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DF Interview: Joey McCormick, background designer for ‘Teen Titans GO! To the Movies,’ talks animation
By Byron Brewer
Joey McCormick has been drawing most of his life. And that, in turn, led to a love for and career in animation. Joey has been a background designer on toons such as Final Space, Pickle and Peanut, Futureworm – oh, and a little film called Teen Titans GO! To the Movies (in theaters today!).
DF recently sat down with the cartoonist and sometime comics artist/writer and discussed animation and his thoughts on same.
Dynamic Forces: Joey, you once told me that you had been drawing for as long as you can remember. Tell us here about your love of art and what it means to your life, professional and everyday.
Joey McCormick: Art and my life are completely intertwined. My wife is an artist, I'm an artist, it's both of our hobbies and our careers. It's weird that I spend all day at work drawing and I get home wanting to draw more. It becomes challenging when I'm feeling creatively tapped and drawing is the last thing you want to do, but deadlines are still there. I've had to find a balance to it. If there's a lot of work on my plate, that becomes the priority. And it's best to save my hand for work over drawing for fun.
DF: You’ve done quite a lot in animation, a field of which I am a humongous fan. Just curious, but what were the cartoons and/or animated movies that you watched and most enjoyed as a youngster?
Joey McCormick: So many shows, I'm a typical ‘90s kid that can't get enough of that era. Powerpuff Girls, Batman Animated Series, Hey Arnold, Doug, X-Men, Dexter's Lab, King of the Hill, all the Disney movies, Spider-Man, Batman Beyond, there's so many shows I absorbed growing up.
DF: Tell our readers about your first pieces of animation: for fun or education, and for money!
Joey McCormick: The first piece of animation I did in college was the bouncing ball. Before that, I had tried to animate simple things, but with no real understanding of the medium. The bouncing ball seems so simple but it teaches you all the fundamentals of animation, and when it works it’s very satisfying.
The first piece of animation that I got paid for was when I was interning at Hornet Inc. It was something for Disney directed by David Hill and Josh Goodrich. We were animating characters in flash, bringing them into after-effects, applying a texture, and using a transform mesh to match the textures to the animation. I'm most likely butchering the technical terms. Its one of the coolest techniques I've seen.
DF: What work do you consider your first big break in the industry?
Joey McCormick: Probably my internship at Hornet Inc. was my first big break. They let me get my hands on a bunch of different projects and try out a few different rolls. During that time, they let me work on Marilyn Miller, a short film directed by Mikey Please. All I did was animate the pupils of the characters in after-effects. It wasn't much, but when I saw my name in the credits at the end it felt like I had made it. It was a very cool moment.
DF: I know for certain works, you have been a background designer (Teen Titans GO! To the Movies, Final Space, Pickle and Peanut). Explain to the uninitiated (you know who you are, laughs) what that is.
Joey McCormick: Background design is pretty simple. We're designing the backgrounds for each scene. How that's handled all depends on the production you're on. Usually, after the storyboard is done, we'll break down the scenes to figure out what we need to design. Anything new is designed as a “key”.
My process for designing a background starts with the storyboard. I'll bring that into photoshop then figure out the perspective. Storyboard backgrounds can range from fully fleshed out illustrations to simple grids. Based on this, we can figure out our perspective then get to designing. I like to make sure the characters have room in a scene, I know why people watch cartoons, it's not for the backgrounds.
I'll start with a really loose rough to get basic composition and details figured out, then do a tight pass for review. Hopefully that will get approved and then go to a clean pass with whatever line work is on style. Some shows, like Pickle and Peanut, meant we'd print out the backgrounds, put them on a light box, and clean them up with pens. Other shows, like Final Space, meant using very specific line weights so the background line doesn't overpower the character lines.
DF: Speaking of Teen Titans GO! To the Movies, which hits theaters July 27th, what was it like to work on that zany take of DC’s teen heroes? The TV toons never fail to make me laugh. Like The Lego Movie, the humor is written on so many different levels.
Joey McCormick: If you're a fan of The Lego Movie, Lego Batman, and Teen Titans Go!, you're going to love Teen Titans GO! To the Movies! Working on this feature was a totally new beast. We were given scenes that were from all different parts of the movie. Normally in a TV show,. you'll break down an episode, do the designs and then move on to the next episode. Instead, on TTG!TTM (?), we'd get sections that would be around 3-5 minutes. So I'll be getting some surprises with the audience.
DF: In your estimation, what has been your greatest work in animation?
Joey McCormick: That's a tough question. I've been very fortunate in my career. I think the biggest thing for me has been Futureworm. It was something I got to see from development through production. When I was working in Atlanta at Bento Box, I was asked to do some development work figuring out the background style. It's what the creator, Ryan Quincy, went with for the shorts. Later, when it got picked up for a full series, I got to come on as lead BG designer. It was a great experience and I learned from everyone around me. Not to mention it was a really fun crew to be a part of.
DF: Just an aside: I am very partial to hand-drawn work, especially in animated features, as opposed to the overly computerized work. (I think Disney’s Pinocchio is the greated animated movie of all time, and will never be equaled. Just me.) Any thoughts on hand vs. computer, as an artist AND animator?
Joey McCormick: As an artist, I love the feel of hand-drawn animation. As an animator, please give me the computer. With budget and tight deadlines, it’s easy to see why studios are leaning towards a “flash” or “puppet” style of animation. On certain shows, it makes sense for the style. And when it's done well, the audience won't notice. But there's still productions doing traditional paper animation and cleaned up digitally. I'm a fan of both as long as they're done well.
DF: What projects are you currently working on about which you can tell readers?
Joey McCormick: Right now I'm working on Amphibia at Disney TVA as a background designer. I've also been doing a little background design on Thundercats Roar. Both are super fun shows that I'm very proud to have gotten the chance to work on. And in February, you can check out an original graphic novel I wrote and am illustrating for BOOM! Studios. Plus you can see some stuff I did for Teen Titans GO! To the Movies as well as some stuff on the new season of the TV show.
Dynamic Forces would like to thank Joey McCormick for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions. Teen Titans GO! To the Movies hits theaters July 27, TODAY!
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