I’ll begin with ‘Thank You’,
As I start my first day as an artist at Nickelodeon Animation as a Character Designer on Sanjay & Craig, I wanted to reach out to the people who made it all possible, and put into writing the painstaking long journey I took to get here, and how thankful I am you helped make it all possible.
I needed help finding out what I wanted to do with my life. My mother’s second cancer diagnosis my freshman year of college caused me to drop out of school, and I became incredibly depressed. I began taking antidepressants that made me feel dead inside and I slept close to 20 hours a day. My mom didn’t know what to do and called my dad (they divorced when I was 6) to come over and get me out of the house. He did exactly that, showing up in my room at 7 a.m., opening my shades, and pulling my blankets off of me with a very demanding, ”Get Up!”.
I did, and we did something we had done on almost all of his visits my whole life; we got coffee at a diner. We talked, he prodded for answers about my self-wallowing, and asked if I wanted to go see that new animated film that took place in the ocean. My dad loved the ocean, and made me a certified scuba diver when I was 12 years old. After breakfast at the diner we went and saw ‘Finding Nemo’.
'Finding Nemo' didn't change my life. It didn't make me want to go back to school and work in animation. It's a great movie though, don't get me wrong. As the movie ended and I walked up the ramp with indifference, a man brushed past me in a slight jog yelling back over his shoulder, “Come on slow poke!”, followed by the laughter of a little girl still behind me and the 'clink' and 'clank' of metal. I turned my head around to see the little girl, maybe 5 or 6 years old, laughing hysterically has she forced herself up the theatre ramp with only the use of her arms, which were fastened tightly into arm crutches. She had no use of her legs, yet here she was, having the time of her life and her father was giving her shit about it! I'll never know her name, but her face and that moment are burned into my brain. I think of that girl every day still, close to 8 years later.
I was embarrassed for myself and I felt incredibly foolish and selfish. I went home that day and flushed my pills down the toilet. I enrolled in school the next semester and switched my major to Visual Art & Digital Media. I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to make kids feel the way that little girl felt. I wanted to be a part of the momentary escape that kids take to get away from whatever their real life threw at them; a divorce, an abusive parent, a tragic death, or not being able to use their legs. Even if it was 11 minutes at a time. If my mom never called my dad that day, I would’ve never experienced that little girls strength, and I wouldn’t be here.
I moved to Burbank from Milwaukee, WI, to work in animation in 2009 two months after graduating with my degree with possibly the worst timing ever, in the thick of the great recession. I didn’t know anyone, and I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I still managed to get an interview at Nickelodeon for their internship program shortly after relocating and was not selected.
I spent the next year taking the bus an hour and a half each way to Pasadena to work a temp job as a personal assistant to a self-made millionaire. I saved my money, and bought a tablet. I stayed up each night until 3 a.m. drawing each night to get up at 7:30 and catch the bus to Pasadena so I could get to work by 9. Still, if I never had that horrible job, I wouldn’t be here.
In November of 2010 I volunteered at the CTN Animation Expo where I ran into a Nickelodeon Intern who I’d never met (Ashley Laidlaw) who recommended I give the internship process another shot. Literally two days later, Ashley Morley was asking me if I would be okay with interning on Spongebob. I did my best to act ‘cool’ about it, but after hanging up the phone I ran around my apartment screaming and jumped on my couch like a little kid, alone, because I was the only one home. If I never ran into Ashley at CTN, I wouldn’t be here.
I interviewed for my internship solely with Phil Harris, SpongeBob’s Production Coordinator. He was literally the only person on the show who had met me and I got the internship completely by his recommendation. If Phil had not selected me, I wouldn’t be here.
I treated my internship like I was hired already. I found the balance between being serious about my opportunity, and being likeable, and I left my impression on the crew as being a reliable, competent intern who was fun to have around. To anyone with an internship anywhere doing anything, this is how you get noticed and hopefully hired.
Unfortunately for me, that wasn’t enough, as animations opportunities are based mostly on timing, who you know, and luck. Most of the people who could recommend me professionally were on a Spongebob crew that never had openings. I was recommended to interview for other shows with people I didn’t know well and I found myself outside of the studio gates, looking in, as my internship ended. It would be another year before I heard from Nickelodeon again.
It would be this period of time that would challenge me the most. In 2011, both of my parents were diagnosed with terminal Illnesses. It was the closest I came to moving back home, but my mother wouldn’t allow me to give up on my dream, and so I stayed in Burbank. If it weren’t for my mom’s dreams for her son, I wouldn’t be here.
In the meantime I landed a few measly freelance gigs and even scheduled a meeting with Frederators’ own Fred Seibert & Eric Homan, to get their advice on getting back into the industry. They gave me more of their time than I deserved. As our conversation wrapped up Fred asked, “How long have you been out here Steve?”. I replied dejectedly, “3 years”. What Fred said in response re-filled a dwindling ambition tank… “Oh my God, you’re fine!” If it weren’t for Fred’s words, I wouldn’t be here.
My father died July 27, 2012. Around that same time I was asked to test for an art job on Nickelodeon’s new show, Sanjay & Craig. I was too afraid that the people in charge of hiring artists (later found out to be Thurop Van Orman & Jay Howell) wouldn’t like my work, so I asked to be considered for a Production Assistant job. All I wanted was to be guaranteed a spot on the show. I wanted to do art, but my foremost goal was just being a part of it, still thinking of that little girl in the movie theatre.
A month to-the-day after my father passed, August 27, 2012, I showed up at Nickelodeon Animation Studios to work on Sanjay & Craig as a Production Assistant. I was hired by former Spongebob Production Manager Alvaro Zelaya and the show’s Line Producer Monique Beatty, whom I had met with while I was an intern. They knew me, they believed in me, and they trusted me to be everything I was when I was an intern and I hope I was.
This past year working on Sanjay & Craig has literally been a dream come true. In my eyes, I have already accomplished what I came out here to do. I am a part of kids everyday lives. They get to come home from school and turn on our show and tune out anything bad that’s going on in the real world. I am a part of the process that puts a smile on their faces.
As for the show itself. I have unparalleled access to every facet of the show. The goofy voices I did while playing with my 10 nieces and nephews back home has made me the go-to scratch dialogue crew member. I even do rough passes of song compositions in the animatic builds. I am welcome in the records and have input on ways to make things funnier. All of these things are unheard of for any other shows PA’s. Jay Howell, Jim Dirschberger, Andreas Trolf, Chris Viscardi, Will McRobb, Thurop Van Orman, & Ryan Crego have all embraced me with open arms and allowed my peanut gallery input to make for fun moments in the show, as little as they may be. If it weren’t for their support and friendship, I obviously wouldn’t be taking this next step.
In my personal life, I have a girlfriend who has been with me through it all… literally all of it. She told me I was worth it when I felt I wasn’t, and reminds me of where I came from when I need perspective. She stayed with me when things were bad, and I’m so happy to experience this success with her because we did it together. If it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t be here.
Lastly, my mother is in remission and has got to experience all of my success with me. I hope she’s around for a very long time, but she got to see my dream come true, and I’m so thankful for that.
Thank you so much to everyone who has been a part of my journey. Everyone mentioned in this article. I’m going to throw out a list of names specifically responsible for me being here and the list is significant: Thurop Van Orman, Phil Harris, Mark Taylor, Peter Bennett, Josilin Torrano, Sherm Cohen, Vincent Waller, Joel Fajnor, Ashley Morely, Ashley Laidlaw, Monique Beatty, Alvaro Zelaya, Jim Dirschberger, Jim Mortensen, Steven Umbleby, Sean Charmatz, Lisa Woods, Chris Viscardi, Will McRobb, Andreas Trolf, Ryan Crego, Sheri Wheeler, George Goodchild, Fred Seibert, Eric Homan, Dina Buteyn, Jennie Hammond, Andy Goodman, all of my friends back home, my girlfriend Tammy’s entire family, & my entire family back home. I miss you, I love you, and we did it!
Lastly, just one more personal ‘Thank You’ to Jay Howell. A great boss who believes in me so much that I’m walking into this job with absolutely no worries whatsoever. Thank you for your support, your trust, and your collaborative spirit. You should have an ego the size of the moon and yet you are still so damn hungry to learn things. Thank you so much man.
A final thanks to anyone who made it through this self promoting sob-fest. I will try my best to keep making kids laugh. It’s all I ever wanted to do.
I have won the lottery.
~Steven Russell Wells