Student Spotlight: Bob Blevins
Bob Blevins’ first interest in animation came as a child, when he watched classic Disney features, Saturday morning cartoons, “The Simpsons” and the old Warner Brothers classics featuring such characters as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Elmer Fudd.
“My interest in pursuing animation as a life purpose and profession came much later at College of DuPage, where I was shocked to discover that school could be a place where you study cartoons,” he said. “That concept had never occurred to me before, and I liked it.
“I had always been pretty obsessed with entertaining people since I was very young, and I was the type of kid who had love/hate relationships with his teachers as a consequence. I was voted the official class clown of my graduating class and spent many of my junior and senior year evenings performing stand-up comedy in Chicago bars and cafés. When I later discovered animation, I was immediately seized by its entertainment potential. Essentially, animation is where every other art form ever conceived by human beings comes together, and once I wrapped my head around that there was no going back.”
But it took a few years before Blevins came to College of DuPage. After high school, feeling like he had just finished a prison sentence, he entered the workforce. But after a few years, he understood what adult freedom without education really means.
“COD is a place where formerly cynical teenagers can hit the brakes and not only explore the notion of doing something with their lives, but develop passions that had been self-restrained and bubbling under the surface for years,” he said. “It was a place where you could come to terms with whatever mistakes you had made and reconcile the fact that the mistakes of your past do not have to limit the potential of your future, and that you’re allowed to have ambitious hopes and dreams. I was definitely one of those students, and it made a lot of sense for me.”
The Animation program was new when Blevins arrived at College of DuPage. After earning his degree, he transferred to the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, and he discovered how well-prepared he was.
“I saw many students show up their first semester knowing that they love animation. They take all their core classes, figure and perspective drawing, experimental animation, and by the end of their first year they’ve spent thousands of dollars out of pocket and accumulated thousands of dollars more in debt, and they’ve realized that while they still love animation, they hate the process of animating,” he said. “By the time I arrived there, I knew I not only enjoyed animation but animating as well, and I had established a skill set which allowed me to take fuller advantage of my investment.
“Also, the staff at COD, particularly program head Tony Venezia, did a great job of breaking the students into the basic principles and process of animation while allowing them creative freedom to explore that process in an enjoyable way. If you had a little sketch or story you wanted to tell, then Tony made sure you had access to whatever facilities and equipment you needed to go forward. He was excited that you were excited. That experience sort of spoiled me because when I got to the much more expensive school, they tried telling me that my projects were too ambitious and the equipment I wanted was reserved for more advanced students, even though it was just gathering dust on the shelves. Only after weeks of being the first one in the lab and the last one out did they start to bend the rules for me, and even then I couldn’t get the same level of enthusiasm and cooperation I received from Tony and his staff at COD. Basically, at COD I felt like the focus was on propelling students forward.”
After one year at the Academy, Blevins had established relationships with industry professionals and decided to pursue his goals outside of school. At that time, Disney was opening a new feature film studio in San Francisco called Cinderbiter, led by Henry Sellick, who is one of Blevins’ biggest animation idols, and he became determined to work there.
Blevins and his roommate ran a successful campaign on Kickstarter and began working on a stop-motion animated short film called “T.P.” For a year and a half, he waited tables and worked on the project, and after they had completed a few minutes of animation and felt confident in the quality of the work, Blevins began sending demo reels into Cinderbiter and was hired as a production assistant.
“It was a really great experience and I was able to bounce around every department, working amongst some of the industry’s most talented artists from places like Pixar and Laika, many of whom I had admired for years,” he said. “Aside from the hands-on education I received working on the stages, there were many great fly-on-the-wall opportunities, and I was able to show my work to some of the world’s best animators. I also received a very favorable critique and recommendation letter from Henry Sellick, which was awesome.”
Unfortunately, Disney decided to close the studio in the summer of 2012 before their first picture could be completed, and everyone was laid off. After that, Blevins was introduced to Phil Tippet, a VFX legend and owner of Tippett Studios in Berkeley. Tippet had run a Kickstarter campaign as well to fund his own personal stop-motion short film “Mad God” and was recruiting Cinderbiter refugees to join a volunteer crew.
“It was thrilling because I got to assist Phil and other top-tier animators, whom I had been aware of for years, every day,” Blevins said. “While working at a large multi-million dollar studio was a unique learning experience, the lessons obtained by working on Phil’s much lower-budget project were much more applicable to my own personal film. I was only paid with a free lunch, but absorbing information all day and then sitting down to lunch with someone who had thrived in a cutthroat industry for 30 years by pioneering a whole new approach to visual effects that defined some of the most iconic films in history was its own payment.”
A month after Blevins was hired at Cinderbiter, his roommate was hired into the puppet department, and their production rate on “T.P.” slowed considerably. After the shutdown, the two began splitting their time between “T.P.” and “Mad God” before Blevins’s roommate received a job opportunity at Laika in Portland, Oregon. While Blevins wanted to stay in the Bay Area and continue as a “Mad God” crewmember, he also was getting anxious to get his own film completed. So the duo moved to a quiet suburb outside of Portland to finish “T.P.”
Blevins finally captured the 11,712th individual frame of the film, which was the final one. It’s “a funny and surprisingly tasteful” tale about a naive newborn roll of toilet paper that awakens in a dirty gas station bathroom, and is inspired by his traumatized but well-intentioned elderly companion to pursue a better life for himself. The film features voice acting from Bob Bergen, the official voice of Porky Pig.
While post-production work continues on “T.P.” Blevins got his first professional jobs as an animator, working on a stop-motion feature film for ShadowMachine called “Hell and Back.” He also was an animator on a children’s television series called “Tumble Leaf,” an Amazon Studios original available to Amazon Prime members.
“Patrick Collins, who was head of the story department at Cinderbiter and currently works at Dreamworks, told me once that ‘if you want to have a career making movies, you have to make movies.’ That really stuck with me, and my first goal is to have ‘T.P.’ demonstrate my current skill level not only as an animator, but also as a storyteller and entertainer,” he said.
“Long term, I want to write and direct hugely successful animated films and become hideously rich, begin dating supermodels, wreck a series of obscenely expensive sports cars with vanity plates that say N2 MNY, and generally exist above the law. Ultimately, I will eliminate all adversaries by buying out the competition and consolidating my power as head of the world's most successful studio. Once the world of feature film animation is totally conquered, I’ll sit back comfortably and rule it with an iron fist. But first I need to finish the movie in my garage and keep finding jobs, I guess.”
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