Foundations, Jello, and Ugly Babies

foundationIt’s been a very busy couple of months. We visual developed and produced English and Vietnamese pilot episodes for the International Humane Society, and have been eyeball deep in development and preproduction for an educational series for another international non-profit organization (which I’m dying to share but we need to keep it confidential until we finish producing season one).

All of this development reminds me of the last mission trip I took. For an entire week, we dug and poured the foundation of a church in the Dominican Republic. In previous trips, we built entire structures or did all of the finishing, but on the last trip all we did (as far as construction) was build the foundation and it was literally the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life.

Development for Animation is very much the same. It’s awesome work and we all love the blank canvas, but it moves slow and you have to get it just right. You have to consider the end game and make sure what you are measuring for the foundation is going to be adequate. You also have to dig hard and make adjustments as you go. Like concrete, it takes time to set. Like rebar, you must carefully build the skeleton correctly and make sure it’s going hold up under the pressure.

At the same time, development is like nailing jello to the wall. It’s formless and playable and doesn’t initially feel like it’s going to amount to anything. You have to trust the process and follow your gut.

John Lassiter and Ed Catmull of Pixar have both talked about how every one of their movies starts out as an ugly baby. The idea is that parents love their kids but new borns are usually messy odd looking creatures and it takes time to get cute. It takes time for a show to find it’s center, for characters to feel like they fit, for environments and backstories to feel cohesive.

But what a fun ride it is. I’m blown away that I get to do this for a living. It’s not easy work but it’s passionate work. Passion means suffering. You love something enough that you are willing so suffer to see it happen. So whatever creative work you are doing, enjoy the ride. It’s a journey not a destination. If you are just starting your creative career or education you may feel like the work is hard and progress is slow, but you are laying a great foundation for the future!

Character Design Course Review

DArriegaOne thing all artists need is continuing education. It doesn’t matter if you have an established career and have been working for years. Artists (and leaders) must continue growing in their craft and in other ways that stretch them.

I recently completed a Schoolism character design course from Pixar’s Daniel Arriaga and loved it. Arriega has worked on such films as Monsters Inc, Monsters University, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up, and Toy Story 3. He also worked on projects at Disney including Wreck-It-Ralph and (as art director) on Prep and Landing: Naughty vs. Nice.

The course covered topics like: shape language, silhouette, rhythm, design and composition, gesture and mood, exaggeration, character moments, and expressions and I really enjoyed his perspective on each of the topics.

Most lessons started with a famous artist highlight featuring the work of various illustrators, comic strip artists, character designers, or visual development artists who displayed mastery of the specific area Arriaga was going to cover in that particular lesson.

Next, he would show how that principle was applied in character design for feature film by showing specific behind the scenes examples from Pixar. I really enjoyed this aspect. Many of the examples he showed I had never seen (and I have just about every “Art of” Pixar book ever published).

Finally, Arriaga would demonstrate the principle and talk about the process. Watching an experienced master character designer draw characters while talking about his thinking process is invaluable.

I won’t give away much more than that (so as to not step on Schoolism’s proprietary toes) but I highly recommend this class to any serious character designer. This was an amazing class and is available as a “go at your own pace” course, or as a specific date range course (check dates/availability) where Arriaga actually critiques your work after each lesson. The second version is obviously limited and only offered a couple of times per year (and more expensive, but justifiably so).

I should also mention, that I am not affiliated with Schoolism in anyway. I don’t get any affiliate commission to recommend them. I simply took the course, really enjoyed it, and want to recommend it to any serious character designer. I’m definitely going to take more courses there myself.

Elements of Art: Shape

shape2Early in my animation career, I heard visual development artists and art directors mention shape language. Somewhat baffled and intrigued by this term, I started looking into it. I had learned about artistic voice, color scripts, and other strange right-brained terms, but was not familiar with shape language.

Shape language basically refers to how the shapes in a piece of art (character design, background, object, etc.) intentionally tell you something about the story, character, mood, or tone (or all of the above).

In previous posts, I listed the elements and principles of art, then unpacked the first element of art, line. This brings us to the second element of art. Shape. Understanding shape will help you in all aspects of the visual arts. A good understanding of shape will help you break large complex objects (even animals or the human form) into it’s simpler shape components.

Understanding shape will help take the intimidation factor out of drawing and will give you direction in what shape choices you make when creating a character, prop, background, or other type of artwork.

Shapes are basically made up of closed contour lines. They are two dimensional and do not have depth (or Z-space for my CG friends).

Shapes can be positive or negative. Positive shapes show the contour or silhouette of an object. Negative space is the space around an object. We often think of positive space, but good artists are just as cognizant and intentional with negative space as they are with positive space.

Shapes can be geometric (triangle, square, circle, etc.) or they can be organic. Organic shapes are freeform. They have no rules and are random. Organic shapes reflect nature. Most objects including characters, props, and landscape elements can be broken down into organic and geometric shapes.

Once a basic understanding and use of shapes is integrated into your work, you can begin to understand and define more complex uses of shape such as the concept of shape language I mentioned above.

One of the clearest and most well defined use of shape language I use to describe or talk about shape language can be found in the animated film The Rise of the Guardians by DreamWorks. Each of the 6 main characters has a clearly defined shape language which carries emotional, story, character trait, and inter relational weight.

The book The Art of DreamWorks Rise of the Guardians by Ramin Zahed does a fantastic job of unpacking each character’s shape language, the reasoning behind it, and how it impacted the film. For a great primer on shape language, I highly recommend this book.

In the next post, we’ll look at the third element of art. Stay tuned and thanks for reading!

Art Direction 101: The Elements and Principles of Art

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Years ago I taught a Visual Story Telling workshop at a youth performing arts camp after reading Bruce Block’s “The Visual Story” which is an industry standard art direction book for film and animation producers which talks about the principles of contrast and affinity, space, line and shape, tone, color, movement, and rhythm from a motion media producer’s point of view.

I so loved the book that I wanted to share it, but it hit me after teaching the camp, that I should have started at an even more core level that applies to all visual artists; the elements and principles of art. I wanted to share them here, then build on them in future posts.

An element is defined as: a part or aspect of something abstract, especially one that is essential or characteristic

A principle is defined as: a law or fact of nature that explains how something works or why something happens

Art is defined as: something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings

I’ve seen a few different versions of the lists but most art educators teach a version of the following list. I’ve categorized each list from simple to increasing complexity (in my own opinion) and I’ll describe each element and principle in future posts.


Line, Shape, Form, Color, Value, Texture, Space


Balance, Contrast, Pattern, Rhythm, Variety, Unity, Emphasis

Stay tuned as we look at each of these in the coming weeks!

Key Advice From 12 Industry Leaders

In addition to 20 chapters of practical content, there are also 12 interviews with some key creative industry leaders in my new book “Calling All Artists”. One question I asked each  of the interviewees was this;

“If you had one overarching piece of advice for an artist trying to find their way, what would it be?”

I don’t have the space here to include their full answers, but I wanted to grab one or two lines from each to provide an overview. Even in these short statements, there is a wealth of knowledge and experience. These are in reverse alphabetical order (I thought that would be fair since they are in alphabetical order in the book :).

Note: If you would like to see a list of credits, click the contributor’s name.

The word Animation means the state of being full of life or vigor; liveliness. What could be more fulfilling and joy-filled than being part of a process that creates animation? So have fun!
Marcelo Vignali — Production Designer, Sony Pictures Animation

Try to always have fun and enjoy creating art. Try to turn even a small project into a great oportunity to learn and advance.
Narina Sokolova — TV animation background artist, Disney Television

This is not a career where you can be lazy. It requires determination to push you through your goals you must set, it requires passion, because you have to love what you are doing or you will give up to soon.
Stephen Silver — character designer, drawing teacher, entrepreneur, author

When does time stop and the world become quiet? That’s the discipline for you.
Ashley Postlewaite — Co-founder/Executive Producer, Renegade Animation

Study story structure. Write!
Michael Maurer — film and TV writer

I would say, be humble, be good at what you do.
Heather Martinez — director, writer, story board artist

My advice to writers would be to read scripts and watch cartoons.
Shea Fontana — Children’s TV writer, development and distribution consultant

Do it everyday. You’re competing with people who take art seriously. If you’re not serious, go sell insurance. It will be a lot easier.
Phil Cookefilmmaker, media consultant, and author of One Big Thing: Discovering What You Were Born to Do

Build relationships by being humble, willing, and then once you get the job over deliver.
Kathleen Cooke — Co-Founder Cooke Pictures

Always bring you’re “A” game. Be the absolute best you can be in all that you do. It’s hard work, but again, it’s worth it.
Cassie Byram — actress, singer, song-writer, and Executive Creative Producer, Oodles World Inc.

You must have a tremendous amount of passion and drive to be in the business. You must also have an outstanding work ethic.
Amick Byram — feature film and theater actor and singer

To go out and do it. Don’t feel like you have to research, research, research.
Tom Bancroft — former Disney Supervising Animator, Director, Studio Owner, Character Designer, Author

There are 10-14 questions in each interview and some great back-and-forth discussion. To read the full interviews along with the rest of the book, click here to go directly to the Amazon page.

Official Book Launch: Calling All Artists

forpostSee details and purchase options here.
(or go directly to Amazon)

Well it’s finally here. Six months in the making (although I could argue decades) with many late nights and early mornings, encouragement from my wife, kids, and great friends, I’m proud to announce the official release of my first book: Calling All Artists. (See printed manuscript from last week at left.)

After compiling and editing 210+ pages (39,790+ words), setting the master manuscript up with all of the correct styles needed for e-readers, uploading to Amazon it’s finally ready for purchase.

It’s available for Kindles (and Kindle app on iPhone/iPad and other devices) at


I was extremely humbled by these generous endorsements from some very kind industry veterans. Some also have some amazing interviews in the book along with several other TV, Feature Film, Broadway, Music, and Video Production veterans!

An immensely practical guide for the creative in all of us. Todd Hampson’s work has blessed me and thousands of others – his writing about the nuts and bolts of being a working creative will bless many more. Highly recommended!

Phil Vischer — Creator of VeggieTales and What’s in the Bible?

When someone with Todd Hampson’s credentials and experience talks about creativity, I listen.  In fact, his new book, “Calling All Artists” was the kick in the pants I needed to move forward on my next project.  If you live a creative life (and all of us should), then I recommend the book.  You won’t regret it.

Phil Cooke — filmmaker, media consultant, and author of One Big Thing: Discovering What You Were Born to Do

Having been an adjunct professor in the cinema and media departments of two major universities, I know firsthand the positive impact this book will have on students.  Whether graduating from college or deciding what to do with your life, this book answers hard questions,  provides insightful information, and gives you life changing tips on how to make better choices and start a creative career in the 21st century.

Kathleen Cooke —, Co-Founder Cooke Pictures,

Todd Hampson’s “Calling All Artists” e-book is a GREAT tool for anyone just getting into animation or even those that have been in it a while and want to reinvent themselves and/or reignite their passions.  As artists, we are not very good at looking internally or into the future, so planning our careers is a mysterious journey.  Todd really gets you to organize your thoughts and aline them with your talents!  That is THE path to success for any artist!  Additionally, his optimistic viewpoint toward the industry, and his excitement about it, is a breath of fresh air we all need to hear!

Tom Bancroft — former Disney Supervising Animator, Director, Studio Owner, Character Designer, Author

Todd Hampson listens and delivers! I have personally had the privilege of working with Todd and his company Timbuktoons developing an animated series for kids. He and his wonderful team were able to grant my every wish, and then some. The information he shares in this book will absolutely help artists on their creative journey.

Cassie Byram — actress, singer, song-writer, and Executive Creative Producer, Oodles World Inc.

Needless to say, I’m really excited about this book, most of all because I think it is going to help thousands of artists discover their creative calling and how to thrive in a creative career. I’m planning a few promotional events to help get the word out about the book but I couldn’t wait to share the news. Please tell your friends and share this link ( on social media to help get the word out!



How Mike Wazowski Can Help You Discover Your True Identity


The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines identity as: “the distinguishing character or personality of an individual”.

Chances are you haven’t ever really thought much about this. Most people don’t until they face a crisis, major transition, or are facing some other decision that will impact their life in a significant way.

For some people their sense of identity is wrapped up in their career, for some it’s wrapped up in being a parent…or a soldier, or an artist…etc. But identity really goes much deeper than that.

Identity has to do with who you are at the core level as a uniquely designed individual. You are a one-of-a-kind masterpiece with hardwiring and experiences that no one else has.

Occupations, roles, seasons, and situations change, but your identity remains constant.

I always find that abstract concepts are better explained by specific examples. Since I’m an animation nerd, I thought I’d use an example from an animated movie.

Learn a lesson from Mike Wazowski from Pixar’s Monsters University. (Forget what you know about him from Monsters Inc. for a moment.) His whole identity was wrapped up in becoming a scarer. It’s all he thought about since he was a kid. His story arc (and Sulley’s as well) in the film is all about finding his identity.

This example is relevant to you and I. If you identified with any of the S5 categories I mentioned in an earlier post, I think you will relate to Mike.

You have a dream of becoming a certain type of creative, but you’re not 100% sure if that is your identity or not. Interest and desire do not equal identity. Identity is only found in the journey and is usually different that what it appears to be on the surface.

At a critical moment in the film, after several suprise wins in a fraternity competition, Sully realizes they have won through a combination of luck and hard work.

He realizes that their team does not have what it takes to win the final challenge. He turns to Mike and says, “You can train monsters like this all you want, but you can’t change who they are!”

Even the initials of the fraternity they belonged to pointed to how they were percieved by others and how they felt deep down. Oozma Kappa (OK). Their motto was “We’re OK!” That was their identity. We’re just OK. Nothing special. No real talent to share here.

Later, after coming to grips with the fact that he was not a natural scarer, Mike says to Sulley, “I thought if I wanted it enough I could show everyone that Mike Wazowski is someone special.”

Mike’s sense of self worth was wrapped up in his identity as a scarer. But his real identity was as a forward thinking coach. He brought out the best in others, taught them how to work as a team, and found a way to win. Infact, during one of the very last shots of the film, at the end of a montage of scenes showing how Mike and Sulley climbed the ranks from the mail room to the scare floor, just as they are about to step foot on the scare floor as official scarers, Sully looks at Mike and says, “Are you ready, coach?”

You’ll miss the line if you’re not paying close attention, but it punctuates Mike’s mature acceptence and celebration of his true identity.

All along he was bringing out the best in everyone around him. All along he was studying every angle of scaring. All along he was finding a way to win. But it took a journey of self discovery to understand his true identity.

I would describe Mike Wasowski’s identity as: “a fearless and unconventional, motivational catalyst”. If you were to put your identity into words, how would you describe it? Take some time to reflect and talk to others who know you well. Take a crack at writing out your identity statement. Try to use as few words as possible, write a few versions, sleep on it, then come back to it to come up w/ a final version.  Feel free to post your identity statement below. I’d love to hear from you.

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The 5 Key Steps To Animation Development

In a previous post I introduced the 4 phases of the animation process using characters to help give an overview. Today, I’ll use one of the characters to further explain the first phase of the process and unpack 5 critical steps in the process.

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Development Guru (Progressum Instruo) is a wise sage who’s here to guide you thru the tangled land of developing your idea, determining a budget, and mapping out a schedule. His special powers and years of battle-tested development techniques will help you on your journey thru the Development Jungle.

This first phase has to do with your concept itself. Occasionally, we have clients come to us with a complete concept developed but more often than not, clients come to us with a partly developed concept or just a basic idea. Our job in development is come up with a solution. What is the best concept to use to solve your problem? This is where experience and a development process is absolutely necessary.

Research the demographics of the target audience, find out what creative approaches have been taken before for similar concepts (believe me, there’s nothing 100% new under the sun), determine what the concept possibilities are (style, setting, type of characters, unique situation, etc.), who the stake holders are, and why certain approaches may be more or less effective than others. This is also the phase where reference is gathered (or reference trips taken) to help with visual and treatment development.

This is where the nebulous idea begins to take shape. The rules of the concept world are defined. Character personalities and back stories are fleshed out. Secondary characters are developed, and story arcs are crafted.

Once we get a basic understanding of the concept, we move into visual development where we begin to design the look and feel of the concept. What do the characters look like? What do the backgrounds look like? What are the art direction rules of the concept.

Once visual development is underway, we usually develop a treatment. A treatment is a short (5-25 page, depending on the scope) description of the concept, characters, world, special features, rules, etc. and has artwork to help convey these aspects.


Once the treatment is approved we write a script. Everything leading up to the script is absolutely necessary and helps make for a great script. Fully developed characters (likes, dislikes, strengths, weaknesses, quirks, backgrounds) and the specifics of their interpersonal dynamics will GREATLY influence and strengthen the script. The more time you spend in development the more interesting and stronger your project will be.


This is the foundation of the house. You can’t go back (without additional time and money) once you move into pre-production. Think of the development phase as the blue prints for a house. You don’t want to start cutting 2×4′s and pouring concrete until the blue prints are finalized. Development is the surveying and architectural process for any creative story and character driven project.

This process can take a few weeks (for small projects), a few months (for medium sized projects), or a year or more (for very large projects). TV shows are often in development for 1-3 years and animated feature films even longer. Pixar films, for example, have a minimum 4 year development phase (in most cases).

Once the planning, concept, final script, and key visual development are all completed, it’s time to move down the pipeline to Pre-Production.

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Are You Part of the S5 Audience? A Must Read for Any Creative!

s5graphicMy goal as a Creative Career Coach is to help creatives find their calling and plan their education and careers based on their core marketable strengths, while living a fulfilling life and making the world a better place. S5 Represents the 5 key seasons a person in the creative industry needs to intersect with a mentor or Creative Career Coach.

High school and college career counselors are a great resource, but they have to be more concerned with a students credits, applications, grades, and requirements than they do helping creative students find their calling and core marketable strengths. Some colleges have great job placement and internship partner programs, but many do not. Once in a specific career, there are very few resources around to help people transition into the creative field from other fields, or to help struggling creatives find their way again.

Here’s a description of each of the S5 categories. Pinpoint which one you belong to and leave a comment below to let me know what resources you need to thrive as an artist!

1. SENIORS (High School)
Choosing a creative career track begins with the college or post-highschool training a senior picks. My goal is to get great resources into the hands of high-school seniors, school career counselors, and high-school art teachers.

2. SOPHOMORES (College)
College Sophomores have a critical window of opportunity to declare a major, switch majors, or even switch schools. Many sophomores realize they are in the wrong track, but are afraid to pivot because they have 2 years invested. Nothing could be worse than going 2 more years down the wrong creative track when they sense a change is really needed. I want to get advice, information, and resources into the hands, heads, and hearts of college sophomores to empower them to make sure they are being educated according to their core strengths, passions, and calling.

I know first hand that college training, though crucial to gaining employment, is only half of the education they need. Beginning a creative career and working “hands on” in the industry is the other half of the educational equation. I want to help prepare creatives for real world work, track down internships, help them develop relational skills and work habits to set them apart from the crowd, and find ways to get a foot in the door of their dream job! This is also a critical time to decide if graduate school is a good option.

After 13 years in a graphic design and illustration career, I found myself discontent and, through a process, wound up quitting my job to start an animation company. I’ve seen many people take the courageous step to transition into a creative field that better fits their passions and core strengths, or even transition from an unrelated career to one in the creative arts.

For example, one of our TimbuktoonCloud Team Members flew helicopters for the military for 12 years, then decided to pursue her dream of working in the animation industry! Another great friend and long time Timbuktoons Team Member actually went to Seminary and planned on working in a church, until he felt called BACK into the creative arts where he has thrived for over 12 years doing tons of meaningful work for churches, great companies, and great non-profits. Starting over can be scary and overwhelming and I want to help creatives who are making, or thinking of making, that transition.

Creatives are usually multi-talented. Creatives usually jump from one creative passion to another. Creatives often doubt their capability and have a hard time seeing their best creative strengths. Almost every creative I know gets to a point of frustration and confusion sometime in their career. They get stuck and need some help. I want to help this group of creatives get clear on their calling and core marketable strengths, and I want to help them develop a concrete game plan to help them thrive again.

I’ll have some great resources for my S5 audience in the near future, so if you know anyone who fits one of these categories, PLEASE encourage them to check out the blog and sign up for my e-news. If you are like me, you wish you had a creative mentor or coach intersect your life at one of these critical seasons of life.

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Let me know what you think. You can leave a comment below. If you leave a comment, do me a favor and list your creative arts field, and whether you are a student or a professional.

How To Release Your Inner Creative B.E.A.S.T.

A group of British authors called “The Inklings” met together in the 1930’ and 40’s. They connected over the years to challenge and support each other. This group included famous authors C. S. Lewis, who wrote “The Chronicles of Narnia” (and other famous literary works), and J. R. R. Tolkien who wrote “The Hobbit”, and the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.


So, if you want to be a successful artist, you must take up pipe smoking and start using your initials instead of your name. Seriously though, it’s worth taking the time to study this group and think thru the benefits of being part of such a group in your creative field.

I meet with 2 other creatives a few times each month for encouragement and accountability. We help each other to pursue our creative calling, serve our families, and live out our faith. It’s also a great way to talk out our creative ideas with people we trust. It’s never convenient to get together (the tyranny of the urgent has a way of crowding out what’s important if we let it), but it’s always worth it.  Without fail, we walk away each time with renewed passion and clarity on what we are called to do.

Typically this is referred to as an “accountability group” but it’s much more than that. We’re helping each other fight battles to pursue our creative calling. This acronym will help you remember 5 ways having a group like this will release your inner creative B.E.A.S.T!

1. Balance
Creatives need social connection. Hang time. This is a place to be refreshed. It needs to be an unregimented but purposeful space in your time budget. It may seem counter productive, but you’ll find your productivity, passion, drive, and creative clarity will increase.

2. Encouragement
This word has comforting and soft connotations, but the core meaning of encouragement really means to “spur on to courage”. The prefix “en” means “to cause”. We need to cause courage in each other. Sometimes that comes via a pat on the back. Sometimes it’s a kick in the pants. There are 1000 road blocks to fulfilling your creative calling. You need courage to keep up the fight, and you need others who will push you toward courage and perseverance.

3. Accountability
Good friends follow up with you about past struggles and stated goals. They remind you when you are veering off course, not honoring your commitments, or not fulfilling or pursuing your life’s mission.

4. Sharpening
Artists are not islands and we need each other to accomplish our goals and pursue our calling. By seeing excellence in a particular area of another artist’s life, you will rise to the occasion as you spend time with them. If you want to be a better artist, leader, athlete (or whatever), surround yourself with excellent people who raise the bar. You will naturally grow toward the caliber of those around you.

5. Trusted Input
Creatives collaborate by nature. One perspective heightens another. Thoughts and ideas are untangled by talking them out. This is vital for creatives. Having a few other artists speak into your ideas is priceless. This will help you gain confidence in a direction, or see areas that need to be course-corrected.

Whatever stage you are currently in regarding your creative journey, finding a B.E.A.S.T. group is guaranteed to help you go further faster.

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What are some other benefits to being part of a group? You can leave a comment below.