Work/Life: PandaPanther on parenting, work and creating amazing spit

We’ve come to know NYC-based PandaPanther for their playful, character-driven work. Since 2006, Jonathan Garin and Naomi Nishimura have directed casts of colorful creatures on battlefields, dance floors and ethereal dreamscapes. Their latest effort, a game promo for Activision’s Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure (see above), continues their tradition of fashioning fantastical flights of fancy that brim with delightful details.

But instead of going behind the scenes for that production, we wanted to go behind the scenes of their personal lives. Jonathan and Naomi aren’t just business partners, they’re parents. They’ve created a lifestyle that attempts to integrate raising a kid with growing a studio.

Jonathan was kind enough to pull back the curtain, so to speak, and get real about work/life.

How did you and Naomi meet?

We had mutual friends and officially met when we worked together as freelancers back in 2003. We hit it off during the Pictoplasma festival in Berlin in 2004. Been together ever since.

How did the decision to start PandaPanther come about, and how was it when you were just starting out? Can you share a few key moments in those early years?

Initially, we just needed a name or identity we could use when we worked on projects together, as we were starting out with personal projects. We wanted to be able to get totally immersed in an identity bigger than just a literal name or place, so PandaPanther came about because it represented both of us together in a different dimension.

A big moment was leaving freelance and deciding not to take any more bookings. Around that time Naomi and I were at the bank setting up an account for PandaPanther when her phone rang. It was a producer inquiring about her availability, but she turned it down and when asked why, she told them she actually had started a new company and was no longer taking freelance bookings.

Five minutes later my phone rang, and it happened to be the same producer, and I told him the same story. He then called me back shortly after and asked, “You wouldn’t happen to have started a company with Naomi?” And the greatest thing was, they turned out to be PandaPanther’s first client.

Another key moment was being “officially open for business.” It was the first time we had to answer the phone, and I remember hearing “Hello, PandaPanther” out loud. It sounded funny — Naomi and I both looked at each other, and wondered if this was really OK.

Over time we’ve been reassured that the name is cool; sometimes you need to hear it to believe it.

What defines you as a creative duo?

We are defined predominantly by our childhood experiences and dreams, mixing up our favorite things into something fun and exciting for people to chew on. We are always looking for new portals into the many worlds around us — inside bushes, under rocks, in the trees — so that we can tell a stories about it when we get back.

How do you find the balance between working together and functioning as a couple?

Sometimes balance is not possible, because work can drive us to the brinks of insanity. There are plenty of working couples out there that know exactly what it’s like. Having a baby, however, changes things a bit to the point where we’re focusing now on how to function as parents, too.

When we’re not at work, we try to not make a habit of talking about it if it’s not necessary, so we can separate from it a bit. Work has a way of creeping up in almost any situation or conversation. For example, a romantic candlelit dinner could be quickly squandered with a text message about a client posting.

That could mean sometimes having to change plans, or show up at work with our baby on a weekend instead of at the park with friends, but we make the best of it and try not to get stressed out. Our daughter really loves playing at the office anyway, so it’s easy to forget about the stress when she’s enjoying herself so much.

Having a baby has also brought more structure to our life. We have more clear divisions between personal life and work, keeping most of the baby crying and chaos away from the office, and in turn keeping most of the work-related chaos away from home and the baby. That all helps us function better as a couple.

Have your professional goals changed after your daughter was born?

Professional goals are pretty much the same as always — we want to keep doing good work and have our sights set on bigger long-form projects to inject a good amount of fun and magic into the world. In fact we landed a big campaign for ATT the week our daughter was born, so conference calls with clients were happening in hospital hallways. It’s been exciting times.

Many people say having a child radically changes your entire outlook on life. I’m curious if this happened to you both, especially in the creative sense, as so many of us are defined largely by our work in this field.

Well, it does change things radically, and where that starts is with sleep.

We are all creatures of sleep and form habits based on patterns. What a baby does is throw you into a spin cycle, where things become exciting, overwhelming, exhausting and exhilarating all at the same time. It’s kind of like being at a party that never ends. Basically, you just can’t be as lazy as you used to be. It doesn’t mean you have to stop being or doing what defines you, you just need to be smarter about how you spend your time.

It also means that all those toys we’ve been collecting will soon belong to somebody else!

How do you balance parenting with work demands?

A huge part of balancing things was moving our office closer to home to cut our commute time out of the equation. We wanted to be sure we could spend time with our daughter and see her more often, and it’s been working out really well.

We recently finished a huge job. Since Naomi and I have different strengths, there are different times when we are more or less needed to keep the production moving right. In this case, I was more heavily involved up front in the animation phase of the project, and I had to put in some hard efforts at the beginning, whereas Naomi helped to finish the project to every final detail. So in the closing weeks of the job, Naomi would stay at work consecutively late for a few weeks, while I took on other duties at home with our daughter.

At one point, we were working on finalizing an element, which happened to be spit flying off a character’s tongue. Who would think we’d be fine tuning CG spit at 4 am on a Friday night? So on that night, Naomi came home at 3 am to wake me up so that I could go back to PP to work with the team.

I stayed until 7 am, when I decided to go back home and grab our daughter, who likes to get up around that time. I brought her back to the office and let Naomi sleep until 10 am. Then she returned to finish up. I went back home with the baby and let our nanny take over, then caught up on sleep, returning to PP at 3 pm, and the CG spit was looking amazing!

We take turns filling in where one is needed, while the other makes up for it. It’s teamwork at home and the office.

Are you still able to find time for personal projects?

Yes absolutely, although we have to make time rather than find it. It usually has to be exchanged for something important like sleeping or acting like a normal social human being.

Thank you very much for your time!

Credits

Client: Activision, Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure

Spots Title: Menace
Airdate: October 2011

SKYLANDERS “MENACE” CREW LIST 

Producers:
Amy Fahl
Angela Foster (director’s cut)

Directors:
Jonathan Garin, Naomi Nishimura

Technical Direction:
Adam Burke
Stereo Supervise
Navid Bagherzadeh

Design:
Diana Park
Ivy Tai

Storyboard:
Fred Fassberger
Paul Boanno
David Reuss

Editing:
Maria Diakova
Alan Ortiz 

Set Building & Art Department:
Junko Shimizu
Janet Kim
Shinya Nakamura
Kazushige Yoshitake

Matte Painting:
Tim Matney
Andrew Leung
Nick Giassullo

Modeling/Photogrammetry:
Sam Dewitt
Eric Xu
Jeeah Huh
Ari Hwang
Herculano Fernandes
Cristina Aponte

Rigging:
Jason Bikofsky
Amy Hay
Zhenting Zhou

Previs:
Richard Cayton
Adam Burke

Character Animation:
Han Hu (lead)
Guy Bar’ely (lead)
Henning Koczy
Sam Crees
Jordan Blit
Doug Litos
Danny Speck
Jeff Kim
Jared Eng

Junior Animators:
Doug Rappin
Chris Devito
Darren Chang
Chang Pei Wu

3D Effects Animators:
Reggie Fourmyle
Rich Magan 

Lighting & Texturing:
Dave White (lead)
Ari Hwang
Herculano Fernandes
Laura Sayan Gabai
Lucy Choi
Christina Ku
Jeeah Huh
Carl Fong
Cristina Aponte (intern) 

Compositing:
Matt St. Leger (lead)
Gerald Mark Soto
Chris Gereg
Adam Yost
Navid Bagherzadeh
Gabriel Regentin
Bryan Cobonpue
Sohee Sohn

Yingshu Lai (intern)

Production Coordinators:
Lauren Simpson
Jazeel Gayle

Production Office Manager:
Erica Armstrong

Systems Rendering TD:
Craig Zimmerman

Agency: 72andSunny
Creative Director(s): Jason Norcross, Bryan Rowles
Group Brand Director: Alex Schneider
Designer: Jake Kahana
Copywriter(s): Tim Wolfe, Mike Van Linda
Brand Manager(s): Ellie Schmidt, Mandy Hein
Agency Producer: Danielle Tarris
Assistant Producer: Becca Purice

Production Co.: Caviar
Director: Jorma Taccone
EP: Michael Sagol 

VFX: MPC
EP: Asher Edwards
Lead Colorist: Mark Gethin
Lead Artist: Ben Davidson

24 Comments

Priyesh Puthan

Life of these guys sounds all but not balanced. The article left me with three conclusions:
- work and life in this industry doesn`t seem to work together very well
- better not have kids (but that was clear to me long before…)
- it puts an enormous amount of stress onto your relationship and familiy life when working with your partner as all business matter seem to be present at all times, and what happens when things don`t work well?

John Fischer

This doesn’t sound very balanced to me. Kudo’s to them for making it work, but taking the kid to the office on weekends and working until 7 AM, conference calls in the hospital, etc…. I guess I’m not sure where the balance is.

They do great work, but this seems more along the lines of not having a life so you can do awesome work. I agree, this sounds pretty stressful to me too.

Anonymous

working with over 40 other computer graphics artists … they are either exaggerating a bit, or not delegating well.

John Bermingham

ahhhhhhh! this sounds like a nightmare!

Lilian Darmono

One of the most fun, personal interviews I have ever read. Your lives do sound very full-on though…amazing that you can stay so positive and upbeat about it all! 

Phillip Tibballs

Some people love what they do so much that they are willing to work like this. I have no problem with that.

Mariano von Trani

It doesn`t matter if people uninvolved with these guy`s lives have a problem with it or not, but what about them and their child?

Rachel Riggs

Why is it that you only have a problem with your mother having a business?  Presumably your father was off working as well.  Women have a right to have a career as well as have children as much as men do, but you seem to completely glaze over that.  I say, kudos to your mom.

Mariano von Trani

ehm, you seem to have a lot of fantasy – next time you better ask before spreading wild, totally stupid speculations.

Diana Park

U seem to be writing just to argue with people. Regardless of what people write back you’re just repeating the same thing over and over again and insulting other posters by calling them stupid… I worked as a designer at PandaPanther for this project and Jon and Naomi were very reasonable with work hours and expectations. I was designer on the project for a month and did not have a SINGLE late night. They were great parents to boot and it was inspiring to see great people working hard doing what they love and also raising the happiest baby I have ever met.

Mariano von Trani

she wrote “Why is it that you only have a problem with your mother having a business?” – that`s plainly stupid to write because I never wrote I had a problem with that. 

and don`t tell me how I`m supposed to respond to other people, I`ll keep on until I get a sufficient answer, not from you, of course.

Diana Park

u did write that that

goodgeneral

knowing those guys in person, they are great parents and they’re there for their daughter: i think that’s what matters most. 

They might not be the conventional couple, but as long as they love their kid and love what they do I don’t see why you have to sacrifice one thing or another.

I also think that the times are different from our parents generation: the father’s role is drastically different.  My dad never changed diapers or helped around the house and that was normal.  The mother/women’s role in the society is different, as more women have places in the work and involves in the creatives.
We can only do our best to be as the best parents as possible in the situation given and do what we love to do.

Phil Hew

This was a great read. Personally I don’t have a family and am currently only in a light relationship so I can’t say I have the experience they have. But, I do find that in order to do awesome work, produce material that is beyond what the average artist can do, this kind of exchange is necessary. No talented artist I know has ever lived a balanced lifestyle where he/she has the social life of a rockstar, has time to go and do cardio, read a book, have some “me time” and still be able to commit time to their work. It simply cannot be done. Something has to give. And it’s always life.

In this situation it looks like they have exchanged what we perceive as a “normal” family upbringing. Each family is different, as would their dynamics. How they handle it as a family is up to them, and if they are able to function and live life like that, that’s great! It’s not for everyone I’ll admit, and one has to wonder what kind of strain running a studio within their relationship would be like. However, I am impressed that both can work as a team in the same industry. My current gf has only a small idea of what kind of work I do.
Personally I hate how this is how the industry has become. Since when did it become normal for artists to get completely abused to the point of poor health, low pay, and huge amounts of stress? Being an accountant has never looked so appealing.

Good luck to the folks and pandapanther though. I only wish wellbeing for your new family.

Anonymous

I am a freelancer in this industry, although I also do other things which gives me a bit of a respite.   I also have kids, and cannot put in extreme hours (roughly, more than 12 hours in any given day, or more than 10 straight days).   I have seen some pretty egregious stuff….a guy who worked for a top motion studio as a “freelancer” for 4 years on a H1B visa, working 14 hours a day and doubling as the systems guy,  people working round the clock for days at a time.   Twice in recent months I have had bookings which were so last minute that I was asked (in one case demanded) to come in the same day for a two week booking.   Although we are (somewhat) well paid, there is a lot of borderline – or outright – abuse going on.   And extreme hours does not necessarily mean better work, sometimes it points to a disorganized pipeline or inability to stand up to clients who often don’t know what they want and don’t understand the process.  

Anonymous

The more Motionographer tries to talk about work/life balance the more I’m glad I left the field.

C’mon Motionographer, are these really your best examples?:
- A guy who abandoned his family for a year.
- A couple that works until 4am to modify digital spit.

This series is about rationalizing workaholism, not finding work/life balance.

I have an MFA from a prestigious film school.  Won some awards.  Landed senior job titles and creative roles at prestigious entertainment companies.  

I’m also in my 40′s.  Divorced.  No Kids.  Much less energy for those constant 14 hour days.  Dying alone became a very real prospect to me.  I re-evaluated my life.  

I love animation, design and creativity.  But I realized what it “takes” in this industry isn’t just talent.  It talent PLUS the willingness to give up a personal life. You are expected to work EVERY waking moment of your life.  

So I left.  I’m proud of my accomplishments, but in the end, who cares?  What was the point of an award or a big salary if you don’t have anybody to share it with or the time to enjoy it?

Who was I trying to impress?  Was anybody really going to remember my projects in 10 years?  What’s more important, an anonymous viewer who wants to see your animation, or an actual person who wants to see you face-to-face?  I started designing my life around the latter.  

Now I have a wonderful girlfriend and I spend plenty of time with her.  I have normal working hours.  While some people are polishing saliva and drool for clients at 4am, I’m hanging out with my sweetie, enjoying life.  

My reel is probably going to suffer.  It’s sad, but the trade-off is definitely worth it.  

Anonymous

I applaud this….but I would also add that you CAN do great work without insane hours….in fact, working every second of your life is counterproductive.   If you are technically proficient, and have talent, you can do great things in 40 or 50 hours a week.  Much of the crazy working hours comes from the client, not the artists….clients who pick a spot to death for things that nobody who isn’t watching the spot 100 times in a row would ever notice, and clients who tear a job down to its foundations after it’s 95% finished.  

Justin Cone

Guess this post doesn’t count? http://motionographer.com/2011/10/12/worklife-the-40-hour-work-week/

Or this one?
http://motionographer.com/2011/10/18/worklife-kids/

And the series isn’t over. We’ll be talking to a studio soon that actually does try to enforce limits on workers’ time.
We never promised to present work/life balance. The series is simply about work and life and different people’s approaches. I fight work/life issues every day. I, too, was divorced largely for losing that balance in the past.
Furthermore, “balance” as a concept is inherently subjective. Your balance and my balance and PandaPanther’s balance might all be very different. But you can’t tell someone their balance is wrong any more than you can tell them that they’re happy (or sad). That’s up to them to decide.

Mariano von Trani

yes justin, but let`s face it, a lot of people won`t admit that their lives are living hell, heck, most of us developed some kind of idealized world view and lie to ourselves to think it`s “ok” like it is – I`ve seem this too often to just swallow it that simply. but even if they (this panda guys) are totally ok with their lives it gives kind of an impression to the industry (us) that it might be the reality we have to live with. and for the freelancers between us this is a depressing prospect.

Panda Panther

Hi This is Jon from PandaPanther,

I felt it was important just to state that its not always like this at our company.  We do have times when things get rough, but as with any big project, things usually get pretty busy as the deadline approaches.  The story about the spit.. was intended to be comedic because it doesn’t really happen too often, and was an example of how such small details can go unnoticed, but at the same time require dedication to push through.  

In “normal” times we do get to leave the office quite regularly at reasonable hours, and as we mentioned, because we live so close, we actually do see our daughter more than most working parents do. 

Reading some of your comments makes us realize that we may have painted a one sided picture, but in giving this interview we did not for-see that, we were trying to give some insight to the extremes.  It wouldn’t be exciting to read about us going home on time day after day now would it? 

Mariano von Trani

hi Jon,

nice to hear from you here!

about your final question: I think what a lot of us would have liked to hear from you is, if you are trying to maintain a “normal” life for you and your freelancers (despite the report above…) and how you try it, because unfortunately most of us have to cope with those never ending periods of long days – and (pardon) a lot of us freelancers don`t regard it as overly exciting to keep working until your head is spinning – it doesn`t produce better work (quite the opposite) and drains both creativity and enthusiasm. some may say now that they can go on and on when they`re in an exciting project, that is and may be true (for some time), but I made the totally strange experience at several “sweatshop companies”, that almost all people there were totally unhappy with the situation but never complained nor even spoke to the colleagues as they (me including) were afraid showing weakness and not getting a job in future – only several years later (!) did some of them tell me their view.

so much about this – wish you guys and your daughter all the best,

m.

Easy Animator

I can say with little reservation that if you find staying until 4am to tweak minutia is something exciting, you and I have vastly different ideas on what are the contributing factors to a good quality of life. Good work produced while maintaining a good life/work balance is a lot more interesting than yet another story about how a project got out of hand and someone had to stay until 4am to tweak minutia (If I had a dollar for every time…).  Just saying.  Even still, nice work.

Peter Stanik

Two of the hardest working, passionate people I know in the business. 

zkong

I think that allot of people have drank the kool-aid about making an industry be their life and their creative platform. it also poses a question on personal/artistic value. the notion that people love what they do is partly true in this case because this is not self motivated. this is commerce. and yes I do work till 2am or 4am at times, for my own projects. I think people still confuse between commercial art and plain unadulterated self motivated art. also the major emphasis on studio work has inspire many (me included) at the same time has played a major part in creating this illusion that industry work for a great studio is the Holy Grail for motion graphics artist. Yes it is great to work in a great studio and do kick ass work been happy to have had that experience but i don’t make that in any form my artistry gage. 

“The Artist has a special task and duty: the task of reminding men of their humanity and the promise of their creativity” -Lewis Mumford
    

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