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Meet Animator and Illustrator Matt Watts (Part 1 of 2)

Tags: Storyboard Pro Animation Harmony Customer Story Storytelling

In Part 1, we profile Matt Watts, a talented artist and animator from Utah. Matt recalls the winding path he took to becoming a professional commercial artist.


Matt, were you that kid who was always doodling in school?

I've LOVED drawing since I was young. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles inspired me as a child and I drew my own creatures. My parents were always encouraging of my early art, and I had lots of support from my school friends. I loved watching funny movies and the sweetest reward to me was if I could draw something to get my friends and family to laugh. Over the years I experimented with paint, pencil, clay and Photoshop. I took an advanced art class in high school, and did my very best at it but barely passed the national test. I did much better in calculus and statistics. I still loved doing art, but I thought there was no way I could ever make a living at it.

Matt Watts early painting


What did you decide to study or pursue once you finished high school?

Growing up in the 90's before the Internet, I always thought a full-time artist was someone who sold paintings door-to-door.

That didn't seem like a realistic career choice to me. Instead, I thought I could be a school teacher. Religion and math interested me a lot, so I did some college in that direction until I realized a teacher might have a hard time supporting a family on the income. I thought and prayed about it and felt I should instead try out architecture, a good blend of math and art... right? I worked through the grueling program and got my Bachelor's degree in architecture, developing an appreciation for the field but finding no passion for it within myself. I was dying to draw cartoons!


When did you get your first job involving art?

Back in 2009, none of the video game studios here in Utah were interested in hiring me, in fact, they were generally laying people off as a result of the economy. Eventually, I decided to go back to working as a produce guy at a grocery store. Every day I would check to see what job listings for artists were up on Craigslist and other sites. After nearly a year, I found a job where they wanted an artist to draw 10 to 12 pictures for an online training course. After I finished those images, they asked if I would be willing to freelance draw 60 more images for a larger course. I was still working full-time at the grocery store, fitting this art time in around it. After 9 months of freelance work, the company asked me to be a full-time illustrator! I finally had my dream job.


Matt Watts artworkHow did you hone your skills as an artist?

As I began my new job as a full-time artist, I wanted to make sure they kept me.

Every day at my new job I asked myself, "What can I do or learn so they won't want to let go of me?"

I looked at my artistic weaknesses and took community college classes in figure drawing, art foundations and character design. I read lots of books, and attended some conventions like Comic-Con and CTNX. I watched video tutorials and kept pushing and pushing myself to improve. A notable class I took online was The Magic Box from Chris Oatley (who used to paint for Disney). That's where I really learned about digital painting. An online Udemy course from Tony White was helpful. I looked through one of Preston Blair's animation books, and the Illusion of Life.

Today I work as a full-time illustrator and animator creating commercial art. At this point, I feel that I've developed my figure drawing and digital painting skills to a degree I am confident with. I've added non-organic 3D modeling to my skillset too. I have been animating since 2006 and currently I'm focused on further improving my 2D animation skills in Toon Boom Harmony.


When did you get your first exposure to Toon Boom Harmony?

I bought Toon Boom Studio v 3.5 back in December 2006, oh it was a wonderful, life-changing purchase! I was most excited about the auto lip-sync feature to help me get a bunch of scenes animated quickly. I've used Toon Boom software through Animate 2, Animate 3 PRO, and now I use Harmony Premium 14. I'm really loving it! I've also dabbled in Storyboard Pro. I should probably use that more to save me some animation time.


What is it you like about Harmony?

At my job last year, they wanted me to try using Flash/ Animate CC to animate some puppet-style animation. I spent a few weeks learning how to do the same type of thing I had done with Toon Boom. There were a couple of things I liked exclusive to Flash, but after quite a bit of effort, I was relieved when I was able to return to animating with Toon Boom software. For me, Toon Boom excels in things like having keyframe information separate from drawing swaps, reusable library actions/templates, custom color palettes and overrides, bitmap layers, effects nodes, and the node view for puppet construction.

One example of Toon Boom Harmony's superiority is the speed of doing lip sync. I animated the same 40 second lip sync sequence in Flash and Harmony. In Flash, I used the much-lauded Keyframe Caddy extension to help me pick the mouths. It took 45 minutes. In Harmony, I used Auto Lip Sync and then went back through to touch it up. It took 15 minutes. That's just one example of what I love about Toon Boom.

Harmony 14 rig


Is there a particular style of animation you prefer to create and why?

I like cut-out animation because of how much time and work it saves me by reusing art I've already created. Cut-out animation is how I feel animation can be made in a more affordable way. I don't have to draw every single frame of animation, the computer can do a ton of the interpolation for me.

I also enjoy animating traditionally because it feels a little easier to draw the whole character and apply the 12 principles of animation on-the-fly. Usually, I do a hybrid of frame-by-frame and cut-out. I get the audio for the scene, sketch out some pretty rough frame-by-frame gesture drawings/animatics and then match my cut-out puppet to that, doing finer sketches etc. as needed for additional art.


Your caricatures are wonderful, do you get a lot of requests from friends and family to create personalized avatars?


Matt Watts artwork

LOL, thanks. Yes, I get a fair number of people who see a new caricature I've done on Facebook and say, "You should do one of me!" but I don't get many commissioned requests. I must admit that when I get paid to draw a caricature, I spend a lot of time fussing over likenesses. Sometimes it seems the harder I try to make it look "right", the less life it retains and I have to redo and redo and redo it. I really want the people I draw for to like the result, otherwise I won't accept payment.

I find that I can nail a caricature most easily when I sketch it on paper instead of directly into the computer. I usually get more personality into it that way. A great book about the subject is The Mad Art of Caricature! by Tom Richmond and Making Faces by 8Fish. When trying to come up with varied faces for my characters my go-to resource is a book called Facial Expressions: A Visual Reference for Artists by Mark Simon.

In Part 2 of our interview, Matt shares specific techniques and other resources he uses to make the most of his natural talent.

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