How did you transition your career from advertising to animation and directing? I’m going to be honest; I never wanted to go into advertising. All I ever wanted to do was tell funny stories. Growing up, I remember seeing funny ads on TV and thinking, “Hey, that might be a good way to do that.” Plus, I heard advertising paid pretty well. After many years of writing ads, I figured the next step was to write and direct them. I started out doing short films and eventually built a spec reel as a live-action commercial director, but my stuff was too weird for people, and no one hired me. I wanted to keep making shorts, but it got expensive to keep doing it in live action, so I switched to stop-motion so I could build and shoot in my garage. Suddenly, people dug it. My style of humor and style of storytelling were in sync.
How did you learn the skills necessary for animation? I took one animation class while I was at the ArtCenter College of Design and did OK. After I graduated, I took it again in the hopes that I would get better, but I was still just OK. What really did the trick was reading a book by Aardman on the making of Chicken Run. That book was my bible. I learned how to build armatures, light miniature sets and shoot frame-by-frame animations. But I didn’t know how to create facial expressions, so I learned how to do that by shooting actors on camera. I shot friends making various facial expressions on 35mm slide film and projected them onto a doll and animated it. Everything was completely trial and error. My good friend Abe Spear helped me figure all this out. Later on, he and I started directing and animating short films, commercials and music videos under the name UGLY PICTURES.
How does your background in advertising help you with your work today? Advertising teaches you two important skills: How to concept and how to pitch. You can do anything with these two skills. I am now teaching advertising at the University of Texas at Austin, and I tell this to all my students.
How did you begin working with Peter Nelson, and what makes your creative partnership work? I met my longtime writing partner, Peter Nelson, when we were both working at BBDO in Los Angeles under David Lubars. Peter used to stay late to work on his screenplays, and I used to stay late to edit my short films. We eventually started chatting about what we wanted to make, and after many, many years—and many, many scripts—we finally sold something. Now we’ve published seven books, created eight animated shorts for Comedy Central and written a pilot for Fox.
You wear many hats, from being a children’s book illustrator to a music video director. Do you ever struggle to balance your identities? The most important thing I’ve learned is that the idea is in charge. In my 20s, I started to write a dramatic live-action screenplay based on my life. Many years later, that story became an animated sitcom pilot for Fox. Peter and I pitched an animated kid’s show for five years that eventually became a children’s book series published by HarperCollins. Many of my short film ideas became good concepts for music videos. And so many of my paintings were just jokes that didn’t seem to have a home. So now I don’t try to write to a specific category; I let the idea tell me what it wants to be.
What are the unique opportunities and challenges of mixing live action and animation? When I was a creative director at the Sci-Fi Channel, now known as Syfy, I was able to write and direct the station idents for the network. Our tagline was “IF,” which was the middle word in sci-fi. The spots were all live action, with some surreal twist that was done in CG animation by The Mill. The Mill also got me excited to study animation the old-fashioned way. With this new layer of expertise, I could really control, and push, my storytelling.
What would be your dream animation project? I would love to create my own show—ideally a sitcom or a surreal anthology series—inspired by all the weird, crazy comedy stuff that I’ve always been into since I was a kid. A combination of Monty Python; Beavis and Butt-Head; Saturday Night Live, especially in the ’80s; and South Park.
How did you first begin painting on random items of trash you find on the streets? The paintings were always something I've done since I was a kid. My parents were not so keen on spending money on art supplies, so I used to paint on random pieces of wood and household paint that I found in the garage. That eventually led to me finding stuff in the streets and painting commentary about what was going on in our culture. I tell people I’m “talking trash on trash.” I now paint on everything from fast food cups and crushed beer cans to wine bottles and cabinet doors.
On your site, you write that your paintings “reflect our cultural consumption, created on the very things that we throw away.” How has your work influenced your own cultural consumption? I don’t throw away as much stuff as I used to. I also now buy certain brands of tequila or boxes of cereal just so I can paint on them when I’m done consuming them. I’ve also made it a habit to pick up trash—in fact, I’ll go out of my way to grab a perfectly crushed Starbucks coffee cup! This has also inspired some of my friends to pick up trash and bring it to me. Nothing makes me happier than when someone says, “Hey Ro, I was driving down the road, and I saw this piece of trash and thought of you.”