Nerdbot Exclusive Interview: Cartoon Director Bryan Jordan Newton
The only thing more incredible than the cartoons we love are getting a chance to talk to the people who create them. Today, I asked my good friend Bryan Jordan Newton for an interview and he was happy to oblige. You’re probably familiar with his work without even knowing it, and more recently, he’s become a director on that little-known show called Rick and Morty. Somehow, I think you might have heard of it.
Hey Bryan! Thank you for giving Nerdbot this interview. We seriously appreciate it. All right, let’s start from the beginning. Where did you grow up? What was your childhood like?
Whoa… this is going to go deep. I was born and raised in Los Angeles, California. Nothing interesting there. I’m the oldest of three children (an adopted brother and sister), my parents raised us on the south side of the city, my dad is a retired police officer and my mother is a worker’s compensation attorney. I went to Dorsey High School in South Central. I figure I did the things most kids do, I played video games, watched a lot of television and movies. Played with my friends, which I didn’t have a lot, but the ones I kept were the ones I’m closest with. I didn’t really like to play outside, and in my teens, I found myself wanting to be on my own and doing/watching the things I wanted to do. I wasn’t very popular.
Were you the sort of kid who was always drawing? I think I remember you with a notebook in your hands all the time up until maybe five years ago.
That’s right! I usually carried around a notebook when I started working in the industry. But the first time I remember drawing was when I was in church with my mom, church was boring, so I drew the Ghostbusters on my mother’s bookmark. Pretty much drawing whatever cartoon or game that interested me ever since.
At what point did you decide to pursue animation professionally? Did you go to school, or network and train under mentors?
I think it had to be late High school when I considered it seriously but really my parents always supported my artistic endeavors… taking me to Renaissance Art Classes while in middle school, a comic book drawing class on Saturday mornings and summer courses at the Natural History Museum when I was in grade school. I don’t think they could stop me from drawing, so they just decided to support me the best they could. I went to Otis College of Art and Design and studied in the relatively new (at the time) Digital Media program. There I learned most of the programs that I used to day in my career, I also took a business seminar course where my instructor Jan Nagell got me my first animation contact.
What was the very first job you got, paid or unpaid?
First gig (job) I got was during my senior year of college. It was a storyboarding job for a live action feature film that I don’t remember the title of, or if it ever got made, but I think they gave me like 50 or 100 bucks. My first real job came from Mike Young Productions (currently Splash Entertainment) when I graduated school. This was my first animation contact and I worked at this studio for 3 years on Discovery Kids shows Toddworld and Growing Up Creepie.
What has been your favorite show to work on and why?
Oh that’s tough. Some of my favorite shows to work on, have also been the worst products we’ve produced, like Growing Up Creepie… which was a terrible show. Mainly because it’s fun working on a crew where we know it’s a shit show because you make the best friends on it. So on that note, Teen Titans Go! would be my favorite show that I’ve worked on for different reasons. I was a fan of the original and I know most of the crew working on the current one. Also, I get to put a lot of myself and my own sense of humor in Teen Titans Go! episodes so it’s really fun for me to board on. Take from that what you will.
Can you talk a little about your experience working on Rick and Morty? Is it the most popular show you’ve worked on so far? Do you have any interesting/crazy fan stories when people find out you’re a director?
Working on the show is like most other shows. It is very difficult and as the seasons go forward, it gets a little more challenging because of the high demand the show calls for. Most people don’t know or recognize I work on the show, one of the better parts about working in animation is enjoying a certain level of anonymity, but there was one time on a boat to Catalina Island for a friend’s birthday, I was wearing my Rick and Morty hoodie and an older guy with his son struck up a conversation with me because he was a fan of the show. I eventually told him I was a director on it, and he was amazed, it was a long 45 min boat ride, but it was fun.
Let’s talk about your own experience in fandom. What makes you geek out and why?
I love movies and cartoon shows. I usually don’t freak out on anything, but I do have my passions, l am a huge fan of Batman: The Animated Series. I’ll catch Bruce Timm around the lot catching a smoke. Never talk to him, he is a very evasive person, but I acknowledge he’s around and I think it’s funny to think he is intentionally avoiding me. Turns out he does that to everyone. Another huge passion is my life is the Japanese manga called One Piece, which is one of the best comic series I’ve read in my life, and it’s still going 20 years strong, where I even talk about it on a podcast.
What is your involvement with the One Piece Podcast?
I’ve been a guest several times on the Podcast, but before that I was a fan of their podcast nearly since its beginning. I was working at WB on The Looney Tunes Show from 2009 where I wanted to talk to someone about the latest One Piece chapter, but no one was around. So, I looked online for a podcast where people were discussing it and I came across it. At some point I was listening to the podcast, and I noticed the crew started quoting lines from the first season of Rick and Morty, and it became too meta for me, so I reached out to Zach and the others to tell them I was a fan of the podcast and a director on the show. They made the mistake of having me come on as a guest, and now they can’t get rid of me.
You’ve been asked to attend Comic Cons and panels as a guest. How do you feel about being such an important voice in the black artist community? Do you hope to influence young black professionals? Do feel your skin color makes a difference in your line of work?
I’ve been extremely fortunate in my work and career. Having been a convention guest at San Diego Comic Con, when I was invited as a guest for the BlerdCon in DC, I was excited because it was the first time anyone asked me to attend any event or panel professionally. I don’t think that’s fair, I honestly don’t feel like my personal voice is important or pivotal to me. I’m just doing my job and what I wanted to do. I grew up with the likes of Bruce Smith, Aaron McGruder, and LeSean Thomas as successful and prominent black artist in my field, who all do incredible work and in addition to them and others, I’m really looking forward to more women of color contributing and getting recognition for their work in the animation industry. We sorely need that representation, not just for butts in the seats (which is important) but for our stories and perspectives to be told.
There are a lot of people in this industry who are here because they had a connection and some kind of guide to facilitate their career. That’s hard to get for anyone, but it’s harder for people of color to gain if we never went to the same schools or live in the same cities as other people who are already working in this very limited field. If my skin color was any help or hindrance to my career, I haven’t really been able to fully tell. Since I’m usually (sadly) the only person that looks like me, most places I’ve work, I can’t make a definitive statement since I’m never involved in the hiring or firing on any production, but I would suspect my name didn’t hurt me. Unfortunately in this country, there have been numerous studies demonstrating that certain ethnic names or even names that are gender specific, could hurt some people of color and women, as it has for others historically and today.
Optimistically, I would say, names and gender shouldn’t matter in this field… if you can do the work, showing off your artistic skills matters more, but I’m not naive to think about all the people who are never given an opportunity to learn or get a change to work because of biases. In many cases, someone has to give you a chance like many white men had for generations in this country and in this industry.
You’re also very politically active, both in real life and on Twitter. You’re a solid voice of support for women as well. What does an average day look like for you in terms of hearing/processing/responding to news and media? I know it’s very important to you.
My day, in this country… is anger, sadness, depressions, rage, and obligations. People suggest that I should back away from social media and try to ignore the terrible things in the world… I’m bad at that. I do like being angry and I’m spoiling for a fight, because none of the problems we have in our societies will be solved by ignoring them and not talking about them, at the very least. After that, we have to get active and practice solidarity… I say getting upset is fine, being sad is also fine… but people have to be involved in positive action against the social forces in our world that creates the plagues of inequality, poverty, injustice, war, greed, and suffering.
It’s like I can see the issues, but feel powerless to do anything about it, and it’s not that I’m afraid… it’s just overwhelming. And I would have to imagine that’s how a lot of us feel because we’ve been dealing with injustices for so long, you just get used to it. And that’s where it gets rough. So when I see inequalities in communities that I may not belong to, but I recognized the signs, having been educated as a black man in America. I also think I’ve been a political junkie for too long, that I’m tired of the bullshit… so I’m just done with our Right-wing, Religious fundamentalism, and Capitalistic insanity and I want to work on some sanity in this country by forcing America further Left politically with groups like the Democratic Socialist of America, Our Revolution, Justice Democrats and many more.
Do you have any pieces of trivia or anything unknown about yourself that you’d like to share?
If I want a good cry, I’ll watch the original Brave Little Toaster, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, or Chopper’s back story from One Piece. And because I grew up in Los Angeles, birthplace of the fast food burger… you can never go wrong with a decent hamburger. I definitely feel like my life has been trying to achieve all the promises I made to myself as a young boy. It’s really hard for me to let things go, but because of that it’s also very isolating because I’m surrounded by ambition and it’s never ending and I’m never good enough. Also, I miss my best friend Evan Gray who was killed on my 30th birthday… he and I grew up together and we were neighbors since we were six. I have to keep doing what I’m doing because I don’t want to let him down.
Loryn is on Twitter or her personal blog. Her debut novel My Starlight, a young adult novel about anime, cosplaying, fandom, love, loss, and friendship will be released August 3rd, 2018 by Affinity Rainbow Publications.