Traditional TV may be dying, but YouTube and Netflix provide content makers a platform to reach a wide audience without a large budget. American TV animation, which was once dwindling, is now booming with new shows such as Disney’s Ducktales, Star vs. the Forces of Evil, Nick’s The Loud House, Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe, and Dreamworks’ Voltron. APA speaks with two Asian American animation professionals, Steve Ahn and Eugene Lee, about what it is like to work in the animation industry and Steve’s recent decision to leave Dreamworks to create his own series, Blossom Detective Holmes.
Steve has worked on well-known shows such as Dreamworks’ Voltron: Legendary Defender, Nick’s Legend of Korra, and Fox’s The Cleveland Show. Eugene Lee has worked as a storyboard artist for Cartoon Network’s Ben 10, Nick’s Legend of Korra, and works currently as a director on Dreamwork’s Voltron: Legendary Defender.
APA: Where do you draw inspiration for your art and your latest work?
Steve: I draw inspiration from my childhood. I grew up in South Korea where I watched a lot of Japanese anime in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I usually like older content and a lot of inspiration comes from missing Korea and missing those days. It makes me sentimental.
APA: I’d like to congratulate you on the announcement of your new project, Blossom Detective Holmes. What platform will that be released on?
Steve: Basically, I’m an outlaw in the Western world where no one is backing me. I’m on a journey. It’ll be on Kickstarter, but right now I’m funding myself. Whether it does well or not, I’m thinking it will still be on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, etc. Any social platform that I can promote my work. There are no rules and I’ll just keep moving on.
APA: How big is the team?
Steve: It’s pretty much a one-man team. I do most of the stuff. In animation, there are areas that you need someone else like designers, board artists, and background painters. I formed a team about 10 friends and artists. It was really just me as the animator. I have six painters, one character designer, etc. who happened to work on Voltron.
Eugene: You freelanced them.
Steve: Yep. Six years ago, I met an artist who worked on Makoto Shinkai’s film. I got her contact information to reach out to her someday. That happened to be years later. It’s a small team but it’s a strong group of talented people.
Eugene: You were telling me earlier that you were learning a lot.
Steve: It’s a lot of work.
Eugene: Steve’s crazy. [laughs]
APA: It is very difficult to run all of that by yourself. Can you tell us a little bit about the characters, Skylar and Jamie?
Steve: The genre of the series is mystery/suspense, which is an unfamiliar genre in the American animation industry. In contrast to the heavy genre, I made both of them bright. I have two daughters, who inspired me to create these characters. As a fan, I wanted to reference what I grew up with in the 80s and 90s. They’re Holmes and Watson imagined as teenage girls. I made them, so my daughters would have more courage to venture out. The story is about girls who have the courage to go into murder scenes and solve crime.
America’s Animation Industry
APA: How did you both get started in the animation industry?
Steve: I went to film school at CalArts in Valencia. The industry wasn’t great in terms of job prospects. I started working at small internet companies that made flash animations back then. Gradually, I kept moving on and expanding my network.
Eugene: One of my family friends knew a friend at Cartoon Network, and it was through her that I got the internship in the first place. I attended Pasadena Art Center of Design, and while I was working on some storyboard homework for school and one of the directors for Ben 10, Dan Riba, saw it and thought they looked good. He mentioned they were looking for new blood in the industry and asked if I wanted to do some freelance work for them. I took it and that led to a fulltime job and so on and so forth.
APA: As a kid, did you ever imagine that you’d be the director for Voltron and working on other shows such as Legend of Korra?
Eugene: No, my brother once told me that while we were watching a show on Cartoon Network, I had told him I wanted to work there. Incidentally, my first job was at Cartoon Network. I didn’t think I’d ever be here and I didn’t think I’d ever get into art. My parents come from an Asian American background and they wanted me to be in a lucrative profession such as being a doctor or a lawyer. However, my dad let me go into art; I built a road for myself and here I am now. I was very lucky to have met great people who got me where I am.
APA: Eugene, since you started out freelancing, how’s that different from being a storyboard artist and a director?
Eugene: Freelancing was different from the work you’d get as a board artist. A board artist would get a whole act to board. There’s three acts in one script, so you’d handle maybe 8-9 pages. As a freelancer, it’s around 4-5 pages. It’s a nice gradual foot in the door. As for a director, it’s different. You’re not boarding as much and you’re managing people and the process since you’re in charge of an entire episode. But it’s just as important.
APA: What advice would you give to those who are starting out in their career or still in school?
Steve: Give up. [laughs]
Eugene: Honestly, don’t be discouraged and never give up. I feel like I was never the best artist among my friends. A lot of them fell out of it, but I kept going. I think because I was passionate about what I did, I’m where I am today.
Steve: The struggle I had when I was in school and in my 20s, the pressure from the mainstream industry got to me. Back then anime wasn’t very popular, so I tried to draw like Pixar and make my art look like others. It wasn’t my intention; I felt like I had to do it. What I’d like to say to younger students is follow your creativity. If that’s what drives you, don’t get discouraged by what others are doing. Keep moving on with what you love to create.