What I Learned From Working on Blue’s Clues • Part IV – The First Lesson

What I Learned From Working on Blue’s Clues • Part IV

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far, away… I worked on a little TV show called Blue’s Clues. If you’re just learning this now, go back and start with Part I: Before Blue’s Clues.

Part IV: The First Lesson

Since this series is called What I Learned…, I figure I should probably get around to that soon. Maybe the first lesson I should share is don’t title a blog post series being about lessons until you have a better idea of what those lessons are. But, I titled it and here we are, which explains why this post took so long to write. I originally decided to frame my experiences on Blue’s Clues within lessons for some reason, so I’ll stick with that.

Let’s start off with a lesson that should be obvious because it’s actually in the show’s theme song. Somehow it’s one that I’ve needed to relearn (repeatedly) over the years.

It’s ironic that we were working so hard to foster a sense of self-worth in preschool kids, but as adults, we often struggled to maintain that in ourselves.

Because you’re really smart

Before I get into what this lesson is about, you’ll need some background on what I actually did on the show from day to day.

As a storyboard artist, my job was to break down scripts into visual chunks. The storyboards would be used all the way through production so the animation, design, and art departments could work their magic.

Even though the test I did to get hired was drawn by hand on paper, the storyboards we made for the show were mostly digital. Rather than draw Blue, Steve, or backgrounds over and over again, we accessed huge drives that stored their images in all kinds of positions. It was a big time saver, which – when creating a weekly TV show with tight deadlines – is something you want to do as much as possible.

The things we would draw were new characters or objects that we might not have on hand. Then we would scan those in and create the scene in Photoshop. Once we had the scene set up, we imported the script, inserted images, and wrote stage direction in Quark. It was a consistent format that the rest of the team could easily follow. Here’s an example from the first episode that I ever worked on, Blue’s Play:

The library of Steves was ginormous.

We had to figure out how to fit everything into the shot, keeping in mind the scale of the characters, objects, and backgrounds. Sometimes things didn’t work out the way the script was written and we had to make changes along the way. Thankfully, I didn’t have to make all those decisions all by my lonesome. Each episode’s director would sketch small thumbnails to demonstrate how they wanted to set up a shot. Sometimes they would hire me on the side to create them, which was sort of like doing two storyboards, but I loved the work.

A page of thumbnails I created for a director

We had several meetings throughout preproduction on an episode. There were meetings to go over the script, review storyboards, and revisions for each. Additionally, I would sit down with each episode’s director multiple times as we walked through every scene together – mostly verbally, sometimes physically.

We were serious about getting work done in the meetings, but that didn’t stop things from taking a turn into deep discussions of Bert and Ernie’s relationship on Sesame Street, or how that Talking Heads song would fit perfectly into this skidoo sequence. Pop culture, world events, Homer Simpson, and even religion often spilled into our discussions. Shared cultural references were peppered into the show as little Easter eggs that sometimes only we (subversively and proudly) noticed on airing.

The Art and Design departments would use our storyboards, working from our loose sketches to create new characters or backgrounds. Sometimes a small drawing I did for a storyboard would wind up on the show almost exactly as I designed it, which was always fun to see.

My Hippo design from Epsiode 323, Blue’s Play was deceptively simple but apparently hit the mark.

It could be an adventure just walking to the breakroom for a coffee.

But I don’t feel really smart

For anyone to participate in creating Blue’s Clues, you of course had to be creative. You also needed an innate sense of comic timing, a childlike ability to be silly and sweet, and be highly intelligent. When I say anyone, I mean everyone, from the Executive Producers to the Administrative Assistants. In fact, that was one of the best things about my time on the show. Every single person I worked with at Blue’s Clues had those qualities in spades. It could be an adventure just walking to the breakroom for a coffee.

At the time, when I marveled at the amazing team of creatives and their wonderful qualities, I always excluded one person from that consideration. That unfortunate person was me.

I often showed up to story meetings with a knotted stomach. Mostly I saw myself as a backward country bumpkin who somehow managed to slip unnoticed into a Long Island Gatsby soiree. I was working with smart, worldly people who had been to Wesleyan, Rhode Island School of Design, and NYU. I hadn’t even finished college. I wasn’t smart, I reckoned, I just barely squeaked by on charm and banter. I told myself that I would never be on their level, no matter how hard I tried.

Of course, none of that was true. The longer I worked on the show and the more I got to know my coworkers, the less I felt like an outsider. I had to work hard to remember the times that our animation director would refer to me as “brilliant,” or when I could turn a table full of people into hysterics with a simple one-liner. I was complimented. I was promoted, I got salary increases and invitations to work on special projects. The minimizing of my talent and intelligence had been completely fabricated in my own head.

I chatted with my peers on the show and after a while, I learned that a lot of the ones I greatly admired felt the same way as me. Somehow, alongside the immensely creative work we were putting into the world, we felt like phonies. It’s ironic that we were working so hard to foster a sense of self-worth in preschool kids, but as adults, we often struggled to maintain that in ourselves.

I invented imposter syndrome

Okay, I didn’t really. I think it’s been around for a few millennia. But I certainly invented some brand new ways of experiencing imposter syndrome, even in the bright light of evidence that I was doing just fine.

You’d think in the half-century I’ve been on this planet that I would only need to learn this lesson once. In fact, I’ve had to relearn it just about every time I embark on a new project or work with new people. I’m getting better at recognizing it earlier, but sometimes it still sneaks up and nips at my ankles.

If there’s anything I would change about my time working on Blue’s Clues, it would be my perception of myself and my worth to the team. Not overly adjusting upwards to the point of arrogance, just tweaked a couple of notches higher so I could digest my sushi during a meeting.

Next Up

In Part V, I’ll share another important lesson I learned on the show: When an opportunity comes up to do more, take it.


Tune in… another day, for the continuation of What I Learned From Working on Blue’s Clues!


What I Learned From Working on Blue’s Clues • Part III

What I Learned From Working on Blue’s Clues • Part III

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far, away… I worked on a little TV show called Blue’s Clues. If you’re just learning this now, go back and start with Part I: Before Blue’s Clues.

Part III: Okay, I’m here. Now what?

1515 Broadway today. It doesn’t look much different than it did in 1999.

Imposter Syndrome-zilla

I still remember my first day walking into The Viacom Building at 1515 Broadway. I felt like a country mouse. Taking the N train from Queens and navigating Manhattan was pretty easy, but I had no idea what working in an animation studio would be like. Thankfully my boss, Nancy, was friendly and made a big effort to make me feel welcome before I even got there.

Email from Nancy to me, welcoming me on board at Blue's Clues.
Yes, I printed this email. It was 1999. We printed emails, okay?

When I got off the elevator at the 46th floor, I was worried that I was in the wrong place. It looked like a storage space, or my old art school. Later on I learned that sometimes new shows got placed into less-than-optimal spaces in case they didn’t catch on. Blue’s Clues was into its third season, very much a hit, and we soon moved up the street to swanky new digs (more on that later).

Nancy and I met up and she took me to meet my fellow storyboard artists, Kevin Cardinali and David Levy. Even though the furniture and walls were lacking in style, the equipment was all top notch. I was surprised to learn that the storyboards were mostly compiled in the computer, and everyone had two monitors (two!). Back then they used behemoth CRTs, emitting their special rays from the tubes inside. It’s a wonder that anyone over the age of 25 can still see.

Nancy then led me to a conference room where we crashed the Animation Department’s weekly meeting. It was a little intimidating to be introduced to the group, mostly because I realized that I was wearing a striped shirt and khakis. What was I thinking? I’ll never know. No one harassed me for it or threw anything heavy at me, so I took that as a testament to the friendliness of the crew. These people were the lifeblood of the show, so their opinions meant the world to me.

I can’t remember if I met the creators of the show or Steve Burns that day or later. I was mostly trying to keep myself from peeing my pants and wondering if I would fit in. Any moment, I expected someone to come out of a room, point at me and shout, “That one! That’s the imposter!” Security would escort me off the premises and that would be the end of my career in animation, before it even got started.

Today, I can gladly report that did not happen. I just met a bunch of informal, friendly, and sometimes weird artists – at least as weird as me, so I increasingly felt like I would fit in just fine.

D.J. in Wonderland

First of all, it’s New York City. Love it or hate it, nothing compares to the experience. The difference between living in NYC and being a tourist is kind of like looking at a bottle of whiskey and getting drunk on a bottle of whiskey. I got drunk on NYC. I love living in big cities and NYC is the big city. It’s not for everyone. It’s gritty. It’s loud. You learn quickly how to dodge taxi cabs. But hey, you want a coffee? It’s right over there. A slice of pizza? Take your pick, which corner? Want to pick up a book or a funky old lamp? No problem. NYC has you covered, my friend. Also, the diversity of people just can’t be compared with anywhere else. And who’s taking the subway? Everyone. Lawyers, actors, bakers, construction workers, homeless people. It’s the great common denominator of life in New York.

Working in the Viacom building was not boring, either. It was MTV HQ, and on any given day walking through the lobby, I would see actors and musicians from my favorite bands. There was a coffee bar in the main lobby and a company cafeteria called the Lodge on a 4th floor enclosed terrace. As a teen, I had been glued to MTV all day, every day. In 1999, I still had my MTV geek card glued to my forehead. One day while waiting for coffee I turned around and saw MTV VJ Alan Hunter standing behind me. Suddenly, I was thirteen again and I couldn’t manage to say a word.

The Lodge was more of the same. You never knew who would be waiting in line with you while you picked up your stir fry, pizza, pasta, or whatever special they were creating that day. The only way you could get in was by swiping your building badge, which also served as a way to pay for your food – the money came right out of your paycheck. After only a week, I felt like a veteran when I helped a well-known producer/director figure out how to fix his key card at the entrance. I was in ’80s heaven.

I also learned to avoid leaving the building around 4:00 PM. That was when Carson Daly was hosting Total Request Live and Times Square was wall-to-wall teens. We could hear the screams on the 46th floor.

Time to make the storyboards

Sometimes it was easy to forget that I was actually hired to do a job and not gawk at celebrities all day. It was time to get down to business and do the work.

I was terrified.

Read Part IV now: The First Lesson


Tune in next week for the continuation of What I Learned From Working on Blue’s Clues!


What I Learned From Working on Blue’s Clues • Part II

Family portrait. I’m hiding behind the Thinking Chair.

What I Learned From Working on Blue’s Clues • Part II

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far, away… I worked on a little TV show called Blue’s Clues. If you’re just learning this now, go back and Read Part I: Before Blue’s Clues.

Part II: I Got the Job!

Getting in: The Dark Horse

Previously on WILFWOBC, we learned that I desperately wanted a career in animation, yet somehow managed to find myself in the U.S. Air Force.

It was the sort of plan that friends and family members did not exactly understand or support. Sometimes even I couldn’t see where things were headed, exactly. I would be loading cargo onto a C-5 Galaxy somewhere in the world and suddenly take stock in my situation. On one hand I would be in awe of where I was and what I was doing and on the other hand be wondering how the hell this made any sense for my future in animation.

I just had to hang in there and trust that I had known what I was doing when I signed up.

As it turned out, four years went by pretty fast. Somewhere in between assignments, I even managed to get married. Jenni and I eloped in Las Vegas and spent our first two years of marriage living in a cozy German apartment. I was only 22 years old, and as much as I loved our time in Germany, I was getting itchy to continue my noble quest to become an animator.

In September of 1994, I was honorably discharged and we moved to Chicago where I had started my education in art. I was ready to get back to school and my G.I. Bill was burning a hole in my pocket. It was an exciting time. That is, until I discovered that my old college didn’t accept the G.I. Bill.

If you’re thinking that I might have wanted to check into that before joining up four years previously, you’re correct. What I lacked in checking details, I made up for with blind enthusiasm. I just started making art and tried to think of a new plan.

Spoiler: I never did make it back to school and to this day I still don’t have any kind of degree. When a prospective employer asked, I would deflect the conversation and talk about my experience in the military. It worked many times over the years.

Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans

John Lennon

Learning about babies and animation at the same time

Over the next five years, Jenni and I had moved back to Phoenix, she birthed two beautiful babies, and I worked in several jobs that had very little to do with animation. How’s that plan coming along? I would ask myself almost daily. I was happy in my personal life, yet massively frustrated in my career movement.

We lived in a tiny apartment, had almost no money to our names, and I had no idea what I was doing. I did know that I wanted to make animated films. One day, I realized that I could still do that without getting hired somewhere. I studied books, analyzed films and learned the mechanics of 2D animation.

This was the 90s, so there were no affordable animation programs for the home computer. But I soon realized that making films in the computer was the way to go. First I would animate frame-by-frame using the old school method of pencil and light table. Then I devised a system using Corel PhotoPaint where I would scan my drawings and assemble them into GIFs or AVI files. It was crude, but it did the job.

Looking back later, I would realize that I didn’t achieve the things I wanted in spite of having a family and very little money. I achieved them because of those things. Nothing motivated me more than trying to show my kids what was possible, and no one encouraged me more than my wife. I was extremely fortunate.

I entered my first film in a NYC animation festival and waited. At the same time, I was applying to studios like crazy. I would send out portfolios, some of them several times to the same person, every three months. I agonized over them. Sometimes I never heard back. Sometimes I got encouraging notes from HR or directors. A few times I got back tests to do storyboards. I was winging the whole thing, but at least I was moving forward.

I also spent a lot of time in the forums at a site called Animation World Network. In the late ’90s, it was my social media. I talked to other animators, both fledgling and pro. I got feedback, advice, and even managed to give some advice and how-to info. It was a hugely valuable resource and, as we’ll see later, was the linchpin in getting a job.

Okay, now we talk about Blue’s Clues.

In late 1998, I saw an ad for a little show on Nickelodeon called Blue’s Clues. They were looking for a storyboard artist and I seemed to fit the qualifications (except for that whole degree thing, but, well, you know). I had never heard of the show (we couldn’t afford cable), so we got some videos of the first season. After we started watching, the first thing Jenni said was, “That’s like your art!” She was right. Aside from the animated characters, there was a scene where Steve was sitting in his Thinking Chair with his Handy Dandy Notebook open, and images were floating above his head. It was almost as if I had made the little drawings myself, in my own style. One of my first film experiments had been a combination of live action (my son) and animation. The show was everything I wanted to work on. Great art, fun music, and a show for kids that I could get behind wholeheartedly.

I immediately sent in my portfolio and resume and sat in my own Thinking Chair to wait.

It didn’t take long for a test to arrive in the mail. Nancy, the lead storyboard artist who was doing the hiring, wanted me to get it back to her as soon as possible because the producers needed to make a decision. It suddenly occurred to me that the studio was in New York City. I told Jenni that maybe there was no point in doing a test for a position that was all the way across the country. The other tests I was doing were for jobs in Los Angeles, which seemed more reasonable. I was already getting discouraged and I had barely cracked open the test. She cut off that line of thinking right away and convinced me that I needed to do the test anyway.

Jenni took the kids out so I could focus, and I dove into the script.

It all happened so fast.

After I mailed in my storyboard test, it was hard to focus on anything else. I went back to work at the sign shop where I had managed to talk my way into a graphic design job. It was good to be getting paid for creating art, and at least I was in the neighborhood of where I wanted to be. I still had my eye on animation.

A week later, Nancy emailed. She wanted to set up a phone interview with her and one of the producers. Even though I wouldn’t be seen and only heard (thankfully this was pre-Zoom era), I was more nervous than I had been since the 8th grade talent show. Nancy and Wendy were both friendly and it felt more like chatting than a formal interview. Then the $600,000,000 question came up: Will you be able to relocate quickly if offered the position?

Without hesitating, I said that of course, it would be no problem. In reality, I had no way of knowing what the hell I was doing or how it was going to work. I wanted the job so bad, I decided to leap and hope the net would appear.

The next day at work, I got a call from Nancy. She said that I had been the “dark horse,” because the other candidates already lived in NYC. She had been pulling for me, because we had chatted in the AWN forums and she remembered my film. Somehow the producer also liked what I had to say on the phone. Then she offered me the job, and the salary was double what I was making at the sign shop. After I accepted and hung up, it took all my strength to get up and tell my boss that I to run a quick errand. I got in my car, drove around the corner, and screamed.

I gave my notice at work. At the time, my friend was looking for a job and he was able to fill my spot quickly. After that, everything seemed to happen in a blur. Jenni and I had to figure out how we were going to make a move from Phoenix to NYC with two little kids. It was going to be a challenge, but we were too excited to worry about the exact how of things. Like Steve sings:

You know what to do! Sit down in our Thinking Chair And think, think, think! ‘Cause when we use our minds, And take a step at a time, We can do anything…

It happened. I was in. After I arrived in NYC, everything changed. Not only the new job and a career in animation, but the perspective I gained from experiences working with some of the most talented artists, actors, musicians and writers in the world. From the moment I walked in the door, I knew it was going to be an amazing time.


Ready for Part III? Let’s go! Read Part III

What I Learned From Working on Blue’s Clues • Part I

We just got a letter!

What I Learned From Working on Blue’s Clues • Part I

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far, away… I worked on a little TV show called Blue’s Clues. Maybe you’ve heard of it. If you haven’t, that’s okay. You can catch up on the show’s Wikipedia page. It was an immensely popular cultural phenomenon in the U.S. in the 1990s. I worked on the show from 1999 – 2002 doing storyboards, animation and voice over work. This year (2021) being the 25th anniversary of the show, I thought it would be fun to talk about my time there and what I learned being part of the team.

This is a long story. I have a lot to say and it’s a fascinating tale that sometimes I can’t believe I lived. It’s all true, as much as my memory will allow, anyway. I broke this up into parts. One, to make it easier on you to read and two, to make it easier on me to write well.

Read it already? Jump to Part II!

Part I: Before Blue’s Clues

Getting in

With a quick look back, it could seem like an easy, natural step in my life and career to have worked on Blue’s Clues. Sometimes I can forget that I didn’t just walk into Nickelodeon one day and start working. It was a long, challenging road to get into the animation industry and I had no idea what was in front of me, or even possible. Let’s start before the beginning, before anyone had ever even heard of a skidoo-ing blue puppy.

In 1990, I was accepted to a private art school in Chicago. I had never taken an art class in high school, but I created hundreds of drawings and paintings on my own. One night, after seeing The Little Mermaid premier, I was overcome by an intense desire to become an animator. The movie captivated me like no other animated film ever had. The animation was fluid and beautiful, the songs were amazing and the story kept me hooked from beginning to end. I spent the rest of the night fantasizing that I could work on something so incredible. The only thing standing in my way was that I had no clue as to how I could become an animator.

I had been yawning my way through community college with no real direction and I certainly had no connections to anyone in the animation or film industry. This being 1989, there was no email, social media or even internet I could use to find a contact. Living in Phoenix, I couldn’t just drive over to the Disney studios on any given Wednesday and simply knock on the door. I had to get resourceful.

At the time, I worked in a movie theater tearing tickets and cleaning up during the credits. Instead of watching the whole movie over again (which I did later anyway), all I had to do was wait for the end of The Little Mermaid and write down the name of a producer, find an address in Burbank and take a shot at asking, “How can I become an animator?”

I believe it was Disney producer John Musker who wrote back to me, giving me some advice on a path and three top schools where I should apply. The best choice for me was the American Academy of Art in Chicago. I could live with my recently-widowed grandfather and we could help each other out – he would give me a roof over my head and I would supply some much-needed company and help around the house.

I was accepted on my hastily-prepared portfolio and essay, and I soon headed to the snowy Midwest. Going to that school was the first time I worked with peers on art projects and learned real fundamentals, outside of Stan Lee’s Learn to Draw Comics the Marvel Way (a method I still stand by for young artists). Unfortunately, towards the end of my first semester, the school administration started asking me annoying little questions like how are you going to pay for next semester? They were annoying only because I had no clue. I had got in on some of my parents’ money and a small student loan. Those options were no longer available, so once again I had to get resourceful.

At 19, I wasn’t qualified for anything other than retail or restaurant work. Working at minimum wage would take me so long to save up for school that I could only picture myself as old and wrinkled, sitting in a classroom and repeatedly asking the professor to speak up. In hindsight, that’s a very unrealistic outlook but at 19 it was the only future I could imagine, complete with dystopian 1984-style jumpsuits and cubicles.

My answer came in the form of the the G.I Bill. I would contribute $1200 and in return the government would give me $24,000 in money for school. The tiniest little wrinkle was that in order to collect it, I had to serve four years active duty in the military. Hmm. It certainly wasn’t my original plan. In fact, when a friend had previously joined the Air Force, I swore off ever joining the military in any form whatsoever. Joining the military was for other people, not me. Never, no way.

Then I thought about my potentially perpetual floor-mopping future and I joined the U.S. Air Force.

It seemed like I was light years away from my animation dreams. But I had a plan. Sort of.

Read Part II now!


Not to fear! We will get into tales of a blue puppy and a manchild in a Fruit Stripe gum shirt very soon. Tune in next week for the continuation of What I Learned From Working on Blue’s Clues!


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