Career advice on directing in the animation industry


Career advice on directing in the animation industry

Do you have a question about directing but don’t know who to ask? During the 2023 animation Trends Event, Toon Boom Animation assembled a livestream panel of directors to discuss their experiences in the animation industry. Our guest experts included:

  • Evally Aguila: Director, storyboard artist and visual development. Evally’s first production as a director was Juan Futbol at Mighty Animation.
  • Liza Singer: Director and story artist for television and film. Liza’s first role directing a series was on Spider-Man: Freshman Year at Marvel Studios.
  • Chaz Bottoms: Director, storyboard artist, writer and owner of CBA Studios. Chaz started directing for a Kickstarter short film titled The Indies: An Animated Short.
  • Jake Hollander: Supervising director, episodic director, writer and creator. Jake’s directorial debut was on Duncanville, a Fox show produced by Bento Box Entertainment.

The following article is an excerpt from our livestream interview. We invited our guests to discuss the scope and scale of a director’s responsibilities on a production, the career paths that lead to directing, and skill sets that artists can develop if directing is a role that you want to pursue. 

Watch the full panel discussion on YouTube, from Toon Boom Animation’s 2023 Animation Trends Event.

How would you describe the scope of a director’s role on an animated production, and what interested you in that role?

Chaz: I think that scope is pretty all-encompassing from very early in preproduction. And you’re going to see the project all the way to completion. You almost have to have this vision, this very clear idea of what it is you want early on. And throughout working with preproduction and your storyboard artists and animators and the entire production, you really have to make sure you’re properly communicating what that vision is, on top of making sure that any feedback from executives or any notes along the way are properly implemented as well. That can be pretty daunting, but it’s also a lot of fun. 

Something that really interested me in that role is being a storyteller. Coming out of college, I actually wanted to be an animator but I found, through working freelance gigs and my own personal stuff, that actually what I really enjoyed was the teamwork and collaboration. I really enjoy being able to be that leading voice on a production, or one of the many leading voices on a production, and that people side of things too. 

When I was in animation school, I knew the main roles, like animator, storyboard artist, character designer, background artist. But then when you start to really have experience working on productions, you see there are these other roles that you might not think of, to begin with. 

What made me really want to switch into directing was that, as an animator, you’re kind of burrowed in your box; just working on scenes and you don’t really talk to people. I enjoy collaboration and working with everyone on the production. 

My experience, at that point, was student films where I did everything. So I had a good idea of the production pipeline and what is needed at each step. I was really interested in being like, “Oh, well, I don’t mind quarterbacking projects as well, because I understand how to speak an animator’s language.” 

But, also, I get to work with people who are way better than me at drawing backgrounds and way better than me at art directing. It was really great to surround myself with people who could help me be better in my blind spots. I think that’s something that’s really great about directing: You get to work with “hired guns” who are really great and you get to learn from them and their experiences.

Jake: Directing does vary for each production based on the team and based on the pipeline. But what really stood out to me was just the ability to bring the best out of my team. And the ability to take stories that you find in the scripts that you’re given and try to really emphasize moments and build-up, to really bring the best out of your team. 

Because everything you write down as a director, when you break it out in the script into the sequences, and you hand those out to your team, you’re basically setting them up to hit a home run. And as the director, you can set them up for that home run. Being able to guide your team with whatever your vision and whatever their vision might be is what I found the most fun about directing.

Somebody told me that a great director will ask for 70 to 80% from their board artists to get that scene there. And then you both make that last 20% into the best possible sequence you can get. Sometimes you just get really good ones and you’re like, “Oh, that’s perfect, whatever.” But sometimes you get that moment where they inspire you to get a great idea. And you’re like, “Whoa, I love what you did there, didn’t expect that at all. Why don’t we do this, this and this?” Then you have that discussion. And it can just turn into something better than you ever imagined. 

Working in that kind of situation, especially for an extrovert like me, having that back and forth, is just the best. I get really excited about talking about that. But the other thing, as a director, is just being able to be communicative, letting your team know what you need and vice versa. And it’s been a lot of fun to do that. 

Those surprises are what you look for because they make everything more fun. They make the show better. It plusses scripts. I’ve predominantly worked on a lot of adult comedies, like Duncanville,  Disenchantment, those types of shows. And the best work comes from how you interpret those letters on a paper into fun character moments. It’s really the best thing to look for.

Liza: For me as an individual, what drew me to directing, funnily enough, was that I always had supervisors that saw the director in me. Very early on in my career, I had supervisors that were like, “You’re going direct one day.” I think it had to do a lot with my enthusiasm to learn, and my desire to understand every aspect of the pipeline. So I always made friends with production and other artists on the team. I always wanted to know what they were doing, how my boards could better assist other parts of the production.

And I also care a lot about people. I feel more like I’m working to my best ability in the directing seat than I ever did as a story artist. And not to say that story art doesn’t drive me. I love doing it. But I think the collaborative aspect of directing is so much more fulfilling. I love working with people.

I want to create and facilitate great learning experiences and great learning environments for people. Because that wasn’t always there for me. I think some people have always had rough jobs. And I wanted to make sure if people came past me, I was always giving them the best tools to succeed in their next job. I always tell my story team the first day I meet them, “My goal is to train you guys so that you take my job one day, if I’m not doing that I’m not succeeding.”

Has directing given you insights about the animation industry that you didn’t have before directing?

Liza: Absolutely. Directing gives you your first window into the bureaucratic side of animation, because animation is a business, and it’s a corporate business. And I think artists are not corporate business people. So that’s kind of like the biggest shellshock. When you start as a storyboard artist you’re shielded from learning about budgets, scheduling, and all these other aspects of business, and the politics of it. 

So you learn a lot about how much goes into the production as a whole. It’s not just about the art. It’s really all about all these other different people that you’re appeasing. Sometimes we’ve gotten notes on episodes that are from our toys department. We’ve had to redo a character intro because they say to us: ”We need a better toy intro because we have to show off XYZ.” And you’re like, “Oh, that’s really insightful to understand.” We’re not just working for us, we’re working for the company. 

One thing I have a big appreciation for is schedules and understanding when to get stuff in. When you’re in a solo role, I don’t think you fully understand the domino effect that you have on everyone and how important it is to get your stuff in on time. Because it really impacts everyone. And when you’re in the director’s chair, you’re so aware of that. Because it causes people to stay late on weekends, and you never want that to happen. And it could just be one artist being late with their work that can cause that. So you try to really respect everyone’s time when you get into more of a managerial position.

Evally: We have this need to tell stories and and we hope that the things we’re animating have an impact. But in the end everything for TV or in movies is for the client or the big companies. So you have this clash.  

Sometimes we get to work with the client. We sometimes have projects like Lisa mentioned that are toys-focused. And at times the art for the toy is so much prettier than the final toy. It’s like “I want them to fix their toys so they’re as cute as mine!” For my part I really prefer when the client is more present. But it really depends on the project. If it’s short animation, we might just have executive revisions.

Chaz: For me, coming from the independent freelance space into the studios, working within constraints and schedules is actually something that I didn’t really think about. I’ve directed music videos, ads, commercials, short form content, and worked on full length episodes. And each one of those are different types of projects that require different scheduling, and have different budgets.

Being able to have that big-picture view and knowing what it’s going to take to make this project the best it can be given the schedule, and given the deadlines, and given the budget, has been really helpful. And actually, it’s something that I never even truly considered. Directing, you really are on the front lines of the creative decisions and the overall success of a project.

It’s important that you’re able to maximize your time and your team’s time. And knowing like, “Alright, here’s what we can do. We have six weeks, let’s not do any crowd shots, let’s not do any crazy-complicated dance numbers or fight scenes.” I feel like Liza and Evally really hit the nail on the head with a lot of it as well.

Jake: I think the biggest thing that everyone’s saying is that it really is just about how you communicate with your team, being excited to come there and try to make what you have the best you can. And I’ll just reiterate that you have a lot of restrictions that can sometimes turn into challenges that become something you never even expected.

For instance, one of the foundational elements of TV animation is just how quick the pipeline is. Sometimes you don’t even have time to be like, “How can we really develop this? Or how can we take this thought and really give it the time it needs?” And sometimes being so snappy with those decisions gives you really incredible results.

One of the biggest foundational elements of being a director, I think, is to say, “Okay, this is what we’re doing. Go with it.” Because if you give somebody a half-foot-in, half-foot-out answer, they may not know how to apply that. So clarity, communication, knowing how they communicate, knowing how you communicate, just making everything as seamless as possible. 

Everyone’s reiterated it and I couldn’t agree more, it is a product that you make. But the fun part is you have the opportunity to be extremely creative with that product. And that’s kind of the balance of being a director: making a product really pretty, really relatable, really funny, really sad and really dramatic. That’s kind of the whole jam.

What are the biggest misconceptions that you’ve encountered about directing?

Jake: I think the biggest misconception — and I’m glad it was a misconception — is that you walk in there and you’re like, “This is my idea, and I’m going to make my vision.” I think it’s a huge misconception because that’s not directing at all. You have your ideas, you have your moments in your mind when you read the script, and when you break down the sequences and when you do things, but you’re not the one who does everything. You need a team, you need to talk it out, you need to let storyboard artists do what they do best: story. And I think the biggest mistake you can make and the biggest misconception is to think that your ideas and your art and you are the most important answer to the conversation.

It really is important to hear your team, to hear other people’s thoughts and opinions, and especially the writers and the showrunners, your other directors, your supervising director. There are so many factors and you can’t be upset about it. Somebody’s like, “Oh, I have this idea,” and you can never just say, “Well, this is what I want.” You should never say that, because that’s how you make things stagnant. That’s how you lose great ideas. And the kernel of a beautiful thing can be destroyed just by saying, “I want in my way.” 

And I think the other biggest misconception is that it’s easy to just say, “Here’s my red line. Here’s what I want. Do it right.” Everybody has a different way of communicating, and you, as an individual, have a specific way of communicating and receiving information. One of the biggest misconceptions is just not realizing that you have to understand how people communicate, so that you can best give them the tools that they need.

Otherwise, you can have this kind of wall you build around you and your team, where they may not be able to communicate to you, or they’re afraid because of how the communication breaks down. 

Liza: I think Jake covered it well about communication. I often say that the role of a director is a facilitator more so than being an idea guy. That’s what your EPs are there for, and even then they might be answering to the executives. 

And I think one of the biggest misconceptions that a lot of people get confused about when I’ve talked to them is the difference between a feature director and TV director. Feature directors are a lot closer to what executive producers are in TV — the showrunners that sell the show. Directors for animation are a little bit more like middle managers. So, in feature, a director is assigned the whole film. In TV, that’s what the supervising director does, they’re assigned the whole season, the whole series, and then each director is assigned select episodes.

On Spider-Man, I got five episodes. But you might get only three on a rotation of multiple directors on a 10-episode series. It really depends on the kind of show you’re on. So you’re focusing on bringing that specific episode and that specific team that is under you to the overall show’s vision. And especially because every artist is a different personality, has a different way of working — you might have green artists. You might have experienced artists. And you have to know how to make it all into one cohesive package that makes the show all look the same.

If you’re working on a 2D production, you might have to make sure to follow a certain style guide — a way of acting for the characters. For 3D productions — or any production — it’s camera language. How does the camera function in your show? Having that library of knowledge is really important as a director. 

So as Jake already covered, communication is really key. Being a good communicator is almost more essential than being a good artist. You have to know how to look and be able to detect and change things as a director. So you have to be able to think fast and on the fly as an artist. But again, it’s how to cultivate and how to shape. You’re not a one-man show, so letting the artists do what they do best and not taking control of their work will make the director’s chair a little bit easier too.

Evally: There are many levels of direction. In some you have creative freedom but in the end the project is still the client’s. And there is always this clash in what the artists who carry out the project believe is the best from artistic vision, schedules, budget, and what the customer wants. As a director you have to look for the best decision for everyone.

Also, on my day to day, I have rarely seen any women directing. It’s really sad, because we have a lot of creative artists, but normally women take a position in production. And there are a lot of artists, animators, women animators and women in the art department that move to the production department, instead of moving to the direction department. I have encountered that if a woman starts making decisions, they get told they get too bossy or they cannot communicate. And so a lot of women start off taking production and administration roles, instead of moving to directing. A lot of men are not so afraid to take the jump from being an artist to directing.

In the end, being a director is a lot of communication and taking care of your crew. It doesn’t matter if it’s an independent or a TV show. So I believe everyone should have to be able to make this decision. It’s a lot of pressure, but in the end you are good if you know how to take care of your group and cover the organization skills, it’s a role that a lot of people could take on.

Chaz: Growing up, I didn’t see a whole lot of black or brown animation directors. And the biggest misconception I had coming into the industry was that there weren’t any. And throughout my journey, so far, I’ve actually found that there are. But it’s still not enough to the point where it’s widely broadcasted to black and brown students, that you can be a director in this industry. Our path might have to look a little different, just by how the history of the industry has formed since its inception, but you can do it.

There are unseen barriers that we have to go through. But throughout that journey, don’t let anyone take your voice away, or try to tell you that you can’t do it. You know, there’s haters in every industry. Coming into this, I knew that the odds were stacked against me in a weird way. But at the same time, the animation community is small, especially when you start looking at storyboard artists and directors as well. So we’re all in this together.

Since I’ve been in the industry, we’ve seen change. But animation takes three to four years to make. So we’re always a little bit behind the eightball when compared to live action — which I think they’ve done a fantastic job of bringing in women, bringing in black folks, bringing in people from all over the world, to be directors, to be writers, to have their own TV shows.

I think one of the biggest misconceptions that I’ve encountered is that animation was to play it safe. And I feel like we’re just now getting to that point where, visually, we’re starting to see just incredibly amazing looking projects that have diverse leads and are trying to do something different. That makes everyone better. It makes our industry better as a whole. It allows for us to tell different stories, stories that still are universal and still can connect with everyone.

Do you have recommendations for artists who are interested in directing, and any resources they might be interested in?

Chaz: The thing that that really helped me find my rhythm and my groove as a director early on was to study. Literally just finding a sequence in a movie or a TV show that I really liked. that really brought a response out of me, and reboarding the whole thing. And doing it with a group too. I know that we’re in the era of Zoom and FaceTime and Discord. It’s easier now than ever to get a small group of artists together and learn together, talk about those studies together.

Also, we all talk about creativity, but at the end of the day, this is a job. And sometimes it’s easy to get burnout. So find ways to either avoid said burnout or just have your process for when you start to feel a little tired or dragged down. For me, it’s going to museums, it’s looking at international animation, stuff that you wouldn’t even think to look at. Annecy have always had really great stuff. Catsuka is great. Follow them on social media if you haven’t. It’ll always show just amazing, inspirational animation clips from different projects that you might not have even heard of.

Something that really helped me was transforming my social media feed from just friends and family to artists who I admire, who I want to work with, and who I have worked with. So that way, whenever I open up Twitter or Instagram, I can see someone. You don’t even have to necessarily post art all the time. But if you see something that you like, leave a comment, leave a like, let people know you’re here, you’re a part of this industry. That’s been really successful for me and my friends.

Jake: Chaz gave a lot of really great examples. Look at the things you like to help develop your own style. Most people look for things they admire to develop their styles and develop what strengths they think they have, but gravitate to the things you like and build off of that and get better at those things and really narrow in on what it is you like. 

And tell everyone you want to be a director. Don’t hide that. If you want to be a storyboard artist, if you’re a revisionist, if you want to be a director, if you’re a storyboard artist, communicate those things to other directors, like Chaz was saying. Get that feedback to get you to the next step. Believe in yourself enough to know that this is something you want.

As far as resources, there’s so many Discords that you can join. For directing, though, a bunch of union artists and I created a Discord called Animation Story Group. And a bunch of us just critique people’s work whenever they pop up on that server. So there’s channels for that, for asking industry pros. 

If you’re interested in having a direct communication line with working professionals, and you’re interested in getting into the industry, having a good portfolio is extremely important. It hedges your bet. When you’re like, “Hey, I want to be an artist,” and somebody is like, “What do you got?” it’s way better to have three board examples or your own personal work. 

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