Monique Wray

I had such a fantastic time speaking with artist, animator, and illustrator Monique Wray. Her bold, colorful, and lively art has been used by Google, Disney, Nickelodeon, Apple, and Microsoft (just to name a few places). We caught up recently to talk about her career and the evolution of her craft over the years.

Throughout our conversation, Monique offered insights into her creative process. She talked about the impact of a pivotal year of self-discovery, the importance of emphasizing humanity in digital art, and she shared her experiences with freelancing and maintaining a balance between professional work and personal projects.

Monique’s journey is such an inspiration for anyone interested in the confluence of art and tech. Thanks to Sam Bass for the introduction!

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit is a strategy and design firm committed to designing a more inclusive and equitable world. They are always looking to expand their roster of freelance design consultants in the U.S., particularly brand strategists, copywriters, graphic designers and Web developers.

If you know how to deliver excellent creative work reliably, and enjoy the autonomy of a virtual-based, freelance life (with no non-competes), check them out at brevityandwit.com.

Sponsored by School of Visual Arts

The BFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts consistently produces innovative and acclaimed work that is rooted in a strong foundational understanding of visual communication. It encourages creativity through cutting-edge tools, visionary design techniques, and offers burgeoning creatives a space to find their voice.

Students in BFA Advertising are prepared for success in the dynamic advertising industry in a program led by faculty from New York’s top ad agencies. Situated at the center of the advertising capital of the world, the program inspires the next generation of creative thinkers and elite professionals to design the future.

School of Visual Arts has been a leader in the education of artists, designers and creative professionals for over seven decades. Comprising 7,000 students at its Manhattan campus and more than 41,000 alumni from 128 countries, SVA also represents one of the most influential artistic communities in the world. For information about the College’s 30 undergraduate and graduate degree programs, visit sva.edu.

Sam Bass

If you’ve been thinking about striking out on our own as a new year’s resolution, then this week’s episode might be a good one to check out as I speak with freelance animator and art director Sam Bass. Sam is a creative problem solver at heart, and for the past ten years, he’s worked on illustrative images and animating unique graphics with silky smooth results.

Sam talked about his work and delved deep into his creative process, including some of the unique challenges of sustaining a freelance career. He also spoke about growing up in the DMV area, his time at ICF before moving to Atlanta, and gave a sneak peek into his latest project — a short film called “The Exchange.”

Big thanks to Ricardo Roberts of BIEN for the introduction!

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit is a strategy and design firm committed to designing a more inclusive and equitable world. They are always looking to expand their roster of freelance design consultants in the U.S., particularly brand strategists, copywriters, graphic designers and Web developers.

If you know how to deliver excellent creative work reliably, and enjoy the autonomy of a virtual-based, freelance life (with no non-competes), check them out at brevityandwit.com.

Sponsored by School of Visual Arts

The BFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts consistently produces innovative and acclaimed work that is rooted in a strong foundational understanding of visual communication. It encourages creativity through cutting-edge tools, visionary design techniques, and offers burgeoning creatives a space to find their voice.

Students in BFA Advertising are prepared for success in the dynamic advertising industry in a program led by faculty from New York’s top ad agencies. Situated at the center of the advertising capital of the world, the program inspires the next generation of creative thinkers and elite professionals to design the future.

School of Visual Arts has been a leader in the education of artists, designers and creative professionals for over seven decades. Comprising 7,000 students at its Manhattan campus and more than 41,000 alumni from 128 countries, SVA also represents one of the most influential artistic communities in the world. For information about the College’s 30 undergraduate and graduate degree programs, visit sva.edu.

Akeem Roberts

It takes a lot of hard work, dedication, and sacrifice to make it on your own as an artist, and Akeem Roberts knows this well. This illustrator and animator juggles being an associate director at Holler Studios with freelancing for The New Yorker. Even though Akeem’s been in the game for nearly a decade, I have a feeling that we’ll be seeing his work for many years to come.

We talked about Akeem’s new gig at Holler, and from there he went into sharing his unique approach to storytelling. Akeem also spoke about attending the University of South Carolina, went into some of his influences for his artistic style, and gave some great advice for handling operational tasks as a freelancer. Akeem knows that success doesn’t happen overnight, and he’s put in the time and effort to come out on top!

Interview Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right, so tell us who you are and what you do.

Akeem Roberts:
My name is Akeem S. Roberts. I’m a cartoonist for The New Yorker. illustrator for J.D. the Kid Barber series, and a book designer by day.

Maurice Cherry:
How has 2023 been going so far?

Akeem Roberts:
2023 has been pretty crazy so far. I started off the year unemployed, just doing freelance stuff, and as of like three weeks ago, I just got a brand new job and sort of getting the reins on that and everything’s been going pretty good.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice. Congratulations on the new job.

Akeem Roberts:
Thank you.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you have any plans for the summer? Anything you want to do?

Akeem Roberts:
For the summer, right now I don’t have anything planned. I’m sure I’ll just try to go to a beach or a lake or something and just relax for a little bit.

Maurice Cherry:
I’m curious, from last year to this year, aside from the employment change that you mentioned about, have there been any other kind of changes for you? Anything else going on?

Akeem Roberts:
I’d say from last year to this year, I’ve more committed to being in publishing versus animation, which was kind of the main thing that I did at the start of my career was mostly animation. After I started doing stuff at The New Yorker and stuff with Kokila, I slowly started making the transition into publishing.

Maurice Cherry:
What brought that transition on aside from just more work? Was it a feeling or anything?

Akeem Roberts:
I felt like for animation mostly it was things move a little bit slower and it feels like the artists… I guess I was a cog in the machine animation-wise, while publishing, even though I am still just in the machine, I have a little more of a voice and a little more of a say, and I guess it just feels more freeing.

Maurice Cherry:
Sounds like there’s just more, I guess, agency, I guess, in publishing.

Akeem Roberts:
Yes, exactly.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Let’s talk about some of your work that you’re doing as a freelance illustrator. I’m curious, what does a regular day look like for you these days?

Akeem Roberts:
If I’m doing dailies for The New Yorker, I’ll try to get up around like 7:00 and then hit Twitter or some kind of news source and just go through trending and try to see what’s going on, what happened in the past 24 hours. Then, I’m seeing if I can find a joke and connect that into a bit for The New Yorker for their daily cartoons.

Maurice Cherry:
You’re creating new pieces every day, so you have to check the news, be like, “Oh, this is funny,” draw something, and-

Akeem Roberts:
Yeah, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
… then it’s just done? That’s it?

Akeem Roberts:
It depends on the process. Sometimes, for instance, I got one in for a daily after the trailer of the Barbie movie dropped. For that, I had an idea of doing something of scientists trying to get to the Barbie because there was all of those memes about people saying three, how many or whatever for Barbie movie tickets. I wanted to like have that idea of getting to the Barbie movie first and having it happen immediately, so I was first thinking like scientists creating a time machine to get there on the day that it’s released. Then, for The New Yorker, I thought of that idea, but I put a little bit of ’80s nostalgia in it, so then I changed it to kind of like Back to the Future where they’re trying to go to the future to see the Barbie movie.

Maurice Cherry:
Like Marty and Doc Brown and the DeLorean?

Akeem Roberts:
Yeah, yeah, so they’re all sitting in the JCPenney parking lot trying to get to the Barbie movie.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s funny. It’s interesting, though, that you have to, I guess, get them in by a certain time, but it’s every day, so that makes sense, I guess.

Akeem Roberts:
Yeah, yeah. For the dailies, it’s you have to get the sketches to them before 9:00, and then they’ll let you know if they like it or not by 10:00, and then you have that done by noon. The one that I did for the Barbie was like a bonus for the daily, so I didn’t have to get that done till 2:00.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. No, that’s just interesting that it’s so fast. I don’t know why I thought maybe you would have done it the day before or something like that.

Akeem Roberts:
I think some people do. I’m reckless.

Maurice Cherry:
I see you do a little bit of everything, book illustrations, you do comics, you do animation, you do editorial work. Is there a particular one of these that you prefer to do?

Akeem Roberts:
I think I prefer to do comics and publishing chapter book stuff. I feel like that gives me the most control, but also the most freedom. I feel like when you’re usually doing a comic book, you got to do like 30-something pages and the deadline’s pretty tight, but when it comes to chapter books or whatever, it’s a little bit… It’s still tight, but it’s not as, I don’t know, it’s not as hard just because you’re just doing one panel kind of basically, versus doing nine panels, trying to semi-tell a story, designing multiple backgrounds. It’s a lot.

Maurice Cherry:
Hmm. I can see how doing it in that sort of controlled format also, it’s just easier on you probably just on your workload, you know?

Akeem Roberts:
Yeah, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Talk to me about how you approach a new project. What does your process look like?? Does it vary per type?

Akeem Roberts:
Yeah, it definitely varies per type, per project. For anything that’s like New Yorker, that’s just I’m just on the subway jotting down ideas. I send my notes app and I’ll just like think of jokes, try to connect them, and then from there I’ll draw a little small thumbnail and then sketch a bigger illustration for that and then send that to the New Yorker. Then, my process for when I’m doing my web comics also starts on my phone. I just write a joke, describe what’s happening in the panels. Then, from there I do a thumbnail and then I finalize it and then add all the texts and stuff.

Then, for animation, usually with this, there’s only a couple of those that I started from scratch where I had a original character and original plot. Those started off more… I was in Word and Google Docs instead because it was longer format and I had to share it with other people to read, look over, see if they had any notes on the script. For those, it’s like script first, and then you start the thumbnails and animating each thing.

Maurice Cherry:
What if you’re doing, say, editorial work or something for the book? Is that process kind of the same?

Akeem Roberts:
Yeah, editorial is like you’ll… Most of the stuff that I did editorial for was like for Men’s Health. They have this section called Cool Dads-

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

Akeem Roberts:
… so for that, I would like… They would give me the article that a celeb wrote, and then I would read it. Then, from there, I would like think about an illustration that kind of hit the vibe of what the celeb wrote. The latest one I did was for like LeVar Burton. His whole thing was talking about reading books to his daughter and giving her the freedom to read and how he wants to be there for her. Then, he also makes a reference basically to Harry Potter.

For that, I just drew him in like the garbs with a wand fighting off the Dementors because in the article he talks about how his daughter stopped reading because she didn’t like the Dementors. He was like, “Maybe I should have not introduced her to Harry Potter.” I just took that vibe and added it to the illustration. I would send like three sketches and then the art director over there would pick which one they think is the best. Then, from there I would finish and color it and everything.

Maurice Cherry:
You kin of have to read a little bit of what it is that you’re going, then, to make sure that the illustration kind of matches that in some way.

Akeem Roberts:
Yeah, yeah. With every editorial or even like the children’s book, you have to read the manuscript and everything first before you can fully get the gist of it to kind of sum it up in whatever illustration, whether it’s for a chapter or for an article.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Last year, I was Editor-in-Chief of a print magazine. This was part of the job that I was doing at the time, and our in-house creative director had decided for our first issue that he wanted to also do all the editorial illustrations. I was like, “Okay, that’s-

Akeem Roberts:
Uh-huh.

Maurice Cherry:
… “a lot, but if you want to do it.” He also did the cover and everything. I was like, “Look, more power to you.” It was so funny because the way he approached it was like, “Well, I have an idea of a theme for the whole magazine,” and so he just did illustrations based on whatever, and none of them matched the article in any sort of real way. I’m telling him like, “You should probably try to make sure that the images match what the article is about. You drew a polar bear. This article has nothing to do with polar bears. What’s the connection for the reader to look at this?” He’s like, “Oh, well, the connection is winter because we’re publishing the magazine in the winter.” I’m like, “Huh. No, no.” That doesn’t make any-

Akeem Roberts:
Yeah, that’s sounds like a little bit of a stretch, but you know, I feel it, I feel it, I feel it.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, that’s one of us that feels it. I mean, eventually we ended up sort of just going with the concept because we didn’t have enough time, but for the second issue, the pieces fit the article more and I told him like, “Look, read the article and then get started with designing.” He would just start designing and be like, “Oh, I have to read the article?” I’m like, “Yes, it would help. It would be helpful so at least what you’re designing matches that in some capacity.” So…

Akeem Roberts:
Yeah yeah. You got to read the article.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Akeem Roberts:
You got to.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, how do you approach storytelling through your art? I’m pretty sure it’s more than just like in, say, the book illustration example, it’s more than just reading. How do you really approach telling a story through your art?

Akeem Roberts:
I would read it and then I would like try to imagine it in my head and say, for instance, for the J.D.the Kid Barber series that I did, for that it was reading it, and then the art director would kind of tell me what they imagined in it. They were like, “Oh, this character is in their room,” but it’s up to me to add anything else that I wanted to add into it, so I would just try and look up Google images basically to find what I imagined this school look like because references, it’s always great to have. I know sometimes it’s like, especially when you’re starting out, you want to not use any references. You’re like, “I can do this from my head.” You can’t. I mean, you can, but you’ll miss the small details that you want to have caught if you weren’t looking at a reference. I would look at reference, kind of imagine the area, and then just try to imagine the characters just living and breathing.

For some of them I would add even like small jokes. One of the illustrations, the art director was, “Oh, he’s losing this battle, but everyone has numbers up saying 10 for this guy who’s winning.” Then, for one of those, I drew his friend in there giving him a thumbs up with like a two, so everyone has a good rating except he has a bad rating for the guy, and he’s got a thumbs up giving it to the guy being like, “Don’t worry, I got your back.” I try to put in little jokes like that inside the book so kids will see it and notice it. I’m trying to always make an illustration for, I guess, like the younger me if I was reading it as a kid.

Maurice Cherry:
Hmm. Do you try to add a little something that’s just unique to you in each image that you do?

Akeem Roberts:
If I do try to add anything, I try to add humor. I feel like that’s my go-to form of communicating is trying to add a joke if I can.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, we’ve had a few New Yorker illustrators on the show before, most recently, Liz Montague. I’m curious, how did you get started with doing illustrations for The New Yorker?

Akeem Roberts:
I feel like my story is very unique. I have yet to hear anyone else who’s had this experience.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Akeem Roberts:
Basically I was like tabling at this convention in New York called Mocha Fest, which is like an art festival, and I had a bunch of comics that I had done online and this little short story that I did that was in black and white. After that weekend, I got a message from Emma who’s like the Editor at New Yorker. She was, “Oh, do you want to do a daily shouts?” Basically like, “I like your work, and I was wondering if you want to try to submit some jokes or a daily shout or anything like that.”

I was like, “All right,” and then I sent my first batch, and then after that Friday after I sent it they were like, “Oh yeah, this one is in.” I sold one the very first time I tried, which was crazy good. I don’t know anyone else who’s done that. Maybe other people have, but I had sold it first immediately. Then, the next week, I also submitted some batches and I also sold another one, so I was feeling really good. I was like, “All right, I can do this,” and then after that, it was 40 weeks of like not selling anything.

Maurice Cherry:
Is that usually like the… You said that was sort of unique to you. I’m just curious, what would a cartoonist normally do if they’re trying to get into like The New Yorker? Is there a more-

Akeem Roberts:
Right.

Maurice Cherry:
… typical process?

Akeem Roberts:
Yeah, there’s like submissions that you can do on the website, and you can send them batches that way. Then, they’ll say, “You’ve made it,” and then you’ll get Emma’s email, so you can start sending batches to her directly. Sort of like a filtering process before you get her email, but I just got it immediately and then got one in immediately, which felt good. Then after that, it slowed down a bit, obviously.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, you’re still doing it now, so, I mean, it obviously worked out in your favor.

Akeem Roberts:
Yeah, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Is there a particular style that you think, I guess… I guess it probably varies per publication, but for The New Yorker, and not to harp on them specifically, but is there a particular style that you think they’re looking for?

Akeem Roberts:
For The New Yorker, I think they’re looking kind of for something that is sketchy and has detail, but not too much. Nothing that will distract from the joke.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

Akeem Roberts:
Basically just like if you had to jot down a joke with stick figures in five minutes, that’s kind of the ideal I think like they want in terms of detail is just not enough stuff that will distract from it. Then, they definitely don’t want it too cartoony, which is like I always put my stuff, and maybe sometimes it’s too cartoony, but there’s a line where you’re trying to hit where it’s not cartoony in the sense that it feels like on a Saturday morning cartoon, but also not cartoony in the way that it feels like it’s Family Guy. You got to hit a perfect, unique just like sketch style that takes a lot of work, but looks simple.

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm. I get what you’re saying. I get what you’re saying. Certainly, nothing that’s like, I don’t know, Marvel style, like not a comic kind of thing, but you also-

Akeem Roberts:
Yeah, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
… want it to have some level of expression and polish, as you would say, that doesn’t detract from the joke.

Akeem Roberts:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you’ve worked with some other big clients as well, Boom! Studios. You mentioned Men’s Health earlier, Conde Nast, which is over a bunch of different magazines and such. Is it easier working with bigger clients like those than, say, smaller clients?

Akeem Roberts:
For sure. I feel like bigger clients, they kind of have an idea and they kind of let you be free, especially if they know your work. They’ll be like, “All right, I saw your work. I kind of imagine what you can do. If you’ll do that, we’ll be great.” I feel like when it comes to mom and pop type of clients, it’s a little less freeing for the artists in a sense because I guess the dollar value that they’re spending is… it’s precious, their $500 or whatever.

This thing that you’re doing for them, especially if it’s like a logo or anything that they’re going to use over again for t-shirts, it’s very important. Because of that and because of how important it is to them, they’re sometimes a little overbearing. They’ll overwork in illustration because of having multiple revisions that kind of the artist loses… The more revisions that’s happening, the artist kind of loses the spirit sometimes. If it’s 20 revisions to get this logo done, the artist each time is less and less into it-

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Akeem Roberts:
… and that doesn’t mean that there will be a point where they don’t care. The artist is always going to care because it’s for their portfolio and their job. They want it to be good. It’s kind of like a way of the artist helping… not helping themselves, but guarding themselves from being like… If you’re too personally attached, you’ll get upset about the notes-

Maurice Cherry:
Right.

Akeem Roberts:
… so you have to be removed. The more and more you get notes, the more and more you’re like, “All right, this is getting away from my vision and I’m trying to see if I can get exactly what they’re seeing in their head,” which is not normally something an artist can reproduce is what another person is envisioning.

Maurice Cherry:
I feel like if I had to do 20 revisions on a design, I would want to fire the client. To me, that feels like the client really doesn’t know what they want, and they feel like you’re just going to keep iterating on it until it magically appears to them. I mean, I know that’s how we’re sort of just pulling that number out of anywhere, but I get what you’re saying about the dollar value, which I think is something that’s really important. A lot of these bigger companies just have the budget to be able to do bigger type projects, more audacious ideas, et cetera, but then smaller clients, that money has to really go far. That’s not to say that larger clients aren’t as invested in the end project, but it just takes on… There’s an added gravity to it when it’s from a smaller client or for a smaller client, I should say.

Akeem Roberts:
Yeah, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Can you discuss any upcoming projects or collabs that you’re excited about?

Akeem Roberts:
Right now, I don’t really have anything coming up. I guess the only thing I have is I’m working on a graphic novel and I’m trying to pitch to HarperCollins or Kokila to just get the story that I have in my head off the ground.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. I’ve always wanted to do a graphic novel. I cannot draw, but I have had ideas for characters in my head since I was a teenager to put into a graphic novel. I’ve talked about it here on the show before. People probably already know this, but one day I’m going to have the time and the funds to make it happen, so I hope it works out for you.

Akeem Roberts:
Yeah, yeah. I’m hoping it works out, too.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I want to get more into your work and your career, but let’s learn more about Akeem. Let’s learn more about you. Are you originally from New York?

Akeem Roberts:
No, I am kind of like from everywhere is what I tell everyone. I was born in North Dakota and my Mom was in the military, so I moved around a lot from North Dakota to Alabama, to Germany, to South Carolina, to Texas, to Maryland, to New York. A lot of places, but most of my time was in the South, so I guess I could just say I’m from the South.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. Did you do a lot of drawing growing up?

Akeem Roberts:
Yes. I would just say that I started drawing… There’s two big reasons I started drawing, so first I was just doodling, and then in third grade, I won an award for the state in South Carolina, third place for this painting I did-

Maurice Cherry:
Hmm.

Akeem Roberts:
… and that was a good boost. I was like, “Oh, wow, this is cool. I can draw.” I didn’t really think of anything of it. I was just like, “All right, I can doodle.” Then, in fifth grade, there was this girl that could draw way better than me. I was crushing, so then I would try to get better to impress her, and I think that’s kind of my origin story is trying to get better to impress a girl. Then, I just kept drawing on my own.

Maurice Cherry:
Did it work?

Akeem Roberts:
It did not work, you know? So-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh.

Akeem Roberts:
… ultimately it was for me, you know?

Maurice Cherry:
I had someone on the show a couple episodes ago, Kendell Burton, and he was telling me how he first… He’s an art director now, but he was like, “Oh yeah, I first got into design in the web because I was making a blog on Zynga to try to meet girls.” I’m like, “Does that work?”

Akeem Roberts:
Never does.

Maurice Cherry:
You were doing a lot of drawing and stuff growing up, and I see you went to the University of South Carolina and majored in Media Arts. Tell me about that time. What was that like?

Akeem Roberts:
Media Arts, basically, I ended up there because I was very late at applying for colleges, and my family had just moved back to South Carolina, so then I just applied there. This guy that I met with was like, “Oh, tell me what you want to do.: I was telling him that I probably would want to do some animation, like comics and stuff, and so he was… The Media Arts Program, which is basically teaching you how to use the Adobe Suite while learning about film, photography, script writing, and so it was like mostly on the film and photography side. Then, I minored in Illustration, so I did like one figure drawing class on my senior year and one illustration class on my senior year.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you feel like they really kind of prepared you as an artist?

Akeem Roberts:
I feel like not in a sense of what I ideally wanted to do, which was basically do animation and stuff like that. I didn’t have a student film. I didn’t even take the animation course because I never signed up in time, but I guess overall, it kind of helped me be a jack-of-all-trade because certain things with film and photography and script writing can transfer into illustration. Having that does help me visualize ideas, but not necessarily in the sense of, “Okay, you do this something. You’ll have a job immediately after.” You know?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I think school is interesting in that way. I mean, I majored in Math, so I didn’t think-

Akeem Roberts:
Oh no.

Maurice Cherry:
… when I was graduating I was going to have… Actually, no. I mean, I did major in Math, that’s true, but I had like a scholarship thing lined up with the program that I was in that I was going to work for the government after I graduated. Then, that fell through like junior year because of 9/11. It fell through. I was like, “Oh, I have no plans for what I’m going to do when I graduate.” I was working part time at the Symphony here in Atlanta selling tickets, and I did that, I think… I did that up till I graduated, and I remember when I graduated they took the calculator away from my kiosk because they were like, “Well, you have a math degree now. You don’t need this.” I’m like, “Is that supposed to be funny?”

I mean, I didn’t need it, but I didn’t have any sort of career plans lined up after graduation because I thought I was set. I really didn’t even pursue other companies. I snuck my resume into other departments’ resume books so I could get interviews at places. I was wholly unprepared going into senior year for any kind of actual career goals. I was in college just because I was a nerd that liked math.

Akeem Roberts:
Yeah. That actually sounds very familiar to my story. That’s basically kind of like how I ended up in New York was my friend got me an internship in New York, and then I did that internship for the summer, but it kind of fell through near the end. Then, I was working at Starbucks in South Carolina. I was making $9 an hour, but the rent was just so much. Most of my money was going towards the rent-

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Akeem Roberts:
… and then it was like… I think the rent was… I want to say almost like 600, almost 800, which is a lot. Then, they were like, “Oh, you could transfer to the Starbucks in New York,” which I transferred and I was making like 13. Then, the apartment I had up here was 584 with everything included, so I was way better off staying in New York, and that’s just like how I got here was not planning on staying. I came up for an internship and I was like, “All right, I’m just going to go back,” but then it just seemed to work out better for me to just live here than be in South Carolina barely making it-

Maurice Cherry:
I mean-

Akeem Roberts:
… you know?

Maurice Cherry:
… that makes sense, and I would say also probably as an artist, I mean, you kind of want to be in the cultural capital of the country when it comes to experiences and stuff. I would imagine you probably wouldn’t have access to the same level of experiences in South Carolina that you would in New York City, you know?

Akeem Roberts:
I mean, I feel like… Okay, so when I was going to college, there was this rumor that actually a bunch of comic artists actually lives in South Carolina, which might be true, but I just never met anyone.

Maurice Cherry:
If I recall, and this was years ago when I interviewed him, Sanford Greene, who’s like, I know he’s done stuff for Marvel, for DC, pretty prolific visual artist, lives in South Carolina. He lives in South Carolina.

Akeem Roberts:
Oh really?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, he went to Benedict’s.

Akeem Roberts:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yep.

Akeem Roberts:
Yeah, so like yeah, I guess… Look, I guess South Carolina is the home for the comic artist, but I just could not find that community at all, but comic artists tend to be homebodies, so you would never really see them.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, I’d imagine, yeah, it’s probably not… There’s no collective or something like that. I would say it’s probably just easier in New York because of availability and just the cultural atmosphere of the city. I came from a small town in Alabama, and if I would’ve stayed there after I graduated high school, I’d know I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now because there was no kind of technology or design or anything. You either got married, got into the church, or maybe worked a factory job. Not a lot of options.

Akeem Roberts:
Yeah, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I mean, that’s not endemic of the South, but just in particular, like-

Akeem Roberts:
Yeah [inaudible 00:30:14].

Maurice Cherry:
… your environment can help out, you know?

Akeem Roberts:
No, no, I hear you. I have a bunch of family from Alabama.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. One of your early career gigs, you were at this place called ideaMACHINE Studio where you worked as an animator. Talk to me about that.

Akeem Roberts:
All right, so crazy with that was one of my friends came up and he was doing photography. I was still working at Starbucks at this time, and he was like, “Oh, there’s an animation studio just like here. Do you want to apply?” I was like, “All right, cool.” We possibly could work in the same building, whatever, so I applied. Then, I got the job, and then that same day my friend got fired from whatever company he was working at in the building, so it’s like we didn’t get to work together, but he did help me get this job by seeing it. Then, at that same time, I was still working at Starbucks, which I worked that job while also doing Starbucks for like a year and a half just doing both of them.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Akeem Roberts:
Yeah, and at Starbucks, I had just became a shift manager. I would only work two or three days a week, but it was weird because I’d be in charge then, so it’s like…

Maurice Cherry:
You were able to kind of juggle it sounds like.

Akeem Roberts:
Yeah, yeah. I was able to juggle it, but it was surreal once I think about it, just like how many hours I was working. It was a lot.

Maurice Cherry:
How was ideaMACHINE Studio? Was that kind of your first studio experience?

Akeem Roberts:
Yeah, that was my first studio experience. That one, it was a little more… I guess in a sense it kind of trained me, kind of gave me the animation class kind of a sense because I went in there knowing some stuff, but not really knowing the 12 principles of animation or anything like that, just what I saw online. Most of the stuff that I did for them was kind of like whiteboard explainer videos.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Akeem Roberts:
It was like for pharmaceutical companies that had this idea, but wanted it to be explained in a simply way. That’s what we did for them. There was tiny stuff that you can animate, and then I would push it every once in a while to try and get better at my animation chops and my graphic design skills. I guess in a sense that job kind of trained me, but it was very reluctantly because the guy who runs the company was… I was trying to get better at art, and he was like, “You don’t need to get better at drawing.” I was like, “Yes, I do.” Then, I just kept pushing and doing my web comic on the side was also something I did. Just work on my skills and progress my abilities to draw and stuff like that. Was just doing that weekly in order to force myself to put something out consistently and have a foundation.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, so you were doing this kind of freelance work or doing your own work at least as well as doing this nine-to-five. How did you balance that?

Akeem Roberts:
I did not sleep a lot is how I balanced that. Basically, I would work during the day. If I had a Starbucks shift, maybe it was two or three hours, so I’d work nine to five, and then I would walk over to the Starbucks. I just happened to be super close to this company and then work four hours there and then come back home, which the commute was good. It was like 30 minutes, not that bad, especially for New York, and then work on my freelance stuff. Then that started again in the morning. It was a lot.

Maurice Cherry:
It’s amazing the stuff that we pull off when we’re younger just to try to get that… I don’t know, I guess you just have all that youthful energy. You can get it done. Nowadays, absolutely not. I’m in bed-

Akeem Roberts:
I-

Maurice Cherry:
… at a certain hour. I not staying up pulling all-nighters anymore. No, I get what you’re saying. It takes a lot to try to make sure you’re doing all of these things because, of course, you’re doing what you have to do to pay your bills and whatever, but you’re also establishing yourself during this time doing your own thing, which I think is super important. It’s something I tell a lot of designers that come on the show, especially ones that just start off, like have something on the side that’s just your own thing, you know?

Akeem Roberts:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
You can still do what you have to do to get involved with your career at your workplace, but have something that’s just yours.

Akeem Roberts:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Now, after you worked at ideaMACHINE, you ended up at another studio called Holler where you were their Associate Animation Director. Was that a big shift from your work at ideaMACHINE?

Akeem Roberts:
Yeah, that was a big shift. One of the main things that like… The reason I left ideaMACHINE was first I wanted to grow as an artist, and then the second thing was that they were in Brooklyn, and then they were moving the company to New Jersey. I was… I don’t want to step foot in New Jersey, no offense to New Jersey, but I was just like, “I live in Brooklyn. The commute is crazy. Getting on the path just to get there, I absolutely can’t do it.” This is around the same time that The New Yorker reached out to me, and then this company reached out to me and they were like, “Hey, do you want to do a test for us?” I did a test for them. I had my Cintiq and everything all set up, and then my Cintiq broke that weekend-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh.

Akeem Roberts:
… and I had to use the Bamboo, which is kind of like is still a drawing tablet, but just doesn’t have a screen. I had to use my Bamboo tablet and finish that animation for them, which is a quick reaction GIF that was like three seconds long. I did that over the weekend and they liked it.

Then, I started working there and the culture was very different. ideaMACHINE’s culture was kind of like you were doing like a student project. You would have art director… They would like help you, but not with any direction. The art direction was purely up to the animator. The way that it looked was purely up to the animator. The client would give notes, but it wasn’t like I had to follow a guide. I was the guide. It was like everything I did at ideaMACHINE from like the music to audio, sound effects and all of that compositing, there we did… It was a one-shop stop for one artist on each video. It wasn’t like working as a team really. It was kind of one guy is doing this, and if they need help with the animation, they’ll ask you, but it wasn’t anything that was ever felt like a cohesive team effort where everyone is trying to draw in the same style or anything like that.

Maurice Cherry:
Hmm, so it seems like it was definitely just a ramp-up in terms of responsibility, though, right?

Akeem Roberts:
Yeah, yeah, so for Holler, when I first started, I was just doing little three-second GIFs and there’ll be client stuff, and then we’ll work on those. Then, later on, I started directing some shorts that they did right before I left. There was one called Akemi-chan: Is It Magical?, which is an idea that I had which was like a play on Magical School Girls trying to do a bunch of anime inside jokes kind of stuff like that. I was writing the script for that and then guiding the people that was working with me of how I wanted it to look and fleshing out storyboards and having more of a commanding role, which felt good, which kind of led to my newest role is sort of still doing that. It was kind of a stepping stone of becoming in charge, taking a step back and letting people do their things, but also helping them grow.

Maurice Cherry:
Hmm. I would imagine even with that, it’s sort of helping you out in your freelance because you were still freelancing also during this time with Holler?

Akeem Roberts:
Yeah, yeah, yeah. With Holler, I was still freelancing. Like the beginning of 2020, like in January 2020, I got a call from Kokila being like, “Hey, do you want to work on this book?” I was like, “This name looks familiar.” I was looking at the art director’s name, and then I looked it up and it was the same art director for Hair Love, which I loved Hair Love. It was great. They’d just had that short come out. It was beautiful with Matthew A. Cherry. I was, “Wow, I would love to work with them.” I reached out to them and I was getting started. I was like, “Man, I don’t know how I’m going to do this with the commute, but I’m going to try and make it happen.” Then, of course, the pandemic happened, so it made it a little easier for me to finish my day job and then jump straight to my freelance. From there, every day I was doing illustrations from like 9:30 at night to like 2:00 in the morning-

Maurice Cherry:
Wow.

Akeem Roberts:
… just to get those things done, and it was a lot.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, but I mean, I would imagine it changed the way you work freelance, right?

Akeem Roberts:
Yeah, yeah, definitely. Freelance before I felt was more if I felt like I had the energy to do it, I’d do it-

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

Akeem Roberts:
… but with the book, it was like, “All right, you got to get these pages done. You got to get these multiple books done. You kind of have to treat this now like a full-time job where you clock in.” I was like, “All right, my clock-in time is 9:30 at night to 2:00 in the morning.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, yeah, that’s good. You get into doing it, you kind of time box your schedule, it sort of helps out, especially if you’re doing it on a regular basis.

Akeem Roberts:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, something that I’ve seen at least over the past decade that I’ve done this show, but I’d say probably prior to that as well, you started to see a really big increase of Black artistic talent, visual artistic talent specifically. Cartoons, animations, fine art, like you mentioned Hair Love from Matthew A. Cherry. No relation, I think, I think. Any genealogists out there want to dive into that, I’m more than welcome.

When I see all of this, I also end up seeing this question about representation, like that always seems to come up, which I think is kind unfair that if you are a Black artist that you have to represent your community through your work. I think it’s up to the individual artist what they choose to do. Is that something that you feel like you have to do through your work? Have you gotten that kind of, I don’t know, sense of… I don’t even want to say responsibility, but have you gotten that, say, from other people, from clients, et cetera?

Akeem Roberts:
Yeah, I would say there’s a little bit of that, and there’s like, for instance, when I first started at Holler, I was one of the only two black people there that was the artist and black people in general. One of the things I did when I started there was like I didn’t want to get pigeonholed as the guy who you only come to for Black stuff, right?

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Akeem Roberts:
That I immediately just did not draw. I drew like animal characters that I knew were Black or like Mother Earth was a character that had an Afro, but I knew she was Black, but it was like I didn’t do anything that was explicitly Black because I didn’t want to get pigeonholed. With my comic stuff, it’s slice of life, but there are times that I do stuff that is political, but those are very few and far between. Then, my main stance on that is just I want my web comic to… There’s a bunch of web comics out there where it’s just nothing really happens. It’s just like couples chilling and that’s it.

I was like, “This web comic, I’m doing it to show that Black people are normal. This is my every day. This is slice of life. There’s like nothing big going on. No overarching villain. This is just a Black guy chilling. Here’s a look into this. It’s not what you normally expect.” I feel like there’s that, and then sometimes if there’s bigger issues, I’ll just bleed over. Then, I’m just like, “I have to address this.” I will-

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

Akeem Roberts:
… but most of it I’m just the way that I’m thinking of representation is just like, “Hey, I’m just a normal guy on the internet. This is what a normal Black dude is doing-

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Akeem Roberts:
… you know? Chilling.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I like that, and I’m glad you sort of framed it in that way. You know, it’s interesting, even after doing this show for as long as I’ve done it, people will only think Black designers come in one specific type. I mean, that can be whatever that type is what that type is, but I say that to say that there’s a lot of variety in what people might think might just be a monolithic set. One thing I’ve tried to do with the show is like, yeah, I have designers, but I’ve got cartoons and illustrators. I’ve had footwear designers on the show. I’ve had software developers on the show. I try to make it pretty diverse in general just to give a sense of what we’re doing out here in terms of creativity in this kind of digital age. I’m glad that you framed it in that way. I think that’s a really good way to look at it.

Akeem Roberts:
Yeah, that was also one of the things when I did the J.D. the Kid Barber books was the reason I worked so many hours on it was because I really wanted the illustrations to have like an angelic feel or like magical feeling, and to have there be depth in the Black character’s skin, so it wasn’t just a gray tone because it was on black and white, but it wasn’t just a gray tone for the skin and no light. I made sure that there was an airbrush. I showed the details of Black skin so when a Black kid opens it up, they’re like, “Oh, my skin is beautiful.” I made sure the skin popped, and that’s what I was like… That was another way of what I was thinking of representation, but not in the sense of, “Oh, this stands for something,” but just in a subtle way of like a kid opening a book and seeing that Black is beautiful.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Who are some artists or illustrators that have influenced your work?

Akeem Roberts:
I got the classic Calvin and Hobbes. Loved the Garfield. Loved Boondocks. Maybe it wasn’t age-appropriate for me to be watching it when I was, but I did love The Boondocks. Strong anime influence. Just a bunch of stuff. Even speaking of The Boondocks, when I was in college, I think this guy is named Carl Jones. He worked on The Boondocks.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, yeah.

Akeem Roberts:
Yeah. He was in Columbia, South Carolina, for something. I don’t know what he was there for, and he saw my sketchbook. He was like, “Oh, let me look at this.” Then, he looked at it and he was like, “You got some good ideas here, but you really need to work on your fundamentals.” From there, I just started working on my fundamentals like crazy, which I reached out to him and I told him that and he was like, “Wow.” Then, that was it, That was the last we talked, but he was like, “Wow, thanks.” Then, he started following me on Instagram and I as like, “All right, cool.”

Maurice Cherry:
No, that’s so interesting. Early… I wouldn’t even say… This wasn’t even in my career, and I keep sort of making these parallels because you’re saying some things that line up directly with some experiences that I’ve had. This was the year, God, I sound so old. This was like 2000 I want to say, ’99, 2000 maybe, but I was palling around on the internet. This was back when Yahoo used to be a big destination on the web for a lot of people.

Akeem Roberts:
Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
It had chat, it had games. I mean, ask any elder Millennial about Yahoo Spades, and they will spin you a tale, okay. Yahoo had a lot of these user groups that you could just join or whatever. Very similar to like, I guess, a forum or something like that. They had one around Black comic books that was just called like Black Comics. When I tell you the crème de la crème of Black artists at the time were in there, I’m talking Denys Cowan, I’m talking Dwayne McDuffie. Dwayne McDuffie-

Akeem Roberts:
Oh wow.

Maurice Cherry:
… actually gave me a critique on a comic book idea that I had. I was like, “Yeah, I want to make this comic book about these like… They’re ninjas, but they’re Black, and I’m going to call it Black Ninjas.” I mean, I can laugh about it now. This is terrible. He’s like, “This is just-

Akeem Roberts:
Oh no.

Maurice Cherry:
… “you’ve just taken Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” which I love, “you’ve just taken Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and mapped their direct characteristics onto Black people.” He’s like, “If you want to make something that’s your own, you really have to make it your own. You can’t just copy from what someone else has done.”

That has stuck with me. I mean, I’ve certainly taken that advice with other projects and things that I’ve done, but this was way back in the day. It’s amazing how even just like those kind of little comments that you get from someone that has been where you’re trying to go can help just set you in the right direction, that kind of indirect mentorship in a way.

Akeem Roberts:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
What advice would you give to any aspiring artists out there that are just starting out in the industry? What would you tell them?

Akeem Roberts:
Work on your fundamentals, but also when you’re doing contracts, there’s a couple of things you need to make sure you have, which is a kill fee. If you finish an illustration, no matter how much percentage of it, they’ll still pay you what they said they’ll pay you. That way, even if they’re like, “Oh, you finished this illustration,” and then they’re like, “Actually, we don’t want to do the project anymore,” if you have a kill fee, that would be like, “Hey, I finished a hundred percent of this project. Pay me a hundred percent of the project.” No matter what, they still have to pay, which is important.

Then, make sure you have a limited number of revisions. I like to do three revisions, and then if a client goes over that, they pay for that, so like you get these three revisions, then anything else they pay for it. That allows the client to think about it because I feel like if it’s unlimited revisions, the client is just going to keep being like, “Oh, what if this was pink? What if this was blue? What is this was orange?” If you’re just like, “Hey, you have three revisions,” that kind of nit-picky stuff with the client they’re not going to do because they’re like, “Okay, these are important. Let me actually think about it.” Like, “Oh, can I just imagine that color in blue or whatever versus asking the illustrator or artist to do it for them.”

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

Akeem Roberts:
Then, after that, I would say also save 30% of whatever you get for freelance for taxes because you do not want to get caught with your pants down.

Maurice Cherry:
Are you speaking from personal experience there?

Akeem Roberts:
No, I was able to catch it. I didn’t let that happen to me, but I’m always worried. I’m always trying to save just in case. I don’t want to end up having to pay too much in taxes and don’t have any money in my account.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s a good idea. That’s a good idea. How do you stay inspired and motivated in what you do? I’m curious. How do you handle burnout or any sort of periods of low motivation? How do you get through that?

Akeem Roberts:
That, I feel like whenever I’m in a funk, especially when I’m drawing stuff, I kind of just doodle a comfort character, which for me is like I love Sonic the Hedgehog. Sonic 1 was like one of the first games I ever played. I always draw Sonic, and it helps me get out of the funk because I feel like the funk you’re usually in is just because you’re progressing in your mind, but you haven’t kind of caught up to your hand yet. You’re like, “Oh, this is looking bad,” because I know my taste is a lot better in my head and I can visualize it, but I’m like my mind, my body hasn’t quite gotten there yet. I feel like if you have a comfort character that kind of helps you put things in perspective, I guess.

For me, it’s Sonic, which whenever I’m feeling out of it, I’ll just doodle a little Sonic and I’ll be like, “Hey, this was better than what I did before. That keeps me motivated, and I always try to measure myself only to myself. Yeah, there’s going to be artists and stuff that you look up to, but make sure you just look at how you are progressing so that way you don’t lose motivation and drawing. If you’re drawing and then you see another person who just draws something straight out of the air and it’s perfect and beautiful and you’re like, “Man, I can’t do that,” you just got to like slowly keep working. Just look at yourself and be like, “Hey, I’m slightly better than what I was the other day,” and just keep going.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What kind of work do you want to be doing?

Akeem Roberts:
I’d love to have this graphic novel come out and then continue doing stuff in publishing, because right now my job is designing book covers-

Maurice Cherry:
Mm-hmm.

Akeem Roberts:
… so I don’t do the illustration or anything in that. I just do the layout, the fonts and everything-

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah.

Akeem Roberts:
… and I feel like that has been a little freeing in order to look at the process, but also pick other artists that will be good for a work or a job or something like that. I guess I give them the opportunity to show themselves.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, I think designing book cover certainly is a…that seems pretty cool. I’ve seen awards go to just book covers in terms of design and everything, so that’s a pretty cool gig to have.

Akeem Roberts:
Yeah, yeah. I’m liking it so far. Only three weeks in, though, but it’s good right now.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Well, just to kind of wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more information about you, about your work and everything? Where can they find that online?

Akeem Roberts:
You can find out more about at akeemteam.com and everything pretty much at Akeem Team, which ironically, that is just like an AIM username I made back up in middle school and I just kept it,

Maurice Cherry:
Now, it’s yours. It’s yours forever.

Akeem Roberts:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
All right, sounds good, man. Akeem Roberts, I want to thank you so, so much for coming on the show. Thank you for, I think, demystifying a little bit about what it’s like to be a working freelance artist. I think what’s probably the most important thing that I gathered just from this conversation and from your story is that this wasn’t an overnight success. You always sort of had this gift for drawing, and then you cultivated that through college and then through your additional work experiences. Then, you were also freelancing and now you’re doing cartoons in The New Yorker and you’re designing book covers and stuff like that.

It’s all a process, like you’ve managed to continue to build your skills up at every step of the way, and I think that’s something that for most people, particularly for most people I think that are listening, it’s just an important thing to know that success doesn’t come overnight. You’ve really kind of worked hard to make a name for yourself. I’m excited to see what else comes out from you in the future, so thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Akeem Roberts:
Hey, thank you so much for having me, man.

Sponsored by Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit

Brevity & Wit is a strategy and design firm committed to designing a more inclusive and equitable world. They are always looking to expand their roster of freelance design consultants in the U.S., particularly brand strategists, copywriters, graphic designers and Web developers.

If you know how to deliver excellent creative work reliably, and enjoy the autonomy of a virtual-based, freelance life (with no non-competes), check them out at brevityandwit.com.

Alleanna Harris

A common sentiment shared by a lot of the guests I’ve had on the podcast is that you can’t be what you don’t see. That starts at a young age, too — think about the book covers and other visuals you saw as a child and how that’s shaped you to where you are now. Luckily, there are dope illustrators like this week’s guest, Alleanna Harris, who are creating images that captivate and inspire kids so they can truly see themselves.

Alleanna and I went over some of her recent projects, including a portrait of Will Smith she drew in front of The Fresh Prince himself. She also shared her process on how she conveys a book’s story through pictures while also making them stunningly appealing. Later, Alleanna talked about growing up in South Jersey, attending UArts, spoke on the benefits of being represented by an agent, and told me what she appreciates the most about her life right now. Alleanna is a rising star, and according to her, a career in the world of illustration is possible! (So keep drawing!)

Interview Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right, so tell us who you are and what you do.

Alleanna Harris:
I’m Alleanna Harris. I’m a freelance illustrator from South Jersey. I mainly illustrate picture books, but I also do editorial, commercial, advertising, chapter books. I illustrate a lot.

Maurice Cherry:
How’s the year been going for you so far?

Alleanna Harris:
It’s been going pretty well. It’s kind of different than last year. Last year, I took on a lot, and the year before that, so I’ve been trying to just chill a little bit and take on less just so I could align myself with projects that I really want to do.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I find that a lot of creative folks I’ve talked to just on the show and off the show, they really started the year off kind of slow. Like, they’re really kind of easing into 2023.

Alleanna Harris:
Definitely, definitely. That’s what I’ve been doing my best, just picking things that I really, really like that I’m really, really into.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, based on all that hard work that you talked about before, I hear that congratulations are in order. There’s a book that you illustrated that won in the Black Kidlit Awards, is that right?

Alleanna Harris:
Yep, yep. It won best biography in the first Black Kidlit Awards ever. It’s called Marvelous Mabel. It’s about the life of Mabel Fairbanks. And she was the first Black figure skater, just the first Black famous figure skater. She came up in 1930s, 1940s, New York City. So it’s basically about her early life and all the things that she went through while trying to learn how to figure-skate, and it actually won. And it was the biggest surprise ever. I just went on Instagram and people were like, “Hey, Alleanna, you won,” and I was like, “What?” And I looked and it said, “Best biography,” and I was like, “Oh my goodness, I can’t believe I actually won.”

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, congratulations.

Alleanna Harris:
Thank you.

Maurice Cherry:
I also saw, just from peeking around through social media, you also recently did some work with Pentagram, which is a extremely well-known agency. How was that project?

Alleanna Harris:
It was pretty awesome. They emailed me and they said that they wanted some work done in the picture-book style for an animation for the Gates Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. And basically, they said that they wanted me to illustrate a character named Abeo, and she was about six or seven, and they wanted a good representation of a kid in early elementary school just so that they could show it to policymakers. And it was up to me to come up with the character and what she looked like and how she moved around. So I actually ended up illustrating a lot of the key frames for the animation and a lot of the assets, the things that she’s holding, like her books and pencils and different formulas. And it was a really amazing process. I got to work with the great folks at Pentagram and another animation studio named Kong in the UK, so that was really, really awesome.

Maurice Cherry:
How long did that project take, just overall?

Alleanna Harris:
You know what? Animation… Well, actually, that would be more advertising. Those kinds of projects are really, really fast-paced, so that took about, I would say, under a month, maybe about three weeks. So it was-

Maurice Cherry:
Wow, it was fast.

Alleanna Harris:
Yeah, it was really, really fast, but it went really well. It was pretty straightforward.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, since we’re already getting into your work, I want to keep going down that road. We talked a little bit before we started recording, and you mentioned that you started professionally as an illustrator in 2017, but prior to that, you were, I guess, testing the waters, maybe, on Etsy. Is that right?

Alleanna Harris:
Yep, that’s right. I started right after college in 2015. And it was funny because my mom, she said, “Well, if you’re right out of college and you want to do this illustration thing, then you know what, I’m going to give you two years so you could figure it out. Do your best to figure it out in two years, and if not, then you could go right into probably, like, a master’s program.” So I was like, “Okay, I really have to figure this out.” And the best thing that I could think of was to just sketch and draw what’s around me or things that interested me. So I did a ton of sketches of places in Philly, and I also did a ton of illustrations of different Philly foods, and different pop-culture things, like living single in a different world. I ended up putting them on a Etsy shop, and it actually did well as soon as I started offering those prints. And that’s where I got my start.

Maurice Cherry:
How was Etsy like? Was it a good platform for you to, I guess, test out whether or not you had a market for your work?

Alleanna Harris:
Yeah, it was really good. I was really surprised, actually, because when I put them on, I was pretty convinced it would take a long time. It’s crazy, but it was a week, only a week that someone first bought one of my prints. And I actually think it was a Ferris Bueller print that was my first sale. And then around that same time, I started sharing my illustrations on Instagram, too, so I started building an audience on there.

Maurice Cherry:
Is that the one where they’re at the Sears Tower and they’re leaning over and their foreheads hitting the glass?

Alleanna Harris:
Yes. Yep, that was the one.

Maurice Cherry:
I love that one. That one is so good. It’s so good.

Alleanna Harris:
Thank you. Thank you. That’s the one I did. That one, and then I did different ones of Cameron’s… I think it’s Redhawks jersey, Sloane’s white leather jacket, and then Ferris’s shirt/vest combo, and that did well, too. So, that was kind of my start on Etsy.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you mentioned earlier, when you were working with Pentagram, that they wanted, quote, unquote, “a picture-book style.” What does your process look like for illustrating a picture book? I would imagine it’s probably different from working with an author than it is working with a company or a nonprofit.

Alleanna Harris:
Yeah, definitely. Well, for picture books, it can actually take a long time. It could take a year or more. Because I don’t actually work directly with authors; I usually work directly with the publishers. So I usually get those projects through my agent. My agent, Alex, she usually emails me with a manuscript and she’s like, “What do you think about this? Do you like how it sounds? Are you interested?” And then I look over it and then I say yes or no. And then if it’s a yes, then I look over the manuscript again, and then they might send me these thing called art notes. Usually they’re within a template for the book, so usually they place the text within the book so that I have a place to sketch everything. And then they give me art notes, which basically tell me what to draw.

But lately, they haven’t been giving me art notes. They’ve just been saying, “Okay, here’s the manuscript, and go for it.” So, I just sketch things, whatever comes to mind, whatever I think fits the story best, and then I send it back to them. The editor and the art director go over it, and then they come up with feedback and notes, and then I revise. Usually it’s a bunch of revisions, just a cycle of revisions. And then I go to final art, I start to add color. Sometimes I do rough color, I just place colors around, and then they give me the “Go ahead,” and then I fix that up. And then it’s another cycle of revisions. And then after I finish the final color, I usually go over it again. And then that’s it. It’s a long process, but it’s totally worth it.

Maurice Cherry:
And you mostly work with the editors, that’s interesting. For some reason, I thought you’d be working more closely with the author since it’s their words and everything.

Alleanna Harris:
I know, and usually… Well, when I started, I thought that would be the case, too, but no, I work directly with the art director and then the editor. Usually it’s both of them together. For my last couple of books, I talked to the authors after the process. It’s really funny. I usually don’t talk to them, not unless it’s through the editor.

Maurice Cherry:
And I would imagine the authors are… I mean, do they like that process, I guess? I don’t know. I guess that’s not really for you to decide, huh?

Alleanna Harris:
Not really. Usually, I guess they rely on the editors for that. If they have things that they want me to include, if they have reference photos or other things like that, they send it through the editor, and then I work from there.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting, interesting. Well, I guess if the author’s writing the book at that point, they’re like, “Look, you got it from here.” No, I mean, I guess it sounds like the authors are happy with it. I would imagine that would be kind of awkward if you do all this illustration for the book and the author’s like, “I don’t know if this is really what I wanted for the book.”

Alleanna Harris:
Yeah. Oh, no, that would be so awkward. But I mean, I would work with it and then I’d get it to a place where we’re all happy. But yeah, they leave it up to the editor and the art director. I’d say for one of the books, it was actually a early reader, and it was about Geoffrey Holder, the actor and Broadway star. I actually had to go through a lot of revisions for that one just to get it to a place where the author was happy with it. It wasn’t that she wasn’t happy with the art, but it was just a certain kind of feeling that she wanted, because he’s from Trinidad and she just wanted it to have that homey, bright feeling, just, like, Caribbean feeling. It took me a few revision cycles to get there, but I got there, so she was happy with it.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, to that end, when you’re illustrating for a book, is it more about trying to accurately convey the story, or is it about making something, like you just mentioned, making it more visually appealing?

Alleanna Harris:
It’s both because you want the reader… And usually the reader is a kid. You want kids to want to know what they’re looking at, and two, to feel something from the book. So it’s usually my job to get it there, to get it accurate enough where they know who they’re looking at just by their parents, but also, it’s up to me to make it look good enough in terms of color and mood so that it really affects the readers.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, yeah. I mean, you said it’s a picture book, so the picture has to be sort of the primary focus almost, it sounds like.

Alleanna Harris:
Right, right.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Aside from that Geoffrey Holder book you mentioned, was there ever a particularly challenging illustration you had to create for a book, whether it was technical or just getting the look and feel right?

Alleanna Harris:
Oh my goodness, yes. It was actually my first picture book called The Journey of York. I’d say it was more like a oil painting-type style. It was way more realistic. And it had a lot of different landscapes, and all the people had to look really real. So it took a lot of work to get it to a point where it looked right. It had all these different locations in the Pacific Northwest and all this vegetation and all these people. And it was just a lot of going back and forth with my art director, Laurie. It took a lot of research, too. They actually sent me a book, and I do not remember the name of it, but it’s somewhere in my bookcase at back of me. But they had to send me a book, and it had a lot about the clothes that they wore during that time. It also had some examples of the places that Lewis and Clark went, because it was basically about the enslaved man that went along with them, and it was basically the brains of the operation alongside with Sacagawea. So, it was just a lot to that artistically.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I want to get more into your work and your career. There’s some really dope things that you’ve done that I want to talk about. But before we get there, let’s learn more about you. Now, you’re originally from Philly, but you were raised in South Jersey, is that correct?

Alleanna Harris:
Yes, yes. I’m Philly born. My parents are both from Philly. And I was raised in South Jersey, about 20-30 minutes away, Northeast. So, Philly is really important to me. Yeah, just raised in South Jersey and in a very, very close-knit family. It was a pretty cool upbringing. The town where I was raised in, it’s predominantly Black. I mostly went to Quaker schools growing up. And for those that aren’t familiar with Quaker schools, it’s basically Christian, but they believe that the light of God is in everyone, and they don’t have worship services. They just sit in silence for a little bit of time weekly. They’re known for just very rigorous academic programs. So, I went to Quaker schools for K through 12, kindergarten, all the way through 12th grade, and it was really a awesome experience.

Maurice Cherry:
Did you do a lot of drawing as a kid or as a teenager?

Alleanna Harris:
Oh, yeah. I’ve been drawing forever. When I was little, when I was a toddler, I would just scribble in all of my mom’s legal pads. Every single page, I’d just scribble. Like, turn the page, scribble, turn the page scribble. And then she’d go to work and then take out her legal pad, and then all of them were just covered in scribble. When I got a little older, I would always doodle in the church programs. By the time I got to middle school, I would keep a sketchbook with me. And my mom and my grandma were super supportive because they’d always be like, “Did you remember to bring your sketchbook? Always remember to sketch.” And I would just sketch everything that was around me. In high school, I was more of an academic-type kid. I was very math and science-y. So I didn’t really take a lot of art classes, but I always kept that sketchbook next to me.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, that’s interesting. You mentioned that about being more math and science-y, but also into drawing and art. Is that kind of what initially pushed you into architecture at Temple?

Alleanna Harris:
Yep, that was it. Because I was into math and science, but when I was trying to decide what to do, I was like, “I need something with a artistic bent,” and I thought that would be architecture. So, I got into Temple. I was in their honors program, actually, and I was also accepted into their architecture program at their Tyler School of Art. It was a really, really great program, but I did not enjoy it one bit. I thought that’s what I wanted to do, but I got there and I was like, “I don’t really enjoy this like I thought I did.” I mean, I did well, but I was like, “No, there’s got to be something other than this I could do.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I can imagine… I mean, when I went to school, for example, I went to study computer science, computer engineering at first because I wanted to be a web designer. Now, granted, this was late ’90s, early 2000s, so web design was not… I don’t want to say it wasn’t a profession, but it certainly wasn’t one that you could, I think, really study in a lot of schools. Most schools just didn’t even have a curriculum for it. And I remember taking it that first semester and talking to my advisor about it, and he was just like, “Oh, the internet’s a fad. You don’t want to get into that. Nobody’s going to be interested in that.” And he’s like, “If that’s what you want to do, you should change your major.” So I did change my major. But you went even further. You completely transferred schools.

Alleanna Harris:
I did, I did. I’m pretty sure everyone thought, I don’t know, maybe that I was a little bit crazy, because they’re like, “You’re at Temple, you’re at a great art school. What are you doing?” I had a really chunky scholarship that I was just not throwing away. But yeah, I need something more creative, so I actually ended up looking up other schools, and I found University of the Arts. And it happened to be on the other side of Broad Street. Temple University is on North Broad, and University of the Arts is on South Broad, on the other side of City Hall. So, I looked them up and I saw that they had an animation program, and I was like, “I think this would be really great.” I sat my mom down, I was like, “Listen, I have something to tell you.” And she’s staring at me, like, “What is wrong?” And I was like, “I want to go into animation.” She’s like, “Oh my God. Okay, that’s fine. Just figure out how to apply and we’ll just go from there.” So, I went to the Open House, I applied, and I actually ended up getting a bigger scholarship there than I had at Temple.

Maurice Cherry:
Whoa, look at you.

Alleanna Harris:
I know. Thank you. But it’s like, who knew? So, I ended up at University of the Arts as an animation major, and that’s where I graduated from.

Maurice Cherry:
How was your time there?

Alleanna Harris:
Oh my goodness, I loved it. It was different from Temple because, number one, it’s smaller. It’s private compared to Temple, which is public and it’s bigger. But it’s smaller, but it’s right smack dab in the middle of Center City, so right on the Avenue of the Arts. It doesn’t have a campus, it’s just within everything. This is within Center City. So, when I got there and I got to the dorm and everything, which is basically like an apartment, it was kind of culture shock because you have to learn how to navigate. It is kind of like “living as an adult,” quote, unquote, even though you’re in college. So it was just interesting having to meet people again because… I transferred, so I didn’t get to go to orientation, so I had to meet people.

It was really great because I always liken it to Fame, the school in Fame, because UArts has so many different majors. It’s just such a comprehensive arts university. It has musical theater, and fine arts, and film, and photography. And then I tell people it’s like Fame because we would sit in the dining hall and then people would just start singing and dancing and everything and just be in the midst of that. But it was a really great time. Just so many creative people, so many things to do, so many great professors. It was really awesome. I enjoyed it. I made a lot of great friends, still friends with them today.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, do you feel like it really sort of prepared you once you graduated and got out there working as a creative?

Alleanna Harris:
Yes, definitely, because it allowed me, just going there, to take different types of classes. I had my animation… my core classes, but I was also able to take film classes, and I learned a lot in those. And just the things that I learned within my film classes, it directly applies to how I see illustration, just my point of view. I also took illustration classes. And actually, my illustration classes, that made me realize that I really wanted to go into illustration more than animation. So for sure, definitely. Definitely.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I can imagine that kind of environment because, one, there’s so many different creative disciplines happening at once, but then also, like you mentioned with that lunchroom example, you’re getting to see people exhibit their craft. You have the possibility and the potential to go into anything else just by getting inspired from being in that environment, which I think can sometimes be a lot different when you’re at a traditional liberal-arts school because you’re so locked into your major.

Alleanna Harris:
Yeah, definitely. I agree.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And then as you said earlier, after you graduated, for your early career, you started out with just, I guess, freelancing, starting out on Etsy, seeing if you had a market for it, and then that’s sort of where things took off. But you said you started professionally in 2017. So what were those first two years like after you graduated from UArts?

Alleanna Harris:
They were really interesting because I did things on Etsy. I was starting to build an audience on social media, but I was also doing commissions for friends and family members. So there’s some people who were like, “Hey, can you do this cover, because I have a book coming out,” so I do stuff like that. So, I did a lot of commissions. I even taught senior citizens how to paint. I would go to assisted-living places and we would have little paint-and-sip nights. And that was fun. That was interesting. I also do stuff like that. And actually, closer to 2017, I illustrated a book. Well, my cousin worked within the Philadelphia School Board. And she was working with someone who had a company that had to do with the school board, and she wrote books. So she was looking for an illustrator, and my cousin was like, “Hey, my cousin is an illustrator. You might want to check her portfolio out.” So she did, and she checked my portfolio out and she liked it, and she was like, “Hey, can you illustrate this book for me?” So, that was actually my first experience illustrating a book, and I absolutely fell in love with it. And actually, that was the main experience that made me want to illustrate books.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice, nice. Now, you’ve said that… We talked about this before we recorded, but you said there are a lot of different paths when it comes to illustration as a career and that you can make it lucrative. It sounds like for you initially, you tried out a bunch of different things, like you were teaching senior citizens, you were doing Etsy, you were doing commissions. What are some of those paths that people can take if they’re looking to pursue illustration as a career?

Alleanna Harris:
There are a ton of different paths. I guess just thinking about my major, I was an animation major, so most of my classmates, they ended up going the animation route. They also illustrate, but they’re within story of the animation. So they come up with the storyboards, they come up with the plot points, they do stuff like that. And then I also have friends that are animators now. So, you can definitely go that way.

Within illustration, I know people who illustrate commercially, so they do different advertisements or they work with brands like Google or Apple or Adobe.

I know people who work within art licensing, so they do the patterns that go on clothes or that go on different products.

There are just so many different ways you can go. Or, like me, you could go into picture books, or you could do comic books, and there are just so many different ways you can go.

Maurice Cherry:
And it sounds like, I guess maybe once you get further along on one path, you can maybe bounce between others. Like, if you’re doing picture books, maybe you can also do editorial illustrations or something like that.

Alleanna Harris:
Exactly, yeah. Yeah. There’s a lot of leeway. There’s a lot of leeway because some people can look at your work and be like, “You know what? That will work over here. Do you want to try it out?” That happened with me. Someone from… I think it’s called the Phoenix International, they’re making a graphic novel about Ida B. Wells, and they’re like, “Do you want to work on this? I know it’s a comic book, and I know that you do picture books, but do you want to work on it?” And I said, “Sure.” And I ended up doing a graphic novel. But yeah, that’s definitely how it happened. You could just kind of jump from style to style.

Maurice Cherry:
And I would imagine your process probably still mostly stays the same, even if you’re doing these sort of different types of illustration.

Alleanna Harris:
Yep, yep. Yeah, it pretty much stays the same. You’re right.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, I’m curious to get your take about AI-generated art. That’s a discussion that has really popped up, I’d say, within the last, I don’t know, I’d say, four to five months particularly, once people started using… what was the app called? Lensa?

Alleanna Harris:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
And they started making those AI-generated avatars and putting them out there and everything. I don’t know, the discussion around it, I think, has been so interesting because I’ve heard from artists that are like, “I hate this. This is theft. I can’t believe this is happening,” that sort of thing. And then I hear it from the average layperson that is surprised for two things. One, that the art looks nothing like them, which, I mean, yeah, you had a computer do it, that makes sense. But then secondly, they’re more perturbed that they had to pay for it.

Alleanna Harris:
Oh yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Like, you paid money for that? You gave them how much money? And I would see people on Twitter and stuff searching around, trying to find a free alternative because they didn’t want to pay Lensa. I think it was $8 or $10 or something like that. So they’re like, “Well, I found this Chinese app called Meitu, and I can do it there for free,” and da, da, da, da, da, and all this stuff.

From your perspective as an artist, Midjourney, Stable Diffusion, all these AI-generated art’s algorithms and apps and stuff like that, what are your thoughts on all that?

Alleanna Harris:
I have so many thoughts. First of all, well, just, I guess, the bottom line, I’m not a fan. I’m not a fan because some people want to use it to replace working artists. I saw this big thread on Twitter with this guy who used… I think he used Stable Diffusion to make a picture book, and everybody was getting on him about the picture book because all of his characters, they weren’t consistent. It just didn’t look right-

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, yeah, I saw that, I think because he also used ChatGPT to write the book.

Alleanna Harris:
Yes, that’s it. That’s it. Yeah, I’m not a fan because it is theft because it needs other people’s work, at least Stable Diffusion does. It needs other people’s work to create art. So why don’t you just actually pay an artist to actually do the art instead of stealing the work to make something out of it? Also, I feel like using AI, you’re not really being an artist, you’re more being a client because AI is doing the work. You’re telling it what you want it to do instead of you actually actively doing it. I know it’s less work to tell software to do what you want, but the process is the biggest part of making the art, and you’re taking all the process out of it.

Maurice Cherry:
There’s a friend of mine, he’s an art director at an ad agency, and he’s been learning Midjourney and been posting the results on LinkedIn and stuff. And it looks nice. I find that the AI art has a particular style-

Alleanna Harris:
It’s a look.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, it’s a particular look. Very stylized, heavy shadows, all the art kind of looks the same regardless of who the subject is. But he’s been taking a class. Apparently people have written classes about how to ask the right prompts to get it to do the right thing. It’s so interesting seeing how far people are willing to take it, I think, just to see what the possibilities are.

Alleanna Harris:
Yeah. Well, there are so many ways that we could use AI that would help or make our lives easier, but I just don’t think that that’s the best way to go about it. It’s like, why don’t we use AI to figure out our taxes or do the work that we don’t feel like doing, having to do bookkeeping or something like that. But the actual art part that really takes a human to do, you’re taking that away. I’m not really a fan, but hey.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, it’s so interesting, at least from what I’m seeing people trying to do. I think it does unlock some people’s creativity that doesn’t necessarily have the skill-

Alleanna Harris:
It does.

Maurice Cherry:
… to maybe take the idea that they have in their head and really draw it, or even spend money to get someone to draw it. So they’ll say, “Oh, well, let’s see what AI can do.” I saw… I think this was on TikTok. Someone had done a Racebent Addams Family, where the Addams Family is all Black, so then they had all of the… Gomez and Wednesday and Morticia, et cetera. It’s like, “Oh, that’s interesting.” And then you look at all the comments that are like, “Somebody needs to take this to Netflix.” I’m like, “Netflix already has both the movies and the new series.” Not saying that they couldn’t do this, but what is… I think when people see that, one, I don’t know if they’re under the assumption that the person created it, but two, if they were to take it to that extra level, that’s when you got to get humans involved.

Alleanna Harris:
Exactly. And you were talking about the level of skill. That’s so true, because I think people want to avoid, I’m going to say this, but the ugly phase, when your work doesn’t look that good, when you’re still learning. But you can’t avoid it. To make good art, you have to make bad art first. That’s also why I’m not a fan, but yeah. You kind of skip over that phase where you’re just learning the materials, learning… If you work on a computer, you’re learning the software. You skip over that to try to make art that’s presentable. And you can’t.

Maurice Cherry:
I do have some writer friends that are using it just for character sketches. It helps them to take the character that they’re writing about to visualize it. So they’ll do it for that purpose, but they’re not going to take that and then go to a designer or an illustrator and say, “I made this on Midjourney. Can you touch this up,” or “Can you do XYZ?” I would imagine some people will go that route. Don’t do that. But I can see some useful applications of it, as long as it doesn’t get too… The person creating the picture book, I mean, come on.

Alleanna Harris:
Yeah, exactly. Exactly. It’s like, if there is a way to do it without stealing other people’s work and styles, then that would be interesting to see. But I just don’t like that a lot of the different programs are stealing other people’s work, and not even paying them for it. They’re just taking it, “Oh, I like this person’s style, so I’m just going to plug it in.”

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. Well, I know Getty is suing… I think they’re suing Stable Diffusion-

Alleanna Harris:
I heard.

Maurice Cherry:
… because one thing that Stable Diffusion does, and I guess all of these algorithms or AI things do it, is, they’ll take the watermarks, too. Getty Images always has that big rectangular watermark across their picture. And so there are AI-generated images that have malformed versions of that, and Getty’s like, “Ah, ah, I don’t think so. You got to pay us for that.”

Alleanna Harris:
Yeah, exactly. And there’s this thing going around on Twitter. People were saying, “Oh, maybe you should plug in Disney and see what happens.”

Maurice Cherry:
Because yeah, you can feed stuff to it to make it better. But to what end is this going to come from? Because I’m starting to see applications of folks using AI for music, for example. I think Google has this beta program out now where you can give it a couple of phrases and have it generate music in a particular style, which I know musicians will hate that. But it’s interesting how far we’re trying to take artificial intelligence in a way that subverts human creativity.

Alleanna Harris:
Exactly. Along with creativity, it makes you think of ethics, too. Like, where exactly do we stop? When is it okay, and when is this not okay? It’s a bigger conversation.

Maurice Cherry:
I mean, educators now are already having to deal with that with ChatGPT. I’ve been talking with a couple of educators now that are just like… Some are still trying to wrap their heads around it, others are already changing their syllabi to say, “Don’t do this.” And we’re starting to see school districts and stuff crack down on it because students… And this is to a point where, in an educational perspective, this is really dangerous. Students don’t know the difference. They don’t know the nuance or the particular human parts of this. They just see it, it’s like, “Oh, this can do my homework for me.”

Alleanna Harris:
Yes. Yes, you’re so right. It’s really something to see. It’s so many new developments in such a short amount of time. Technology.

Maurice Cherry:
I saw this while going through your Instagrams. I was doing research, but you even got to draw Will Smith in front of Will Smith.

Alleanna Harris:
I did. I did. I did. It was crazy because the folks at Harriett’s Bookshop, they contacted me and they were like, “Hey, we’re having this book tour stopping in and we were just wondering if you’d work with us in setting it up.” And I was like, “Oh my God. Of course.” So as I was working with them and getting everything set up and working with possible drawings, I was like, “Okay, something’s up because, one, this project is really rush. It’s going really fast. So I feel like this is someone important, and I don’t know who this is.” And then I emailed them and they were like, “Yeah, we figured we’d let you know. It’s actually Will Smith. And this is a Will Smith’s book.” And I was like, “Oh my goodness.” So, they were like, “Okay, so people from Westbrook-

Maurice Cherry:
Westbrook, Westbrook, yeah.

Alleanna Harris:
Yes. They’re like, “Westbrook is going to call you and they’re going to ask you to do a portrait, and you’re going to say yes.” And I was like, “Okay. Okay, I’ll say yes.” And I actually had to meet with them and send them past sketches to see if they approved. And then they told me, “Well, we’re going to show this to Will, see if he likes it.” And I was like, “Oh my God, you’re going to show it. He just [inaudible 00:39:17] to be Will Smith as just Will. Okay.” So, they showed it to Will Smith, they showed it to Will, and he liked it, and I ended up sketching him in front of him at the event.

It’s funny because I didn’t get to finish the sketch because the whole day was actually pretty hectic, but I was able to give him a drawing that I did. And I actually have the process video up on my Instagram, too. I was able to give that to him and he’s like, “Wow, that’s definitely me.” And I was like, “I know.” But it was great to just be able to say hello and shake his hand and say thank-you. And just to see how it went in person, it was just amazing. That was an amazing day.

Maurice Cherry:
Is he Philly royalty?

Alleanna Harris:
Yes, without a doubt.

Maurice Cherry:
I’ve always been curious about that because, I mean, so much of… Of course, his early story has been about in West Philadelphia, born… We all know that. But then I think so much of his professional career has been wrapped up in Hollywood and California. I was just curious about that.

Alleanna Harris:
Oh no, he’s definitely royalty. And actually, before he got there, it’s just tons of people. There was even a guy dressed up like him in his Fresh Prince days. Like, the striped shirt on, the sideways cap. These would people that are like, “Oh, we walked so far to be here.” And there are people from the Carolinas, I think, they were just waiting for hours. And he pulled in and people were just losing… 6abc was there. They’re like, “Fresh Prince returns.” He’s definitely Philly royalty, no doubt.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow, nice. Now, you’re represented by The Bright Agency, and The Bright Agency reps, a ton of animators, artists, and authors. How did you go about getting representation, and what are the benefits for you as an artist of being represented by an agency?

Alleanna Harris:
It’s funny, it was actually pretty serendipitous. My friend Loveis Wise, they’re a illustrator. They’re really amazing. We went to college together. We both went to UArts. They were a illustration major. And they told me, they said, “You should join Women Who Draw. It’s a really great website. It’s basically a database of women illustrators. You just put a piece of your work there and you say your name and different things about your identity, and then people go there and look for artists.” And I was like, “Okay, cool. I’ll do it.” So I uploaded my info. And not too long after that, I’d say months, my first agent, James Burns, he said, “Hey, I like your work. Is there anything that Bright can do for you?” And I was like, “You got to be kidding me, because it’s…” Actually, Bright was the agency that I was looking at when I was starting to plan, sending out my artist postcards. And the fact that he found my work on Women Who Draw and then reached out to me was absolutely amazing. So, from there, I said yes, and I’ve been represented by Bright ever since.

Maurice Cherry:
What are artist postcards? What’s that? Is it, like, a calling card of some sort?

Alleanna Harris:
Basically, yeah, you put a strong piece of art. It could have different themes. It could be seasonal or just whatever piece of art that you like most. And you put that on one side and then you put your information, your name, website on the other side, and you send it to art directors or agencies. Basically, if they like them, they keep them and they keep you in line for projects.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. So you use that to sort of shop yourself around a little bit.

Alleanna Harris:
No, I didn’t even start. I went on, I put my stuff on Women Who Draw, and he found me there-

Maurice Cherry:
And they came to you.

Alleanna Harris:
Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Okay. What are those benefits of being repped by an agency? I would imagine it sort of just takes a lot of the admin stuff off of your plate.

Alleanna Harris:
It does. It really does. That’s what I like most because contract stuff that goes through them, they have people who specifically work on contracts. So I could go to my agent even about payments or deadlines, and they could talk to the publishers and the companies on my behalf. It’s just great having someone in your corner who knows the field better than you do.

Maurice Cherry:
And then all you can do is just draw and get paid.

Alleanna Harris:
I love it. It’s so much help.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I mean, that’s the dream for all creatives to be able to have the freedom to do that. Like, just do your work, get paid, and not have to worry about all the in-between stuff. So that’s great.

Alleanna Harris:
Yes. Yes, yes. It’s definitely a blessing. I’m definitely grateful to work with them. It’s really awesome.

Maurice Cherry:
Now, you’ve got a couple of books that are coming out a little bit later this year, right?

Alleanna Harris:
Yep, yep. I have two. The first is Good Things by Maryah Greene, and that’s a picture book about a boy named Malcolm. Lives with his dad, and I believe it’s in Harlem. [inaudible 00:44:33] grandma, and his dad actually passes away, so he has to learn how to take care of the plants that his dad left him. And it’s a really good book about grief, and about plants, too. I got to illustrate a lot of plants because Maryah is a amazing plant doctor in New York City. So, there’s that book. These books come out in August, I believe, the 1st of August. There’s also Recipe for Change, which is by Michael C. Platt. And he is pretty young. I believe he’s in his late teens or his teens, but he’s a chef. It’s a cookbook. And I illustrate different foods in different scenes, based on the civil rights movement. And each of the recipes align with the scene. So you have a recipe and a story and a portrait, and it’s really, really educational. So, I have those two coming out in August.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. Are they both available right now for pre-order? Because I want to put links to them in the show notes so people can check them out.

Alleanna Harris:
They’re about to be. Recipe for Change is actually about to be open for pre-order in the first week of February, and I am still waiting on word for Good Things.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay. Well, hopefully by the time this comes out, which will be right around mid- to late-February, we’ll hopefully have links to both of those, but we’ll certainly mention them, as well.

Alleanna Harris:
Awesome. That sounds great.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. How do you stay motivated and inspired with your work?

Alleanna Harris:
You know what, I just think it’s a part of my personality. I’m really self-directed. I have a lot of family support, especially from my mom. And there are certain things that I just want to see on the world, and I want kids to be able to see themselves in books. And that drives me. That’s always the thing that pushes me. So I have no lack of passion or drive. That always pushes me.

Maurice Cherry:
Do you have a dream project of sorts that you’d love to do one day?

Alleanna Harris:
Oh my goodness. I feel like I have a lot of dream projects. I’m always into little-known stories of figures that we definitely should know about, but we don’t. So I love picture books that have to do with subjects like that. But I’m also interested in going back into animation. I’m not leaving picture books, but going maybe into the visual-development part of animation, maybe character design and maybe, one day, art directing, that would be amazing, for a animated series. That would definitely be a dream for me. That would be amazing.

Maurice Cherry:
Is this a series that you’d create yourself?

Alleanna Harris:
Ooh, I’m open to it. I didn’t even think of that, but now that you say it, yeah, that would be great. It could be existing, too, but any way that I could art-direct or do character design, that would be a dream.

Maurice Cherry:
What do you appreciate the most about your life right now?

Alleanna Harris:
I just appreciate being able to use the skills that I’ve worked on. I guess I could say gifts, too, just to be able to use them to help people learn and just give them material to look at, just new books and being able to help kids read and learn new things. That’s just a blessing, and I never would’ve thought that this would be what I do as a career, but I absolutely love it. I love being able to sit down in my room and just draw and then actually have it turn into a book, into things people see on bookshelves. That’s just amazing to me and I’m just forever grateful for it.

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? What kind of work would you like to be doing?

Alleanna Harris:
Definitely more picture books. I guess, along with the animation thing that I just mentioned, I could actually see myself working on a series. But other than that, I could see myself doing more commercial work, kind of like what I did with Pentagram. Actually, last year, I illustrated a gift card for Target. It was a Christmas gift card. I can see myself doing more of that, more brand work. But yeah, those are the things I could see in the future.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, nice. We just had Domonique Brown. She has a company, a lifestyle company called Domo, Inc. And she has a collection… Yeah, part of her collection’s at Target now for Black History Month. She also did a few cards for American Greetings, I think it’s a card company. She did some cards for them, too. So, I could totally see your work in that vein. That would be great.

Alleanna Harris:
Thank you. Thank you. I would love it. That would be so great.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, just to wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more information about you and your work and your books and everything? Where can they find that online?

Alleanna Harris:
Sure. Well, you could go to my website. It’s alleannaharris.com, A-L-L-E-A-N-N-A-H-A-R-R-I-S, .com. And I’m also Alleanna Harris everywhere on social media, so you can find me on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, even Tumblr, TikTok. You can find me all those places. Alleanna Harris.

Maurice Cherry:
All right, sounds good. Well, Alleanna Harris, I want to thank you so much for coming on the show. I think that just the work that you’re doing is so inspired and really, I think, driven by your own particular creative passion. I mean, as a kid that grew up reading a lot, reading competitions and all that stuff, there is just such an importance on children’s books that I think sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. And so the fact now that we have so many Black artists, especially like yourself, that are creating the books with authors that children are going to read, that are going to help shape them into becoming the people of tomorrow, I think is just such an amazing and inspiring thing. And your work is just so beautiful, and-

Alleanna Harris:
Thank you.

Maurice Cherry:
… I’m so excited to see what you do next. And like I said, we’ll put links to your books in the show notes. So, thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Alleanna Harris:
Thank you so much, and thank you so much for having me. This was great. I really enjoyed this.

Donate to Selma Tornado Relief

United Way of Central Alabama, Inc.

We are raising money for Selma Tornado Relief through United Way of Central Alabama to help serve victims of the tornado that tore through Selma, Alabama on Thursday, January 12th. Donate now, or text SELMA to 62644. Send us proof of your donation, and we will match it 100% (up to the first $1,000 donated).

Thank you for helping fund Selma’s recovery!

Sponsored by Hover

Hover

Building your online brand has never been more important and that begins with your domain name. Show the online community who you are and what you’re passionate about with Hover. With over 400+ domain name extensions to choose from, including all the classics and fun niche extensions, Hover is the only domain provider we use and trust.

Ready to get started? Go to hover.com/revisionpath and get 10% off your first purchase.

Magnus Atom

With a name like Magnus Atom, I had a feeling I was going to be talking with someone extraordinary. This award-winning motion graphics designer and commercial artist has an impressive roster of clients, including Headspace, Viceland, Playboy, MTV, and Lil Uzi Vert. On top of that, he recently received a coveted Young Guns award! Very impressive!

I caught up with Magnus a few months after his win, and he talked about working as an animation director with Strange Beast and settling down in upstate New York after a recent stint in Miami. He also spoke about going to the “Fame” high school in NYC, how his father inspired him to be an artist, and what he’s got his sights set on for this year. With a name like Magnus Atom, I’ve got a feeling we’ll definitely hear more from him in the future!

Transcript

Full Transcript

Maurice Cherry:
All right. So tell us who you are and what you do.

Magnus Atom:
Hey, so yeah, my name is Magnus Atom. I’m an animation director and I work globally with brands and clients to bring their brands to life with motion graphics and design, illustration, and tying that all in with animation. So…

Maurice Cherry:
How has 2022 been going for you so far?

Magnus Atom:
It’s been interesting. I mean, it’s been as good as it could be, I guess, this year. I mean, it’s been another one. But yeah, I started off… My wife and I, we actually went down to Miami for New Year’s and I’d never been there. So that was an interesting start. I was 100% sure I was going to get COVID and then I didn’t. So I don’t know how I’ve… It seems like everyone has been getting it so far, but somehow my wife and I, we’ve dodged it. So it’s been good. I mean, I’ve been busy working. I just moved to a new place. So I’m actually living in upstate New York in this town called Saratoga Springs. And so it’s definitely a departure from what I’m used to because I grew up in New York City. So this is more country, a little bit suburby, kind of small town living.

Magnus Atom:
And so I’m sort of… We just moved into an actual house [inaudible 00:03:43] renting, but it’s definitely a departure from the New York City one bedroom, 600 square-foot apartment. So now it’s like, “Oh, we have a place with space and yard space.” So it’s been interesting adjusting to it. So yeah, it’s been really an interesting start. So living in a new place, I definitely… I don’t really know anybody, either. So it’s also acclimating to the fact that I’m far away from a lot of friends and family. So trying to start fresh, I guess, is… Yeah, 2022 has been year of starting fresh.

Maurice Cherry:
So being in upstate New York, is it still pretty easy to get back down into the city if you need to?

Magnus Atom:
We picked a place that was sort of close to the city. So actually, I’ve never lived in Saratoga Springs or even really been to it. I visited it like once before we moved here. But we visited it and it was like, “Oh, this is…” It has enough stuff going that we didn’t think it would be super boring. And also it was close enough to the city that I can still visit my parents and my parents can come visit us. But it’s about two hours on a train or like two and a half hours driving.

Maurice Cherry:
That’s not too bad.

Magnus Atom:
No, it’s not bad. But in the wintertime it’s… sometimes you’re just… And especially if it’s snowing or inclement weather, it can be a little… a trek, I guess.

Maurice Cherry:
Let’s talk about the work that you’re doing now. You’re the animation director at Strange Beast. Tell me a little bit about the studio and what a typical day is like for you.

Magnus Atom:
Sure. So I’m actually an animation director at Strange Beast. So the way Strange Beast works, it’s kind of unique. I don’t see a lot of this sort of setup in the States, but it’s a little bit more popular in Europe. So the way their setup works is, they have a bunch of animation directors that they’ve sort of signed and… kind of a year-by-year basis. And so if you visit their website, each animation director has a very specific sort of style and a distinct voice, I guess, that they… It’s very specific to them. And it’s a little different than what you might find in the States where some of the big animation houses like Buck or Giant Ant or some of these other names, the animation directors don’t get as much recognition.

Magnus Atom:
It’s more of like the studio takes the credit and people go to the studio to work with that studio name. Whereas with Strange Beast and some other studios like ours in Europe, people come to Strange Beast to work with a specific director. So whether that’s Caitlin McCarthy or Anna Ginsburg, they want to work with those specific animators and they have to go through Strange Beast to work with them. And so it’s a pretty cool setup because it gives you the flexibility where… I’m not full time, by any means. And I have a lot of flexibility whether I want to take on a project that they give me.

Magnus Atom:
So just to kind of give a mock scenario of how it would work, say a client wants to make a… I don’t know, a 30-second spot for TV. And they want an animation director from Strange Beast and they don’t really know which animation director they want to go with. So maybe they’ll pick out a few different animation directors. So maybe me and a couple other people on the Strange Beast roster. And then maybe they also want to look for some animation directors from other studios as well.

Magnus Atom:
They’ll probably… They’ll pick a bunch of people. And then we’ll all sort of pitch to… We’ll pitch for the project. And that usually involves creating style frames and written treatments and sort of a pitch deck and presenting it to the team. And all this is sort of… I don’t get paid for any of that stuff. So there is sort of a pros and cons of this kind of method where it’s… In this situation, I might have to do a bit of work to create some style frames and deck building. And if I don’t win the bid, then it’s like I didn’t get paid for it. But at the same time, it can be really an interesting process.

Magnus Atom:
And so another scenario would be, they would come to Strange Beast and they’re like, “Okay, I really want to work with Magnus Atom specifically.” And maybe I’m busy because I take on other freelance work outside of Strange Beast as well. So I can tell them, “Hey, sorry, I can’t work with you right now on this project.” And so they might go to another animation director or they’ll… Maybe the stars will align, which happens less often than I would hope… But sometimes the stars will align and I’ll be like, “Okay, I’m free and I’m ready.” And they’ll be like, “Awesome. We want to work with you.” There’s no pitching. “We just want to work with you.”

Magnus Atom:
And so from there, we’ll sort of… We have some producers that are full-time at Strange Beast and actually, lately, Strange Beast had a bit of a transition in terms of the heads. So actually, the woman who was running it, Kitty Turley, who’s amazing, she actually stepped aside for a little bit because she’s gone on maternity leave and there’s another producer who has come to sort of take her place. And so she sort of oversees everything at Strange Beast as like an executive producer. And then underneath her is a bunch of other producers who might be working on different projects. So they’ll be assigned to one project at a time. So yeah. So from that, we’ll sort of create a budget. They’ll tell us what the budget is and we’ll tell them, “Okay, this is what’s feasible. This is what can work.”

Magnus Atom:
And we’ll talk about timelines, the yada yada, all that… the more production-level stuff. I’m personally… I don’t really have to deal that much with it, which is really nice because the producers, they get to just handle that. They get to interface with the client in terms of all the numbers and stuff. And for me, I might start off a project by trying to create style frames. So I’m like, “Okay, what is the look of this project going to be?” So for example, I just did a piece… But one of the pieces I just did for them was for Headspace. And so they wanted to create a animation series where each animation episode was directed by a different animation director. So each animation had its own kind of unique style.

Magnus Atom:
And so obviously, there’s a constraint that you need to work within. So Headspace has brand colors. Headspace has sort of guidelines that they kind of need… You can’t do super-grotesque, raunchy, rated X stuff. This could be for children. This is going to be very calm, meditative animation. So from there, you sort of think about like, “Okay, what can we do within the parameters?” Maybe we’ll start designing some frames and start developing the look and feel. And alongside that, we might be developing the storyboards. How is that going to play out? Before we even touch anything animation, we’re just going all into the planning of getting all the style and concept down. And then once that’s approved, then we’ll move on to another layer where we’ll start working on the actual animation; the production.

Magnus Atom:
And from there… Strange Beast doesn’t have any permanent employees, really, except for the producers. But we work with a roster of freelancers, which they’re… We have freelancers that we love to work with because they’ve proven themselves. We get along. And so we’ll call up some animators and maybe we’ll need illustrators. And it’s kind of a cool process because it makes it so that each project, we’re not constrained by the resources that’s… we’re limited… Maybe a house that has in-house animators… We have to work with those animators or we have to work with those designers.

Magnus Atom:
I would have a project where maybe I need animation that’s a little bit more Disneyesque. I have animators who are very good at that sort of style and I can call on those. Or maybe I want someone who’s a little bit more free-flowing style and I have people that who would come to mind and I would want to reach out to to work on that kind of project. So it’s a very sort of organic process, each time we go into a project. But yeah, I guess that’s sort of the overall, I guess, methodology of Strange Beast.

Maurice Cherry:
Interesting. It sounds almost kind of like a collective setup where people come together for the work or people may have to sort of pitch themselves for the work. Just because something comes into the studio doesn’t necessarily mean the entire studio works on it.

Magnus Atom:
Yeah, definitely. And like I said, there’s many animation directors, so… I haven’t even met half of them. I’ve worked with a bunch of them and everyone’s been super awesome. And even when I was working at their studio in London, there wouldn’t always be overlap. So I would have a project and then it might… another animation director would have a project and we’d… might overlap for a couple days and we’d get to talking. But for the most part, it’s sort of a project-by-project basis and Strange Beast is good at giving you the resources when you need it.

Maurice Cherry:
Hmm. Okay. So I guess when new work does come in and, say, you put in for the project, you’ve made a little deck or you’ve made some slides or something for it and you do get the project, you win the project. What does that process look like once you’ve actually started on it?

Magnus Atom:
Yeah. So the process once we’ve actually won the bid, it’s kind of what I was saying where you need to create the look, the style frames and the storyboards, and really just fleshing out the entire project. So Headspace, that’s an example. For that, we needed to… Well, actually, so that was an interesting, unique project because it was actually me and one other animation director, just because it was like, we had to do 20 minutes of animation in like two months’ time period. And so that’s a lot of animation. And so they thought it would be better if we have two animation directors who can sort of tag team it and approach it. So yeah. So for a project like that, that was fun because I got to kind of bounce ideas back and forth.

Magnus Atom:
So I worked with this animation director, Yuval Haker, and it was an interesting project because we had to both come at it with kind of our own style. But we also had to develop a style that was very unique to the project. So I would sort of start by creating a style frame and then I would send it to him. He would take that and he would sort of make his own style frame sort of inspired by that and then he would send it to me. And it was a very back-and-forth process. We did this dozens and dozens of times before we finally came down with a style that we’re like, “Okay, this is going to work.” And then once we come up with the style, so in that example, we were just hand-drawing everything in Photoshop using just brush tools.

Magnus Atom:
So once we were sort of comfortable with the style, we sort of then send it off to the client and the client will then have a bunch of notes and be like, “Okay, well, we don’t like the way this character looks. Can you slim them down?” Or, “Can you give them…? Take off these brands,” or whatever. Stuff like that clients are supposed to say. Then we’ll have that sort of back-and-forth process with the client. Then that’ll happen several times. From there, we start to organically build a style that both we’re comfortable with and that I’m comfortable making and animating and that the client is comfortable with. And so once we sort of create those initial style frames, and then we’ll start creating the storyboards where we’ll start saying, “Okay, this is what’s going to happen here. When the voice actor says this, we’re going to have the sun rise over the sunset and the swans are going to fly out of the reeds.”

Magnus Atom:
You have to sort of build out that very minute detail of what you think is going to happen. Because as an animation director, a lot of the times, I’m not actually touching everything. So you’re sort of building out a roadmap. Yeah. You’re building out a roadmap for… Then you give it to other animators who don’t animate in that style. And they’re coming in with very little knowledge and they’re basically… You’re giving it to them and being like, “Okay, build this.” And so there has to be a lot of… very little lost in translation. So they need to be able to see the storyboards and be like, “Okay, this scene is going to have a sun and it’s going to be rising. And the rays are going to be turning like this and the reeds are going to be blowing.”

Magnus Atom:
And then they’ll have that style frame that I made of that exact scene. And so they’ll know, “Okay, this is what I need to animate and this is what the final style should look like.” We go through this process where we have the storyboards laid out for the entire… whether it’s 20-minute project or 30-second project. And we then create a style frame of what it should look like for each key moment, whether it’s a different landscape or a different character. And so that whole process is… It can be very time-consuming because obviously, there’s a lot of back-and-forth. You’re basically just creating the style and the playbook for the entire animation. So from there, once you’ve finally gotten that and you’ve got it approved, the client loves it, you like it, and then you can just go straight into the animation.

Magnus Atom:
And then that’s when you start reaching out to your animators; you’ll be like, “Come on board.” And designers, if you need background designers or illustrators. And then you just go on full-on production where you’re like, “Okay, these rough animators are…” And when I say “rough animators,” there’s several layers to the animation process if you’re doing this sort of illustrative style. So there would be the very rough, hand-drawn, loose animation where it’s not fully fleshed out, it’s not final line work, but it shows the movement. This is how the character is going to move. And this is the weight and this is how the waters are going to ripple. But just in terms of… Think of it like a rough sketch of a painting. Before you do the final painting, you probably want to do a bit of a rough sketch underneath. That’s what the rough animation is.

Magnus Atom:
So that’s a process. And then after you’ve gotten that down, then you’ll have another layer of animation and that’s what we’ll call cleanup animation. And then a lot of times, those two animators, the rough animator and the cleanup animator, won’t even be the same animator. So the rough animator has to create it in a certain… They have to create the rough animation in a certain way that any cleanup artist can come to it and be like, “Okay, all I have to do is trace over this rough animation in the final line work. Because now I’m trying to make it look final.” It’s basically… We’re just trying to get it from the rough animation to the final. And that’s actually even a longer process, surprisingly.

Magnus Atom:
But it’s kind of like building, I guess, a car. You don’t start by just building the car. You have to start by thinking it out. You have to think about the production, the budget… And then you have to think about the schematics and the layouts and the materials. And then it’s this iterative process that slowly over time, a bunch of different people with a bunch of different skills all are coming together to sort of build this final animation that has that sort of initial style frame and idea that you sort of created. Or, and when I say “you,” me as an animation director sort of created from the get-go. Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
That is quite a process. I think it probably helps to have a client that really is tuned into working with creatives to be able to go through all of that with so many different steps and working with so many different people.

Magnus Atom:
For sure. I mean, it’s definitely not for the impatient. And yeah. Animation, it takes work. People think… There’s a running joke in the animation industry; it’s like, “Just press the animate button and bring your character to life.” And it’s like, no, it’s a process, for sure.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. I want to get more into really how you learned about animation. So let’s take it back into the past a little bit. I want to learn more about sort of your origin story now. You’re from NYC originally. Is that right?

Magnus Atom:
Yeah. So I actually… Well, I was born in Hawaii, but I grew up in New York City.

Maurice Cherry:
What was it like growing up there for you?

Magnus Atom:
Well, so I grew up in Brooklyn. And so I lived in… When my family first moved here from Hawaii, they didn’t buy a place. We were renting. So when we first moved here, we were actually living in Park Slope. And if you know New York City, you know Park Slope is a super-expensive, super-nice, ritzy neighborhood. To hear tell, it was not like that when we moved here. I actually hear it was quite dangerous when we first moved here. So I spent my early years, like in elementary school, in that area. But as rent started increasing, my family ended up having to move from Park Slope and we ended up moving to an area called Ditmas Park around Flatbush. And I didn’t spend a lot of time actually in Flatbush, per se. I went to middle school there and I had a lot of friends there, but when I started going to high school, my high school was actually in the city.

Magnus Atom:
So I actually spent a lot of my youth just in the city, whether it’s… was Midtown where my high school was, or… I spent a lot of time in Chinatown. And it’s funny because New York City, it’s kind of a place where you kind of need money to do a lot of things. And also when you’re a kid, there’s a lot of things that New York City offers to you that you just can’t have access to because you’re under 18 or you’re under 21. So a lot of my youth was spent hanging out in parks in Chinatown, playing sports; like playing handball and… That’s where a lot of my friends hung out.

Magnus Atom:
So in terms of living in New York City, to compare it to… I guess I can’t really compare it to anything else because I only had one childhood. But I would say that it was nice having such a diversity of people. It was something you didn’t think about. I wasn’t thinking, “Oh, I’m the only person of color in this area.” I was surrounded by all different ethnicities, all different cultures. And so, I mean, it was funny, even at my lunch table in high school and middle school, it was like the UN. It was like… I literally… every ethnicity. It definitely gave me a lot of experiences in terms of the type of people I met. I had… I guess parents tried to take me to cultural events when they could afford it. But for the most part, it was good.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, I mean, New York City sort of has that reputation of being a really big melting pot. So it sounds like that definitely was what your experience was like growing up. And you mentioned high school. I don’t want to gloss over… You went to a pretty well-known high school for those who might be of a certain age, like myself; the Fame school, LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts. What was it like going there, knowing that it had such a reputation?

Magnus Atom:
I never took school seriously until I finally got to college. But high school… I guess, to backtrack just a little bit… My dad always wanted to train me to be an artist. So I never really pushed myself in terms of art, but my dad was always the one who was on my ass about like, “You need to do this painting, you need to…” I don’t remember if it was every night, but it was definitely several times a week it was like, “Okay, get onto your corner and do your painting.” It’s like I didn’t have a choice. It was kind of, I guess, like a typical parent would tell you, “Go and hit the books.” My dad was like, “Go and paint.”

Magnus Atom:
When I was applying to high school, I think I already had an edge over the other people who applied because a lot of the other applicants, a lot of their body of work was maybe school assignments. And you can tell when something’s a school assignment or something’s done outside of school. And so I think that really helped propel me into it because I already had this sort of formal training from my dad growing up. So when I finally got into high school… You had to apply to get into it. You had to take an actual test; an art test. You had to show a portfolio to teacher and they would ask you about it. So it’s definitely… It was a lengthy process to get in. But when I actually got in, I didn’t take it all too seriously.

Magnus Atom:
So funny, my grades were actually terrible. In the first year, freshman year, I think I failed three classes and I had to do summer school for the first time. That wouldn’t be the last time. And I kind of goofed off a lot. But in terms of the people I met, it wasn’t your typical high school experience. And I think that was sort of the thing I took away from it the most was, the people I was surrounded by were musicians and other artists.

Magnus Atom:
And although maybe not every single person was passionate about art and wants to be an artist… I’ve never seen Fame, so… But [inaudible 00:26:48] I think I’ve seen clips and people are dancing on tables and singing in the hallways. There was singing in the hallways, but it wasn’t… People weren’t dancing on the tables and… But people genuinely… Talking to other people I’ve met outside of LaGuardia, in their high school experience, I’ve heard it’s very much cliques. Like you got the jocks and you got the cheerleaders and… At least this is what I’m kind of imagining other high schools to be like. Like the kids who wore Abercrombie and Fitch. And then you had the skater boys.

Maurice Cherry:
It was high school.

Magnus Atom:
Yeah. It was high school. But for me, there was a little bit more emphasis on being unique, I guess. It wasn’t forced. No one was telling you, “Oh, you got to be unique.” It was more like people were proud to wear clothes that they just made themselves. Whether it was good-looking clothes or not, it wasn’t… It didn’t really matter. Cool, if you had started your own little fashion T-shirt brand in school and you wore your own jeans that you had messed up with paint. So that was sort of the vibe. I guess everyone had this unique sort of voice.

Magnus Atom:
And there was definitely a lot of talent. Looking back, the amount of talent at that school… You don’t realize it when you’re in the moment. As a kid, you don’t know what to compare it to. But looking back, I went to a performance… They do these concerts that the instrumental majors and the vocal majors and the drama majors will put on. And these are not like normal high school productions. I’ve been to many Broadway shows. These are on par with Broadway productions. These, they’re good. And it goes to show, because a lot of them end up working in that field afterwards. So yeah. I mean, that was my experience. I met a lot of really cool artists. Most of my friends, if not all of them, were just artists.

Magnus Atom:
So it was cool to bounce ideas off of. And I did a little bit of graffiti when I was of that age. And my first clothing company was with some of my best friends. We just decided to create a small clothing company. And so we’d create stickers and merchandise and we would sell it to our friends and other people. And we even dabbled in making music. It was a really creative, I guess, environment to grow up in.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. So we were talking before recording about like, “Oh, yeah,” I said, “the Fame high school.” You’re like, “Oh, yeah, it was a movie.” And I’m like, “Well, it was a TV show. It was a movie first, then a TV show. Then there was Fame LA and then another movie.”

Magnus Atom:
Wow. I didn’t know it was such a series. I literally just thought it was a movie and I feel kind of ashamed because so many people have been like, “Oh, you went to the Fame school?” And I’ve never even seen Fame.

Maurice Cherry:
Oh, you should check it out. It’s a pretty good show. And a movie. I mean, I remember the first movie, but not the second one. The second one was in 2009 or something, I think.

Magnus Atom:
Oh. Oh, well, that’s funny, because I graduated in… Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. I did remember that coming out. Sure. But yeah, I graduated 2008.

Maurice Cherry:
Okay.

Magnus Atom:
Yeah. I’m curious to see it. I don’t know if it’ll actually be like the real life experience.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, after graduating, you went to Parsons, which is a very well-known school in New York City for fashion and for design and everything. And we’ve had a few Parsons alum on the show as well. How was your time over there?

Magnus Atom:
Yeah. So definitely different than high school, because like I said, in high school, I completely slacked off. I barely graduated by the skin of my teeth. Yeah. Terrible grades. And I actually just got into Parsons by the skin of my teeth. But when I got into Parsons, I sort of… Well, my dad told me, he was like, “This is your last chance. If you fail, if you flunk, there’s no point in you doing this. You don’t need to be in school anymore.” And so I realized, I was like, “Oh, okay. This is like, it’s serious time.” And so I took it very seriously.

Magnus Atom:
So actually, funny enough, I guess it’s kind of serendipity, but when I was applying to Parsons, I hadn’t heard back from them for… Yeah. I sent in my application and I hadn’t heard back. And it was like, time was passing, months were passing. And I was like, “Ah, I wonder whatever happened.” And the girl I was dating at the time was like, “You really need to check on them and see what’s going on.” And I was like, “Okay.”

Magnus Atom:
So I went down to the office. I was like, “Hey, what’s going on?” And they were like, “Oh, so you actually got accepted, but they didn’t send out some sort of letter,” or maybe I didn’t get it. And so by the time I went down there, all the applications for the basic… I forget what the term is for most art majors that go into Parsons, but… That was all filled up. And they were like, “We feel really bad and you did get in and we have this experimentative… a new program that we’re creating called Design and Technology that we still have some spots open for. And if you want to go in through that, it’s a different curriculum.”

Magnus Atom:
And so rather than going in through the traditional route where you have to go through graphic design and you have to learn all these very fundamental principles and… It was more of a DIY sort of route, where you get to kind of… It’s kind of like a Choose Your Own Adventure. And the whole idea is, it kind of merged a whole bunch of different, I guess, topics. So you had coding, coding within art, and then you had web design and then you had more experimentative… It was anything that you could think of where it’s design, but also plus technology. So you even had some sound designers in that mix. And so I went into that not knowing what I wanted to do at all.

Magnus Atom:
I thought maybe I was going to do graphic design. I knew I had to pick something at some point and time was ticking. And so when I went in, I was like, “Okay, I’ll try graphic design.” And that was not for me. I was like, “This is not my thing.” And then I did like… I really loved illustration and that was something I always did passionately on the side. But it wasn’t a choice, in terms of what I can do. They didn’t offer… If I wanted to be illustration, I would’ve had to completely do a whole new curriculum. And I would’ve had to start over or something. So I was like, “That’s not an option.” And then there was web design. I was like, “Okay, maybe I want to be a web designer.”

Magnus Atom:
And I think I got into it because I had some illustration stuff and I wanted to put it on a website. And this was before Squarespace and all those kind of templated websites where you could just upload your images. Kind of still had to know some coding. There was a WordPress, but I never really liked the whole WordPress thing. So I thought maybe I would do some web design and… I even took an internship in web design and realized… I got pretty far. I learned… I knew HTML, CSS, a little bit of JavaScript. I realized it wasn’t for me, either. Staring at lines of code for like 12 hours a day was just like, “Okay, this is not my thing. I’m going to burn out doing this.” And then the second year of Parsons, I had a good friend who… He had a little bit of animation experience that he just did from high school.

Magnus Atom:
I think he was kind of a go-getter; he just tried interesting stuff, tried new stuff. And so he already came in knowing a bit of animation. And so he was a close friend of mine. And I saw what he was doing and I was like, “Oh, that’s… kind of looks fun. That looks interesting.” And so he convinced me to take the Motion Graphics 1 class. And so I was like, “Okay.” It was just learning After Effects; basic After Effects. How to make shapes move and text move on screen; simple learning how to use the program. I took the class and I immediately was like, “This is pretty cool.” Because I liked illustration already, but it was the first time where I can take my illustration and have it come to life.

Magnus Atom:
And I took it very seriously too. A lot of people I knew… So I was… I lived in New York City, so… And I couldn’t afford to live in the dorms, so I lived at home. And so a lot of people I knew, they were living at the dorm life and they were partying a lot and… I was very jealous of like, “Oh, man, you get to live with three roommates and 200 square feet? Oh, man, I’m so jealous.” I really was. But I didn’t have any of that. And so I spent a lot of my time just working on my school projects.

Magnus Atom:
And so I think putting a lot of that work in early, I already saw… The amount of work I put into it, people were noticing it. I think the first time I was doing artwork or something that was kind of unique to myself. And people were like, “Oh, this is really good.” Before, people would be like, “Oh, yeah, I like this illustration,” or “I like that painting.” I was doing those kind of because I had to, almost. This was the first time I was like, “I want to do this.” And then people were telling me that they think it’s really good. And then also I was in these animation classes and it was already better than a lot of the other animators who were in that class.

Magnus Atom:
So there I think it created sort of a feedback loop of: People are saying you’re good at this. And I’m enjoying it so I feel kind of proud. So I feel like I have to do it even more. It ended up just becoming a thing where I’m… I ended up taking a whole bunch of animation classes and I wanted to learn everything about animation. I started off just learning After Effects, but then I was like, “Oh, I want to learn how to do stop motion. I want to learn how to do CGI; 3D animation.” And then within 3D animation, I was like, “Okay, I want to learn how to do dynamics. I want to learn how to do lighting and modeling and character rigging.” And I was like, “Oh…” I discovered cel animation for the first time, where you can actually just draw on a screen, rather than having to draw it on paper and then scan it in, and move it around in After Effects like moving images; it was like, “Oh, you can bring things to life Disney-style.”

Magnus Atom:
I was just fascinated by every different aspect of animation. And not only that, how can you combine all of these different things? So how can I mix CG and cel animation? Or how can I mix stop motion and cel? Or… And I even went so far as to take sound design classes because I was like, “I want to make the sound and music to my own animation.” So I was sort of just gathering all these skills, just because it was really fun to do. And I was like, this is… Seems appropriate. I wasn’t thinking… I was thinking I want to make a career of this, but it was more of like, “I’m doing this because I’m just super-fascinated by all of these different aspects.”

Magnus Atom:
Yeah. I think learning all those different things really helped me. And so I think by sophomore year, I definitely knew what I wanted to do. And by junior year, I actually… I felt like I was just ready to hit the workforce. I actually had a lot of teachers who were really helpful in terms of my early getting off the ground. So one of the classes I had, it was an intermediate animation class, learning concepts. And so one of the projects was for creating a mock commercial for a product or for a brand. And at the time, I was super into the whole vinyl toy scene; Kidrobot and even like BAPE and all that stuff was super popular.

Magnus Atom:
And so I really loved Kidrobot so I was like, “Okay, I’m just going to make an animation about one of their toys,” which was that iconic money… If you don’t know it, it’s… kind of looks like a white monkey that you can draw on; customize. So I made this animation, it was like a 15- or 30-second animation. It actually ended up… The teacher brought in some professional, I guess, people she knew from her professional circle to actually critique us in the finals. And so a lot of them… Some of the critiquers came in and they saw it and they were like, “Oh, this is really… You made this by yourself? This is definitely top-level… At least almost studio-level stuff.”

Magnus Atom:
And went so far where I sent it to Kidrobot and I was like, “Oh, I don’t know. I might not hear anything.” I think it was a couple days later, one of the directors of operations, they reached out to me. They were like, “Hey, this is awesome. Can you do something like this just for us for this other product that was coming out?” And so that was sort of my first step into a client project that I had gotten just by myself; no one else. So Parsons, I think, set me up in a way where it’s like, I met a lot of really interesting people, a lot of other interesting animators who also wanted to do what I did. Yeah, it was kind of like LaGuardia where it was a very creative atmosphere that was fostering my creativity.

Maurice Cherry:
And of course, now, you’re well-known animation director with Strange Beast. So clearly, even just getting that spark from doing the work at Parsons and learning about it has propelled you to where you are right now. The way that actually I had heard about you was because you won an award back in 2019 from The One Club. You won the Young Guns award, which is usually given to young designers. I think they do it every year. They have a Young Guns 17, Young Guns 18, et cetera. Where were you when you got news about your win?

Magnus Atom:
Yeah. Well, just really quickly, I actually won it this last year. But it was called Young Guns 19. I was actually sitting in the same spot I am sitting in right now. I was just at home when I read the email that I won. Actually, when I read that I was the finalist, I didn’t even know that I was a finalist. My executive producer at Strange Beast just texted me and she was just like, “Hey, congratulations on being a Young Guns finalist.” And I had… I didn’t even know I was a finalist and I was like, “What? Awesome.” Yeah.

Maurice Cherry:
And have things kind of changed for you since you won the award?

Magnus Atom:
Not really. I mean, yes and no. I’ve had a lot of people reaching out to me to try to pin me down for a full-time job. Actually, funny enough, this one company I’ve always wanted to work for… When I was starting off in my career, I always wanted to work for this animation studio. And I reached out to them early on and they never even got back to me. And it was always a dream to work for them. And then after I won, they reached out to me and they were like, “Hey, do you want a full-time job?” And actually, I turned them down because I’m enjoying freelancing and doing the whole thing with Strange Beast so much. So it’s funny how life works like that, I guess.

Maurice Cherry:
Wow. I’m curious about that because we’ve had other award-winning designers on the show and I’m always curious to know if things really change once you get the award. Does it open you up to bigger and better jobs? Does that mean you get more press? Do you get representation? I’m just always curious about that because I feel like it’s still kind of 50/50. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes the award can be kind of the thing that… Not hold you back, but it can end up being a bit of a curse, in a way.

Magnus Atom:
Yeah. That’s interesting that you say that. After I won the award, I felt like all of a sudden, now there’s like a spotlight on me. I feel like I can’t really mess up, you know what I mean? Because it’s… A bunch of people now know my name in the industry. I’m not just, I guess, a nobody at this point. But at the same time, it was very liberating because it’s something I’ve always wanted, was the Young Guns. Ever since I was in college, I wanted to win this Young Guns award. And it was definitely like it was a dream come true for my twenties. So when I won, it was sort of liberating because all of a sudden, I didn’t have to think of, like, “Okay, I need to do this animation because I have to… It has to fit into my body of work so that I can win this award; the Young Guns award.” Now I’m kind of like, “Oh, I can do whatever I want.” If I want to do something different, I don’t feel like I’m constrained to doing just animation anymore.

Maurice Cherry:
That makes sense. The award kind of… It’s the validation. And so from there, you can springboard to other things because the work that you’ve won that award for, you don’t really have to prove yourself. You’ve gotten an award for it. People have judged your work and said that it’s good to this caliber; to this standard. So it kind of does give you freedom to do other things in that way.

Magnus Atom:
Yeah. Yeah. That’s it, definitely.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah. And now, speaking of other things that you’re doing, aside from Strange Beast, you have a fashion and art brand that you created called Yugen Goon. Tell me about that.

Magnus Atom:
Yes. That was a fun side project I actually created with my wife. Actually, I started concepting it many years back because… I work as a commercial artist. So this work that I put on my site and the stuff that I do professionally is definitely of a certain, I guess, content. It’s commercially viable. I always had this outlet of stuff I like to do outside of that. I like to paint. I like to do… I love doing pastel still to this day. I grew up my dad making me do pastels and I still love to do it. And I have all these fascinations with all this other stuff, whether it’s spiritualistic or tribal or different content from religious or spiritual stuff from around the world that… It probably is not going to make it into my commercial for Nike.

Magnus Atom:
So it’s like, I kind of wanted to create this separate thing where I was like, “Okay, this is going to be just me.” That… I don’t really have to answer to anybody. Actually, funny enough, I created it because I wanted to sort of just create a side hustle. Because I was like, “I want to make a bit of money on the side, just as a revenue source.” And it ended up being… I couldn’t just do something for the money. It ended up being like, “Okay, if I’m going to make something, I got to make it cool.” So I ended up spending a long time on it, way longer than I should’ve; years creating just the idea for… I guess I’m such a perfectionist, but… Actually, my wife helped propel me to really finalize it because if it wasn’t for her, I would just have just been aimlessly just creating designs and not even putting it out.

Magnus Atom:
And she was like, “Okay, just… You got to put it out.” It was a nice departure from my usual animation stuff, because I got to take the artwork that I was creating on the side and then kind of play around with some graphic design and illustration that I get to experiment and kind of have fun and do stuff that I’m like, “Okay, this might not be right, but it’s like, this is… I think it’s cool. And if I think it’s cool, maybe other people will think it’s cool.” The whole idea with Yugen Goon was, I wanted to create this brand that was sort of a world in its own. So I wanted have these different characters and all these different storylines and hopefully one day I’ll create an animation that ties in and kind of tells the story a little bit better.

Magnus Atom:
But I made up all these different gods that are depicted on the clothing. And even within the clothing, if on the inside label, there’s… unique poem on each… So you know where the tag would be on the inside of the… that apparel tag? Instead of having a tag, I have a poem. And it’s just kind of there just for the people who buy it. It’s not there to show off. It’s not there for anybody else other than the people who know it; know it’s there. So I kind of like this idea of creating this world where it’s just… It’s sort of like storytelling and it’s sort of constantly evolving. It draws on a lot of, really, stuff that I’m fascinated by, whether it’s cultural… tribal masks, African masks, or Japanese masks or things like holy scripts from like the I Ching. Stuff like that just fascinates me. So that’s kind of Yugen Goon in a nutshell.

Maurice Cherry:
Yeah, I was going to ask about what the significance with the masks might be.

Magnus Atom:
I haven’t even figured it out myself, honestly. Maybe if I ever have a therapist, it’ll come out and I’ll figure out why I’m so fascinated by masks. But I don’t know. I love the mask designs, whether… Of all cultures. Yeah. Japanese, Tibetan, Chinese, African, different African tribes… I think it’s kind of what they represent. And when you look into why they exist, they all kind of have their own unique meaning, but there’s kind of this connection that you see between all these different cultures that were separated by oceans. I don’t know. There’s just something beautiful, I think, to masks.

Maurice Cherry:
Hmm. When you look back at your body of work, is there any one project that really stands out to you the most?

Magnus Atom:
When I was working at Vice, I created this one piece called Bone Dance. I think it’s 15-, 30-second long animation. It was for Vice’s… They did a weed week where for a week, they would just air weed-inspired content. And they tasked us… They were like, “You can create anything you want, if it’s for weed week, and we’ll put it on TV.” Which is a cool brief. I don’t have that anymore. And at the time, even I knew, I was like, “This is cool.” But looking back, I’m like, “Wow, that was… You can create anything you want and they’ll put it on TV.”

Magnus Atom:
For that project, I was like, I came up with this concept of having these… Without going too deep into it, I wanted to create this thing that was a little bit trippy, but sort of high thought, kind of would make people think, because it would be playing late at night, hopefully while people are smoking weed and they’ll see it and be like, “Oh, that was different.” I didn’t want to just create regular weed bong stuff. So that was probably my favorite project because it was sort of… I had the most carte blanche. Still to this day, I look back and I’m like, “Oh, this is…” People see it and they’re like, “Oh, this is still super cool.” So yeah, I think that’s probably my favorite piece I’ve done.

Maurice Cherry:
Have you had any mentors or anyone that have really kind of helped you out throughout your career? And before you answer that, I feel like your dad may be one of them, in case you’re not going to mention him. Because you’ve mentioned him just in passing about how he’s really pushed you, especially early on, to be more artistic in this way.

Magnus Atom:
Yeah. I mean, that was… Yeah. I mean, you got it. It’s definitely my dad. I’ve always had teachers who are… They’re really helpful, but they haven’t stuck with me for the long haul, you know what I mean? After… I might keep in contact with some of my teachers after school, but not as much. So my dad has always been there. So I’ve always been able to tell him about what I’m doing and… He’s an artist himself. So I can… He gets it. He is… I don’t have to explain… He doesn’t have to be like, “Oh, so what is this animation thing?” It’s like, he’s always been super-supportive and pushing me to do that. So yeah. It’s definitely my dad.

Maurice Cherry:
Nice. What do you really appreciate most about your life right now?

Magnus Atom:
The thing I appreciate the most… Probably the fact that I’m safe and I’m healthy and everyone I know is healthy. I know… I have friends who have lost loved ones to COVID and it’s been really hard for the last several years for a lot of people. And so I’ve been super-fortunate that everyone I know is healthy and… Yeah. I guess that’s it, really. I mean…

Maurice Cherry:
Where do you see yourself in the next five years? I mean, it sounds like so far, your career has really progressed to a fantastic point. I mean, you’ve had this strong upbringing, this dad that really pushed you, now you’re doing this work at Strange Beast. What else do you see yourself doing in the future?

Magnus Atom:
It’s interesting thinking about it, because even if I look back at the last decade, I would never have imagined I would get to where I am here. Because my goals when I was younger is completely different now. Where I will be in ten years or five years, I have no idea. But the stuff that I’m super-passionate about now is not as… It’s not the same stuff that I was passionate about when I was in art school.

Magnus Atom:
So I think a lot of the stuff that’s really… still inspires me is working on my clothing company or if it’s… I’m really into this upstate living of repurposing… antiquing furniture and making it brand new, which is something I never thought I would be into. So yeah. It’s like, I still want to do… I still love animation; that’s still my path, I think. And in terms of where I see that going, I want to keep creating stuff that’s sort of in my style and keep it evolving. Keep doing work that I am passionate about that pays the bills. But on the side of that, I have other passions that is completely outside of animation now.

Maurice Cherry:
Well, just to kind of wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more information about you and about your work online?

Magnus Atom:
Sure. So you can visit my website. It’s just magnusatom.com. Or you can find me on Instagram, @magnus.atom. And if you want to see other Strange Beast artists as well as my stuff, you can just go to Strange Beast’s website, which is strangebeast.tv.

Maurice Cherry:
All right. Sounds good. Well, Magnus Atom, I want to thank you so much, really, for coming on the show. I think if there’s one thing that people really get from this, aside from just your incredible story, is that getting to where you’ve gotten has taken a lot of work. And that’s not to say that the road should always be easy as a creative, but what it sounds like to me is that you’ve really put in the work over the years and now you’re sort of at the point where you’re able to really kind of reap those rewards, which sounds, of course, really good to hear. I really am interested to see kind of what you do in the future. I mean, a lot of your work is already out there. I didn’t mention this, but there’s a Lil Uzi Vert video that you did also. So you’ve managed to amass a huge body of work, and I’m really excited to see what you do next. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.

Magnus Atom:
Well, thanks so much for having me, Maurice.