It's never too late! Jeff Sornig went from retired Marine to a career in animation. I first heard Jeff's story on The Animation Network podcast and I was blown away. What an amazing story of pursuing your dreams even when you might feel it's too late and have those nagging doubts inside. I knew and admired Jeff's art from social media and just figured he'd been with Nickelodeon for a long time. To my surprise he actually put in a full career with the Marines and then got into animation. Keep reading to get the full story of how he pulled that off...
Every kid likes to draw but when did you really get into it?
My earliest recollections are the cartoon segments from the Electric Company and Sesame Street TV shows. My first memory of me personally realizing I had a knack for drawing was in early middle school when I used to draw Garfield all the time. Throughout high school I was obsessed with heavy metal album cover art for bands like Iron Maiden and Overkill, so my sketchbooks are filled with nothing but bleeding skulls with bat wings and stuff like that. If there was an art school for metal I would have been a lock. Unfortunately, art colleges expect a little more from your portfolio. Sorry, Mrs. Van (my old HS art teacher). You tried, but I was too thick to appreciate what you were getting at back then.
What did your parents want you to do?
Turn that damned heavy metal racket down!! Oh, you meant for a profession…
What did they do right and what did they do wrong in raising an artist?
I guess if I had a time machine I’d tell them to move to Burbank so I could have grown up in and around all the animation studios a lot sooner. Being in Michigan in the 70s/80s (the dark ages before internet and cell phones) a mere 2,500 miles away from where all the cartoon magic is made, I had no clue animation could have been an option. I’d have liked to get the head’s up about 32 years sooner, but it’s working out how it was meant to be.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
At the time I would have loved to be a syndicated cartoonist. I loved newspaper comic strips as a kid, so I definitely looked up to Berke Breathed (Bloom County), Gary Larson (Far Side) and the master Bill Watterson (Calvin & Hobbes).
What age were you when you joined the US Marines and what was behind that decision?
My grand father is a Marine who served in in the Pacific during World War II, and my Dad is a Viet Nam Marine (Welcome Home). I was 18 and freshly graduated from high school with no prospect of college. It was a lot of good timing with a rare moment of clarity at that age realizing I should take a shot at opportunities I otherwise wouldn’t have had. Before I knew it, I was in sunny San Diego changing my life forever.
What was your career like? I know there’s a lot to it but give us the brief synopsis of your service.
I thankfully spent a vast majority of my career with infantry units who travel A LOT. By the time I was in my mid-20s I’d already sailed back and forth across the Atlantic to Desert Shield & Desert Storm aboard the U.S. Navy ship USS Guam (LPH-9). I’d been to Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Somalia, Israel, Okinawa, & Norway. While most kids my age in the early 90s were in college, I was out getting a completely different education and set of life experiences that only the Marine Corps can offer. I had some buddies who worked in the Public Affairs field and for a brief time around 95-96 I drew freelance comics for the Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point base newspaper (The Windsock). Not syndicated, but in a small sense I got comics printed in a newspaper so that’s a win. Actually I forgot about this - one of my comics from Cherry Point got picked up and printed in an issue of MarineTimes which is a world-wide distribution. That was a pretty big deal for me at the time. Most importantly, I made so many friends with Marines along the way that I genuinely consider them my brothers & sisters. We still keep in regular contact.
While serving in the Marines, what did you think you’d do when you got out?
I honestly had no idea what I wanted to do after the Marine Corps because I was so focused on the task in front of me. For a year and a half leading up to my retirement, I was working up for a deployment to Afghanistan that we came back from a mere 6 months before my retirement date in 2012. Our work tempo was crazy for those 18 months I didn’t have time to stop and think about it much less plan anything. That is not a Course of Action I recommend for anyone. All I knew for certain was I didn’t want to just keep doing in civilian life what I did for an occupation in the Marines for 24 years. That was done and I wanted something different… I just didn’t know what that was going to be. I’m actually pretty lucky this seems to be working out okay so far…(knocks on wood)
Was the transition back to civilian life difficult?
The weirdest part was realizing the one thing I’d done my entire adult life from 18 to 42 was now behind me. A major part of my identity packed away in a foot locker. The million dollar questions were “Now what? And “Who are you without a Rank as your first name?” and I didn’t have a answer which was a scary prospect for someone as Type-A as I was coming out of the Marine Corps.
How did you get back into art and when did you decide to make a second career of it?
This whole art thing is entirely thanks to my wife Heather who is also a retired Marine herself. This was around 2013 and I was adrift trying to figure out what I wanted to do and she recommended I start drawing again while I get my head right. I hadn’t really drawn much since about 2000. I broke out the old sketch book and the spark was lit. I gathered up some of my feeble doodles and hauled them over to a comic convention here in the Detroit area where I met an amazing group of super supportive local artists who I’m now friends with. At that point I was still deciding what I wanted to pursue for a college degree with my education benefits, and I opted to roll the dice and go for Illustration. Sincerely I am forever indebted to my family and friends for encouraging this madness. I guess otherwise I might be a couch insurance salesman or a cemetery greeter or something…
Tell us about how you got into the animation industry and landed a job with Nickelodeon.
Sheer luck and fortunate timing. I’m from the same small Michigan town as Mr. Butch Hartman (creator of such cartoon classics as Fairly Odd Parents and Danny Phantom). That motivated me to know more and I found a video online from Nick Animation where he briefly talked about how he got into animation. I saw Nickelodeon had a college intern program and the timing when the next intern semester was going to start and my qualifications aligned perfectly. I talked it over with my wife and just submitted for it. The day I got the call in Michigan from Nickelodeon that I was accepted for the internship just before Christmas in 2015 is one I’ll never forget. I drove out to Burbank from Detroit in February 2016 with the idea of gathering as much experience as I could from a 10 week internship. I essentially lived in the studio every day soaking it up for the full internship too. Apparently I did enough of the right things to stand out in the right ways because I was offered a permanent position as a Production Assistant on the incredible show Pig Goat Banana Cricket directly from the internship. 2 years and 3 different TV shows later - here I am. Wild how it all worked out.
I know that most of the animation is done overseas, what do they do in the California studios?
The Reader’s Digest version (is that still a saying people will understand?) is most animation studios in Burbank are pre- and post-production. Meaning we do the upfront storyboarding and design work at this end. The overseas studios do the in-between heavy lifting to make the animation magic. That comes back to the U.S. studio where it’s assembled and cleaned up for delivery to network eventually becoming what you see on your TV (or mobile device). Of course there are exceptions like Titmouse who are full-service animation studios, but for network TV that’s how I’ve seen it work so far. Consider this. The whole process for a single episode of your favorite 11 minute cartoon from the initial nugget of a story premise to final ready-to-watch show takes over 6 months or longer to complete with hundreds of artists and editors and directors and production staff involved. It’s a crazy detailed process, but so much fun to be involved with.
I imagine your art has improved a lot over the past few years, what are some things you did to get better at your craft?
I only got back into drawing in 2013 so it’s gone through the roof in quality. I even looked at something I drew in 2015 the other day and gagged a little. Draw draw draw draw draw. Then draw more. Being a “self-taught” artist is one way to go, but I’m glad the next biggest thing I did was get into college classes. While I was in California I also took any and all vocational art classes or professional development courses I could. I even had the chance to study under Stephen Silver at his 8 week character design course and a 12 week traditional animation class with veteran Disney animator Alex Topete! The crown jewel is being in an impossibly amazing creative environment such as Nickelodeon surrounded by the very best artists in the industry for 2 years. That was priceless. Wherever you live - you have to surround yourself with other like-minded artists or you’re making it that much harder on yourself. Full disclosure for you readers - Ralph didn’t pay me or ask me to say this . Having something like a SketchWallet helps a ton because I have no excuse for not having doodling material on me at all times. Draw Draw Draw. Now draw more.
How did you make connections and meet others in the industry? From your Instagram it looks like you’ve met some pretty amazing people.
I’ve been fortunate to meet SO many incredible people. I have a genuine enthusiasm and passion for animation, and I’m eager to talk and get to know anyone else who shares that. Meeting who I was able to meet had everything to do with being in Burbank where all the major animation studios are, plus the conventions like CTN and DesignerCon and every other art convention under the sun. Plus I have no fear of talking to anyone. So there’s that. Amplify all of that with many thanks to my good friend Kris Wimberly who is the mastermind behind the appropriately titled “The Animation Network Podcast”. Working with Kris and TAN Podcast just made meeting more and more people all around Los Angeles easy. I also thank my other good friends Scott Gandell and Santosh Oommen at Society of Illustrators Los Angeles. They were instrumental in introducing me to more people and letting me tag along at conventions than I ever could have dreamed. Mr. Carson Smith at Nickelodeon is another key to that because I volunteered for every community drawing event I possibly could for him and the studio. He in turn introduced me to fellow veteran and retiree who was also a Nicktern - Michael Falk. Mike and I have many shared experiences and interests, and through his friendship I met an incredibly diverse group of amazing artists at DC Comics/MAD magazine. I’ll be forever grateful to all these guys and many more who were so kind and patient with a big kid like myself.
Are most jobs in animation project based? When the show or movie is over do you start looking for a new job or do they just reassign you?
From where I’ve been so far at my one studio it worked like this. You are employed AT the studio but you’re under contract for the Production (i.e. TV show) you’re working on. When the show ends, so does your contract. In my case that happened a few times where one show ended (i.e. Pig Goat Banana Cricket) and I was fortunate enough that a position on another show opened up (i.e Pinky Malinky). Lucky timing is a reoccurring theme with me if you hadn’t noticed. Studios would love to retain their people when they can. We really all do get along and each show crew becomes like a tiny family. The nature of the business is such that inevitably vacancies just dry up so you pack up your toys and move on to another studio where it’s highly likely you see your friends there as well. It keeps the family continually growing which is great and precisely how I went from knowing a few people at Nick to knowing folks all over Burbank.
This may be a little personal but was it hard to be separated from your family while at Nick? Did you ever consider moving them to California?
This is going to sound strange to many folks, but it wasn’t hard at all. I’m fortunate that my wife and I are Marines, and my kids grew up in the life too. Separation for us is just no big deal. At no point was my family looking to move out west. Mainly because my son is in high school and no kid wants to relocate and lose and remake new friends at that stage in adolescence. That’s the premise for every teen drama you’ve ever seen. Also because the nature of my job in Burbank was way too unstable. Again - that’s just the animation life. You could have a perfectly safe job today, then tomorrow your show gets cancelled and you’re unemployed. My family was perfectly willing and supporting me to do what I was doing while still enjoying the stability of our home in Michigan. When I was in California I was staying with family that lives at that end, so it all worked out unbelievably well and I’m eternally grateful to my mother-in-law Lynne. I am supremely lucky in this sense because not everyone has such a situation with so many supportive and understanding family members.
Now that your gig with Nick has come to an end, what are your plans and do you ever see yourself getting back into the animation scene?
The timing of the production crew I was on ending combined with things happening back home in Michigan couldn’t have worked out better. Yep, good ole’ timing strikes again. Remember, I only went to California for 10 weeks… 2 years ago! It’s like a bizarro animation version of a Gilligan’s Island episode (12 people understood that joke…) As soon as the things I need to tend to in Michigan are solid you can bet I’m heading right back out to Burbank. That’s already in the planning stages. Right now though, I’m happy to work on some personal art projects I’ve been meaning to tackle and looking for any freelance design work my animation friends may need me for.
If you could go back in time, what would you have done different?
That is easy. I’d go kick myself in my own butt and tell myself to never stop drawing. That 12+ year hiatus really hurts to think about. Plus, I’d pursue a structured higher education in art about 2 decades sooner too. Don’t stop drawing.
What advice would you give others that may be thinking of a career change later in life or feel they missed their chance?
I’m gonna just unload a heapin’ helpin’ of good ole’ bumper sticker philosophy on you here. Age is only a number. Don’t give up on yourself. You won’t know until you try. If it doesn’t pan out on the first attempt but it’s something you’re really passionate about, assess your situation - adjust your plan of action - and keep after it (Unless you like skydiving. Get that right on the first try). Seriously. I almost didn’t take a shot at any of this because that hobgoblin of doubt in the back of my mind said I was too old. Pure enthusiasm beats age any day. Poop emoji happens. I heart my Doberman…
Where can people find your work?
All my social media sites are: @Sornigrafix and I’m continually updating my website: www.JeffToons.com
You should also listen to all the amazing tales of animation awesomeness over on The Animation Network Podcast. http://www.theanimationnetwork.org/podcast
(I’m episode 56 if you want to hear my sexy nasally mid-western accent fumble through an interview…) Thanks, Ralph. You rock.