Scott Neely has been a professional illustrator and designer for many years now. For the last 13 years, he’s been a Scooby-Doo artist. He’s worked on over 30 licensed properties such as Dexter's Laboratory, Cow and Chicken, Johnny Bravo, Courage the Cowardly Dog, The Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy, Powerpuff Girls, Ed, Edd n Eddy, Mike, Lu and Og, I.M. Weasel, Sheep In The Big City, Pokemon, Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, My Friends Tigger & Pooh, Classic Winnie the Pooh, Handy Manny, Power Rangers Jungle Fury, Power Rangers RPM, Strawberry Shortcake, Bratz, Shrek the Third, Shrek Forever Ever, Megamind, Kung Fu Panda 2, Madagascar 3, Precious Moments Girls Club and The Li'l Learners Club. For the past couple years, he’s been working mostly on Phineas and Ferb for Disney as well as continuing his run on Scooby-Doo.
Scott is also the visual creator and production designer of Hollywood Hal & Rhinestone Al with the Wannabees, which is a project he co-created with Scott Innes (a.k.a. the voice of Scooby-Doo, Shaggy and Scrappy-Doo) and musician Jim Hogg. He creates all the artwork for the Hal & Al “live-action” TV show and “live” stage shows as well as all Hal & Al advertising, media and product design. For more Hal & Al info, go to www.halandal.com.
When did you first decide to become a graphic designer/ illustrator? Was there a pivotal moment?
When I went to high school I took Mechanical Drawing, which was a class basically about being an architect and you learned things about skill, planning, measurements, creating balance, and working to scale. You also learned to print really well since you had to write down all the specs on the blueprints that you would make. Also you got to build a house out of balsa wood and Styrofoam based on your plans that you had drawn up. So that taught me a lot and I liked the thinking and planning that went into doing that kind of thing. That was the start of it and the way I thought my life might go since I liked that kind of work. I was kind of flying by and wandering in a sense since I really didn’t have any kind of a plan. I don’t think many kids do at that point. It was high school and so I did screw around for a time like most others did. I liked drawing and I read a lot of comic books but never really thought that I should or would go into art. After two years of Mechanical Drawing, I entered my junior year and decided to take Graphic Design, which was literally next door. In all honesty, I think I took it because it was right next door to the mechanical drawing room and I was probably lazy, so I basically thought why not give it a try. They had the same kind of drawing tables in the room as they did in the Mechanical Drawing room so maybe I thought it would be kind of similar and if you didn’t like it you could switch. I took it and about two weeks into it, I was like a fish to water, and I found my niche. It was the problem-solving of finding how to make many different elements all work in a given space and I liked that kind of thought process. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle and you have to make it work. But basically everything that I learned in my two years of Mechanical Drawing and my two years of Graphic Design gave me everything that I needed. Anything else was “on the job” or on my own initiative to learn.
Who or what inspires you?
I don’t think there is a ‘who’ per se. There were a lot of people who didn’t think any of my career decisions would pan out so it was I who had to make them happen. I had one or two people in my corner but a lot just didn’t see any future to what I was doing. A normal office job would have killed me with boredom. I think I have to keep myself inspired mostly, and some days it’s hard, but then I look around and see myself sitting there in my studio drawing Scooby-Doo and listening to the Green Hornet radio show with the windows open and the beautiful, fall weather blowing through the window screens as the sun shines and think “I’ve got it made!” All the hard work was worth it so I think to have that kind of lifestyle is inspiring. This year though I have stopped working in my free time to enjoy life and appreciate what I have. It’s kind of like a Ferris Bueller quote, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” I think that’s true and I did give up a lot in the early years by chasing the dream. And after my father died this past May, I vowed not to work any more weekends or holidays on the corporate work. My father was a workaholic and there’s no loyalty anyway at a job unless you own the business and so why kill myself working when everyone else seems to have their vacations.
Where does your training come from? Self-taught? College/Art School?
I’m primarily self-taught in art, and I learned everything else in high school in those two years of each subject. And you have to remember that this was before the computer age so we had to do everything at school by hand and take the time to think about your design and how it was going to go. Even in terms of type setting, it was done “old school”, you had to go upstairs to the girl in the computer room and she’d type out your text based on your notes and what font you wanted and size that you wanted it. You also had to tell her how you wanted the line breaks and how the text should run and she did it. If it was wrong when I was laying it out, I had to go back up and get her to make adjustments, then print out a new sheet and go back down and redo it again. So there was a lot of pre-thinking your designs through.
I saw a documentary about film and there was Steven Spielberg talking about how he liked to edit his movies on the old Moviola instead of editing it digitally like most directors do nowadays. He said that it felt more like a TV show to him instead of a movie and that as the editor was loading up the next set of frames it gave him time to think about the possibilities and how he would piece it together. It was that five to ten minutes of waiting where he could go through the choices in his head and work it through. I think that’s what my old school training taught me for the most part. All the dark room and camera work (dark 4, light 5), and the knowledge of plate-making and then working a printing press to do just a letterhead was real work back then. So when the computer age hit, the work just got simpler. But you do have to and should know the old way of doing things. The fundamentals are called the fundamentals for a reason. You learn and build on them.
I did go to a community college for one year in late 2000-2001 where they had Adobe certified teachers there who instructed there. I took classes in Photoshop, Illustrator and Quark. I also had to take a Mac Literacy class since I usually work on PC’s. I lived off Scooby money and only did like 2-3 Scooby jobs that year and focused on the classes. I’d go to school for the 3-hour class and then go home and work for another 3-4 hours on my own to get better as fast as I could. I was kind of putting it off like most creative people who fear something new, but I had a designer whom I worked with on some of my early Scooby work and she kept after me and told me to go do it. Her name was Monicka Clio Sakki and she kept saying, “Once you go learn it, you’ll never go back.” She was right in that respect and when I received my Rising Star Award from the college in 2007, I thanked her at the podium since she was the one who kept after me. As an aside, after I left the school after taking the classes for the one year, I stayed in contact with the teachers so that when I had some question on something, I could call them or go see them and they’d show me how to do it even after I was out of the school for three years! It’s always good to cultivate new friendships. Some of the software is so advanced that you can’t possibly know it all, but you should try to keep somewhat above-average knowledge in around three or four programs.
There’s a lot of knowledge that I can apply to things now based on the old way of doing it. Unfortunately, most young people never get this type of learning and they always want to start out drawing digitally instead of with a pencil on a piece of paper. They always want to put the cart before the horse. If you can’t draw on paper I don’t see how you can do it digitally well. It’s the same with graphic design. If you do it by hand you have keep it nice and neat and you learn real skill in proper presentation. Another bad part of the digital age is that it gives the normal guy on the street the idea that he can do a design for his business and not have to hire a designer. His final work is usually utter crap and it looks it. People don’t know what good design is till they see it. My next door neighbor had his wife design his business flyer for him in Microsoft Publisher and it was BAD. I thought when I looked at it that it had looked like something a teenager would do to find work mowing lawns for the summer. You’ve seen those kinds of flyers yourself I’m sure. All the positive and negative space working against each other as I looked at it drove me nuts and so I told him I would redo it for free to help him out. It was simply unprofessional looking and he wouldn’t get any work from it. And so I made him up a whole new stationary set that really popped and in turn from him showing it around or handing out his new business card, I got paying work off of it from other contractors who wanted their business to be noticed more as well.
How do you keep "fresh" within your industry?
You have to stay up to date with techniques, software and computer knowledge in general, but you do have to branch out and look to other venues and opportunities. I never want to get pigeon-holed into one area, though I think most people think of me in terms of licensing work. But by doing that kind of work I can work in many mediums and areas. Comic book work is about 10% of my total income and I love the medium but it’s really a low end industry and a lot of places pay next to nothing to do the work or have cut the pay rates like DC Comics did to me back in 2011. There are many guys that I know and respect their skill who do comic book work and never want to leave it. They just want to do superheroes or something and that’s all. I can’t follow that line of thinking at all. Jobs come and go but the creative process stays the same. Some work dries up in one field and then you find work rather easily in another. I’ve drawn stuff that a lot of other male artists would never touch and I have to say that I learned a LOT from working on Strawberry Shortcake as it all had to be done in Adobe Illustrator and I had to learn it on the fly in a sense. I knew the basic program and had classes for it, but now I had to learn how to create a work process to get a job done. Once I learned how to go about it, I got faster and faster but it was a real learning curve. Every job has its up and downs and you have to find something interesting in doing it if the subject matter doesn’t thrill you. I never had any issues working on licenses though as it was all fun to draw in the end. Sometimes the approval process can wear you out but I’ve had it pretty easy in that area.
I talked about this in my first ScottCast (my podcast) about how I distilled what I really liked about what I did and it came down to problem-solving and the thought process that one uses in designing and laying something out. As long as I was doing that I could do any kind of work art wise. It’s good to have a broader view and not just see yourself working in one small area. The ultimate goal was to make a living doing what I loved and to keep the checks coming in. The more doors you close the fewer checks you have coming in and every industry has their ebb and flow to them. I have a separate portfolio for graphic design and I have one for my licensed work and I have a couple others ready made for other areas in the art field as well.
What are some of your current projects?
This is hard to say since as a freelancer you are constantly moving around with companies and licenses, but in 2010 alone I was really busy and I worked on in order: Shrek Forever After, Phineas and Ferb, Scooby-Doo, Megamind, Strawberry Shortcake, Scooby-Doo, Winnie the Pooh, Kung Fu Panda 2, and another Scooby job after that. I also had a Scooby-Doo project for Scholastic in the works and then there was some more Phineas and Ferb for Disney. Whew! Even though that sounds like a lot, that summer was actually slow in spots and so it was good to have a savings to fall back on and not have to worry about bills. I recommend to any freelancer to keep a couple thousand dollars on hand in case it dries up for a month or two, because it can happen. The past two years have been mostly Phineas and Ferb and Scooby-Doo work, with some DreamWorks jobs in-between like Madagascar 3.
Which of your projects are you the most proud of? And why?
Hmmm. Good question. As for licensed stuff there are a few Scooby-Doo projects that I’ve done that I’m happy with. My Scooby-Doo ‘Earth-Day’ comic cover I did for DC came out really great under the tight deadline. Or the cover for Scooby #133, which came out great under a tight deadline and I love how the design came together as I did it. There’s a coloring book I did for Scooby in 2000 that was a 70-pager and I was happy with that. Also, the Little Golden Book I did art for turned out great. There’s a couple of Winnie the Pooh and Mickey Mouse projects that I liked a lot. I’m happy with mostly everything as a whole. I could nit-pick it and wish to go back and redraw a hand or something but overall, the final products have turned out great.
I guess one of the things I’m most proud of is the work on Hollywood Hal & Rhinestone Al, which Scott Innes came to me with a concept for a children’s music CD he wanted to do and it turned from these character designs I created in 2-D and would become three-dimensional characters about 3 months after the first CD was manufactured. For the first three years of its creation, it was Scott Innes, Jim Hogg and myself who got it up off the ground and six years later it’s still going as a TV show on Cox Communications. I remember telling Scott, who did and still does the voice of Scooby and Shaggy on some projects that he or I could be replaced easily at any time and that it’s always better to own Scooby-Doo than work for Scooby-Doo. So Hal & Al came out of that line of thinking that you do need to have your own thing in the end that you command. I posted a picture on my blog of Hal & Al at a charity event and the person in the official Scooby costume was there and so they took a picture of Hal & Al with Scooby and that was a career highlight to have your own characters interact with one that you worked on. It’s kind of surreal actually. Plus, it’s great to do all the work on all the ads and product art for all our CDs and DVDs as well without someone telling you how to do it. When it’s yours, you can do what you want with it and there is no ‘wrong way’.
Another is the cartoon version of my dog Alfie. I have big plans for him and it’s the most fulfilling thing in terms of doing work that has a soul to it. I remember the night I first sat down and started playing around doing sketches of him and I started at midnight and the next thing I knew it was 6am! The time flew by so fast and I was so “in the zone” creatively that I went with it and it was one of the most creatively fulfilling nights of work I ever had.
Are there any areas, techniques, mediums, projects in your field that you have yet to try?
None that I’m actively seeking out, though I would have an interest in doing film work in terms of pre-production, pre-visualization, or the conceptual design of a show or movie. I’ve done everything that I’ve wanted to do so far, but I guess the only other thing is really to do more of my own work with my own characters really at some point.
In terms of producing art, I think at some point I will go completely digitally but there are some things that I want to still draw on paper just to have an archive of it to hold in my hands and look at. It’s all a work in progress, though I’m happy with my life thus far. There’s nothing burning in my soul to draw something that some company owns. Maybe drawing Spider-Man, but I still have no real pursuit of doing that.
Any advice to the novice designer/ illustrator?
I get asked this all the time from emails from people who are students and are having a hard time finding work. I guess the main thing I get asked is to look at a portfolio and if it’s good enough to get them a job. The problem with most art schools is that they make you do certain artwork to learn a technique or to work in a different medium so that you can at least try it, but it's not really stuff you would put in a real job-getting portfolio. That's why I tried to stay away from that and make any students I’ve had over the years when I taught on the side to do homework that can be a work-getter as well as a learning piece that you could later build on. If your work is scattered in subject matter, and if I was an advertising art director, I wouldn’t know if you could handle a certain job from what is in your portfolio. This is where building a pile of work, any work that you can get, that will be printed or used officially is huge in a portfolio. It's a catch-22. You need to get work, but the stuff you have may have in your portfolio will not get you the work initially. Everyone goes through it but a lot don't want to do free work or low paying work just to see it in print. I did a lot of pro bono work in the beginning.
Also, there may be no specific artistic road that you wish to travel. You do have to settle on some area to start in. You may like a lot of stuff and want to do it all and I get that, but you have to start small and build. If you wanted to draw comic books, you'd have to have actual pages up in your portfolio for people to see. If you wanted to do caricatures, you'd have to have caricatures in it. In other words, you need to focus on one passion and work up samples that can get you work in a given field. But you have to pick a specific area. Stay to your strengths. If you have animation type work in your portfolio, but no real polished turnarounds, character concepts, props, backgrounds, etc. and several samples of them, then you have to do them. Some guys just do backgrounds, some do just characters, etc. That's why I have an art portfolio, a licensing art one, a graphic design one, and a writing one with article tear sheets in it for stuff I've written that have been printed. You get the idea. Of course, if you want to do other stuff you can, but you need to do samples that look like work that someone would use or buy. If you want to do magazine layout, you have to do samples of how you would lay out a magazine, then pitch it and see if you can get work actually doing it to then build on it. This works in any field...but the initial portfolio building can be very hard and people get pissed and drop out. You're in for a long haul regardless as an artist and it's no easy road. But a great portfolio speaks volumes. Your diploma at an art school will not get you work, your art skill does. If you can’t draw, you aren’t getting the work. It’s as easy as that.
As for software and what to learn, I learned Photoshop and Illustrator at once, which was tough but I was living off Scooby money I'd made the year before and was doing limited work so it was a bit easier to do a year of learning by just going to school and then coming home and working on it for another 3 hours every day. I lucked out in that respect. I suggest learning Photoshop well (or fairly well) first. You don't have to know everything, since it's impossible to. Then do Illustrator. Two different animals and they can drive you nuts. Again, it all comes down to what you'd like to do. Certain fields demand certain software knowledge. A lot of places love vector but I believe Photoshop is easier to learn and more use it at first. Then learn a page layout program. I think Quark’s time is past though places still use it, but I’d learn Adobe InDesign.
Now for getting initial work when you are starting out. I get asked if Craigslist is a good place. Craigslist is a pain in the ass. I know of only one artist who got some bits and pieces of success from using it but he may have lucked out. Most of it is, in fact, crap ads that don't mention payment and decent terms of the deal. Plus you don't know who you are dealing with and where they are located so getting paid could be an issue.
Hence, why I suggest this... If it were me... and this is how I did it, you pursue local community stuff around you or go to the higher-end money places in town. I live in Springfield, but I went to the Main Line of Philly where the rich live. But start local and you can offer your services to a local pizza joint down the street from where you live and ask if you can design a little, advertising-mascot cartoon character for them for free, and if they like it they can pay you for it. At LEAST get a dollar for it. Never give it away for free. At least charge a dollar, if only for your own self-worth and you can tell people you got paid for it and you wouldn't be lying. A lot of beginning writers only get a buck for their first articles in small publications as they are trying to get experience. If you get a $1.00, you were paid, and you are a professional. You were paid for your work.
Or do an even trade! I did coupon ad work for a hair salon and never paid for a haircut for two years! You can work out a deal of equal worth. I assume you like pizza? Do a simple advertising cartoon for a pizza place and you could score like $100 worth of free pizza. I did that too. Walk in on a Friday night and the guy slides you a pizza and go home and enjoy. He checks it off on how many more he owes you and it's easier for him to pay you with that than money sometimes. Three months after the job was done you're still eating. I ate well during my lean years in the beginning by staying local. See what I mean?
If you have a local theater where plays or concerts happen, approach them to do a flyer for 'Romeo and Juliet' if that's the play. Try the local library and their summer reading thing for kids. Contact them about doing a free flyer for their window with some spot illustration on it of cartoon kids reading or something. Make sure your name is visible and easy to read when you sign the art. Place your email or website somewhere on it as well.
If you are a graphic designer, you could design a coupon ad for places. It’s the same deal. If they like it, they can pay you for it. Just be sure to get a printed sample (or three) for your portfolio! It's a must and you now have professional work done to show and you build on it. As you do each piece, you learn how to deal with clients and you improve in your skills.
By staying local, you can then get more work from local word of mouth or by hitting other businesses in say a strip store shopping center. At least have business cards made up that catch the eye that you can leave behind. The smaller businesses always look for any kind of one-up over the bigger chain places. This is all a key ingredient on an even bigger scale as you have to go in and ask for the manager and you have to sell yourself! A lot of artists are introverts and shy, but you have to sell yourself to get the work, otherwise you pay an agent to do what you could be doing. There are people in my town who see me in interviews and local news and see pictures of me still in this area today. Why? I'm selling myself, baby and people know me as the "Scooby Guy". I got a free cup of coffee at Wawa one day because someone saw my interview in Delaware County Magazine and liked it. Go figure. People in your community will know you as well. That's bigger than say Craigslist and you can get more offers from locals who mention your name to the guy they run into at the local mall. Plus, it's easier to get a final sample of the work and get a payment for it. If it were Craigslist, the person could screw you by not sending either... If it’s someone local you can track them down easier.
Do that for like two years and you move on to say bigger opportunities while still keeping your feet local. Local keeps the well filled with money when the other places may dry up.
What makes a design or illustration successful?
I think you know what a well-balanced piece is when you see it. It attracts your eye and makes you focus on it to see the rest of it. Movie posters work this way when they were artwork and not the photo-shopped garbage of today. There are some menus and ads that I’ve seen that are visually striking to me. When designing, you should design it so that there is an initial read (the main focus) the secondary read (other details that interact or are part of the main focus) and the tertiary read (the background and its details). Keeping a design simple is a key element as well. It should always work from a few feet away. If I design a cover and I have it on my computer screen, I go and stand back like 10-15 feet from it and see how it reads to me from a distance. I pretend that my screen is a magazine stand. Does the main image jump out at me? Does the color theory work and does it pop? A lot of my work has geometric shapes hidden in them. In the case of the Scooby-Doo cover I did for #133 of the comic series, there is a hidden triangle in the layout where the Mayan Mummy, the giant snake and the crocodile all form a triangle of danger around Shaggy and Scooby. It works so well because your eye instantly goes to Shaggy and Scooby and then the secondary read are the three dangers and then the tertiary read is the local and the temple ruins behind them. It happened by accident as I was designing the cover at the rough stage, but there are things that seem to always line up magically in the subconscious. You start operating on auto pilot sometimes and you will know what works and what doesn’t by doing it. The only way to get good is by doing a lot of it.
I think a lot of my thinking has come from old movies and comics I read growing up. Most writers will tell you they learned to write by reading a lot and writing a lot to hone their craft. It’s no different. You learn how to frame a shot subconsciously and it stays embedded in my mind. I’ve always told students that you’ll get a lot more out of watching Casablanca then you ever will Transformers 2. If you watch the older movies when they had the bigger and heavier cameras they had to rely on good solid storytelling and framing a shot with a good tracking shot that may wind up with a quick pan. Sherlock Holmes in The Scarlet Claw is just loaded with great shots. The opening five minutes is solid storytelling told simply and sets a great mood for the overall tone of the film. It also covers a wide array of camera moves that any film professor would love. Plus, the old black and white movies help you focus on what is important in the shot. With a color movie, you may be diverted by some blinking sign or light in the corner of the shot that takes away your attention as a viewer of the main character talking, unless of course, it’s an intentional setup for the next story point.
As a designer, I’ve sat in an IHOP restaurant and while the food was being prepared, and I’ve studied the placemat on the table and then said, “If I designed this how many layers would it be in Photoshop?” Then I go through and make a mental list of layers starting with the bottom one and work my way up. You can sometimes see why the designer put text in the dead area of an image and you can see why certain choices were made. It’s a good exercise to do as well as it teaches you how to plan and how to think about the process.
What do you do to keep yourself motivated and avoid burn-out?
It happens and I’ve had it happen with Scooby and some other things I’ve worked on. Luckily I’ve gotten different projects to work on in between other gigs so that keeps it fresh. I’ve had to draw Ed, Edd n Eddy for a week in-between say a Scooby project and that recharges you. Again though, I like the job and if you like your job it’s easy to be motivated. Those who are working crappy jobs and hate what they do are always miserable. You hear them complain every day. Luckily, I have a great career. You know it’s good when what day it is since the days sometimes blend together and you don’t care because you’re in some kind of creative bliss.
Finish this sentence. "If I weren't an illustrator I would have been a..."
“A sound engineer or a sound preservationist for Old Time Radio or old movies.” I’ve run old records into the computer and made a digital recording of them and then digitally re-mastered them taking all the clicks and pops out one by one sometimes. I’ve taken bits and pieces from two bad recordings and make one great one by splicing all the good parts together and creating a great stereo track from a mono recording. It’s a lot of work but again. It’s all problem-solving. It’s creative. And I’m happy doing it.
And finally, what is the best thing on prime-time TV right now?
I download most of my favorite shows and watch them on my free time but the best show on TV is Doctor Who. I’m tired of doctor, lawyer and cop shows. I like Once Upon A Time and Revenge. I like Louis C.K.’s show called Louie on the FX network. I also watch Wilfred, Workaholics, 2 Broke Girls, Two and a Half Men, and Last Man Standing. Other than that I don’t watch TV except for some news on MSNBC or CNN as background noise. Black Dynamite is flat out the best cartoon produced right now and it’s funny as hell though made for an adult audience. The Avengers – Earth’s Mightiest Heroes cartoon from Marvel Comics is really well written as well.
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