Interview with MIKE L. MURPHY 
May 23rd 2013

Mike L. Murphy is an American film maker, animation director, animator, animation educator and previsualization designer in film and television. Mike has animated or supervised on such franchises as Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Iron Man, Fast and the Furious, Shrek and The Iron Giant to name just a few. He is also the mentor for Mustache Productions on their Final Year Project titled 'Laundry Quandary' in our Digital Animation course.

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MUSTACHE PRODUCTIONS (MP) :  What does animation mean to you ?

MIKE : Animation, to me, is the ability to create anything you can imagine. It's limitless. The interesting thing was, back in the day, at the turn of the century when film was created, animation was very crude and not because of the skill set of anybody but because the technology wasn’t quite there yet. It hadn’t caught up with peoples imagination. Disney was one of the primary people in the whole scope of film making who was able to say how to push this and how do we use animation to create new worlds. But again it was still limited to what somebody could draw or paint. 

Then, starting with CG Animation and thanks to Lucas for selling that division of Pixar, then having Pixar go off and create their own tools. Animations has evolved over the past few years and literally anything you can imagine is now possible.  For instance, look at Avatar, it's just a giant animated movie. Whatever James Cameron could think of when he wanted to make that 10 years ago, he realized that he couldn’t because the technology wasn’t there. We are finally seeing this progression in technology where it's finally catching up to what the human mind can imagine. It’s only going to get better. So that’s really the magic of animation to me. To take these weird ideas that are just visual and pull them out, put the on screen and put them into a 3D environment.

MP : Throughout your career as an animator, who were your greatest mentors and how have they inspired you ?

MIKE : My greatest influences growing up. The first was my mother, who was a kindergarten teacher. She'd always borrow the paints, glue, macaroni or whatever they had around the classroom and bring it home and let me just be creative. When I drew on the walls, she wouldn't really yell at me. Instead, she would encourage me. So, having a parent who blesses you with being able to just be creative and express yourselves is vital to any artist. There are a lot of people who would be great artists but unfortunately weren't encouraged at a young age. We have to express ourselves to the content.

Beyond that, when I was at CalArts, i had many great teachers there. There were a number of retired animators or working professionals who took time off their busy production schedules to get into a car and drive up to Valencia and teach us at night. All these people are too many to name but they are all really monumental in my learning. The two whom I will name is Cornelius Cole, who is this great, crazy old guy who encourages us to do what we want as an artist and the second was Larry White who was a Disney animator. This was all back in the 2D Animation days of course. If memory serves, Larry was my teacher for two years and he gave everything he had to teaching everybody. So, those two individuals really made an impact on me. 

Then, working within the professional realm of studios, i think the biggest influence was my first film, which was Iron Giant. Two people that made an impact were Steve Markowski who was the lead animator of the giant and he kind of took me under his wing and gave me a lot of shots and sequences. He really had a lot of trust in me and that was an incredible learning experience. Also, Brad Bird, who even back then, you could tell he really knew what he was doing. History has shown that he is a great director. So, learning from those two individuals was very important.

 A lot of the mentors that I have now are my students and I know that you may be surprised hearing that. Teaching what I know or what I think I know to other people and seeing them discover it and seeing their questions and then I have to go in and challenge what I thought as I answer them. That is where I learn the most. I think everybody out there, despite teaching what you know, even if you do not fully know it, just try to teach it and that is when its really going to settle into you and become second nature where you don't even have to think about it. Like for instance, riding a bike. The first time around it's scary as hell but after taking a couple of tries, falling, bruising and getting hurt, I am time, you are able to do it. Then you can go and teach someone else and show them. That is when you are really good at riding a bike. Everybody that you meet, really, if you're in tune, they're a mentor to you because you can learn something from everybody. Even people who have no talent and are assholes. You can learn from them. Perhaps they teach you about being positive. Everything is an experience and everything is a lesson and there is a little bit of Mr. Miyagi in everybody.  

MP : As an artist, how do you stay motivated at all times and what do you do to keep yourself awesome ?

MIKE : To keep myself motivated, I essentially just keep remembering all the things that I want to do. When you're older, you realize that your life is short, it's precious and you only have so much time. You really have to make a list of all the things you want to do and actively try to do those. You will never find me just vegging out on a couch all day, it just doesn't happen. I will sit there for a minute and go, Oh yeah ! There is a story I want to tell, there is a painting I want to paint, a book i want to read. There is always a million things you can do to inspire and help you get that next thing done. So, creatively, everything excites me, even if it's something that I do not know anything about. Even if it's something totally unrelated to film making. So, I never say no to an opportunity because I know there is inspiration in everything. For instance, this week, when i was on the beach, i was looking at the way the waves would roll, and the little crabs would come out and build these small little structures. However, the waves would come around, destroy everything but they would start all over again, each time it was different and they make really cool patterns. So, that in and of itself was a story. The naturalists explain the story of the fig. If you guys do not know about figs, go read about them. They are absolutely fascinating and if I did not genuinely have an interest in it, I wouldn't have learned all that. So, that, is really important. 

Keeping awesome ? I guess that means keeping positive. Again it goes back to having  a goal sheet and realizing all the things you want to do and as you do them and you look at your list and you're crossing things off. That is what makes me feel  awesome, it's progress and it's getting things done. Just knowing that all these things that I am inspired by and all these different influences and also helping people. I think everybody should go out there and try to make the world actively a better place but its easier said than done but the thing is, if you do not do it, it is not going to get done. So, essentially, everybody has to know what they want and just go for it.

MP : How do you tell if an idea is movie worthy ?

MIKE : The secret to a great idea is very simple, you hear it and you get excited. If it is a bad idea, you're not interested in it at all. Like when someone pitches you a great idea, you want to jump in and start playing with it, like a game. You want to roll your sleeves up and get in there and contribute. One of the most interesting points in my artistic career was a long time ago when my friend and I were pitching a story to Sony and as we were pitching it, we said something slightly negative about the character and the Executive stood up for the character that we had created. He started contributing to it and that was really interesting. The idea went pretty far, however, it got stopped. My friend and I who is now directing features were going to co-direct the film but it got stopped because Disney was doing Lilo and Stitch which was a similar idea. So, having that great idea and telling it to other people is going to get them excited about it. That is when the magic happens and you know you have a great idea.

MP : From your past experiences, what are some of the traits and qualities that make and exceptional animator ? 

MIKE : If you want to be an amazingly, awesome, kick ass, world-star of an animator, you gotta have passion, you have to play well with others, you need to have some social skills and you have to know story. Your animation is taking part in a bigger thing and that is the story. If you don't know why that story is going on and where all the pieces are, then your animation isn't going to fully contribute to that story. Thus, be a disservice to the story and bore the audience. At the end of the day, whatever you are doing is for entertainment. Whether you're an animator on Angry Birds and you are just doing birds flying through the air or you are an animator at Pixar and you are animation Buzz and Woody. Whatever you are doing is to entertain people. Through your work, you are presenting your ideas to people, having them getting excited about it, wanting to know more and wanting to participate. So, you need to  understand that underlined structure of what makes a good story or more to the point, what hooks people into being curious and excited. You are telling them about a persons problem and the audience must be able to relate to the problem, making them curious to find out what happens to the character and how he solves the problem. If you do not understand that and how to do it and what tools you need to do that, then you are not going to hit that next level. If you want to be an A+ artist working in the entertainment industry, you need to understand story.

MP : How do you manage a balance between creativity and getting the job done ?

MIKE : If you’re creative, the job is going to get done because the creativity is going to drive you to do it. If you’re not feeling creative then what are you doing ? You are bored. If I were to ask you to clean up after the dog or take out the trash, no one likes doing that. It’s a chore and its laborious. But if i were to tell you to do this great thing, to create something and to entertain people or whatever it is that you are doing creatively, then you should be so excited about it that you can not imagine doing anything else but that. As an effect, the job will get done. Now, within that, there is efficiency. Which is why you need to take that big idea and say what is the most important thing and that is the central idea of the story. Therefore, it is crucial to make sure that it is working before you get involved with all the details of designing characters. You might design a great character but it might not be the best design for the story. This is why it always goes back to that central idea, getting that solid and then having the creativity to add to it. This is when it grows. It is like a nut, with a solid core, you can build around it. That is what is going to drive you creatively to not give up. Movies take years to do and you have to be motivated but I have never once been not motivated on projects I am excited on. However, on projects where I hate the story, I hate the crew and the studio is treating you like crap, that is when I do not even want to go to work. There are other crews or other projects where you just do not want to go home at night. That is when it is fun.

MP : When you were starting out, what was the biggest mistake you made and how was it a learning experience in the long run ? 

MIKE : Well, starting out in school, my biggest mistake was when I made my 4th year film at CalArts. instead of listening to my teachers when they told me to keep it short and simple, I made this 7 minute epic and i had all my friends do a guest shot so I had about 12 different animators working on it. As it turns out, I bit off more than I can chew and I choked. It was horrible. There were parts of the film that was great but as a whole, when you watch it, knowing that I wanted to get a job as an animator, it did not accomplish what it needed to and that made me realize a lot of things. So, that is probably my biggest mistake as a student. 

However, my biggest mistake starting my career was the fact that I probably was a little too artistic and I did not understand the business side of things as well as I should have. This is one of the reasons why I started Successful Animator so that i can teach people all the mistakes I made. Who knows, if I knew all these things back then, where I would be now ? So, knowing the business side would have been a lot more beneficial. Mistakes are great because they make you who you are and nobody is perfect.

MP : What are your thoughts regarding the current situation of the CG industry and what is the future for animated films ? 

MIKE : The problem with CG is that there is no profits for the effects studios. Basically, people that are going to be hiring you are stressed out because they are barely making money. The Producers have budgets and they know they can get all the effects studios to fight each other and undercut each other. Unfortunately, this makes it very hard for artists to be treated with proper respect.

I have got a pretty prestigious career and I get hired on to shows where they call me up on Thursdays and say that I have to start on Monday. However, when I come in on Monday, they tell me that the studio does not know what they want and that they are laying off the entire crew. The problem is, I turned down other jobs that were 2 month jobs because this was a 3 month jobs and now because the studio changed their mind or do not know what they want, it’s affecting my income. 

You’re going to find this happening unless everyone bands together and protest. You’re seeing that slightly happening as you see people on Facebook with that green icon and all but that is not really going to do any good unless everybody says that they are sick of the crap and everybody quits and protests. Whether that is going to happen or not, I do not know but it requires everyone to do it. If 10 people do it and the rest do not, then those 10 are blacklisted and it gets pretty problematic. I think, as an artist, all you can do is enter into contracts, not unionised but enter into contracts in the local market. For instance, if you are in South East Asia or in Los Angeles , where if you do get hired, you tell them that you will only do it if they guarantee you get paid in these chunks. The Producers are then going to get the studio sign the contract so now all the artists demand something and the effects studios will have to demand it from the Producers from the big Hollywood studios. This is the only way it is going to change. 

In terms of the future of the animation industry or animated films, they are getting so expensive that you are going to find less and less of them getting made at the bigger studios. There is a certain amount of movies that have to get released each year because at the end of the day, animation is really for families. It is a business model that Mom is going to use as a medium to babysit her child so that she can go cook dinner, get her nails done or gossip about Dad or whatever it is going to be. This is great because it means that there is a market place for that and there is always going to be a demand, which means there will always be jobs for animators. So, although there are going to be less and less expensive, 200million dollars movies made by Disney and Dreamworks or whoever else that is making movies these days, all that demand is going to shift to cheaper markets which would be India, South East Asia, South America and parts of Europe. So, everybody who is not in California, you are going to start finding opportunities that did not exist 5 years ago. Thanks to the internet, you can make a movie anywhere in the world now as you can have a virtual crew. 

It can also help if an animator is able to move at a moments notice, pack their bags and go off to Bangladesh or wherever the next movie is being made. Other than that, it is also important to understand how to be an entrepreneur so you can run your own business, working at home in your virtual studio. You need to have good internet, Skype, your own copy of Maya and have all these things so you can be working anywhere on your own. If not, you are going to get quickly bulldozed because the days when you get hired by studios to work a 3 years contract are over. Even in Los Angeles, you only get hired to work for a 3-9month job and then you are laid off. Then all those 200 artists scatter like ants, waiting for the next job and then they all fight each other for that job. It is scary. So, know what the business is and leverage it.

MP : Boxers or briefs ? And what shampoo do you use ?    

MIKE : I actually prefer boxer briefs and if you really want to know, I always get the same color so that you can wash them all at once. If you have lights and darks, everything ends up grey,right ? So, boxer briefs are awesome ! For shampoo, I travel so much that I don’t really have a preference. It’s whatever is in the hotel or whatever is in the local area. I just buy it and as long as it cleans my hair, I am a happy guy. 

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