It all started with cartoons. Pete, who hails from New Jersey, a suburb of New York City, was fascinated with drawing cartoons since he was a child. He started his career in animation by designing storyboards, eventually working on post-production, and finally supervising the entire creative process.

The fifth edition of Newton Speaks saw Pete Michels, the Supervising Director of popular shows like Rick and Morty, Family Guy, and The Simpsons, take us on a tour of the animations and behind-the-scenes of our favourite sitcoms.

After graduating from college, Pete Michels attended an animation class and later got into the graduate animation program at the University of California. Right after that, he bagged a job as a background layout artist on one of the greatest and longest-running TV shows. “When I first got into the business, The Simpsons were hiring. I was fresh out of school, and I was at the right place at the right time.” Though he wanted to work on character animations, he did not get his dream job that easily. He attempted the test twice, only to fail each time. But the directors of the show noticed that he had immense potential and the perspective needed in animating scenes, and so he was hired as the background layout artist on The Simpsons. After that, there was no looking back. As Pete puts it, “My foot was in the door”.

The Simpsons was a platform that kindled the curiosity in him. He eagerly asked questions about character design, character layout, character composing, and tried to learn everything along the way. He worked his way up to character layout artist, timer, assistant director, episode director, and finally, supervising director (or, as Pete describes, “The Director of the Directors”).

Taking the audience through a journey from pre-production to post-production, Pete spoke enthusiastically about developing the storyline, animating drawings and colourizing them. He emphasized the intricate details involved in animation, such as the positioning of the tongue in the character’s mouth when they pronounce certain sounds, views of the characters from different angles of the room, heights of the characters with reference to the main character and so on. While the pre-production and production take place on-site for Rick & Morty, syncing & animation is done in Vancouver, Canada, on many shows, the animation takes place all the way in Korea! During the session, Pete shared a few fun facts, like the fact that there is an entire library of aliens ready to be used anytime for the show. These details helped the audience appreciate the effort and creativity that goes into developing a good animated show.

Having worked on multiple projects with popular companies like Adult Swim and Netflix, Pete has come across numerous animation techniques ranging from hand-drawn frames to seamlessly rendered digital drawings. Classic animations of the 20th century involved hand-drawn storyboards, which had to undergo strenuous maintenance and upkeep. In contrast, modern-day animation is much more efficient and reliable as the storyboards are almost entirely digitized. While he claims that the digitization of animation has made us lazy, he also believes that the quality of the animation has gone up significantly.

Apart from creating memorable characters, his favourite part of the job is looking at what other artists have come up with. He continues to be mesmerized by the recent works of popular production companies such as DreamWorks & Pixar. Learning and getting inspired by his talented coworkers has definitely influenced his career growth. Self-improvement through constant learning is a quality he has valued throughout his life. In fact, years after the Simpsons aired, he decided to perfect his first-ever drawings of Homer Simpson to visualize his creative growth, and needless to say, the contrast was evident.

Working in animation invites a certain amount of risk in the form of “what next?”. While the uncertainty is constant, he believes that he has been blessed with some wonderful projects. He considers that drawing is a necessary skill for animation, as is having a sense of timing, perspective, and movement; these are an integral part of character construction that has played a vital role in animation.

From a background layout artist at Simpsons to working with popular platforms and channels like Netflix, Cartoon Network, Disney Nickelodeon, and many others, Pete embodies the creativity and mentality of a mind that never gets tired of learning. As is evident from his life, continually improving and never settling for mediocrity is the mantra to creating memorable and long-lasting animated TV shows.

To watch the full video of the talk and hear Pete Michels go more in-depth on animation, check out: https://youtu.be/XJz1TSmRWjY

Swathy Suresh, Rahul Ekkanath & Sree Lakshmi Ranjith Kumar