I had the pleasure to sit down with artist Dan Veesenmeyer. If you’re like me and loved cartoons in the 1990’s, you’ll be familiar with his work from working on shows like “The X-Men” and “Batman: The Animated Series” as a storyboard illustrator. Now, Dan is working with Lego, drawing artwork for some big Lego Marvel games.
Trey Guillotine: I’ve been looking at your work and I really love your lego work, especially the cover art for the Lego Avengers game. When did you first start drawing, and how did you come to draw for so many iconic 90’s television shows?
Dan Veesenmeyer: I first started drawing when I was a kid. When I got out of school I wanted to work in animation, and I live in Minnesota so there’s not an easy way to do that here, except to work in commercials. Around 1992 I saw the “X-Men” get picked up by fox. So, I just got out the directory and called the studio that was working on it, got a producer on the phone and asked if they were looking for any storyboard artists, and they happened to be. They graciously looked at a sample I did for them, then they sent me a test script from an old “Captain Planet” episode they had worked on. They said “Whip something up and send it back to me and we’ll take it from there.” The day I got it in the mail, I stayed up all night and got the test done, and faxed it back to them before they got to the office the next morning. So, he called and said “You’re hired.” Ever since then I’ve been working in the industry, and it worked so much that I had the talent to draw exactly what they wanted, and it showed the ambition and the dedication and the drive I would have, which I think they valued more than just the artistic ability, and that I was rough enough that they could work with me.
TG: A lot of the shows you worked on were shows I addictively watched when I was a kid. What is the storyboard artist’s role in the creative process for these shows?
DV: The storyboard artist works sort of like a director who can draw comics. We get a script from the writer, and a design pack of what characters and settings look like. Then, you’re supposed to visualize out every shot, like where you would put the camera for the next take. Is it a close up of a person delivering a line, or is it a wider shot to fit in several characters and have them interacting in a certain way? Sometimes that direction is given in the script, and sometimes it’s up to the artist to figure it out visually, just imagining running around with a camera to figure it out. That’s the way I viewed it for myself. Like, if I were a young Steven Spielberg, where would I put the camera? I was always influenced by the movies I saw and tried to steal as many tricks as I could and get away with it in animation. That is all packaged up and sent overseas to other artists as a guide, and if the boards are drawn well enough it will help those artists in other countries nail the style and the look of the shot better than if left to their own readings.
TG: Looking back, what was your favorite show to work on?
DV: Definitely “The X-Men.” It was my first and longest run on a show. That’s where I learned so much on how to become an illustrator. Not just for animation storyboards, but in general like working under deadlines, networking with other people to find other jobs. Those were my college years in animation. After that, I only did two episodes of “The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest” in the second season, for Hanna-Barbera and Cartoon Network. I enjoyed that because a producer on “The X-Men” was asked to go fix that show, and he brought me on with him. So, on a trip to California I got to visit the Hanna-Barbera studios. I was glad to visit the old iconic 60’s stylish palace of animation before it was all torn away.
TG: After your work in animation you did some work in toys for a bit. What was that like?
DV: After getting kind of burned out on freelance art, I was looking to do something else. I had grown frustrated because I’m out in the Midwest, so I would always have to fly to the coast to network and set up the next gig. I had co-owned and managed a comic shop in the Twin Cities for many years, and there a few people here from Target Corporate Headquarters who would come by a few times to ask us questions about the toy industry and pop culture fandom. I always thought in the back of my mind I could probably do a good job as a buyer in a retail organization in toys. Through circumstance, I was lucky enough to find myself working in that position in the buyer department with Target for about six years. I worked as a flunky doing data entry, and then as a specialist when I’d proven my worth as a valuable asset and helped them gain insight into the collector world and toy history, what has been tried before, what has failed and succeeded, or helped with marketing ideas to tie into a movie product. It was a whole different experience and taught me a lot, not only about working in the toy industry, but corporate culture, and sharpened me a little more with dealing with other people and networking.
TG: After being an artist, and then working in toys, it seems appropriate you’re now drawing for Lego. How did that come about?
DV: I still can’t figure out how it happened. I was looking for the next thing to do, and I knew that a lot of clients were now hiring digital artists, and I was an old school pen and paper guy, so I didn’t think that I had the skills to learn how to get into that. Well, every year I would go to San Diego Comic Con, and I was going in 2012, and my seat got changed on my flight last minute, and I ended up seated next to an art director from Lego. He would fly into San Diego every year looking for talent, checking out portfolios, looking for the next artists that could make comics for them. We chatted about toys and art and other geeky things, and he said “You could do this stuff if you wanted to. I’d be happy to look at your samples.” I thought it’d be fun to draw for Lego, but I didn’t know how to draw digitally, so he showed me a few books and resources to help me learn some things. I took a couple of months to learn the software, then he calls me out of the blue and says “I’m going to send you a script, whether you’re ready or not and you’re going to sink or swim.” And that was good advice because I would have NEVER told him I was ready, and that proved I could learn to do something under a deadline. So he used me, then Lego people in Denmark had seen my work so they would suggest me for projects, and since then it’s been crazy.
TG: You’ve worked on Lego Marvel Avengers and the recently announced Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2, which I admit I got excited when I saw that announced and I was HOPING this was something you were working on so we can talk about it.
DV: Now you know why I picked a later date for this interview!
TG: Yeah! I saw it and got SO excited! What was your role in the games and where is your work featured in these games?
DV: I can’t give too much detail about what I’m doing in the game, but I can say I’m their comic illustrator. I’ll leave it at that, and if you’ve played Lego Marvel Avengers you’ll have an idea of what I’m doing in Marvel Lego Super Heroes 2. But they’re keeping me very very busy this time.
TG: It already looks like such a great game, and they’re using a lot of lesser known characters.
DV: They’re all HUGE Marvel comic fans from way back, so you know when you see things like Cowboy Captain America, you’re dealing with a bunch who has a great passion for the brand.
TG: When you’re drawing these characters as Legos, both for the game and these comic book cover adaptations, what inspirations do you draw from, such as the comics, films, and TV series?
DV: Mostly the comics, of course. I’m trying to pay homage to the rich publishing history. I grew up on all of that, so I’m familiar with a lot of the art of the decades. I try as best I can to take the fun and humor they like to present in Lego and fold it into the representation of a brand like Marvel. I love the idea of taking an old Jack Kirby cover and putting in some funny Marvel humor. I’m constantly online getting inspiration from the old artists for using color and layout design. Certainly the movies, too. If there’s a inside joke I try to put it in. Not just for Marvel but for any commission I do.
TG: In a couple months you have a How-To Draw Lego Ninjago book, coming out in August. Is this in preparation for the Ninjago film coming out in September?
DV: It’s only connected in the sense that it’s a licensed product timed around a major motion picture release. It’s representative of the Lego Ninjago brand, so I’m drawing a style that’s most recognizable to kids all the time, not just from the movie or TV show. It’s a fun activity book to show kids how to draw. You see fan art online, it’s never ending and it’s great. So why not give kids a more fun instruction and learn how to draw and what to keep in mind as an artist, as well as illustrating and inking and coloring ideas.
TG: With San Diego Comic Con coming up shortly, what’s a memory that stands out for you when thinking of Comic Con?
DV: There are several, my big one, having that meeting that led to me having this crazy career at Lego. I’d been to the show in 1995 when it was just a comic con, there really wasn’t any entertainment there. Just straight comic artists and publishing. But, going in 2008, it was like an eye opening experience, just how big it had gotten, and how much fun it was. That year was amazing, I was like a kid in a candy store. This will be my tenth year going straight. There are other events that may not have happened to me but I remember hearing about, like Tom Hiddleston showing up to the Marvel panel dressed as Loki. I’ve also bumped into a lot of celebrities around the street or hotel, like Benicio Del Torro or Jeff Bridges, or Gene Simmons from KISS. It’s the only place you can just bump into celebrities randomly, and everyone is cool to each other.
TG: From cartoons to toys to Lego, what were some geek out moments for you, like creating art for a favorite fandom?
DV: I ALWAYS geek out about it because I love it so much, and I’m a fan for all of these crazy brands. I feel like I have something to bring to it. I know I’m not the greatest artist out there, but I feel like I bring some insight into the project that is unique. Working on Star Wars is great. My greatest moment with that was working on the Star Wars Episode 1 Licensing Bible. I flew out to Skywalker Ranch for an interview because they were so nervous to be working with a freelancer. They wanted to look in your eyes before they spilled all the beans. That was a great experience. I never imagined I’d be walking through the halls of Skywalker Ranch.
TG: That’s basically the Nerd Mecca.
DV: Yeah! And having lunch there? I’ll never forget that. And that was a gig that helped me pay for my first house. I would say with all my gigs that’s probably tops. I do want to add though, for artists interested in going to Comic Con and showing their portfolio at conventions; I found that SDCC is one of the greatest resources for networking within the industry, whether you’re trying to break into comics or TV, any media properties, there are so many people from within these industries out there. Being open to what’s going on around you, if you’re sitting in a bar or at the airport and someone strikes up a conversation with you, they may work for a company you’d love to work for. You should always be ready to start schmoozing to the best of your ability and share your business card, and utilize shows like SDCC to push forward your career.
You can check out Dan Veesenmeyer’s work at dansartwork.com, on Twitter @dveese, and Instagram @danveesenmeyer