So Troy, let’s start out by asking, what do you do here at Blue Sky?
I'm currently in development on a couple of projects. Both are really different and fun, and come with their own set of creative challenges. Unfortunately, I can't share what they are yet, but it's exciting!
Blue Sky is a collaborative studio, so I also get to work as a storyboard artist with the crazy-talented team of people in the story department on the in-production films. The story department is responsible for visualizing the written script. We create story panels so the filmmakers and studio can see the film and be confident with it as it moves into production.
Let’s take it WAY back for a second. Did you always know you’d ‘grow up’ to be a storyteller/story artist? What were some things you did as a kid that foreshadowed the career path you’d eventually take?
I'm not sure if I ever grew up- that’s the fun in working in animation, right?
I've always loved movies and comic books. In fact growing up in Canada I was enamored with the French-language comics out of Belgium like LUCKY LUKE, the SMURFS by Peyo and of course ASTERIX by Goscinny and Uderzo. I would spend hours drawing my own stories in comic book fashion with these characters, not even realizing I was setting the stage for a career in storyboarding.
However, I didn't start my career wanting to be a story artist. The story department is often a job you migrate to and many Blue Sky story artists started their journey in different areas. I spent the first ten years of my career as a classical (hand drawn) animator. I loved it. I could bring my take as to how the characters would look, move and act. I particularly loved animating dramatic scenes, as every scene told it's own story. It wasn't until I was animating on my first CGI movie that I discovered a love for storyboarding- a knack for it- and for looking at the picture as a whole. On this project we were neck deep in production and the studio wanted some structural changes. The producer, who knew my background was in 2D, asked me to help with the storyboarding. I leapt at the chance. It was a new challenge. A different thought process and another way to express myself creatively.
I found my true passion and I haven't looked back since.
So you grew up, went to school, landed an awesome job at Blue Sky and the rest was history. Right?
Absolutely... except for the twenty plus years in between…
Like I said, I loved to doodle and draw comics as a kid. I applied to a high school that had an immersive fine arts program, a forty-five minute bus ride every day-but worth it. It's funny, looking back at those art criticism classes, the way we broke down and deciphered what the artist was saying within the composition of their painting was really my first education into the world of visual storytelling. As a story artist, we have multiple panels in which to do our storytelling. The painters I studied had to portray all they wanted to say in a single image. That really helped me understand the economy of composition and how to choose what is most significant in an image to communicate the story.
From there I went on to study classical animation at a renowned college and then into the industry. I worked for various independent studios in Toronto, Canada, as an animator and designer on commercials, TV shows and feature films. Eventually I made the move to Los Angeles as a story artist and then achieved my ultimate goal, getting to direct. After several years in L.A., I felt I needed to make a change and I had always wanted to work at Blue Sky. From there I found my way back east and here I am!
What were some of your first jobs like in the industry?
Before my second year of college was even over, I got my first job in the industry. I did this by literally going through the yellow pages in the phone book in Toronto and cold calling every studio and production house I could find. I was persistent and found job at a small studio working as a prop designer on a Christmas special. By the end of the project I was the production designer! I was involved in hiring almost my entire animation class from school on that production.
NOTE TO STUDENTS: be kind to each other, you never know from whom your next job will come from! After that, one of my classmates returned the favor and I ended up landing my first feature film job as an inbetweener on SPACE JAM.
Were there any setbacks you experienced along the way? How did you overcome them?
There are always setbacks. I've been on productions that ran out of money and people couldn’t get paid. I've missed out working on projects that I was desperate to be a part of (THE IRON GIANT is still a sore spot). I had a film I was directing slowly fall apart for various reasons with no one to blame- these things happen in this industry. I've moved my family away from their home, family and friends. I’ve moved them out of the country and across country twice in the past five years. This has it's own set of setbacks. I've always been a risk taker career wise. Through my successes and failures I've learned to trust my instincts and my contacts. I haven't chosen the easy path, but I think it has paid off.
How did you eventually land a full time role here at Blue Sky?
I happened to be having lunch with a friend one day who mentioned a possible opportunity opening up at Blue Sky. There is no such thing as lunch with no shoptalk! I was extremely interested in a new challenge so I flew out to Connecticut, met with the crew and shared my portfolio. I had met with people from Blue Sky numerous times over the course of my career, so I was already a fan of what they had going on there. It was time for a change for me personally and professionally and the timing was great on the offer.
What do you love most about working at Blue Sky? How is it unique?
There are so many things unique to Blue Sky that makes it a great fit for me. I feel a big part of that is its location in CT. It's a great area for my family and I to live. My commute to work is around a lake and through the woods-New England is gorgeous and peaceful. The very nature of Blue Sky being isolated from its L.A. counterpart is that it creates a community within itself. The people I get to work side-by-side with are fantastic. A day doesn't go by where I'm not inspired or entertained. I laugh every day. It's such a positive environment where everyone is driven to strive for such quality; you can't help but be swept up in that enthusiasm.
What is the most challenging part about being in the story department? What is the most rewarding?
The story department is all grey area. We help design the blueprint from which the rest of the movie is made. There is rarely a situation that is either “right” or “wrong”, it's all based on opinion and perspective. We all have our different takes on interpreting the script. It's like a huge team putting a puzzle together, trying to incorporate everyone's vision and execution to make it feel like one beautiful, fluid and cohesive picture. There's nothing better than seeing a movie come together; seeing the story flow and the audience reacting, laughing, crying, on the edge of their seat. It's rewarding being a part of their experience.
What has been one of your favorite memories here at Blue Sky?
I've been with Blue Sky for two years now. I remember the first tour I took of the studio. Off of the kitchen there is a huge panoramic view of the forest. It was October and the leaves were beautiful. I immediately felt inspired. As I walked around the studio, observing artists in their element, the level of dedication to the craft was evident. From the room filled with sculptures of all of the iconic Blue Sky characters, to the elaborately decorated workspaces in the animation department, each area has it's own feeling that demonstrates what's happening there. The studio has a great energy to it.
So… you have a total creative block and you’re completely stuck. You don’t know if you can go on anymore… What do you do to get re-inspired?
Sometimes when I read a script, I have an immediate visual of what it should look like and it's just a matter of executing it. Sometimes I labor over scenes, working and reworking them to death. Often times I conquer creative block outside of the studio. I work through scenes in my mind when I'm driving, or I go for a run. Creative people will agree that some of the best ideas are produced at random moments of inspiration, after you've stepped back. It could be watching a movie, reading a book or watching something quirky that your kid does. Most importantly though, I have to remind myself that I'm not working in a void. Being a story artist at Blue Sky means being part of a team. At any time I can ask another story artist for their take on a situation. Oftentimes, having "fresh eyes" on a problem can help me break through.
Do you still get nervous when you pitch an idea or sequence?
Every time but at varying degrees. The pitch is an art form in itself. What if they hate it? What if it doesn't get a laugh? What if nobody understands what I was going for? I think most artists can relate to that. But nerves can also be a good thing. They give you an edge that you would lose if you got too comfortable. It keeps you honest, forces you to keep striving, to keep improving. When you make a pitch, you are putting yourself out there. Your art. Your ideas. Your interpretation. You are selling yourself, and that will always make me nervous.
What advice do you have to give to someone who aspires to be a storyboard artist one day? Or who aspires to get into movie making?
The best advice I can give someone who wants to be a storyboard artist is to BE OBSERVANT. Artists are observers; interpreters. But additionally, story artists must be jacks-of-all-trades. On every sequence you are thinking about multiple things: cinematography, lighting, composition, staging, acting, editing, location, set decoration. You need to consider not just how it looks, but what it makes your audience feel. Storyboarding takes the ability to invoke memories and create experiences through your art. Watch movies, visit art galleries, concerts, stage plays. People watch. Observe how they interact, listen to how they talk, read their body language. Collaborate. Take criticism. Have a sense of humor. Get inspired. DON'T STAY IN YOUR COMFORT ZONE because sometimes your true passion will be something that evolves from a challenge. AND DRAW- A LOT! Take pictures! And did I mention draw?
Thanks Troy! Can’t wait to see your latest work on the big screen!
My pleasure. Thanks for the opportunity to share my take on being an artist at Blue Sky!