Once there was a time — within living memory, for some — when a person was trained for a profession, stayed in it his or her whole working life and then retired. That’s an increasingly rare scenario these days, given the rapid changes in technology that can make an entire field obsolete almost overnight. Living through such times and trying to raise a family on a skillset that needs wholesale revamping every so often can be a scary proposition. It can also make for a very interesting and varied career, for those who are adaptable by disposition.
Will Sweeney of Gardiner is one of those creative types who was cursed, or perhaps blessed, to live in interesting times. A self-described “comics kid” when he was growing up on the outskirts of Boston, he read all the science fiction he could get his hands on, and he loved to draw. “Spaceships and monsters were the greatest thing,” he says. But he wasn’t encouraged to think of art as a profession, so he got a degree in English at U Mass at Amherst and set out to pursue a career as an advertising account executive: “I did that for a couple of years, but I hated it.”
So Sweeney went back to school, this time aiming for a BFA in illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design. It was there that he met his wife, graphic designer Sarah Snow, whose company is called Treeo Design. He was interested in doing art for the film industry as well as for advertising, comic books and kid lit. That was before the digital revolution, and he had no inkling that the demand for people who do commercial art with concrete materials was about to dry up. “I picked illustration because I like the effects I could get with paper, paint, pastels, watercolors,” he recalls. “When I graduated, they didn’t even have a class in Photoshop.”
That was in 1991. Sweeney was able to find film work soon enough: “I started out as a traditional animator, doing individual cels. It was all on paper then,” he says. “My first big gig was as an in-betweener on a feature film.” That film was Cats Don’t Dance, the only fully animated feature produced by Turner Feature Animation; the company was acquired by Warner Brothers Animation as part of the Time Warner/Turner Broadcasting merger in 1996 – just as the movie was in postproduction. As a result, it received little promotion and did poorly at the box office. But the techies, including Sweeney, had done their jobs well, and Cats Don’t Dance won the Annie Award – the animation industry’s equivalent of the Oscars – for Best Animated Feature in 1997.
He went on to work as an in-house staff artist for SONY Animation, HBO Original Animation, Scholastic Animation and Animagic. He was part of the HBO team that won an Emmy Award in 1999 for Outstanding Animated Program for Todd McFarlane’s Spawn II. Somehow it was possible for a “comics kid” to make a living doing the kind of art he loved. At SONY in the early 2000s, he took up storyboarding, and copped a Best Storyboards Annie Award nomination for his work on the TV series The Big Guy and Rusty.
Sweeney had joined the Animation Guild and moved his family to Los Angeles to get regular work, but once their sons Cosmo and Gil were born, Will and Sarah started thinking about moving back east. “I had a problem with the desert,” he says. “I wanted my kids to grow up with trees.” They were also very unhappy with the LA public schools, and put their sons in a Waldorf School. It was largely on account of the Mountain Laurel School that they fixed their sights on the New Paltz area as their next place to live — in addition to its proximity to New York City, where Sweeney was able to find regular freelance work.
But that was also the time when the animation industry was undergoing a sea-change, with cels giving way to pixels. By 2005, even Disney Studios had completely dissolved their hand-drawn animation division. “Around 2005 to 2008, the New York animation industry crumbled,” Sweeney recalls. “The transition was awful, stressful…I had to think of lots of different ways to make work happen.” He managed to survive by diversification, doing lots of storyboarding, picking up gigs as a penciller for DC Comics, an illustrator for kids’ books for Simon & Schuster, doing the art for a British graphic novel version of Le Morte D’Arthur. He illustrated book covers, record album covers. He has a recurring gig storyboarding for Be Cool Scooby Doo for Warner Brothers. Storyboards for sales pitches and presentations are always in demand, he says, and he even did one for a music video for the band Soundgarden.
A sideline that was rewarding more on an emotional than a financial level, creating promotional materials for environmental organizations, opened up when Natalie Merchant admired some seed packets that he had designed for the Hudson Valley Seed Company. She recruited Sweeney to draw a poster for one of her partner Jon Bowermaster’s anti-fracking films. He then went on to do similar work (mostly pro bono) for New Yorkers for Clean Energy and the Alliance for a Green Economy. “I’m most proud of my anti-fracking work,” he says. “It made me feel that my work was helping my community.”
Eventually he taught himself to use the new digital drafting technology. “Ten years ago I started to shift to working with a stylus and tablet,” he says. “The digital storyboard stuff didn’t come in until 2010.” Storyboard Pro is now the design tool of choice in his home-based studio, where he does business as Old Ford Road Designs. “I’ve started doing actual animation again for different filmmakers.” He’s also thinking about doing another graphic novel.
Sweeney’s recent client list reveals that he has taken up directing and become a world traveler. Animation these days, he says, “gets shipped overseas. Most of it gets done in Korea, unless it’s 3-D. A lot is being done in Canada.” He directed some CGI shorts in Moscow in 2014 and more recently spent four months in Vancouver managing a team of six story artists for an Octonauts series special. “I pitched a TV show to a couple of studios and came really close, but it did not happen,” he says regretfully. Titled Gothos, the series was to be a science fiction/horror anthology program based on classic stories dating back to the days of the pulp magazines. Unfortunately for him, a Netflix series with a similar premise, Love, Death + Robots, came along at the same time and grabbed that niche.
Undaunted, Sweeney has a couple of ambitious new projects up his sleeve that he can’t say much about just yet. He’s storyboarding an interactive video production with a “choose your own ending” format, and will be designing characters for an animated film for Warner Brothers that may or may not involve zombies.
For Will Sweeney, the process of reinventing himself during challenging times seems to be working out after all. “There’s much more media out there than ever before. The gaming industry didn’t even exist when I came out of school.” He advises young people wanting to break into the animation field to “become a master of some kind of software. Build up a toolkit.” At present, he recommends learning Maya software: “That one has the longest legs. It’ll give you multiple opportunities to be a designer, an animator, a preview artist.” If you have your heart set on drawing, he says, “If you’re talented and fast, you’ll have work. But drawing is a very difficult way to make a living.” Determination and drive, and the ability to promote yourself, are also keys to success: “Ten percent talent and 90 percent chutzpah allows you to exist as an artist,” he says.
To view some samples of Will Sweeney’s work, visit www.williamhsweeney.com.