By Andrew Barker, Murtada Elfadl, Paula Hendrickson, Stuart Miller, Rafael Motamayor, Paul Plunkett
July 13, 2023
Variety and Nickelodeon are joining forces again for this year’s 10 Animators to Watch event in Los Angeles. The in-person cocktail party and awards ceremony on July 18 will celebrate rising creators in the animation space who are leaving their mark on the industry, as well as Nickelodeon Studios’ 25th Anniversary.
This year’s class of trailblazing storytellers includes Jeron Braxton (“Slime”), Daniel Fernandez Casas (“Migration”), Owen Dennis (“Infinity Train”), Carrie Hobson & Michael Yates (“Win or Lose”), Rachel Larsen (“The Tiny Chef Show”), Marie Lechevallier (“Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget”), Abigail Nesbitt (“Pupstruction”), Olufikayo Ziki Adeola (“Iwájú”), Woodrow White (“Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem”) and Jane Wu (“Blue Eye Samurai”).
Additionally, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller will present “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” directors Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, Justin K. Thompson with the Creative Impact in Animation Directing Award.
The evening will celebrate the highly anticipated release of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem.” The latest installation of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise is released nationwide on August 2nd.
“The days when animation and its creators had to fight for the respect routinely granted to their live action peers is thankfully in the past. This year’s Variety honorees for Creative Impact in Animation Directing, Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, Justin K. Thompson have earned much deserved worldwide respect for their work,” said Variety’s EVP of Content Steve Gaydos. “And the 10 Animators to Watch step straight from the ranks of ‘fresh faces’ into the category of ‘must see’ artists with each of their breakthrough creations,” he added.
“We are so delighted to celebrate with Variety the incredible art of animation again and raise our glass to 10 outstanding creative voices whose craft helps drive our industry forward,” said Ramsey Naito, President, Paramount Animation and Nickelodeon Animation. “A huge congratulations to all the artists on the list.”
Naito continued, “This is the year of the Turtles, and we are so proud of this animated theatrical masterpiece that is genuinely hilarious, has a heart of gold and displays next level creative excellence. Blending comic book realism with the spirit of New York City, we can’t wait to share it with the world!”
Read profiles below for each of Variety’s 2023 10 Animators to Watch, spotlighting the most exciting new voices in animation.
Olufukayo Ziki Adeola
“The acceleration of our success was quite quick,” says Adeola, writer-director of Disney+’s upcoming sci-fi series “Iwájú” and co-founder of Kugali Media.
Kugali made the Afrocentric series in collaboration with Disney Animation, the first outside company to do so, and the experience was instructive for Adeola and his young company.
“Disney Animation has been making amazing movies for decades on end, so they have a process and a way of doing things,” says Adeola, CEO of London-based Kugali from its 2017 inception until 2021, when he stepped down to focus on creative endeavors including “Iwájú.” “We were able to learn a lot from that.”
Our company is “run by really creative, ambitious, and audacious people,” Adeola says. “I think we brought a lot of our edge and own creative experience to it.”
Adeola nonetheless admits to suffering from imposter syndrome when the project began. “There was still a part of me that identified more as the version of myself as a starving artist,” he says. “There was definitely an element of, ‘Am I up to the task? Can I do the job?,’ that I had to work through.”
Going into it, he saw three potential outcomes for “Iwájú”: the series ending up exactly as he intended, not quite what he pictured, or even better than he could imagine. Happily, the latter outcome turned out to be the case.
“One of the cool things about the creative process is that other people can infuse their ideas into what you’re doing and enhance it. This series honors the original vision I had but has evolved it beyond that vision to something I think is even greater,” Adeola says.
“I hope this is the beginning of a new wave of African-inspired stories that the world can enjoy.”
As a teenager, Braxton taught himself 3D computer animation to accompany his music. It wasn’t long before his talents as an animator started to take over.
Braxton’s first short film, “Glucose,” won the jury prize for animated short at Sundance in 2018, and follow-ups “Octane” and “Oxytocin” competed at festivals including SXSW before he earned a showcase on HBO sketch show “Random Acts of Flyness.” His distinctive style — which conjures hallucinatory worlds with early-2000s video game aesthetics — soon appeared in music videos for the Weeknd, Pusha T and Danny Brown. Designer Virgil Abloh enlisted Braxton to create visuals for Louis Vuitton’s Spring/Summer 2022 campaign prior to his death from cancer in 2021.
“Just to be able to message with him and have him appreciate my work was a beautiful experience,” Braxton says.
He’s now deep in development on his first feature, “Slime.” Braxton says his visual touchstones on the “animated sci-fi horror” project range from anime to PlayStation 3 games like “Mirror’s Edge” and “Metal Gear Solid,” channeled through what he calls “the Black American perspective.”
“One thing I really love that you’re starting to see more of,” he says, “is that there are so many more Black stories, produced and told and acted by Black people, that are coming from a really intimate place that doesn’t have to focus on our trauma.”
The forward-thinking multimedia artist is excited to explore the possibilities of 3D printing in sculpture and sees plenty of potential in AI-assisted animation. Of the latter, he says, “It’s like a chainsaw. You can use it to build a house quicker, or you can use it to slice your hand off. Any new tool has dangers.”
“People are always complaining about the world and the era we’re living in, but I think it’s a pretty sick time to be alive and an artist,” Braxton says. “I feel like I was born at the perfect time.”
Daniel Fernandez Casas
Fernandez Casas has been fascinated with animation since he watched “Dexter’s Laboratory” as a kid through pirated cable in Spain. He has drawn on that experience as a grownup, designing new characters for Universal-Illumination’s upcoming “Migration” and Netflix’s “Klaus,” while also reinventing iconic characters such as Mario and Peach in “The Super Mario Bros. Movie.”
“The key is to lose the fear and to respect the paper,” says Fernandez Casas of designing a character, new or recognizable. “Do a bit of what they expect, but also sneak in some pearls of your own style.”
For Fernandez Casas, it doesn’t make much difference whether he’s designing dozens of birds for “Migration,” contributing to the massively popular Minions franchise with “Minions: The Rise of Gru” or helping update Mario for a new generation of moviegoers.
“Everything seems impossible at first. The first day is always a crisis, and you think you will never get it, but it gets easier.” He says it helps to do a lot of research, like watching documentaries about ducks for “Migration” or studying Yōichi Kotabe’s original drawings of Mario.
Still, Fernandez Casas has not let go of his passion for drawing original characters, and his dream is to bring an original project to life. “I hope that these dreams don’t die at the ink pot,” he says. “I want to create my own worlds and produce a new film with colleagues I’ve met throughout the years.”
During a formative stint on Cartoon Network’s “Regular Show,” Dennis learned the art of efficient and engaging storytelling — skills he has further honed as creator of “Infinity Train” and the upcoming “Among Us” videogame adaptation for CBS Studios
“Each episode was 11 minutes, so there’s no time for characters to go on long journeys and talk about their feelings,” Dennis says of his “Regular Show” experience. “You have to get things across in a sentence or a single shot.”
Creating “Infinity Train,” which includes a fair bit of drama, required a slightly different skill set to maintain a logical flow than more comedic shows, where “you can literally have a character say, ‘Well, that doesn’t make any sense,’ and then keep going,” he says.
Dennis believes animation audiences are willing to open to creative leaps, noting they already “believe these random lines on the screen are human beings,” observing, “once you’ve accepted that, you can also accept that they can fly or shoot lasers or morph into 1,000 chicken nuggets. That’s the beauty of animation.”
Now busy adapting “Among Us,” he revels in how fun the multiplayer game that serves as the source material for his upcoming animated series is.
“We get to explore areas that are outside of what people traditionally associate with the game,” says Dennis. “I don’t feel clamped in, in any way, which is nice.”
Carrie Hobson and Michael Yates
Hobson and Yates are breaking new ground as creators of “Win or Lose,” Pixar’s first longform TV series, and they relish the opportunity to work on an episodic venture. But they do have a joint request for viewers when Disney+ begins streaming the show in December: “Everyone turn off that dang motion smoothing!”
“Win or Lose” tells the interconnected stories of eight different characters preparing for a championship softball game, showing different angles of the story from each perspective.
“It’s a different format than Pixar’s ever done — and that’s what’s exciting,” says Hobson.
For his part, Yates cites the opportunity to make an ensemble piece in a way “that can’t quite be done in a feature.” He adds: “I hope everyone finds at least one character that they really relate to and connect with.”
The creators found inspiration for the show while working on “Toy Story 4” as story artists: Comparing notes after a meeting, they were struck by how differently they’d experienced the same thing.
“One of the things we wanted to explore in the show was, without telling you how to feel, just letting you experience that from a different point of view,” says Yates. “That was something that was really intriguing.”
Having worked their way up through the Pixar trenches, they credit Andrew Stanton for inspiration and ongoing support, and noted how their track record helped shape their approach.
“It was really important to us to make sure that our story team was really involved and not side- lined,” Hobson says. “Every single person was a critical member.”
“Anything that makes me laugh, I’m game to try onscreen,” says Rachel Larsen, co-creator of “The Tiny Chef Show,” a Nickelodeon series targeted to preschoolers that won an Annie award earlier this year. “These things that are funny and particular make life beautiful — it’s fun to put them into characters and make them feel alive.”
The adventures of Tiny Chef, a green puppet who cooks wee plant-based foods in his tree stump home, have featured a wide array of guest stars and participants, including executive producer Kristen Bell, Josh Gad, Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA and the show’s announcer, RuPaul.
Although Larsen shares co-creator credits for “The Tiny Chef Show” with cinematographer Ozlem Akturk and writer Adam Reid, the character has grown and evolved from her collegiate experience as a sculptor and then as an animator on films such as “Coraline” and “Anomalisa.” She first created the creature to hone her stop-motion animation skills.
“I felt the desperate need to work on my own thing, have my own creative voice,” she recalled.
After working with Akturk on Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs,” the pair brainstormed over texts between London and New Zealand about potential projects. Akturk wanted to do a cooking show, and Larsen had been fabricating tiny food for her green puppet — and the idea fell into place.
“I made him a chef hat and apron and it just clicked,” says Larsen, whose brother-in-law Matt Hutchinson provided voice work for the character.
A large social media response led to a book deal, which in turn led to the Nickelodeon show, which debuted in September 2022.
“There are parts of everyone in chef,” she said. “Everyone that’s come to the table for chef has really brought their soul to him.”
Like many children of her generation, Lechevallier grew up watching Disney movies like “Pocahontas” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Later, when she discovered Suzie Templeton’s “Peter and the Wolf” and the work of the Quay brothers and Czech animator Jan Švankmajer, she began to appreciate stop-motion animation.
Having drawn since she was a kid, Lechevallier decided to study animation on the advice of a teacher. She got into stop-motion almost by coincidence. “I love drawing, but I found stop motion much more spontaneous and direct. Having the objects for real was quite freeing.”
Lechevallier began working at Aardman in 2016 on projects like “Early Man” and “A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon.” Working on “Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget” was a natural career progression but also a dream come true. “The first ‘Chicken Run’ was definitely one of the main films that I knew about,” she says. “So seeing Rocky and Ginger for real was quite something. It’s the same puppets, the original characters. It’s hard to believe.”
While “sequels can be a bit tricky,” Lechevallier hopes the new film can be appreciated as a separate entity. “It’s obviously ‘Chicken Run 2,’ but I hope it’s going to be seen for its quality and not only in comparison to the first one.”
She also hopes that a new generation will find the movie. “There are two young characters in the film, and I hope they can be inspiring for younger people. I imagine kids probably haven’t seen the first ‘Chicken Run,’ so I hope they find this one appealing and like it as well.”
As the supervising director of Disney Junior’s “Pupstruction” — a pre-K animated series about a team of canine construction workers — Nesbitt sought inspiration from a plethora of real-world sources, learning about engineering, hydraulics, and industrial machinery to make the show’s tot-friendly world as tangible as possible. Fortunately, she didn’t have to go far.
“Here in my apartment on 9th Street in Brooklyn, they’ve been building a subway immediately outside for the last three years,” she says. “So if I need to check out how a particular truck works, I just have to go outside.”
With a decade-plus career as a storyboard artist for kids’ animation projects like “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” and Sesame Street’s “Abby’s Flying Fairy School,” Nesbitt moved up into storyboard directing for Disney Junior toons “Goldie and Bear” and “T.O.T.S.” — the latter of which introduced her to “Pupstruction” creator Travis Braun. Though it sometimes doesn’t get the same respect as animation aimed at older kids and adults, working on preschool-targeted shows allows Nesbitt the opportunity to indulge her imagination while still grounding fantastical worlds in real-life mechanics that a child can comprehend.
“I love the idea of opening up a child’s imagination and challenging a child’s mind,” she says. “That’s always been something I’ve gravitated towards, and it makes the job even more fulfilling than just creating a beautiful visual.”
Taking on her first role as a supervising director, Nesbitt credits “Pupstruction’s” close-knit team with helping her make the transition seamlessly, and she hopes to use her position to extend the same sorts of opportunities to other budding female animators.
“I hadn’t actually seen another woman in the position of some of the jobs I worked on. So I love the idea of mentoring and coaching and helping other female animators and artists, letting them know that there are so many opportunities and stories for them to tell as well.”
The lead character designer on “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem” didn’t always know he wanted to be an animator. After graduating from California College of the Arts with a BFA in fine arts, he spent a few years living in the Bay Area as a painter and illustrator. It wasn’t until a friend moved to Hollywood that he followed and started thinking of animation as a viable career option.
However, working on “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” seems to him like what he was always meant to be doing. “I always loved that gross-out humor and grotesque imagery that TMNT is known for,”White says.
That appreciation came from discovering commonalities with his drawing style. “It’s very DIY, kind of like punk rock. Once I started seeing these films, I realized they look like how I draw and paint,” he says.
While White recognizes the size of TMNT’s following, he wasn’t intimidated by expectations for this new film. “If you have this idea that the whole fandom of the TMNT rests on your shoulders, you’re not gonna make new and exciting work. I was making these things for me,” he says. “What I would want to see as an adult, and also as my younger self.”
White likens the new film to popular hits like “Superbad” and “Good Boys.”“We’ve injected that aspect of real teenage energy to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Whereas originally, the Turtles always sounded like adults pretending to be kids. The teenage part finally clicks into place here.”
After this experience, does he think of himself as an animator? “I think of myself mainly as an artist. I don’t like to put too many labels on it. In fact, once people begin introducing me as one thing or the other, I instinctively want to do a mad dash towards something else.”
Whatever that is, people will be watching.
As a child in Taiwan, Wu felt like both a product of her culture, as a fan of anime and martial arts films, while also an outsider, a “tomboy” who hung with the boys, used her mother’s yardstick for sword fights, and wanted to become a major league shortstop.
“I made a huge effort to not be female growing up, but I wasn’t authentically myself,” says Wu. “I had to find my own voice, which is partially why my hair is pink — I hated it as a child because it represented everything feminine. Now I’ve embraced it.”
That juxtaposition is part of why Wu is an ideal fit as producer and supervising director for the forthcoming Netflix series “Blue Eye Samurai,” about a mixed-race female sword master who must live in disguise.
The split identity continued when Wu moved to Los Angeles around age 9, without “a lick of English,” she recalls. “I’m very conscious of wanting people who don’t speak the language being able to understand my visuals.”
Wu taught fashion at Parsons School of Design (her alma mater) while co-owning a comic book shop, and she has worked in both live action and animation, with credits ranging from “Mulan” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” to “Game of Thrones” and “Jackie Chan Adventures.”
While starting in this male-dominated industry, Wu was told, “you draw pretty good for a girl,” so she takes pleasure in being on Marvel panels at events where people can see that “the most testosterone-filled action sequences were drawn by a middle-aged mom.”
And Wu loves mentoring and doing career talks for girls and young women.
“At the Girl Scouts, I hold up my drawing and one my male co-worker did for the same project and say, ‘Tell me which one a girl did,’” Wu says with a smile. “When they can’t tell, I say, ‘Exactly.’”
Wu is represented by Tarik Heitmann at Kinetic Media and attorney Rob Szymanski.