Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Croods Crew: Jennifer Harlow

(Note: The following boldface quotes come from Animation Insider's exhaustive interview with Jennifer Harlow. It's a treasure trove of talking points, and you could probably save yourself a lot of eye strain and alliteration by simply skipping the rest of this blog post and heading over there. That said, DON'T YOU EVEN CONSIDER CLICKING AWAY! This blog is like Spanish Fly when it comes to water cooler conversation. You miss even a DAY of it, and you risk living your life lonely and unloved. Consider yourself warned.)

Most of us aren't foolish enough to believe that we could be the next Chris Sanders or Kirk De Micco -- superstar directors with big budget productions, signature art styles, and multiple deviantART fan clubs. Yet most of us ARE delusional enough to think that we could someday see our names in the long list of credits at the end of our favorite animated films. Sadly -- statistically -- this is also pretty unlikely. BUT THERE'S HOPE. Take DreamWorks animator Jennifer Harlow. Harlow whiles away her days animating anthropomorphic animals in front of fat-ass flat-screens at one of Hollywood's hottest animation studios. Homegirl is LIVING THE DREAM, and all she had to do was locate that ever-elusive, near-mythical, possibly metaphorical secret to 'breaking into the biz.'

And do you know what that secret is?

Me either.

But I think I know where we can find it. Using nothing but this cut-and-paste profile piece, we can retrace the steps that took Ms. Harlow from crayon-carrying scamp to up-and-coming animator. Using her unique journey as our template, we'll chart an obstacle-free, can't lose career path for all aspiring animators (and beleaguered bloggers) to follow. The good life is within reach. We're gonna be rich!

DON'T LET US DOWN, JEN.

So where do we begin? A noted English thespian was once quoted as singing, "Let's start at the very beginning; a very good place to start." Sounds sensible to me. In this case, let's start with Harlow's childhood. What makes a seemingly normal child decide to devote her life to the aberrant art form of animation?

Jennifer Harlow: I always drew as a kid, even before I can really remember. My Mom likes to tell this story about how she found me in the living room drawing with a big red crayon on the white carpet right in front of the fireplace. Instead of getting mad at me, she saw how proud I was of my piece and just made sure to keep a giant supply of paper in front of me. All family road trips usually involved me in the back seat drawing up a storm, even at the risk of making myself extremely carsick. I also loved to watch cartoons. My brother and I would always tune in for our favorite Warner Brothers and Disney shorts on Saturday mornings (big fan of any Chuck Jones short). We also enjoyed the classic Disney feature films as well.

However, I never thought of a career in animation or even art in general. For the longest time I wanted to be a veterinarian. [...] I even spent a few years between middle-school and high school volunteering at a couple clinics, attending surgeries, etc. At 15 though, my interest started to fade, a lot of a vet’s schedule was spent spaying, neutering, or having putting a beloved family’s pet to sleep. I eventually decided to pursue my other interest, drawing.

Well, seeing as how Harlow's career choices were either killing cats or animating them, it's easy to see why she'd choose 'toons. (It's reassuring, too. It's proof positive that she's not a psychopath!) Now let's take a look at Harlow's education. What sort of schooling is required of a career cartoonist?

J.H.: I left high school early to continue my education at Rogue Community College and later, Southern Oregon University where I was able to take life-drawing classes and build up my portfolio to apply to CalArts.


To re-cap: Drop out of high school. Sketch some naughty bits. Get accepted into the same school that taught most of America's animation elite. It's as simple as 1, 2, 3!

J.H.: I was rejected [by CalArts] on my first try... 

Wait, what?

J.H.: ...but was accepted on round two.

Correction. It's as simple as 1, 2, 3, 4.

J.H.: Once at CalArts, it was literally 24/7 animation boot-camp for 3.5 years. I animated with both 2D and 3D tools during my attendance, and had a blast—even during the rough days when a Maya file would corrupt losing hours of work, or having an especially bad drawing day. I learned so much throughout the good and tougher times and met so many wonderful people that were there by my side during the heat of crunch-time, overall it was an absolutely amazing experience that I wouldn’t trade for the world. During my third year, I completed my film called, “Bothered Bot” that led to the exciting opportunity to be a part of a summer internship at Pixar. I had a wonderful, and intense 11 weeks there where I learned so much! I returned to CalArts, where I graduated in December 2010, and in January 2011, I started working at DreamWorks Animation in Glendale.

So becoming an animator takes time, perseverance and a lot of hard work, huh?  You know, I think euthanizing small animals provides an important service to the community. And while I hate seeing puppies limp or kitties cry, I'm not that comfortable with rejection or rigorous work schedules, either.

But maybe the workload relaxes a little once you're one of the Katzenberg's kids?

J.H.: I usually arrive to work by 8:30 a.m, grab a little breakfast from the commissary, and head up to my desk. I start animating by 9 a.m. and continue working until 11:30 when I join my co-worker buddies for lunch. Lunch usually wraps up by 12:30 and I’m back at my desk animating until about 6 pm. Depending on how my shot is coming along, my day could be spent entirely at my desk or spending more of my time meeting with supervisors and attending dailies/various meetings that might pop-up during the day.

I work on DreamWorks’ proprietary animation software. But also use pencil and paper to plan out an idea. At CalArts, I worked with Maya, but also After Effects, Final Cut Pro, Photoshop, and of course pencil and paper.


Seriously, Jen, you're doing a terrible job of making this sound like an easily attainable, cushy-soft dream job.

You know what? I'm gonna go ahead and paste the next quote from Harlow's interview with Animation Insider a.s.a.p. In it, she shares some of the high points of the job.

J.H.: Early days on a shot are usually the most fun, when the sky is the limit. It’s always exciting getting to brainstorm the best way to convey the directors’ vision, and using a variety of methods to plan out the best way to communicate the goal in a shot. When I’m just starting a shot, I definitely spend time planning out the actions, whether thumbnailing it out on paper, pulling online reference, or shooting my own reference—those early stages on a shot usually take a good amount of time before I start moving a character around. It’s extremely nerve wracking showing my shot for the very first time and hoping that I hit the right nerve and meet everyone’s expectations, but the reward of getting that reaction whether it’s one person or 30 is a great feeling.


Ah, a feeling of personal success and the praise of others. I'm totally cool with that! Now, quickly, before I accidentally remember how much time and effort it took Harlow to get to where she is, let's close this thing out with some words of advice that she shared with Animation Insider.

J.H.: The best advice I can think of is to pursue what you truly enjoy doing and to not get discouraged along the way. Just because one door closes, doesn’t mean another one won’t open. The industry is very challenging and getting accepted into a school (CalArts or otherwise), is just the first step and definitely doesn’t mean you’re set for life. I’m always pushing myself to work harder, and those whose work I admire the most, all seem to do the same thing of constantly pushing themselves. I’m always learning a new technique or how to avoid making a mistake again. It’s a hard field of work, but I really enjoy it.

There's that damned w-word again. Oh, well. Here kitty-kitty...


BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE!

Jennifer Harlow has not one, but TWO blogs featuring her art. The first one, Jen's Animation Blog, details her life while attending CalArts. It's full of old sketches, animation tests, personal anecdotes and a glimpse at her summer internship at Pixar. The second blog, Sketchy Observations, is her current outlet for internet self-expression. This blog has lots of new sketches, with a heavy emphasis on the most deadly tool in her artistic arsenal: caricature. Simultaneously goofy and grotesque, Harlow's caricatures would've made the original MAD Magazine crew proud. Take a look at the five examples I included below. They're simply seething with personality.

One last word of thanks to Animation Insider for not bad-mouthing me up and down the internet for all of the quotes that I "borrowed" for this post. I linked to you four times (five!) in an effort to make amends, but in all honesty, a link from me is sorta like that whole 'if a tree falls in the woods' thing. I should've probably given you some sort of co-writing credit, but really, you don't want to sully your resume with the likes of this blog, do you? Anyway, keep up the great work. I'll click on your banner ads daily!

Related: Croods Crew: M. Wuller, S. Prigmore, S. MacLeod & C. Goodrich

All art and photos used in this post are property of Jennifer Harlow. Here's hoping she's not the litigious type. 

This post originally appeared on 9/19/12.

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