Aaron Long has worked as a director, animator, character designer, and storyboarder on shows such as Bojack Horseman, Greatest Party Story Ever, and Triptank. I became interested in Aaron’s work through watching his original project Sublo & Tangy Mustard, an online series featuring two street mascots for a sub sandwich shop.
How long have you been animating?
As a kid I was always making flipbooks and comics, and later I made stop-motion shorts and tried to scan my drawings to play them back as animation, but it wasn’t until I got a drawing tablet and started using Flash in 2006 that I really got going.
What got you into animation and art in general?
Looney Tunes was always the #1 cartoon for me as a kid–my dad was a big Bugs Bunny fan, so he got me into that stuff pretty early. I also loved Ren & Stimpy, Sonic the Hedgehog, The Simpsons, Peanuts and too many others to list. I had this documentary from the 70’s called Bugs Bunny Superstar which showed a bit of how the old cartoons were made, and by the time I was about seven years old I knew that was what I wanted to do. Then as I got older I was really inspired by some of the weirder anime directors like Masaaki Yuasa, Rin Taro and Mamoru Oshii.
What was the inspiration for Sublo and Tangy Mustard?
When I did my previous cartoon Fester Fish, each episode took me a long time to make, and it was kind of hard to write because there wasn’t a consistent setting or story. Each episode felt like starting from scratch. I wanted my next project to have a more consistent, deliberate setup to make it easier to generate story ideas and produce episodes faster. Sublo and Tangy Mustard was meant to be something simple I could crank out quickly, although I’ve gotten more ambitious with it since the beginning. I’d also read some interesting analyses of Cowboy Bebop about how that show builds up a rich narrative through mundane repetition, which seemed like an interesting approach to try.
I’m from Toronto, but I moved to Los Angeles for work in 2013 and immediately felt homesick. I wanted to make a cartoon that was a love letter to Toronto, to keep me connected to home. You probably couldn’t tell that from the show so far, but upcoming episodes I’m working on are more Toronto-specific.
And the mascot costume idea probably comes from living near Hollywood & Highland, where you always see people in ratty-looking full-body costumes of cartoon characters for tourists to take pictures with. Occasionally I’ll be walking down a quiet residential street and pass a guy dressed as Thor or Spider-Man all alone on their way to work, and they look so ridiculous and awkward in that context. So I thought that might be a funny occupation. And I used to eat Mr. Sub and Subway all the time, so a sub shop was a location I was familiar with.
How do you evaluate the quality of the work you put out?
I’m pretty self-critical during the script-writing phase. I try to weed out weak ideas at that stage, since animation is so labour-intensive and it’s hard to spend a long time on a story I’m not really excited about. In general I’m proud of the show, although the first two episodes are pretty clumsy.
What’s your working environment like?
I do the show at home with a typical animator setup– a desk with a Cintiq (and a second monitor I rarely use), a few books and a cup of tea.
Walk me through a typical day for you.
I usually get up around 7am and work for a couple of hours. I try to do the more challenging or creative tasks in the morning before going to my day job. I get home around 7:30 or 8 in the evening, eat a quick dinner and try to keep working for as long as I can. By that point in the day I’m mentally and physically tired of drawing at the computer, so that’s when I do the more mechanical, simple stuff like in-betweening, cleanup or colouring. And on my days off I usually get about 4-5 hours of work in.
Do you ever throw away material?
I’ve scrapped two Sublo & Tangy Mustard episodes that were written and recorded before I decided they weren’t working, and a few others didn’t make it beyond the script stage. I’ve also started animating past projects before abandoning them.
What are your dream projects, the sort of things you would take on if you had infinite time and resources?
Sublo and Tangy Mustard is my current dream project! Once I have an idea for a different project I want to do more, I’ll probably focus on that but for now this is it. Obviously I’d love to have a full crew and get paid to make the show– but doing it all myself this way without restrictions is fun too, and way faster than pitching it in the industry and waiting years before it might or might not get made… I’m very impatient.
What are some things you’ve learned from working in this medium?
With my shorts, I’ve learned that people respond more to visual humour, but I find it harder to write than jokes that are dialogue- or idea-based.
There’s this idea in classical Disney-style animation that you’re not supposed to let the audience see “the animator’s hand.” That means they shouldn’t see any inconsistencies or be aware that somebody actually drew this thing they’re watching. It’s crazy to me, because the stuff I like best is always the stuff where you can see the humanity and imperfections, and that makes it richer and more enjoyable– where you can tell one animator’s style apart from another, and the lines aren’t perfectly clean and smooth because a human actually drew them. You never hear anybody argue that being able to see brush-strokes in a painting makes it a bad painting! And obviously you can work faster if you’re not trying to make every frame perfect. So basically I’ve learned not to be a perfectionist, for creative and practical reasons.
To me, a lot of the animation industry seems like style over substance. With other art forms like music, you learn the technique so that eventually you can just play a melody without consciously moving your fingers to hit the right notes – so the ideas can just flow directly from your brain. But the process of animated film-making is so complicated that often people don’t get past the craft/technique. There are lots of animated films with nice visuals, but too often they just tell the same stories in the same ways over and over. The best work is where people combine solid storytelling/animation ability with a specific point of view. Masaaki Yuasa is my hero in that respect– he’s brilliant at the craft of animation, but also has such a powerful, unique voice. And maybe a more commercial example would be Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who are really successful but always bring a distinct tone and energy to their work.
On a related note, it’s important for people to look beyond the most obvious influences. It feels like most people who make cartoons only ever look at other cartoons for inspiration, and even then they’re mostly just watching recent American stuff. Animation is very creatively inbred… But maybe every art form feels like that from the inside? I like looking at other mediums because they’re all dominated by different values and philosophies, which can apply to each other. Recently I read a book of interviews with an orchestra conductor, and a book on wabi-sabi and found a lot of ideas in them that also totally apply to animation.
What advice would you have for an aspiring animator, particularly a kid?
You learn and improve by doing. Don’t wait for somebody to give you the opportunity to make your own stuff, just start doing it yourself. It doesn’t have to be good in the beginning (it almost definitely won’t be) but you’ll learn more by making a cartoon than by dreaming about it. And animation takes a long time, so get started as soon as possible!
Aaron was kind enough to provide a number of behind-the-scenes sketches for this interview. I could only fit a few in the article above, but they’re all delightful: