You might be surprised, talking to people in the animation industry, at how rare it is to encounter a still-kicking passion for cartoons. Bird Banfe is, to borrow Drake’s term, a real one. A recent SCAD Grad with mad Storyboarding skills, a deep investment in Scooby Doo and a penchant for pink, Bird’s enthusiasm for her craft emanates from her, an enlightened power not unlike those of the magical girls she grew up idolizing. Hearing Costume Quest’s Production Coordinator speak with conviction, knowledge and love for the shows that shaped her, and those she now helps shape, it’s abundantly clear that her passion is an unstoppable force, and when it comes to Bird’s dreams, my sense is that it’s never been a question of ‘whether’—simply one of ‘when’.
How did you break into the animation industry?
I got the chance to intern at Nickelodeon during my last year at SCAD, on Spongebob. Totally by accident!
Cool! How does one “accidentally” become a Nicktern?
The Dean of our school was PO’d because Nick representatives were visiting campus, but it was finals and nobody knew, so people weren’t showing up. My friend who worked in the animation building called me up and was like, “Hey, there are Nick people here doing general interviews. Come do one!”
So you bailed on whatever you were doing and went?
Yeah! I had like 30 minutes to throw on an outfit, a little makeup. I thought it went awful. Which is how you can expect an interview to go, with no preparation and barely any clue what it’s for. I didn’t hear anything for a couple months, so I figured, eh, good learning experience. Then on the last day of school, I got a call at like 9pm from an unknown number, and didn’t pick up. They left a voicemail – and it was my interviewer! She said she had something to tell me. I was like, “What?! It’s been two months! This could still be a thing?!”
And on the last day of school!
The last day of school – period. I was driving home to New Jersey the next day. No job lined up, flipping out. We got in touch, I waited a bit more, then I got a call from the Spongebob team. From a Skype interview with them, I got the job.
What were your responsibilities on Spongebob?
The same as a PA. Handling files for artists, organizing things, picking up tasks to help the production along. On Spongebob specifically, I did a lot of archiving backgrounds. The show has these beautiful, physical painted backgrounds. Handling those was probably the coolest part of the job. It got really weird sometimes. It’d be like, “Here is the interior of Patrick’s mouth and it’s really gross.” And I’d have to search around to label it, because they go into Patrick’s mouth in like 3 different episodes.
Wow, so you became the in-house expert on Patrick Star mouth shots.
It was a lot of fun! I learned a lot about how animation works. In art school, they don’t teach you anything about production. I didn’t know what to expect, or really what was expected of me! I’m good at organizing, I know Photoshop, and I work really hard. Those things carried me through the internship.
Backing way up – when did you know you wanted to work in animation?
A lot later than most people would say. I wasn’t drawing on the walls when I was two. I was drawing! But about as much as any kid would. I wanted to be a Veterinarian for most of my life. In sophomore year of high school though, I realized I have a lot of story ideas, and original characters – all the stuff that kids who really like anime would have. And I knew I’d go insane if I didn’t have a creative job. That decided it for me. Not, “I really want to do this!” more, “I can’t imagine a world where I’m satisfied with a different career”.
So as a junior and senior, you geared yourself toward animation?
Yeah – my Uncle was working in visual effects, mainly for superhero movies, so I knew someone ‘who does that’. I knew it was an option, not an intangible dream. I was in art classes throughout high school, because they were fun. But then I started going to an art studio after school to take animation, painting, and life drawing classes – the last of which was a big shock to me.
Oh, wow – you did all the right things!
When you know people who do it, they’ll tell you! “Go take your life drawing classes—there are no other kids in high school drawing naked people, you’ve gotta do it”. I got advice from a lot of people and followed it the best I could. I applied to a bunch of art schools for animation, though none in California. Not even CalArts – wasn’t even a blip on the radar (off my surprise) It was too far for my family! We picked Savannah, and I’m really glad. I had a great time at SCAD.
What did you like best about animation at SCAD?
It was a good fit for my personality. I was very much the go-getter in college – you know, a try-hard. And the school has a ton of great resources if you want to put in the work. SCAD is set up in a way where if you take advantage of everything that’s there, and are willing to work, you’ll prosper.
Going into animation, did you have a focus in mind?
I knew from my animation classes in high school on that I wanted to storyboard. I figured that out quickly, mostly because my teacher steered me toward it. He was like, “You’re good at this. You need to keep doing it.” I was like “Okay, will do.” (laughs) I think every role in animation is interesting, and I’m not too picky. I’m sorta glad somebody made that decision for me!
Are you now looking for avenues into storyboarding from production?
Definitely, but I’ve loved my time in production. I can’t see myself doing it forever, but, remember I said I was a big go-getter in college? I pushed myself really hard. I don’t want to say I burned out, but… I wanted time for myself. To learn how to be an adult, do things like cook for myself. Working in production has given me time to breathe and figure out what I value in the industry.
For example – I was accustomed to that air of, “Oh, you want to be on a show with clout, a show that people know”. I realized on Spongebob how little that really means. Tell anybody in the industry you’re on Spongebob and they’ll go, “That’s cool” and maybe mention their friend on the show. It wasn’t ‘celebrity status’, you know? Maybe to my Grandma, but not to people here. I’ve come to see it’s much more important to find a team that really works with you, and Costume Quest was that team for me.
Did being part of a great team help you shelve the art anxieties?
Oh yeah. When I first started in production, part of me was like, “You need to get into art, now. You need to be doing this, this, and THIS you should have done yesterday!” Tons of pressure. But on Costume Quest, I realized, “These are really great people. I like being around them, I like coming to work every day. I don’t want to leave.” So I decided I’d do everything I could with this show and this team. And that’s been very fulfilling. Not in a way that I expected—but in a way where I’ve learned about what I need in a workplace.
What’s your Big Goal in animation, if you have one now?
I always feel embarrassed saying this, because I’m just starting out. But I have lofty goals of being a Creator. I just want to make something that’s important to young girls growing up. Thinking about the things that were important to me as a little girl, I want to foster that.
What kinds of Things?
Magical girl shows (laughs). Sailor Moon, Tokyo Mew Mew, Cardcaptor Sakura. The very ridiculous, very pink, frilly stories, where the message is usually “Love is the most powerful thing in the universe”. But I think those stories are really important! Empathy is important to teach people, and cartoons do that, today more so than ever. Plus, kindness is actually what kids want: when we tested our show, we got feedback that the kids didn’t like it when our characters were mean. When I was growing up, there weren’t as many US shows that talked about interpersonal dynamics, or hit on the empathy theme: “people are different from you, that’s why they behave differently.” That’s probably why anime was so fundamental to me then. Spongebob wasn’t talking about things that felt important to me at that age, but Naruto was. I’ve always been attracted to stories about people learning what it means to grow up and make the world a better place, and where the characters are fun to watch doing that. Costume Quest definitely is that, to me. I just really like all the characters.
Who are your favorite of the characters? Which ones do you identify with?
I definitely identify with Wren the most—which is not something I should admit to. Very much the stubborn, rough-and-tumble personality. I look at her and go, “Yup, that’s me as a kid.” My favorite character is Rudy, which is really weird. It’s that crazy YouTube-popstar personality – the one associated with “YouTube celebrity” which I just find hilarious. And I love Reynold. I like the dynamic between him and Wren the best.
Do you have a favorite episode of Costume Quest?
My favorites are always the Reynold ones, because they have so much heart. You really feel for the kid. He goes through a lot, and he cares a lot; there’s just no way you can’t. I’ll say “Scout’s Honor”. Of all the episodes we’ve done, that’s probably the one that puts a smile on my face the most. The board artists and writers packed a lot of funny stuff in there, and I love singing along with it.
What have you liked best about working on Costume Quest?
The people, first of all. And it’s just a good show. I live for those moments where I can watch something then go to my friend later and be like, “Remember that part?” and crack up about it. Costume Quest is a lot of that for me.
Anything you’d like future fans of the show to know?
Keep an eye out for a little clown doll. We got a haunted doll last summer, off eBay. His name is Little Richie and he moves around the office. It’s so funny. It was actually Julian (interviewed here!) who decided to start hiding him in some of the backgrounds. So he’s now a fun little Easter egg – or a continuity error, depending on the sense of humor of whoever you ask. It’s been so fun having him crop up all over the office. In the freezer, behind a plant. Suspended from the ceiling.
What are your favorite cartoons?
I love love love loved Scooby Doo as a kid. I still do. I love those ridiculous straight-to-video WWE crossovers. They are my guilty pleasure in every sense of the word. So bonkers. There’s John Cena standing next to Daphne. It’s great. I was Scooby for Halloween for 5 years. I was obsessed, but not for any reason that I can parse today as an adult. I think I just like dogs.
I really liked Chowder. That show, especially that style, stood out to me when I was deciding to pursue animation. Same with Flapjack, a similar vein of style and humor. And with both, it’s these lead characters who are just sweet kids, nothing but nice.
Courage the Cowardly Dog I loved, even though I was the most easily scared kid in the world. You might think, “Oh, Scooby-Doo, Courage the Cowardly Dog, you must like scary things.” Not at all. I was deeply afraid. I just loved dogs that much.
PowerPuff Girls was huge for me. These days, I have to keep up with every episode drop of Steven Universe or risk getting it spoiled. Star Versus and OK KO! are great too, and Ducktales I really enjoy putting on.
What are you working on now? Do you feel pretty motivated to go do your personal work after the work-day?
My portfolio. And it’s hard. It’s really hard. It took time, but I’ve come to terms with that. You can’t burn yourself out. You have to put body first and figure out the balance you need in life, in order to be happy. I’m also the type that works a lot better in an office setting. So I’m prone to coming into the office at a weird time, if I actually want to get something done. At home, I never get anything done. Unless it’s Sunday. Sunday is my work day. Saturday’s my sleep day.
Bird is now Production Coordinator on Final Space. Follow her on Twitter. Costume Quest will premiere in 2019 on Amazon Prime Video – keep an eye out!
Thank you for the interview Bird! And for helping make Costume Quest the extraordinary show that it is <3
– Cooper ❀