Dianne Ximena Castillo recently bumped into Matt Whitlock at one of those trendy cafes in midtown Manhattan, and here’s what happened:
THWP: So, hello. You’re living a life surrounded by animation, which is awesome because let’s face it–reality is overrated. Did you ever think that you’d get as far as you have so far?
Matt: I could have never predicted where things were gonna go, despite thinking I had it all figured out when I was a kid. I studied to become a traditional (hand-drawn) animator. Unfortunately, I managed to enter the animation field just as 2D animation was taking its last gasps and the CG medium was exploding. I never really took to learning CG animation and gravitated toward design and storyboarding instead. They’re among the few positions left in the TV animation pipeline that still involve drawing and aren’t outsourced.
Matt Whitlock and Shane Houghton
THWP: How did you get your foot in the doors of Nickelodeon and Disney?
Matt: I attended The Columbus College of Art and Design in Columbus, OH, and at the time, they had an internship program with Disney Feature Animation. You could submit a figure drawing portfolio each year to be considered. Luckily, I was accepted right after my senior year into what would be their last internship. These days at most studios, you’re asked to take a test for the specific position you’re applying for.
THWP: What was your first internship for Disney Feature Animation like? Was it very hands on or? What was your favorite perk of interning there?
Matt: The Disney internship was an amazing and exhausting experience. It began with a super-intense 4 weeks of training, and thenwe were thrown head-first into production on Mulan– which was Disney Feature Animation Florida’s first full feature. I made some really great friends during that crazy boot camp period.
THWP: Lately, what is a typical day in your life like?
Matt: Right now, my 9-to-5 is as a storyboard revisionist on Family Guy. In the evenings, I’m usually working on the latest issue of the Peanuts comic book. During the course of a full day, I’m dealing with two very different styles of humor, to say the least. It keeps things balanced and fun. And on very rare occasions, I sleep.
THWP: Who’s your favorite character to draw on Family Guy and why?
Matt: I’m not sure if I have a favorite quite yet. We do quite lot of celebrity caricatures, and I like drawing ugly versions of famous people.
THWP: What’s been your favorite project (period. It could be literally anything, even a macaroni art project you might have made for mother’s day.)?
Matt: The project I’m most proud of is a little animated short I did a few years back against the discriminatory Prop 8 ruling in California. I wrote it, did all the voices, and animated the whole thing in Flash. It took about a month of after-hours work. It was extremely fun, creatively fulfilling, and I felt like I was contributing in a very small way to something I feel very strongly about.
THWP: You were forced to stay indoors because of “chronic allergies” at a young age, and so you spent a lot of time drawing. What exactly were your allergies when you were a kid, and seeing the success you’ve had with art, are you grateful for your allergies? Or is this whole story just a rumor?
Matt: Where did you find all this stuff on me? I’m a little frightened. Yes, I did have a ton of allergies. I grew up on a farm and basically couldn’t breathe for 18 years. It’s the reason I stayed indoors a lot with my pencils. Drawing all day was all well and good, but I don’t know… oxygen would’ve been pretty awesome, too.
THWP: What kind of stuff did you draw in your childhood?
Matt: The Peanuts and Disney characters, original cartoons. Looking back, there hasn’t been a lot of forward motion in subject matter over the years. I drew a lot of stick-people in the lower corners of all the books in the house that would animate when you flipped the pages.
THWP: In the new Peanuts comics, do you have a favorite adventure yet?
Matt: We stuck very close to old Peanuts material for these first few issues- which was a good way to ramp up- but I’m looking forward to the next couple of issues. Shane and I want to branch out and create some completely new, original stories– while trying to remain true to the spirit of the strip.
THWP: Growing up was there ever any doubt in your mind that you’d make drawing a career?
Matt: There was no doubt that I wanted to have a career in art, but I never assumed that it was a foregone conclusion. It’s a tough field to crack, much less be successful in. And like all the arts, there’s no standard path or blueprint to breaking in.
THWP: You’ve worked as a storyboard artist, a prop designer, cleanup animator, and an in-between artist. What job role do you enjoy most?
Matt: They all have their pros and cons. I will tell you which one I most disliked: being an in-between artist. Ugh. You go to art school to master the principles of animation and figure drawing, and you end up using a tiny mechanical pencil to in-between drawings that are often only half a pencil-width apart. It was a great way to get my foot in the door at Disney, but it got old fast and I don’t miss it.
THWP: We heard that you were an “illustrating legend” in high school, from writer Shane Houghton. Please explain?
Matt: First of all, you should know that Shane Houghton is a filthy liar who cannot be trusted under any circumstance. A more accurate description would be to say that I was one of maybe two people at the time living in this little town that publicly admitted to enjoy drawing after the 4th grade.
Shane Houghton: Filthy Liar.
THWP: What was your first paid art-related job?
Matt: Hmmm… that’s a little fuzzy. I think I could have possibly been airbrushing cartoons on the aprons of the ice cream store I worked at in high school, or it was drawing and painting Christmas lawn ornaments for neighbors.
THWP: What is your ultimate goal when it comes to your art career?
Matt: To be able to continue to feed myself and my dog.
THWP: We know that you’re a super-crazy fan-girl when it comes to Charles M. Schulz. What was it like actually speaking to him in 1999?
Matt: It was completely surreal and awesome. They always say it’s risky to meet your heroes, but he couldn’t have been cooler. He took a break from working on a strip to chat with me- a virtual stranger- for about 45 minutes.I had planned out all these things I wanted to say and to ask him, and I went totally blank the minute I walked in. Regardless, he was incredibly genuine and kind.
Dianne: In case our readers don’t know, This January Kaboom! Studios published a Peanuts graphic novel, which showcases the new generation’s interpretation of Charlie Brown and the gang, plus some original classic Sunday strips. Is there any specific music you listen to while drawing these characters to get you in the “mood”?
Matt: I’m all over the place when it comes to music. There’s nothing specific I listen to when working on Peanuts than any other project, though. In the morning, I keep things pretty mellow… maybe Fleet Foxes or Washed Out, after that it might be A Tribe Called Quest or The Smiths. A lot of newish indie bands. I’m obsessed with Carrie Brownstein and Wild Flag at the moment. My answer would be completely different and equally uninteresting if you asked me an hour from now.
THWP: Are there any other artists that you’re crazy about right now, even if it’s not on the same “I drool for your art!” level as the famed Peanuts creator?
Matt: I am all over the place on this one, too. Everyone must check out Reed Gunther by Chris and Shane Houghton. It’s the best all-ages comic since Bone. I love old Uncle Scrooge comics by Carl Barks and Don Rosa. Blankets is one of the greatest, most identifiable books I’ve ever read. There are a ton of crazy-talented, unsung artists working in animation at the moment who are really inspiring and intimidating.
THWP: How have your tastes changed since you were a kid? Are you still attracted to the same concepts of art?
Matt: Obviously, the web has made it so much easier to be exposed to new artists and styles. You can’t help but have evolving tastes as you get older. I still love the old Tex Avery cartoons I watched as a kid– but on the other end of the spectrum, I’m a big fan of several political alt-cartoonists. I’m much more cynical now, and that’s probably reflected in the stuff I like these days.
The brilliance of Tex Avery.
THWP: Do you ever have any all-nighters, or any times when it feels like you’ve been drawing for 200 years straight? How do you stay motivated?
Matt: All-nighters seem to be industry-standard in animation. I hate them, but it’s kinda become the norm. Sleep and an occasional free Saturday afternoon have become the most precious things in the world to me. I guess it helps to have friends and co-workers in the same boat who understand and can prop you up when you need it.
THWP: Luckily, you’ve worked for other companies a lot–thus not resorting to being a “starving artist” statistic. Nevertheless, do you have plans of us seeing any Matt Whitlock originals one day (aka animated shows, films, graphic novels, cartoon strips)?
Matt: I would love that! But my plate is pretty full at the moment… for better or worse.
THWP: What does your family think of all this? Are they supportive? What about your dog?
Matt: I don’t think my mom is a big fan of the raunchy humor of Family Guy… which kind of makes it all the more fun for me. My dog wishes I still did freelance work at home full-time. He’s incredibly codependent and un-housebroke himself when I went back to a studio gig. He wears a diaper now and despises me.