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Inspiring Stories, Inspiring People

Mike Stern, animator

Mike Stern, animator

He’s beaten the odds—and earned his keep—in an industry where jobs are both coveted and competitive. Meet Mike Stern, an animator with Dreamworks SKG, who’s lent his talent and indefatigable spirit to movies like Kung Fu Panda and How to Train Your Dragon. Follow him on Twitter @supersternio.

PPF: When you were little, what did you tell people you wanted to be when you grew up?

MS: I think it varied a bit based on just how out of touch I was with reality. Like most kids, I was obsessed with Lego. I still am. My parents told me that the grown-up job for a Lego builder was called an engineer. So for a long time, I told people that I was going to be an engineer when I grew up. Oh how much simpler my career path would have been if I had stuck with that plan—not that I’m complaining.

As soon as I was old enough to draw and understand the concept of what a cartoonist was, I switched gears and locked onto that. I think since around second grade, I always said that I wanted to be a cartoonist or even an animator.


PPF: How long did that dream last?

MS: The dream never went away. There were times when it faded to the background as I shifted through other interests, but I always came back around. There were times, for very practical reasons, I let the dream fade. Living on the East Coast, there just didn’t seem to be any real path to a career in animation.


PPF: So what was your first real job?

MS: My first paid job was as a paperboy. Okay, maybe that doesn’t count. I was a cashier at Key Food Supermarket. Well, that was still part-time. Clerk at Toys R Us? The first full-time job that I had was as an Interactive Designer at J. Walter Thompson NY.


PPF: Toys R Us! For the Legos, I’m sure. Now, what is your current job?

MS: I am currently working as an animator at DreamWorks Animation, and I just started production on Dragon 2. I also work as an instructor at the online animation school


PPF: Were you formally trained to do what you do now?

AM: Well, I’d hope so. I certainly went to enough school, although this is a job that doesn’t necessarily require formal training. There are plenty of folks who are self-taught. When animators are hired, very little attention is given to where or how the applicant was trained. It’s all about the work on the reel.

Personally, I took the long and expensive route. I studied Illustration and Graphic Design at Syracuse University. I went to grad school for digital imaging at NYU CADA, and then I studied character animation at the online school While I was going to school, I always took on work to make ends meet. Well, more like to make sure the ends were somewhere in the vicinity of each other.

Even with all of this schooling, I still feel that every day on the job is a day at film school. The job of an animator involves constant problem solving. Every shot I take on presents new challenges. We also have an amazing artistic development program at DreamWorks. Since I started there I have taken classes on figure drawing, gesture drawing, comic book drawing, character design, photography, cinematography and screenwriting.


PPF: You were fortunate, in that you knew all along you wanted to be an animator. It sometimes takes years for people to come back around to their childhood dreams. You made a pit stop in advertising, though. Tell me about that.  

I wanted to be an animator, or work in the film industry as far back as I can remember. I went to school for illustration, but folks kept telling me that if I wanted to earn a living as an artist on the East Coast, I needed to get into advertising. So that’s what I did.

As I mentioned earlier, my first job was as an interactive designer at J. Walter Thompson. An interaction designer was a cush job at this point, because this was in 2000, which was right at the height of the .com boom. We were doing things that hadn’t been done before. It was the wild, wild West.

I feel very fortunate to have ended up at JWT at that time. Because of the timing and circumstances, I was able to shine in my roll, and it gave me a big boost in confidence. But as I was busy toiling away learning about advertising, design, graphics and programming,  I kept a close watch on things that were going on in the animation industry.

This was around the time that Monsters, Inc., Shrek, Spiderman and Lord of the Rings were out in the theaters. With each film that came out, I felt a great sense of excitement because the things that I always loved in life were starting to hit the mainstream. In the old days, a comic or fantasy movie used to be a low-budget affair with some dudes running around in tights, but now they were getting the royal treatment. On the animated feature side, a strange thing happened with the introduction of CG, or computer-generated. For one reason or another, it created some wiggle room to tell new and interesting stories. As excited as I was, though, it was also somewhat bittersweet, because with each new film that came out, I felt as if I was missing an opportunity.


PPF: So did you dip your toes into it the animation water?

MS: JWT had a continued education program that reimbursed employees for taking classes. I was able to get the approval to start taking 3D animation classes at NYU CADA. In taking these classes, I realized that the learning curve was a lot steeper than I had initially expected, and if I wanted to get serious about this, I would need to leave JWT and dedicate myself to it. After some deliberation, that’s what I did.

A lot of folks thought I was crazy to leave that job. It was an exceptional place to be, especially for someone my age. I was living in Manhattan, earning a good living and working in a creative profession. I traded that in and ended up taking out student loans to go back to school.

I wasn’t a full-time student for long. After my first semester at NYU, I took on a paid internship at the post-production house Brand New School. This job was the perfect blend of my previous experience in the advertising industry and my future prospects in the animation business. It was at this job where I first got to see 3D character animators at work. I was starting to get a nice foundation of skills in CG and at this point, if I really wanted to go beyond general work, I was going to need to pick a specialization.

This brings me up to 2004, and that’s the year I saw the movie, The Incredibles. My mind was completely blown! It seemed to take everything I loved about comics, animation, design and filmmaking and combined them all together into one. It was after I saw this film, I knew that it wasn’t only CG that I wanted to get into. I wanted to be a CG character animator for feature animation.

I was finishing my program at NYU, working at Brand New School, and I learned that a new online character animation school,, was opening its doors. All of the instructors were professional animators currently working in the industry. I signed up to be part of the first class at AnimationMentor.  It was that school that enabled me to get to the point where I am now as an animator.

The last gear change was my move to California. My wife, Jen, whom I was dating at the time, was out on the West Coast studying art direction at the Academy of Art. It seemed logical for me to follow along after her. I packed my bags and moved out to Cali. I quickly found out that being closer to the industry does not necessarily make it easier to get in.


PPF: I always ask people if there was a particular mentor who changed things? Was there a person who believed in you and gave you a chance in the industry when no one else would?

MS: I’ve had almost as many mentors as gear changes.


PPF: Well, tell me about them all. No one is going to cut this story short!

MS: When I was in middle school, I took Saturday morning cartooning classes at Hofstra University. These classes were instructed by a retired Disney artist named Al Baruch. Al was a great mentor, because he pushed each student to not only be a draftsman, but to also be a creator. He refused to accept the fact that any student could not come up with their own character or idea for a story. Al kept me engaged with animation when my attention started to wander elsewhere.

The next group of folks who really inspired me were my co-workers at J. Walter Thompson. I was surrounded by a group of talented folks. Kevin Wassong was the president of the department, and he had a confidence in me that pushed me to excel. Here I was right out of school, and he was making me the point man on some big-time ad accounts.


PPF: Can you give me an example?

MS: There was a project pitched to the department that involved designing and animating a digital billboard to go up on the ABC building in Times Square. Kevin’s response was, “Stern can probably figure this one out.” At the time, I had no experience with this type of thing, but he trusted that I would do what it took to figure it out. After a lot of research and some trial and error, I was able to pull it together. I remember when it went live, we took a walk over to Times Square to check it out, and I felt a sense of great confidence in my abilities. Kevin was also the one who gave me the approval to have JWT cover my first few classes at NYU. I remember having to walk into his office to tell him that I was leaving to pursue animation. I was expecting the worst, but I was relieved when his response was, “Yeah, I think you would be great at that.”

My first Maya instructor at NYU was Kevin Robinson, and by coincidence, he was also a Syracuse alumni. Kevin pushed me to do my best work, and at the end of the semester, he recommended me to come on board to do some CG work at the design shop Brand New School. It started off as an internship but turned into a yearlong freelance gig. I got to work on some awesome projects for MTV and Fox Fuel TV.

Toward the end of my time there, I started to take classes at the online school Animation Mentor. The school had just opened its doors, and I was part of the first class. I developed a close relationship with Bobby Beck, the school’s founder. Bobby worked at Pixar before leaving to start the school. He was big on building student confidence and really believed in what the school was doing.  This was refreshing because I actually had been in educational environments where I was required to take unnecessary classes and had some advisors tell me, and I quote, “Not to bother applying for feature positions, because those jobs usually go to students out in California.”

I’m still in touch with all of the folks who helped me out along the way. I try to pay it forward as much as I can by helping out aspiring animators I come in contact with.


PPF: How hard is it to break into animation, especially a big studio like Dreamworks?

MS: It’s very hard to break into animation, and it’s especially difficult to break into the feature animation studios such as DreamWorks, Pixar, Disney, Sony and Blue Sky—or visual effects shops such as ILM and WETA. There was an article that showed how competitive it is.

There are a lot of folks who want to do this for a living, and the level of work required on a reel is constantly being raised. At this point, to get an entry-level position at a studio, the work on your student reel needs to look like it can go right into the film.


PPF: No pressure on the kids coming out of school, right? So tell me, what was that interview like? How are you interviewed for an animation job?

MS: The interview wasn’t too different than any other interview I’ve had for other jobs. The main emphasis is on work. I think that the interview is just to make sure that you’re not crazy. At the end of the day, my reel was strong enough to get me in the door, so it ended up working out.


PPF: Do you work collaboratively? Or do animators work alone?

MS: Animators work both alone and collaboratively. The collaboration comes in the reviewing of materials. There are times during the day where I will show my work to some of my peers. When you are working at 24 frames a second, your eyes can get used to seeing things, and it takes a pair of fresh eyes to help each shot reach its potential. There are also points throughout a shot when I will check in with the animation supervisors. The sups manage either a sequence or a character, depending on the type of show it is. I’ll review my work with the sups and incorporate their notes. The final forum for showing a shot is in animation dailies. In dailies the team gets together with the director to review shots for approval.

We also collaborate when we group troubleshoot. We share insight into how to animate certain characters. If I am hooking my shot up to a shot that another animator is doing, I will make sure to speak with that animator before starting my shot, so that we are both on the same page. Consistency in style is of utmost importance when making one of these films.


PPF: It is so interesting to hear a little about how it’s all done. So much work goes into every single character, scene, and second of these movies. Can you tell me what are some of your favorite projects you’ve worked on?

MS: My favorite project that I have worked on so far is How to Train Your Dragon. There is something about that film that really resonated with me. I also had a great time working on Kung Fu Panda. However, I was still so new to the studio that I didn’t feel that I made as meaningful a contribution to it. I have great expectations for Dragon 2, which I am currently working on.


PPF: Who in your profession do you look up to the most?

MS: I have to say that the folks I still look up to the most are the old Disney animators. They had so much less to work with, and in a lot of ways, what they did back then is still superior to the work that we’re doing now. Having kids of my own, I spend a lot of time watching the old Disney films, and every time I make sure to bookmark a couple scenes and step through the animation frame by frame to better understand them. I am blown away by the level of craftsmanship in every single frame.

Nowadays, I also look up to the folks that are able to wear a bunch of different hats and perform various jobs on a very high level. We have some artists who can do top-level hand-drawn animation as well as CG animation, then also switch into a storyboarding and visual development roll. I am really inspired by folks who have a clear and unique vision for animation and are able to come up with ways of approaching the medium that are beyond what we have seen before.


PPF: What are your top five favorite animated films?

MS: I could probably give you three separate top five lists, broken down by Disney traditional, non-Disney traditional and then CG animation. I’m going to boil it down into one list here.

My favorite animated film of all time is Dumbo. I taped this film off of the Disney Channel when I was a kid, and I watched it so many times. It has everything that a great film should: emotion, comedy, and unique visuals. I didn’t realize why I loved it so much when I was younger, but from studying it now, I understand that the range in animation is second to none. There is super subtle detail work such as the connection between Mrs. Jumbo and her baby. And then there is also some broad comedic and super elegant animation layered throughout the rest of the film.

My number two would have to be The Incredibles. I saw the film at a pre-screening hosted by Wired Magazine and my mind was blown. This is the film that made me realize that I had no other choice than to be a character animator for a living.  If you combined all the things I find exciting about animation, visual design, and storytelling, they are all there in this film.

The third film on my list is the only film on the list that I’ve only seen once. I don’t ever plan to watch it again: The Grave of the Fireflies. The story is based on historical truths and takes place during the American firebombing of Tokyo in World War II. This movie connected with me emotionally more than any other animated movie, and possibly any other film.

Number four is The Lion King. This is the film that kept me interested in animation when I started to stray. This film came out when I was in middle school, and just when I was about to put down the pencils for music, video games, and sports gear, I picked them up again.

My number five is How to Train Your Dragon. I had to put it at number five because I wanted to include it, but I am slightly biased having worked on it. I had such a great experience when I saw this film in the theater.


PPF: So if that movie was a high point, what has been the lowest point in your career?


MS: I’ve certainly had low points in my career. I set really high expectations for myself, and I hate letting myself down. I also hate letting down other people who have confidence in me. Most of my biggest failures are the direct result of over-promising and taking on too much.

One of my biggest failures happened toward the end of my gig at Brand New School.  I had been working for the company for a year. I was burning the candle at both ends working a full-time job, trying to finish my course work for NYU and then

trying to learn more about character animation. I got to the point where I was averaging about 2-3 hours of sleep a night. I was becoming less effective in the work I was doing during the day at my job and also the work I was doing for school.

The worst part about it is that I didn’t even realize it until Kevin, my instructor who recommended me for the job there pulled me aside and sat me down for a chat. It helped me realize what my limitations were. I ended up leaving Brand New School at that point and focusing on my studies.

Another low point for me was the calm right before the storm. Somehow the animation industry knows to wait until you are most desperate before making a job appear for you. Before the move to California, I had put together a list of over 40 studios that hire CG artists. I sent out reels to all of them and didn’t hear back from a single one. It was discouraging to say the least. I was jobless for my first six months out in San Francisco. I was able to take a few short freelance jobs doing some general work, some graphic design, and even some ad work, but it was so hand to mouth that it looked like the end of the line.

I was still working on my AnimationMentor course work. When small jobs did come up, I was back in the situation where I was working a full time job during the day and doing class work at night. I had over committed myself again. At this point I was in rough shape financially; the constant work and no sleep was putting a strain on my health and personal relationships. Even after I got my job at DreamWorks, it took me years to stabilize myself financially, get my health back on track and repair some of the damage in my relationships.


PPF: So was seeing How to Train Your Dragon really the highest moment so far?

AM: Yeah, the highest point for me was sitting down with the team for our crew screening. I was overwhelmed with pride. The movie reminded me of a lot of the movies I had seen that inspired me to get into filmmaking, and I was now finally on the other side. I remember tearing up during the test fight sequence, because I was so happy that I was able to contribute to something that I knew would inspire more artists.

Another high point for me was when my own short film Distraxion took home the audience choice award at the Sedona Film Festival. This was at the end of my festival run with the film, and it had won some awards at other festivals, but the audience choice at Sedona was based on an audience vote, which meant the people in attendance felt that strongly about it. I spent two years working on that two-minute film and it was so amazing to get some recognition for it.


PPF: Where do you want to be in ten years?

MS: As Mitch Hedberg would say, “Celebrating the 10 year anniversary of you asking me this question.” I’m hoping that, in 10 years, I will still be doing what I am now, but at a higher level. I am hoping that the art form continues to evolve, and that we will continue telling different and more elaborate stories.  I’m hoping to make a stronger, more meaningful contribution to every film I work on. I would love to be more involved in the storytelling aspects as well as the execution.

I am also hoping that our pipeline develops to become more flexible so that I can have more control over the hours that I work. It would be great to be able to work remotely a few days out of the week and get to spend more time with my family.


PPF: What is essential to help you do your best work?

MS: Most essential thing for me is trust. When I get the feeling that the people I’m working with believe in my abilities, that’s enables me to truly excel. Directly connected to this is that I need to be allowed to fail. When you are working in a creative profession you don’t get to the good stuff right away. You need the freedom to dig around and try a few angles before committing. I can deliver good results rather quickly, but if you give me some time to play, I can deliver outstanding results.


PPF: Describe your version of the perfect Saturday.

MS: This is going to be a really boring answer. It’s amazing how different the answer to this question is now than it would’ve been five years ago. Nowadays, the perfect Saturday is spending time with my family. If I can get outdoors, spend some time outside and possibly get some exercise, all the better. On the perfect Saturday I would wake up in the morning with my daughter, Emery, eat some breakfast and then watch an animated film. Having kids means that I get to experience my favorite animated films through fresh eyes. When the film is done, we’ll get the whole family together and head out the door to the beach. We’ll walk the Strand and stop at the swing set in the sand, so that Emery can play for a bit. We’ll grab lunch at the beach and then head back to our place. If it’s the perfect Saturday, hopefully we’ll have some visitors stopping by in the afternoon. The great thing about living in Southern California is that we tend to have a lot of folks come visit from out of town. If we don’t have company, we’ll set up a Skype session so that Em and Cam can get some grandma and grandpa time. The perfect night these days is when the kids go down without a fuss and Jen and I can catch up on our week over dinner. If it’s warm out I’ll throw something on the grill and Jen will make some sides. The perfect Saturday late night would be getting to spend some time on one of my side projects. I always have something going, whether it’s drawing, writing, processing some photos or just fun projects for my family. I’ll call it a night around 1-2am. This answer is so much tamer than it would’ve been had you asked me in 2003-2004.


PPF: Who most inspires you and why?

MS: I’m inspired by people who find success doing what they love—somebody who is truly in his or her element, who would be doing the same thing whether they were getting paid to do it or not. They do so without comparing their success to others.

I love that fact that we live in an age where we have the ability to see people who are truly exceptional at what they do. If you want to see a great…I don’t know…bowling pin juggler, you can go on YouTube and type it in, and you’ll probably find someone who does it at a mind-blowing level and is most likely earning a living doing so.

I’m a firm believer that the most important thing in life is to love what you do. When you stick around long enough, you realize there are folks who have less natural talent who still find success because they immerse themselves in their work. On the flip side, you also see people who are totally gifted, but don’t really have the appreciation for what they do, and in the end they never break passed a certain point.


PPF: What job could you never ever do, no matter how broke you were?

MS: I guess anything that is predatory or that takes advantage of other people. I feel particularly sensitive about this type of thing because it diminishes everyone’s effectiveness. How great would it be if we lived in a world where you could go to an expert and accept that their advice was in service of your best interests.

If someone came to me and paid me for my expert opinion on something, I would never spin it so that I could benefit from it financially. Nowadays, I find anytime I go to look for a repair, financial direction or even medical advice, I need to do a ton of research beforehand just to make sure that I am not getting hosed. That really bums me out. The time I am spending doing this research would be so much better spent focusing on the things that I am good at, and in turn could provide better services to the folks who need my talents.


PPF: When have you been most daring in your life?

MS: Well I guess it depends on what you mean by the most daring. I’d like to say that I was daring in my early 20s when I was living in New York and working in advertising. We had a lot of crazy nights on the town and spent the weekends heading up to Vermont, hopping on snowboards and hucking ourselves off of anything covered in snow. Those were great times, but I can’t say now that they were daring because it was just a lot of fun, and I didn’t realize I had anything at stake.

I think the most daring thing I’ve done in my life was leave New York to chase this dream. I grew up in New York. I went to college there, and I have a super tight family there. My first job was there. So I actually had spent very little time outside of the state until I moved.

When I moved out to California, I had nothing lined up. I had to jeopardize my health, my relationships, and my financial stability in order to make this thing work and I came very close to ending up in a tough situation.


PPF: When have you been most afraid?

MS: There is no fear quite like the fear that something may be wrong with your child. Most newborns like to show up with at least one or two symptoms that would suggest that there may be issues at hand. We ran into this with both of our children and had to have some further testing done. Waiting for those test results was, without question, the most fearful I have ever been in my life


PPF: What is the best advice you ever got?

MS: The best advice I ever got was regarding the definition of success. This was a conversation I’d had with my father during my early twenties. This was at the start of the .com boom. Before I was hired at JWT, I was overly enthusiastic, and I took a job working for some shady people that ended up taking advantage of my enthusiasm.

I remember talking to my father about it, and I said, “You know, in order to be successful in this world, you really need to be an asshole and not care what anybody else thinks about you.” And my dad said, “Well that all depends what you mean by ‘to be successful.’ If your idea of being successful is to be the top dog and have a ton of money, then yeah, you may need to be an asshole in order to achieve that. But if your idea of success is to perform well at a job that you take pride in, and be surrounded by family and friends who love and respect you, then no, you don’t have to be an asshole.”


PPF: What’s on your bedside table right now?

MS: Let’s see. I’ve got my Lego alarm clock, my crossword book. Wired magazine, my sketchbook, Ipad and lots of baby accessories.


PPF: What’s the trip you keep talking about taking one day?

MS: My siblings and I keep threatening to take that trip to Ireland to see our grandparents’ house and reunite with old family. I think it may happen at some point.


PPF: First concert you ever went to?

MS: When I was younger, my dad’s full time job was playing drums in a band, so I guess my first rock concert was going to see them. I was always so pumped about it. One of the bigger venues they played was Toad’s Place in New Haven. My parents have a great picture of me up on stage there, when I was about 5 or 6, rocking out on my dad’s drumset.


PPF: Best concert you ever went to?

MS: The best concert I ever went to was Coachella 2010. Getting to see so many of my favorite bands playing back-to-back was pretty phenomenal.


PPF: Song that would be the title track to the soundtrack of your life?

MS: The soundtrack to my life would be my wedding song “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” by the Beach Boys. When Jen and I started dating, this was our motto. If we thought, “Well, wouldn’t it be nice if [blank], we would just do it.” That is how we ended up living in three different cities over the course of two years and going on all sorts of crazy excursions.


PPF: Best meal you ever had?

MS: The best meal I ever had was a pasta dish at Da Sylvanos restaurant in New York. I still think about it to this day. I wish I remembered what it was called.


PPF: What are you really good at that might surprise a lot of people?

It’s hard to say what other people would find surprising. I guess you could tell me.

Jen is constantly amazed at how well I can pack things into a space. Specifically how much I can pack into a bag or a box. I go all tetris on it.

I’m a pretty good guitar player, songwriter, snowboarder, bartender, poker player, yo-yo-ist—is that a word? I’m a good long distance runner. I ran a marathon in 4:20:00. I was an all-state wrestler in High School. I can tear through advanced Soduku.

I’m a huge rock ’n roll geek. I have an encyclopedic knowledge of song lyrics. I by no means have a good voice, but I am unashamed to get up on a mic and sing karaoke or bust out a voice track on the music I record.

To further delve into my geekdom, I also have an encyclopedic knowledge of Star Wars, G1 Transformers, 8-bit NES and Lego.


PPF: When are you coming to dinner? You sound like the perfect guest. Last question: If you could interview someone and ask him or her these questions, who would it be?

MS: I would love to interview my grandfather on my dad’s side, Robert Stern. I was only two years old when he passed away. He is constantly the subject of conversation whenever my family gets together. I’ve heard so many stories about him, and it would be great to be able to pick his brain.
























  1. Awesome interview! Mike Stern is one of the most genuine people I’ve ever met. An inspiration that is modestly touched upon in this Q&A. He continues to make me proud to consider him a very close friend.

  2. Very inspiring Mike. It is nice to see an animator with a variety of skills and education. I am hoping to continue my education with AM.

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