Caldwell Tanner: Storyboard Artist & Illustrator
Los Angeles, CA
WFU Class of 2009
Major: Studio Art
Caldwell Tanner converted an undergrad freelance gig for College Humor into a full-time position with the website in NYC. He has since moved to LA and joined Disney Television Animation as a storyboard artist. Caldwell takes us through his journey from WFU to web comedy wizard.
DeacLink: Tell us what you’re doing at the moment- your current role and any additional projects outside of work.
Caldwell Tanner: For the past year, I’ve been working as a storyboard artist for Disney on an upcoming cartoon of theirs. I’m actually coming back in off a hiatus soon to finish this project. Before this I was doing video work for College Humor on their YouTube channel. I also do a YouTube channel called Drawfee, which is a live drawing channel. It’s basically a podcast with a drawing component.
DL: All three of these sound super cool. Take us through your path to this point since leaving Wake.
CT: So, I came to Wake Forest from Nashville. I had grown up going to camps in North Carolina, and really liked the state and the school. I interned for College Humor during undergrad through some former alums, one of which had been a Lilting Banshee (WF's comedy troupe) like me. I started the internship my junior year, and kept freelancing through to graduation. After Wake I went home and kept freelancing-- putting in an inadvisable amount of free labor-- until College Humor found it in their hearts/budgets to hire me. I moved up to New York in January of 2011 to go full time with them.
When I joined College Humor, there weren’t any other illustrators. I put in more and more time as the site grew; looking back, I just stuck around long enough. The hardest part about working for the internet is being aware of the constant changes in the landscape. It’s a rapid and high amount of change to keep up with… staying up on every little trend can be exhausting.
When my wife got a job in LA we moved here, and I continued with College Humor in the video department which handles the YouTube channel and development stuff as well. It was at this point that the Disney job came up. Disney is definitely a vacuum compared to the internet- you can work on a show for two years without anyone seeing it.. While it’s nice to be done with the fast pace of the internet, it can be hard to put years into a project without anyone knowing or caring about it at all. That said, it’s not a hopeless job by any means- the office environment is very cheerful; I feel lucky that coworkers are always up for video games and Taco Bell at lunch.
DL: That’s a big change from one to the other. What’s been your favorite project so far?
CT: I did a series called ‘Dinosaur Office’ with some friends of mine. It’s basically ‘Office Space’ with toy dinosaurs- the perfect type of dumb that I love. All the dinosaurs speak about boring office stuff, but in loud aggressive voices. It’s based on the way kids play with toys and growl at each other, interspersed with the mundanity of an office setting. The series only showed via Nintendo 3DS and YouTube. So, any child who had a 3DS when they were three years old knows about ‘Dinosaur Office’... it’s got this incredibly niche audience.
DL: Did you consider a graduate degree after Wake? Why or why didn’t you pursue this route?
CT: I definitely thought about grad school. I had friends who went that route, but with art focused careers it’s much easier to learn on the job I think. Also, for what I wanted to do there was no reason to remain in a school environment when I could just dive into the work and learn more that way. I was pursuing my lead with College Humor, so I had that goal to push for. If I had been more aimless coming out of Wake I would’ve considered grad school more seriously. Instead I was stubborn and just wanted to make comics and stuff for the internet.
DL: How much did your studies or Wake in general inform or drive your career path?
CT: College gives you so many hours in a day to mess around and learn about stuff you’d never be able to in the real world. I read so many books! Like, where am I gonna read this many books by Victorian authors in my day to day? You don’t have any real responsibilities, so you can work within the facsimile of going to class and building this artificial collection of knowledge- I liked the game of it all. To me it was a big Supermarket Sweep of useless knowledge to be acquired, which informs you as a person.
I had an amazing digital art teacher named Professor Carter while I was at Wake, too. His class was a great opportunity to learn new programs and build news skills I never would’ve known about. We had a decent digital lab at Wake (for the standards then), which had tablets, Macs with Adobe suite, and so forth. I took everything I was learning in class and work on it further outside on my own. I would design posters and videos for the Lilting Banshees, which gave me a rudimentary ability on most things. At the time I was in undergrad, it was the weird generational gap where I didn’t grow up having a laptop. So in college I had my own all of a sudden, with all the software and programs on it for me to learn and explore whenever I wanted.
DL: What do you think Wake arts could have done to have better prepared students for life after graduation?
CT: I definitely had a solid base of preparation from the courses I took, in programs like Photoshop and Illustrator. From there I was able to self teach. But with regards to getting a job, you have to make connections on your own to a degree.
Perhaps Wake could provide more opportunities for kids to learn on their own, like offering more ‘independent study’ courses. Those were great for my development, and learning how to do what I wanted to do.
DL: What’s the hardest part about breaking into your field?
CT: It can’t be understated how important connections are. For instance, I got a job at Disney because one of my coworkers at College Humor did some writing on a Disney project then introduced me to their development team. This was around 2013, and from there I started submitting scripts to them. Eventually there was an opening and they slotted me in. It wasn’t this simple of course; to get the job I had to train for and pass a board test. I was given a two-sentence prompt to storyboard a one-minute sequence. And before this I had applied for a couple other board jobs and didn’t get them. So yes, it’s important to develop good relations with people but you’ve got to have the skills to back it up. You have to talk to people, then go home and draw and get better at drawing. Put in the hours, draw until it’s boring… that’s when you get good at it.
DL: How do you like living and working in LA? Do you have any advice for students wanting to move there?
CT: I like it a lot- when we moved I remember thinking, ‘it’s cool like Nashville but it doesn’t rain or get cold’. All the tacky, dumb stuff I like is out here, like theme parks and tiki bars. All the silly things a cartoon-loving adult man can enjoy are at my fingertips.
For kids that want to get out here, definitely pursue internships (especially because they have to pay you now). I know all the studios out here have intern programs. If you can intern in a place that takes you away from where you are, definitely do it. Also, it’s a good thing to exploit the connections that you have. Twitter didn’t exist when I was in college.. Facebook had barely started. If there’s someone out there that you admire, there’s no harm in reaching out to them. As long as you’re polite and don’t overreach, people are very willing to share their experience and provide feedback to help as much as possible.
DL: What has surprised you the most about LA?
CT: A lot of people out here are transplants, having come from somewhere else. It’s good because everyone came here by choice and with a purpose. The bad side to this is that everyone in LA is doing the same thing.
In New York we had friends that were doctors, worked for sanitation, you name it. Here it can be much more homogenous.
DL: What’s the coolest perk or experience you’ve had from your job?
CT: I got to meet Mark Hamill! He recorded a voice for a character that unfortunately no one will ever see, because it got cut. However that makes it all the more special somehow, because it’s this moment that only exists for a few of us. He was one line into the script which started with a ‘What the…’, when he stopped to comment that this saying that only exists in cartoons. I thought, ‘Luke Skywalker himself is roasting me, what a solid Tuesday!’
DL: What's the best kernel of advice you can think to pass on, or currently go by?
CT: Make good friends that you can rely on to give you good advice and feedback. I got lucky because I worked with a very talented editor at College Humor, then I married her. So I get advice for free!
But seriously, for artists- don’t stop drawing. Give yourself a break every once in awhile, but keep drawing always.