INTERVIEW: Marji Fortin

Marji Fortin is a 2D (Flash) animator and creator of the webcomic Proud Lands. Marji has primarily worked in television (Word Girl, Squidbilles), but she has recently started to specialize in animation for mobile games. She currently works on Minomonsters, a monster battling game for iOS.

In this interview with Paper Tape editor Kristy Harding, Marji talks about working as a traditional animator, webcomics, and storytelling.

PT: It first occurred to me to interview you for Paper Tape when you told me about a Women in Animation panel you served on where something you said took everyone by surprise. 

MF: I was invited to be on a panel by the San Francisco chapter of Women in Animation.  I feel like I was the least accomplished of the panelists as I shared the stage with a Pixar artist as well as a stop-motion artist who had worked on The Nightmare Before Christmas!  I guess I was the only traditional animator in the group, though, and the audience of (primarily) animation students were pretty interested to hear that I had found work in my field–and that I firmly believed others could too!

Once Disney Feature Animation went under everyone pretty much believed it was a dead art form.  3D was the wave of the future (and is still going strong), and I knew several friends who had switched to it not from a love of it but from a worry that they wouldn’t have work if they didn’t.

Animation is not an easy field for anyone and can be especially challenging for those who are focused on traditional (hand-drawn) animation, but there’s a surprising amount of options out there.  Flash, ToonBoom, and other programs that facilitate the process mean that there are still 2D animators here in the states.

The panel itself was held at the Walt Disney Family Museum here in San Francisco and was really fun!  I loved hearing from such a varied group of artists and animators.  You forget about other areas of even your own field sometimes and it was nice to see how varied it can be.  There was a girl whose expertise was in prop-making, who had worked in stop motion but also on Mythbusters and now other shows, helping to build whatever needed building on set!  I never even knew that job existed!  It was pretty great.

PT: You mentioned specifically 2D jobs in the States. Is the landscape for 2D artists different elsewhere?  

MF: I’m not familiar with animation outside the US that much except that I know a lot of the traditionally animated stuff gets sent overseas from here.  India and Korea get a lot of the work we see animated on our networks (shows such as Avatar the Last Airbender and Futurama).  There is still some work for animation artists stateside setting up scenes or developing the character art but the actual animation process doesn’t get done in the US that often.  So it’s a blessing when I can actually animate at my job!

PT: How did you end up working on Minomonsters?

MF: It’s funny because I got told in college never to use DeviantArt or other socially focused sites as a place to showcase my portfolio when applying for work, since they can be confusing.  But I actually met the art director for Minomonsters through DeviantArt, and she herself got hired because my boss was specifically looking through there to find artists!

Some years before I got hired, I actually had been talking to another friend of mine about moving to California since the job prospects were a little better there.  On the East Coast, if your project ends, you have to find more work, and because of the scarcity of studios it usually involves moving to another city or freelancing. I had had two jobs in animation after college and one was in Atlanta and the other in Boston.  That’s an expensive move!

In California you have a similar situation with projects ending–and in fact in San Francisco of course startups are always going under so the whole company may just vanish overnight–but since there are a ton of places, you can usually find work again fairly quickly–and you don’t necessarily have to move!

PT: Was working for a game company something you always wanted to do, or did something happen?

MF: I wasn’t particularly drawn to games because I worried that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy the animation as much.  A lot of games have a minimal amount of animation and it repeats, so you just don’t need that much and maybe it’s not that challenging.  Or you have to know 3D, which I still don’t know. (Whoops!)

When I found out they had hired our art director though, I got pretty excited!  Her art is incredible and like I said, I knew her from (stalking her on) DeviantArt.  I thought I’d LOVE to animate in her style!  And when I heard the game makers wanted a game FULL of lush Disney-level animation, I was sold!

Gaming itself was never a huge dream, but I love to work on good animation.  I’ve pretty much gone whichever way the wind blew me and I find myself incredibly blessed to be able to work on such a challenging and beautiful game.

PT: What is it like being an artist working at a startup?

MF: It’s really fun!  There’s this whole different mentality when you’re on a small team and starting out developing something brand new.  The previous work I had done had been on an existing property and all the systems for working on it were in place.  At Mino we’re having to invent everything almost from the ground up.  It’s exciting and frightening at the same time.  Lots of pressure for sure!  This is only my first startup but it strikes me that the people you work with make or break the experience.  I work with a really fun and passionate bunch so even when it’s stressful or intimidating, it’s not really so bad because you have this network of friends who are all in the same boat with you.

PT: Tell us about Proud Lands.

MF: Proud Lands actually started as sort of a joke.  I’d been around on DeviantArt–It’s coming up a lot isn’t it?–and I had become fascinated with these preteens writing animal comics.  There was a HUGE subset of that which was specifically geared around Lion King.  Now, this is one of my very favorite movies, so of course I understood where they were coming from!  I thought their stories were kind of dramatic and angsty and…well teenagerish, like Twilight with lions I guess, so I started my own “dumb lion king comic” featuring a garishly colored lion who was a fallen angel with A DARK PAST!

I have to say, as silly as these stories could be, I couldn’t help but admire the incredible amount of time and effort these kids put into them!  Pages and pages and pages, and some of them even have more than one comic!  Whole storylines and family trees and backgrounds!  It was incredible!

And throughout these stories are these kids sharing their values and beliefs.  And discussing life issues in a way.  I feel like I have my own views and experiences I too can share, and for some reason it was coming out in this Lion King comic!  As a Christian, especially, I feel that point of view is not seen as often in general in storytelling in our culture but specifically in artists communities.  I was partly inspired by the amount of effort these comics represented and partly motivated to share my own outlook and faith.

It sort of made me remember why I got excited about stories in the first place.  They’re a way to share truths with an audience who might not want to hear it any other way.

I want to continue to do this in the future with my own unique stories and I am really inspired to do it through comics.  Right now Proud Lands is an ongoing project as I realized how far I have to go to really be able to tell stories through comics.  I feel like I am still new to it and having this somewhat low-profile comic is very good practice for me.  Every page I struggle and challenge my way through learning how to do this!  And hopefully when I get to my other stories I’ll be worthy of telling them!

PT: What is something you’ve learned about telling stories with comics? And how has the work you’ve done as an animator helped you writing comics?

MF: I’ve realized that it’s a LOT of work.  Writing is its own craft of course and then you add the visual element and I quickly feel out of my depth, and I have a lot of visual experience under my belt!  When I first started doing it I thought “How can anyone DO this?! It takes forever!”  And it does. But I realize more and more that the workload doesn’t need to be less….I need to be more patient.  I come from a background of pencil sketching (which is a good base for animation specifically) but I hadn’t spent much time learning to paint or how colors work, or visual composition….or even polishing a sketch into a final, clean, inked drawing!  There’s all these little things I’m feeling like I have to learn all over again.  And did I mention writing?  Dialogue is so hard to write!  And I had zero experience with that going in!  So really there are millions and millions of things to learn.

Acting is probably the greatest thing animation has lent to this process.  Trying to capture the emotion and feeling in a facial expression or the way a body is posed is something important to both comics and animation.  And knowing how to draw is pretty important too.

PT: You’ve mentioned that you’re working on a new comic with original characters, as well. Is that something you’re willing to talk about?

I do have an idea for a comic about a girl raised by wolves who comes to live in a monastery, and that’s all I’ll say about it for now!


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