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‘Blue’s Clues’ Animator Tackles Obamacare, Medicare in Animated Videos

This is the continuation in a series on faculty teaching in the MS in Leadership for Creative Enterprises program.

By Jacob Nelson

First there was the professor who complained wrongly that a raise he’d just received would put him in a higher tax bracket. Then there was the woman on Medicare who admitted she had no idea how Medicare was structured.

These were a few examples Eric Patrick recalled about what inspired him to create Citizen Primer, a series of animated videos that provide concise explanations of cumbersome but important political topics.

“It’s shocking really, how little people know,” Patrick said. “I don’t think anyone is making any informed decisions.”

Citizen Primer tackles topics like social security, the Affordable Care Act and the progressive tax code. Released earlier this year, the videos are all animated and scripted by Patrick, who is an associate professor at Northwestern’s School of Communication. He’ll be teaching a course this fall in the new MS in Leadership for Creative Enterprises program, a one year program designed to help students develop the business skills and industry contacts needed to thrive in a creative environment.

Patrick’s varied animating career wouldn’t seem to suggest an interest in politics. He was nominated for several Emmy Awards and won a Peabody Award for his work on Nickelodeon’s Blue’s Clues. He’s also animated his own independent films, Stark Film and Ablution. Though the focus of his work seems difficult to pin down, Patrick says he’s always been interested in “how we perceive reality.”

“Over the years my work has gone from esoteric pieces about consciousness to becoming much more about social critique,” he said.

He first began thinking about Citizen Primer, which Patrick considers more educational than critical, when he saw his Fox News-watching family voting against their own interests as a result of their news habits.

“I’m not bashing republicans,” Patrick said, “they’re more Fox News knee-jerk conservatives.”

What Patrick saw unfolding in his own family he realized was happening everywhere: people use what he calls “voting heuristics” to make political choices. The problem is, those heuristics don’t leave much room for nuance, substance, or actual fact. Part of the problem is just the huge amount of media available to anyone with a computer and Internet access.

“In a way there’s so much information, it becomes psychological warfare, there’s an overload of information,” Patrick said. “People can’t make heads or tails out of it.”

The massive amount of media gave Patrick pause as he started working on this project. “Am I just adding to that?” Patrick wondered, “But I think it’s a poor argument that we should all throw up our hands and go home.” Patrick’s course this fall will focus on self-branding and marketing for creative professionals. Read more about it here.

Award-Winning Animator To Teach Class on Self-Branding

This is the continuation in a series on faculty teaching in the MS in Leadership for Creative Enterprises program.

By Jacob Nelson

This fall, Eric Patrick will teach students the importance of marketing themselves and creating their own brand — skills he is quick to admit to have struggled with throughout his long, varied career in filmmaking and animation.

“I never had one career,” Patrick said. “I wasn’t really looking for one career.”

The Northwestern associate professor has done award-winning children’s animation (Blues Clues), independent film animation (Stark Film) and political advocacy animation (Citizen Primer). In September, he will be teaching a course for Northwestern’s new MS in Leadership for Creative Enterprises program, a one year program designed to help students develop the business skills and industry contacts needed to thrive in a creative environment.

“It always has been critical to brand yourself,” Patrick said. “People with the knack for self-branding always did better in their careers.”

Patrick considers this self-branding to be a holistic, experiential process, heavily influenced by social media and viral videos. With so much media available, knowing how to get your work noticed is invaluable for artists.

“You have to really do something to call attention to yourself,” Patrick said. “You can’t just assume, ‘Because I’m good, people are going to find me.’”

Part of the reason Patrick’s own work has been so varied is because he wasn’t always sure what he wanted to do. First, Patrick worked in radio, broadcasting comedy from Albuquerque while he was a student at the University of New Mexico. But he got restless.

“I didn’t feel like it was really adding anything to the dialogue other than social satire,” he said. “I wanted to concentrate on making things that really contributed to the legacy of art history and animation history in an endearing way.”

So, Patrick decided to pursue animation. He got a master’s degree in experimental animation from the California Institute of the Arts in 1997, and soon found choosing from a wide array of commercial work opportunities. This helpful job climate is something Patrick no longer believes exists in the digital age.

“People were dying to give you a job, and I don’t think that’s the case now,” he said. “People starting out now don’t have that luxury that you can waltz in and everyone is vying to hire you.” 

The increase in media content and media creators, and the ease in which all of it can be found, has made it much harder for aspiring artists to get a foot in the door.

“Even if you’re doing a Macaroni commercial, there are so many amazing production and design studios, it’s like an embarrassment of riches,” Patrick said.

This isn’t all bad news for aspiring artists, according to Patrick. People looking for art are no longer waiting for gatekeepers to give them access. Everything is online, which means everything is available. Now, it’s just a matter of getting your work to stand out.

“Nowadays… the students know as much as the professor in some way, they have access to it all,” Patrick said. “And that just shows why it’s so important to get your stuff out there.” Up next: Patrick discusses Citizen Primer.

Fall Quarter Class to Tackle Authorship, Advertising and Autotune in the Digital Age

By Jacob Nelson

What do Cher, Kanye West, and Northwestern faculty Jake Smith have in common? Autotune.

Cher used it to stage a comeback. Kanye used it throughout his 2008 album “808s and Heartbreak.” And Smith used it as his inspiration to become an academic. The former musician and current Radio, Television, and Film associate professor remembers hearing autotune for the first time, and how that got him thinking about what happens when music and technology intersect.

“Being somewhere where sound was being recorded on a computer really brought home in a tangible way how media technologies would change the way performers do what performers do,” Smith said.

He explored these ideas in his book, Vocal Tracks: Performance and Sound Media. This fall, Smith will be teaching a course for Northwestern’s new MS in Leadership for Creative Enterprises program, a one year program designed to help students develop the business skills and industry contacts needed to thrive in a creative environment. Entitled “Understanding the Creative Industries,” the course offers an overview of the key dynamics of modern media industries.

“Being somewhere where sound was being recorded on a computer really brought home in a tangible way how media technologies would change the way performers do what performers do,” Smith said. He explored these ideas in his book, Vocal Tracks: Performance and Sound Media.

It’s a course Smith has taught before, and it draws on his experiences both as an academic and as a former professional musician. Smith wrote and performed songs with the band The Mysteries of Life in the ‘90s, and got signed to a major label in the process.

“I’ve always felt like somebody who had a little bit of a foot in both camps,” Smith said. “I’m someone who worked in the creative industries and writes and teaches about the creative industries.”

The course will guide students into thinking about the role advertising, authorship, and audience measurements play in the way media industries work, Smith said.

“I’m thinking about creative and cultural work above the line and below the line,” Smith said. “We’re trying to be all-encompassing, to touch on as many industries as possible.”

Smith hopes the course will help introduce students interested in specific kinds of media to jobs they may not have considered otherwise. “One of the reasons why a program like this and a class like this is a wise thing to do is… to know there’s not just one way of having a career in the creative industries,” Smith said.

The course will also focus on the impact digital technology has had on creative industries. There will discussions about convergence and digitization one week, and copyright, sampling and digital downloading another. Smith is quick to point out a background in the music industry isn’t a prerequisite for teaching a course on it, but he admits that it has helped him along the way, and hopes it will help in this class.

“It just helps to make it a kind of richer discussion sometimes,” he said. “In some cases it has enabled me to have an additional point of reference, and, certainly for a class like this, it helps.”

This is the second in a series on faculty teaching in the MS in Leadership for Creative Enterprises program. For the first part about Jacob Smith’s musical career, click here.

Before Coming to NU, Jake Smith Got Signed to RCA, Recorded for the Fray

By Jacob Nelson

Jacob Smith is the rare associate professor at Northwestern who happens to have a double platinum album hanging on his wall.

Before he joined Northwestern’s Radio, Television, and Film department, Smith played music professionally, and successfully. His band, The Mysteries of Life, got signed to RCA in the ‘90s. Smith wrote the songs and performed them alongside his wife, Freda Love, who played drums. But it’s hard to make success last, Smith explained.

“Even if you’re very lucky and you get very successful, it’s very hard to sustain,” Smith said. “The figures are depressing.”

So, in the midst of his musical career, Smith began a doctoral program at Indiana University. His research, informed by his musical career, has focused on the cultural history of media, with an emphasis on sound and performance.

“I ended up going the academic route and being very happy about writing about and teaching about researching the creative industries and all their various forms,” Smith said.

Smith will be teaching a course for Northwestern’s new MS in Leadership for Creative Enterprises program, a one year program designed to help students develop the business skills and industry contacts needed to thrive in a creative environment. One piece of advice he knows he will stress is one that he kept in mind while pursuing his musical career: have a backup plan.

“There are multiple ways you can have a career in the arts,” he said. “There’s not just one way to do it.”

Smith also found that he could work in the arts in different ways at the same time. He continues to play music with different bands in Chicago. He played bass in the band Split Single last Monday when they opened for Bob Mould at Millennium Park. And the double platinum album he has? It’s from when he was already in grad school. While working on his doctorate, Smith worked part-time as a studio musician. One of the albums he played bass on turned out to be “How to Save a Life,” the first album by The Fray. It has since sold about a million copies.

“So,” Smith said, “That was neat.”

Up next: Smith discusses the course he’ll be teaching.