Interview with Award-Winning Animator Ryan Woodward
I’ve been a fan of Ryan’s work ever since I saw Thought Of You. Then, when I found out he did a piece based on a Samoan legend (Turtle and the Shark), I was even more in love! Determined to talk to him about his cultural animation, I sought him out and relentlessly followed up with him to answer a few questions. Since he’s a really busy guy, this interview is worth a million dollars! So sit back, have a read, and enjoy the awesomeness that is Ryan Woodward.
What is your principal occupation? Currently I am an independent animator and storyboard artist. I recently quit my full-time job of teaching animation at a university so I can focus more time on drawing and creating.
How long have you been in the animation industry? In 1995, I applied and was accepted into a new animation training program at Warner Bros. Feature Animation. After three months, they reviewed everyone’s work and decided whether or not you could go onto their first feature film, Space Jam. I was fortunate enough to pass the training program, which was my launching pad for my entire career. Back then technology, hadn’t caught up with the industry. It was all about drawing, painting, design and no computer skills were necessary. So here I am 18 years later and a heck of a lot better. I laugh when I look back at my old stuff.
What inspired you to work on Turtle and the Shark? My wife’s mother is half Samoan or afakasi. Her grandmother Mulu married a Texan and after that she didn’t share a lot about their heritage with her children. My wife, Tiffany, has always been interested in learning more about her heritage. We visited Hawaii and some of her extended relatives. Her great Uncle Lilo, who was a high chief, (he recently passed away) shared this legend with us. After hearing the story, I decided I wanted to do something with it. I contacted some of our Samoan friends where we live and worked with them for voices and singing and Turtle and the Shark was born.
What did you learn about the Samoan culture through animating one of its stories? I learned about their high level of respect within the family unit. I got to visit Samoa and had a wonderful experience while there. We went to the cliffs of Vaitogi and the children of the village sang the song of Fonoua and we saw a turtle and a shark appear in the water. It was an amazing experience to visit the people and to live among them for a short time.
What do you think makes animation so powerful when it comes to storytelling? I think the thing that is so amazing about animation is a story can be set in any imaginary world – there are no real world boundaries. You can do anything that you dream up or imagine.
What does “cultural animation” mean to you, at first glance? Animation that is strictly based on a particular cultures art and storytelling as opposed to contemporary film making that has a commercial purpose. When I visited Samoa, I found that all of their stories are told and repeated generation after generation. There are even different versions of the same stories or legends. They were appreciative that this would be something permanent. It’s important for any culture to record their history and culture so it can be passed down for many generations to come.
How does your spirituality or faith play a role in your work? I work in the commercial world and it pays my bills. However, when I work on my own stuff it usually has an element of ethics or humanity. I relate to it and I want others to feel something or get something from it as well.
Why do you think kids love animation? I think that they love it because they can explore other worlds and fantasy lands that don’t exist. It propels their imaginations to places that they can’t go to in reality.
Many aspiring animators are not adequately informed about the realities of working professionally. What piece of advice do you have for them before embarking on that journey? There are a gazillion things to prepare for. You really need to have the ability to draw. Computer software training is great as well. But if you want sustainability and long-term success in animation, then you really need to know and understand what makes a good story and how that is actually achieved. If you are telling yourself “yeah, I already know that” — you don’t. It takes years of working in story to understand what it’s all about. I’m not talking about all the stuff that’s in textbooks – I’m talking about all the stuff that isn’t in textbooks. It’s taken me years to get to where I am at and I am still learning and growing every day. Like I used to tell my students – “be teachable”. If you already have all the answers then there is no room for growth.
What are 3 things you foresee happening for 2D animation in 10 years time? I don’t have a crystal ball and I can’t predict anything but I think the world is going to be the competition in the future. It’s not going to be just these big studios here in America. I’m hoping that we can get away from that one look that everyone thinks that they have to produce if they’re going to make a successful film. There are some other countries out there that are producing some amazing stuff that is different and still successful.