Industry Pro: Animation Studio President & Creative Director Christopher Hamilton
Today’s profile subject has adopted an entrepreneurial attitude in his career, a strategy which has been recommended frequently by YII profile subjects, and turned it literally into his own business. As you read his recounting of each step on his career path, you’ll see that he was very deliberate in each opportunity he took, considering what he would learn from it and what the next move would be. And when the opportunity came, quite suddenly, to start his own studio, he found a way to make it happen almost literally overnight. You could learn a lot from someone like that. Read below to find out more…
Current position (or recently-completed project or projects): President/Creative Director of OddBot, Inc. Recently, we’ve worked with Amazon Studios on a feature length animatic, TOUCHING BLUE. We’re producing shorts for Disney “Club Penguin,” aka Disney Online Studios. Recently, we’ve worked with Warner Bros. Studios, and did a couple of shorts for a Cartoon Network show, “Mad.” Before that, we’ve produced a large number of shorts for Playhouse Disney and worked with Disney Channel on some “Phineas and Ferb” special projects.
Hometown: San Diego, CA
College and degree: I went to junior college for two and a half years but didn’t get a degree. Other than an Art 101 class in high school, I am all self-taught. A lot of what I know I learned on the job, just literally being thrown into it, but I knew enough of the techniques of animating from just being a huge animation nerd growing up.
First job in the entertainment industry: My first fulltime job was as a production assistant at New Regency Productions, a film production company on the Fox lot. I was hired a couple of times before that to do storyboards for music video. I don’t even know who the artists were, but I got to work onset. They just set me up in a corner.
So how did you get hired as an animator? I realized at a certain point that I really wanted to just get paid to draw, to be creative. So I started temping to make money and then at night, I worked on my portfolio. But I didn’t really know what it took to get into an animation studio. I wasn’t getting any art jobs and no one was really helping me. I kept building my portfolio, though. I had answered an ad for a company called Unbound. I sent them my portfolio and they called me in. The producer said, “I really like your work but we can’t hire you because you don’t know Flash. If you really want to get into animation and start working at studios, you have to learn Flash.”
I went to Barnes and Noble and spent like 30 bucks on a “How to Animate in Flash” book. It came with a 30-day trial program disk and I spent those 30 days delving in and creating my own little animations and learning about all of the tools. And because of that, I was able to get my first paid art job at a company called Neopets.
So that was your first “paid-to-draw” job? Yes. Neopets is a site where you have these virtual pets that kids have to feed and keep entertained. I designed a lot of characters that they still use in their site. At the time, they had a merchandizing deal at Target. They produced Plushies and toys and stuff. They even had a magazine. That was a lot of fun to be able to do that, and it was very intense. Every day, we had new challenges, such as “create 20 new foods for this pet” or “we need 50 new Halloween-themed foods.” That’s all you got. I’d have to think really quickly. “Spider soup, beetles on crackers…” So because of that pace and volume of artwork I had to create, I ended up perfecting my ability to draw in Flash on the computer.
How long were you at Neopets? I think I was there for eight months. From there, I went to an independent studio called Cornerstone to work on 2D direct-to-DVD “Veggie Tales” animated episodes. I became a digital cleanup artist, somebody who cleaned the traditional animator’s drawings in Flash and colored them, and helped build a library of animation to re-use for production in order to keep costs low.
I was so excited to be working in animation. One of the old school traditional animators was the voice of “Space Ace,” an animated video game from the ‘80s. He worked for Don Bluth for years. I was a huge fan and grew up watching all those cartoons. I was the last guy hired and the company had been in production for a couple of months. So there were months of traditional animation on the server. I spent my nights after everyone left going through them all, playing back all of the rough animation, studying them, just kind of getting an idea. “How did they treat timing? How did they animate hair?” I spent a lot of time learning from them without actually talking to them. And when I built up enough confidence, I was able actually ask the animators specific questions about their work.
Production started getting behind so they gave me a couple scenes to animate. When the director and manager came over to see what I produced, they loved it. They started giving more animation work after that, and then they started to secretly give me other animator’s scenes to retake or fix in Flash. They started bringing in piles and piles of work. They preferred the other Flash animators didn’t know that I was now fixing scenes so they closed my door and I was stuck alone in this room. That’s when I learned how to quickly navigate Flash, because everybody animates and sets up their files differently. I became good at solving problems within the program.
A few weeks after doing that, the studio owners pulled me aside and promoted me to Flash supervisor. I’d been there a little over a month and went from cleanup artist to a manager. That was a shock for me because I was still getting to know people. But that was the job where I learned most of my technical animation Flash production skills.
So where did you go from Cornerstone? I worked for Unbound, the studio that had interviewed me before Neopets. I was hired as a lead animator on an MTV pilot. The director quit in mid-production and I was promoted to director. I talked to the crew my first day, said something like, “Okay, I’m director now. We’re going to finish this show.” When I left that night, we found out that MTV had pulled the plug. (Laughs.) That’s my director-for-a-day story.
Oh, man. That stinks. Yeah, but I stayed with Unbound. They kept me on as a staff art / animation director. It was just me and a couple of people and we eventually started working on a short series called “The Shanna Show” for Disney. After that, Unbound shut down production and I ended up going to a studio called One Red Room. They continued the work that Unbound had been doing on these shorts for Disney. I eventually ended up directing “The Shanna Show” and then I directed a spinoff short series called “Shane’s Kindergarten Countdown.”
One Red Room was approached by MTV2 to produce a series called, “The Adventures of Chico and Guapo,” which was an eight episode, 22-minute series order. I was supervising director. I had worked in every aspect of animation by that time, directed individual shows and was the production manager for the company, overseeing everything. I put together the teams and then worked to find more efficient ways of producing animation. And then after “Chico and Guapo,” we were approached to do “Safety Patrol” with Disney. After ten episodes, the owner of One Red Room decided that he was going to close his doors and move to Seattle.
Disney was already talking about a whole new series called “Can You Teach My Alligator Manners?” that they wanted to produce. We went in and told them that One Red Room was shutting its doors and the question from them was, “Who’s going to continue producing our shorts series?” I said, “Well, I am. I’m just going to incorporate a company and will continue doing the same quality of work, just under a different name and under new management. It took them a little while to give us the job, but that was the beginning of my company, OddBot.
So give me an idea of the path of OddBot, what types of projects you have done, etc. From there we produced a series of shorts for PBS Sprout called “The Many Adventures of Mr. Mailman.” And we were approached by American Greetings to direct a Care Bears music video. It was my first time being asked to direct live-action. I pitched them an idea. They loved it and I directed it. We had to move offices in 2007 because the space we started in was just too small. We’ve been in our current location ever since. We’ve worked on a lot of series production. We produced a preschool series currently on The Hub and continue to work with Disney. We also produced a series called “Tasty Time with Ze Fronk,” which was nominated for an Emmy last year. It was my first Emmy nomination, which was nice. So it’s just been production work and trying to run a business.
What were your favorite TV shows growing up? “Transformers,” “G.I. Joe,” “He-man,” and “Mask.” Those were like, my top four favorite TV shows growing up. And “Thunder Cats.” That’s another big one.
What do you consider your big break or big breaks? I don’t know what would be considered my big break because everything has happened so incrementally, almost like baby steps. It’s been a lot of small, steady accomplishments that helped pave my way to where I am now.
What’s the best career advice you’ve ever got? It was from the producer I had interviewed with at Unbound, before I got hired at Neopets, the who told me that even though he liked my artwork, he couldn’t hire me because I didn’t know Flash and that I should go learn it. I’m still using Flash today to make cartoons.
I’m looking for a eureka moment when you realized you did or did not want to do something or that you should do something differently. When I decided to start my own company. That was a pretty defining moment in my career.
Describe a typical workday in your current position. My typical workday is pretty scattered. It’s different every day, especially when we have multiple projects running through our studio. I always check my e-mail first upon waking; answer e-mails from early bird clients or employees. In the office, I’m approving everything, as well as working with my producer to build budgets and production schedules for upcoming contracts. I have a heavy hand in hiring the talent. And of course, I’m working very closely with our clients. If there are any issues that are production related, I also tackle those with my production manager or my production coordinator. You know, it’s like playing “Whack a Mole.” That’s my typical workday. (Laughs.)
What’s the best thing about your current job? As the head of the company, I feel like I’m in more control of my destiny. I get to build. I get to decide what the culture of my studio is and I get to choose how the place is run. I’ve worked for other studios where I didn’t always agree with how they were run. I used those experiences to help shape what I do. I get to build a place that’s creative, that is artist friendly. Artists who have worked for me have felt safe because they know that they’re heard, and that I try to give everybody a chance to put their thumbprint on everything we do.
What’s the worst thing about your current job? The stress that at the end of the day, if we fail to deliver something of quality, it’s always my fault.
Next I’m looking for a brush with greatness. It can be a celebrity encounter or just being exposed to someone being brilliant at what they do. This may sound cheesy, but I really appreciate, and I’m so inspired and so in awe of, the talented people I get to work with everyday. The artists that I work with have so many different styles and different interests. I feel that I stay more contemporary and connected to the industry than I would if I didn’t have people at the studio who have shared their creativity.
What’s the one thing you wish you’d known when you started your career? I wish I had had a better grasp of business and management. I feel I would be further along now had I known earlier what I’ve learned in the past couple of years. But sometimes throwing yourself into a job is the best way to learn.
What do you consider the secret of success – what do you think has sort of been the secret that has gotten you where you are today? And what advice would you give to someone following your footsteps? The secret is to surround yourself with good people who share your vision, who take pride in what they do, who encourage you to be better, and who will be with you when times are hard or when you feel like giving up.
Also, always improve yourself. If I don’t know how to do something, I ask someone, or I research, and I usually find the answers. With how connected we’ve all become, you can always find someone who can help you move forward in your career. It just takes persistence. I often tell artists (and I think this goes for most trades) to continue to use Facebook, Twitter, and Linked In to build groups of like-minded individuals and connect you closer to your dream job. I really think most people want to help others succeed. You want to work at a studio and you have trouble getting in? Friend or at least message someone you know that works there, tell them your story and ask them what it will take to break through the doors.
What’s your next move – or next five moves? My next move is to sell an original show to a network and produce it at OddBot. I think I’m close!
To find out more about Christopher’s company, Oddbot, and see some of their work, click here to pop over to the Oddbot website.