Interview with Jim Richardson by Carolyn Shaffer

Editors note: Jim Richardson is a former ASIFA/Central board member who relocated to Seattle.

Over the course of about five months, I was introduced to Jim Richardson, Will Vinton Studio's animator extraordinaire, and corresponded with him, via email, in order to learn about his background and animation projects. During this busy time, Jim completed a number of M&M commercials (you know the ones...) as well as their German and British versions. We exchanged jokes and some graphics files. Through his answers to my many questions, his stories, his demo tape and his sketches, this funny, ambitious, talented and former Midwestern animator is revealed.

Background

CS: How would you describe your former experiences as an animator in the Midwest? Did you have specific problems or pleasures?

JR: I grew up in Florida with warm winters and no snow. I came to Chicago in 1982 and after college I had finished an animated film called,"Cat and Rat." I just had a sample portfolio of school projects, a brief resume and a rough workprint of "Cat and Rat." I managed to find work painting cels on various commercial projects around Chicago. In those days, they were still painting cels in the US and usually got anyone who could operate a paint brush and cel vinyl.

While hopping from studio to studio, I was finishing up sound work on "Cat & Rat." I knew I could get a job animating if I had a film that I could also use as a demo reel. I had a lot of unrelated animation samples from titles to rotoscoping, but I discovered on many job interviews, that they wanted to see something interesting and if they did, they might remember to call me in for the next job.

When I finally began animating professionally; I was given a few scenes here and there. Usually inbetweening or animating shadows on Capt n' Crunch's face and body. This went on for a while, freelancing here and there to pay the rent and bills. Then I had a change of job direction. I got an opportunity to see how commercials begin as an idea in an advertising agency. I became a freelance Art Director of sorts at Leo Burnett in Chicago. I was there almost a year and got a chance to create a :15 second tag spot for McDonald's Halloween Happy Meal Pals. I also learned a lot about storyboarding an idea and telling a story panel by panel. When I finally left Burnett, I was ready to get back into the world of animation.

I started to work freelancing for StarToons and eventually became a member of their growing staff. At the time they were working on several Warner Bros. projects. I also would take on a few freelance jobs on the side as long as it didn't interfere with my full time job. I worked hard at StarToons and became very good at inbetweening and cleanup. After working on tons of forgotten commercials over the years, it was good to work on something that people would see and know about, plus I would finally get screen credit on a few of the shows.

At StarToons, most of us were laid off after the last Animaniacs show was finished. I joined some friends from Columbia College, who had their own production studio and had been producing a lot of sales and industrial video projects. At the time, I had a project that came to me to produce a ten minute animated educational film about, of all things, spinal safety (StreetSmart).

As things turned out, we put together a budget, treatment and presentation and got the job. Months later, cursing and swearing all the way, we got it done on time and on budget and had a 10 minute animated educational film.

We all learned a lot on "StreetSmart" and I soon discovered that I would have to go elsewhere if I wanted to work in animation full time. A lot of projects came and went that we would bid on and we never would get because the clients didn't have a budget, didn't know how much it costs, how long it takes or got scared by our numbers and ran away.

Also with the change in technology, I would have to learn computer animation sooner or later....

CS: The demo reel which you thoughtfully supplied me showcases a mastery of quite a variety of techniques. Aside from commercial/ job-related considerations, which of these styles do you feel is optimal for your creative expression?

JR: For me, I like drawn animation that allows you to move the view around in any direction in order to tell a story. I like stories that work on an universal level that the everyone can understand. I like Frederick Bach's film, CRAC!. It works on many levels, tells many stories and you can watch it again and again and always see something new. I like his style of drawing as well as Mark Baker's "The Hill Farm." When you work as an animator for a studio, you don't have much choice of what you work on. You are there to bring the thing to life one drawing or render at a time. I haven't had any time to work on my own film since "Cat and Rat." This is something I had feared would happen long ago, but only now am I starting to consider making a film again. I have written a lot of ideas and kept lots of sketch books, but only recently have I started to write some children's books for friends that could eventually be turned into an animated film.

I am currently working on a book about a boy who wins a contest and his prize turns out to be a very large animal. I have one called, "Bruce the Blue Spruce" which I did for a friend of mine. Its about a tiny blue tree who is teased by the big Green Trees. I'd like to rework the names of the characters and try to get it published.

Technology & Animation

CS: Can you tell me how your traditional animation skills have been incorporated into the 3D computer world?

JR: I use my drawing skills to work out how I want something to act or move. Usually rough thumbnail sketches that focus on different key positions. This helps me get it in my head, so I can think about it all the time.

CS: And the 3D part? Is it very different, like doing something more akin to sculpture?

JR: I have been working on learning how to animate on the computer all last year. I hope to begin learning how to build an animated character in the modeling program. I have discovered that it was very frustrating at first dealing with learning the software and then moving it around using a keyboard and a mouse. But after a while, I began to get the hang of it. Like anything new, it just takes time and patience, more patience for me.

Work Environment

CS: Have you typically had to work ungodly hours at your jobs so that you didn't have the time to pursue your own projects? Or was there a conflict of interest with the employer? Or did it take all your energy away? Other obligations? I wonder how you got to the point now where you are able to overcome these obstacles.

JR: Well, so far, when its getting closer to the deadline, I usually have to stay later. If I don't have to work the weekend, I will usually see a movie or do something else, not computer related. For a while there, last year, I was here and my wife Gina and our 5 cats were in Chicago. I was living in a hotel two blocks from work. I was stuck in the hotel with only cable TV for one long year! But now, we moved here finally and got a house. I even have a studio space upstairs and I plan to start working as soon as I am motivated, hopefully this weekend!!!

CS: It's really a major time of transition in the animation industry. Does management at your workplace (or any other animation houses you know of) take this human element into consideration and provide stress management or whatever kinds of things might help? Flex time, additional training?

JR: I was lucky that I got in here during the beginning of M&Ms, because Vinton allowed us to do training first and then we got a scene or two to work on as we learned at the same time. I came in with no computer animation experience and I feel that I am still learning a lot with each scene I get. Inbetween projects, I used spare time to work on learning how to make the character walk for an upcoming spot which featured a lot of walking.

CS: The M&M commercials are so appealing. The M&Ms themselves are the stars, but the human stars add some of the attraction too. Do you ever meet celebs?

JR: The directors and TDs do, but the animators rarely.

CS: For spots like these, do you work with the writers?

JR: The Ad agency is in New York and they sell the storyboard ideas to the client months in advance.

CS: Do you work strictly from the storyboards? Or do the animators contribute to the script, staging, details?

JR: We have a storyboard, an exposure sheet with lip sync and sometimes reference footage of the actors or the agency people showing us how a certain gesture should be handled. Usually as we are blocking out each scene with rough action, we can sometimes add our ideas as long as it doesn't alter the idea's direction in a totally different one. Sometimes we can come up with a way of doing something that feels more natural, something that the character would do.

CS: As working with Vinton is not your first venture into advertising, I'd be interested in hearing your take on advertising vs. Saturday morning cartoons vs. independent vs. education...or whatever other categories of animation I'm omitting!

JR: Oh you would, would you?! Well in Advertising it works like this. The Client (for example let's call it, Yummy Pops) has a whole company working away and one division of it say "We want to sell "Yummy Gummy". (A brand new gum and toy for kids.) They work with the "BIG INC. Advertising" to create advertising! A Creative Director (CD) is called in and they are in charge of a group of creatives. Usually teams of two, a Art Director (AD) and a Copywriter (CW). The CD gets a few teams to bounce ideas off each other as long as it stays within the selling guidelines provided by the Client. Briefly, the Customer/Client is always Right or the Committee is always Right depending if you are in Advertising or Saturday Morning Biz.

Future Trends

CS:We've alluded to a lot of complex technology, intense work schedules and rapid changes. It makes me wonder about the aspiring animator. It seems like now, a student has a couple of layers of stuff to learn. Do you think it'd be possible to work in the animation industry anymore without a.) software expertise or b.) a ton of traditional experience which would make it worthwhile to train a person?

JR: Today's student should have a demo reel that not only shows traditional animation, but have some sample of computer animation as well. If they can show that they have a strong ability to make their characters act, react and tell a story, that's what a lot of places are looking for. As long as you can show traditional animation techniques like squash and stretch, anticipation, good timing etc.

CS: Do you think that Vinton Studios will phase out Claymationt in favor of Lightwave or other 3D computer animation techniques, such as those used in the M&M spots?

JR: I think that Claymationt will still be around. Looking back at the last year of spots, the stop motion department turned out a lot of work including the very popular spot for Nissan called "Toys". I think they are a bunch of talented people who have been here during the days of Clay, and even with computers doing more and more, I think people still like to see great stop motion.

For questions about his animation projects, Jim Richardson can be reached via e- mail at jimr@vinton.com.

- Carolyn Shaffer

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