The Creative Frontier of Kids’ Cartoons

*Excerpt by Brooke Comer from 1999 Artist’s & Graphic Designer’s Market.

kids cartoonsWhen Kat Fair, head of recruitment at Nickelodeon Animation Studio, reviews the 60 or so portfolios she receives each week, she looks for unusual work, a variety of styles and original ideas. “We don’t have a house style here at Nickelodeon,” says Fair, “so we need people who have a range of styles. I want people who are creative, flexible and diverse.”

Fair comes from a background in development, first in theater, then in live-action television and films. She loved the industry, “but my heart was always in animation.” She worked at Disney TV as a development executive, where she “developed a good sense of what distinguished good work from bad work.” Fair then went on to Rhythm and Hues, where as director of development she increased her knowledge of computer animation and developed an eye for form and character. She then joined the team at Nickelodeon, where she’s been since July 1997. Nickelodeon offers its employees in-house education programs in work-related areas such as storyboarding, film theory, aerobics and yoga. “If we hire you,” says Fair, “it means you’re good. But once you’re hired, we’ll make you better.”

kid cartoonsFreelancers are hired at Nickelodeon “when we’re under the gun,” says Fair, who notes that the studio prefers to hire staff artists. “And once you’re on staff here,” she continues, “you won’t burn out by doing the same thing over and over, because you’ll probably get a chance to try out different styles on different shows. Our cartoons don’t have a ‘Nick’ stamp – they each have their own unique identity because they’re creator driven. For instance, Hey, Arnold!, which features more realistic kids than some of the other shows, is very different from the mixed-media styles of Kablam!. And we’re not limited to the styles you see – we love to get ideas from our house staff – which is why we like to hire people who are creative and who draw well.”

Because each Nickelodeon show is creator driven, “we’re very much hands-off when it comes to production, more so than any other studio,” says Fair. “We rely on the creator of each product to see his or her vision through. That way we can be sure we’ll get different views, looks and feels to our shows.”

kid cartoonsThe creators of the Nickelodeon shows are able to infuse their shows with a creative style, and the studio is respectful of creative autonomy. Kablam! uses mixed media that includes paper cut-outs, computer-generated characters and traditional cel animation and stop motion. Angry Beavers, a traditional cel animation show with a lot of special effects, was created by Mitch Shauer, a producer on the show, “who has a lot of control over the series from storyboard on,” says Fair. Peter Hannon, who created the traditional cel animation show CatDogs, comes from children’s book illustration rather than animation, “but he also has a lot of involvement in what goes on creatively in his show,” Fair notes.

Fair makes regular tours of colleges with animation conferences to look for new talent. “I’m always looking for colleges with animation programs because there’s new talent there.” She singles out some of the best programs, at Rhode Island School of Design, Ringling School of Design in Sarasota, and Cal Arts and University of Southern California. The latter two schools have relationships with Nickelodeon; the studio funded Phase II of the Mac Lab at Cal Arts, doubling the school’s animation stations. Nickelodeon is also helping to set up an MFA program in experimental animation at USC.

Fair personally looks at every one of the 60 portfolios she receives each week. There is also a review process, and notes are entered into Fair’s database. “Everyone gets a response,” she says, “yet I’m always surprised how few people call in to get their notes.” Prospective artists drop off their portfolios with the receptionist, or mail them in. Each one is logged, then goes through a portfolio review with all five producers who write notes on it. “If someone’s portfolio fits in with our needs at that time, we’ll contact the artist.”

Everyone who submits a portfolio gets a phone call when the portfolio is ready to pick up. If there is no job opening in that area at the time, a polite form letter response will be sent. But those who follow through and call Fair can request that she check her database and read the artist their reviews. “That way you can find out where your portfolio was weak or strong. If you’re willing to work on your weak areas, you can resubmit after your portfolio has changed substantially.” Fair – who will look at resubmissions a third or even a fourth time is she feels that talent warrants it – finds that it usually takes four to five months for artists to create enough new work to redo their portfolio.

Freelance work is one way to break into a staff position at Nickelodeon. Fair notes that a lot of freelancers don’t want to be on staff. She suggests that job applicants stress in their application whether they’re interested exclusively in a staff or freelance job, or if they are willing to freelance until a staff job is available. In addition to looking for artists, Fair also looks for production assistants, runners and administration assistants, all of which are good jobs for aspiring artists. “Once you’re on board, and you show how well you can draw, and we see where your talents lies, then you might get clean-up work, which is one way to break in and move up the ranks.” In-house promotions are so common at Nickelodeon that receptionists usually don’t last more than three months – because they’ve moved up. “So if you’re a talented artist,” says Fair, “and you have a kid-cartoony sense of creativity and the freedom to explore that creative frontier, you’re the kind of person Nickelodeon is looking for!”

kids cartoons
*One of Nickelodeon’s top animated shows is Hey, Arnold!, a show about a fourth-grader who lives with his grandparents in a boarding house. The series is the brainchild of animator Craig Bartlett.

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