Jesse James Dean describes his path to animation, crediting the Academy for preparing him for the working world
By Cristina Schreil
In 2009, Jesse James Dean was two weeks from earning his B.F.A. in studio art from the University of Florida when he realized—inconveniently—he didn’t want to be a gallery artist after all. Naturally, he “felt a little lost.” Dean recalls now that as he processed this inopportune epiphany, Adult Swim played on television. It triggered a lightbulb. “I thought, ‘Yup! I’m gonna go for that’… I realized that animation was the right path,” he said.
In 2010, he drove cross country, girlfriend, and dog in tow, to pursue a master’s in traditional animation at Academy of Art University.
This new path wasn’t arbitrary. Dean, who grew up watching sci-fi, horror, and fantasy film classics, also cultivated passions for Saturday morning cartoons and Studio Ghibli. “I really loved what that craft was,” he said, adding that he saw an appealing way to make an artistic living. His biggest influences were cartoons in the same vein of MTV’s “Liquid Television” era: “Beavis and Butt-Head,” “Æon Flux” as well as FOX TV’s “King of the Hill.”
Now, Dean is a full-time storyboard artist for the FOX hit animated sitcom “Bob’s Burgers” at Bento Box Entertainment in Los Angeles. Before, he worked for several television show projects—storyboarding, animating and character designing—including Netflix’s “Paradise PD,” FX’s “Archer,” Adult Swim’s “Squidbillies” and “Aqua Teen Hunger Force,” and Seeso’s “HarmonQuest.” He made the transition to storyboarding in 2016 at Powerhouse Animation in Burbank working on Nickelodeon’s “The Adventures of Kid Danger.”
He said the Academy readied him for his career’s day-to-day grind, but also informed his style, even in introductory courses. “At the time, I was thinking it was basic nonsense: ‘Why am I learning how to bounce this ball around?’ But then, I learned the foundations of everything. Then, you learn to appreciate the ball,” he said. Throughout the program, Dean learned to marry his unique style with a finessed process. “My characters tended to have tons of teeth and hair and weird details all over the place, so I had to mold that for the animation side,” he said, adding it’s about logistics. “You have to have very simplified shapes. If it’s too compilated it’s just going to be a jumbled mess.”
Graduate Director of 2-D Animation Sherrie Sinclair said that Dean entered the program with “a distinct directive and a distinct design sensibility.” Writing by email, she described him as rare: “His unique and somewhat edgy drawing style made his work visually stand out. Added to that was his quirky sense of slightly dark humor. He embraced his classwork well and easily applied animation principles to his project, all the while keeping focused on his goal of working in television animation and learning the appropriate digital tools used therein as well.”
After graduating, he also learned how to orient to a new production. Mid 2013, he landed a paid internship working as a 2-D animator for “The Awesomes” at Bento Box Entertainment in Atlanta. It was a brand-new show. According to Dean, they were still honing their pipeline. It required learning how systems and duties worked—quickly. “You don’t want to be a wrench in the chain,” he said. He also learned about hiatuses, and the at-times fickle nature of television work—leading to vital networking.
Networking is what ultimately brought him to “Bob’s Burgers,” where he’s hitting his one-year mark this month. There, he works with teams on one episode at a time for about six weeks. He says the sheer cleverness of the writing drives a fun, creatively stimulating environment. “Working in an animation studio, in general, is a super hilarious place,” he said. “They’re all comedians. When everyone’s on, they’re all grooving and improv-ing.”
However, it’s a lot of work—something he’s grateful the master’s program trained him for. “You have to put in tons of hours to get it done. There’s no faking it,” he said. “You have to put your sweat into it.” To cope, he sketches off-computer as much as he can, often finding art extracurricular activities around Los Angeles.
His advice to Academy students? Keep grinding. “I wouldn’t be here in this exact position if it wasn’t for the time and experience I had at the Academy,” Dean said. “If you can make it through school, you can make it in the workforce.”
To view more of Dean’s work, visit jessejamesdean.com.