James Sharp (Animation, 2011) has come a long way since his childhood in Greenford, Ohio, a small farm town near Youngstown.
The last five years have seen this Columbus College of Art & Design graduate take off. In addition to running the virtual animation studio Toonocracy as its CEO, the Los Angeles-based Sharp has also spent time of late in the Bay Area, working on a special project with Facebook.
Sharp relocated to the West Coast shortly after graduation, and with internships — at MTV Network as an on-air motion graphics artist and at Nickelodeon’s “Spongebob Squarepants” as a production assistant — under his belt.
His first job was at a small animation studio where, he said, he learned “a lot of what not to do, and because of that, it helped me when I wanted to take off and do my own thing. I’d decided that with all of the frustrations I had and all of the things that were going wrong, I was like, ‘I could just do this myself.’”
So he started doing just that, creating Toonocracy in July 2012 with six friends.
“We wanted to tear down the gatekeepers,” he said of that time. “ … We were just like, ‘Let’s start doing our own content. Let’s not wait for anyone to tell us we can or can’t do something.’ ”
Each month they would challenge each other to create something new and put it online; soon they were getting calls about commercial work and other projects.
The first big job, “Animeme Rap Battles,” came from Nerdist; after months that saw him work before-and-after his day job to contribute to Toonocracy, in March 2013, Sharp made Toonocracy his full-time work.
“I didn’t really know exactly what I was doing or getting into entirely; I had a lot to learn about running a company,” he admitted. And, said Sharp, that first year was difficult, with additional work hard to come by, until they were asked by the Department of Water and Power to do a public service announcement for kids on recycling and green initiatives.
“That got us back on track … and we have been growing pretty steadily every year with more work and new clients,” said Sharp. Unlike many animation houses, which often recycle the same Los Angeles-based talent, Toonocracy’s virtual model means that it can pull talent from all over the world.
“It’s like, ‘we like this color stylist in Ireland, but we really like this background painter in Chile,’ or ‘we really like this character designer in Canada,’ and we are able to take this talent from all of these different people from all over with all this different experience and put it together into something that makes us feel a little more fresh and new,” said Sharp.
Sharp isn’t afraid of hard work. While working with Facebook, his schedule saw him get up at 5 a.m. to head into work there; then he returned home at around 4 or 5 p.m. to tackle Toonocracy projects until midnight or 1 a.m. TV, video games, movies and other forms of entertainment — not to mention time with his girlfriend and dogs — were put on hold in the interim.
Taking on challenges is nothing new, either. Sharp began his academic career at Youngstown State University as an art and technology major, a program that was canceled two years into his time there. “One of my professors at the time was talking to me about Columbus College of Art & Design and I decided to look into it. … I heard nothing but good things about CCAD, and I ended up getting in and moving to Columbus.”
Sharp said his three years at CCAD impacts his work today, in no small part because he learned how to collaborate and learn from other artists.
That word — “collaboration” — is a key one for Sharp, who has this advice for students considering following in his footsteps:
“I think a lot of it comes down to people you meet and networking and making good friends. It’s kind of like forming a band in that way. … I don’t think it’s easy — I think one of the biggest mistakes that people think is that they can do it all themselves. Animation is a lot of work. Running a company is a lot of work. It’s a collaboration and you have to get past the idea that you can handle everything. You have to accept that you need others to help you, and you need to have the ability to find talented people that you can depend on to help you carry through your vision.”
And, he said, students should find ways to make classroom experiences meaningful.
“If you feel like you’re not getting anything out of a project, then it’s up to you to say, ‘OK, what can I do? How can I change it or alter it to make it fit my needs and help me grow as the artist I want to be? … Me doing what I’m doing today is just knowing, ‘this is what I’m told to do and it’s not working, so I’m going to do my own thing now.’ ”