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Drawn to Hollywood

How a love of Looney Tunes and a leap of faith led Jon Gutman to DreamWorks Animation

Jon Gutman

Jon Gutman hugs Po, the Kung Fu Panda, at the DreamWorks Animation campus in Glendale, Calif.

Story by Ky Henderson | Photographs by Max Gerber

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The trailer for “Memorial,” Gutman’s award-winning student film

When Jon Gutman (BFA ’03) talks about renovating the house he and his wife recently bought, he doesn’t reference famous fixer-uppers like Bobby Berk from “Queer Eye” or the Property Brothers or even Tom Hanks in “The Money Pit.” No, he likens himself to a cartoon character who repeatedly got thwarted by a bird and an anvil.

“Demolishing a bathroom looked easy on YouTube, but the first time I hit our bathroom wall with a sledgehammer, it didn’t do anything to the wall,” Gutman says with a grin. “I, on the other hand, was vibrating—boi-oi-oi-oi-oing!—like I was Wile E. Coyote.”

The comparison to a cartoon character doesn’t come entirely out of left field. For the past nine years, Gutman, 36, has been a layout artist at DreamWorks Animation, where he has worked on several installments of beloved cartoon franchises like “How To Train Your Dragon,” “Kung Fu Panda” and “Madagascar.” He admits that when he was growing up in the 1990s, there were often days when he and his sister watched hours of cartoons at their home in Cortlandt Manor, a small hamlet north of New York City. But Gutman didn’t dream of one day working in animation. He just liked to draw.

And he was good at it. Though no one else in his family was particularly artistic—his dad sold TV ad airtime, his mom was an audiologist—his folks encouraged his interest. In middle school, his dad bought him the book “Chuck Amuck,” a memoir written (and drawn) by the legendary animator, writer and filmmaker Chuck Jones, who in addition to winning three Oscars helped create none other than Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner. Though Gutman watched ’90s cartoons like “Animaniacs,” he always found himself drawn to the older stuff, like “The Jetsons” and “The Flintstones”—and nothing more so than the classic Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons featuring Bugs Bunny and friends.

“The guys who animated those were masters,” Gutman says over an outdoor lunch at the DreamWorks Animation campus in Glendale, just outside Los Angeles. A fountain burbles nearby, all but masking the sound of ping-pong being played on one of several tables available to employees who need a break. “There’s a reason those old cartoons still hold up and are still amazing when you watch them today. Some of the animation from the ’90s is a little flash-in-the-pan. Sure, it’s moving and it’s animated, but it’s not necessarily the art of animation.”

Turning a Love of Art …

When it came time to choose a college, Gutman’s interest in art was a factor, but he didn’t want to attend an art school. In addition to not knowing what kind of career he wanted to pursue, he didn’t even think, at the time, that he could turn art into a profession. He just knew he wanted a big school with a lot of options.

He eventually narrowed down his list to Syracuse University, the University of Michigan and UB, which he chose for two reasons: It was the largest school in the SUNY system and it had a well-respected arts program. “I didn’t really know anyone who had gone there,” he recalls. “But when we went to visit, I really liked the school and the town. They had new facilities and I liked all the teachers I met, and they admitted me into the Honors College. Everything about it felt good.”

Gutman began school in the fall of 1999, and while computer animation wasn’t new—“Toy Story 2” premiered a couple of months after Gutman arrived on campus—the democratization of it was. The enormously expensive technology required to make an animated film was just starting to be affordable enough to become available to universities like UB. Gutman, who majored in fine arts with a concentration in computer art, was getting the best of both worlds: a classical arts education combined with hands-on experience creating computer animation with cutting-edge tools.

But he still wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life after graduation. He applied “on a whim” to an MFA program at the prestigious University of Southern California (USC) School of Cinematic Arts, but since it was the only grad school he applied to, and because he had failed to take the GRE by the cutoff date, he assumed it wouldn’t work out. He returned home to the Hudson Valley, moved back in with his parents and began interning at a small commercial animation house in Manhattan.

Then, USC got in touch. The good news: They had accepted him even without the GRE. The bad news: Classes were starting in just a few weeks. If he was going to do it, he needed to commit immediately and then get out to LA as soon as possible. “I just had to make one of those crazy life decisions,” he says. So he teamed up with a close friend in a similar situation, packed up a car and drove across the country. Once in LA, Gutman crashed on a friend’s couch until he was able to find his own place.

Though USC is known for being a pipeline into the film industry, Gutman was pleasantly surprised to find that the school’s approach was similar to UB’s, in that it focused on the art of computer animation as much as the technology and application. In his second year, Gutman and a classmate made “Memorial,” a dark, trippy animated short film about a girl dealing with death, mourning and memory. It was screened at more than 30 film festivals worldwide, including the Palm Springs International Festival of Short Films (where it won “Best Student Animated Film”) and the animation theater at the annual SIGGRAPH conference, where much of the world’s best animation done by professionals as well as students is showcased.

“Getting into that was the ultimate validation that we were doing something pretty innovative and cool,” Gutman says. “We went to parties and met people in the industry, including those who were recruiting for studios. And that was when my eyes started to open to the opportunities available at studios for someone with my skill set.”

Gutman considered himself an artist, and he wanted to make art. He also considered himself a generalist, someone who was not only a talented animator, but who could also write and direct, kind of like Chuck Jones (though Gutman would probably never make the comparison himself). He knew that jobs at major animation studios tend to be highly specialized and he still wasn’t totally sold on a job in computer animation, but what he began to realize at the SIGGRAPH conference is that there might be a place for a generalist after all.

Jon Gutman

… Into a Dream Job

After his third year of graduate school, Gutman began work on his master’s thesis, which was supposed to be another short film. But at that point he had basically completed his coursework, and the acclaim and recognition received by “Memorial” was just about everything an MFA student could hope for in a thesis film. So he decided to go on the job market. (He never did get around to completing that thesis, but the faculty determined he had done sufficient work to warrant a degree.)

He sent his portfolio to all the major animation studios and got some serious interest, but there were no openings. So he took a job at a small animation firm in Los Angeles that made commercials and music videos, much like the one in New York he left to attend USC. Gutman enjoyed his time there, even getting to work on a Prince video, but he still had his heart set on one of the major studios.

And then, after a little more than a year, he got a call from DreamWorks, which now had an opening in their layout department. It was the ideal place for generalists.

Gutman accepted a job working in final layout, the department essentially responsible for shooting the movie. Once all the assets are ready—pretty much everything you see in an animated movie, from a tree to a teacup to a character, is an asset that needs to be created before it can be placed in the set—and the animation has been done, final layout makes certain each scene has everything it needs, and then shoots the scene. Just like live-action movies, animated films require camera angles and lenses to be chosen (there are no physical cameras and lenses, but they’re reproduced in a computer program), blocking to be planned, and numerous other decisions to be made in order to shoot the film.

Sometimes there are even camera operators filming the animation … sort of. The first movie Gutman worked on at DreamWorks was 2010’s “How To Train Your Dragon,” which was shot using a cameraperson in front of several screens displaying the animation. Except, the camera wasn’t actually shooting anything; instead, a computer tracked where the camera was aimed—it’s the same idea as using motion capture to track a live actor’s movements for an animated film—and then replicated that in the animation software. Why do something so complicated? Because it can create a more realistic feel for the viewer (and for those who have seen the movie, it clearly worked). It was this aspect of final layout, the camerawork, that Gutman particularly enjoyed.

But after a few years on the job, he found himself drawn to an entirely different part of layout, this one on the front end of the process. The “previz” or rough layout department works closely with the director and editors to put together rough cuts of different scenes, transforming static storyboard drawings into a sort of first draft of the animated movie. These rough cuts are by their nature quick and dirty due to the need for fast turnarounds (they can also be disposable when ideas change or end up not working), but they serve multiple crucial purposes, whether acting as proofs of concept, giving studio executives an idea of how the final film will look, or providing guidance and assets to animation teams.

“You get to do every step of the process, just to a way less-finished degree,” Gutman says of working in previz, which he has done for more recent films like “Kung Fu Panda 3” and “Captain Underpants.”

When Gutman isn’t working on his current project, the third installment of “How To Train Your Dragon,” or attempting to demolish walls in his surprisingly sturdy 1940s-era Burbank home, he spends time with his wife, Margarita—they met while they were both at USC—and their nearly 1-year-old daughter, Paloma. (He swears it’s purely accidental that both mother and daughter have names that are also popular tequila cocktails.)

Though Paloma isn’t yet old enough to watch cartoons, Gutman looks forward to the day she is, and when he can take her to screenings of the movies he has worked on. His next project after “Dragon”—it’ll be one of two movies, though he hasn’t yet been told which and can’t reveal the candidates—will be his first serving as head of layout, which is basically the animation equivalent of a live-action movie’s director of photography.

“That could be Paloma’s first film that she goes to see in the theater,” Gutman says. “That’d be really fun. Or she’s gonna be like, ‘This is stupid, Dad!’

“But I think it’ll be fun.”

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Ky Henderson is a writer based in Los Angeles.

My Bold Moment

“I was told very late that I was accepted to the film program in LA and that I would have to start in three weeks. I was living in New York. It was one of those life decisions when you have to say, ‘Am I gonna do it?’ I’m gonna do it!’”
—Jon Gutman, BFA ’03