Michelle Bryan is a director and animation juggernaut who’s lent her talents to many favorite cartoons of our time: from The Fairly OddParents to Spongebob Squarepants; Danny Phantom to Family Guy. She recently directed “The Bagheads” for Go! Cartoons, but she’s been part of Frederator since before it was officially Frederator, coming onto the production of Oh Yeah! Cartoons (the shorts incubator that generated FoP, Chalkzone and My Life as a Teenage Robot) as an assistant—before promptly becoming the first female creator of a Frederator short, “Skippy Spankerton”. Michelle is an animation hero and a role model for anyone starting out in this industry, and she happens to be among the kindest people I’ve met in it. We sat down to discuss the original Spongebob cosplay, the benefits of more women in animation, and pranking Butch Hartman.
So you currently do animation directing on DWATV’s Trolls – what does that entail?
I’m directing the timing: so how many frames per second we want for an action. It’s great because it’s a lot about directing the acting. Like deciding whether a character is waving really excitedly, or just naturally. And I keep track of things like hair overlap and background blur in a pan. All the minute, fuzzy stuff. I like dealing in the details.
Did you always want to go into animation – what did you want to be as a kid?
I didn’t have a clue about animation. I wanted to work in a candy shop when I grew up. But I studied Fine Arts – 3D design and sculpture was my focus – at Loyola Marymount University and loved that. I ended up working for my neighbor Dan Kuenster, who was a Bluth animator and very busy with his own company. He needed help and brought me on as his assistant, and I just fell in love with animation.
Do you still make sculptures?
I make dinner into sculptures sometimes! These days I’m mostly working and doing Mom stuff. I’m happy with cooking, gardening and little doodles on homework as my creative outlets for now. I do like to have a lot of little personal projects going, fun things to just keep my brain active. Right now when I find a little time at night, I’m picking away at a children’s book about a monkey named Peanut Butter and his sibling rivalry (art by Eric Bryan, above).
Aww, cute! And you met Frederator before it even existed, right?
A friend of mine introduced me to Debby Hindman, the line producer on Oh Yeah! Cartoons, and I came on as a production assistant. Immediately I started pitching Fred. I pitched him – oh my God, so many times. I must have pitched him once a week. And he was so sweet, he’d listen every time and send me back with notes. I’d make changes and be back the next week. I remember one time I was pitching him and he was rolling up a dollar bill. I was like, “He’s gonna give me a dollar and tell me to get out”.
Haha! But persistence paid off right, because you created an Oh Yeah! cartoon, “Skippy Spankerton”? What was it about, and how was being a creator?
Yes! Finally – finally! – he really liked it. I’d still love to do more with the idea: it’s about a little girl who wants to be a director and makes a film with her stuffed animals. It was so fun. There was an amazing safety net with all the talented people around me. I felt fearless – which was good, because it was intimidating to make something that would air on Nickelodeon! And getting to work on my own story was a dream come true. It felt unreal to have that as my job. It was a very empowering experience, that just made me want to keep going, keep creating.
(“Skippy Spankerton” (1999) – give this a watch, it’s awesome!)
Working on Oh Yeah! Cartoons – only the 2nd short cartoon incubator ever – was there a sense that what you guys were doing was game-changing?
You know, I was having so much fun, I didn’t put my head up to realize it. There were so many creators working at one time, and everybody borrowed and shared with one another. It was really collaborative. I never wanted to go home at night. And being in production, I got to work with all of the creators and see how everyone’s style and approach was different. I appreciated that so much.
And then you went to work on season 1 of The Fairly OddParents – how was that?
A laugh all day! Fairly OddParents is just comedy, it’s such a laugh. Season one in production, we were laying the groundwork for future episodes, organizing assets… it was the beginning. By the time the season was over, I was so tired. And then they asked me to work on Spongebob, because they weren’t sure if they were going to pick up FOP again, and I was so mad: “I don’t want to work on Spongebob, I’m so mad at you guys!” But then I loved working on Spongebob too. It was such a different group of creative people.
You came onto Spongebob right before it blew up in popularity – did you see it coming?
Definitely not! I remember someone brought in a picture they’d seen online of a kid who’d made a Spongebob costume for Halloween. We were all like “Oh, that’s cool!” This was at the beginning of season 3, before there was any merchandise made for the show. It’s funny because working on the show, I didn’t think much about other people watching it. On Fairly OddParents too: it felt like we were making it for ourselves, to make each other laugh.
How was working with creators like Butch Hartman and Stephen Hillenburg?
Butch would love to do it all himself if he could! He likes to oversee every detail. He empowers you to make your own decisions, but gives you a safety net, in that he’ll look over everything – so you know it’s going to be okay, no matter what. I didn’t ever direct on Spongebob, I was a PA. But I remember Steve being there late every night, going over all the storyboards, making sure Spongebob was cute in every panel. So in that same way: if you have your own show, I think you want to have your hands on every step in the process.
What’s been most rewarding about working in animation, for you?
The comedy, and laughing every day as I work. And it’s something I can share with my kids! Both of my daughters learned how to read through storyboards. I would bring them home and go through them at night, and they’d follow along with me. I worked on Family Guy for a while… THAT I didn’t bring home as much!
Oh man, what was it like working on Family Guy? That must have been fun.
It was so much fun. I’m very proud of working on that show. When I first got there, we were doing the Star Wars specials. Seth (MacFarlane, creator) wanted some sequences to look exactly like in the films, so I was sitting there watching Star Wars frame by frame. Again, one of those things where I was like, “Pinch me, is this actually my job!?” I would have done that anyway!
Which of your experiences do you think best prepared you to be a director?
All of them, really. But being in production and learning the systems from beginning to end is very valuable. I felt more comfortable as a director, knowing how every stage in the process goes, what everyone’s role is, what the overseas studio needs. And being an animation director is great preparation, because you’re the final eyes on the project. Any mistakes, you have to catch.
Who have been your mentors?
Butch Hartman has always been a patient teacher and a super mentor. Even now, I can call him up – I did during “Bagheads” – and say, “What are your thoughts on post? What’s your philosophy on mixes?” He’s been such a great friend, I’m grateful. And speaking of directing preparation: on Fairly OddParents, he let me pop in on everything I wanted to. Recording sessions, editing. His advice on sound mixing for “Bagheads” was “Always make the joke come first.” You never want to lose the joke, the dialogue, in the rest of the sound design.
How was the experience of directing “The Bagheads”?
So fun. It was great to work with David (Beitzel, creator) – he’s very easygoing. I enjoyed working with his ideas and all of the awesome talent Frederator was able to attach. We had some awesome actresses, they were so funny. If you’re laughing at a record, that’s a very good sign.
What are your favorite cartoons?
Oh gosh. I like Mighty Mouse. Just recently I worked on some Warner Bros shorts, Bugs Bunny, and I remembered how much I love Looney Tunes. There’s just something about those characters, they’re so cynical. They can be such jerks. And I just love how they move and jump and stretch, it’s so funny to me. Growing up I loved He-Man and She-Ra; I never missed an episode. I know people with hoity toity tastes might look down on those, but I stand by them. I still love Spongebob. And for young kids today, I really like Storybots – I just watched a whole season. And I also just saw My Life as a Zucchini; that was really sweet.
What are some things you’ve seen change in animation since you started?
Recently I was on Nickelodeon’s campus, and for the first time ever I waited in a line in the ladies room! When I started there, I sometimes felt like the only person using the ladies room. There were so few of us, I would never see anyone else in there—‘ladies room chats’ never happened! And now there are all these great women creating shows and directing, writing. I think it’s so important to have female writers on shows; it brings better balance to them. It feels like shows today are made for both boys and girls to laugh at. There isn’t so much of a binary of “boy’s show” and “girl’s show,” and instead they’re for everyone to enjoy.
What is your favorite Frederator memory, if you have one?
Oh, I have a lot. But here’s one: during Oh Yeah! Cartoons we did a Christmas secret Santa exchange. Butch Hartman’s secret Santa gift were these putrid car air freshener trees. The next day, Vincent Waller hung hundreds of them in Butch’s office, all over the place. They stunk so incredibly bad. It was fair punishment—Butch dealt ‘em, so he had to smell ‘em. There were always something random and prankey going on with that show.
That’s awesome. What advice do you have for people who want a career like yours?
Have fun and say yes! I remember on Oh Yeah! they asked me if I could do some animation checking, knowing I’d done it before, and I was like, “Of course I can!” Then I got it and realized: “Oh no… I don’t know what I’m doing”. So I swallowed my pride and went over to either Butch or Rob Renzetti’s desk with my checking stuff and asked for help. And they said, “Okay, you set your desk up like this, put your x-sheet and your storyboard here, and this is what I would do”. They wanted to help! So the lesson is, don’t be too proud to ask for help when you need it. Always communicate and be open to assistance from others. Because it’s art, it’s an artistic environment—everybody is there to create and help each other create. That’s what it’s all about.
Thank you for the interview Michelle! All the best working on Trolls – I’m excited to see what you’ll get up to next. Hopefully another project with us!