Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Croods Crew: Steven MacLeod

This interview was a real treat. I'd been secretly stalking Steven MacLeod for a while now, ever since I first heard he was a story artist on The Croods. When I found out he was responsible for the colorful, critter-crazy, teaser poster, I was HOOKED. Then, when he started posting the rough drafts from that poster and the big, blue, standing-on-the-edge-of-the-cliff poster, that was it. I was OFFICIALLY a salivating fanboy.

MacLeod's art is my favorite style -- seemingly simple, yet chock full o' action and emotion. This seems to be a hallmark of the best storyboard artists, Chris Sanders included. As you read through this interview, pay special attention to the storyboards scattered throughout. It's amazing how much information MacLeod is able to express in one small sketch.

Me: Hey, Steven. Imagine I'm NOT stalking you via your blog (Clockroom), your other blog (Framefilter), your Tumblr (Clockroom), your other Tumblr (Pile of Graphite), and the tiny cameras I installed in the left eyes of all of your teddy bears. Would you please tell me a bit about your background? Where are you from? Was your family full of artists, or were you the sole scribbler?

Steven MacLeod: I was born and raised in Southern California, mostly in the Mojave desert just north of LA. I grew up in a very creative family. My father is a musician and carpenter and his mother was a painter. I also have a brother who does all things creative as well. I also grew up watching loads and loads of movies with my mother which were usually black and white classics or romantic comedies.

Me: When did you first become 'serious' about art? Not so much, "When did you start fetishizing fonts and calling naked women 'nudes'?," as "When did drawing become less a time-killer and more an obsession?" Did you take art classes as a child? Did you attend a capital-A Art school? If so, where did you go and what was your primary focus there?

S.M.: Yeah, I drew a lot as a kid and it was one of the only things I excelled at, so that was my 'thing' growing up. All I did was draw, draw, draw. I didn't have formal art training until I was 16 years old, through the Ryman Program. I attended C.S.S.S.A. after that and from there decided I wanted to go to CalArts and study animation.

Me: Growing up, who were some of your artistic inspirations?

S.M.: Growing up, my walls were always covered with images of comic book characters, anime posters, movie posters. I liked Jim Lee, Norman Rockwell, Alphonse Mucha, Steven Spielberg, and loads more. I liked cutting out images from magazines as well and pinning them up for inspiration.

Me: What was your first job in the animation industry? Was it 'everything you'd ever dreamed of' or an entirely unexpected experience?

S.M.: DreamWorks is the only placed I've ever worked at professionally and I've been there since 2007, which was just before the release of Bee Movie and Kung Fu Panda. I was super thrilled to go to the same place as a couple of my closest friends. I eventually worked along side many heroes and teachers of mine. It was definitely more than I had ever dreamed of.

Me: I read that you did an 'animation internship' with James Baxter. As Baxter is one of my all-time favorite animators, would you please tell me a bit about that experience?

S.M.: It was an amazing summer! I don't even know where to begin. I was a total animation nerd so this was a dream come true for me. There was a small group of us and we were each given a space with a desk at his studio in Pasadena. We animated dialogue tests using classic Disney characters and James would give us feedback. There were so many mind blowing experiences that I can't even get into, but suffice to say that it was a fantasy summer to remember.

Me: The first time I ever heard your name, it was in connection with your student film, My Little Obsessive Compulsive Friend. On that film, you served as the writer, animator and director. (Diva alert!) With all of those illustrious credits at your disposal, what made you choose a career in the Story Dept.? (Or: Seriously, Steven -- do you have allergies to money, fame and groupies?)

S.M.: Haha, well, I only put those credits on the IMDB page for show. At most art schools everyone does every job on their student films. I actually interned with James the summer after making that film and then my next film was very focused on performance and animation. The next summer is when I did a story internship at Pixar. I ended up focusing more on story after that, but I still love to animate and bring things to life.

Me: Of all of the projects that you've worked on thus far, which one(s) were the most fun? Which taught you the most and/or caused you to take a gigantic artistic leap forward?

S.M.: Well, I started on Croods in 2007, then went on to How to Train Your Dragon, then back to Croods. It was neat to basically run a marathon (Croods) and also run a sprint (Dragons). I definitely came back from Dragons having learned a ton, but I think every sequence on any movie teaches me something new and I strive to get better with each one. I am shocked looking back at my first scenes for Croods and then looking at my last ones. Shocking.

Me: Do you have any passion projects currently in the works (or a dream project you long to work on)?

S.M.: Yes, haha. I think all artists have images and stories that we are hoarding away and we all wish we had time to develop them. And most of them are...secrets ;) And there's a humongous list of artists I'd love to collaborate with one day.

Me: What words of wisdom can you share with our readers hoping to make art their life?

S.M.: Draw, draw, draw. It is really hard to get across the importance of constant drawing, but it really is the key to improvement. You can improve so much within a 6 month period if you work really hard. Just like a professional athlete, you have to do something over and over and over again to get good at it. I also tell people that if they don't like the conditioning/practicing that are required to improve, then they should consider doing a different job. I compare it to the first few weeks of learning an instrument. If you can get past all of those sour notes (i.e. bad drawings) then you have what it takes to improve.

Me: Would you mind sharing one unforgettable moment of magic that you experienced while working on The Croods?

S.M.: Well, it is hard to pick just one. I was on it a long time and there were so many 'moments'. I remember one of the first magical moments was when I was still a trainee (2007) and I wasn't assigned to a movie yet. A few of us were asking Chris about Crood Awakenings and what it was about and he described a moment between Grug and Wimmet (Guy's original name) that was very powerful and magical. It was basically the heart to heart moment that became the tar pit scene in the final film. It had more to do with Grug's heart versus Wimmet's brain, and how it would take both of them for man to survive. It was just an amazing verbal pitch at lunch while sitting at a table in broad daylight. You could tell he could see it in his head and it sounded like the most powerful and profound moment and I couldn't wait to see it.

Thank-you so much for doing this interview, Steven! The story department is one of my favorite aspects of an animated film's creation, so it was really cool to hear from someone who works in it. And as for all of those Sandy & Belt gifs? I LOVE 'EM! Thanks for sharing them!

Psst, readers: I can't stress enough how much I think you're going to enjoy poking around Steven's online outposts. First off, there's MacLeod's main blog, Clockroom (the blog and the Tumblr). Clockroom covers MacLeod's work at DreamWorks, drawings from his continuing art education, and random doodles of everything from desert ghosts to robots fighting superheros. Next up is Pile of Graphite, a recently launched Tumblr showcasing some of MacLeod's pencil sketches. In it, you'll find snowy, National Geographic-looking vistas of faraway places, as well as a storybook-ready sketch of a giant squid demolishing an old wooden ship. Lastly, there's Framefilter. This blog is dedicated to the art of cinematography, and is jam-packed with sumptuous screengrabs from a wide variety of films. While Framefilter is the blog that MacLeod uses for his inspiration, I'd recommend Clockroom and Pile of Graphite to any young artist looking for a quick hit of inspirational adrenaline. Enjoy!

Related: Croods Crew: Margaret Wuller & Shane Prigmore


  1. Those gifs are just so great. Belt teaching Sandy to fetch is killing me.

    1. Me, too. That little pat on the head is priceless!