Aaron Augenblick literally can’t remember a time when he wasn’t animating—from drawing cartoons as a child to some of the earliest computer animation in the 1980s to, eventually, founding Augenblick Studios, an indie animation company that has worked on shows for Adult Swim, Comedy Central, Netflix, and beyond.
“When someone can give [me] a performance or a voice that makes me say, ‘Wow, I don’t know if I’ve heard that before,’ that’s mind-blowing.”
Before we get into your work today, I want to ask: How did you first get into animation?
The quick answer is: I’ve always drawn. I literally can’t remember a time when I wasn’t drawing. Obviously, when I was a kid, it was crayons and chalk. And then I was honestly animating before I was out of high school. I started with claymation, and then that graduated into computer animation. I was lucky enough that my dad was a computer programmer, so I was one of the first people on my block—this would have been the late ’80s—to have [my] own personal computer. There were very early animation programs that I was messing around with, so by the time I graduated high school, I already had sort of created my own animated series. I was just obsessed with animation. I loved watching cartoons; things like “Sesame Street” and “Looney Tunes” were the most important thing to me. By the time I applied to [the School of Visual Arts] and I showed them I had my own little series, they were pretty blown away. I hit the ground running, and I was always just in love with animation and in love with doing it. I literally don’t remember a time when I didn’t consider myself a cartoonist.
Tell me about Augenblick Studios. What was the impetus for its founding?
We opened our studio in 1999. I’d graduated from SVA, and my first job was at MTV animation, because they had seen my thesis film and liked it. This was at a time when there was [an] MTV animation headquarters in Manhattan, and there were hundreds of employees making shows like “Daria” and “Beavis and Butt-Head” and “Celebrity Deathmatch.” I worked there for a little over a year and pretty quickly realized that working directly for a large corporation was not really where I wanted to be. So I essentially absorbed everything I could and learned a lot of really important lessons from every stage of the process, and hopped around as much as I could. I kept bugging them, like, “I want to try doing layout; I want to try storyboards, do design.” By the end, I was directing episodes of “Daria.” I felt like I had this intensive year of research on how animation gets made. So by the time I opened my studio in 1999—which was a 400-square-foot office in Dumbo, Brooklyn, I had a pretty good idea of how I felt like I could make animation that was really high-quality that was also very creatively individualistic. I wanted to make animation where all the artists who worked on the show could have a creative say in what they were working on, and it wouldn’t be, like, a faceless machine that was just producing this work, which was kind of how the industry was going. I wanted to approach my animation like we were an indie film studio and approach every project on its own merit.
What kind of animation would you say your studio specializes in today?
We’ve tended to do a lot of adult animation. I try not to limit myself by ever analyzing my own brand too deeply, but I would say you could define my studio mainly by our influences, which tend to be underground comics. I’m a big fan of comics, specifically underground and indie comics, and classic cartoons. Early Disney is also a big influence. Just in general, we’re an independent studio. We always have been. And we’ve always been able to gravitate toward the most creatively exciting ideas. We never wanted to be just a tier production house, where we’d be, like, creating commercials. We’ve always chosen to do the shows that we felt like we could have a new creative adventure with. Could we have become a much larger company by chasing more commercial projects? That’s probably true. But I’m an animator, I’ve always been an artist, and I view my company as a creative-led studio. We always lead with what we’re trying to do creatively over what we’re trying to accomplish on the business side. The fact that we can continue to do really exciting projects that tend to be a little bit left-of-center is our greatest accomplishment.
“We always lead with what we’re trying to do creatively over what we’re trying to accomplish on the business side.”
How do you go about finding projects for your team to work on? Do projects come to you, or do you go after certain things?
It’s both. From the very beginning, we were always doing work for-hire, and then also our own development. It’s been sort of 50-50; we always produce our own projects, whether they’re independent films that go into festivals or developing our own shows. And then, on the side, we’re also taking on work that we feel creatively connected to. The two feed each other, because a lot of the best jobs I’ve had happened because people saw our independent projects and would say, “I saw this thing you did at Sundance. I’d love to do a show that looks like that.” So what ends up happening is that the jobs that we get that are for-hire tend to be within our wheelhouse, because they’re based on the things that people have seen us do before. We’ve created our own little ecosystem based on the fact we have an identifiable brand that people are familiar with. And that feeds the future projects people come to us with—projects that they feel we would do really well at.
Given your expertise in animation, what, to you, generally makes for a compelling voice acting performance?
I always love it when an actor surprises me. And I like when actors really think about the character they’re performing and internalize it and experiment. When you have actors who are jaded, they’ve been doing it forever, and they just come in and crank it out and go, “OK, how do you want this? OK, done. Goodbye. I’m gonna go get lunch,” that’s always a bummer. But I’ll always give them the concept, what we’re looking for—“This is what’s happening in the scene; this is the character’s motivation”—and they’ll do something. And then I’ll say, “Wow, that was great. Let’s move on.” And sometimes they’ll say, “Actually, can I stick with that for a second? Can I try something different?” I’m always down for that. There are some actors I work with—they like to play. They like to experiment. They like to have fun with what they’re doing. They don’t see it as just a job that needs to get done. To me, that’s always the most exciting moment.
How do you find and cast voice actors?
I’m always on the lookout for new voices. Often, what happens is a lot of voice actors will launch from an impression or an influence from a voice that they’ve heard, which is also very exciting. But it’s like, there’s only so many times you can hear someone do Robert De Niro or Christopher Walken. At some point, it just becomes repetitive, and it’s not that interesting anymore. When someone can give [me] a performance or a voice that makes me say, “Wow, I don’t know if I’ve heard that before,” that’s mind-blowing. I would encourage any actors to really dig deep and experiment and find new voices. We want to hear new characters. The first time we heard Homer Simpson, we had never heard a voice like that. It was such a strange performance [Dan Castellaneta] was doing, and it obviously evolved over time, but it was a groundbreaking way to [do] voice animation. That’s what we want. I want the new Homer Simpson. Who [are] the new “South Park” voices? Who [are] the new “Simpsons” voices? That’s what I’m always looking out for.
What advice would you offer someone who wants to break into animation on the creative side?
The best [advice] is: Represent yourself really well online and on social media. I find most of my people these days on Instagram and Twitter. It’s a great place to see new talent, and anyone can do it. Just make a lot of animation, make a lot of drawings, make a lot of looping GIFs—whatever. As long as it looks great, it’s going to get seen, and there’s no better platform than social media to just put things out there. Honestly, it’s all just doing the work, making your work look as dynamic and as exciting as possible, and then putting it out there to get seen, for sure. I tend to get a lot more people from social media than cold emails. There was a time when cold emails were the thing to do: “Hey, you should check out my portfolio,” whatever. But I’m much more likely to look at someone’s Instagram page than I am to click on a link in an email.
This story originally appeared in the April 1 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.
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