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To the Point: An Interview With Robert Iza

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Readers may know Robert Iza's work from the webcomic "The Eternally Injured Ninja" or as a storyboard artist for the Nickelodeon series "Breadwinners". In this interview, Iza discusses his artwork, inspiration, working for Nickelodeon, art shows in galleries, and more. I am pleased as punch to share his work and an insight into his life below.

Hey Iza, Thanks so much for the interview! Let's start at the top: What got you into animation and illustration? 

OK, so basically, I knew when I was a kid I wanted to make cartoons. As I grew up though, I got into comic books, anime, and live action movies. I took video classes in high school, and wanted to go to USC for film school. I switched schools senior year when my family moved down to California from Washington state. I wasn't able to take the video class they had 'cause I had already taken more classes then they had, so to fill the credit I needed to graduate, I took an animation class. I fell in love with animating.

Robert Iza himself
Robert Iza himself. 

Who or what inspires you in your work?

I have so many. Jim Henson, Tex Avery and all the Looney Tunes guys are huge influences. Genndy Tartakovsky, Craig McCracken, Aaron Springer, Paul Rudish, Chris Savino, CH Greenblatt, Craig Kellman, Lou Romano, Tim Biskup, Scott Wills, Dan Krall, Daisuke Tsutsumi, Bill Cone, Osamu Texuka, Akira Toriyama, Hayao Miyazaki, Thurop Van Orman, and many many more. 

Rocky and Bullwinkle
Rocky and Bullwinkle fan painting.

But those are a lot of direct influences off the top of my head. Also all kinds of silly video games: Animal Crossing, Parappa the Rapper, Gitaroo Man, Katamari Damacy, Pikmin, Pokemon, Zelda, Megaman, and more.

Fozzie Bear drawing
Fozzie Bear of Muppets fame.

Are you formally trained? If so, where did you go, what degree did you achieve, and what was the experience like? If not, how did you work up your portfolio for professional work?

After the end of high school I had heard of CalArts, but it sounded too scary or intimidating to me, so I didn't look into it until years later. I ended up going to what I consider the McDonalds of art school, the Art Institute of LA. While I did learn some things, they had a weird agenda, and wouldn’t let me focus on pre-production and 2D (I knew I wanted to get into storyboarding and work in TV more than feature animation). I was passionate about it regardless, and got myself an internship at Cartoon Network, which was a fun and valuable learning experience, and met a ton of awesome people. 

Relevant sketch from Izas archives

I ended up quitting school after three years, and then struggled for a really long time. I got back into painting, did a whole bunch of gallery shows, and went through bouts of depression and trying hard to get work in the industry. After that time I just worked really hard to get better at doing the type of work I knew I wanted to do, and took as many tests as I could. I cannot stress enough how long and slow the whole process has been, but in the end I consider it totally worth it 'cause I couldn't do anything else with my life. Nowadays, I feel most people who want to work in this industry can find tons of information and learn on their own, and not necessarily need to go to school, as it's so expensive and just puts people in debt. School is what you make of it either way.

Painting by Iza

What is your creative process like?

If I really need to work something out when working, I'll either draw in my sketchbook (to figure out paintings, illustrations or designs) or on post it notes if I'm just thumbnailing out a storyboard at the beginning.

Sketches and breakdown of shapes
Sketches and breakdown of shapes

For painting traditionally, I like to use gouache on watercolor paper or illustration board, or sometimes cel vinyl acrylic on canvas or just about any surface. It all just depends on what I'm working on of course.

Further sketch progression

What programs and tools do you use in creating your work? Anything you're especially fond of that you'd like to recommend to readers? 

On the computer I tend to use Adobe Photoshop the most, and then I also sometimes use Toon Boom Storyboard Pro, Adobe Flash, and sometimes Adobe After Effects. I've also tried Paint Tool SAI and Autodesk Sketchbook Pro.

Digital drawing of One Piece fan art
Digital drawing of "One Piece" fan art.

For how long have you worked professionally?

I've kind of been all over, from smaller studios to freelance and full-time gigs at some of the larger studios for about the past six to seven years.

Animal Crossing fan art
Animal Crossing fan art.

What's your typical workday like? What's the typical "day-in-the-life" of a storyboard artist?

That simply depends on where you're at in the process, and how things work as far as production flow on any given production. Not only can it be different based on what studio you're at, but even two different productions at one studio will run differently. It's kind of all dependent on the show creator/show runner and the Line Producers, and Production Managers. 

Breadwinners for example is scripted (where the writers write up a script) and then they make a radio play (which is the character voices, some sound effects, sometimes finished music, or temp music, or simply a click track to show the general tempo of any given scene.) Then the board artist takes that, and working with their director, will work through the shots of their scenes of that episode, plot it out roughly in Adobe Flash, and then continue to board in Adobe Flash. Adding in more animation if something specific needs to be called out, addressing notes when you get them, making changes, and cleaning up as you move ahead.

Various storyboards

It can be hectic and all over the place, and you try to do your best to stay on top of everything, as the script and radio play can change all the time. Most shows don't run this way though, as it's more of a split between scripted shows and board driven. Scripted shows approve a script, then the board artist works out the board based on the script, possibly with some wiggle room to add gags if they see fit, or sticking strictly to the script, again. Depending on the show, they thumbnail it out and then pitch it to see where it's at, get notes, and continue to move ahead. Then, once that's approved, a board revisionist will work on it and address more notes as well as, usually, clean up and put drawings more on model.

Storyboards from various projects

Board driven is similar, but the main differences are that they work from a simple outline, and then work to fully flesh out the writing of what happens as well as all the dialogue and the gags and such. It's usually the most open process for the board artist to put their sensibility in the boards.

video game themed storyboards

How about your work space? Can you give us an insight into how and where you work?

For the most part I'm usually on my computer desk at work or home, working on a Cintiq and a Mac at work, and a Yiynova and PC laptop at home. Each has their pros and cons, but I think I personally prefer Mac/Cintiq when it gets down to it. They're both doable though.

Izas painting workspace
Iza's painting workspace

I like to work with at least two to three lamps so I have a good amount of lighting. For supplies, I use Col-erase pencils, mechanical pencils, paint brushes, gouache, a small rag, a palette plate to mix and reuse paint, and a container for paint water.

Fresh cut illustration board
Fresh cut illustration board.

I cut a whole bunch of illustration board to start with for the whole project. I use an X-acto blade, a cutting mat, and just roughly rule out the pieces, then cut. For commissions and anything based on something it's always nice to print out some reference just to get a good idea of the source material.

Here's my process:

  • I draw the initial sketch I want. I copy it using my copy machine, and get it to a size I want to fit it within the board. I take a regular pencil and rub graphite on the back of the copied sketch. 
  • Next, I fit the copied sketch around the board and then use a pen to trace over it. This lightly transfers the sketch on the board.
  • It comes out very light on the board, but just enough to get what I want.
  • Next, I simply start painting with the background and work from back to front with any objects or details.
  • From that point, I keep painting 'til I'm done. 

And there you have it. This is one of three ways I work when painting.

Izas painting process
Iza's painting process as described above.

Do you find time for freelance work? Additionally, what projects have you done in the past?

Occasionally. I've gotten to do a little here and there, but while I have full time work and am doing my short on top of that right now not a whole lot of time for freelance. The last awesome bit of freelance I got to do was character designs for a project in development at Disney TV. While things didn't pan out ultimately for that project, it was a blast to work on and just a fun experience all around.

monster painting by robert iza

The other notably enjoyable freelance experiences I had were doing freelance background paint and color styling for a short pilot at Cartoon Network by Ian Jones-Quartey called "Lakewood Plaza Turbo", which was just tons of fun and so amazing! And then a super short stint helping out on my friend Alex Ahad's video game Skullgirls.

Gamera painting
Gamera painting.

As previously mentioned, you're currently working with Nickelodeon as a storyboard artist for the delightfully strange show "Breadwinners". How did you get the job? What other projects/networks have you worked on? 

I had done a storyboard test for Breadwinners. By the time I had just about forgotten I did the test, I was contacted by them to come in for an interview, and then offered the job. 

breadwinners credits

I've been on Breadwinners for a little over a year now. I've also done work on MAD at WB, freelance work for Cartoon Network and Disney TV, and worked at Playdom/Disney Interactive up in the Bay Area for two years before heading down to LA for more work in animation.

breadwinners artwork
Breadwinners artwork.

You've got an animated short coming up for Nick. Firstly, congratulations! I'm excited to see it. Secondly, tell us about it, please!

Yes, thank you, I could not be more grateful to Nickelodeon and all the executives and people who've been nothing but supportive and helpful of me and my vision with my short. (Gabe Swarr, Mary Harrington, Jill Sanford, Joanna Leitch, and Kevin Lee to name a few!) The shorts program usually takes the finished shorts and puts them online at some point. As to when exactly I'm not sure, but once anything happens, you'll hear me speak up about it for sure. They might also put them on TV, but again, not sure if or when. I've been having a blast learning the whole process, and getting to pick some individuals to work with on it! I really cannot wait to show everyone once it's done! They had posted a kind of basic premise for my short online already, so I'll post that again here (I don't know if I can say much else aside from that).

Shelf Life by Nickelodeon storyboard artist Robert Iza – While working at a warehouse full of everything, overprotective cat Ashley is driven to the brink of madness after her oblivious best friend Max gets himself fired.
Sketches and doodles

You've done work for group gallery art shows. What's your preferred medium when creating a piece for a show? Do you want to do a solo show (or show with one or two other artists, where you'd be creating multiple pieces to fill the space with fantastic design)?

Gouache and cel vinyl acrylic are my media of choice for pieces in shows. There's something so calming and therapeutic/medatative about working with traditional painting. I've gotten to have pieces at QPop Gallery in Little Tokyo, downtown LA, and a few other gallery spaces like Meltdown Comics, APW Gallery in NY, and Gauntlet Gallery in San Francisco.

Various paintings for gallery shows
Various paintings Iza has done for gallery shows.

I haven't done a solo show, only pieces for group shows, but would absolutely LOVE to do a solo show at some point. It'll be a fun challenge to create a whole series of pieces based on one theme. The whole things sounds absolutely wonderful, and I hope I get the opportunity at some point.

Sailor Moon painting for QPop gallerys Sailor Moon tribute show in 2014
Sailor Moon painting for QPop gallery's Sailor Moon tribute show in 2014.

Your web comic, The Eternally Injured Ninja, went on indefinite hiatus this past year. Understandable considering the work discussed above. What other comics have you created in the past?

It did. Haha, yes, I had simply gotten too busy, and it's no easy task keeping up a comic with a deadline of once a week. I think lots of people don't understand how much time has to go into it when you have a full time job and a life, as well as whatever may pop up unexpectedly. But it was most certainly a lot of fun and a nice challenge. If anything, I'd be most hard on myself about it. It was hard to put up something I wasn't fully happy with, but it's what you'd do sometimes because you just didn't have the time to make it the way you really want to. Either way I'm so incredibly grateful to Gabe Swarr, Katie Rice, and the whole Dumm Comics group for having given me the opportunity to be a part of Dumm Comics for the long run that I did!

The Eternally Injured Ninja

Do you plan on (or just hope you can) continue EIN? Any other comic plans for the future?

I've done a couple comics with the art collective Lava Punch and their anthologies. The most recent one was a large full color anthology called The Black Torch that we had a Kickstarter for. I've only ever done one Eternally Injured Ninja printed mini comic, and have enough material to do a nice little book of the comics I did for Dumm. I have an idea for a new mini comic with EIN, so hopefully I get around to doing that as well. It's certainly not dead, just on the back burner. I really want to work hard on the writing side of that comic, and make sure it's really fun and silly.

What are your overall future goals, as an artist (or as an animator)?

My big goals right now are to get my own show, continue to make cartoons, and contribute to great fun, silly stuff. Hopefully have my own gallery show, make more printed comics, toys and puppets and whatnot. I also want to do more cooking, and get better at it. To continue taking improv classes and sketch writing classes and get better at writing in general. I also don't play any instruments, but would like to take a stab at learning the banjo. Travel to a few places I really want to visit, and try to do my best to stay positive and enjoy as much about life as I can.

Painting courtesy of robertIza

What words of advice do you have for aspiring animators?

The biggest things I would say to do are:

  1. Practice, Practice, Practice!!! You can never do too much working on your skills and studying things!
  2. Nuture your friendships and connections with friends in the industry, it’s super small, everyone knows everyone, there’s no point in being a dick to anyone.
  3. Put your work out there!!! What good is working hard and getting better if no one sees it? If no one knows you can do that? Super important!
  4. Be persistent! This isn’t a quick and easy thing to work out. But if you’re super determined, and have good support from friends and family, it will work out eventually.
  5. Do you know what you want to do specifically? Then do it! Do LOTS of it! Don’t stop! If you don’t know, try lots of things and figure out what you enjoy and can get super passionate about. If you’re motivated to do something you’ll totally do it no matter how challenging. Focus on doing the things you enjoy when you can, but it’s also good to have a basic understanding of the whole process. Study the work of people you admire, try to break down why you like it, why you don’t, why it works or not, and all aspects of it.
  6. It’s all gonna take time, so utilize that time as best you can! Don’t stress out too much, be flexible yet have goals.
Kamen Rider painting
Kamen Rider fan art painting.

Many thanks to Iza for taking the time out of his busy production schedule to answer questions and give us an insight into the world of a working animator and gallery artist. To further follow his artwork and career, check out the links below:

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