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An interview with Peter Avanzino

Peter Avanzino is a storyboard artist and animation director. He is known for his work on Futurama, The Ren & Stimpy Show, The Simpsons and Duckman: Private Dick/Family Man. I spoke with Peter about the role of a storyboard artist, how the storyboarding process has developed, and his work as a director on Futurama.

Did you always want to pursue a career as a storyboard artist? Did you receive any formal training?

No I didn’t even know a storyboard artist existed when I grew up. I graduated high school in 1980. I watched cartoons and I read comics. If anything, I wanted to be a comic book artist. Nobody in my high school told me that that was something I could pursue. I was good at math and art, so my counsellor suggested architecture and so I went to school for that. The first two years of architecture school were great because I learned how to do drafting and perspective and everything. As soon as it came time to design buildings I didn’t care about this. By that time I had discovered for myself that you can be an artist. I transferred to Long Beach State and I got a degree in illustration, still thinking more business end. Illustration is art for specific things like magazines and stuff. I’m not good enough to be a comic book artist.

After I graduated and was trying to make a living, a friend of mine called me and said ‘The Simpsons are giving storyboard tests.’ It was a friend from Long Beach State and we had bonded because we loved cartoons and stuff. So I just took a test and they didn’t hire me, but they invited me to come in and talk to them. I went in and talked to Rich Moore who was the director at the time and Steve Moore who was the head storyboard guy. When I waited to meet them they gave me a script and a storyboard so I was able to look at the script and the board and say oh that’s how they do it. I didn’t know of the mechanics of it. I took another test and they hired me based on that. Once I was there I really started learning everything. Animation at that time was all drawn on paper and filmed on a table with a camera mounted above it. This means there’s limitations, your paper is only so big and you can’t just do anything.

My first week I storyboarded on the episode when Homer got hair. At the end he lost his hair and I storyboarded the shot where the camera was supposed to pan along the hair on the floor and then get to him looking in the mirror, bald. I just had the camera doing a long shot along the floor and then curving and going up to him. I remember the two directors looking at it and going, ‘hmm I guess we can do that maybe…’ I had no idea there was any kind of limitation. If you can draw it on paper why can’t it be filmed? I learned a lot those first two years about mechanics, and film making and acting. Then I got a job on Ren & Stimpy which is a completely different school of thought. There they are all about cartoons. The Simpsons was a sitcom, but Ren & Stimpy was more about cartoon based staging and acting. I learned a whole new side of film making there. When I went on to direct my first shows like Duckman, and even Futurama, the knowledge of cartoon focus and staging and acting really helped me a lot.

Could you run through the process of storyboarding an episode of The Simpsons?

Every show you work on is different. At Ren & Stimpy the writer might just give you an outline that has the set-up and the payoff and then a bunch of gags. You are not just storyboarding a script, you might be adding dialogue (there is no dialogue in the outlines sometimes) and adjusting the pacing and structure, you’re kind of writing as you go. The writer might come in, when it was John Kricfalusi, he would come in and look at what I had and give notes and rewrite it and we’d do it that way. Then the actors would record the audio based on your storyboard. On The Simpsons you get a script and an already recorded audio track. The script is about 21 minutes, three acts, and you might be doing a third of it or a smaller section. The shows have to get done fast so they are divided up. Three people might work on one episode in order to get it done on time. The storyboard artist takes his section and plans out how to best stage those scenes. They plan how to break it into shots, planning the cuts and the angles, where we should see wide shots and close ups, what to reveal when, and they also plan out the acting. The actors have recorded their lines, but the characters have to be drawn acting those lines out. At this point the drawings are pretty rough, and the storyboard artist will then meet with the director to go over what they’ve done, The director will give them notes on what they would like to see changed or fixed, and then the storyboard has to be cleaned up- drawn at a cleanliness level that makes it clear to show to producers and whoever else needs to see it.

A storyboard is not generally as cleanly drawn as finished animation, but again, it needs to be clear enough to be accessible to anyone who sees it. So basically, the storyboard artist is the first level of artist who decides how to visualize what is written in the script. On The Simpsons and some other shows like it they are expected to guide the audience through the show in a way that is familiar as per sitcoms or other television shows. On other shows, like Disenchantment, which I work on now, Matt Groening doesn’t want the rhythms and patterns of sitcom staging, or of The Simpsons even. He wants more cinematic staging, longer shots, and more interesting compositions. The board artist has to now these preferences as they plan the rhythm of the staging. Where do you need a close-up? Where do you need an establishing shot? Does the audience know where we are and who’s talking? Also what’s the funniest way to stage this? No matter what you do, it still has to be funny, which may be where do you put a close-up for that first line, or when do you reveal the information that somebody is in the room listening to this dialogue? You don’t just show all of it all at once, you have to pace out when stuff is revealed. All of those decisions are made. And then it is all drawn.

Does that leave much room for creative freedom?

Some artists prefer the Ren & Stimpy style, SpongeBob, a lot of Cartoon Network because you have an outline. If you worked on Adventure Time you might work your way up to being a writer, you might have a loose outline that you were really able to flesh out. I do find that I have creative input on a script driven show, I’ve been on them long enough. It is all written and you do have to present all the dialogue, all the scripts, but there are ways to present that as A) clear B) good and C) funny, and D) can it be funnier? If it’s a show like Futurama can it be more spectacular? There are scenes where they are sitting around the conference table, get through that and they are going to fly to some nebular or be racing cars. There are places where you can be very creative. The writers, if you are on a show where the writers know what we do they might leave some of that more exciting stuff because they know we are going to do something with it.

I always tell people that I’ve gotten good enough to where I can add gags. You have to add gags that fit so well the writers just think that they wrote them and I believe I can do that. I do get things that I like in there.

How has the storyboarding process developed and changed since you first started out?

On The Simpsons, like I said, I was drawing on paper. I guess we did have Xerox’s so you could scale stuff up and down a little. A storyboard, even on Futurama, through the Futurama movies, the artists were breaking down the shots and the acting and guiding the action and stuff, but it was going to go to another department to be fleshed out a little more.

When the computer came in, I have one here that I can storyboard on and computers and software basically allow us to draw digitally now. All of our work is still drawn by hand, but is drawn on a tablet. That makes things like copying backgrounds easier, resizing drawings, formatting stuff into a storyboard. The computer takes one thousand drawings and deals with the part of getting to them onto a storyboard page and having the dialogue pasted underneath. You can spend more time drawing and working it out. It’s a lot easier to see acting.

When I used to storyboard acting scenes, I would do them on an animation desk on paper because you can kind of flip the acting and then I would add the Xerox and draw boxes around all of those Xerox and tape them on for storyboard panels because I wanted to be able to flip it to see how the acting, or even the action looked.

Nowadays that is very easy to do on the computer. As a result of that the storyboard artists are doing a lot more now. There is no layout department. Their drawings are expected to be pretty clean. They don’t have to draw buttons on everybody’s clothes, but their faces should look correct and perspective should be good. It’s kind of a storyboard, layout department now because most shows, 90% of them send those storyboards right overseas and then Korea work directly from them. So it has gotten quicker and now they are expected to do more.

The basics of it, when I’m looking for a storyboard artist, I’m looking for somebody who has some storytelling skills, some sense of cinema and can draw the characters. If there are specifics to my show that they need to know, I can teach them. There are plenty of people who can animate and everyone here can draw better than me, but they need to have still the basics of storyboarding, which are staging, acting, sense of humour, and all that stuff.

Both The Simpsons and Futurama pay a lot of homage to cinema, so I suppose a knowledge of classic cinema helps…

When I started on The Simpsons I was working with people who knew everything about Chinese cinema, Orson Welles, etc… I’d watched Bugs Bunny and had certainly watched movies. I had a very young person knowledge of movies, but certainly started studying them more. Citizen Kane we based half of the first season off. A lot of Kubrick stuff. It’s fun! When I find a storyboard artist who if they come in with things they want to do like take that script and push it, if they have any goals they want to see, their vision on screen, that’s great. I’m here to see that it fits into the season of Futurama. Anyone who is looking to show their creative visions within the constraints of the show, that’s a bonus. We look for people like that.

You also worked as a director on Futurama. What did that involve?

It’s a little more than storyboarding. The writers write it and I can’t write scripts, actors act it and whenever I read the script I know exactly how it should sound, but the actors never do that because it is always better because they are actors. Everything else that ends up on screen is due to the animators and the storyboard artists and the designers and the director. In the model of show that I work on, the director is really the filmmaker. He works with the storyboard artist and says this is what I want here. Yes, the storyboard artist is making decisions, but the director is someone who has risen to the point where they are the final decision maker. The storyboard artist will work with them. On the shows I work on, the director oversees design for that episode and in that I want this rocket to look like a Mayan rocket and so on. You oversee the storyboard, you have the input on designs. Some places you are in on the editing of the episode. The editing of the animatic. You have to deal with the writers, you show them the storyboards. In our case we film the storyboards for an animatic where it is cut for the dialogue and show them that way. They are going to have notes for you. The direction put their vision there, but ultimately this is Matt Groening’s show. You have to put his vision, so there is the business end of it like that. Even though the audio acting is great, all the acting you see is drawn, facial expressions etc. Decisions have to be made. Where do they smile? Where do they frown? Where do they laugh? We don’t have videos of the actors and trace them. It’s a lot of stuff. If you breakdown a 21 minute show into how many seconds, approximately 300 scenes in a sitcom style show, many of them might have five characters, some might have one. You have to work out what each person is doing in each scene. The director is wrangling all of that.

How long does it take to put an episode of Futurama together?

Everything I’ve worked on has been based on how The Simpsons was doing it. We might take six weeks to storyboard the show and show it to the writers, who will have three or four weeks to do revisions, then it goes through a step called timing (using an X sheet, which has 80 lines on it. It really just writes out exactly what you want to happen on every frame. Each line is one frame and there are 24 frames of film per second) which is another department it goes through. You get all your designs together and your colour and send it to Korea and animators there work on it. They take the storyboards and the X sheets. They spend three to four months on it and it comes back. We work on it some more and then give it to Matt Groening and they work on it. It’s about nine months from start to finish.

We start a new episode every week. When you do twenty episodes you start one every week so they really overlap. To get a season done you have maybe five directors. One director does an episode and as soon as they ship that they might do another one, so they might do four. I liked doing a lot of episodes. In the old days I liked my name on as many things as I could. It’s also TV, so it has got to be done fast. With Futurama you might be going to a new planet every week. Let’s say for 20 episodes, 12 of them involve a new planet of some kind. It’s a lot of work to develop. You want everything to be as great as Avatar was. I remember going to see Avatar and being blown away by how great it looked and being jealous of how much time they had to do it. We had just done an episode with some kind of cyclops monster and a lot of the new planets just say it’s an exotic jungle. How many exotic jungles that don’t look like Earth can you come up with? It is a lot of work and on a TV schedule so done fast. It can be rewarding and frustrating.

Is there anything you are currently working on?

I’m just finishing up the latest episodes of Disenchantment right now. I work at a studio that does a lot of work for Matt Groening, but not just that, so we are developing some other new shows that will hopefully be going pretty soon.

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