Mike Morris: Animating to Move Audiences Emotionally

Animation artist, Mike Morris, describes how in spite of technological innovation furthering technical skills and abilities, being able to draw audiences emotionally lies at the heart of animation.

Mike Morris is a Director and Storyboard artist of animation. His past projects include globally popular animated series like The Simpsons and Disney’s Duck Tales (2017) amongst others. With a personal love for classic and action adventure animation, his list of past clients ranges from the likes of timeless Disney and Warner to the more contemporary DreamWorks.

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Q. Could you please describe your creative process when starting a new project?

Mike Morris: Starting a project, I always look for the meaning behind it — “Why tell this story? What message is it going to resonate with an audience? What are the ideas and emotions at play?” Very broad strokes. I find it’s best for me to work from the general to the specific as things progress.

Q. Could you tell us more about the process and experience of animating for a series as popular as The Simpsons?

Mike: I got to The Simpsons around Season 17 or 18 while The Simpsons Movie was being produced. Of course, by then the process had been running quite smoothly with a crew that had been working on it for quite some time. Well, for those who hadn’t been absorbed by the movie, the process they use is very highly classical animation based and hasn’t changed all that much outside of going digital since the late 1980s.

I got in with a large group of new talent, so we learned all about how to layout a scene from a storyboard; how to not tip a joke and how to act in character. Also, we were working on a paper at first, so that was a cool experience. It’s the last show standing that habitually still does character layout work– that’s the main reason the show has such a high acting quality compared to shows that try and cram everything into storyboards, then spend a ton of time later on fixing everything that’s broken.

It was great working with characters like the Simpsons family and favourites like Mr Burns and Dr Nick. It was like hanging out with friends.

Q. What is the most important skill-set and quality you think an animator should have?

Mike: The ability to perform, to entertain first and foremost. You can be a wonderful artist, can draw to the finest technical detail, but if you can’t evoke emotion from an audience with your portrayal of your character, you’ll lose your audience.

So being aware and cognizant of what your character is thinking and feeling at all times is super important. Drawing ability, yes. Technical ability, yes again. But if you’re a natural entertainer, boom, you’re in a good spot. I would also point to having a very disciplined work ethic because, no matter what shortcuts technology gives us, the animation will always require a lot of effort to make it good.

Q. What characteristics do you appreciate or expect in a client you choose to work with?

Mike: There is always appreciated for a client that understands what they want and can verbalise it directly while still being open to ideas and furthering concepts, instead of someone who just sets you on an “I’ll know it when I see it” sort of creative desert without any real direction. Someone who understands collaboration and the exciting opportunities it can provide.

Q. Could you name your most enjoyed projects and what about them excited you most?

Mike: I really enjoyed working on a storyboard animatic called “Race around the Moon” I did for Toon Boom’s training materials, in that I was given creative carte blanche to do what I wanted to from worldbuilding to character creation and from script to animatic screen. That was fun.

You can be a wonderful artist, can draw to the finest technical detail, but if you can’t evoke emotion from an audience with your portrayal of your character, you’ll lose your audience.

Q. What kind of projects are you looking to get involved in at this point?

Mike: Animated Series/Features.

Q. How do you achieve synergy between you and your client to arrive at a mutually desired result?

Mike Morris: In my opinion, a hard and fast rule doesn’t exist for how to achieve any sort of synergistic relationship between an artist and client. It’s unique to the pairing, like any relationship. The best thing you can build is to trust and trust in several aspects really. Both creatively and practically. I feel the only real way to achieve this is with a certain amount of humility and child-like excitement for a project that spurs ideas on to greater heights as they mature into something tangible.

Q. What are your ‘weapons of choice’ when choosing tools to work with?

Mike Morris: I use Toon Boom’s Storyboard Pro the most often of anything, followed by Toon Boom Harmony, Celsys’ Clip Studio Paint and Adobe Premiere for editing, among various other software.

Q. Could you tell us which animated works do you look up to as an animator yourself and why do you admire them?

Mike Morris: I absolutely love classic Disney and Warner Bros Looney Tunes animation. There was just so much heart and emotion invested in those classic Disney films, coupled with a mastery of the craft (having largely innovated most of it themselves) that is hard to find elsewhere. That “Disney Magic” as it were. Also, you’d be hard pressed to find as much clever wit as are in those classic Looney Tunes shorts.

Anything Mike Maltese, Chuck Jones, and Maurice Noble worked on was gold on film. The funniest gold you could ask for. I love action adventure animation, some anime; I’m a sucker for sword and sorcery stuff and cool sci-fi and Kaiju/Robot fight movies. I love anything that I will as an audience member become invested in emotionally. That’s what I look for, pure storytelling with real motivations and stakes for the characters involved. That is what excites me and those are the works I admire.

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