Q&A With Scott Strong, IdeaRocket AnimationBlake Harris 08.20.2015
On Wednesday, we featured a beautiful video made by our very own Scott Strong (aka “New Jersey Jedi Dad”). To learn more about this talented animator and terrific father, we sat down to speak with him about his career…
Blake: You’re an animator—a great one—so I wanted to start off by asking how you got into animation? Was it something that you’ve always had a passion for?
Scott: When I was probably around 11 years old, I tried doing my own animations. I tried animating Batman. Just a simple thing—running. But I had no reference to try and do that so I was pretty much making it up on my own. And I was doing it on graph paper.
Blake: How did it go?
Scott: I totally failed at it. So that was really kind of my first try, my first foray into it. I had these books that showed “How To Draw People” How to build up from a stick figure into an actual person. So, you know, I was a kid living in small town in Ohio—this tiny place called Ashtabula—and just trying to figure it out on my own.
Blake: Back in Ohio—this being in an era before the Internet and a widespread Do-It-Yourself spirit—how did you go about teaching yourself?
Scott: Well, I was really fascinated by shows where they showed how things get made. Like those programs that would take you inside Walt Disney studios and show you how things were made. And another one I was fascinated by big-time was the behind-the-scenes feature about the making of Star Wars. Because, you know, I just didn’t understand how they were doing it. I mean, I knew they didn’t actually go to space, of course, but it looked very real. So after seeing behind-the-scenes things like that, it just started to create this big question mark above my head. How did they do that? Or that? And so I just kept on trying to learn, but it wasn’t until I got to college where I realized: maybe this is something I could do.
Blake: And what was it in college that made you feel that way?
Scott: I had a teacher named Mark Marek, who was teaching 3D. So I actually started out animating in 3D. It was very rudimentary back then. were using a software called Crystal Topaz, which I don’t think anybody has heard of these days. And while this was going on, Mark was in the process of starting a show on Nickelodeon called KaBlam! and so a year or two down the road he called me up and said “Hey, do you want to work on KaBlam!?”
Blake: And, just like that, you became a professional animator! When was that?
Scott: That was ’95. And not long after starting that job, I started to realize how rich 2D animation could be. So I kind of abandoned what I was doing in 3D because of that, and also because, on a home computer at that time, there were limits to what you could do in a 3D environment You could make a car. You could make a space ship. You could make a robot. But having something move, organically, was kind of limited. So I gravitated towards 2D and really enjoyed learning what could be done in After Effects.
Blake: How long did you work on KaBlam!?
Scott: I was only the show for its first season. And after that I moved to a company in midtown—between 5th and Broadway—called Magnet Pictures. Their claim to fame was the credit sequences for both The Nanny and The Rosie O’Donnell Show. So after I joined Magnet, I worked on The Rosie O’Donnell Show and did, I think, four openers for them. And we got nominated for, and won, two Emmys.
Scott: Yeah. So I have two statues at home.
Blake: And during this time period—in either 2D or 3D–did you have favorite animated movies or TV shows? Like Toy Story? Batman The Animated Series?
Scott: Well I thought Batman the Animated Series was very smartly designed. I really felt like it was a quantum leap forward in, say, superhero comics. It was dark, it was gritty, and it referred a lot to Art Deco. It seemed to solve this long running problem of how to translate realistic ink drawings into something that worked inside your television set. I was also a follower of Pixar back in. My first exposure to them was in 1989. I was in the military, stationed in San Diego, when I saw a short film they did at that year’s Spike and Mike show.
Blake: Spike and Mike? What’s that?
Scott: It was an annual festival of animation. It would collect shorts from various studios and independent animators and it would just do a show on it. Pixar’s entry in that was a little film called Tin Toy. And I was blown away by it.
Blake: Wait, did you say you were in the military just above?
Scott: After high school, yeah. My dad had actually been in the military and after high school I joined the Navy with some friends of mine from Ohio. I started out in Philadelphia and then the ship I was on went around the tip of South America and, after that, we were stationed in San Diego. I was in the Navy for five years total.
Blake: And what happened at the end of those five years? Was your service up, or did you consciously make the decision to leave?
Scott: I made the decision. At that point, I wanted to go to college. I wanted to go to design school. So I drove cross-country and about 9 months later I ended up at Parsons in New York. I just really enjoyed it; it really expanded the range of what I could do.
Blake: So you now had an education and a few gigs in the industry, but you were still a single guy living in New York.
Scott: In Brooklyn, actually.
Blake: You were a single guy living in Brooklyn. How did that change? How did you meet your future wife?
Scott: It was fifteen years ago, so I must have been 33 at the time. And I was at home, bored, and in the mood to see a movie. I didn’t even really care what the movie was so I decided to go see Species 2.
Blake: A classic…
Scott: It was horrible. But before the movie, I went to this restaurant just up the street from the theater. And she was a waitress there. I had with me a copy of Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, which I’d never read before. So I was sitting at the bar and digging into that when she saw the book and said “Oh, what’s this?” And we started talking. She had a bachelor’s in film directing, so she was able to talk about movies quite a bit. And I’m obviously quite a big movie buff. So we hit it off and went on our first date a couple weeks later.
Blake: And years later, you would have two wonderful sons who you’d soon dazzle with an awesome homemade Star Wars movie.
Scott: [laughter] Yup! They love Star Wars (and so do I).
Blake: Who doesn’t? But I’m wondering…it’s now been 35+ years since the original trilogy came out. As someone who was inspired by Star Wars and who tells stories for a living, I wanted to ask why do you think the movies, the characters—the whole franchise and property—is still so popular today?
Scott: I think part of that has to do with the time period when it was made. There were a lot of movies that were really quite revolutionary being made at that time. The Godfather. Superman. Jaws. So there was a different mindset about moviemaking that was happening.
Blake: And how would you describe that mindset? What was being done differently than the movies that came before?
Scott: I think it was how those movies were able to pull the audience into a real environment. I’m not saying the premises of these movies were particularly realistic, but the way everyone acted in that movie world felt real and believe. Superman, this longstanding comic book character, he suddenly became a believable in Richard Donner’s film. That was even their tagline: you will believe a man can fly. And you did.
Blake: That’s a great point.
Scott: And I think that’s the same reason JJ Abrams movies work today (and probably why he was picked to direct the new Star Wars movie). He’s able to pull people into a real environment and make something believable.
Blake: Speaking of believability and storytelling, the last question I had for you was this. Whether you were living in Ohio, San Diego, New York or somewhere else, how have you been able to hone your talent as a storyteller? How does one learn this skill?
Scott: Well, you see a lot of bad movies.
Scott: It’s kind of true, though. If you just take that a bad movie—or a bad story of any kind—at face value then you’re never going to grow from that. Instead, you have to ask yourself why didn’t this movie work? Where did things go wrong? What aspects here helped and which hurt?
Blake: Great point. So what about with Star Wars? For example, why did The Phantom Menace fail where a film like The Empire Strikes Back succeeded?
Scott: I think that in The Phantom Menace the filmmakers took a lot for granted. They assumed that we would just simply care about these characters and that by throwing in ludicrous things that they’d be able to get a laugh. Like: insert Jar Jar Binks and you’ll laugh here and here and here. But nobody did. Because the joke wasn’t funny. So there’s that, plus film doesn’t pay enough attention to telling a full story; going from Point A to B to C. They didn’t ask themselves: How can we up the ante in the drama of the story? How can we improve upon what we did in the previous movie? They thought: we’ll just throw a lot of money at this. But that just doesn’t work because audiences can’t be fooled. As much as we all like funny and pretty things, what we really like most of all is a good story. And that’s what matters most.