Interview: Eric Fogel

My first animation gig was working on Eric Fogel’s The Head at MTV Animation. Eric later created the stop-motion cultural phenomenon, Celebrity Deathmatch, and ensured his place in our collective consciousness.

His personal projects are an ode to the kid drawing lightning bolts and skulls on the back of his notebook. The challenge, and appeal, of this work is that it is both youthful and gruesome. It has a base appeal that celebrates the bit of darkness in all of us. The little bit of weird that we’re afraid to share. Thankfully, Eric has no such fear.

How would you describe you what is it that you do?

I’ve been creating, directing and producing animation professionally for over 20 years.

You’re probably most known for creating Celebrity Deathmatch. Where did the idea for that show come from?

I’d always been a huge fan of stop-motion animation and knew I wanted to do something that was funny and violent and not really for kids. Blending celebrity satire with a battle-to-the-death boxing match turned out to be the perfect culmination of everything that I had loved about stop- motion and wanted to see as a fan.

The Head was another one of your shows and is probably one of the strangest things to ever air on TV. Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when the idea came to you?

Yes, I was working in the equipment check out booth at NYU film school and I was having a shitty day. I drew a picture of a stressed out guy with a huge, bulging head and next to it I wrote “some days.” Later, I found the drawing and built a show around the idea that there was an alien living inside the guy’s giant head. I thought “symbiotic relationship…that could work!”

Was The Head developed specifically for stoners?

No, I just wanted to make a show that was weird and different. Maybe it was too weird. I can definitely see why stoners would gravitate towards it.

Have you always done this for a living or did you transition from something else? What triggered your decision to make a change?

I figured out in film school that I wanted to be an animator. After that there was nothing else I wanted to do. But it wasn’t until I sold my first (student) film to an animation distributer that I realized that I could actually make a living doing animation.

What is the most challenging thing about practicing your craft? How do you deal with that challenge?

It’s easy to get too comfortable in your routine and that’s when you get stuck in a rut. I’m always pushing myself to learn new things and try new techniques. The technology behind animation is changing all the time. I never stop looking for tools, techniques, tricks to add to the toolbox.

Do you still practice? If so, what do your practice sessions look like?

For me, practice is drawing and I am so lucky that I get to draw for a living. Every day.

Where do you find inspiration?

I watch as many movies as I can. I pay careful attention to character and story structure and really try to analyze why a movie works or doesn’t work. I also study the behaviors of my three kids and look for little personality traits that I can utilize. Anything that makes me laugh, I’m using it.

Where are you when you have the most a-ha moments?

Lots of times it’s just when I’m waking up that an idea will come to me. I’ve sort of conditioned myself for this so I’ll do a little mental inventory in the morning and see what (if anything) is floating around in there.

What do you do to maintain a creative flow?

I try to think about an idea for as long as I can without putting pen to paper. Too many times I’ll dive in before an idea is fully fleshed out only to get discouraged when it doesn’t work. Another trick that works for me is that if I hit a wall on the writing side I’ll switch over to drawing. It’s sometimes easier for me to work out an idea visually at first and then do the writing later.

How much do you rely on feedback from other to help shape your ideas?

It’s really important to share stuff with people you trust. It’s very easy and SAFE to stay in the bubble but then you’re too close to it. You need to step out to see if the thing you made, the thing you LOVE is working for the rest of the world. And if not, why not?

What is the greatest obstacle to creativity?

Getting lazy or too comfortable in that creativity can be deadly. I remember one of my film professors pushing us to “be dangerous” and that always stuck with me. When I’m working on a new project I’ll always ask myself “Is that too safe? Have I seen it before? What else can I do to make it unique?”

When you complete a project, how often does it resemble your initial concept or conceived idea? How important is this for you?

It really depends on how much creative freedom I’m allowed during the process and that varies. More producers, more cooks in the kitchen can definitely dilute an idea. For sure, the projects I’m most proud of are the ones where I’ve been entrusted to execute an idea the way I initially envisioned it.

How do you know when you’re done?

It’s hard sometimes. If it’s a personal project I’ll step away for a few days and come back to it with fresh eyes. Nine times out of ten I’ll see something I want to change. Obviously if it’s a professional project and there’s a schedule involved, you’re done when the time runs out.

How do you resolve creative differences with clients or creative partners?

There’s always more than one way to skin a cat. Sometimes it takes a few passes before everyone realizes that the original version was correct. It can be frustrating but it’s all part of the process. People sometimes need to see the wrong version to understand why it doesn’t work.

What keeps you motivated even if you don’t connect personally with the project?

I will always find a way to connect. A while back I directed a couple of Barbie movies for Mattel. Way outside of my wheelhouse but at the time my twin daughters were totally into Barbie. So I’d come home from work every day to those little girls looking at me like I was some kind of superhero! That helped. Also, working with good people, people you like – that’s key.

What do you do when you are stuck and have some sort of deadline or other pressure?

If I get stuck I’ll take a break, refresh and dive back in. I won’t miss a deadline.

How do you achieve your creative vision with a limited budget?

Sometimes it’s the limitations that force you to be more creative. It challenges you to come up with clever solutions that maybe you wouldn’t have thought of if you had unlimited time and money.

What are the top 3 tools in your creative tool kit? ie. software, pencil, paper, journal etc.

Adobe Photoshop, my Wacom Cintiq and Microsoft Word.

What are the top 3 creative habits that have proven to be the most useful for you in your career?

1. Nurturing an idea no matter how silly or absurd it may seem.
2. Working out the idea through writing AND illustrations (and sometimes sculpture)
3. Not being afraid to push an idea further than I had originally planned or imagined.

If you could offer a single piece of advice to a budding professional, what would it be?

Make stuff! The tools are all there and they are so accessible. Technology makes it so easy to dive in and start creating, animating, whatever. If you’re passionate and willing to put in the time you will be rewarded.