I’ve been getting a lot of emails lately from people with career questions for me. Though I feel preposterous giving anyone advice on anything (I still feel like I’m just starting out) I figured it might be good to answer some of the ones I get over and over again. If only to save me from repetitive stress injury typing so much. So here you go!
What led you to become a storyboard/comic artist?
I’ve been really lucky in that it’s been pretty clear since I was really little that there was only one thing I was good at, and that I should probably try and do that thing for a living. I knew I wanted to go to some kind of art school but I also wanted to be able to have a real job, and animation seemed like a good compromise between drawing all day and possibly having health insurance. I also really liked cartoons but really, who doesn’t. I applied to a few different schools, didn’t get into CalArts, got into Sheridan, and decided to go there. It had a good reputation and was far enough from home to be interesting.
I don’t know how it compares to other animation schools having not been to any other ones, but it got the job done I think. I did a ton of life drawing, watched a lot of films, met a bunch of awesome people, and made a short film. Making Snow-Bo gave me a taste of the entire filmmaking process, and I figured out pretty quick that storyboarding was the part I liked best. I knew that was what I wanted to do but wasn’t really sure how to get a job doing that. Fortunately that kind of resolved itself. More on that further down.
As for comics, I started drawing comics for fun when I was in high school. I’d actually been drawing them even earlier as a little kid, but I didn’t know to put the drawings into boxes so they were just sequential drawings floating on a page. I guess that’s how my brain works.
How did you develop your style?
This is kind of a weird question because I don’t feel like I HAVE much of a style. I have a way that i draw at the moment but that’ll probably change as I change to different mediums and learn new techniques/cheap shortcuts. I can say that I drew pretty differently before animation school. I drew a lot more STUFF on everything – all the characters were covered in useless belts, it was pretty awful. Having to draw the same character a hundred times in sequence makes you really think about how useless those belts really are, though. You work out what you really need in a drawing to make it communicate, and can cut out all the excess crap. My drawings simplified a lot then.
I also started using a brush and ink instead of technical pens and that simplified it even more, since I like a nice quick fluid line instead of a bunch of noodley strokes. In storyboarding and animation it’s important to work quickly and efficiently, and those practices carried over into my comic and illustration drawings too. I’m always trying to keep in mind that the whole point of drawing is to communicate something, and doing that with the most economy and clarity is really important to me. I don’t spend very long on anything and try not to fuss. So I guess my “style” is the way I found to draw to get a clear, communicative drawing that I like in the easiest way possible. Oh, and I like drawing big cute eyes.
What influenced you as a writer/artist?
I didn’t really read a lot of comics growing up, except for Calvin & Hobbes, which I inhaled. I used to color in the collections my mom would buy me, which makes me cringe to think of now. I would read X-Men in the supermarket sometimes while waiting for my mom (remember when they had comics in the supermarket?) but I was never allowed to buy any.
In my tweeny-teens I got into anime/manga/japanese video games. I was majorly influenced by Rumiko Takahashi, and also read a bunch of CLAMP and stuff but I don’t think that left as much of a mark. I loved how Takahashi’s stuff was kind of dirty and funny and energetic – it was something I wanted to do. Unfortunately all the CLAMP and Final Fantasy crap led me down a path of useless belts on everything, but I shook that off eventually. Reading Takahashi now still feels really fresh and exciting to me.
I made a bunch of webcomics friends in high school, which led me to reading more independent comics like JTHM and Finder. I read Craig Thompson’s Blankets and that single-handedly made me pick up a brush and start inking with that. I don’t read that many comics now unfortunately, but I try to read regular books as often as I can. I really like Haruki Murakami and Michael Chabon. I’m also really interested in folk tales from different cultures, particularly Russian ones. It’d be great to incorporate those into my work somehow.
How did you write/draw Anya’s Ghost?
Check this out. All the drawing secrets revealed.
As for writing, Anya started out as a character I came up with for the Belle and Sebastian anthology Image put out a few years ago. I wrote a little short story to go with the song “Family Tree” about a disgruntled, superior schoolgirl, which is how i interpreted the song. I wound up bailing on that story (it was not very good) but I really liked drawing that character with her fat little legs and cigarettes. She floated around nameless for a while but I really wanted to find a story for her. Then I read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles and decided she ought to fall down a well. The rest was written like everything else gets written: pulled out of whatever weird space ideas come from, a weird mishmash of my own life and made-up stuff.
How do you make your illustrations?
My digital ones are done entirely in Adobe Photoshop, using a Wacom Cintiq. I use one of those at work for all my storyboards and I’m hooked. I don’t even know where my scanner is right now. Here is a video showing a start-to-finish digital drawing. 95% of the time that is how I do it.
My watercolors are almost always sketched on the Cintiq first to work out what I’m going to do, then printed out at the right size. I transfer them onto hot-press watercolor paper using carbon paper (well, really it’s just a piece of copy paper that i scribbled all over with graphite). Then I ink that with a brush and india ink and paint with Winsor & Newton watercolors.
How did you get your job at Laika?
This is kind of the worst. I’d heard that Coraline was being made at Laika, and was a big fan of the book and of Henry Selick. I’d even met someone who was storyboarding on it, and it seemed like a dream job. But I was doing background colors on a children’s toy dvd, miles away from boarding, and figured I had a snowball’s chance in hell of ever going anywhere near a project like that anytime in the next ten years, so I put it out of my head. Then I got an email out of the blue from the Laika recruiter saying that they’d seen my student film online, liked it, and would I be able to come out to Portland and interview. I didn’t screw it up too badly and I’ve been there ever since.
I got really lucky with the timing and with Laika’s kind willingness to overlook my lack of professional boarding experience. I pretty much learned on the job and am continuing to do so. Laika is the best.
How did you get your first book published?
I drew a webcomic called Return to Sender while I was in high school, which I never finished but it was good practice. That introduced me to a bunch of other people drawing comics who are still my friends to this daaaay, and led to a trip to San Diego Comic-Con where I met Kazu Kibuishi who was just starting up the Flight Anthology. I did a short story for Flight to dip my toe back into comics. After drawing a few Flight stories I decided I was ready to tackle a full-length graphic novel, and worked up an idea for one and roughed out the first thirty pages.
The agent representing Flight, Judy Hansen, agreed to take a look at my proposal and then agreed to try and sell it for me, after I’d finished penciling the book (since i didn’t have a script I had to do it this way). She sold it to First Second Books, which was my first choice publisher, and that’s it! I don’t think you need to have an agent to sell a graphic novel, but for me it really helped. I’m an awful negotiator and dealing with a large house like Macmillan (First Second’s parent company) was way beyond my level of expertise. Also Judy is just really cool.
If you feel like you really need an agent and want to know how to go about getting one, here is a list of literary agents that represent graphic novels. Make sure they accept unsolicited queries (some of them do not) and shoot them an email!
What advice do you have for someone starting out in illustration/animation/comics?
My own career path, outlined above, clearly does not show much in the way of premeditation. I got lucky as hell a number of times and tried to do my best with what I had, which was some ability to draw and access to the internet. No one’s going to replicate my life exactly – everyone’s going to be dealt a different hand and it’s your job to work hard and make good decisions. Work to be good, work to stand out, work to be a nice person that people will want to hire. I did get very lucky with how I got my first job, but in order for that to have happened I had to put the time into finishing a film at school (not without a lot of help – my roommate Jenn is the best) and getting as good at drawing as I could. Also into not being a total asshole during my interview.
I talked to my professional artist friends about how they handle giving advice to students, and everyone seems to feel the same way – that part of it is good timing but part of it is also just working at being good. Sure, it’s a bit of a crapshoot, but if you are good and work hard chances are you can make a living at this, especially in this internet age where anything half-decent gets noticed and passed along to whoever needs to see it. Maybe you will not feel successful right away, maybe it will never happen – all three of those industries are hardly stable and hopefully you’re going into art with some realistic expectations of what your life might be like. But if drawing is your favorite thing in the world and, like me, you have no other marketable skills, you can’t help but try.
I feel like I am repeating myself here so I will now give you some quotes from some smart people who have answered this very question about ten million times:
“I just tell people that this time in age is for self made artists, no one is going to take a chance on you, you have to prove yourself first by making things and putting them out there. For a long time. If you’re good, opportunity comes your way, one way or another.
No one can replicate what someone else has done to get ahead, everyone has a different mix of talent, ambition and luck. If you’re new you just need to pay attention and work hard and make the best decisions you can.”
“So much of this is luck – just put yourself out there and take opportunities when they come, even if you’re not yet sure whether you’d be great at it.”
“Make stuff, put it out there, improve, be friendly. People in any industry are just people – they react to things in their own way, and it so hard to predict what is going to go over really well.”
“Produce decent work, show your work, surround yourself with the community you want to participate in, make personal connections, and BE NICE.”
One further note: If you are writing to an artist that you admire with questions, and they take the time to answer you, write back and say thank you! These questions take a lot of thought and effort to reply to and it’s nice to send a quick note saying “cheers”.
That is all. Good luck, youth of tomorrow. Someday when I’m old you will steal my job.