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Bridging The Gap In Animation With Dan Shefelman

Dan Shefelman, founder of Mud Pie Labs, discusses hiring animators at his new studio, Mud Pie Labs.
Dan Shefelman, founder of Mud Pie Labs

Following a successful collaboration on animated short, Frog Legs, we had a moment to sit down (via phone call) with veteran animator, Dan Shefelman. Check out his interview below on the project, hiring in animation, and his new studio, Mud Pie Labs.

You led the team on Frog Legs – what inspired that project?

The intern program at The Animation Project (TAP) had already created a version of Frog Legs by the time I came on board. They do a 12 – 14 week workshop where the interns learn specific skills. In this workshop, they were learning a little of everything. Modeling, animation, short film. When I was hired as Creative Director, I saw the original project at a screening. I said, “Let’s take that concept and make it shorter. We can have experts and interns work on it together.” It’s a fun play on cat and mouse with the chef chasing a frog. I wanted to push the limits of what TAP was already doing and get some professional sound and music in there to elevate it.

How did you assign tasks to your interns?

We looked at the group working on the original. There was a limited budget. We could have three animators and one texture artist. We picked the people who had the best sense of movement and who were most dedicated to the original project.

What was the biggest hurdle on Frog Legs?

We wanted to break the fourth wall at the end with the frog leaping out of the computer screen. That was tricky. We had to think about lighting and angles one might use in film to make an animated character look like it’s in a real environment.

It was a company-wide project for us at Flavorlab as TAP needed sound and music. What were your guidelines for our team on sound?

I initially did my own pass with sound for the film. When I sent it to the Flavorlab team, my guidelines were fun and cartoony. I definitely got more than I asked for. You guys added voices and extra sound design. I knew a good mix and good soundtrack would polish up the project and it did.

You’re starting a new company, Mud Pie Labs, tell me about that.

Our mission is to be a full service professional animation studio with a more inclusive hiring and promotional system. At most of the places I’ve worked, the team tries, but it’s difficult to train and teach interns and new hires during the middle of production on a project. Often, they don’t get adequate attention. Our goal is for our new hires to start as mentees with an expert on a project.

What inspired you to start Mud Pie?

I’ve been back and forth between freelance and studio jobs. I’ve worked in a lot of studios and I’ve seen the whole spectrum of efficiency. Initially, I decided I’d like to have myself to blame for how the company runs, how people get hired, how projects go. Beyond that, I wanted to feel there’s something bigger than me. I like pushing other people into the spotlight. I’m a professor so I love collaborating with raw talent and being there to pull the best work out of other people.

Why did you name the company Mud Pie?

My wife is a branding expert so she helped me. One day, we were throwing around words. She said “mud” and as soon as I hear mud, I hear pie. I’d make mud pies when I was a kid at my grandmother’s house. To me it represents playing and getting messy, but much like animation, making a mudpie is creating something to look and behave like something real.

Our logo is a drawing I did at age 7 of a cardinal. There were always cardinals hanging around my grandmother’s house and the image felt cheerful, confident, and playful.

How will you navigate projects with this expert/mentee relationship?

I’ve met a number of young animators throughout my career, especially at TAP. For every project we get, we’ll put in a budget line for an experienced animator and two less experienced animators. We’ll hire everyone by project and as they work, everyone will level up. They’ll learn new skills and we can hire them up and out to other projects. In the beginning, we’ll be shooting for industrials: In-house corporate work, prep for other studios. We’ll operate as more of a training studio at first to allow for a margin of error and fold in more commercial work as we grow.

What do you think the biggest obstacle for young animators is in breaking into the work force?

The bridge animators are provided into a studio atmosphere. Even after 4 year animation school, it’s a big obstacle to break into a professional studio. Part of that is no one is asked to do anything they don’t already know how to do. However, we’re all learning all the time. All of us. Expert animators have to learn new softwares for projects just like those starting out do. Years ago, if you didn’t work in Maya, let’s say, you’d have to train for 3 months. Now, we have YouTube and online tutorials. If you have to start a project in two weeks using something you don’t know yet, you have to get on the tutorials. People will learn when they have to. If you create an environment where there’s a bridge to more work, people will cross it.

What’s next for Mud Pie Labs?

We’re currently working on a virtual 3D website for our rep, Blah Blah Blah. Users will be able to fly around from one office to the other and view their various reels. That’s our most immediate project and we’re looking forward to rolling out even more!

More on Dan:

Dan Shefelman is a creative director and professor with extensive experience creating visual stories across multiple platforms including television, film & online. In May of 2020 Shefelman founded Mud Pie Labs, a new kind of gaming and animation studio that pairs experts with local emerging talent to work on client content.

As Creative Director of The Animation Project (TAP), he led TAP Studio — an animation production house which draws talent from TAP’s therapeutic workforce development program. A professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology School of Art & Design in NYC, Shefelman runs the Visual Storytelling program and is currently developing an online Gaming & Animation certificate program. As a story artist and writer, Shefelman worked at Blue Sky Studios on animated features including Ice Age (first two features), Robots & Epic. He co-wrote the Oscar nominated animated short Gone Nutty. Previously he was designer and story artist on MTV’s first two features — Joe’s Apartment and Beavis and Butt-Head do America.

In television, Shefelman was story artist and designer on shows including MTV’s Beavis and Butt-Head and Celebrity Deathmatch, Nickelodeon’s Doug, Adult Swim’s Venture Brothers, Fox TV’s King of the Hill and Cartoon Network’s Robotomy. Shefelman has held key roles in story and visual development for Oriental Dreamworks, Disney Television Animation, Digimax Studios (Taiwan), DQ Entertainment (India), Nickelodeon and MTV Animation. His editorial cartoons have appeared on CNN, Newsday, The New York Times and syndicated to publications worldwide.

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