Can you share a little about how you got into art?
I always liked drawing as a kid and I watched tons of cartoons with my dad.
He showed me how to do stop motion animation with our family camcorder and I made a bunch of films with my Lego bricks and dinosaur models. Through him, I saw that animation was something that people of all ages can appreciate.
I decided at age 12 that I was going to go to Calarts, study character animation, and work in animation.
What was your experience like at Calarts? Do you think it was worthwhile going there and do you think it’s still a good idea for animation artists to attend college over self-learning?
Calarts was great, but very hard.
I hardly slept for four years. But I made four films, lots of friends, and good connections in the industry.
However there were also plenty of flaws in the Calarts curriculum, and you end up doing a lot of self-teaching to fill in the gaps.
I think that there is an impression that Calarts is the only place to go if you want to make it in the animation industry, but this is just not true. There are many other great animation schools all with their own strengths and weaknesses.
Some will be better for those wanting to do visual development and background design for features (these were not Calarts’ strengths). Others will be great for CG (Calarts is getting better at this, but still has a way to go). And some will be great for storyboarding and TV design(this is generally where Calarts shines).
No matter what school you’re at, you can become a great artist in your chosen field. It will just take self-discipline and self-teaching skills.
And some amazing artists have made it in the industry with no formal training at all. Everyone is different, as is what’s best for them.
Your student film “Something Afoot” is really fantastic. Can you share a little on the making of that film? How long did that take & what tools did you use for animating?
“Something Afoot” was my fourth-year film at Calarts. It was my first time trying to do a comedy and I was very anxious about that, but the process ended up being really fun.
And I learned a lot about writing and directing—especially directing voice actors and musicians to deliver your jokes the way you’ve envisioned them.
Working on this film, which was by far my longest and most ambitious film, was also when I realized that I didn’t need to be awake for seventy-two hours at a time to get my work done.
Sleeping for eight hours a night helped me produce as much work or more than I had when pulling all-nighters.
Pre-production on this film took about three months, and production lasted about 3.5 months (of doing nothing else). The backgrounds were done in Photoshop, the animation was done with TV Paint, and the compositing was done in After Effects.
What’s the story of how you got hired on South Park?
South Park has a hiring process unlike any other.
The Art director came to portfolio day in my last year at Calarts and gave me a call-back. At his booth we talked about the show and what they do, and I told him honestly that I’d never seen a full episode of it (little did I know this was a plus for them).
I later got a call to come interview at the studio and was given a boarding test (a common hiring practice for TV animation) that had to be done in twenty-four hours (an uncommon hiring practice for TV animation).
I stayed up all night to do it since I had a solid twelve-hour day of classes, and turned it in just before the deadline.
Then they called me in for what they call “Battle Week”.
This is where they have two spots they want to fill for the show, and they bring in four finalists to compete for those spots. You are given test assignments through the week and they see who does the best, and who they feel fits in best with the team.
My friend Kristen and I were ultimately selected for the two open seats. My season on South Park was very tough.
We were doing 100 hour weeks and I felt like I had been dropped right into the deep end of animation. I didn’t know what I was doing, and I felt like I could never do it fast enough.
But I also really enjoyed my time spent with the story crew.
We’d work late, but always joked around and had fun together.
What’s the typical boarding process on South Park?
The story team was six artists and an art director.
Something a lot of people don’t know about the story team on South Park is that they also do all the backgrounds, character designs, character poses, prop design, and sometimes animation if it has to be drawn.
We would do all of this for a whole episode in six days, so deadlines were tight.
You were expected to board each page of script in forty-five minutes, with an extra fifteen minutes for revisions. You needed to stick pretty closely to the script but could be creative with any of the acting and expressions in the scene.
When you were in production what’s a typical weekly schedule? Are you basically at the studio every day to keep up with the 7-day deadline?
Here was the standard story team schedule while I was there to the best I can remember:
Thursday: 11 AM-7 PM (Trey is just starting to write the episode, so there’s not much to do) Friday: 9 AM – 10 PM Saturday: 9AM – 10PM Sunday: 9 AM – 12 AM Next day Monday: 9 AM – 2 AM Next day Tuesday: 9 AM – 6 AM Next day (Most of the work is done from 10-to-midnight, but we have to wait for any last minute changes that might need to be done) Wednesday: off (besides being at work until 6AM that morning)
How did you find your way to working on Lego Movie 2? What’s that process like working on such a big feature film?
I had a friend from school working on Lego 2 and she recommended me while they were on the hunt for new board artists.
I was a little nervous about leaving South Park, but I also really wanted to have a more standard work schedule.
The process is so much slower in Feature!
Turning a ship like this takes months and months. You can end up re-doing something over and over again to accommodate the story changing bit by bit over years, and scenes get thrown out all the time.
I’ve worked on Lego 2 for a year and a half, and I won’t really know if my work has made it into the film until it comes out February 2019.
At South Park what you did on Monday would be on TV Wednesday night.
Are there any major differences between storyboarding for TV vs. film? Do you prefer one over the other?
For me, the biggest differences have been deadlines and creative input.
I now have a few days or a week to board a page of script, and I have a lot more creative freedom with what I board.
I am often encouraged to change whatever I don’t like about the script and write new dialogue and jokes.
Sometimes I don’t get any script at all to board from, just a loose verbal pitch, and I get to come up with whatever I want to make it from point A to point B in the story. I definitely prefer it to working on scripted TV animation.
If someone wanted to become a truly skilled board artist what do you think they should focus on? Is it mostly about speed, accuracy, storytelling, or maybe something more?
I think if you had to pick one skill to focus on it would be speed (and this is one I still struggle with).
I say this because it is the skill that will help you the most in improving every other category.
Iteration is the best teacher, and speed is the skill that will help you iterate the most.
How useful is life drawing for someone interested in animation art?
Life drawing is very useful!
Even if you just want to do cartoony art styles, it doesn’t hurt to know how to draw more realistically for a few reasons:
1. You won’t always have the luxury to choose what you work on. The more you can do, the more doors will open to you when you need them.
2. Life drawing teaches a lot more than just anatomy. You learn form, perspective, and weight as well. These are all principles that are important in any form of animation, realistic or cartoony.
3. Learn the rules so that you can break them. You want your characters to be drawn and posed a certain way because that is how you want it to look, not because you’ve reached the limit of your skill sets.
Life drawing is important, but can be done in a way that isn’t very beneficial to developing animation skills.
Three-hour poses focused on shading aren’t going to benefit the aspiring board artist.
Gesture drawing and short poses, however, are very helpful.
I would recommend Walt Stanchfield’s “Drawn to Life” for a good guide on how to use figure drawing as a tool to enhance your boarding and animation skills.
Any fun projects or ideas in mind for the future?
After seeing how the animation industry can take your project and mold it into something you don’t like, or even fire you off it to have another director make it, I’ve come to realize the value in independently made artwork that is a pure expression of the creator.
I’ve gotten into comics lately since independent publishing is so accessible, and I’ve been working on my own graphic novel about the disappearance of Amelia Earhart.
It’s slow going, but it’s still nice to have personal creative goals to work towards.
Any final advice for aspiring story artists?
Go out and live life!
You can’t write what you know if you only know drawing.
Get a hobby, go outside, learn an instrument, do something besides draw and watch TV!
It will make you a more interesting and well-rounded person. And it will give you more experience to draw upon in your work.
Many thanks to Sasha for taking time out for this awesome interview.
Some golden nuggets in here for anyone looking into storyboarding or any type of animation art as a career.
You can find some of Sasha’s student work on Vimeo here and keep up-to-date with her more recent drawings on Instagram.