Posted // 2014-01-05 -
While the vast majority of animation may be happening overseas or in California among 10,000 iMacs, there are still several animation studios popping up across the country. Most, of course are working toward the new era of digital animation, both in the 2-D and 3-D styles, looking to bring about new works in film, television and the Web as the medium grows. One studio gaining traction in the national eye is Too Many Legs, based in downtown Salt Lake City, working with dozens of clients including Cartoon Network and DC Comics, the brand-new Aquabats animated show and picking up Emmy nominations along the way.
Today, I chat with co-founders Bryan Juber and Ian Johnston about starting up the company, their respective careers in animation, the work they're producing and a few other topics. (All pictures courtesy of TML.)
Ian Johnston and Bryan Juber
Gavin: Hey, guys. First thing, tell us a little but about yourselves.
Ian: Too Many Legs Animation is the animation and visual-effects studio of Salt Lake City. We're located in historical Trolley Square as part of a "Creative Park" development designed by Ian Johnston, which is featuring multiple studios tied with a social / retail atmosphere. Since 2010, TML Studio has been creating award-winning visual effects and animation. We produce 2-D, 2.5-D, 3-D character animation, motion design, and visual effects for feature films, television, games, commercials and integrated media. Founded in Utah, we combine the passion and excitement from our directors, animators, designers, concept artists and writers with our clients into a collaborative creative approach that results in sincere art and storytelling. Today, with access to motion-capture-studio-affiliate Track 36 and preferred-film company CMG, the breadth of possible work flows like true collaboration. Prepping their current work load to support a distribution channel for their animated characters, TML supports local producers, directors, and businesses who need a creative message to communicate. Having contributed and worked on three films, the visual-effects department is now looking to expand in the next year.
Gavin: What first got both of you interested in animation, and what were some early influences on you?
Ian: A wiry carpet floor, and my afternoon snack -- a plate of cheese slices with ketchup -- set the stage. It was 1983 and Transformers was ramping up their cartoon series toward a climatic movie that was released in 1986. The film took a dark turn, and kids everywhere mourned the death of Optimus Prime. I learned that the drawings I had been making since three years old could not only move, but be brought to life, and die; I was sold. In 1992, Eric Goldberg's Genie in Aladdin amazed me at the potency of humor and personality, all the while making me fall in love with Jasmine on a magic-carpet ride. Animated drawings not only entertained, but made me feel incredible emotions for the first time! This was truly a gift to be shared -- not a gift you keep to yourself, but to give openly through moving art. I was incredibly fortunate knowing that the rest of my life was going to be spent creating art life. Now, at the ripe age of 36, I can start reaching people, from offering an incredible journey to sharing something truly intimate. When someone is open to emotional contact, they in turn will share with someone they care about. This action brings everyone closer together and helps to eliminate that unnerving sense that we're all isolated.
Gavin: Ian, you attended Southern Utah University to specifically study animation. What made you choose SUU, and what was your time like there?
Ian: I chose SUU because, at the time, the art classes were relatively small. The teacher interaction was potent and personable. Also, I enjoyed traveling and trying something completely different than the areas I was raised. Cedar City became a great atmosphere for trying out many new things and then painting through the night. Actually, animation wasn't offered at SUU when school started that fall of 1996. There were five of us pushing to develop the program at SUU, as the current dean thought stained-glass windows was the future for the art department. Perry Stewart, the illustration and department head, helped the four of us students interested in pursuing computer illustration and animation for careers. He would get us into key meetings with the school board and convince them to invest the money into computers. We started on beige Mac towers but soon graduated to the blueberry/tangerine Mac models with hockey-puck mice. In the late spring of 1998, we began using Photoshop with one undo, and a 3-D program called Strata Studio Pro, which was being developed down the street in St. George.
Gavin: How was it for you honing your craft and learning to work with various mediums at a time when the technology was starting to boom?
Ian: Creating art and animation on computers was like a drug you couldn't shake. You could feel the anticipation in the air. There was a blank digital canvas and a shiny new galaxy of 3-D tools to play with. We were relentless, unmarried, and being emotionally crushed constantly, we built some thick hides. It was so new that the faculty was learning the manual the same time as the students. We eventually gave ourselves assignments on the side to challenge our newfound abilities and imaginations. The bar was set really high in '95 when Pixar released Toy Story, but we saw ourselves as the b-unit to their production. The machines we had, however, we're not up to our expectations and would often crash during renders, causing us to lose large chunks of animation, 3-D models, and PS textures. We were up against a technology hill that demanded we play by her rules or not at all. Those rules by today's standards aren't as imposing, but you now learn to work within your means on every animated project.
Gavin: You immediately jumped into being an animator working for several companies over the years. How was it for you learning the ropes and going from gig to gig?
Ian: When you're young and aren't tied to a mortgage, have a low car payment, and are craving pizza once a week, you roll with the punches a lot easier. The gaming industry in Utah was also going through a renaissance. It seemed like there were video companies on every corner, all working with major titles. You had options, but it was also a "private party" kind of taboo. If you didn't network, or spend time digging at the front door, you didn't get through. The limited spots were for friends of friends of friends, and if you were an amazing talent, you were offered a management position. I wasn't an amazing talent. I have good talent and skills, but I needed to continually improve my work in this new medium. I would apply at local gaming studios constantly, updating my resume with new character animations, painted textures and 3-D models, all the while sending work over to Blizzard and Disney. Eventually, I learned how to network and position myself, where working 80-100 hours a week was a breeze; not ideal, but you do anything just to get in the door. Eventually, you would find someone who believed in you or would vouch for your abilities. Once in the door, each job came with its own standards and rules. You learn diplomacy, and I particularly started to pay attention to how the companies were being run.
Gavin: Bryan, you actually went into marketing and received your degree from Utah Valley University. What made you choose that field, and how was UVU?
Bryan: I studied digital media -- or multimedia -- at UVU. Digital media is very similar to marketing in that it’s all about the customer. Both professions focus on providing an experience to the customer that motivates them to do or buy something. UVU is a great school and I owe the majority of my professional success to them.
Gavin: Prior to TML, you worked with US Synthetic for more than 10 years. What was your time like with the company?
Bryan: I can only say good things about US Synthetic. They have given me great experience in marketing. I’ve had the opportunity to assist in the efforts of launching five new US Synthetic business units, and now I have the opportunity to help grow another great Utah company, Too Many Legs Animation.
Gavin: When did the two of you first meet and become friends?
Ian: I am neighbors with Bryan's brother Nate, who is a good friend of the family. Nate and I were in my kitchen, talking about hard times and keeping in touch, when he recommended reaching out to his brother for help. We made the phone call right then, and now here we are.
Gavin: How did the idea to start your own animation company come about, and where did the name come from?
Ian: To be honest, and in Utah terms, I've believed this was a preordained destiny that I couldn't shake. Moving to California wasn't an option, as Utah is a brilliant place to live, and the Salt Lake industry openly showed a need for this type of company through the projects I've worked over the years. The company name actually came to my wife in a dream. We were watching some British comedies and the punch line of one of the episodes got lodged in her subconscious. She rolled over one morning and said, "I dreamed you changed your company name to Too Many Legs Animation." I changed it that day and haven't looked back since.
Gavin: What was it like forming the company at the start and gathering up a crew to work with?
Ian: It was like sifting through large balls of wet clay, but you could feel the toy statue inside; you knew there was something to be found, but it got messy at times. It really was about finding the right people who work well together. The mold takes time to set, and with building a new pipeline, it wasn't 100% clear what the work would require, but the vision was crystal clear. Originally, I had a partner who was focused on sales and perpetuated new business on top of the already-established clients. Eventually, he found other interests and moved on to other things.
Gavin: Being a fresh company, how was it for you finding clients to work with and establishing yourselves in an industry already filled with several studios?
Ian: I had been white-labeling for a bunch of local agencies after leaving the video-game industry. Jonathan was great at finding new work, which is what prompted me to approach him to join. Over time, people sought us out for that type of work. The company started to grow, and over time it had built a more solid reputation with the local agencies, directors, producers and overall Utah businesses.
Gavin: What were some of the projects you worked on during that first year?
Ian: One of the very first projects I ever worked on was a concept piece of artwork for Rocky Mountain Power, with a man in a bucket informing the audience about conservation. That led into collaborative-painted Maverik murals for the gas stations, an animation for Honda Days, and some visual-effects animations for local TV commercials. These led up to collaborative corporate videos for PPL Energy, Neways, and Usana, then the first two Healthy Marriages spots, followed with Batman for Brave and the Bold toy line. After that, the work has, blessedly, been regular.
Gavin: What was it like for all of you when award nominations started coming in for the work you were creating?
Bryan: It was like feeling your hands were being warmed after playing in the snow all day -- rubbing them together, we can now say we can seriously get to work. The accolades weren't part of the marketing plan, but they validated the incredible talent and hard-working artists who are here. When working together, we can crack the shell that is doing animation for a living. The accolades help justify the budgets and show that TML can do this for a living without having to sacrifice our personal lives, too much.
Gavin: As a small team with various styles and skills, how collaborative are the projects compared to individual contributions?
Ian: Good ideas should, and do, come from everywhere; a passerby security officer may have the next huge pony show. You never know, and therefore can't afford to criticize inspiration before it's interpreted. Every project brings people's skills to a new level or direction they wouldn't explore on their own, openly broadening their abilities and skill sets. It also makes the team listen to each other to bounce ideas off. Individual contributions are usually linked to budgets that may not require a team.
Gavin: Without giving too much away under non-disclosure agreements, what kind of stuff do you currently have in the works?
Bryan: We just wrapped on another Aquabats Super Show episode labeled "Kitty Litter," which will be airing in the next week or two. We're also touching on a few product animations that will revolutionize dentistry, as they say, but one of our personal favorites is developing an experience for fans of all ages at the first-ever Fantasy Con here in Salt Lake City.
Gavin: Do you have any plans to expand beyond what you're doing now, or are you keeping things tight?
Ian: This industry kind of dictates how much expanding and shrinking you can afford to do. Right now, keeping things tight makes sense, but if New York goes well next February, we'll need a bigger boat.
Gavin: What can we expect from both of you and the studio over the rest of the year?
Ian: If there's one thing that you can expect, it is to be constantly surprised at what's being created. You never know what'll leave these doors in the next few months, but I guarantee, it hasn't been done before and, hopefully, makes people smile.
Gavin: Is there anything you'd like to promote or plug?
Bryan: Lots of things, but keeping to our announcement plan, TML will be establishing the first Animation Summit during the Sundance Film Festival at THE HUB Presented by the Utah Film Commission, with very special guests and directors from the animation industry. Like the TML Facebook page and check regularly for announcements -- shameless plug. We're also co-developing and designing the first Fantasy Con experience.