Back when I was a staff artist on Phinas and Ferb, I worked alongside of a guy named Mike Milo who was putting together an animation website. It was mostly "interviews" of work-a-day artists. Which was a really good idea. Most writing about the animation business revolves around movie stars who do voice readings.
I should mention that I’m nowhere NEAR this eloquent if you just stop me on the street and ask me a question. But if you do what Mike did: email me a bunch of questions and give me a few months to pull on my chin and think about them, I can come up with some pretty good answers.
What is your name and your current occupation?
My name is Bernie Petterson. Which is the condensed version of the name on my driver’s license: Stephen Bernard Petterson. I work as a storyboard artist on a children’s TV show called Phineas and Ferb. My employer is The Walt Disney Company.
What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?
It was all minimum wage scut work. Fast food. Truck driving. Spraying aluminum reflective coating on roofs.
One of them: I worked in a hotel as a “Houseboy”. I learned that hotels are very creepy places. Places that are inhabited by people who, now that they’ve found themselves in a new town where nobody knows them, will allow the meanest and most debauched parts of their personality come out. If you ever get a chance to work in a hotel, don’t.
How did you become interested in animation?
I saw a really ugly brochure in the College & Career Center at my high school. It was green with avant garde purple-ish scribbles on it, and it was the marketing material for a place called California Institute of the Arts. The brochure claimed that you could major in something called “Character Animation”, which sounded kind of like you could go to school and learn how to draw funny cartoons. Which could, one would assume, lead to an actual job in Funny Cartoon Drawing. Maybe even a Career.
Once that idea entered my head, I was a goner.
Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I’m from the west hills of Portland Oregon, but not the snooty part where people have gobs of money and fabulous shack. I was from lower down, with the ham-and-eggers and the working stiffs.
I came into this business by way of CalArts. I entered school thinking it was all about education, training, and MFA degrees. Which yeah, it was that…kind of. But more than all of that, it was a network of classmates and contacts who, in later years, would ring my phone when they heard about a job opening, which is priceless beyond all measure.
What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
Think of the story.
Think of the funny.
Draw it well.
Draw it fast.
What part of your job do you like best? Why?
Being around creative people. Some of them are dazzling human beings who do brilliant work, which often inspires you to do the same.
What part of your job do you like least? Why?
Being around creative people. Some of them use their "creativity" as an excuse for all kinds of obnoxious behavior. They seriously bug.
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
Keeping the love of the business bigger than the frustration of the business.
What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis?
The common computer/art stuff. Currently, my employer provides me with a fancy Wacom drawing tablet/monitor (if you’re an artist, you know them by their goofy model name: Cintiq), and a really bitchin’ top-o-the-line Mac Tower. I’ve got pretty much the same setup at home, for freelance work and wake-up-from-a-dream brainstorms.
In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
When I was in art school, we often had famous big-shots come to tell us bedtime stories of their life in the animation business. Most of them would fit neatly under the category of “Old and Angry”. The people in charge hadn’t recognized them for their genius. Hadn’t given them what they deserved. Had slighted them in some obscure way. Boo hoo hoo.
A few were so, SO great.
Brad Bird came, and he too was angry. But he was angry because he passionately believed that animation could be the GREATEST CREATIVE MEDIUM OF ALL TIME if we just cared enough to make it so. What a great guy! I was ready to install him in the position of "Supreme Emperor-King Of All Creativity" after that.
Describe a tough situation you had in life.
I’ve had a pretty cushy life, aside from a few small stumbles (the usual: no food, no money, no car, no job + no place to live). Nothing the gods of American commerce couldn’t fix, eventually.
Any side projects or you’re working on or hobbies you’d like to share details of?
Hobby: I am an enthusiastic but half-clueless metalworking dork. If you give me a piece of metal, I can machine it (with so-so accuracy), weld it, blacksmith it, and pour the hot liquid stuff into molds. By the standards of metalworking professionals, I’m a turd. But by the standards of a home handyman tinkering in his garage, I’m a rockstar!
Any unusual talents or hobbies like tying a cherry stem with your tongue or metallurgy?
Ha! If time allowed, I’d tell you a funny story about how, as a ding-a-ling high school kid, I taught myself to unbutton a shirt using only my lips and tongue. I had just read a naughty book on sex technique, and in my head, I thought that unbuttoning a girl’s blouse with my mouth was the kind of thing that would make me a great romantic lover (yes, I was really that stupid). You can probably see the hugely embarrassing endpoint of this story without me even telling it…
Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
I’m not sure I could add much to the standard punch list (draw constantly, do your homework, make friends, bathe, etc…)
Instead, future artists, allow me to give you a vision of the future by way of a very short story called Sotonya and The Pigeon:
Once upon I time I was in the second grade. And in amongst my class of wiggly little seven year-olds was a little girl named Sotonya (“suh-TONE-yuh”). She was your typical beautiful child. A good kid. Clean, polite, well dressed, and dearly loved + well cared for by her mommy.
And on a clear spring day when she was sitting peacefully in the reading resource room, she gently crossed her arms on her desk, put her head down, and died.
Many decades later, I was in downtown San Diego with my young daughter, and a pigeon flew right in front of us, and then directly out into the traffic. Where it got hit by a car, and then, in an agonizing burst of feathers, it fell flapping down onto the hot asphalt. Where it got run over by three or four other cars. But by some total friggin’ miracle, the thing survived, and it flew up to the top of a stoplight, and sat there like nothing had happened.
I showed up to the animation party in 1990. The industry was in the very early stages of a major boom that was going to last for two decades, and I was in exactly the right place at the right time. Truth be told, I probably could have possessed half the talent and half the work ethic, and in that environment I still would have done okay. I was a lucky pigeon.
Twenty years earlier, in 1970, I could have been the same eager young animation artist, but this time with twice as much talent, and double the work ethic…and I would have been totally screwed. The industry was dead, and it was going to stay dead for a long, long time. Through no fault of my own, I would have been like poor little Sotonya.
So the moral of the story is that there is no moral to the story. In a crazy business like animation, we’re all just winging it across a busy street in San Diego, and sometimes we get lucky.
Here's a link to the original interview on the Animation Insider website.