#14. A Conversation with Monica Grue

MG: Hi Jason… Thanks for this interview! I'm still an unknown in this industry, so I am very flattered!

JA: Thank you for interviewing! Let's start off talking a little about Otis; a lot of great and legendary artists attended the school, you even became a teacher's assistant for life drawing during your time there as a student, what were your experiences and challenges like during your time completing a BFA in Digital Media?

MG: Well, going into Otis there was no way to gauge how intense it would be. Those who have gone to art college will probably agree that it takes up your entire life… if you let it. And I definitely did! I spent many nights and weeks in the computer labs during the three of my four years where I was in my major, I have to admit, my freshmen year was pretty painful too!. All I can say it was great experience, even with all its extremely frustrating periods of time trying to get things done and dealing with the insecurities of being an artist. Courses and facilities are one thing, but what really made Otis were the people.

I was really fortunate to have been with my class of 2008. I graduated with a really great group of kids, not just talented but extremely tight-knit, fun, and supportive. They really made my experience for me. I was also lucky enough to make friends with upperclassmen and alumni from my department who took me on as their students. Having graduated, I still feel as though I'm in school because I have made a set of friends to last my lifetime.

JA: Tell me about your time spent at Nickelodeon in 2006 as a Production Intern; what shows did you work on, and what did a typical day at that studio consist of?

MG: Getting to intern at Nickelodeon was a lucky break for me! While I was there I assisted on Go Diego Go! and the second Direct-to-video release for Dora the Explorer, after I left, Dora was picked up for some more seasons. Because of union laws, I wasn't able to do any artwork on the production as an intern, so my duties can be described as a go-between for the production crew and the artists, particularly the storyboard artists. I read and stamped a lot of boards in those few months! Not to mention made a lot of copies and read a lot of scripts. All the while it was awesome to be able to chat with the artists. It was pretty trippy to be able to be working with artists who had a hand in many of the shows I grew up watching. Jeff Degrandis, the director, directed Animaniacs, Kuni Tomita was an animator on Akira and many Disney TV shows such as Duck Tales that were animated in Japan for the U.S. market. Many of the board artists worked on Ren & Stimpy. Though all the artists have a lot of experience, I was really struck by how much understanding and generosity they had toward me as a student. I think all professional artists remember what it was like as a student… as a result, you will meet many friendly people in this industry who want to help you.

JA: Your first professional job was Matte Painter for Three Legged Legs in Santa Monica; tell me about that experience and what your paintings were created for.

MG: Three Legged Legs is a directorial collaboration by three graduates from my department at Otis, Casey Hunt, Greg Gunn, and Reza Rasoli. The time I worked on the AMP animated commercials, I was between my junior and senior year. At the time I was worried about how I was going to pull off a senior thesis and a little frustrated by the fact that I hadn't gotten my hands dirty with real professional work. I heard about their call for interns to help on an upcoming project, so I jumped at the chance to do real work. Again I had a case of perfect timing. The guys introduced me to the pitch, and they were happy enough with my junior work to let me matte paint on the project, along with my classmates and friends: Thomas Yamaoka, Wendy Park, and Matt Nava. I started on the production early so was able to work in the early concept phase for the layouts, as well as the final execution. It was one of those projects I was happy to have worked on without compensation. Everything from the team of artists to the final product was a dream project. In July I worked for them again, this time as a texture artist for another spot.

JA: You only graduated from Otis this year, but your work resembles that of a seasoned professional; when did you start drawing and painting, and at what point in your life did you know that you wanted to do it for a living?

MG: Wow, thanks! I have a long way to go and many things to learn, but I'm lucky to have caught up despite being behind along the way. I pretty much knew I wanted to be some kind of artist since I was three or four. The turning point that always stuck out to me was when I saw a behind-the-scenes special of The Lion King around the time I was seven. Before then I had little knowledge of what went into the making of an animated picture. I was very young when The Little Mermaid came out, and of course I thought the characters and worlds were real. One day I had doubts so I asked my dad, who told me that the movements are made by the flipping of drawings. What! I was totally shocked and blown away. Later when I was able to see more in depth into the making of an animated film, I was sure that was what I wanted to be involved in. Going through youth, I had plans on becoming a traditional animator. By the time I was beginning my last year of high school, I realized that the market was being flooded by 3-D animation and that traditional animation was becoming scarcer. Since my passion was in drawing and creating, I realized that my interests actually lay more closely in the realm of concept art, and the trends of technology were presenting me a sign of where I could translate my interests. My high school art teacher introduced me to Otis, but at the time I was still applying to many regular universities. I didn't fully realize that I had committed myself to a future in art until I signed YES on my letter of acceptance to Otis. I think I was still in shock all the way until I ended my freshman year!

For me, painting came much much later in the game. Traditional paint-wise, I had very little formal instruction; I consider myself very lucky to have come across friends and mentors who helped me gain years of knowledge in months. As a Digital Media major, most of my classes were focused on the areas of Visual Effects, 3-D, and motion, and for most of my education I still felt like my true passions were on the sidelines. To be honest, I didn't begin to constructively paint digitally until right before I became a senior in college, which was going to present a challenge considering I wanted my thesis to made up of paintings! I am grateful to my friends and mentors, Mike Lee and George Fuentes, who gave me the direction and feedback I needed in that last year to learn not just how to paint, but how to create focus and clarity, which were the most important things I needed to learn. Mike really made me understand how to create an illustration by giving me a foundation in composition, shape, construction, and value that I desperately needed. Both of them were a great inspiration and huge help to me and are always there to answer questions with wisdom.

JA: Do you remember your favorite cartoon growing up?

MG: I had so many! I'm glad to have grown up in the 80s and 90s when cartoons were at their best. I was a great watcher of all the Disney greats, Rescue Rangers, Talespin, and especially Gargoyles, which I think it was one the most original and mature cartoons made to date. I was on Nickelodeon mostly by the time I was a little older. I have to say Rocko's Modern Life was my all-time favorite. It had what I feel many current projects are lacking: excellent writing. In fact I think cartoons of the 90s are hallmarked by their writing. I'd like to see some of that come back. Rocko was such a genius blend of unforgettable characters and relatable scenarios… who knew such a crazy idea would be so amazing, but there it was.

JA: I am always curious when interviewing artists, what was the last picture you drew of?

MG: My last drawings were some sketches of coworkers' at a studio meeting. The room was dark and everyone was facing away, so imagine the back of heads.

JA: So now that you graduated and have some professional experience, what are you wanting to move onto next? Do you have an ideal dream position in the industry?

MG: Currently I am serving as junior concept artist for Electronic Arts (EA) here in Los Angeles, on an unannounced project. This will have been my first experience in games, baptism by fire so I hear! Having done some TV, and gotten a taste of animation… which is where I would ultimately like to end up, as I suppose one can tell from my work . I am hoping to end up in visual development for animation, since it's been my lifelong dream. But I have learned to be patient, and learned to relish all working experiences as opportunities to learn, grow, and connect for whatever comes next. All artists have one area they would prefer to work in, whether it's games or animation, but I say, don't shut out an opportunity even if it may be uncomfortable, and don't become jealous or upset when the job you wanted didn't come to fruition. Being uncomfortable only means you're going to learn a lot! I've learned to trust God to place me where I need to be. Right now that it's games, I can tell already I will become much more experienced and diversified by the experience.

JA: What other artists have you come across, either at school or in the field, that we should be keeping an eye on?

MG: There are so many, it will be hard to choose just a few. I'd have to make my shout-out to Wendy Park (http://www.wendypark.com), my friend and fellow graduate of Otis 08. Wendy is currently wrapping up an internship at Blue Sky Studios in New York. In the craziness of senior year, she was my constant work buddy. She has an amazing eye for shape and her work, whether drawings or colored illustrations, are always super clear and elegant. I think you should expect to see some great things out of her. I have no doubt she's going to do very well.

JA: What advice do you have for those either still in school or just graduating?

MG: Work hard, play later! Haha… harsh but true. I turned down a lot of fun times during school to work, re-work, and redo my projects. In retrospect I may have worried too much, but after graduation it was good to have no regrets about whether I could have worked harder. Learn as much as you can, get feedback! I didn't begin to ask for much feedback until my last year. We're all scared to put our work out there where it's vulnerable to criticism, but you're only going to move forward if you know what you need to fix. If you feel hurt, brush off the emotion, focus on the task, and keep going. I had a lot of instructors say, you have to distance yourself from your work. During school I felt like it was next to impossible to do that. Only now have I learned what it's like to feel separated from your work. When you let it go, you will improve so much. Don't be scared. If I could redo school, I would have gotten out more, been more interested in other things besides art. Don't forget about real life and real people! It's important.

JA: Now it's your turn, sum up your work for me in one word.

MG: Hopeful. Someone told me they get a message of hope and light from looking at my work. Just to be able to do that makes me happy to be doing this. What more could you ask for?