Commuting the Pacific, Unseating 'The Simpsons'
By Ted Loos
Gregg Vanzo won his first Emmy award this year, the payoff for 15 years of serious "pencil mileage," the grueling hours required to make drawings come alive.
But on the September night when "Futurama" toppled the perennial winner, "The Simpsons," for outstanding animated program, Mr. Vanzo was nowhere near the Shrine Auditorium. He was almost 6,000 miles away in Seoul, South Korea, where he lives and works much of the time these days.
"It was too bad that I missed it," said Mr. Vanzo, a partner in Rough Draft Studios, which animates "Futurama." He was on a working visit to Rough Draft's offices here a month after the awards. "But I'm not a big guy for fame," he added. "As long as we can keep the phone ringing, it's O.K. with me."
Eleven years after Mr. Vanzo founded Rough Draft Studios in his garage in Van Nuys, he and his partners — two of whom did pick up their Emmy statuettes that night — have turned it into a highly respected animation
company known for richly detailed work and technical innovation. But Mr. Vanzo's own time has increasingly been spent in Seoul, where his wife, Nikki Vanzo, a Korean native, founded and runs Rough Draft Korea. That company, with 500 employees one of the largest privately owned animation firms in the country, works on more than a few of today's most popular and critically respected animated series, including "Futurama," "The Simpsons," "SpongeBob SquarePants
," "Dexter's Laboratory
" and "The Power Puff Girls."
As David Cohen, the executive producer of "Futurama," put it, "They have a real family affair going over there."
The two Rough Drafts are separate companies, but they work together frequently. On "Futurama," the space-based comedy that begins its fourth season tonight on Fox, Rough Draft Studios in Glendale does the storyboards, layouts and designs and then ships the materials to South Korea for the labor-intensive finishing work that is traditionally done overseas.
That fractured process is typical in animation, though only a few television shows can afford to have the first stages done in the United States, where labor costs are higher.
The linchpin of this Pacific pairing is the unassuming Mr. Vanzo, 41, an unlikely jet-set mogul. He speaks only what he calls "taxi Korean," and when in Glendale he prefers to eat lunch every day at Quizno's, the submarine sandwich chain.
"He's pretty much the lowest-profile head of a company you'll find," said Claudia Katz, president of Rough Draft Studios. "He draws, and that's what he loves to do."
While in Seoul, Mr. Vanzo animates projects for Rough Draft Studios and, when needed, facilitates cultural translation between the two companies. "People have criticized me for being too hands-on," he said during a break from drawing part of a Warner Brothers theatrical short. "But animating is where I'm happiest. I'm not a great
communicator, and I don't like meetings and schmoozing."
By all accounts, he has a classic animator's personality. "Gregg is very soft-spoken, almost taciturn," said Matt Groening, the creator of "Futurama" and "The Simpsons." "But he delivers the goods over and over again."
Rough Draft Studios almost didn't get the chance to deliver the goods on "Futurama." Though respected in the industry for smaller projects, like "The Maxx" for MTV in 1995, Mr. Vanzo and his partners had never done a prime-time network series. Primary animation on "The Simpsons" is done by Film Roman, a publicly held Los Angeles company.
"We had a lot of pressure from Fox to go with a known quantity," Mr. Cohen said. "And on the other hand we had this small studio that really had something to prove."
Mr. Groening recalled the unanimous advice of industry executives: "Anybody but Rough Draft."
"As one of them told me, `The inmates are running the asylum over there,' " he said. "He meant that it was a company started by animators, rather than by businessmen who are beating up animators." Rough Draft's offices reinforce that impression: a large set of bleachers, the kind found in high school gyms, dominates the conference room.
But Mr. Groening and Mr. Cohen were soon pleased with their decision, and even Fox came around when they saw the finished product.
"It's just so lovingly done," Mr. Cohen said. "They have gone far beyond what I could have hoped for."
Part of Rough Draft's achievement is technical. Some episodes of "Futurama" have hit a "cel count" of 50,000 drawings; even in a prime-time series, the normal range is 20,000 to 25,000.
The show also began at a time when three-dimensional computer animation had just become affordable for series television. It blends the newer technology, overseen by Mr. Vanzo's brother, Scott, with traditional two-dimensional animation.
"There are times when I'm not sure if I'm looking at a 3-D model or a drawing," Mr. Cohen said.
The episode that won the Emmy, he said, demonstrated how Rough Draft improved the show's dramatic content as well. In one scene the character Leela absent-mindedly picks up a salt shaker and starts rolling it around in her hand, a move contributed by Rich Moore, a Rough Draft partner.
"When I saw that scene I said: `That's not a cartoon character. That's a real person,' " Mr. Cohen recalled. "That's the kind of thing you can't write in a script."
Mr. Vanzo, who was born in Webster, N.Y., studied illustration at Syracuse University and animation at Cal Arts. One of his first jobs in the industry was as an animator for Marvel Comics, working on a television show based on the toy My Little Pony. "I was the only one who could draw the ugly pony," Mr. Vanzo said.
Sent to Korea by Marvel to supervise work on a feature film, he met Ms. Vanzo, now 41. She was an animation checker, someone who scrutinized final drawings for errors. It was a case of opposites attracting — Ms. Vanzo takes to the spotlight and to the task of managing a large company. "He is just so different from me," she said on the phone from her office in Seoul. "But it's a nice balance."
After they were married, the couple moved to Los Angeles for three years. Mr. Vanzo helped found Rough Draft Studios, and Ms. Vanzo worked as a checker for "Ren & Stimpy," created by John Kricfalusi
. "One day I went to John and said, `Why don't I take this stuff to Korea, and Gregg and I can do a better job,' " Ms. Vanzo said. "That's how it started."
Now Ms. Vanzo is something of a celebrity in a country where there are few female chief executives. A recent Korean television documentary re-enacted moments from her life, including Mr. Vanzo's first meeting with her extended family.
Mr. Vanzo and his partners at Rough Draft Studios have been focusing on theatrical shorts and a pilot for Cartoon Network
, "Fungus Among Us." Work for this season of "Futurama" is over and Fox has not decided whether to renew the show.
The Glendale office, which at its height had 130 people, mostly devoted to "Futurama," is now down to 30 as they await word. "It's sad to see people go, and annoying because we'll just have to restaff again if the show comes back," Mr. Vanzo said. "But that's just the way the animation business is."
In truth, he does not seem to mind the journeyman aspect of his career, which has taken him farther, geographically and artistically, than he could have imagined.
"I think that I'm more of a craftsman," Mr. Vanzo said. "My grandfather was a stone mason in upstate New York who built these beautiful houses. He was not a guy looking for a lot of appreciation, but who did his best and enjoyed the project. And then he moved on to the next one."