Kathleen Zuelch, producer at Netflix, weighs in on producing animated films in Hollywood.
ActivateenCC is a series of community chats that seeks to bridge the intergenerational gap and promote greater understanding. We speak with parents, influencers, subject matter experts and connect the dots through the lens of generation Z. Our subjects range from well-being, work and everything in between.
We all have our favorite animation from childhood that we still cling to like Linus and his blanket. Our love affair with this medium has never really waned even as we have transitioned into adulthood.
When Covid-19 struck, according to the SF Chronicle, “While other Hollywood trade unions have suffered near-total job loss since April, the Animation Guild has seen an increase of about 150 dues-paying (i.e. working) members. With limited interaction among actors and crews on stages the new norm, expect fewer real performers and more computer-generated crowds, creatures and environments to come to screens.”
In this episode of our community chats, we talk to actress and producer, Kathleen Zuelch about careers in animation, the Hollywood experience and the process behind bringing our favorite cartoon characters to life. Here is an excerpt from our podcast.
Kathleen: I started when I was working for a recording studio and they did animation recordings, so I had access to all these different studios at the time. I was offered to work for Warner Bros feature animations when they were kind of starting. They had just done Space Jam (1996 ) and they were working on a movie named Quest For Camelot (1998). I started with them and I was working as a PA (production assistant) and that’s, you know, your entry level job. In the five years I worked at Warner Bros, I was able to work on Iron Giant (1999), Osmosis Jones (2001), and then I moved up to visual effects and I was working on Scooby Doo (2002). I was asked to create the visual effects pipeline for them, and we were in charge of creating the demon character and Scrappy Rex. Warner Bros was really the place where I learned animation from A to Z.
Shaku: How did Red vs. Blue come to be?
Kathleen: While I was working on Scooby Doo, I hired a young man called Matt Hullum, and during the two years that we worked on Scooby Doo, he came up to me and told me that he and his buddies were making this online show called Red vs. Blue and it was using the game Halo. I watched it and said “This is really funny, but you guys need a tough chick and I want to do the voice.” So I did a little interview and auditioned with Burnie Burns, the writer of the show, and he said “You got it! You’re the character Tex.” Well, I had no idea that all of our lives were going to change once we created this show. We had our own website for Red vs. Blue and we streamed it, and it became an international success. I am really fortunate to have the opportunities that I’ve had and I’m grateful that I could be a positive force its audience.
Shaku: It seems like you have this incredible ability to make dreams happen; to start from scratch. Tell us about that.
Kathleen: A lot of the shows that I’ve worked on had nothing and I actually have been approached by startup studios. My whole thing is that I need to understand the technology part of it and what each of the people’s position within that technology is going to be bringing to the table, and the thing about technology is that anything can be done. It’s bringing in the right people and understanding the different pieces of the puzzle to make it run smoothly, and it’s also looking down the road and identifying the pitfalls. It’s a global way of thinking, you have to look at the big picture and not just one piece of it.
In live actions there’s a hierarchy and a lot of egos, and I wasn’t a fan of that. I like to treat everybody with respect, compassion, and empathy. — Kathleen Zuelch
Shaku: Do you consider fully animated projects easier than live actions?
Kathleen: I’ve worked on both, and the hard part about live actions is that you’re under the gun every day and time is money. In an animation, it’s a marathon, not a sprint, so even though you have daily quotas and milestones, it’s spread out in a much longer term. I’m working now with an amazing team that just jives together, everybody is working towards a common milestone and there’s not that many egos. Animation has more of a family vibe.
Santiago: When talking about Scooby Doo, you mentioned that you were in charge of a specific character and then another studio was in charge of something else. How do you set a foundation on how each studio is going to make the animation for it to look cohesive? If there’s a lot of animators working on something, how do they agree on doing something in the same style that looks like it’s from the same story?
Kathleen: When I worked on Curious George (2006), we had around seven different countries working on that movie. In animation, it’s kind of twofold. There’s character design and specifications that go out with each character that the animator would have to draw to or build to. When we worked on Scooby Doo, there were technical specifications on how the shots had to be created so that, when it was sent to each individual studio, they were able to ingest it, open it up and work on it. It’s all about technology talking with technology, so it works as long as they could export their work in a way that we could later work on it. When working on 3D animation, we sculpt the character in a software called Blender and then send it to the outsource studio who’s going to model it, so they have all the topology to make it look exactly the way we want it to look.
Working from home has opened up the world to us as far as talent goes, and for our particular show, that has been extremely beneficial. And it has also shown that this is a pipeline that can be efficiently done from home. Things take a little longer, but if you build that into your schedule, it can be done. — Kathleen Zuelch
Shaku: So, Kathy, your role is sort of herding cats to bring everyone together and make sure they’re on task. I know you’re working at Netflix now. How has that experience been?
Kathleen: I am! And they’re truly an amazing company. I’m producing an animated series, so I basically work with the studio to have the budget and then create the schedule. We start with a script, we do the designs, we go into storyboards and then animatics. We later do the voice overs and send everything to our vendor in France. I was up early this morning talking to France and Germany, and it’s all doable from home. That’s the beauty of animation, too. We started this whole show in January and two months later we were working from home. I would say that 80% of the crew that I’ve hired, I haven’t met in person yet. We work with Zoom and Google Hangouts. I make sure to stay on schedule and to reach our weekly milestones, but I let everyone do their job. I’m not a micromanager. I believe that’s what makes a good leader; when you let people go and you let them do what they’ve been hired to do.
Shaku: What advice would you give to anyone who’s interested in a career in animation?
Kathleen: First and foremost, research the job that you want. Figure out if you want to be in the production side or the creative side. Look on the internet for people who do these jobs and look for workshops in your local community college. Secondly, practice. Whatever that craft is, you have to practice it. Find companies or artists, draw things for them and immerse yourself in the industry. Get out there and do what you need to do to get that experience. And finally, learn about business and budgets. Take business classes and learn how to manage your finances because you might be negotiating your own terms and you want to understand what those terms are.
I’m not going to say “Don’t go to college,” but don’t have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on that type of education when you can do this all yourself. You can learn this if you find the right resources. — Kathleen Zuelch
Shaku: This has been wonderful, Kathy. You just made my day! I can’t wait for our workshop on December 5th so we can ask more questions.
While we typically think animators need to look at media and entertainment, we are seeing other industries increasingly integrate animation into their marketing and communication strategy to connect with their audience.
Kathleen’s next big project is Netflix’s new animated series, “My Dad The Bounty Hunter”
If you’re interested in Animation, make sure to sign up for our Animation Workshop with Kathleen Zuelch on December 5, 2020.
Activateen develops programs and content for teens and college students on career, tech and life skills. Visit our website and our social channels to access our programs and podcasts.
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