The following article is a Q and A with Nathan Litz, Animation Director on Rick and Morty. In this article, we discuss what it was like working on the cult hit show and Nathan’s recent Emmy Nomination! Note: This article has been recently updated to reflect that Rick & Morty, in fact, did win the 2018 Emmy for Outstanding Animated Program!! Producers submitted the third episode of Season 3, “Pickle Rick” for consideration and this win marks the first win in this category for the Adult Swim comedy.”
Ashley: First, Congratulations on your Emmy nomination for your work on Rick and Morty!!! Tell us, what the heck is it like to work on such a cult classic?
Nathan: Hey thanks! It’s quite a ride working on Rick and Morty. I love the show, and it’s fun to work on, but it’s also a real slog to get through a season intact. By the end of a contract I’m just drained and ready to relax, but I have a great sense of accomplishment when we get a season wrapped. So, it’s a little conflicting.
Ashley: Why do you think this show hit such a chord with adult audiences?
Nathan: The dark sense of humour, coupled with some high brow science jokes, on top of some extremely low brow fart jokes, is a pretty magical combination. Also, I personally quite enjoy the stilted dialogue. It feels really fresh how some of the voice work will have awkward pauses and stutters. In most shows they would have the actors do the line again to get it clean and perfect, but that’s not how people actually interact with each other, so I think it lends a bit more authenticity.
Ashley: How does it feel to be nominated for an Emmy for your work on Rick and Morty? And what does it mean to you?
Nathan: This is really a huge honour for me, and it was quite a surprise. I didn’t think I’d ever get to a point where my work would be recognized to this degree since animation is such a ‘behind the curtain’ kind of job. Mike Mendel (producer at RaM LLC) really didn’t need to put my name on the ballot for the nomination at all, as there’s lots of folks in LA that they can toss on there, so it feels amazing to be recognized, and even more so because it’s such a great show.
Ashley: Let’s go waaaaay back. How did you get into the animation?
Nathan: Haha, I answered this a few years ago when we first did one of these! When I was a kid I straight up was not interested in watching something unless it was animated. Something about the creation aspect, as well as the ability to do anything you can think up, really captured my imagination.
Ashley: What were your goals when you first started out and have they changed?
Nathan: When I first started, I just wanted to get paid to draw. Now I want to get paid to tell people to draw! I still remember my first animation job, working for a few weeks before the first cheque came, I was convinced they were just using me for free labour and would be rid of me as soon as I asked where the money was, but lo and behold, the suckers actually paid me! That was right here at Bardel, in 2002. It takes a while to get established and not worry about what the next job will be, so that occupied much of my early career. As I went along I wanted to work my way up. Now I’m at the point where I don’t want to get much higher up the ladder, as that would entail dividing my attention between multiple projects and I’d prefer to sink my teeth into the gristle of Rick and Morty. Long term, I’d like to do my own show, but I almost never take the time to brainstorm and develop, so it’s looking like that’s quite a way off for now.
Ashley: What does an animation director do exactly?
Nathan: In essence, the job is high level quality control. I talk to the client about what it is they want to see and try to deliver that on a consistent basis. Having worked on the show since the pilot, we’ve got a good understanding of how things should look, even if the client is not sure how it’s going to work out. There are many ways to approach every scene, but the end goal is basically to make it look like one person animated the whole show. There’s a lot of back and forth with the artists in house, establishing and maintaining style rules to keep the show looking consistent.
Ashley: Adult Swim seems pretty darn pleased Bardel’s work on RAM. What is the formula for success? Tell us!
Nathan: I think one of the reasons Adult Swim is so happy with our work is that we really take ownership and will not deliver something we’re not happy with and proud of. Having worked with many studios, I can assure you that’s often not the case. Lots of other studios just pump work out as fast as possible to hit delivery deadlines and unlock payments, with no real care for what they’re actually delivering. Try to get a stinker of a scene past me and the leads, and you’ll be hearing about it!
Ashley: What is the most challenging part of your job and why?
Nathan: Just keeping on top of all the myriad elements needed to complete a season. Multiple episodes in the hopper at once, designs coming in that need to be checked for feasibility, requested changes to animatics that are not supplied, posing, animation, FX, compositing submissions coming in for a year straight, all that stuff really adds up and if you miss something, you look like a dummy, so I try to keep on top of it all as best I can. We had great leads and supervisors last season that really helped to direct the flow of all these elements, so that was a huge help. On season one I was the only person looking at and approving posing and animation from seven different studios, so that was quite a nightmare.
Ashley: Where do you find inspiration for your work and/or how do you keep growing as an artist?
Nathan: It’s easy to be inspired when you’re working on one of the best shows on television, it’s just a matter of trying to outdo our previous work!
Ashley: Do you have a quote you live by? Come on, tell us!
Nathan: “Who are you to doubt El Dandy?” – Bret Hart
Ashley: What’s the key to success in animation that people wouldn’t necessarily consider (if there is one)?
Nathan: Persistence. There are a few naturally gifted artists I’ve worked with that seem to just be able to produce excellent work with little effort, but for us pluggers, you really need to just keep going and keep learning. I did my first in-between test three times before I got hired, and most people wouldn’t finish it once! You don’t have to start out the best, but if you strive to avoid getting repeat revisions, eventually there won’t be any need to revise.
Ashley: As you look back on your career so far, what are you proudest of…? (Hell yaaas, this can include your nom).
Nathan: I would say I’m most proud of my involvement in Rick and Morty. When we finished the pilot episode in 2012, we went and had a screening with the crew. There were only about eight of us. The episode ended, and we immediately started it over and watched it again. Once that round was finished, everybody ran back to their desks to make little tweaks to improve their shots. We knew then we were part of something special, and the way the show has grown in popularity since shows that a lot of other people came to know it as well.
Ashley: What is the coolest thing you have experienced in your career? (Have you met Dan Harmon)!!
Nathan: It hasn’t happened yet. Creative Arts Emmys are on Saturday!
Ashley: Why is this an exciting time for people looking for a career in animation?
Nathan: Because it’s a great time to get your foot in the door. Lots of work in Vancouver in particular. If you graduated from animation school in, say, 2008, there was very little to work on. For the last few years now, things are BOOMING, and artists are in high demand. Also,
the projects seem to be getting better, so there’s a good chance you can work on something fun!
Nathan: Well, I worked at various video stores before getting animation work, do those still exist? I scored the triumvirate of Rogers, Blockbuster AND Virgin Megastore.
Ashley: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Nathan: An animator! Since I was about seven or eight years old, I’d say. It’s good that this worked out for me, because I wasn’t paying any attention in math class.
Ashley: What’s a hobby you have that not everyone knows about you?
Nathan: I am an avid fan of herbal… remedies. I also have a bit of a green thumb of the more traditional variety.
Ashley: Any last thoughts?
Nathan: I’d like to use this platform to thank some people, as I’m sure if we win Justin Roiland’s going to hog all the mic time, but there’s plenty of folks that deserve a shout out on this project! The nomination alone is a huge honour, so this one’s for all the animators, leads, compositors, FX artists, BG artists, supervisors, designers, writers, board artists, editors, and production staff all over the world. Most are in Vancouver and LA, but we’ve got some fine folks in Kelowna, Quebec and all over the globe that are integral to making this show what it is, so if we win this award it’s on your hard work and dedication. Thank you for putting your all into this. If we win, it’s because of all of you… but I’ll hang onto the award for everyone, so don’t worry!
Also, a huge thanks to my dual mentors, Curt Spurging and Florian Wagner, who taught me so much about how to be a professional artist. My Mom and Dad also taught me a couple things, so thanks for that! And a holler at my special lady Katie, without whom I would be a shell of a man. Exciting times! Let’s geddit.
Nathan Litz holding up the grand prize after Rick & Morty’s Emmy win at The Creative Arts Emmy Awards on Saturday, September 8 at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles, CA!!