Ken Fountain is the founder and animator at SplatFrog Animation Studio and worked as a character Animator for DreamWorks Animation Studios on memorable 3D animated films such as "Monters vs. Aliens", "Shrek Forever After" and "Megamind". He is also a course instructor at the online Animation School iAnimate.
Ken grew up in the northern suburbs of Chicago, USA. He started animating at thirty years old, after chasing a glamorous career of playing rock music around the country. Ken grew up drawing and learning from Marvel comics and studied art at high-school. After doing professional animation for the Advertising industry, Ken enrolled to "Animation Mentor" online school and since graduation he has been animating professionally!
As of 2013, Ken works at his own studio and creates educational animation for both SplatFrog and CrackerBox Studios.
Thank you very much Ken Fountain for this interview, we would like to start with you by telling us about yourself?
Thanks contacting me, let me tell you a little about myself, and what I do: I'm the Founder and Animator for SplatFrog, where I create and sell educational animation video tutorials. I also an animator and owner of CrackerBox Studios and have been an animator for DreamWorks Animation Studios where I worked on memorable animation films. I'm also a course instructor for iAnimate.net, and enjoy my time doing the things I love!
Where are you from, and how do you summaries the growing up part?
I grew up in the United States, in the northern suburbs of Chicago. My childhood was relatively typical: I attended public school, played with my neighborhood friends, watched afternoon cartoons, loved to draw pictures of superheroes, and put miles and miles on my bike exploring everywhere I could. I tried sports, but discovered early I wasn't very athletically inclined. At around age eleven my friends and I discovered "Dungeons & Dragons" and, of course, became obsessed. We would create huge self-authored campaigns and spend long overnight gaming sessions adventuring in our imaginary worlds. I would read about it, write about it, paint little figurines, and copy the artwork from the Monster Manuals - which taught me a lot about anatomy and volume and stylized shading techniques.
By the time I entered high school, I had traded "Dungeons & Dragons" for the stage. What I lacked in sports prowess, I made up for with my ability to perform. I participated in every school play and musical production I could, and planned to keep going when my school years were over. I even skipped out early on my own high school graduation to go play a couple of sets with my band at a local bar. That was a pretty good introduction to what my next phase of life was going to be like ;)
Did you use to draw a lot? What kind of style you liked the most?
I first learned to really draw from Marvel comics. I wasn't much of a comic book fanatic when I was little, but I loved superheroes and their stories, so when my dad brought home a surprise gift one night of a "How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way" book, my whole world changed. I sat with it for hours and hours learning how to break down the muscle forms in to graphic shapes, how to create dynamic poses, use foreshortening, and how to create impactful facial expressions. I continued to use those techniques all throughout my childhood - which, yes, was filled with obsessive drawing. I love drawing people and animals the most, and telling stories with their poses, just like little action figures on the paper. Color and scenery were never my forte, but strong lines and shading and dynamics came easy to me.
Did we read right, you were once an active musician? What kind of music did you play?
I was a very active musician, at least for my teen and young adult life. As I mentioned, as a kid I loved being on the stage and sang well. During my third year of high school some guys asked if I would like to try singing in their band. Up until that point I had sung on stage with as little accompaniment as a piano to as large as an orchestra, but never before had I stood with electric guitars and drums. It was amazing, and I knew then that I wanted to do nothing more than be in a rock band. So, when high school was over, I made the decision not to go to college, and instead pursue the glamorous (ha!) band life. Once we were all eighteen we could start playing nightclubs, and I took the reigns and began to book and promote our shows.
We were right away getting some great local shows in the city (Chicago) opening for up and coming national acts like "10,000 Maniacs" and "Smashing Pumpkins". But most of the time we were trying to claw our way to notoriety through tiny shows in the back rooms of local bars, sometimes with only our girlfriends and a couple of polite members of the other bands as our audience. In a few years, though, we had earned a good following, picked up a small record deal and a really dedicated booking agent. My entire twenties' revolved around small tours to promote our records and we.
My band became both my roommates and my family. We wrote so many songs together (some I still actually like!) and learned a lot about recording, performing, touring, running a business, van repair, and getting along (...and bartending.) and, I learned to play a few instruments by osmosis along the way (and how to write sheet music for the cello!), which I am forever thankful for. So, the rock life was the center of my life from the age of fifteen, and in there I had two main bands: "Birds at the End of the Road" (who existed as "Mother Factor" for a time) and "Red Elephant" (Aware Records). At about age thirty-five, I decided to officially hang it up and pursue the next dream - Animation.
How and when did you realize that you wanted to become an Animator?
I had always considered it a dream, I think. I had seen documentaries on the "Making Of..." Disney classics and the like while growing up, but I never really considered how I would be able to do something like that. I figured you needed to live in California and go to art school and buy equipment and take years and years of training to do it. Which, to be fair, at the time may have been partially true. Years later, during a film study class in high school, I was reminded of this dream again. After weeks and weeks of watching live action films, we screened "Allegro Non Troppo", the Italian animated movie. It blew my mind. The loose lines, the explosive color, the scope of styles, and the amazing music was like nothing I had ever seen.
So, while choosing my short film project, I decided not to shoot a live action story, but rather create a stop motion music video - and with super-8 camera and Star Wars figures in hand, I locked myself in my basement and produced the most shoddy video version of Huey Lewis's "Heart of Rock 'n Roll" you will ever see, (or not see!) but it was fun, and I am pretty sure that year of film study planted the seed. Acting and music happily blocked the sunlight to that seed for many years, but not forever.
I had always considered it a dream, I think. I had seen documentaries on the "Making Of..." Disney classics and the like while growing up, but I never really considered how I would be able to do something like that.
It wasn't until my early thirties' that a fellow "Red Elephant" band-mate pitched an idea to me. It was about a short animated film he had bouncing around in his head that I once again caught the bug. By this time in my life, all of the promotional artwork I had learned to create for my bands had earned me enough commissions from other bands, nightclubs and record labels to grow my own little design studio.
I learned how to build websites by necessity, and consequently learned how to animated with Flash. I had created a little elephant animation for the "Red Elephant" website, and that is what sparked my band-mates imagination. I loved his short film idea, and we decided to do it. We had no idea how, but we dove in and began storyboarding, and I began doing test animation in Flash. Those tests shots were like a door exploding open in my soul - I suddenly knew what I wanted to do next: Animate. Over the next year I made drastic decisions. I began letting most of my design clients go. I began doing lots of test animation for myself as well as for the film. I offered tons of free and cheap animation work to some of my bigger music industry clients to help build my portfolio. Soon I picked up some good momentum in both the advertising market in Chicago, and with some independent children's properties in local development (which is yet another seed planted I will explain later).
Did you go to art school or you always had a natural touch to art?
I chose not to continue my education after high school. My family couldn't really afford it, and my grades were not good enough to get me any sort of assistance (and I didn't feel like going instantly in to debt), so no, I never went to an art school of any kind. However, I am forever thankful for the extraordinary art education I received in high school. In my tiny high school we had the art department of one, Mrs. Paula Palmer. To this day I consider her one of the most important influences in my creative life.
In my tiny high school we had a art department of one, Mrs. Paula Palmer. To this day I consider her one of the most important influences in my creative life.
I took all 4 years of her classes, beginning with "Art Foundations" all the way through an independent study semester, where I learned to experiment with abandon. Despite rampant student apathy, she filled her lessons and lectures with incredibly important history and technique that I would have never explored or experimented with on my own. In her classes I honed my skills with form, color, light and line. I learned about important twentieth century artists and art movements. I learned love and respect for the tools of my craft. I learned that art is important, and it can be a way you make a living and live your life. Short of actually animating, I think I learned as much as I would have at an expensive university. So I think it all turned out ok.
What was your first work you ever worked on?
Well, I as I said, I started pretty small, doing little jobs for independent clients and projects with friends. Around 2003 I created my own little ninety seconds animated short about my adversarial cats. It was traditionally done, on a self-built light table and scanned and painted digitally, and it took about a year to finish in my spare time. I did lots of freelance work for Chicago production houses too. But, the first "real" feature animation work I ever contributed to, was after I went to DreamWorks. I started right at the beginning of the "Monsters Vs. Aliens" production and hit the ground running. My very first production shots were of the President of the United States playing "Axel F" on the keyboard and dancing like an idiot. When I finally got to see that get a big laugh in dailies, and then in the theaters, I knew I was really lucky to be doing something so fun.
How did you end up animating for DreamWorks Animation? Why didn't you want to keep animating for the advertisement industry?
Around 2005 I found out about a new online animation school that had just opened its "doors". Animation Mentor was just getting off the ground and it was just what I was looking for to improve my chops and be "seen" by the industry I wanted to be a part of. I had been animating for a few years already, but I knew I wanted to do "feature quality" work, so I joined right away. And by the firth term I got asked to submit my reel to DreamWorks, and within a week I had an offer and my life was put instantly in to a different gear. I am still trying to catch my breath, honestly. It was such a privilege to work on so many films with so many talented people. I made some of my best friends there, and plan to do more feature work from time to time if life allows.
Which project(s) did you work on while being there?
I got to be a part of so many great productions, including "Monters vs. Aliens", "Shrek Forever After", "Megamind", "How to Train Your Dragon: The Gift of the Night Fury", "Kung Fu Panda 2","Puss in Boots", and tons of other little shorts, DVD extras and commercials. It was a wild ride, and I learned boatloads.
What are some of your favorite projects you're proud to have been a part of?
My favorite projects at DreamWorks were the ones where I really felt in tune with the director and their vision. I really appreciated the weird humor of "MVA", and working with Tom McGrath and Jason Schleifer on "Megamind" was a true joy. "Shrek" was just a fun production from start to finish. Dailies for that show were always filled with hysterical laughter and really inspiring work.
I also enjoyed getting a taste for smaller productions while working on the "Dragon" short. That, as well as some of the commercials and extras, was a really nice chance to have a slightly bigger voice in the overall outcome. I think that is what reminded me of what I missed about working independently. I think I began feeling that I'd like to combine both somehow.
What was a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
A typical day was mostly animating. Obsessive isolated animating - which is what I had craved for so long. It was so nice to have so much time to concentrate on the minutiae of movement and performance and really produce a scene you were proud of. Of course there was always room for nice sunny lunches and relaxing strolls on the beautiful campus, exercise classes and lots of creative conversations with my friends. DreamWorks is really good about providing continuing art education and lectures for their employees. I learned so much from visiting artists and scholars, and the annual "Animators Day" filled with presentations and chalk talks from directors and supervisors from all the departments. But mostly, it was animating. There's nothing better than that.
What part of your job did you like best and why?
Detail. The chance to really think through and create the kind of detail in a character performance was something I had never had the tools nor the time to produce. It puts a lot of pressure on an artist, especially when you are competing with the best of the best. But it also makes you better. I wouldn't trade that for anything.
What's your animation workflow look like while animating?
I animate like a comic book. Just like the drawings I studied as a kid, I try to use dynamic posing to its fullest. To me, creating instantly readable poses, and then timing them as perfectly as I can is the most important step to begin with, I feel. So I spend a lot of time working and pushing the poses before I concern myself with movement and force. Of course, the pose itself should convey force and weight, so if I do this first step as thoughtfully as possible, creating breakdowns that communicate believable mechanics becomes a bit easier (which is what I would consider my second step.) After the strong graphic poses and believable mechanics feel right I can let that all go and concentrate on arcs and spacing only. Polish. I feel my performance should be totally intact by the time I leave blocking so I can spend my time merely polishing the edges.
What is your favorite 2D or 3D animated film(s), and why?
I think my favorite animated film of all time is still "Allegro Non Troppo". It still shows such a love for the craft through passionate line and color and non-verbal storytelling. In recent years I have loved all of the Sylvain Chomet films. I love seeing the pencil lines and the paint. Some of it is CG created and enhanced, but the overall aesthetic is so appealing to me. And again, the non-verbal storytelling serves the medium so well. I have loved CG animation from the first time I saw it, and love the detail it has the ability to produce, and I consider myself primarily a CG artist. But I love what traditional animation can do in keeping the medium visible, the pencil and brush present, and I will always have to softest spot in my heart for those films.
What are your thoughts about Japanese Anime? Are you a fan or prefer good old American animation?
I don't really have any particular fondness for Japanese Anime. It's not that I don't like it; it just has never really connected with me. I love the artistry and design so much, and I am in awe of the visuals every time I see a Hayao Myazaki film or the like. But I am so in love with the language of movement that the more stiff body style, the limited facial expression, as well as the lower frame rate never really succeeds in moving me in any way. I still watch them and learn.
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the animation or art business?
Of course it is really difficult to keep my ideas fresh, and keep my skills honed and up-to date. But really, the most difficult thing is the competition, I think. Not the competition and politics inside a studio necessarily, but the competition for work out in the market. With the rise of online schools, there are so many talented animators being brought to the forefront that may not have had as much of a chance to be seen in the past. So having a great reel, one that is technically proficient as well as emotionally and stylistically diverse, is imperative. But the most important thing is your reputation as a good team member.
With the rise of online schools, there are so many talented animators being brought to the forefront that may not have had as much of a chance to be seen in the past.
I think all recruiters and supervisors (and animators) will agree; no matter how good you are, if you are difficult to work with, in even the smallest of ways, you will find it hard to keep getting work. Animation is nothing if not a team sport. Learning to roll with the overall direction and dynamic of that team is your main creative job. The studio, the film, the shot is not yours. So feeling good about interpreting someone else's vision, and doing it with good humor and a feeling of investment is so important for your reputation as a commercial artist - really, no matter what creative field you are in. The industry is made up of people, and people like to work with other people they like. It's an unavoidable part of human nature. So learning to play on a team well is just as important as learning to animate well.
Have you ever had a character that was too difficult to draw? Which movie/project was that on?
Everything to me is difficult to draw. It's not something I do enough to be a master of, by any stretch. So when I have to do traditional animation, it is always a struggle. But a very rewarding struggle. Thankfully I have worked in CG mostly, so the trick is not in the drawing but making the rig look good - which draws upon the same principles, really. A poorly designed character can be really hard to get a good silhouette from. Usually the secondary characters in any show have the least amount of thought put in to their default graphic appeal, so it tends to be a real struggle to get good shapes. But, again, this is where being a good team member comes in.
It is not our job as animators to complain about the rig and make excuses. It is our job to push and pull it as much as you can, like a good drawing, to make it look right. If the hurdle is just too big then going back to rigging (as diplomatically as possible, because they are usually busy) and trying to find a way to make it work better is always an option. But blaming the rig and doing a half-ass job isn't, so fighting that fight is always the most difficult. Learning how to "break" a rig well is an art in itself, and worth learning to avoid the difficult "drawing".
Who influenced you the most? Who is or was your ultimate animation Mentor?
I think in terms of animation as a whole, I feel most influenced by Chuck Jones. I grew up with his work in my face all the time. Pretty much every memorable and funny cartoon I ever watched was of his doing (or Tex Avery). As an adult, I realize how much I responded to his appealing use of line to add just the right detail to each expression and pose, and his sense of timing and type of gag humor was right up my alley. I still try to emulate that (consciously or not) in my work all the time.
In terms of everyday life as an animator, I have had many great mentors, if not simply by osmosis as well. At "Animation Mentor": Dave Burgess was such a great influence, and continued to be a great influence, and friend, after I arrived at DreamWorks. Other supervisors there like James Baxter, Jason Ryan, Gabe Hordos, Simon Otto, and tons of others were just amazing to watch, and shared their knowledge so freely, as well as so many great directors like Mike Mitchell and Tom McGrath. Just being around these folks and listening and watching is the best education.
2D vs. 3D what are your thoughts on this endless battle?
I guess you can tell from my previous answer I have a love for both. 2D shows off the medium so well, and has such beauty in its limitations. 3D has such a great potential for detail that it is always mesmerizing when done well. I choose both. Boring, I know. But true.
Tell us a little about the tools that you are using, what's your preferences?
Right now I am working on a project of mine called Crackerbox (which I will explain a bit more about later.) Our first title is called "Geo-Me!" and revolves around little animated story/songs about characters from around the world. I am animating these characters "tradigitally" using Toon Boom Animate Pro, and I loving it. I find the interface very comfortable and robust, and I just love loosely drawing all day. It feels so free. The "limited animation" style is a really fun challenge too. I relish the opportunity always to "do more with less", and this fast-paced schedule and simple style forces me to have to do that. I am finding really rewarding and fun. Now if I could just get my own cleanup assistant, things would be perfect... ;)
What do you prefer most, digital art or traditional art?
That's a good question, actually. I think about this all the time. I grew up with the rise of the personal computer, and I have always been attracted to them, and have always had the ability to learn new digital things lightening fast. So, back in the early nineties' when Adobe was really making a name for itself I was more than excited to transfer my artistic self to the old canvas of pixels and go nuts! Here it was, I could have all of the tools of natural media at my disposal, with no ongoing expense and no mess! Woohoo! I have spent the years' sense grabbing on to every digital art tool I could, from Photoshop to Illustrator to Painter to Sketchbook Pro, and now on to tablet-based stuff like Paper and Procreate and more. It's all so amazing.
But you know what... I'm rarely fully satisfied. Ultimately, it ends up being easier to come up with my ideas on paper first.
But you know what... I'm rarely fully satisfied. Ultimately, it ends up being easier to come up with my ideas on paper first. I still plan to learn to paint better, and when I do I know I will always prefer it to the digital versions. I have a great Wacom Cintiq set-up I work on every day, but it still feels like a prosthetic. I appreciate so much more what people can do while manipulating natural material, and I love the feeling of pencil to paper more than anything (creatively that is.) so, if I had to pick - traditional media would win.
Please tell us about your own animation company 'SplatFrog'. When did you decide to create it? And why did you call it 'SplatFrog'?
SplatFrog is the production company name I used back in Chicago, before DreamWorks. I use it as the same sort of business entity now that I am independent again. All of my freelance work, as well as my blog, podcasts and video tutorial store operates under the SplatFrog banner. The name comes from one of the very first little animated shorts I did years ago to test myself. It was quick little ten seconds shot about a small pet frog that falls in love with a plastic toy sitting outside his terrarium, and perpetually throws himself up against the glass to get to her. The frog itself was born from a graphic I created for the band "Toad the Wet Sprocket" many years ago as I was designing merchandise art for their reunion tour. The graphic was an idea they rejected, but I really liked it, so I decided to adopt it as my own logo, and create a little animation from it. You can see a truncated version of this animation in the intro to my podcast videos.
Tell us about the moment you decided to leave DreamWorks to pursue your own dream, what was that moment like?
It wasn't a very tough decision for me to leave. I will definitely say that DreamWorks is indeed a "dream" job. The environment, the people, the campus, the food, all of it was a great privilege to be allowed to enjoy. Contributing to worldwide blockbuster films, and knowing so many people were enjoying the small moments I created was a joy that can't be matched. But as my contract began to wind down, I was feeling a bit fatigued by the daily grind, and decided it was as good a time as any to move on. One big reason is that I fell in love with a woman who lived all the way across the country, in Virginia (we were old childhood friends who reconnected.) But the professional reason was to form the company I had dreamed about for years - a company now called "Crackerbox".
As my contract began to wind down, I was feeling a bit fatigued by the daily grind, and decided it was as good a time as any to move on.
The dream was to pull together my talented friends and produce musical animated properties for the educational market. I wanted to make animation that would teach, a lot like "Schoolhouse Rock" from my childhood (a famous American series of educational interstitials.) I contacted a close friend of mine back in Chicago, and he was instantly on board to help me develop. We decided to incorporate the animated ideas in to an App and recruited another good friend to help code, and yet another great friend to help record and produce the music.
It has been a challenge pulling this thing up from its bootstraps over the last couple of years, especially being spread out across the country. But this last June we finally released our first title, "Geo-Me!", a geography-based app filled with animated stories based around an original song (that I got to write and record), and tons of great learning tools. Critics, educators and parents are giving us great reviews.
We couldn't be more proud. It's been a ton of work for all involved (including twelve minutes of hand-drawn animation), but we are eager to start development on a new title this fall, and we look forward to getting more talented animators and musicians on board.
How would you compare the work you are doing at 'SplatFrog' to DreamWorks?
My freelance work right now is not very different. The companies that I am doing jobs for have working for them very talented and technically capable crews handling so many of the other facets, like modeling, rigging, lighting, compositing and so on. I usually am only handling the animated performance. The main difference is that it is a much smaller team, typically, and I get to participate in more of the decision-making that directly affects the job I need to do. I also am allowed a little more freedom to make acting and story choices than I would have been at DreamWorks, and I like that. Some jobs, of course, require me to wear many hats, which I am very capable and very happy to do. But the expectations of the market require a lot more technical muscle than one animator can usually produce, so it is nice to work with teams.
Tell the audience and us a little bit about your latest projects, what are you working on as for 2013?
2013 has been an ambitious year. It began with a mad rush for me to finish the animation for Crackerbox's "Geo-Me!". We planned on including six of the characters with the first version (each sixty seconds animations), so I needed to complete those, organize and virtually attend final mix-down sessions for the song tracks, and handle final polishing and compositing to deliver them to our coder with enough lead time. I oversaw all art direction on the project too, so many graphical interface elements had to be created as we shored up the backend of the app. Lots of emails and meetings later we finally had a solid version we were happy with and prepared to release "Geo-Me!" to the world - which we did.
I also picked up a few freelance gigs along the way, producing art direction and animation for another company's iPad game, and animated for a sixty seconds spot for the "Talking Friends" brand (beautifully produced by my friends at Arx Anima.)
In there I switched hats to Crackerbox Marketing Guy, produced some podcasts, wrote some blog entries, bought a house, and got married as well. It's been busy.
The rest of the year will be spent developing a new Crackerbox animated title, as well as freelance or temp studio work if it pans out that way.
Do you work alone or you have people working with you?
The easiest way to put it is that "SplatFrog" is myself, solo, and "Crackerbox" is a team. Crackerbox has so much to accomplish over many different technical and creative disciplines, that it has to be a team. And it's a great one. That team is spread across the country, but that's just the way it works these days. It's so much easier to live wherever you'd like and still figure out a way to work. I'm happy out here in the country and don't plan on leaving any time soon. I do plan on dipping back in to feature work from time to time, and I have no problem temporarily relocating. But right now, it's me, my 'connected' computer in my sunny, breezy office and that's just fine :)
If you could choose to work with any artist from the animation business, who would it be and why?
I feel like I have already worked with the best of the best. And these artists, these friends, are people I hope and plan to work with again - either out in the studio world together or on an independent endeavor. I feel pretty lucky. But if Glen Keane wanted me to come be his assistant, I'd be there.
We noticed that you offer Animation Tutorials at your online Store, tell us about it?
Yes! When I began to teach at iAnimate, I discovered I really liked it, and had a good ability to explain and connect. I made my first tutorial video back in 2010, and followed up with the 3-part "Attitudes & Acting Beats" series over the next couple of years. They are mostly for advanced animators looking to analyze performance more deeply, and how to communicate that from blocking to polish. They are all available on my web store. A new one will even be in the works this year!
To buy and learn from Ken Fountain click on the banner below and get inspired by Ken's amazing animation workflow that inspired many people around the world in great movies.
Lastly, is there any advice you can give to an aspiring animation student or artist trying to get into the animation business?
Learn to listen. It's the most important quality of an animator on a team. Especially if that team is producing someone else's vision. In the vast majority of cases, you will be hired to work on somebody else's movie. Remember that. Drop your ego, and really listen. The better you are at reading the director's mind, the better your chances of getting better shots that they trust you to do. Of course you have to be good at your craft. Great even, in fact. But if you cannot realize the director's vision - and make it even better - then you will have a hard time succeeding, I think.
And don't animate all the time. Sorry for the clichŽ, but life is your best teacher. Go out and live it. And watch it And listen to it.
And then animate.