Algonquin College’s one-on-one interview with Jerry Popowich

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June 1st, 2015 – Executive and Animator Jerry Popowich is the co-founder of one of Ottawa’s largest and most successful animation companies, Mercury Filmworks. His credits include The Simpsons, Woody Woodpecker, Mickey Mouse, Stella and Sam, Anthony Ant and the preschool hit Toot & Puddle. His work has garnered two Emmy awards—for Toot & Puddle and Mickey Mouse—as well as a Daytime Emmy nomination for Stella and Sam.


“Mercury Filmworks is one of the busiest studios, even in 2008 when the market struggled,” he says. “We’ve proven ourselves to be a reliable supplier of quality work to giants like Disney. They love our working relationship: we’re honest, we’re up front, we deliver what we say we’ll deliver. It’s a model that anyone who comes here will take with them when they go.”


Today, Popowich produces work for major studio clients including Disney and Dreamworks. His is a passionate advocate for the craft of drawing and has helped launch the careers of hundreds of animators through his studio.


1. How did Algonquin College contribute to your career?

The Animation program was real eye opener. Coming from a small town high school where I stood out as a pretty good draftsman, I suddenly found myself surrounded by a classroom full of talented artists and I quickly realized it would take hard work to stand out.


There are a lot of different avenues you can take in the animation industry and the program gave me the opportunity to try them all. I got the chance to find out where my strengths were and where I needed to improve to be competitive in a very competitive field.


2. What is the best career advice you ever received?


I think the best advice I ever received was to always try to better yourself as an artist and be open to learning as many different skill sets in the industry as you can. It’s important to never turn down an opportunity to improve on your skills, and never be afraid to put yourself out there.


If you don’t get a position the first time, find out why, look for help and work hard to better that skill. I found that through my early years in the industry that this was the best way to move up, and I think it works in almost any industry. Skill doesn’t always win out. A willingness to listen and learn from the people around you will almost always help you move further in your career. Especially early on.


3. What do you know now that you wish you had known when you were younger?


I wish I knew that you can make a career out of drawing cartoons. I mean I always thought you could – obviously someone made the cartoons I watched every Saturday morning. But as I was graduating high school, I remember saying to the school counselor that I’d like to be a cartoonist or animator. He said he didn’t know of post-secondary programs or careers in that field and, considering my grades, I should probably look for work at the local paper mill. So, that’s where I spent the next eight years. Little did I know I was making the paper I would eventually use for drawing.


4. What is the greatest change you have seen in the animation community since graduation?


The biggest change in the industry since I graduated has definitely been the digital era. There is a profound difference in how animation is produced today. When I graduated it was still the old school method of drawing on paper and flipping the sheets back and forth to see the illusion of movement. You’d be working in a studio hearing paper rustling back and forth pencil sharpeners humming, it is a sound I still miss.


Today you walk around a studio and mostly hear the clicking of many a mouse. The best part about doing things digitally though, is the amount of time it takes for you to see your completed animation. You don’t have to clean up the character or wait for it to come back from the cell painting department only to wait longer for it to be shot on pegs with a camera. Now, you can sit back and enjoy your final product as soon as you’re done.


Digitalization has also been great for animators in Canada as it has made us more competitive budget-wise with the overseas studios – up until the late 90s most animation production was being shipped overseas. Doing things digitally allows us to not only keep design and story boarding in Canada, but animation as well.


5. What advice would you give to a recent graduate?


Be as diverse as you can. There are many opportunities in a studio but animation is still an industry that at times can be up and down. The more skills you are versed in the more opportunities you will have as a studio shifts from production to production.


6. Is there a book you would recommend reading to focus on goals and aspirations?


Whenever I have spare time, I love digging through any of the “Art of” books, for example The Art of Tangled, The Art of How to Train a Dragon. I’ll grab any that are based on an animated feature film. They are filled with inspiring conceptual art that helps get the creative juices flowing and you get little blurbs from the artist on the techniques and thought process behind their designs and boards that are also inspiring.


7. In your spare time you like to…?


Mostly I love hanging out with my wife and kids, and sometimes our three cats. I also play hockey and a little golf in the summer. Even though I have a great creative work environment, I still love sculpting and coming up with children book ideas. And the best part is no one revising them – I can do what I want!


8. Algonquin in one word?




Not only has Algonquin College given me the opportunity to see my dream job come true, but many others as well. I’ve seen our studio hire many Algonquin grads and I’ve watched them achieve their goals. Over the years I’ve worked with and met a ton of Algonquin Alumni with very different careers. There are so many avenues that opened for me after graduating and I’m really so thankful that they decided to open an Animation program back in 1989.

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