Knott describes University influence on success as a cartoonist

By Carly Keyes, Daily Arts Writer
Published October 20, 2013

“I didn’t have the best art education in high school. It was one of those electives that a lot of people took more as a study hall.”

David Knott, a two-time Emmy-winning director for his work in animated television (such as Disney’s “Recess”) and a 1992 graduate of the University, had no idea this his artistic skills would eventually pay off so handsomely until he took “The Art of Film” with Prof. Hubert Cohen his freshman year.

“It was more than eye-opening,” Knott said. “I was like, ‘No way, you can actually study this stuff?’ ”

Even still, Knott, originally from Port Huron, wasn’t yet sure that he should major in Film and Video (now known as Screen Arts and Cultures). But by the end of his freshman year, he realized that he’d much rather flourish in another film course with Cohen than flounder in physics.

“My first (physics) midterm I got a C, and I never got Cs,” Knott said. “I dropped it like a hot potato. I was good (at math and science) in high school, but in the big leagues here at University, it (wasn’t) working.”

What Knott learned at the University — from the films he watched to the papers he wrote to the cartoon short film he made — has been essential to his success in the industry.

“It’s like this visual encyclopedia I have in my brain that I draw upon,” he said. “I’ll literally be in a session with a couple other artists trying to break down a sequence, and I say, ‘OK, this is the shot I’m thinking about. It’s like that one scene, in that one movie. … And it’s gotta be exactly like that.’ ”

Knott also mentioned that what he learned from Prof. Herbert Eagle — the history of how Eastern European directors navigated around censorship restrictions — has proven fruitful.

“They just found creative ways to (tell the story) through allegory, symbolism and Freudian stuff — things that Soviet bureaucrats are going to miss because they’re not educated enough to know any better,” he said.

Today, Knott says he references his old lecture material when facing his own challenges with censors for animated television.

“It’s ridiculous,” Knott said. “I always say I learned how to do what I want to do and find creative ways around (the censors’) notes because I took Herb Eagle’s class.”

Upon graduation, Knott didn’t know what to do. At the time, the film industry in Michigan was nowhere near as developed as it is now. He had to move home with his parents and get a job as photographer with Glamour Shots in the Westland mall.

“It was soul-sucking,” Knott said. “I kept saying, ‘But I’m working with a camera, so it’s okay.’ ”

After about four months, Knott felt he had no choice but to move somewhere with a bigger and better market. After searching for work and couch-surfing both Chicago and Seattle, he eventually ended up in Los Angeles where he got work as a production assistant.

“I kept trying to figure out a path where I could get to a creative job,” Knott said. “I was writing scripts at night on my own. What I should’ve been doing is finding like-minded peers and writing really short scripts that we could make into a film. It’s so easy now. You can just make a movie with your iPhone and post it to YouTube. Back then, it wasn’t that kind of world.”

Knott lived from job to job. He would get six weeks of work then spend three months off and get another gig just as he was running out of money. Though it wasn’t quite “soul-sucking” like Glamour Shots, it was grueling work, driving extras around and picking up light kits in his own car for 12- to 14-hour days.

He was “almost ready to go home,” when he saw an advertisement for an animation expo that was taking place in Universal City, Calif. Every single animation house in town was going to be there looking at portfolios. So Knott, who taught himself how to draw by tracing comic-book characters, spent a few weeks sketching people in cafés and animals in the zoo and mimicking the illustrations of famed animator Preston Blair.

“It didn’t take long to realize that I had a really sub-standard portfolio,” Knott said. “Or at least, very neophyte.”

Once again, Knott’s education at the University proved crucial in opening the door to his future.

“The last table was Hanna-Barbera,” he said. “They thought the same thing about the sketches as everyone else, but they saw this VHS tape floating around in there. And asked me, ‘What’s that?’ I just said, ‘Oh, it’s this one-minute cartoon I did at U-M. It’s this kind of coyote-roadrunner type cartoon.’ ”

After watching his student film, the Hanna-Barbera representative informed Knott that they were looking for someone to hire and train as an animatic editor, which is somebody who cuts together storyboards into a timed-out version of what the cartoon would look like.

“I said, ‘Sign me up!’ I came in for an interview, and that’s how I got in.”

Since that pivotal moment, Knott worked his way up from a successful start as a storyboard artist at Disney Television Animation to an Emmy-winning director at Nickelodeon studios for “The Penguins of Madagascar.”

“Storyboarding is basically directing because you’re choosing all the shots,” Knott said. “Not only that, you’re doing the acting, because you have to draw the acting out of the dialogue. I wanted to be a director, but I didn’t think I had much of a shot. But, here it is in front of me, and all I have to do is be able to draw everything.”

Currently, Knott is working as a storyboard artist on the feature film “Legend of the NeverBeast” for Disneytoon Studios, which is set to release in spring 2015.