“Stay Hungry” and Other Advice from Vicky Jenson
The director of Shrek talks about animation, directing, film festivals and her career in the Biz
Vicky Jenson started her career painting backgrounds for Hanna Barbara cartoons. She worked her way into storyboarding on shows like He-Man, She-Ra, The Real Ghostbusters, and The Ren & Stimpy Show. Eventually she discovered a love for directing. Her first full-length animated feature, Shrek, won an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and her second feature, Shark Tale, was nominated for the same award three years later.
Vicky Jenson was gracious enough to stop by The Los Angeles Film School to talk about her career and give us some advice.
LAFS: What was your first job in the industry?
VJ: My first job in the industry was painting backgrounds for Hanna Barbara. For me, it was really exciting to learn how to do something that I loved about a lot of the features that I’d seen – Pinocchio and Bambi, specifically. I was real excited to be able to be a part of that and to see my own work on TV, eventually. And to get a paycheck that to me, at 17, just seemed outrageous.
LAFS: Was there anything about it that discouraged you from a career in Entertainment?
VJ: I’m not sure I was discouraged by much. I don’t think 17-year-olds are. Everything was just new to me. I didn’t take note of how few women there were doing what I was doing. I just thought “Yay! Look at me! I’m special”. A couple of times I did encounter a fellow saying “Wow, you don’t paint like a girl!” and I thought “I’m not sure I know what that means, but thank you?”
LAFS: What was your favorite animated series as a child?
VJ: I think my favorite animated series when I was a kid was Kimba the White Lion. I preferred my animals not in vests and hats and not walking around on two legs like people. I liked them being animals. Kimba was great.
LAFS: What’s your favorite animated series now?
VJ: I’m catching up on old episodes of Adventure Time because I love the humor – it’s just out there. I actually haven’t watched a lot of Saturday morning cartoons in a while.
LAFS: Between He-Man, Ren & Stimpy, Shrek and more; you’ve had a hand in influencing multiple generations. How do people react when they discover you worked on something that meant so much to them as children?
VJ: It’s funny. I think adult parents and their kids both react very excited and positively when they hear about Shrek. The coolest one was when I met my husband. He and his kids had already named their white boxer Fiona, like ten years before I had met any of them. And he had taught his girls to play guitar to the song Hallelujah.
But guys usually get very excited when they realize I worked on Ren & Stimpy and He-Man. I think Ren & Stimpy was probably part of everybody’s college experience, so they get very excited when they hear about that one.
LAFS: What inspired you to start directing?
VJ: I think I got excited about directing when I started working on He-Man. I was storyboarding really for the first time and I was just really excited about being the first one to visualize from the script. It changed the way I looked at movies from then on – all I could see really see was the cuts and the visual storytelling. I would watch a movie twice. I would watch it just to watch it then I would turn the sound off and try to watch how things were put together. I think that’s when I really got interested into pursuing directing. But it wasn’t until a few years later that I really could follow up on that thought.
LAFS: Did you go to school for directing?
VJ: I never went to film school. It’s funny, when I got very excited about trying to direct (I’d done a couple of episodes at Universal Cartoons on a revamp of an old cartoon, Baby Huey, and I had a taste of it on Ren & Stimpy – uncredited) I applied to the AFI directors program for women. Plan B was to apply for Dreamworks because they had just started putting themselves together. So, AFI turned me down and Plan B sort of worked out.
LAFS: What are some of the differences between directing live action and animation?
VJ: Well, to me, there are more similarities than differences. I think on the surface, one takes a lot longer (or can, although these days with CGI movies, it can seem very similar), but because animation has iterations, it has lots of layers, there are lots of departments that follow the work of other departments; the work appears to take a long time; but you’re still chasing deadlines like you do in live action.
Working with actors was very similar, because there’s so much room for the actors to improve and try different things and we animate after the performance anyway. But you have to make all of your decisions really editorially (if that’s a word) in animation before you begin animating. So you’ve pre-edited your movie – you know how long it will be, more or less, before you start animating, and I think that’s one of the biggest differences. Another one I noticed in editorial is you can’t always just hold on a shot, ask the editor “Can you just hold on his face a little longer and then maybe we can make him blink?” And he says “No, because you yelled cut, so we can’t”. So lesson learned, wait ten seconds before calling cut.
LAFS: After Shrek won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, how did it affect your opportunities in the industry?
VJ: Well, a lot of doors opened to me after Shrek won the Oscar – the first academy award for animated movie. I ended up being pursued by agents, which was great, because I had wanted to move into directing other things. I’m not an animator. I love animation but it wasn’t why I was there, it was really all about storytelling and learning new things. So it opened a lot of doors, but I think I was just too inexperienced to know what to do with those opportunities when they arose. I got a lot of scripts, I read a lot of scripts, and I ended up doing another feature at DreamWorks – I did SharkTale there. After I pursued more work and I ended up with a feature and commercials after that.
LAFS: What do you think about when you’re choosing a new project?
VJ: Well, I always look for the quality for the project. Sometimes that wasn’t always there, so other aspects might be something I look for, like to do a job I hadn’t done before or to work with somebody I had always heard about or admired.
In this case, now, I’m writing what I’m going to direct next and that’s something I hadn’t done before. I’d done some writing, as every director does, but nothing from whole cloth. I guess I’m still following my old rule and doing something different.
LAFS: Can you talk about them a little more or are they under wraps?
VJ: One is music-based – it’s more of an indie movie. The other one is a gender-flipped fairytale, loosely based on an old story that I’ve always loved, The Twelve Dancing Princesses – which sounds like a lot of characters, so I’m fixing that aspect of it.
But I’m also pursuing TV episodic directing because, again, it’s something I haven’t done before. Moving that fast seems exciting to me and some of the coolest stuff is happening on TV right now. So, in that regard, I won’t be writing those things, but I think that that skill set could be pretty amazing to add to feature work as I move forward.
LAFS: Is there a specific series you’d like to work on?
VJ: Well, I’m sure that Walking Dead will be done by then, but I’m loving Billions. I love Homeland, and I guess I just kind of like those really complex characters.
LAFS: In 2003, your short film, Family Tree, screened and won awards at multiple film festivals. Many of our students hope to face the festival circuit soon; do you have any advice on how to best handle it?
VJ: I would enter everything when you’re going on the festival circuit. I mean, try to discern the ones that are real, because there are some kind of fake ones out there. And try to talk them out of their fees – they don’t always charge you fees. At least, I found ways to get around that, because it gets expensive. And then when you do get into some of the great ones, try to go to those. Aspen Short Fest was one of the best experiences I think I’ve ever had. I ended up being on the jury a couple of years after being in the festival. And that’s a really rare experience, that place. Just try to enter a lot of them and keep track of which ones are the real deal.
LAFS: What did you look for as a jury member when you were judging these films?
VJ: I looked for originality and clarity of storytelling. I looked for the acting – that the performances were believable and authentic. That’s one of the rare things that a good director can bring is helping the actors deliver something that is believable. In a lot of student films, the acting is sort of a necessary evil for finishing their short, but it shouldn’t be short-handed.
LAFS: What’s the best piece of advice you ever received regarding the industry?
VJ: Ivan Reitman told me to stop editing in the camera. I think with CG movies out there, everybody is storyboarding, everybody understands the power of storyboarding, and coming from animation I always like to storyboard; but just because you think you have it all figured out, doesn’t mean that you do. You need choices when you get into editorial. Things change on the set obviously, but also sometimes your best laid plans don’t necessarily completely work out or there may be something better that has come up and you need to have those choices for you in the edit. So, that was a good one, and the other advice was from a DP who said “Wait ten seconds before you yell cut.”
LAFS: What’s the worst advice you ever received?
VJ: I don’t know that I’ve actually gotten any bad advice, I probably ignored it. But I’d flip it around, and say advice I wish I had heard (even though I probably wouldn’t have listened to it): don’t treat a success as just a foot in the door and then now everything is fine. You have to stay hungry and keep attacking what you want to do. I’ve kind of been on the top of everything and been at the very bottom and just everything changes, so you have to stick to what it is you want to do. Take those successes, but don’t take them to your head.
LAFS: Thank you so much for coming in and talking to us!
VJ: Thanks! I was never really a student here, but I did make my short film with the cooperation of LA Film School and I remember it fondly, so I’m happy to come by any time.
*Responses have been edited for length.