We caught up with Nathan Litz, Animation Director on Rick & Morty, and found out what it takes to lead an animation team for such an off-the-wall, cult classic.
How did you become interested in an animation career?
When I was a kid, I didn’t like live action shows and I only wanted to watch cartoons. I watched Mr. Dressup because he’d at least read a book that had drawings in it, which was close enough to animation for me. So I’ve always had a love of animation, and wanted to do it from quite a young age. I think I was in grade 8 when ‘Mummies Alive’ came out and that show really helped to cement my career path, because Season 1 was excellent, and Season 2 was a stinker. It looked awful. In retrospect, I’d imagine that a different studio took over the animation, but I was really disappointed that the look of the show had taken such a hit and I decided I wanted to work in animation, and to do it right.
How long have you been working in the animation industry?
12 years. I cut my professional teeth right here at Bardel, doing cleanup and inbetweens on DreamWorks Sinbad and Legend of the Seven Seas.
Before Rick & Morty, were you familiar with either Dan Harmon or Justin Roiland’s previous projects? If so, did that influence your decision to join the project?
I had seen some of Roiland’s ‘House of Cosbys’, and was familiar with Harmon’s ‘Community’ but that was pretty much the extent of my knowledge, until I was presented with the opportunity to be the animation lead on the pilot episode. I’ve since enjoyed many of their ‘Channel 101’ shorts. To be honest, I was just really excited about the Rick & Morty pilot animatic. When I saw that, it really got my mouth watering to work on this show. I didn’t even know Justin was responsible for House of Cosbys until I’d met him!
Describe a typical day directing animation on RAM S2.
I arrive in the morning and go through my emails , then check my tracker dashboard to see what animation and posing has been submitted for me to look at. I’ll whittle away at that until lunch (pro tip: if you’re going out, take lunch just a little before noon to beat the rush) and then back at it. I then check animated shots, look for certain stylistic nuances and generally make sure shots work as intended, as part of the greater whole. On launch days, we discuss upcoming episodes with our client in LA and try to suss out what they’d like to see. The show doesn’t really leave me until a while after all the episodes are fully completed.
Can you think of any glaring differences between RAM S1 and S2?
Last season we had some overseas partners doing a great deal of the animation, whereas this season it’s all being done in-house here at Bardel (with some talented freelancers thrown in) and that’s making things much easier to plan for, as well as making it easier to keep the quality levels high. Having everybody close by is much more efficient than having to skype with people overseas to chat. You can really feel the love and attention being put into this season compared to last. I think a lot of people working on it last year treated it as just another project, but you can tell that the whole crew this year are really pouring their hearts into it. It’s looking so goooood, I can’t wait until it airs!
What are some common challenges yourself and the animators might face on RAM S2?
Generally there are a lot of challenges on this show. Most often I’d say the biggest challenge is the sheer number of characters, props, BGs and effects on a crazy show like this, getting all those elements working together while still trying to keep the action and the story at the forefront can really be tough with constant TV deadlines looming. It’s also a very specific animation style, and it really takes some time to get into how it’s meant to look and move.
What would you say to Rick if you could meet him in person?
Chill out a bit! He seems really stressed all the time. I’d probably get a smack for saying that though.
If you could take on the role of any character in the show, who would you be? Who do you most identify with?
You’d have to be crazy to pick somebody other than Rick! He’s in control of everything, and with his trusty portal gun, always has an easy way out of a tough situation. Plus, I’d be drunk all the time, so that’s a nice bonus.
What advice would you give for animators hoping to work on a show like RAM?
Get your demo reel together, and make sure there’s some acting and lip sync where you can hear the dialogue. Even though you spent all that time picking just the right ambient garage dance track for your animation, all it’s doing is distracting from the work. If I see a demo reel with lip sync but no audible dialogue, I just assume your lip sync is bad. Animate on 2s and avoid tweeny/floaty crap. And if you’re hoping to work on this show, apply! We’re STILL hiring animators and we’re well past halfway through season 2.
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What advice would you give to young animators in general who want to make a career out of the animation field?
Keep an open mind, learn and improve, stick to it. So that’s what? Three things? I’ll break it down a little:
1) Keep an open mind – Understand that you’re new to the game, so any preconceived notions you may have about what’s the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to do things may not apply in your new position. Styles and techniques are always changing and growing, and you’ve got to accept that and roll with it a bit.
2) Learn and improve. Don’t take offense to notes from your supervisors (unless they’re being jerks) and know that they’re trying to guide you towards success. If you get a note that applies in a broader sense, strive to never get that note again. Nobody expects you to be perfect when you first start, but if you’re getting the same notes six months in that you were getting at the beginning of the project, you’re wasting people’s time and that’s a major problem in the cutthroat world of TV animation.
3) Stick to it. Lots of people seem to fall out of love with animation and look for an easier gig. If you can keep improving, you can become extremely effective and efficient in your animation, and you’ll have a good idea of how to deal with any problem that comes up. Don’t get too down on yourself and always strive to get better.
Without giving anything away, what can we expect to see in RAM S2?
Oh, we’ve got it all in this season. Huge effects sequences, tender moments, celebrity cameos (both as characters in the show and as voice talent), chase scenes, mysteries, wholesale slaughter… It’s all happening! Gird your loins! Gird them well, my friends.