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Yup our childhood favorite food (which most of us still eat it and survived college eating) is now an offbeat animation outfit. Mac and Cheez is led by creative misfit Stephen Fishman, a self-titled Visualist and Snacktician.
In addition to successfully running Mac and Cheez (yes, I like repeatedly saying, err
writing, Mac and Cheez) he also runs an audiovisual ensemble called Total Unicorn—with which he creates AV pieces for his bandmate Lyman Hardy's compositions. The Total Unicorn 'Laser Beans' video was created via playback and processing tool Resolume Avenue VJ software (and various controllers), then layered.
Stephen's animation career--beginning in 1995--has included running his own studio,
freelancing, and as a chained-to-his-desk lackey animator at several prominent Texas-based studios. All of which makes him the perfect target for our Interview Series, so I jumped on the opportunity and we wrangled-up some advice from Stephen for our aspiring animator readers, like to mediate your time between passion projects and commercial work, learn how to manage your tax status and budget between fat and lean times:
For any of our readers not familiar with you could you explain your studio's vision and what separates you from the (vast) competition?
My studio's emphasis has evolved over the years. Currently, I am interested in experimental animation, music videos and live interactive performance of animation through my group, Total Unicorn, as well as collaborations with other performing and visual artists in the Austin community (and beyond). I try to supplement this work, as best I can, with the more lucrative and straightforward commercial and TV promo work that I have been doing for over a decade.
As a creative professional how have you handled the business-side of running
an animation studio?
Every contractor needs to develop some sort of business acumen. You have no choice. You need to start keeping up-to-date, accurate bookkeeping, and need to develop a better understating of your unique tax status. The question for a lot of creative people is whether you want to learn this all at one time, or develop good business habits over time. I chose the latter because I really hate accounting. But, its absolutely necessary (especially if you want to make decent money and not be audited) to learn some accounting software like Quickbooks and ask your accountant a lot of questions. Understanding your business from a tax perspective is very beneficial. It helps you to budget your money during fat and lean times.
How did you initially get your foot into the door of the animation industry? (aka
what was your first job and how did you get it?)
I had been experimenting with animation since I was probably 9 or 10. After I saw the
Star Wars SPFX special on TV in the 80's, I was hooked. But I went to film school for live-action production. After graduating, I ended up in post-production (commercial editorial, specifically). But, I wasn't happy as an editor. I decided to quit my job and devote my time to learning After Effects (in version 2 or 3 at the time) and some sort of cheap 3D software (started with Infini-D and then segued to Lightwave). The producer at MWP Editorial (where I worked), saw an opportunity to develop me as what was known (in the post facilities) as a Mac Artist. They typically prepared and formatted elements (usually supers and legals) for the operators of the higher-end finishing tools like Henry or Flame. This was pretty menial work as well, but I was allowed to do more and more of the animation and design on my computer and deliver finished animations. And, as Henry and Flame became cumbersome and obsolete (and Macs became faster), I ended up creating more ambitious and 'final' animations for broadcast and web (and even film).
What kind of education did it take to get you where you are today?
I went to film school and really didn't learn too much about the tools or techniques that I use on a regular basis today. But, since I graduated, quite a bit more animation software is being taught in schools. There were people using Alias Wavefront, and USC did have a Quantel Domino as well, but we spent a lot of time on ancient Moviolas and Flatbed editors (some linear tape editors as well). Avid had just been released and getting access to this new software and the requisite instruction meant being in grad school or taking special electives on top of a full schedule. In other words, I didn't learn much in school aside from rudimentary lighting, composition and editing concepts. I learned a lot of what I know on the job and on my own time. Never rely on school to get you where you need to go. You need to be creating your own individual work outside of the curriculum and assignments. Speculative work is what got me where I am today, something interesting to put on your reel. There are some schools that emphasize portfolio building but you still need to be entrepreneurial and hustle like crazy.
Who does the hiring for your company (if you don't want to mention the name
their role would be fine, or you can say its a team effort)?
I don't have full-time employees. I use freelancers occasionally but mostly sub-contract other bits of work from larger companies.
What skills/qualities does your firm generally seek out when hiring new
employees and what would make one applicant more attractive than another to
I like smart problem-solvers with good reels. A lot of people tend to fudge the degree of their involvement on a particular piece on their reel. I know that a lot of work these days represents the involvement of huge teams of specialists but I'm always more impressed when somebody has something that they've kind of done soup-to-nuts by themselves. If they can point to something sophisticated and classy that they've done themselves (even if its spec), then I prefer that over the splashy group efforts for larger brands. I'd be looking for a self-starter type who can handle many different tasks. Its good to balance the technical and artistic. Although, I'd kind of prefer somebody more technical than myself.
Has the trend of overseas animation outsourcing affected your firm, if yes, how
have you dealt with it or compensated for it?
I don't believe that its affected my firm. I've worked on projects before where
outsourcing has been used. The language issue was a little dicey. In this one particular project, a lot of the layer and asset names in the AE project files were in Spanish. It took me a while to figure out what I was looking at. I don't approve of outsourcing. I think people need to learn how to budget their projects more effectively instead of constantly searching for bargains. If there was somebody with an inimitable skill set in another country, I would use them then.
Do you hire freelancers? If yes, what would make you throw work their way?
I do hire freelancers sometimes. My favorites are people that I've worked with before
or ones that are highly recommended. Just being honest. I don't really have the
infrastructure to do too much on-the-job training. I need somebody who's ready to work and up-to-date.
What animation software packages does your firm prefer to use? Which one
would you recommend to beginners?
I use After Effects and Cinema 4D mostly. Those are pretty common in the mograph
community. I don't do too much high-end effects work so those are my go-to programs. I use Illustrator, Photoshop and FCP as well.
What advice would you give to aspiring animators looking to break into the
Like I had mentioned, create your own personal projects. It gives you a great overview of how finished pieces come together. Being a great roto artist or character rigger will be useful for larger companies but somebody who can create killer boards and animate them is indispensable for the boutique outfits.
Check out more interviews at Animation Career Review's Interview Series.