Keely Propp (Bachelor of Animation ’16) looks back on the summer of 2018 as the season that helped redefine her outlook on her career.
The storyboard artist had scored interviews with a series of studios — companies she had wanted to work with for years — only to be rejected, one by one.
“It was a really terrible low point,” says Propp. “I felt like I had failed — like I messed up my dream.”
One year later, Propp was named one of Variety’s Top 10 Animators to Watch in 2019. She also has storyboard credits in five upcoming animated features, including The Addams Family, out tomorrow, and Guillermo Del Toro’s reimagined Pinocchio for Netflix, set for a 2021 release.
Propp says re-assessing her priorities helped change her trajectory. Was she disappointed in not being able to work for a company in fear or losing out on a dream job, or was the rejection more to do with a hurt ego? “I learned during that time that I need to be more concerned with what work will make me happy — not the name of a company,” she says.
It’s a lesson Propp reiterates to the aspiring animators she now mentors: be prepared to hustle and go where the work is.
“I’m always wary of the next downturn in the animation industry…winter is always coming,” laughs Propp. “But right now, with the number of streaming platforms and original productions in the works, it’s a great time to be working as an animator.”
Propp is among a new generation of animators to have found different avenues for animated features to reach audiences. Alongside Pinocchio, Propp is attached to two additional Netflix-bound projects: The Willoughbys, and the recently announced Escape From Hat, directed by Kung Fu Panda and SpongeBob SquarePants: The Movie’s Mark Osbourne.
Conscious of her struggles as a new grad, Propp helps other aspiring storyboard artists, having worked as a mentor for not-profit organization Women in Animation. Through the intensive six-month program, Propp mentored two candidates towards improved storyboard portfolios and industry knowledge.
“You can’t expect to start out on top,” she says. “Take jobs where there is something to be learned and adapt your skills to what they need. Be humble.”
For Propp, the importance of adaptability was made apparent, even before graduation.
While studying at Sheridan, she aspired to work as a 3D animator on feature films.
During Animation Industry Day — an annual event designed to give the graduating class the opportunity to showcase their work to industry professionals — Propp was ready to show off her 3D animation reel. By her own admission, it was not well received.
“Most of the studios didn’t like my film, but then House of Cool asked to see the storyboards for my 2D student film, and said I should focus on that,” she says. “Although they didn’t end up hiring me for their studio, they did put my name forward to work at another studio, which jump-started my career as a storyboard artist.”
Propp encountered a similar situation a few months later. While working at Toronto-based AIC Studios as a storyboard artist for the feature Arctic Dogs, she was contacted by Bron Animation to interview for a storyboarding position on a film directed by Annie-nominated animator Kris Pearn. She didn’t pass the assessment phase of the interview process, but persisted, calling up Pearn directly. “I basically begged Kris for a job,” says Propp. “I told him to let me work for a month, and if it didn’t work out, he could fire me.”
At Bron, Propp honed her storyboarding skills, working alongside other industry veterans. The following year, she hopped from project to project, going from working on Arctic Dogs at AIC, to The Willoughbys at Bron, followed by The Addams Family at Cinesite.
“You’ll hear of movies at Pixar or Disney, where the animators are in a storyboard process for multiple years,” explains Propp. “The projects I’ve worked on usually take less than a year, sometimes because of tight turnarounds, and sometimes because they’re short-term contracts, where you’re only working on a specific role for one film, so you don’t have to be there the entire time. It’s been an advantage to get to work on so many projects in a comparatively short amount of time.”
“I’m always wary of the next downturn in the animation industry…winter is always coming. But right now, with the number of streaming platforms and original productions in the works, it’s a great time to be working as an animator.”
After a short break after wrapping up her work on The Addams Family, Propp changed course again, responding to a Twitter post calling for animators to apply to work on Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio. She submitted her portfolio, and after a long waiting period, found out that she booked the gig.
These days, Propp is fairly focused on Pinocchio – but she doesn’t mind being consumed in the darker world Del Toro is known for. “Some storyboard artists are good at funny drawings and scenes, and some are good at action – each takes a specific set of skills,” she says. “I love horror movies and take a lot of my inspiration from them. It’s a genre I love working in.”
Continuing to stay nimble in an ever-evolving industry, Propp is trying her hand at directing. Tapping into her love of horror, Propp’s psychological thriller short, 516 Penrose Avenue, recently premiered on the festival circuit at the 2019 Great Lakes International Film Festival. She’s also hoping to revisit Home Hunting – her capstone film from Sheridan.
“Back then I had a lot of vision, but not a lot of technical skill,” she says. “I think I’ve gathered a bit more experience over the past few years and have a better idea of how to execute on those visions.”