Jerry Suh is a Background Artist at Nickelodeon Animation Studios. She has freelanced at JibJab Media, Awesome Inc and Psyop. We were given the opportunity to interview Jerry about her career and creative process.
Were you interested in art from a young age?
It sounds pretty cliche, but yes, I was always into drawing since I could hold a pencil.
If so, were you encouraged to pursue it by your family?
Not in the beginning. My parents were very academic driven, and they didn’t want me to be a cartoonist. As parents, they were not too supportive of my idea of becoming a starving cartoonist, haha.
You originally attended Cornell University to study architecture, only to transfer to Savannah College of Art and Design to study 3D animation. What attracted you to architecture, and what made you switch to animation?
Because my parents were very academic driven and didn’t encourage my art career, I was also very skeptical about pursuing art when I was in high school. It’s funny because when I was in middle school, I was rebellious and was almost obsessed with the idea that I should be a cartoonist. But as I got older, I got afraid to commit myself to an art school and pursue animation. So I went to study architecture because I thought it was a fine line between art and physics. I could be academic but also artistic. But one day as I was walking to my dorm at 4-5am in the morning from the architecture studio, I wondered: what if I put all these efforts and time to something I had dreamt since I was a kid? Something that had inspired me since I could remember? So I took a drastic turn of my life. It was very difficult because I really loved the school, Cornell which I worked very hard towards for. But I loved my passion more, so I packed my bag and headed to Georgia, to SCAD, to study animation.
You were accepted into Pixar to intern in the Technical Department. Can you tell us about the experience and what you learned from it?
I loved every single minute during the internship at Pixar. I learned SO much for those short 3 months of program that I believe I learned more there than the four years of college education combined, haha. When I walked past the symbolic PIXAR sign and Luxo and the ball, I couldn’t even feel I was walking because I felt like my feet were floating above the ground, haha. I was that excited. I learned Pixar’s filmmaking process and advanced lighting techniques. Every single pixels was designed to tell the story, and it was mind blowing to see how every single step was carefully planned and reasoned for storytelling. The internship program was very well planned too and we were treated as the important part of the company. The respect the studio had for the interns was beyond amazing.
After graduating, what was your route into professional illustration/animation?
The year I was supposed to graduate, I didn’t get any job offers lined up. I believe part of it was because I simply didn’t have enough time to prepare for a visual development portfolio because I just changed my career focus to vis dev from lighting after the Pixar internship. It was a pretty tough year. But a year passed and I started to hear back from studios. Amongst them, one of them was Nickelodeon. I was still getting considered at the time when I was in school. Shortly after graduation, I moved to L.A. with two bags in my hands, and I basically had no idea what was ahead of me or what I was supposed to expect. I crashed at my friends’ place for 3 months. (later, I got fancy and could sleep on an air mattress). I worked at Psyop for a short period of time, and in the meantime, I heared back from Nickelodeon that I got in.
You are currently a Background Artist at Nickelodeon Animation Studios. How is it different from other studios you have worked in?
Nickelodeon really likes to bring a lot of different cultures. I respect the studio’s diversity, and their talents are from various different schools/backgrounds. They also really like to keep their interns, and a lot of interns come back as full-time employee.
Can you tell us a little bit about your process? From initial concept to the tools you use?
I spend probably the most of time thinking about concept/idea and researching. Concept is very important to me because that is the reason I’m drawing. It’s easy to neglect, and easy to draw mindlessly, but I think what keeps me pushing myself to make it better and spending a lot of time on refining (which could be a tedious process), is the idea behind it. So I try to think what could make my piece interesting and ultimately get me excited. After that, I do tons of research. Master paintings, live action film footage, photography, style reference, and paintings I’ve collected…. Then I paste all of them on a big white canvas, and place it right next to my drawing canvas so I can always see my reference as I draw. Then, I start to brainstorm, which is I believe the most fun process. The second thumbnail is almost always better than the first one, and third one also tends to be better than the second one. My rule of thumb is that whatever you do, choose one that excites you. As a lot of artists say, people can tell through your art if you enjoyed the process or not. I believe there is some sort of energy in the painting that gets to pass onto the audience.
Do you have any tips for budding artists?
Pursuing art is really about discovering yourself. I thought I knew myself well, and made all decisions when I decided to go to an art school, SCAD. I’ve never doubted myself as an artist as an integral part of my identity. At first, I wanted to do animation, and thought that was the end of decision. But there were so many different disciplines to go for, and I had to know what I liked, what I did not like, and ultimately what I liked to pursue among all those choices. It was quite difficult to narrow down because people say a lot of things about trends like “this discipline is high on demand” “this disciplines is very competitive” “this is popular in the market now” etc. In the end, you want to listen to your heart and follow it because that is the true answer for yourself for a lot of things in your life.
We, as an artist, will also face a lot of ups and downs. When I barely got an approval from others for my work, and had to go through so many rejections after so much hard work, it was hard to push myself further to do even a better job. I wanted to be a better artist so bad (I still do), and at some point, I couldn’t tell if I was enjoying the process or torturing myself to push myself further. So it really hit me to my core, and got to ask myself; do I really like this? Do I really like art? But later, I realized that passion is not always about joy but also about pain. It’s kind of like, life. Life can’t be always good for you, but you still live it because it’s your life. Pursuing art, I believe, is the same way. I don’t want to make it sound too cliche, but art is a big part of my life and my identity. Therefore, I went through, and will go through a lot of ups and downs, and an emotional rollercoaster. But remember that you’re going through all those because it matters to you that much. Because it matters to you, you get hurt, get excited, get disappointed, and get happy.
Where should people go to see more of your work?
You can see my portfolio at www.jerrysuh.com . My tumblr is jerry-suh.tumblr.com I have prints available too, so please contact me at [email protected] for any inquiries : )