Episode 169 — Animator and Director Mike Morris


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Episode 169 — Animator and Director Mike Morris

Hey, everyone!

This is Allan McKay. Welcome to Episode 169! I’m speaking Mike Morris from The Simpsons and DuckTales. We talk about everything animation. I’m really excited about this one! Mike has an extensive background in animation. He is also one of the speakers at the IAMAG Master Class: https://masterclasses.iamag.co. We will both be there!

Let’s dive in!



[00:42] Have you ever sent in your reel and wondered why you didn’t get the callback or what the reason was you didn’t get the job? Here is the thing: Most of us think that we can put our latest work on our reel, add some music — and get the job. A lot of us aren’t aware that the majority of reels sent to a studio are skipped through and sometimes never even watched in the first place.

Everything we’re taught about being an artist is wrong! Over the past 20 years of working for studios like ILM, Blur Studio, Ubisoft, I’ve built hundreds of teams and hired hundreds of artists — and reviewed thousands of reels! That’s why I decided to write a book from the perspective of someone who actually does the hiring. I want to:

  • Give you the formula to be the obvious candidate for the job;
  • Tell you how to build a reel and put it up on YouTube — that brings studios to you!

You can get this book for free right now! Whether you’re in design, film, tv or games, go to www.allanmckay.com/myreel!

[02:14] If you want to check out my Venom training, please go to www.allanmckay.com/venom. It is still available for another week. Make the most of it!



Mike Morris is a Filmmaker, Director, and Storyboard Artist of animation for broadcast and digital distribution. He’s also a developer of animated IP’s and content and a VR enthusiast. He’s been a consultant for artistic software development and a creator of the Annual Wacom Cintiq Showdown at CTNX, as well as moderator for animation panels at various Comic Con Expos.

Currently, Mike is a Storyboard Artist at Disney ABC Television. His credits include The Simpsons, Future-Worm! and DuckTales

In this Podcast, Mike talks about going to work on The Simpsons straight out of art school and his other projects; about art being a life-long endeavor and the discipline to practice it every day.

[03:13] Allan: Thanks for taking the time to chat! Mike, do you want to quickly introduce yourself?

Mike: Sure! My name is Mike Morris. I’m an Animator and sometimes Director. I’ve worked in animation since 2006 and I’ve worked on several cool projects. My first job out of school was on The Simpsons. I was there for several years. I was lucky enough to intern on The Princess and the Frog. Then I went back to The Simpsons. Now, I’m at Disney TVA. I worked on Future-Worm! with Ryan Quincy. I did some development work for Warner Brothers and DreamWorks. My latest gig is working on DuckTales.

[04:10] Allan: Going back to the very beginning, did you every expect that you would be an Animator? Was that always your passion?

Mike: Yeah, absolutely! Ever since I was little! It was in high school. I went to high school in the 90s which was the height of comic book craziness, for my generation. I was wondering where I could go with this art: comics, animation? I loved all of those things. Then I went to the movies to see The Lion King and that drove me over the edge.

[05:11] Allan: Were you brought up in California?

Mike: Yeah! I’m a SoCal native.

[06:16] Allan: I think there is only a few cities in the world where you could say, “Yeah, I could do this for a living!” That’s really cool! Did you find any resistance from the people around you when you decided to be a creative?

Mike: Actually, for me, not really. My parents were really supportive. For Christmas, they would be buy me rims of drawing paper. My grandparents as well! I grew up in Orange County, which is a bit removed from the industry. I had no idea how I was going to break into that. But I grew up going to Disneyland when I was a kid and seeing all that stuff. My grandmother bought one of the first VCR’s. I remember watching all those VHS tapes of Disney stuff for hours and hours. And then, eventually, I was introduced to Looney Tunes stuff, that classic 30s, 40s, 50s animation is what really captured my imagination. I got books and all this stuff. My uncle was a graphic artist and he got me some supplies. For me it was down to: “You see a movie and there are film credits. There are people making these. Why can’t I be one of them?”

[07:19] Allan: I love it! You’re right! I was just reading a book called eSCAPE the other day. One of the things it talks about is when we’re kids, we don’t have the know factors yet. So anything is possible and it’s only a matter of persistence. As we grow older, we have that beaten out of us. And for you, to have that mindset — I love that!

Mike: There is a song that comes to mind. Don’t know if you’re familiar with the works of The Aquabats! They have a song called Lobster Bucket; and the ideas is when of [the lobsters] try to climb out, the other ones pull them back down. That is such a common scenario! There are people who’ll say, “Oh, you want to go into art? Why waste your life doing that?” Yet, these are the same people who after a hard day’s work, sit down on tv and watch a movie. So it’s helping people, at least to eliminate great stress that they carry with themselves.

[09:00] Allan: Most of the time, it’s people projecting their own fear. It they can’t do that — no one can! I’m interested in that. I’m from Australia and we have a saying “the poppyseed syndrome”: if a poppyseed grows into a higher flower, you cut it down. That’s the same mindset. It celebrates being mediocre. In the creative field, we push ourselves (unlike an accountant, or something). 

Mike: The world needs folks who do those jobs. But it’s about what you want out of the job that you do. Some people don’t care about leaving much of a legacy. For some, work is something to get out of the way. For us, it’s about making something that lives longer than us.

[10:38] Allan: When you go to dinner with your friends and bring your partners / girlfriends with you; you have to make a conscious decision not to talk about art. That doesn’t usually happen with other professions. Usually, they don’t have to avoid the subject of work. Whereas for us, we live and breathe it.

Mike: I imagine so! I think it’s a man thing. We’re wired for work. Getting away from it is hard. You have to have that work / life balance. But the passion is what brings us to talk about it. Over the years of doing it, what do you think about when you aren’t on task? A lot of the times, my mind goes to creative endeavors or cartoons I’ve seen; or something that interests me. As artists, we have that innate curiosity that carries us forward; and having something to say about the environment we live in; and how to communicate that properly.

[12:43] Allan: Do you find that when you aren’t working, you tend to have personal projects you’re doing?

Mike: I’m working on a trailer for the IAMAG Master Class right now. So actually, all the speakers for IAMAG will be featured there as over-washed style cartoon characters fighting off monsters — in Paris.

[13:16] Allan: That’s so cool! I’m always blown away by the titles. Whoever gets to do them every year, it’s always amazing! We’re both going to be in Paris. But I’m actually not speaking this year. I would still love to talk. What’s your talk next year?

Mike: One of the reasons I’m doing this trailer is so that I can speak about it; and how to go from a concept to completion. [I’ll also talk] about story and things I’ve learned working for entertainment.

[14:36] Allan: To jump back a bit: Your having this passion and going to Cal Arts. From there, you went right into working, correct?

Mike: Yeah. Actually, a lot of people were freaking out because there wasn’t a ton going on when we graduated. A couple of folks from The Simpsons came down. It was Mark Kirkland and Karen Carnegie Johnson at the time. Now, she’s the President of the Animation Guild. But they came down and they were recruiting. Awesome! I think I started on Season 18 or 19, but it was like going to a cartoon school — but for real! You go to CalArts for animation and build a network. But it’s still theoretical stuff. It’s focused on the creativity but not the nuts and bolts. But when The Simpsons people came down, they talked a lot about the specifics of not tipping a joke; [about] using reveals to your advantage [and] the importance of letting timing do its thing. Timing is such an important thing to get…

[17:07] Allan: In everything, I think! Even when you’re blowing up building in VFX, you have to hit all the right beats. And a lot of people don’t think about the pacing. It transcends everything.

Mike: Timing is key, even in life!

[17:37] Allan: Most people would be jealous when you landed that job. Usually, when someone lands that job, they bring the other people with them. Which is why it’s so valuable to have that connection.

Mike: I was brought on to Future-Worm! by a guy I went to school with, Devin Roth. He was Art Directing Final Space. He told me about this show and that they were looking for guys. The timing worked out. I went on to do storyboards, then became the Storyboard Sup; and then directed some Episodes. It’s great! We keep our contacts and it’s really amazing to watch these people do some really great things. It was a really cool time to be in CalArts.

[20:04] Allan: How valuable do you think networking is in this industry?

Mike: I think networking is beyond valuable. I’m convinced that you get anything you want to do accomplished — given that you know the right people. And you have the determination to see something through! A lot of artists are introverted. It’s hard to shake that off and talk to people. I have to use your force of will, or something. Meet some people, make some friends.

[21:07] Allan: And it’s inspiring to find like-minded people. You get to push and pull each other. I think it’s so overlooked. I do think that networking and your portfolio is the order of things. Your resume is at the bottom. Networking is above that: having that strong social capital. You can just call someone up and bypass a recruiter.

Mike: And it gives you a sense of what’s going on around town. Burbank and Glendale are pretty small places. It’s amusing to me to see people who don’t not want to move to California. I feel like for a little while you have to do some time in Burbank — until you can become an entrepreneur and work remotely.

[22:53] Allan: I did it! I first moved to Burbank and I hated it. And then I moved to Venice and realized that I just hated the Valley. It’s so critical to go and learn from other people and get immersed.

Mike: One of the things that people don’t realize: They want to be immediately amazing at everything that they do. And I’m sorry, that’s just not the process. Coming to where your chosen vocation happens, you’ll learn things you couldn’t even think of. And it’s a process; and life-long endeavor. Even people like Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston talk about animation being a craft and a life-long endeavor. You’ll never master it. When you think you’ve gotten things unlocked, you start backsliding. Sometimes you burnout and have to take a break and get some life experience — as long as you come back!

[24:48] Allan: That’s right! How do you typically deal with a burnout?

Mike: Oh, man! After Future-Worm!, after the season was over, I was dealing with a bit of a burnout. I think it’s about finding something that’s related. I found VR and it made me want to make stuff again. I was at SIGGRAPH when it was in LA. It was amazing! Then I started creating some things in VR. Now, I and some friends have a VR club here at Disney TVA. It’s been a lot of fun.

[26:07] Allan: Have you tried making your own work?

Mike: Yeah, I do some beta work, general testing for some company in Saint Petersburg in Russia. It’s like you have a toy box filled with toys and a landscape that you can stick those on — and just play. It reminds me of being a kid, except you’re doing it in stop motion using invisible hands. With VR, it lands itself to whatever you want.

[27:32] Allan: When you go to Paris, you’ll meet Goro Fujita and he works for Facebook Quill. 

Mike: Yeah! I’ve met Goro before. We didn’t have a chance to talk. But he’s so cool!

[27:55] Allan: He’s such a great guy! I’ve sat through one of his talks and it made me want to learn to paint. Now he does his speed painting in VR. It’s impressive being able to come up with a new concept every day is his practice.

Mike: Persistence is the definitely key. At CTNX, we were working on the Wacom Cintiq Showdown. We did a small prompt that’s created from a small generator. We did a competition. You saw those folks who had been working that muscle. They were able to come up with stuff that’s off the wall. There were a lot of factors at play; but you could tell who’d been persistent.

[29:42] Allan: Do you have any morning rituals or daily habits?

Mike: I don’t know if I have anything ritual like. I just try to sneak in some drawing whenever I can. It’s important to get your ideas down as quickly as possible. I do notes in my phone or voice memos. There was a Master Class commercial with Annie Leibovitz talking about spending the time to find your inspiration. There is this one artist who waits to get inspired. We get it different ways: being in the world and observing, or by doing it every day. 

[31:37] Allan: I do think we all have that obsession. It’s the work we love.

Mike: We’re all working. It’s work that we’re most interested on. We’ve all had that job that was mostly a job. You have moments of both. Cherish the moments when you’re working on something cool. Cherish the other ones as fuel because they make the other moments even cooler.

[33:12] Allan: What was it like for you to work on The Simpsons?

Mike: It was great! The folks there are awesome, it’s a family-like environment. I have friends there who are amazing and they do amazing work. I grew a lot there, I learned a lot. I learned how to tell a joke visually.

[34:08] Allan: How has the process changed over the years, from more traditional cell to computer animation?

Mike: I was present for the transition from paper to digital. They both have pros and cons. Working in naturalistic media is more approachable. But working in digital has more malleability to it. I’m a proponent of both. Working on paper keeps your mind sharp but working digitally makes it faster.

[35:14] Allan: Witnessing that, was there a lot of resistance from people?

Mike: Some more than others. Some people thought it was cool. Other people would be like vampires who got exposed to daylight.

[35:44] Allan: I was talking to some guys at Pixar. You’re still using a pen of sorts.

Mike: I remember being in school and you get a new math book. You look at the end of the book and you go, “I don’t know how this is going to happen.” But then you go through the book, with time and patience. It can be intimidating at first. Certain people in your life were intimidating until you got to know them.

[37:00] Allan: What kind of tools do you use these days? Is it Toon Boom?

Mike: Studio Paint — I love that! TVPaint. But mostly here at the studio, we use Toon Boom.

[37:20] Allan: Cool! What about DuckTales? How does it feel to get to work on it?

Mike: Awesome! It’s been a dream to work with Donald Duck. I’ve always been a huge fan.

[37:47] Allan: I was talking about DuckTales and Rescue Rangers the other day. That’s so cool!

Mike: I saw a meme the other day: Tom Selleck as Magnum P.I. and Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones; and right next to them are Chip and Dale wearing the same outfits, from Rescue Rangers.

[38:42] Allan: That’s cool, man! Where can people go to find out more about you?

Mike: I have my own stuff on Facebook: www.Facebook.com/AnimikeArt.

[39:17] Allan: That’s so awesome! Thanks for taking the time to chat!

Mike: No problem, man! This was great!


I want to thank Mike for doing this Episode. I hope you enjoyed it!

  • I will be back next week with the Round Table with Cinefex. It will be a two-parter and released on Tuesday and Thursday. It was an honor for me to interview these guys! Cinefex has been the backbone for documenting our industry.
  • Then I have an Episode with Eran Dinur who is a VFX Sup in New York.
  • The Venom training is available for one more week at www.allanmckay.com/venom/.

I will be back next week. Until then —

Rock on!


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