When Mike Owens and his team won an Emmy for Danger & Eggs in 2018, he already had a long and reputable career in the art of animation, as he collaborated on projects for Cartoon Network, Disney, Comedy Central and Nickelodeon. He has also worked with such big names as Katie Crown, Big Boi, Al Madrigal and even James Gunn!
He's been in animation for more than 20 years now and his name is already everywhere. As you keep digging through his IMDb profile, you'll find his name credited in shorts, full-length movies, and TV series such as Animaniacs, Super (directed by James Gunn), Histeria and many more.
Danger & Eggs features Aidy Bryant (Saturday Night Live) and Eric Knobel as the main protagonists, Danger and her buddy Egg, respectively, and is a co-creation by Shadi Petosky and Mike Owens. The show is the first comedy cartoon aimed at children aged 6-11 produced by Amazon Studios. It has also been garnering attention as it echoes the concerns of the LGBTQ community in a refreshing and respectful way.
Mike lives in Minnesota and juggles his Hollywood career with his life in the Midwest, where he also keeps a strong relationship with his students through mentoring and partnerships in other projects. By keeping an open stance toward others in his field, Mike envisions his craft as a bridge for collaboration, rather than a competitive activity. He has also taught in Hyderabad where he helped found one of the first animation schools in India.
We recently met for an interview at a brewery in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where Mike enjoyed some sips of beer in the company of his former student Lauren Addy on a sunny afternoon. Lauren is the creator of the webcomic Unit 418. Both Lauren and Mike didn't mind the hot, humid Minnesota summer day. They had their sketchbooks open at the brewery's patio under a table umbrella and their drawings kept coming as we chatted about art, travel, animation and the pursuit of a career.
During this engaging conversation, I realized that the way I had always imagined an animator's life was extremely accurate: there's no stopping when it comes to the stream of creativity in their craft.
What inspired you to get into animation?
Mike: As a kid I was always a huge bugs bunny, droopy fan… all those sorts of old cartoons. They made me laugh but I was also fascinated that a drawing could make people react and laugh at something. The magic of it honestly…it got me thinking how does it affect people so much? I remember reading about Chuck Jones where he said a kid met him and was told that this is the guy who draws Bugs Bunny. The kid was confused because he thought Bugs Bunny was real. You can make a character be real in somebodies head even though it’s just a bunch of lines which was very fascinating to me. So, I wanted to figure out how to make that happen. They were real characters to me so I wanted to know what the technique was to get to that point where you could have a real living breathing character that people assume is living.
Lauren: I got into animation because you can create a whole world. You can create anything from your imagination and make it a reality. For me, it was All Dogs Go to Heaven. Before that, movies were too childish and this had a darker story to it. You can do different genres like sci-fi and fantasy and make any world you want. You can be an animal you can be an Indian.
Did you both grow up in the twin cities?
Mike: I did not.
Lauren: I also did not.
Where did you grow up?
Lauren: My dad works for Boeing which makes airplanes. The best thing about Boeing is their located everywhere so I had the lifestyle of moving from country to country. I grew up in Europe before I grew up here, so my influences were all over the place. I moved to Oklahoma so that was my first American experience and at first, I didn’t like it (laughs). The very first thing they did in the Oklahoma school system was put me in remedial classes because they didn’t understand me. When I went to Minnesota one of the teachers discovered that I wasn’t supposed to be in his remedial class. So, they had me take this test with another kid so I could be in the regular classes.
Mike: I grew up in western Pennsylvania in a small steel town outside of Pittsburgh. I ran screaming from there as soon as possible. The town was really small, no opportunities, and very conservative. When I was 4 years old my grandma lived in the projects and across the river, they were burning crosses. I kid you not. And no one could tell me what that meant. I asked ‘is this some weird Easter thing I don’t know about?’ (Laughs)When I found it out what it meant later, I thought good god I go to get out of here as soon as possible. So, I moved to Chicago for about 14 years and went to school there and I loved that. I found out that there was this whole world outside the place I grew up. I moved to Minnesota when my wife’s mom got sick and I’ve been here ever since. I also lived in India for a while. I think that travel is the best way to break what you think you know and makes you a better storyteller.
How did Danger and Eggs get started?
Mike: Danger and Eggs was based on me being a kid who was afraid of everything. Because Philip as a character is paranoid and afraid. He’s an egg so he’s a very fragile character. I was afraid of water, of bugs, dirt, etc. when I was young. My mom was an emergency room nurse so she would come home and tell us about all the horrible things that could happen to you in the world. Facing your fear is something that everyone can relate to. So embodying fear and something fragile could be this Humpty Dumpty story but it was just about going out into the world and realizing you’re very fragile and its okay. It’s okay to face your fear and see what happens next.
It took six years to get the show done. I had a job as an animation director in Minneapolis and my workplace wanted to do a short film. All the employees and I pitched our ideas to an improv theatre, and they all flocked to my character of Phillip. I feel that they chose it because fear was a common threat no matter where you are which everyone can relate to. The voice of Phillip is from here, Eric Noble, who embodied it so perfectly. When he started speaking like Philip is was one hundred percent, so he got it and I realized people get this. But it also failed a lot. We pitched it to Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, a bunch of other places. We made the short film and put it in a bunch of festivals but to make it into a show people weren’t convinced a nervous neurotic character would work. It kept failing until someone at Cartoon Network said what if there was a friend character that could play off Philip. So, I just thought of a complete opposite: Deedee Danger, someone who’s fearless and you put those two together what stories can you tell? And this is what locked it.
And before that it looks like you been to other animation studios?
Mike: Yah when I was in Chicago my first job was working on Animaniacs. There was a studio called Startoons. An old Hannah Barbara animator from Chicago moved back to Chicago and started the studio and convinced Warner Bros he can do full episodes. He was doing Tiny Toons for a while but then he started doing Animaniacs. I just graduated when they were doing Animaniacs. The internship I had had heard about that they were looking for animators before they announced it publicly. So, I jumped on that opportunity as quickly as possible. My first job was hand drawn animation
And what are you currently doing right now?
Lauren: Currently I am working at a local marketing digital firm in advertising. I’m their only animator there doing animation, logo designs, and layouts. That’s what I do as a day job to pay the bills. Outside of work I write stories, three I’ve currently finished. One of them is clearly done in the writing phase ready for production and in comic form.
Mike: Animation is such an up and down industry. You have studios opening and closing. The place that I worked for Animaniacs opened and closed five times. I got the last wave of it. It’s a fickle business especially if you are not in L.A. But even in L.A. there is no guarantee.
Mike, you also taught?
Mike: Yah, when I had my job at Startoons one of their artists was from India. He went back to India and started a school/studio there, but they didn’t have any teachers. I volunteered to teach. I was about 24 or 25 and I had never been to India but I felt compelled to do this. When I got there, there were students who were paying tuition with no teacher. It was kinda scary, but I led a revolution because there were people there not too much younger than me coming from small villages who were telling me their problems. It was very difficult for them to take that risk while at the same time not learning anything. I took it upon myself to make sure they were learning something and getting their tuitions worth. Me and Wendy put together a curriculum for 300 hundred students in three different languages. By the end I taught them the basics. I felt it was mean that the school was taking money from people and not reciprocating back. Some are studio owners now; some have won Oscars. I feel with the huge risk people take they should come back with something.
I read a few reviews on Danger and Eggs. But I would like to hear from you how is it inspiring people?
Mike: The one thing I would say is when we presented it at Comicon people really liked Phillip as a character that was full of anxiety. He has no self-confidence, but he wasn’t the character you pushed aside as the joke. He was the main character and people felt like they could see that character. And he had a best friend who didn’t judge him for being neurotic or anxiety ridden or full of panic. We also created this world that we described as speculative fiction. We said let’s create a world as it should be not what it is. The idea of having this show that was centralized around Chicken Park which is a public green space where all walks of life cross and we wanted to represent people that aren’t in cartoons. But at the same time let’s not make it about that and just say that’s how it is. People really connected. We had guidance counsellors say we have students who are crippled by their anxiety and now we can use Danger and Eggs as a way to make them feel okay in their own skin.
You made a very interesting point when you were saying that there’s a lot of people that are not represented and you have decided to bring that to your show although it feels that you are not pushing a narrative.
Mike: Yah, its not preaching. It’s not telling you how you’re supposed to be. It’s just like okay that’s your world and this is our world and you make it matter of fact. You don’t question it. And you realize there’s this whole world of people/audience that has been longing for that. You just put it out in the world, and you don’t make excuses for it. You let it be what it is. I don’t have to teach or preach or twist your arm. I just have to open that door. So that was a very conscious decision on our part.
I looked for short descriptions on what the show is about. I read it’s a show about everything but it’s hard to explain. How did you land on this formula and why is it a good formula?
Mike: (laughs) It is hard to explain. Shadi Petosky, who’s the co-creator of the show, used to be my boss and she’s a transwoman. So, she’s had to deal with a lot of not being represented. We had to deal with who we hired, who was the crew. It’s not just the stories we tell it's who’s making the show. We purposely reached out to people that don’t get these jobs, these positions, these opportunities. From the writing crew to the animation crew to the storyboard crew you open the door to those voices and give that opportunity and it will just happen. You have to make the people diverse to bring their own voice to it. It’s not me telling you to be diverse. Tina Fey talks about writing on Saturday Night Live and how the writers couldn’t relate to her. What she needed was other woman at the table to understand her so they could related to her. And this is where her jokes became viable. All it took was brining other people to the table. It’s not the end result that says it. It has to start at the beginning. Everyone involved has to bring their voice to it. Right now, it has to be a conscious decision.
How do you digest criticism when it comes to what you are doing?
Lauren: Well I didn’t put something out there until I was in my thirties. So, it’s hard to put stuff out there especially if it’s your own stuff because it’s terrifying. Then people see it and they form opinions about it and the internet can be the worst with all those anonymous voices. That’s also where you get anonymous voices of happiness, but you won’t know it until you put it out there. You also don’t know if a story is lacking or characters are believable until people are reading it. Until that moment your story is perfect that’s why it’s so hard to put anything out there. One of the biggest problems can be when people contradict each other and go in different crazy directions. One person may love a scene while the other completely hates it. You have to know what feedback to listen to.
Mike: Yah learning that skill is tough. What do you take and what don’t you take? Feedback is good and l love that you’re telling me something is wrong with it. Don’t put my stuff up on the fridge and tell me it’s cute, tell me something real so I know what to do with it. But trusting your own instincts is important. It’s about deciding what do you take and what don’t you take. You do on a personal level and a professional level in deciding when to push back. Feedback doesn’t mean you have to scrap everything you do. It’s not an easy thing to learn. It’s about trusting your voice and being humble with people. Learning that balance is a never-ending learning process. I’m better than I was a year ago because of it. I’ve had my heart break and my ego crushed but that’s fine. I chose to be in this field of being an artist and we have a bit of sensitivity these things and it’s our job to navigate that and put it out in the world for those who can’t.
Lauren: Ingest that pain and use it.
Mike: Yah, yah for sure.
Lauren: You can’t write anything good unless you had pain.
Mike: Yah it’s hard to put it out there because you’re being judged for the thing you care the most about but that’s the deal you signed up for. Especially if you want to make money from it (laughs).
Girl: You know you have something good if half the people love it and half the people hate it (laughs).
How do you guys conceptualize art?
Lauren: Every single art class I have taken they always ask what is art? And you have to write a paper on it. So, I’ve written I think how many papers? (Laughs) And that’s the thing every paper was different because art evolves. It’s always going to be something different. Art is a creation of the soul as people need to express themselves so. There are so many things that can be an art hence the phrase there’s an art to it. Art is really just the master of a craft and art is absolutely in everything.
Mike: It’s all subjective and it all has its own set of rules. It is putting yourself out there and attaching yourself to it. You’re not responsible for making it for everybody. You’re a voice for those who can’t have a voice at some level. Whatever that might mean to you and someone else and feeling that you are not alone in the world is important. I think it’s our responsibility to take that risk because other people can’t. So, you put it out in the world and people either like it or they don’t. I can’t tell you to like it or not.
As you were speaking this reminded me of a professor that I had. She was teaching psychology. There was one thing that she consistently said on her opinion of what art is. She would say something along the lines of art is a softened crime against society.
Mike: Oooh I like that. It is. It’s not definable in a clean pragmatic way. Its emotion. Stories are the one thing that humans have in common and it’s the one thing that’s been around forever. It’s very powerful. Stories can control people; stories can liberate people. Its whatever you feel like religiously. Religion can be a very controlling thing based purely on story. It can make people feel terrible about themselves, make decisions, willing to die for. And all that’s a story. It’s because there’s common humanity whether you want to admit it or not.
Lauren: Sci Fi’s too. Basically, Sci Fi’s are fictional stories but they’re cautionary tales or The Handmaids Tales.
I’ve read on your IMDB page that you also do mentoring?
Mike: Yes, there’s an organization called Nice Moves Minnesota which is a collective of all the animators, motion graphics, visual effects people, and I’m mentoring six people. I do three-month mentorships with them to give them whatever project their working on whatever feedback I can. I’ve done it with high school students, elementary school students, I’ve taught workshops. It’s basically being that person I wished I’d had. Because education can be a little tricky. It’s expensive and inaccessible to a lot of people. I think sharing your experience is important. Sometimes people who are storytellers or artists are introverts and are sensitive. The idea of mentorships or apprenticeships can be a better alternative to traditional education on some level. It’s one on one, it's personal, it's real. It’s not just about how many students can we get possible and collect as much tuition money as possible. I think helping anyone find their voice, to feel okay in their own skin based on the experience I had, and I can share that then that’s very valuable. If not, then I’m just being selfish.
Lauren: Back in the day that’s the hardest to survive. Apprenticeship is now coming back.
Mike: It's weird to me that art schools are some of the most expensive schools. Artists rarely make a lot of money. There almost as expensive as law school. So, I think this gives the opportunity. No one has ever asked to see my diploma.
Lauren: I barely even have to have a resume.
Mike: Right. It’s like your work and you as a person. That’s all that people care about. That’s all I care about when I hire people. This academia thing is good on some levels but sometimes its moot. It’s just a facade to get their tenure and not have to work. There are good teachers that I know but the structure of universities can be a little bit manipulative taking advantage of people. You share your knowledge cause that’s how I learned and grew. If you’re not passing your knowledge on, the craft gets weak and it doesn’t have the power it once had. I think mentorships and apprenticeships allow for people that can’t afford to go to that school to learn. So, doing these workshops and apprenticeships for people that wouldn’t have that window before now have that opportunity. Why not share that knowledge? What are you holding that’s so precious? We’re all in the same boat together. Why do we want to squash down the people that are in the same industry? It doesn’t make any sense and it kills the industry. I’m not going to want to do this forever. Eventually I just want to pet my dog and sit on a lake.
What were the (Jurors….I don’t know what you said here at 55:45) of animation you have learned so far and what is your preference?
Mike: For one thing I would say is I think we’re at this point where….. see I started with 2D animation. When 3D came along you now had two categories. That’s starting to blur. It’s ridiculous to separate the two because its all craft its all storytelling. Anything now is possible. Into the Spider-Verse is the best example of that where its not either or. It’s just a medium or a tool.
Lauren: When you’re animating hand drawn on 3D figures.
Mike: Yeah, again how do you get that emotional to a thing? It's that benefit of technology where you can make any kind of look or style come to life. It will definitely define where studios will see the marketability of something and put money into it. Any sort of technology is a tool. It all comes down to the person and the storyteller and the craft of how you do it. It can always be broken it can always be reinvented. It’s a constant fight. You know? What’s hot? What’s marketable? Everyone wants another Toy Story.
Do you see a comeback for 2D cell animation?
Mike: It won’t be cells where you are painting on acetate, but the idea of a hand drawn style can now be replicated and moved. If you ever look at the ‘art of books’ for movies they almost seem more interesting than the movie. Into the Spider-Verse was the one time that they broke it because they said let’s make it look like the way the artist wanted it to look like. That’s great art: lets force it into what the animation is supposed to be.
In the game industry people have trouble borrowing code or assets as they feel its cheating. They don’t want to use the tools; they feel they need to be purists when it comes to game design. How do you feel about that?
Mike: No that’s fine. Its whatever tells the story. I understand it’s a purist thing and I get that as it comes down to the craft and some people are traditionalists.
Lauren: I do all my stuff digitally because I’m by myself so its faster. A lot of people will get the giant paper and ink it. That takes longer.
Mike: And that’s the thing, you can create more because of the tools that are available to you. You can do things that couldn’t have been done in the traditional craft.
Lauren: And it's hard enough the way it is with videogames in the mainstream. Why make it harder for yourself?
Mike: The idea of cheating is pretty silly to me because that’s just a purist sort of ego thing in my opinion. If this ‘cheat’ gets something done in a day versus a month because my budget is really low, I’m going to use it. My friend always tells me no one cares until its done.
Lauren: The expectations of artists right now are so high its insane what you need to complete in one day.
Mike: People have that expectation because when its successful people think that must be easy; that must be cheap.
Lauren: People want a wizard that can do everything. When you see a job post they want a one-man studio that can do everything. They want them to storyboard it, model it, rig it, animate it, texture it. One person could do it if you give them a lot of time.
Its looks like you’re a master of all trades when it comes to your craft. Can you write?
Mike: I’m learning and getting better at it right now. It’s something they don’t teach us when it comes to animation. It’s very frustrating.
Lauren: Luckily, I do a lot of copywriting at my work. I have to, so I learn based off of necessity. You need to read a lot about how other people write.
Mike: Yah people blaze trails for you. You don’t have to constantly reinvent the wheel.
Lauren: There are also different formats to write. I found the one that works best for me is movie scripts because every page is one minute. For comic books it’s a little different because I found that you have a page of dialogue and that one page of action. Luckily it does help me pace a story. You have to find a style that matches you.
Mike: Yah there are formats to write for comics, a way to write for features so you have to formulate your structure. There are a thousand books on how to write a screenplay to give you a basic skeleton to hang your ideas on. But learn the rules then break them. Look at Pulp Fiction. It was super huge because he destroyed linear storytelling. Everyone loved it because it stood out.
As a director what is it like directing animation? I’m guessing its not like directing a movie.
Mike: It’s almost backwards because with shooting live action you have a general idea, you shoot a bunch of things, then trim it down. But with animation every frame costs money. You have to figure out that timing and performance with every scene from your storyboards and animatics. You have to lock down what that story is going to be so pre-production matters so much. We have to know what we are looking for down to the frame. So, you’re an editor before you get the footage. You can’t animate three hundred things then cut it down to twenty because you will lose money, and nobody is going to put up that kind of money.
You can find more about Mike Owens and Lauren Addy on their websites:
Mike Owens: https://www.mikeowensproductions.com/
Lauren Addy: https://www.facebook.com/lauren.addy.986