Written by Tiffany Lim. An updated version of this article may be found on Media Context’s online portal.
Ashely Simpson is an illustrator and storyboard artist who has worked on Disney’s Phineas and Ferb. This talented artist was contracted by Disney while she was still in college, and is currently working on Disney X D’s new series, Milo Murphy’s Law. She speaks to Cartoons Underground about her inspirations and experiences.
About the Artist
In 50 words or less, please tell us about yourself.
I am a story artist, character designer and animator. I am passionate about storytelling and I enjoy making people laugh, cry and relate with characters in my stories. I love playing the piano and trumpet, and I love to read when I’m not drawing.
What inspired you to start drawing?
Besides the cartoons that I used to watch, it was actually my dad who inspired me to start drawing. He used to draw when he was younger, as did my grandpa. He drew me a poster of Beauty and the Beast when I was three, and I always have it hanging up by my drawing desk.
Did you have any mentors?
There were my instructors at Emily Carr University in Vancouver. Two of them were animators and the other was an illustrator/comic artist. I was always going to them for advice.
What is the role of a concept artist?
A concept artist creates illustrations that convey an idea for use in a project. They develop the world and characters visually before production on the final product begins.
How did you start your career?
Actually, the position I got on Phineas and Ferb was the start of my career! I was still a student at Emily Carr. I did and still do online illustration commissions, but besides that, I was studying animation.
How did you become a concept artist on Phineas and Ferb?
To keep the story short, I went to San Diego Comic Con in 2012 and gave the show’s creators a drawing I had done of their characters as teenagers. I honestly did not expect it to go any further than the compliments they gave, but a few months later I was messaged by Dan Povenmire on DeviantArt, asking if I would like to work for them on an upcoming episode. I actually didn’t believe it was him until my friend told me hours after receiving the message that he had posted a photo of the drawing I made on twitter, proving it was him. And about three weeks later, I was visiting the Disney Studios for the episode pitch.
What kind of projects were you given?
I was in charge of designing the characters for the episode Act Your Age. I turned all the kids into teenagers. Besides the main five and the Fireside Girls, I also worked on Carl, Irving and Candace. I also designed Stacy and Jeremy, but their scenes never made it to the final episode.
What were the challenges you faced, and what did you have to do to overcome them?
The most notable challenge I had was that I had to balance working on the show while still attending classes and getting assignments done. One day every week, I was at school for 12 hours. A trick one of my mentors taught me was actually used in this situation, which was “keep schoolwork at school as much as possible, and keep home as home.” Since I did have some spares during the day, including lunch, I tried to work on assignments during then, and after a break at home, I would get to work on the character designs. I made sure to send in something at least every day, because I was contracted only for two weeks. I also had to boost my confidence levels during that time. If I believed I could get it done in time, then I would.
How do you handle deadlines?
I take them very seriously. Having a deadline keeps me motivated. On the rare occasion that I could not get everything completed in time, I would try to bring the work I had completed so far, so as to show that I had been dedicating time to it. Surprisingly, when I did the character designs for Disney, they were ready to expect that I would not get everything they asked finished in two weeks. I sure surprised them when I had all 21 characters, back and front, completed for them on the due date!
How do you feel about working in a team?
I quite enjoy it. I enjoy working alone, but when there are good leaders or good communication happening between the team, it makes it a lot of fun to work on the chosen project. Communication and open-mindedness is important to successful teamwork.
About the Industry
Was it difficult to leave university, and to start on your job?
As I had already been guaranteed a job because of my work for Phineas and Ferb, I admit that I did not have as many worries as some other friends did. However, I did work with some clients as a freelancer who were a little difficult to work with, and I did have to move back home to Manitoba, Canada, and take up a job as a substitute Educational Assistant for this past year while working on commissions. It was never easy, and I did worry more than I should that my chance to get a permanent job was slipping away. But I had plenty of people who believed in what I could do and reassured me that my friends in the industry would not have forgotten me.
Is it getting easier for artists to enter the animation industry?
That’s a tough question to answer. It’s a very competitive industry, but it does have some points every few years where studios hire like the world is about to end. For example, spring and summer 2015 have been exploding with animation jobs in Vancouver, BC, Canada. One simply has to keep their eyes and ears open. Talent is certainly important to finding a job, but from my experience knowing people and staying in contact with them will get you at least one foot in the door.
What’s next for you?
I’ve actually gotten a job offer at Disney as a storyboard artist for Dan Povenmire and Swampy Marsh’s new show Milo Murphy’s Law. So I’ll be heading to Burbank as soon as I get the go-ahead from Disney!
What advice would you give to aspiring artists?
First and foremost, be confident. I still struggle with that from time to time, but even some false confidence will help you get over the doubts about yourself. Show people that you are proud of your work yet still strive to improve. Secondly, make contacts. I would not have had the opportunities I have now if not for the friends I’ve made in the industry. Get your name out in the world! Go out and meet people, give your business cards, memorabilia, etc.! And don’t be afraid to draw fan art. Some people believe that fan art isn’t creative, but that’s where everyone starts, in one way or another. That’s how I started. Of course, it never hurts to draw original characters and stories as well.