What I Learned From Working on Blue’s Clues • Part II

Family portrait. I’m hiding behind the Thinking Chair.

What I Learned From Working on Blue’s Clues • Part II

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far, away… I worked on a little TV show called Blue’s Clues. If you’re just learning this now, go back and Read Part I: Before Blue’s Clues.

Part II: I Got the Job!

Getting in: The Dark Horse

Previously on WILFWOBC, we learned that I desperately wanted a career in animation, yet somehow managed to find myself in the U.S. Air Force.

It was the sort of plan that friends and family members did not exactly understand or support. Sometimes even I couldn’t see where things were headed, exactly. I would be loading cargo onto a C-5 Galaxy somewhere in the world and suddenly take stock in my situation. On one hand I would be in awe of where I was and what I was doing and on the other hand be wondering how the hell this made any sense for my future in animation.

I just had to hang in there and trust that I had known what I was doing when I signed up.

As it turned out, four years went by pretty fast. Somewhere in between assignments, I even managed to get married. Jenni and I eloped in Las Vegas and spent our first two years of marriage living in a cozy German apartment. I was only 22 years old, and as much as I loved our time in Germany, I was getting itchy to continue my noble quest to become an animator.

In September of 1994, I was honorably discharged and we moved to Chicago where I had started my education in art. I was ready to get back to school and my G.I. Bill was burning a hole in my pocket. It was an exciting time. That is, until I discovered that my old college didn’t accept the G.I. Bill.

If you’re thinking that I might have wanted to check into that before joining up four years previously, you’re correct. What I lacked in checking details, I made up for with blind enthusiasm. I just started making art and tried to think of a new plan.

Spoiler: I never did make it back to school and to this day I still don’t have any kind of degree. When a prospective employer asked, I would deflect the conversation and talk about my experience in the military. It worked many times over the years.

Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans

John Lennon

Learning about babies and animation at the same time

Over the next five years, Jenni and I had moved back to Phoenix, she birthed two beautiful babies, and I worked in several jobs that had very little to do with animation. How’s that plan coming along? I would ask myself almost daily. I was happy in my personal life, yet massively frustrated in my career movement.

We lived in a tiny apartment, had almost no money to our names, and I had no idea what I was doing. I did know that I wanted to make animated films. One day, I realized that I could still do that without getting hired somewhere. I studied books, analyzed films and learned the mechanics of 2D animation.

This was the 90s, so there were no affordable animation programs for the home computer. But I soon realized that making films in the computer was the way to go. First I would animate frame-by-frame using the old school method of pencil and light table. Then I devised a system using Corel PhotoPaint where I would scan my drawings and assemble them into GIFs or AVI files. It was crude, but it did the job.

Looking back later, I would realize that I didn’t achieve the things I wanted in spite of having a family and very little money. I achieved them because of those things. Nothing motivated me more than trying to show my kids what was possible, and no one encouraged me more than my wife. I was extremely fortunate.

I entered my first film in a NYC animation festival and waited. At the same time, I was applying to studios like crazy. I would send out portfolios, some of them several times to the same person, every three months. I agonized over them. Sometimes I never heard back. Sometimes I got encouraging notes from HR or directors. A few times I got back tests to do storyboards. I was winging the whole thing, but at least I was moving forward.

I also spent a lot of time in the forums at a site called Animation World Network. In the late ’90s, it was my social media. I talked to other animators, both fledgling and pro. I got feedback, advice, and even managed to give some advice and how-to info. It was a hugely valuable resource and, as we’ll see later, was the linchpin in getting a job.

Okay, now we talk about Blue’s Clues.

In late 1998, I saw an ad for a little show on Nickelodeon called Blue’s Clues. They were looking for a storyboard artist and I seemed to fit the qualifications (except for that whole degree thing, but, well, you know). I had never heard of the show (we couldn’t afford cable), so we got some videos of the first season. After we started watching, the first thing Jenni said was, “That’s like your art!” She was right. Aside from the animated characters, there was a scene where Steve was sitting in his Thinking Chair with his Handy Dandy Notebook open, and images were floating above his head. It was almost as if I had made the little drawings myself, in my own style. One of my first film experiments had been a combination of live action (my son) and animation. The show was everything I wanted to work on. Great art, fun music, and a show for kids that I could get behind wholeheartedly.

I immediately sent in my portfolio and resume and sat in my own Thinking Chair to wait.

It didn’t take long for a test to arrive in the mail. Nancy, the lead storyboard artist who was doing the hiring, wanted me to get it back to her as soon as possible because the producers needed to make a decision. It suddenly occurred to me that the studio was in New York City. I told Jenni that maybe there was no point in doing a test for a position that was all the way across the country. The other tests I was doing were for jobs in Los Angeles, which seemed more reasonable. I was already getting discouraged and I had barely cracked open the test. She cut off that line of thinking right away and convinced me that I needed to do the test anyway.

Jenni took the kids out so I could focus, and I dove into the script.

It all happened so fast.

After I mailed in my storyboard test, it was hard to focus on anything else. I went back to work at the sign shop where I had managed to talk my way into a graphic design job. It was good to be getting paid for creating art, and at least I was in the neighborhood of where I wanted to be. I still had my eye on animation.

A week later, Nancy emailed. She wanted to set up a phone interview with her and one of the producers. Even though I wouldn’t be seen and only heard (thankfully this was pre-Zoom era), I was more nervous than I had been since the 8th grade talent show. Nancy and Wendy were both friendly and it felt more like chatting than a formal interview. Then the $600,000,000 question came up: Will you be able to relocate quickly if offered the position?

Without hesitating, I said that of course, it would be no problem. In reality, I had no way of knowing what the hell I was doing or how it was going to work. I wanted the job so bad, I decided to leap and hope the net would appear.

The next day at work, I got a call from Nancy. She said that I had been the “dark horse,” because the other candidates already lived in NYC. She had been pulling for me, because we had chatted in the AWN forums and she remembered my film. Somehow the producer also liked what I had to say on the phone. Then she offered me the job, and the salary was double what I was making at the sign shop. After I accepted and hung up, it took all my strength to get up and tell my boss that I to run a quick errand. I got in my car, drove around the corner, and screamed.

I gave my notice at work. At the time, my friend was looking for a job and he was able to fill my spot quickly. After that, everything seemed to happen in a blur. Jenni and I had to figure out how we were going to make a move from Phoenix to NYC with two little kids. It was going to be a challenge, but we were too excited to worry about the exact how of things. Like Steve sings:

You know what to do! Sit down in our Thinking Chair And think, think, think! ‘Cause when we use our minds, And take a step at a time, We can do anything…

It happened. I was in. After I arrived in NYC, everything changed. Not only the new job and a career in animation, but the perspective I gained from experiences working with some of the most talented artists, actors, musicians and writers in the world. From the moment I walked in the door, I knew it was going to be an amazing time.

Ready for Part III? Let’s go! Read Part III


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