Degree: Bachelor of Animation
Year of graduation: 2009
Storytelling and happy surprises
How Mark Sperber found his place in the animation industry
In his career, Mark Sperber has had lots of experience rolling with the punches.
“Be prepared for happy surprises,” Sperber told students during a visit to Sheridan’s Trafalgar campus earlier this year.
Sperber returned to Sheridan in February to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its Animation program and reunite with other alumni from the Honours Bachelor of Animation program’s class of 2009. He also took the time to share career advice and lessons learned with current animation students.
As a student, Sperber was focused on becoming a traditional 2D animator. Unfortunately, he graduated at a time when the animation industry was in transition, and getting a job out of school proved difficult. Sperber set about networking and gathering contacts, first in Europe, and then returning to Canada.
“My whole career at Sheridan as a student, I wanted to be a traditional animator,” he says. “As heartbreaking as I was when I realized that that wasn’t going to happen, it forced me to figure out another way to fit in the industry that I love.”
Eventually, Sperber decided to take a leap of faith and flew to L.A. He was able to get a few gigs through friends, and bounced around from job to job, trying his hand at design, animation and character layout.
“It wasn’t until I was assigned a storyboarding gig that I felt the same sense of familiarity that I did when I was doing 2D animation,” he says. “It wasn’t just something I felt like I could specialize in, but also something I felt passionate about.”
Sperber worked in TV for a few years, working on series such as Kung Fu Panda: The Legends of Awesomeness, but was interested in transitioning to feature films. “TV animation is very fast paced, which leans on gut instincts and quick decisions. It can be thrilling but doesn’t always leave room for exploration,” he explains. “In features, you’re expected to elevate the page by really digging deep into the story, all the while not over-complicating or over-thinking it.”
In an effort to broaden his understanding of storytelling, Sperber took evening classes and put together storyboards outside of his day-job projects. The work paid off, as Sperber has since held storyboard positions at Nickelodeon Animation Studios, DreamWorks and, now, Sony Pictures Animation, with credits including Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2, Trolls and Trollhunters: Tales of Arcadia.
When he was promoted to Head of Story for Sony’s The Emoji Movie in 2017, Sperber says he encountered new challenges, supervising a team of story artists, and navigating the logistics of working with producers and management on budgets and deadlines. The experience was like no other, Sperber says, and was essential to his growth as a leader. He learned how to delegate instructions from the director to the story team and collaborate with different departments.
“Animation is such an amazing powerful tool, allowing the possibility to impact people of all ages in a positive way.”
But Sperber’s heart is still all about the storytelling. He’s currently independently working on an animated short based off a true family story. He hopes to have it completed by the end of 2020. “It’s very personal and luckily I’m getting the support from my wife, who’s also an artist,” he says. Also on tap for Sperber is helping the story crew of Vivo — an animated epic musical adventure with songs by Lin Manuel Miranda.
Having a supportive network is something Sperber has relied on throughout his career. This realization inspired Sperber to organize a 10-year reunion for his Animation program’s graduating class in early 2019, bringing together former classmates to share their experiences with current Sheridan Animation students.
“I knew all of my old classmates were working in the industry — some in Los Angeles, some in Vancouver, some in Toronto and Asia,” he explains. “I thought it would be great not only for us all to come back to our old stomping grounds, but to also share our knowledge. What’s it like to be working in the animation industry today? How can students prepare? We wanted to give back in some way.”
At the three-day conference, Sperber and fellow alumni offered advice on everything from contract negotiations to technology. For Sperber, it’s exciting to see future animators share the same enthusiasm and drive to tell stories in a compelling and interesting way.
“Animation is such an amazing powerful tool, allowing the possibility to impact people of all ages in a positive way,” he says. “We all remember that one movie, show, story that helped shape us, gave us courage or shelter, and gave us the confidence we needed to take on our day. Animation was that vessel for me growing up and hopefully I can do the same in return.”