“So… do you, like…. DRAW?!?”
My random-ish path to a career in animation
by Karen Disher
That’s the first thing I’m asked when I tell people I work in animation. All these years later, I still can’t believe that I am lucky enough to be able to answer that question with a huge, happy “YES!!” …and that someone actually pays me to draw and create cartoons all day.
So – how did this all come about? Well, I was a weird kid who grew up in a very funny and musical family (the classic Looney Tunes were required viewing). I always loved to draw, write spoofy skits, play music – anything creative, I ate it up.
I especially liked to entertain myself by doing gross-out drawings like the kind I’d see in MAD magazine. I’d crack myself up as I drew something kinda “wrong” …then I realized I could make my elementary school classmates laugh, too, which made it all the more fun.
After I graduated high school, we took a family vacation to Walt Disney World in Orlando. Back then, Disney had a branch of the feature animation division located there. The animation studio was an “experience” you could walk through in the theme park. Tourists looked down onto the production floor from an elevated, glassed-in walkway.
I remember looking down and seeing people who looked a whole lot like me – slackers wearing t-shirts, shorts and flip flops; listening to music on their headphones while painting and drawing. And something “clicked”. Here I was, a kid who had loved drawing and cartoons her entire life, and it had never occurred to me that it was something you could do for a living.
By that time, I had already decided to go to NYU Film in the fall. I wasn’t thinking seriously about animation as a career, but figured I’d take a class and see if I liked it. Super casual.
And I LOVED it. I knew this was what I wanted to do. I dove in and started getting right to it.
True to form, my first film was an animated version of Monty Python’s “The Penis Song”. Classy! My senior film was about a guy who accidentally cuts off a large chunk of his butt (I won’t go into details, but rest assured – hilarity ensues!). Needless to say, my goal at the time wasn’t the Oscars, it was Spike & Mike’s “Sick and Twisted” festival.
I did all sorts of odd jobs during college (like slinging chicken wings at a joint called Pluck U.), but I tried to get work in the realm of animation as much as possible. I was a TA in the NYU animation department, shot credit rolls for live-action student films, interned at Nickelodeon Animation, managed the office for a commercial animation rep, painted cels for indie animators.
Most of these jobs came through word-of-mouth – passed down from one class to the next. The NYC animation scene was pretty small, so it wasn’t hard to find out where to look for work and make connections. When graduation time rolled around, someone passed along the word that MTV Animation was hiring for a new show called “The Head”.
Armed with a decidedly lackluster portfolio but two funny films, I went for an interview. I would have been happy with anything entry-level – layout, design, storyboard, whatever. They didn’t offer me an art position, though – only a PA job. And I turned it down.
Now – there are different schools of thought on this. Sometimes it’s good to take whatever you’re offered because at least you have a foot in the door, you’re making connections and learning, etc. The honest downside is one of perception. From what I’ve seen over the years, it’s not easy to move from a production role to an art role. It’s not impossible, but if people first meet you as NOT an artist, it is harder for them to adjust that perception and to take you seriously as one. It can take years, and a lot of convincing.
Fortunately, my films got passed down the hall to the producers of “Beavis and Butt-head”, and they saw that I had exactly the right juvenile mindset for their show. I was hired on for a three-month trial period as a junior layout artist – and even though I was in completely over my head, I dug in and worked my ass off and did everything I could to learn from my more experienced co-workers. I was lucky to have incredible mentors who saw potential in me, and I tried my best to never let them down.
I feel lucky sometimes that I started making my own films in the days before social media and YouTube. Sure, I was influenced by things I saw on TV and at film festivals, but I didn’t have SO many people to compare myself to. I drew the stupid stuff that made me laugh – and if it made other people laugh too – then great! But I always just went with my gut.
My point is – embrace what you love, be confident in your voice, and try to filter out what you think you are supposed to do. We’re taught our whole lives not to copy off someone else’s test, right? Be a student of the world, strive to learn and grow until the day you die. I still have a LOT to learn, but I’ll leave you with this:
DISHER’S TWO SIMPLE RULES FOR SUCCESS!
- Work hard! This means different things to different people, but I take it as:
- Be passionate, committed, willing to learn, and patient. Don’t give up!
- Don’t be a jerk! Kinda obvious, but:
- Be positive and enthusiastic, supportive and collaborative. It’s a team effort!
Karen Disher is a director and story artist at Blue Sky Studios. She has worked on most of Blue Sky’s films to date, including Robots, Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (where she provided the voice of Scratte), and most recently Ferdinand. She was Head of Story on Rio, and directed two short-form “Ice Age” projects. Prior to joining Blue Sky, she was at MTV Animation, where she designed the main characters and was the supervising director for “Daria”. Karen is currently in production as co-director on Blue Sky’s upcoming 2021 release, Foster (working title).