Conversation with a Creative
Media Arts Assistant Professor Rodrigo Gomez released a book, Milly & Roots, The Headscarf, late last year. He wrote, designed and illustrated the children’s book. As you will see, Rodrigo is in the midst of an extremely creative period, with several projects in the works. After more than seven years of working and waiting, he and several partners also received a patent on something mysterious. He could tell you what it is, but then he would have to kill you, and we wouldn’t have anyone to cover your classes.
Rodrigo, a Colombian native, worked for over 14 years for Mattel/Fisher-Price as a producer and director of animated cartoons for children, corporate videos and commercials. Rodrigo holds a bachelor’s degree in graphic design from the National University of Colombia and a master’s degree in computer animation from the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York. He has taught in multiple colleges in Colombia and the United States. He is married with two children, and he is also a not so serious soccer fan.
He spoke with Beverly Keel about his book, patent and other projects.
Tell us about your new book, which you wrote and illustrated. How and when did you create the characters? How long did it take to write it?
Milly & Roots, The Headscarf is a project that took two years in the making. I created the beginning story, the whole property as a series, and the character personalities in the Winter/Spring of 2018. The concept connects with my own experience as an immigrant. I want to offer a perspective of the immigrant and all the things that are foreign from the perspective of the non-migrant. Most of my professional work in animation is for children, and in a time of divisiveness, massive migration around the world, and messages of rejection, I wanted to create a story to plant in the hearts of children the seeds of acceptance and respect for others, especially those who are different from them. The writing of the book took about eight months. It isn’t long; it took that long because of my limited time. I had the wonderful support of a veteran star of the animation industry, and Emmy award winner for Winnie the Pooh original series, Karl Geurs, who helped me with the story and the way of telling it. Added to that, I worked with a great professional specialized in content for preschoolers Kathleen Alfano Ph.D., and my good friend and editor Maureen Purcell. I will have a launching event, free to families with children, on Feb. 9 at 2 p.m. at the Technology Engagement Center, 306 Minerva Dr. in Murfreesboro. https://www.millyandroots.com/
Your new book actually was part of a bigger plan to launch the idea for a TV series. Why did you do the book first? What are your goals for a TV series?
Milly & Roots is intended to be an animated series that teaches children acceptance and respect for others by exposing them to cultural influences from around the world. It features in each story a different issue Milly and her friends may discover in her world, including The Headscarf, Sushi, The Kid Who Doesn’t Speak English, Tattoos, Amish People, The Hugger, Your Food Smells Funny, Day of the Dead, Hare Krishna, The Color of Your Skin, Was the Hotdog Foreign? Purple Carrots and many more. I had the idea and a pitch bible ready in 2018, but having just that is not enough to get a big network to pay attention to your pitch. After having conversations with experts and friends from the industry, I decided to start getting the story out to the public through a book and an animated episode. The book is out, and I am very close to finishing The Headscarf animated episode to launch it in the animation festival circuit in 2020. After that, I plan to go and pitch to as many networks a possible in 2021. It is important to mention that I had help from a group on our animation students with the modeling and texturing of characters to 3D. They also helped me with some of the animation used in the episode.
How did you get into digital animation?
I graduated from the National University of Colombia as a Graphic Designer. I was very fortunate of having a successful design studio back in Colombia in the 90s, serving multiple important clients, including Unicef, the Colombian government, Bayern Colombia, Lilly, 3M, the Colombian central bank, etc. When I saw the first Toy Story movie, I knew I had to do that. I put a plan together, including learning a new language, applying for a scholarship, selling all my possessions, leaving my business, and going to study a master’s in computer animation at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, NY. Before graduating from RIT, I was already working as an intern with Fisher-Price Inc. in Buffalo, NY.
How has your job evolved the years as technology has changed?
The job has evolved tremendously. Computers are more powerful, and for that reason, the job gets much more complex every day. Because the hardware and software are more powerful, the fields of specialization get deeper. Today we find animated media everywhere, and the public simply takes it as part of their daily life. If we want to be successful, we need to keep updating ourselves every day, and at the same time use the technology to be creative and produce new meaningful stories.
What skills are necessary?
Being visually artistic is an important skill, but the main skill is your desire to tell stories and to be creative. To try with every project to be a bit better than the previous one, and to never think that you have arrived. There is always a chance to do things better.
Tell me about the VR short you are doing with Prof. Rick Lewis. I understand it was inspired by your childhood visits to the office building where your father worked as a security guard.
Professor Rick Lewis and I wanted to create a Virtual Reality animated short to help push that field of work in our program. We invited Professor John Merchant to be part of it. Then we formed a team of Animation students and Recording Industry graduate students to work on it over the summer and fall of 2018. In discussing the story we wanted to tell, I shared with the group my experiences as a child visiting my dad at his job on Sundays. He was a security guard of a tall office building in Colombia. My brothers and I were able to run all over the place, as long as we did not get in trouble. I remember the first time we did this, my experience in the elevator was incredible, and the feeling of wonder that I had every time the door opened to a new floor felt as if I was entering a new world. It was magical. The team liked the idea of exploring that concept of wonder, and we made an animated short where the voice of a little girl guides the experiencer through an unexpected elevator ride.
Another project in the works focuses on autistic children and is with a former student and animator. What can you tell us about it?
Diego Raf. Diaz is an animator who was my student at Villa Maria College in Buffalo, NY. Diego is autistic. For the past few years, we have been working on a project in which he is interviewing autistic children to know more about their lives. We take the recordings of those conversations and we edit them to make small short animated films. Percy Talks is a series of stories in which Percy the alien, voiced by Diego, is in the search for understanding of what autism really is. Every conversation makes a little story animated by Diego himself. I participate as producer, co-director and editor. The first three shorts are in the animation festival circuit at this moment, while we continue working on more stories, while we are trying to obtain sponsorship to make it a bigger project. It is a project with a lot of heart. It requires a lot of patience and consistency. I know we are going to make it, only it just needs some more time. Here the link to the trailer we have: https://vimeo.com/353923726/c75d66b9ca
We always hear how it takes years to complete digital animation projects. How do you find the patience for that? Is technology making it easier and more efficient? What changes in technology excite you?
I am not patient, but I am working on it. I think my desire to succeed is stronger than my impatience. It is a process that demands so much from you, it really teaches you to be persistent, to pay attention, and to learn to work with others. I do not think technology is making easier. Yes, it has solved technical problems that in the past were very time consuming, it has made many tools more intuitive and friendlier to facilitate the artistic execution, but at the same time, it adds much more to it. You need to learn more and more to be able to create new impactful things that work within new technologies such as AR, VR, Mixed Reality, etc. I get excited about technology because it lets me dream about stories that get closer to the individual, we can create things that make a person experience whatever reality we want them to live. Technology allows us to create almost anything; we only need to express our imagination.
Speaking of patience, an idea you have been working on for years with two partners recently received a patent. What can you tell us about it? What are your hopes for selling it?
I do not talk about this much because it’s been a long process with an uncertain result. I started working on a patent with a couple of friends in 2011. It is a patent on augmented reality on the human body. After a very long time of multiple rounds of back and forth with the patents office, we got it approved last November. It is not public yet, and with the intention of selling it, I cannot share much more than that. At this moment, we are in contact with three of the big technology companies in the world, and we have big hopes for it, Fingers crossed. It has been an experience, with lots of learning behind it.
As a creator, what was it like working for Fisher Price? What were the best and worst parts of that job?
I have great memories from Fisher-Price. I have many friends there. Working with them was a wonderful experience, and working on creating toys and stories around toys was one of the best opportunities in my life. They supported me and allowed me to form my own internal animation studio within the company. The work environment was demanding but friendly. People treated me with respect and were supportive. It was very hard to leave. The bad thing was that I was limited to create only for Fisher-Price. My contract stipulated that anything I made at work or at home belonged to Mattel, the parent company of Fisher-Price. I needed to create other things, my own things, I had ideas that did not fit Fisher-Price’s business, so I took a pay cut and left.
Tell me about the "Planet Heroes" series you created, which was your first post-graduate animation project.
Planet Heroes was a Fisher-Price toy line in the mid-2000s. It was a cool idea of a superhero team made of one hero from each planet of the solar system, They protected the system from the ominous Black Hole. I was working at Fisher Price as an animator creating animated commercials for tradeshows and some for broadcast. The company had ideas for creating an animated series to launch the toy line. I pitched my boss that we could do it in house. He said no initially, but still being the nicest guy he was, he mentioned my proposal to his boss. She pitched the idea to the president of the company, he said no. Still, my boss’s boss came to me and gave me a week to put together an example of animation and a budget proposal. A colleague in my department, an intern and I got to work on the sample of animation. It was a very long week. When the deadline came, my boss’s boss went to the president and showed the animation and the budget, which by the way saved a quarter of million dollars per episode. He smiled and said, “I told you these guys could do it.” We created five 11-minute shows for the Planet Heroes toy line. The episodes were published on DVD and packaged with the toy and were translated to more than a dozen languages around the world. Eventually, the series made it to broadcast in some countries internationally. I got my own department to do more animated shows and received an award the next year for saving a big chunk of money to the company.
When and how did you know you wanted to teach full time?
I have the spirit of a teacher. I have taught at the college level as an adjunct since the mid-90s. Even when I went to the Siggraph Conference, this is the largest computer graphics conference in the world; I attended some of the educator meetings. I knew I was going to be a full-time teacher, just did not know when. After I left Fisher-Price, I knew teaching would provide me the freedom to create my projects while I was able to share with others my experience. In reality, the person who learns the most in the classroom is always me, and they pay me to do it.
How do you find time to create? Do you have any advice for the rest of us? Do you have any tips for time or information management?
My tip is not special; I have a list of things to do. I make sure I work on the list every day, one at a time. It is very rewarding every time I move one item from the “To do” side to the “Done” side. The second thing I am trying to work on is to limit my commitments. It is very easy to get inspired and try to get involved with new projects that require a lot of time. The last strategy I have relates to the consumption of media. I regulate it. I do not mix work with media at the same time. I focus on the work for at least 30 minutes, and then I consume 5 minutes of media online, no more.
What's next on your to-do list? What are some dream projects?
Short term: Finish the Milly & Roots, The Headscarf animated episode. Finish the VR animated short What Took You So Long. Midterm: Start working on the animated trailer for the coolest idea I have for a video game. I cannot tell you the idea, but I know it has the potential to be a game-changer. I am planning to pitch it to a video game company, hopefully in a year or two. Long term / Dream project: (This is more than 10 years from now) I want to open an art and animation school for disadvantaged children. Completely free. I also want to continue creating media, just for fun.