Meet this singular animation director at Nickelodeon, having the time of his life as he conducts the teams that bring characters to life on the screen.
A typical day for Gary Conrad, animation director at Nickelodeon, is a lot like a scene out of “The West Wing.” The intense nature of the White House staff resembles how his animation teams work. He makes one critical distinguishing point. “In the drama series everything is amplified, and well, it is supposed to be the White House!”
He laughs, and gets down to the “serious” job of describing what it’s like to direct the teams that make some of Nickelodeon’s top rated shows like “Dora the Explorer,” “Danny Phantom,” and “The Fairly Odd Parents.”
“There’s always so much involved in the development,” he said. “Over 200 hundred people come together to add ingredients and co-create as a cohesive whole.
“Essentially, I direct the animators,” he said, describing them as actors with pencils. “We’re so involved in the creation — that’s the part I love.”
What Gary doesn’t usually get to experience is the audience’s reaction to the finished product. And as such, it’s almost “out of sight, out of mind” once it airs on television. When he’s at one of his favorite L.A. dining spots like Lolas, or Musso and Frank, and people stop to say how much they like one of his shows, Gary is surprised, “I’m like, oh, that’s right, it’s on TV!”
One of Gary’s animation projects at Nickelodeon is “Robot and Monster.”
“Robot and Monster are best friends and roommates in a world of robots and monsters,” Gary said. “Monster is perpetually cheerful, optimistic and upbeat … Robot, uh, less so. They are sort of the ‘odd couple’ of the robot and monster world. Hard to describe, but it’s a very funny show.”
Creating and manifesting stories has been a lifelong passion for Gary. Since the age of three, his visions have become reality with mediums as diverse as puppets, magic, drawing, Claymation, and even flipbooks. At 13, his father gave him a Super 8 camera, and Gary’s passion for story telling ignited.
“I used to do Super 8 movies as a teenager, and loved it, loved it, loved it,” he said. But growing up in Kentucky, he didn’t have any mentors or kindred souls to share ideas with. He said he felt like a conspicuous square peg — different from the kids in his class who had more conventional teenage interests.
Surrounded by a family of bankers, lawyers, doctors, and teachers, he graduated high school thinking: “Oh my God, what will I do for a living?” Thankfully, a teacher at North Kentucky University recognized Gary’s talent and urged: “Go west young man. That’s where the film schools and jobs are.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Gary entered the CalArts Animation program founded by Walt Disney, and was mentored by a faculty comprised of original Disney animators. “That was a thrill beyond belief,” he said.
There was also the culture shock of a 20-year-old Kentuckian landing in one of the most progressive campuses in the U.S.
“Imagine 800 Bohemians, in an anything goes environment,” Gary recalled. “Everyone was there for the passion of creating art. We were square pegs from all over. The feeling of camaraderie was a beautiful thing. So was the swimsuit optional swimming pool. The one and only rule on campus was ‘just respect one another.’ It worked.”
Gary’s early fascination with storytelling and his leap of faith to leave Kentucky was richly rewarded: “Every day is a joy and a thrill,” he said, “To make films in this environment — in the great lifestyle of California.”
After 29 years as a successful, award-nominated animation director, Gary devotes much of his leisure time to documentary filmmaking. With that, the thrill of screening his first documentary at film festivals where sitting among an audience that is watching his “baby” is an entirely new experience.
“It must be like watching your children up there on the stage,” he said. “You’re there in the audience, and there’s nothing you can do about it. You just have to watch it unfold. Then, of course, you actually have to speak to the audience. Thankfully, it got a good response.”
Gary is passionate about stories — in books, films, TV (and life) — and said what he loves best is the exploration of the characters.
One of his favorite TV characters was from the ground-breaking TV show from the 1970s: “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” where the protagonist was a dynamic single professional woman in a fast-paced work environment, very much a romantic, but not requiring a relationship or marriage as a prerequisite for a happy life.
Gary recalls his reaction at the age of 17: “They deliberately didn’t marry her off on the last episode, and I remember thinking at the time, ‘That’s so wonderful because that would have been the wrong message to send. Thank you for not doing that!’”
That right message has been a key component of his life’s compass. He elaborates: “I’ve always felt happy and whole whether coupled, single, or anything in between … to me, that’s what it means to be ‘singular.’
That outlook extends to another one of Gary’s passions in life — world travel. Every year, he sets aside at least two weeks for a global adventure. He’s explored the environs of places like Paris, Greece, Rome, Ireland, Martha’s Vineyard, and up next: London. His enthusiasm for the journey is ebullient — while traveling solo — or with a romantic partner.
He said he found out about Singular magazine when he read an article about it in the Los Angeles Times, then raced to the newsstand to buy a copy and subscribed.
“Bravo to Singular for creating a magazine that celebrates the single experience. Being singular doesn’t mean being anti-marriage, anti-relationship, or even pushing singlehood as a lifestyle … it’s just an acknowledgment that being content, fulfilled people is available to all of us, regardless of our relationship status.”
Gary said he’s been blessed with some wonderful relationships, and like everyone, some less-than wonderful relationships.
“I’ve learned from all of them, and I’m a better person for all those experiences,” he said. “I’ve always been open to everything and attached to nothing. I’m single, I love my life, always have, always will … and I wish the same for everyone.”
Copyright © Leslie Gainer/2010 Singular Communications, LLC.