10 Questions With JJ Conway

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JJ Conway’s career in animation has brought him work in varied projects all the way from Transformers Prime to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The world of animation is exciting and awesome and I’m glad he had some time to answer some questions for me.

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For laymen (like me) who aren’t super familiar with how animation actually comes to life, and all the steps involved, what is your role in the production as a storyboard revisionist?

If you’re unfamiliar with storyboards, imagine a comic that visualizes every shot of the TV show and every pose of acting. We lock the whole episode down like this before animation begins. The animators then use the storyboards as a very specific guide for what they animate.

The storyboarding process starts when the director breaks down the script and hands it to the board artists. They have 4-6 weeks to each board about 1/3 of the episode. The revisionists come in once the boards are turned in.

The revisionist will make changes to the storyboard based on director and producer notes. That covers everything from changing the tone of a scene, adding jokes, or just trimming things so an episode comes in at 23 minutes. We basically fine-tune the episode so it’s tight and hits all the emotional tones the producers need.

The revisionist job is an entry-level position in TV animation that teaches the ropes of storyboarding. You learn by working with director, seeing how a scene should be constructed and how to nail a character performance. The goal is to eventually prove you’re ready to storyboard, and as of the end of September I’ve been promoted out of revisions and into storyboarding!

Outside of your own work, what’s your favorite iteration of the Ninja Turtles? Comics, the TV show or the live action movies?

Screw it, the current Nick show is my favorite. I pitch it as the show you remember the 1980’s show being. It has the same kind of heart, but the story, action, and comedy are legitimately good. I was already a fan when I started working on it, so it’s kind of a dream job.

If I had to choose a different favorite, it would probably be the 1990 movie. It’s from a really special time where kid’s movies were allowed to be dark and a little serious. It used that “darkness” to give weight to the situations and to develop the characters. It wasn’t gratuitous, it served the story. It’s really fantastic, and it adapts the Mirage comics really well.

Was there a moment for you, watching something, where you decided, “This is what I want to do, this is what I want to be a part of”?

The moment I realized that I wanted to work in animation was while watching a making-of special for Phantom Menace. I’d always wanted to be an artist when I grew up, but that was the moment I realized I could be an animator. I became pretty focused on pursuing animation and it led me to Idyllwild Arts in summer of ’00, where I met a young man who could brush his teeth with his feet.

[editor’s note: I remember doing this, but can’t remember why]

Anyway, I actively pursued animation for the next 7 or 8 years until I worked on Foodfight. It was at that point that I realized being an animator wasn’t for me. I’d taken a great storyboarding class the semester before, and decided that was where I really wanted to be. 7 years later, here I am!

Who are some of your heroes in the animation world?

It’s kind of cheesy and embarrassing, but my friends in animation are some of the most inspiring and motivating people I know.

Owen Sullivan was a board artist on Young Justice and Legend of Korra. I’ve never seen someone push themselves as an artist as hard as he has, and it’s paid off. His drawing skills are off the charts and his storyboards are incredible.

Another huge inspiration is Jake Castorena. He’s another guy whose drawing skills are like, 10 years ahead of mine. He was a board artist on Green Lantern the Animated Series, and most of my favorite sequences were boarded by him. He can do thrilling action, and he can do heart-wrenching emotion.

Shaunt Nigoghossian was a director on Transformers: Prime and he pushed for them to take a chance on me, some random PA from Warners Bros with a mediocre portfolio. He went out of his way to teach and guide me as an artist. If that wasn’t enough, once TFPrime was finished he set me up with the lunch meeting that landed me on Ninja Turtles.

I know it’s cheesy, but these guys have all helped shape the kind of professional I try to be.

Where do you stand on the CGI/cell animation debate? Do you prefer one over the other or do you think they both have their charms and this town’s big enough for both of ‘em?

There’s a lot of hostility and history behind that debate, but today I definitely think there’s room for both. I think it’s hard to argue that How to Train Your Dragon would be better as 2d movie, that the Little Mermaid would be better in 3d, or that Nightmare Before Christmas would be better in 2d or 3d; the medium is secondary to the story it’s servicing.

I personally prefer working on 3d shows, but that’s because to me the pros outweigh the cons. In my experience the animators put a lot more subtlety and nuance in the acting, and good art-direction in a 3d show is just breathtaking. Look at the Clone Wars episodes Darkness on Umbara or Shades of Reason for what great 3d TV animation can look like.

And don’t think I’m belittling 2d shows. Legend of Korra and Motor City look incredible, but I feel like they’re more the exception than the rule. The animation in most episodes of Young Justice was perfectly acceptable, but only a handful really impressed me (episodes 8, 10, and 32 come to mind). On the other hand, I’m constantly blown away by how the animators on TMNT plus the acting we do in the storyboards.

Again, there are definite cons to 3d. Every character, prop, and location has to be built, textured, and rigged, which is very expensive. Young Justice had over 200 characters in its 2 seasons while Transformers: Prime probably had 3-4 dozen in its 3 seasons. As a result, it’s hard to get a 3d show that feels as big or as full as a 2d show.

But like I said, that’s all secondary because the story comes first. I feel pretentious saying it, but it’s true. The best animation won’t save a bad story (Shark Tale), and the worst animation won’t tank a great one (South Park).

It’s maddening and impossible to answer, but if you had to say an animated film was your “favorite” what would it be?

You know that’s impossible to answer! Right now Paranorman is probably leading the pack for a whole lot of reasons. It’s one of the darkest kid’s movies to come out in a long time, but I think it also has a really powerful message to and for kids. The twist half way through, when they reveal the back story of the evil witch, smacked me in the face the first time I saw it. It was so powerful, and it leads to one of my favorite third acts in a movie, live action or animated. It also has some bitchin design work, and the use of color is really exceptional.

Are you allowed to tell me about your work on the movie Foodfight? That’s a story I’d love to hear if you’ve got any.

Foodfight! was my first real job in animation. I didn’t work for Threshold directly, rather a company they had contracted to clean up motion capture data. It’s a job that has to be done in any motion capture project because the process is imperfect. Animators will go in and remove jitters, smooth out animation, and basically finesse the mo-cap to make it watchable. That’s not what was special about this particular job.

What made Foodfight! special is that they’d done the motion capture so cheaply and so poorly that we basically had to re-animate most of the scenes. It was kind of insane. This poor guy I worked with had to clean up a scene with a penguin walking up stairs that were physically bigger than his legs. Like, imagine trying to walk up stairs that had 4ft high steps, but you couldn’t climb up or anything. The guy and our animation director would come up with solutions, but the film’s director would just yell stuff like “No, he’s supposed to be WALKING!” It was stuff like that constantly.

Another special thing is that they hired people with no experience so that they could pay them less than a professional would ask. That’s what one of the people with experience told me, anyway. He said we were making about1/4 what we should be getting paid. I didn’t mind though, it was still a pretty juicy paycheck for a 21 year old. Plus, I had a blast! One of my friends actually made a sick connection that got him a job working on Avatar, which led to him going to WETA to work on Tintin, then the Hobbit films.

But yeah, make no mistake. We knew it was a steamer when we made it. We had a screening of the film with untouched mo-cap during my first week or so on the job and everyone’s jaw was just on the floor while we were watching it. We couldn’t believe how crass and stupid it was.

What cartoons, shows or animated films do you think are just criminally underrated and deserve more attention?

I think the best and most underrated cartoon I’ve ever seen is Sym-Bionic Titan. It’s from Genndy Tartakovsky, the guy who created Dexter’s Lab and Samurai Jack. Think Power Rangers if John Hughes wrote/directed it. I love it for so many reasons.
I feel that it’s a lot more honest than most kid’s shows can be. It wasn’t the kid-friendly, sanitized take on high school that you might expect in a cartoon. I’ve also never seen a show that’s so indulgent with allowing an emotion to play out. There are literally episodes where the big action sequence is 45 seconds long because they burned the rest of the run time showing two characters fall in love for the first time. It only ran for twenty episodes, but it’s right at the top of my favorite cartoons ever made.

I don’t want to say one of the best, but one of my personal favorite cartoons of all time is Bucky O’Hare and the Toad Wars. The show is basically about Bucky O’Hare and his crew stopping the evil Toad Empire from conquering all of the mammal systems in the universe. I loved it as a kid because it’s a fusion of Star Wars and Ninja Turtles, but as an adult there are some really cool things going on beneath the low budget and cheesy dialog.

This was a show about a war, and the main character spends the series trying to liberate his occupied homeworld. It’s also got great world-building, showing us different planets and unique cultures, each with a different view of their role in the war. But as an adult, I think the most interesting thing is the treatment of women.

Like, even by today’s standards it’s progressive. Bucky’s first mate is Jenny, and she is always portrayed as his equal. The gunner is a former pirate from a clan led by a woman. Mimi LeFleur is a prisoner who leads a slave rebellion, and is later awarded command of a ship. In 13 episodes it has more interesting and empowering women than a lot of modern shows that I could call out (but wont).

If it was your job to assemble a “dream team” cast and crew to make an animated movie, who would you choose to write, direct and comprise the voice cast?

Well, you just heard me go off about how much I love Bucky O’Hare, so if I got to assemble a dream team I’d waste that talent on a CG reboot of that.

I don’t want to go off gushing about my friends again, but I would definitely staff up with a lot of people I know when it comes to storyboards and directing. Like, 90% of the board/directing team would be my friends, cause they’re really incredible artists.

As for people I don’t know, I’d love to work with Joaquim Dos Santos. I’ve admired his work as a board artist (Justice League) and director (Avatar the Last Airbender) for years, and I only hear great things about working with him as a producer (The Legend of Korra).

Rango probably has my favorite character designs in ANY film, so I’d love to work with their designer Jim Byrkit. Seriously, that movie has some of the coolest designs I’ve ever seen. They’re so gross and dirty in the most amazing way.

Michael Giacchino would be my first choice for music. The Speed Racer soundtrack is incredible, and he’s got this bitchin’ track from the end credits of Star Trek that fuses in the old theme.

I’d love to work with either Genndy Tartakovsky (Syn-Bionic Titan) or Dave Filoni (The Clone Wars) as producers. Both have knocked my socks off as epic, heavy storytellers. I’d also like to work with our TMNT producers Ciro Nieli and Brandom Aumon. They inject a really awesome balance of drama and comedy into our show, while being able to jump around and experiment with different genres.

Which Turtle are you?

I’ve always loved Raph, but I’m probably Mikey. No, I’m definitely Mikey.

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