Andrew Overtoom Looks Back On VFS, Angry Beavers And SpongeBob SquarePants

By VFS Web Team, on April 8, 2013

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Andrew Overtoom graduated with honors from the VFS Classical Animation class in 1997 (CA10), and he since has become one of our most successful graduates, working as a Writer, Animation Timer and/or Director for Nickelodeon, Fox TV and Disney on such animated shows as Angry Beavers, Dave the BarbarianFamily Guy, Phineas & Ferb, and SpongeBob SquarePants (including The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie). He has also been known to direct the odd music video (for his band Woodpecker), his own live action features (My Life With Morrissey) and recently had a go at developing a half-hour animated comedy for Showtime (All in the Bunker). He's also an accomplished photographer, with a show opening this April (25th 2013) in Los Angeles. Whatever he does, he definitely does well, and definitely with humour. He is a very funny man!
We recently sat down for an interview with him via Skype from his home in Los Angeles, and this is some of what he had to say about his time at VFS, his first forays into the animation industry, how he got the nickname "The Canadian", how his VFS education still remains relevant to this day, and of course, what SpongeBob is really like.
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Hi Andrew, thanks for agreeing to talk with us. You went to VFS in 1996 from New Jersey to study in the Classical Animation program — how did VFS get on your radar back then? 
Andrew: I did research. I'm good at doing research. Actually, at first, I wanted to do stop motion. I saw Nick Park's animation, and I thought, that's what I want to do. I was working at the time as a piano tuner. I was quite good at it. I thought that was what I was going to do for my life; be a piano tuner. Then I saw Nick Park's stuff, and I thought, no, that's what I want to do.
VFS seemed to have the best program, so I went to Vancouver. I went to Classical Animation because I figured that if I wanted to make stop motion films, then I needed to start with that. We had a great time working with the Rocketship people who were the instructors at the time and were amazing [ i.e., International Rocketship Limited — Andrew is referring to VFS Faculty Marv Newland, Moose Pagan, Michael Girard, and Mike Grimshaw. Oher instructors Andrew referred to during our talk were Andy Bartlett And Gerry Fournier —Ed.]. They were so patient with us.
We spoke recently with Trent Noble, who is another graduate from your same class, and he made a funny remark about the old building the program was housed in back then.
Andrew: I loved working in the old buildings VFS started out in. I worked with Trent there. When I first meant him, I thought he must be cool because he had the prettiest girlfriend. He brought her into the place in the second week, and I was like, I've got to get to know that guy.
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We worked together on my final project [No Parachute]. He liked to work in the middle of the night and I would work all day on it. It was a very long film at 4 minutes. And of course, this is back when there wasn't any CGI.
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Trent told a funny story about going down to LA after graduating, barging into the big studios to get an interview and ending up walking dogs. What was it like when you first graduated?
Andrew: Yeah, he was living on my couch when he did all that. I didn't walk dogs, but just like him I did also walk into the studios with my reel in hand. It didn't work out so well. I would walk in and say, "I want to make cartoons." And they were like, "You get out of here and don't come back until you know what you want to do!" But the options were too broad, and I didn't really know. I didn't really know where I fit in the industry.
How did you end up as an Animation Timer on Nickelodeon's Angry Beavers
Andrew: Well, I went in for an interview with this guy, Mike Gerard, a producer, who everybody is afraid of. He can scare the crap out of you. He is a man of few words. He just sort of stares through your head. He could kill you as much as look at you. He smokes cigars and dresses like a cowboy. And drives a big pickup truck. He's awesome!
Anyway, he saw my film [ No Parachute ] and thought I was from Canada, and because of that, thought that I'd be good at Timing. So he hired me as a Timer. I had no idea what that even meant.
I went home and told Tricia [Andrew's spouse], and she asked me what it meant, and I said, "I don't know." I thought it was an entry level position. And she said, "Oh well, you'll probably move up in the company."
Then, the first day I go in there, people are asking me, "What are you going to be doing?" And I told them, "I'm a Timer," and they were like, "Oh, wow, ….a Timer —Gee, I'd like to be able to do that some day."
So I tell Tricia, it looks like this position is actually pretty important, like, just below being a Director. And she asks me, "What do you actually do?" I said, "I don't know." And she was like, "What the hell?"
Some of the other Timers weren't too happy about my being there. They were all saying things like, "Oh, it's the big Canadian — He thinks he's so great." And I would tell them, "I'm not Canadian, I'm from New Jersey." And they'd be like, "Oh, the big Canadian from New Jersey!"
So that became my nick name: The Canadian.
They showed me to my cubicle and it had all this wood in it, all these 2x4s lying around. And they were like, oh yeah, I guess we have to move that stuff. They weren't so happy to have me there.
So I guess you learnt a bit on the job?
Andrew: There were a couple of times when I thought I was going to be fired. I mean there were people there who really knew what they were doing. And for me, it was like learning a new language. It was super stressful. My face was all red all the time. It was horrible. But there was this woman, who was one of the freelance timers, and I studied her sheets, and copied them basically, as much as I could, and it finally started sinking in. Then, one day — I think I was going to get fired — and I handed in my sheets, and I heard the director go "Hallelujah! — Finally, you got it!" And I was, like, "Oh, thank god!"
Well, obviously you took to it.
Andrew: Yeah well, once I understood what it was, I was like, Oh, you write it down here, and then that is what the characters do — I get it." But it took a while to make that connection.
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Would you say that VFS prepared you for that job, even though it was a new thing for you to do?
Andrew: Well, they weren't teaching timing at VFS back then. But here's the thing. When I was making my film at VFS, there was this requirement to put everything down on paper. You have your columns. You put all your drawings in one of them. And in the left margin you write down everything that is going to happen: all the poses, all the expressions, when everything happens. And because I had such a long film, the documentation was crazy, and it was driving me nuts to have to put all this detail in, it was becoming a huge tome. And it was a requirement. They had to force us to do it, because otherwise we would not have done any of it. So, I'm grinding away doing this and I'm thinking, this is horrible, imagine if this was somebody's job, that would be the worse job ever! And that's exactly the job I got and I've been doing it for 16 years!
Do you ever still work with Mike Gerard?
Andrew: I haven't seen him in a long time, but when I left Beavers to go work on SpongeBob, I went and told him, "Thanks for everything — you totally changed my life." I have a big soft spot for that guy. He was super nice to me. He totally saved my ass. He was no BS. He just looked at the work and he thought it was good and he hired me. Which is super cool in this business, cause, you know, 90% of the time they're like, "Yeah but… he's Canadian…." (laughter) "I'm not friends with him" That sort of thing.
So, people still think that you're Canadian?
Andrew: Yeah. And the really ridiculous thing is I wrote all over my resume, "I'm American, living in Canada. I am able to work in the US." But when I went down for my final interview with Mike Gerard — I had sent him a little test, in the mean time, and he and the rest of the directors liked the test — So, I went in to see Mike, and he said, "Ok, so, listen, we're going to hire you, and I think you'll do a great job. You're going to go talk to Susan (the producer) and she's going to fix you up with a working visa and tell you your salary and stuff." And I said, "Working visa? I don't need a working visa — I'm from New Jersey." He said, "You mean, you're not Canadian?" And I said, "No! I wrote it ten times on my resume. I'm American." And...this is why they called him scary Mike Gerard, because he just started breathing hard and shaking and then he yelled out, "Susan! Get in here — He's not Canadian!"
But the guys in the studio didn't get that message?
Andrew: No. It's a good lesson in corporate management. You try to protect yourself the best you can, but basically, people don't read anything.
So what does a Timer do?
Andrew: It's the hidden work. When you do it right, people watching will go, "Oh, the writing was good." And when you do it wrong, people will go, "Oh, the writing was bad." It's the unheralded work. It's everything that makes the animation work to convey the character, to make the lines deliver, to make the comedy succeed. It makes you understand why Chaplin would do the same take 100 times — because there are subtle things in the pose, in a gesture, that make the difference to how something comes across. It was interesting to me, because I thought I would be drawing, but this was much more than that, it was close to direction, but very detailed.
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How did you make the transition from Timer to Director on SpongeBob SquarePants?
Andrew: I started freelancing on SpongeBob during its first season while I was still working on Angry Beavers. My friend Tom Yasumi had been working with me on Angry Beavers, and when he got a directing gig on SpongeBob, he recommended me to do sheets when they needed a freelancer. Tom was one of the guys who nicknamed me "Stupid Canadian." He sort of tortured me when I first started there, but then he became my friend. I don't know how that happened, but we're still friends now. So he recommended me and they liked me and I wound up moving from Beavers to SpongeBob.
Alan Smart, the Supervising Director on SpongeBob, liked my sheets a lot, and there was a guy who was leaving, which opened up an opportunity for Alan to hire me. He gave me a shot as a director and it was good — I was there for 12 years.
When you were directing, did you find you wanted to do the timing as well?
Andrew: Well, with the directing, it's not just the animation, it's everything else besides. Like, when I was working on SpongeBob, I would consult with the creators / writers to make sure the story elements were right. I would look at the music, the voice actors, etc. There's just a lot more going on.
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How was directing the SpongeBob movie different from the TV show?
Andrew: It was different in the sense that we [Andrew and co-director Tom Yasumi] weren't doing the animatics any more. In the movie, Steve Hillenburg and Derek Drymon did the animatics by themselves. They were in there constantly working away on it. They called us Animation Timing Directors for the movie. So we basically concentrated on doing the performances on the sheets. We didn't focus so much on the slugging and making the animatic.
It really is all about those sheets for you, isn't it?
Andrew: That is the basis of animation direction — working it out, your sensibility of the acting on those sheets.
How do you distinguish between what is writing and what is directing, since you make such critical changes sometimes with those sheets?
Andrew: That's a line you have to dance around because some people can get a bit touchy about those classifications. By the time it gets to doing the timing, you don't want to be changing the story with your adjustments, you just want to "plus it" — make it read better, punch it up — that sort of thing. But you don't want to make any structural changes. The big writing changes happen in the animatic. Because you get the board and you slug it.
But in animatics, you pull the story apart and you make tons of new drawings and you change the storyline — you get rid of all the junk that doesn't work, all the flat gags, etc. Then hopefully, after three days of animatics, it comes out the other side and it's funny and it makes sense and it's punchy, and you don't have to do too much work in the timing phase. But you always find stuff to punch up.
It's very similar to arranging music. That's why there are a lot of animation directors with musical backgrounds. Arranging the performance of the animation is like orchestrating a symphony. You're taking these different elements and imaging how it will be, in your head, and getting it down on paper. Trying to get a rhythm going.
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I know you've directed some live action stuff, like, My Life With Morrissey, and the Woodpecker music videos, but I also understand you were developing a half-hour comedy series for Showcase called All in the Bunker, which sounds like a pretty crazy idea.
Andrew: Yeah. It was a crazy idea. And it was a crazy amount of work. I was painting the house one day and I thought it up. Then one day a new writer came onto SpongeBob and they gave him the office next to mine. And I thought, I'll go talk to this new guy. He said he wanted to learn how to pitch some shows around town. And I said, "You know, I have a really, really stupid idea for a show. It'll never go anywhere, but if you want to learn how to pitch, we could work on the show together. I know a few managers, and if they're into it, then we'll go in and pitch to them, and they'll probably throw us out of the office, but at least you'll get to meet them," and so on. So, he said, "Ok, what's the idea?" I told him and he said, "That's great!"
Do you know the idea? [ Here's the idea for All in the Bunker: Witness the wacky antics of a pea-brained Adolf Hitler and his cronies as they hide out in the bunker in the final days of World War II. Whether it's fist-fighting with the Pope over the last slice of pizza or competing to impress (and undress) the insatiable Eva Braun, you'll wish you could go underground with this hilarious bunch of misanthropic misfits as they take one day at a time.... with nothing going their way. — The animation was done by Trent Noble, Andrew Overtoom and Yann Tremblay ]
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Yeah, so anyway, we went in and pitched the idea to these two guys, Jeffrey Thal and Jon Brown. We had a little board that we made up. And after we finished, they said, "This is great! This is the best thing we've ever seen. We want to do it. We want you to do it." And I was, like, "Waaa...?...what the…?" You know, as we were walking in, I was saying, "Ok remember, they're going to throw us out."
So we did the whole thing. It was just supposed to be a rough animatic. And they kept asking for more. They wanted more. And by the end it was an almost completely fleshed out trailer. Which was insane. We never expected to do that much. But we did it. They took us into Showtime to pitch. We played it for the guy who was in charge of their programming. He watched the whole thing, and then he turned it off, and swiveled around in his chair and said, "Sorry, we have something just exactly like this." And we all looked at him. And then he laughed his head off. And he said, "This is great! I love it." When we were leaving, his 2nd in command said, "You're a sick #$@%#@&, but it worked! He never likes anything."
The downside was they had to go to pitch it to the big boss. And the guy we'd just seen warned us, "Here's the deal, we love it, we'd love to do it, but we don't do animation on Showtime. We never have done animation — except for one time, a long time ago, we did something we thought was the funniest thing in the world. We loved it. We made it. We put it on and it was a complete disaster. Everybody hated it. That's the fly in the ointment. This is what you're going to have to get past. The big cheese, for him to say yes, that's what you have to deal with, I'm just warning you." And we said, "Ok."
The next day, he calls my agent, and says, "Listen, I just wanted to tell you, we talked about it and we really love this All in the Bunker, and we intend to go forward with it, as long as it's ok-ed at the top." So, my agent tells me this, and I'm like, "That's great!" And my agent is like, "Don't get excited, it's still just 50/50." I called Trent and told him and he was like, "That's $%#@!*# awesome!"
And then a week went by and the guy called and said, "He won't do it. He won't do animation. It's too risky." And we were like, "Oh man!"
And then Comedy Central was kind of interested, but not as excited as he was. And after that, the smaller companies were… I don't know… It just fell apart.
I was fascinated by seeing the All in the Bunker stuff because it was three of you "Class 10" guys (Andrew, Trent Noble and Yann Tremblay) working on it.
Andrew: Yeah, it's kind of funny to think about it that way - that it was us three class 10 guys, but that is exactly what it was. Yann was working on it from afar. We gave him all the stuff that we thought was too hard to do. He did all the dog stuff, and when Hitler had to run through the courtyard with all the guys shooting at him, he did that. Trent and I didn't want to do all those steps. And while he was doing that, Trent and I were working day and night in LA.
What are you doing now?
Andrew: I'm working on Phineas and Ferb doing sheets. Disney seems like the place to be right now. They have a good TV department now. They're putting a lot of effort into finding and developing new shows. They're making some really cool Mickey Mouse shorts. Aaron Springer is on it. He was the best board director/writer on SpongeBob. Everybody's either at Disney or Cartoon Network now.
When I first saw the stills from your graduating film, No Parachute, it put me in mind of those great old Warner Bros and Fleischer Bros cartoons.
Andrew: That's what I grew up with, that's what I liked, and that's kind of what I can draw. Tricia and I took the colour pallet from old cartoons. As far as the pallet is concerned, it represents old Disney and Warner Bros. It's a warm and cheerful pallet.
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Did you ever get around to making a stop motion film?
Andrew: No. I tried while I was working to make one on my own, but it was just too much work. I used to love to make all the props in the Woodpecker videos, which was a bit like making stop motion. And while I was working on SpongeBob, these guys who have a company called Screen Novelties (Mark Caballero, Chris Finnegan, Seamus Walsh) did some stop motion for it, and they asked me to do a documentary on their process, which I enjoyed doing, just to see their process. This was during the last season that I was there at SpongeBob. You know, you could tell it was getting near the end because, the guy that was sent over with me to help was titled "Senior PA". So, yeah. Me and the "Senior PA" got sent over there and we liked it so much they had to kick us out.
They were hilarious. The first day we were there, they bought us some sandwiches, but then afterwards we were like, "Hey, mind if we come over and hang out some more?" And they were all like, "Well, you can come over, but, we can't just keep giving you sandwiches — you guys have to look after yourselves ...don't you have jobs?"
Do you ever think about going back to VFS to do a workshop, or think in general about teaching?
Andrew: Oh yeah, I'd love to do that. I'd be totally into it. I love the idea of going back there. I think the school was great. I still remember things the teachers taught me. It really gave me a great foundation. It works. It was well worth the money, and then some. All those guys were great. And they really had a lot of patience, because we sucked #$$! They were really nice.
Thanks Andrew - I really appreciate you're taking the time to talk.
Andrew: Thank you, that was super fun! Pass the word to the school, I'll come up there anytime I'm available.
Will do - cheers!
Cheers!