This is the transcript for the podcast episode Interview With Sarah Marino: Visual Development Artist For Nickelodeon & Reel FX (Part 1) :: ArtCast #76. To listen to the podcast click here.
Chris: Chris Oatley’s Artcast, episode 76, an interview with Sarah Marino, background painter and visual development artist for Nickelodeon, part one.
Hello my friends, and welcome to another episode of Chris Oatley’s Artcast, the show that goes inside the hearts and minds of successful professional artists. I’m Chris Oatley, I was a visual development artist at Disney before I quit to start my own online art school, the Oatley Academy of Concept Art & Illustration. Find more art instruction and career advice from some of the most inspiring voices in animation, games, comics, and new media at ChrisOatley.com. That’s ChrisOatley.com.
Two years ago, my friend and Oatley Academy colleague Sarah Marino, appeared on what is to date the most frequently downloaded episode of the Artcast, the Rising Stars of Animation. Like every other guest on that show, Sarah has as I predicted gone on to great success. After wrapping as a visual development artist on The Book of Life, the gorgeous new animated feature from Reel FX, she moved to Burbank, California to join the art department on Nickelodeon’s new preschool series Shimmer and Shine. In this episode, Sarah share the story of her happy creative childhood, her positive experience at the Ringling College of Art & Design and the subsequent disarming struggle of breaking into the animation industry. And in the Q&A segment, we respond to a listener question about developing your concept art portfolio.
For those who are not familiar with the sort of abbreviated story that you did on the Rising Stars episode two years ago, take us all the way back and just give us an idea of when you first got the sense that you could be a professional artist. When did you make that connection?
Sarah: Oh man. When I chose to go to Ringling, it was kind of like yeah, I’m going to be an artist but it wasn’t….I don’t know, like it didn’t necessarily feel tangible but it was all I really knew how to do anyway. So it was like yeah, I’m going to go to art school, that’s what people do when they’re really good at art. And it was really interesting being at art school because you’re pulled in a lot of different directions and you think to yourself, oh maybe I’ll do this with my work, or I’ll do that with my work and you don’t necessarily know how to focus what you’re doing. And for me, I feel like it came more after I graduated where I was…well, I mean I always knew I wanted to be creative and work on stories and stuff but I felt like I was confused a little bit on how I would get there. And I think graduation was a wake up call because when you’re in school you’re kind of like playing adult, you’re not actually having to be an adult. And then it was oh crap, how do I actually make this my job moment for me and I actually after I graduated for a year and a half, I mean I did freelance here and there, but I didn’t have a career. So I think for me, that time period was essential because it helped me kind of figure out what really was important to me, what were the things that really excited me and that has always been telling stories even when I was a kid, I remember I would like make comics of my favorite characters or like in notepads or just trying like to take an art project in school the extra mile, and with storytelling. So for me, that was kind in that year and a half post graduation before I even got into the animation industry, in production, not even art – that was kind of my soul searching I would say, just figuring out my core, like what made me really tick. Like what was it that I wanted to do. Besides being good at art, what did I want to say with it? And that led me to animation which like I said, I’ve always been a fan of animation, it was something I always knew I wanted to do. But I want to say like a realization of being an adult, working in the field, kind of hit me post graduation.
Chris: Yeah, I actually had a similar experience in that I…well I went to art school with Disney…I had the blinders on, I was like laser focused on becoming a 2D, a pencil animator. And then I’ve told that story numerous times on various contacts, but that got derailed because the animation industry was melting down and so it kind of threw me into this frenzy. But by the point I graduated, I didn’t really know either and I had kind of defaulted to freelance illustration, the sort of catch-all career focus and I was not focused. Anyway, the point being, it was two years of struggle before…and when I say struggle I mean yes, financially but not just that.
Sarah: It’s an internal struggle.
Sarah: It’s an inner turmoil, you feel like you’re pulled in different directions, you’re questioning why you went to school. I mean, it’s so much self-doubt and it’s debilitating and it’s really hard to get out of it. So…
Chris: And you know the crappy day job and my day job wasn’t crappy, it was exhausting. I actually really enjoyed working at the guitar center. I liked it a lot, but it was oh my god, it was so long hours. And Saturday, it was like your whole Saturday you’d go into work at 7, opening took longer because Saturday was the big sales day so you just did so much more prep and signage and everything, and then there’s the long work day, you’d leave after dark…oh man. Anyway, the point being yeah, I had a similar thing where again, I’ve told the story a thousand times, but that was the thing for me where I realized, I have to tell stories. That’s what’s in my heart and I have to go to the place where I can do that.
Sarah: There were days where like I wouldn’t get out of bed, I would like sit and marathon Netflix. I wouldn’t do art, like it was dark times, like it’s not something that you just like instantly get out of, and I don’t even remember…I don’t think there was really an exact moment where I was like yeah, I figured it out. It was kind of this slow burn where I would talk to my friends that I went to school with, or at the time Shane was working at Reel FX, so I made some friends. I had done some freelance with Reel FX but I wasn’t full time.
Chris: And who is Shane?
Sarah: Shane is my partner in crime. He and I met in school at Ringling, and we’re both currently working together. We always end up working at the same place.
Chris: Which is awesome.
Sarah: Yeah, we like it. Not everyone likes it, but we really dig it. So we get along, which is great. But yeah, so I had my art friends that I could turn to or kind of talk about art, so I wasn’t completely absent from my life but I can’t remember if there was ever an exact moment where I just kind of got my butt into gear. But it was slow, it didn’t happen overnight, I was maybe occasionally working on a piece and then I wouldn’t touch it for a week. And then I was like oh yeah, I was working on that and I would go back to it. And then it kind off just started snowballing, but it was slow, it didn’t happen overnight.
Chris: Let’s jump back to Ringling really quickly.
Chris: You were drawn to storytelling, you had that kind of fire in your heart while you were in school and you were sort of upgrading your own assignments and that kind of thing. Did you feel confident in your work? Like do you know what I mean? Did you actually feel like a brave artist, because if you were taking that much initative and being that much of a sort of self-starter, I would think that you did, or at least that was not unfamiliar to you confidence.
Sarah: I think there was almost like a false confidence. If I’d paint a still life, I would want to put something in it that was more than just like a piece of fruit because I wanted to communicate something. So I remember we had to do a still life at one point and I put like a weird baby doll head without an eyeball, I don’t know. It was like this weird need to have more to say, even if it was a little bit of a pretentious art school thing. So yeah, so I would say that inclination was there but I guess it worked out in the end. I think that’s what kind of pushed me towards at first, I thought the answer was editorial illustration. Like, I have something to say, so I need to talk about it in a piece that is in the New York Times. And there’s nothing wrong with people that do that because they’re brilliant, but for some reason I thought that that’s how that translated to be a respected artist that you had to like be doing editorial magazine type stuff. And that kind of pulled me away from the animation in just what I thought I was supposed to be pursuing, and this too was at Ringling I was in illustration which you can do a lot with it, but we were very separated from the computer animation program so I never touched animation in school.
Sarah: It was very traditional, so you were working with media doing still art, figure painting, things like that which I am very happy for, I have a very strong foundation. But I would say that those kinds of assignments naturally kind of pull you away from the animation industry because you’re being surrounded by all these like amazing painters like Jeremy Lipking or Richard Schmidt and you’re like oh I want to be that. And you kind of almost lose yourself in that part of the program and personally forgot what really drove me as a kid and that was…I mean I loved Disney, I loved Don Dlu Films, I loved anime, I loved cartoons and so that’s where after graduation and soul searching (inaudible), it was like you know, this is okay but it’s not what really really ignites that passion in me.
Chris: Yeah, interesting. Yeah, the fundamentals unlock storytelling.
Sarah: Absolutely. And you become so much more adept at conveying what you want to say. You know, we can talk about school which I know is one of your favorite topics but my education was invaluable because it really focused on fundamentals which I think was really important for me because the storytelling inclination was there. It was really getting my artistic ability to the level at which it needed to be to convey those stories I think was kind of what I got out of school.