thanks on that. He was a cute little ancient pug. I spent the summer following graduation as freelance until they decided to hire me full time. It was for 3D Studio Max in-game animation. I worked mostly on Backyard Wrestling, animating men punching, kicking, throwing, and hugging each other. The in-game animation they needed for that game had to be very short time wise. We had to take out most of the acting, follow through, anything that made the move last too many frames. If the moves were too long, it slowed down game-play and could make it boring for the player. Working there made me realize what it was I really wanted to be doing. I missed drawing. I did get to do some development designs, and some intro animation for the Insane Clown Posse that appeared in that game. I, along with a lot of other artists that worked on that game, received no credit on it. I was at that studio for nine months until I was laid off, and I spent another year trying to find work actually drawing. I missed it. I have friends who still work in games. Most of them are doing well and are quite happy.
JA: You are listed not only as being a part of the animation department for Teen Titans, but also as a voice actor; how did you get involved with the series, both in animation and voice?
BD: Haha, I have never done a voice for anything! That might be a typo on IMDB or something. My voice is annoying in real life. I'm listed as an actress for "Episode 257-494", one of the photos used in the episode is actually the art staff on Titans. I think I'm on the floor to the right. We were all dressed up as nerds, big stretch, being hypnotized by the T.V. The infamous photo is on Hakjoon Kang's blog. It's only been a few years, everybody looks young! The opportunity to maybe work on Titans came through www.motionzoo.com (may it rest in peace). One of my classmates from school, Matt Youngberg, posted it on the job forum. I was pretty low on funds and considering moving back to Washington State. I sent them my website, shitty portfolio, took a design test which was a full-turn of Jinx, and they took a chance on me. I learned a ton from that crew. Glen Murakami was the art director, Derrick Wyatt and Jon Suzuki were the character designers who did a lot of the amazing character designs on the show. They put up with me and taught me how to make my drawings less ugly. They would go over designs with me, and give me notes. It was a lot of fun there, I have a photo somewhere of a giant wall of random Post-It drawings we all did one night. Being there was an experience I feel very lucky and fortunate to have. Everyone was really excited to be working on the show, the artists and writers worked well together, and the directors put a lot of heart into it. I was very spoiled having that be my first full time job drawing. I also don't think I'd have been able to stay in LA long enough to find work on Titans if it hadn't been for Regional Maple Leaf Communications. I won their Ben Wicks contest right after being laid off from the video game job. They had me illustrate two different versions of their Teenage Survival Handbook. It was handed out in schools and clinics up north. I used the money to buy a computer to help with portfolios, for rent, and such. The computer is the same one I still use today.
JA: What work have you done for Nickelodeon?
BD: Not a lot. I did some freelance design for My Life as a Teenage Robot, the designs were based off of what they had in the storyboards and what the art director, Alex Kirwan, wanted. I can't remember what episodes they were for, but I did a lot of fish kids, and little round aliens. It was fun, I got to work on it during my breaks from Teen Titans. I guess I work on a lot of shows with teenagers in them.
JA: To go off subject for a moment, I love your version of Slush Puppie! Was that something you did for fun, or did the company actually use it?
BD: Slush Puppie was for my little brother's birthday. He just started his first job up in Seattle, so I try to do something special for him every year. I was having trouble trying to figure out what to draw him, but I got out of bed one morning and Slush Puppie just popped up in my head. We used to get those drinks during the summer coming home from his soccer practice and my pottery classes. If Cadbury wanted me to redesign Slush Puppie, I would do it! But I think I'd have to work on him a bunch more than just that one drawing. It has a lot of problems. I don't think it would print or look very nice on a cup. It's too detailed. I still like the old Slush Puppie the best. Ahhh memories...
JA: What inspired you to become an animator? Do you remember your favorite cartoons growing up, and how do they compare to your favorites now?
BD: It's abnormal I think to carry an obsession like animation to adulthood, but my parents were very supportive. I was pretty asthmatic when I was little, so putting a pencil in my hand kept me calm and quiet. They kept me supplied with art books, paper, pencils, and let me travel to go to California when I was in high school. They let me grow. They told my brother and I we could be whatever we wanted, except farmers. It's such a risky, stressful business, but it's kinda funny because animation seems just as precarious. Our parents wanted to offer us the chances they didn't have growing up. In 1995 we took a trip to Washington D.C to get some culture, and the National Children's Museum was offering a week long class on animation, taught by Willie Moore. He was the first animator I ever met and was very inspiring, there were three other kids in the class, but I lost contact with them long ago. The Children's Museum actually had murals drawn by Chuck Jones on the walls! Afterward my parents got me a little camcorder, that had the option to record eight frames per second. I still have it. I made dumb little films with it, one was called Yippie, the Accident Prone Dog to Harry Nilsson's The Puppy Song, for my Senior project in high school. As crude as it was, it got me an NFAA and Scholastic scholarship for college.
When I was about three or four, I remember the neighbors bringing a vcr/beta/magical box to our house and watching Disney's Alice and Wonderland on the TV. When I was five we got the Disney Channel. They actually used to show old cartoons and Wonderful World of Disney on there! I remember being obsessed with Dumbo, and after seeing the animation process explained, that was what I wanted to do. I watched a lot of old Disney and Warner Bros. shorts, all that stuff was aired all the time in the 80's and 90's. We had a satellite dish since cable wasn't offered in our rural area, so I got to watch some anime too. There was a lot: Batman, Space Ghost, Herculoids, Tiny Toons, Freakazoid, Sailor Moon, Macross, Disney Afternoon, and anything Nickelodeon was showing. Movies I was really into were My Neighbor Totoro, Nightmare Before Christmas, Sanrio movies, and the older Disney animated movies. I guess the same things everyone else was watching. I started watching a lot of stuff from the National Film Board of Canada too, and collected a lot of vhs tapes of independent shorts. There were a lot of video games I'd play too. I'd collect the game guides and magazines because of the artwork that was in them. Most of them were RPG's. There weren't any comic book shops in my area, so this is what I nerded out on and drew during class.
Animation that I've been obsessed with lately is Gainax's Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann (it's on the SciFi channel on Mondays) and Gunbuster 2. The backgrounds in the latter are so gorgeous, they use so many different colors for outer space, and it works so well. The animation is very lively also, it's hard to balance a dramatic story but allow goofy moments and characters. Everything seems so fresh. I actually got depressed after watching Gurren Lagann, because I can't imagine being a part of a project like that in the U.S. I think my work design list for that week had a "toenail catapult" on it too. It was sad. I ate a lot of chocolate. I also have been watching Venture Bros., Flapjack, Ben Ten: Alien Force, and Chowder. I watch most of the shows I freelance/worked on also, which lately has been Transformers Animated. Honestly I haven't had much time to keep up with current animation, I only watch an hour or two of TV a week. Whenever I try to record Teenage Robot, Avatar, or Mighty B off Nickelodeon, I end up with iCarly or something. Comparing shows nowadays to what was on in the 80's, doesn't seem fair. I watch what I do now because of what I watched back then. I'm glad there are less shows based off of toylines and backwards hats, but I wish studios were more interested in making original shows for everybody, not just boys with ADD. But I guess that is where the money is. At least the internet has allowed a lot of people access to films that they may have never seen before and a venue for independents to be seen easily. If you like something though, please support the artists by buying the dvds and artwork! Hopefully that will promote more diversity in the animation that is out there.
JA: John Kricfalusi has made comments about your work saying, "her designs are real designs, not just collections of unrelated abstract flat shapes. They have hierarchy - an overall statement that is then broken down into levels of sub forms and details that obey the planes of the larger forms...beautiful shapes, contrasts, large negative areas, clear silhouettes, line of action, construction....the whole shebang of good drawing skills, and to top it off, a lot of individuality and fun!" Has John approached you about being involved in any Spumco work?
BD: He did a while ago, but I've been trying to focus on my personal projects with my free time. Those first two years out of school taught me how important it is to continue on with my own projects. The comment he made is very flattering, but I feel like I still have a long way to go with my artwork. Which is good, because if something is perfect, what's the point in keeping up with it?
JA: What was the last picture you drew of?
BD: A doodle I started in my sketchbook while hanging out with some friends at a yuppie coffee shop. I've been focusing most of my drawing time on my projects, but being around nice people let's me chill out. My brain turned off on this. Ummm, she has birds in her hair? I think she uses bird shampoop on it. Probably Lisa Frank brand.
JA: Having worked for major companies such as Warner Bros., July Films, and Mattel; what advice do you have to offer artists trying to break into the industry?
BD: Know what job you are applying for. Most of the time studios are looking to fill a specific job, so it helps if the portfolio is focused in one area, i.e. character design, props, storyboards, backgrounds, etc. Also be familiar with which show you are applying for, show that you can draw in that style. When they have a position to fill, they need the new people to hit the ground running, they don't always have time to train people. Try to have the artwork in the portfolio not look like a class assignment. Still use the fundamentals you learned in school if you went to one, but your creativity is a plus too. I still have a hard time knowing what artwork to put in my portfolio, I'm constantly updating it. It's also good to realize that most animation made at studios is a team effort. A majority of the people there are artists. I've known many people who started off as production assistants. Some have made the jump to an artist's job, and others opt to stay in management so they can have more free time on their artwork outside of the job. Some studios offer internships, which can give you an idea how a show or feature is made. If you have the time, get a website or blog online. It's sometimes easier for employers to go to a website than dig around for your portfolio. Make sure you label all your artwork online and off, people right click images all the time, and I've seen a job recruiter's cube plastered with art from different portfolios. If there is contact info on the image, even just a website, they'll be able to find you if they want work from you. Plus, in general, it's better to be safe than sorry. Times are tough right now. Keep putting your portfolio out there, you never know what events will occur.
It is still a good idea to try to have a life outside of a job though. Go to movies, museums, concerts, parks, and read books! Get a pet! See friends who don't work where you do, get some diversity! Keep a sketchbook! Work on your own projects! This will help you stay inspired. All jobs in animation end. They only last as long as the show has episode orders, until that feature movie is finished. If you have something of your own, it will allow you to push yourself and try new things when times are slow. You don't have to rely on a large corporation to create something good. I've been working on two children's books. One is digital illustrations for a family friend's book, the other I'm writing and illustrating with marker. They've both been on hold the last few weeks. I'm learning how to storyboard again for a short film. At the end of September if it's not approved, the characters from that will hopefully continue on in another form. Don't let anything go to waste!
JA: Sum up your work with one word for me.