In our Inspiration Fuel series, we interview writers, artists, musicians, entrepreneurs, and everyday heroes about how they manage the ebbs and flows of motivation and creativity in the pursuit of their life’s callings.
Melissa Goodwin Shepherd is a true creative force. An animator, writer, director, and voice actor, Melissa has spent nearly 20 years in animation, with credits like Robot Chicken, The Simpsons, Zootopia, My Little Pony, and, most recently, Marvel’s M.O.D.O.K. among many, many others.
We reached out to Melissa to get some insight into how she first discovered her passion for animation and how she rekindles her creative spark when she falls into a rut.
You’re incredibly multi-talented. To someone unfamiliar with your work, how would you introduce yourself?
I usually introduce myself by saying I work in animation. I’m not always directing or writing or animating, but whatever I’m doing, it’s definitely animated.
What are some favorite projects that you’ve worked on?
The first project I worked on for Disney Junior ["Spaghetti Western"] is by far my favorite. It was hard work, and I made zero money on it, but it was the first time I had creative control over my own project.
I also got to collaborate with a Disney composer on the music, which let me combine my two favorite things: music and animation.
My mom helped me make my set, and my husband/partner Nate helped me build it in our garage. It reached 125 degrees in there one day with all the lights. The camera wouldn’t stay on more than 5 seconds at a time. I had to work well into the wee hours of the morning to catch the cooler hours, and I was simultaneously working full time at Robot Chicken.
But I will always love that project the best.
[Another favorite was] "Wicked Woods." My husband/partner and I had worked together several times before, but this project was the most fun we had directing together.
This was a Descendants Halloween special for Disney Channel. We had an amazing team of artists to help us build outstanding sets, and incredible animators.
It was also my first directing job as a mom, which was an interesting life/work challenge. Now our son watches this on repeat and dances to the song, having no idea we made it.
How did you first get into animation? Was there a specific moment when you realized that it might be a calling for you?
I was 9, watching The Little Mermaid. I decided I wanted to make cartoons and do all the voices and make all the music. I didn’t understand how animation worked at all, but I knew I had to do it.
When I was in high school, my art teacher told my mom to send me to SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia) for animation. I took several animation classes, but hated drawing every frame, and I wasn’t into 3D (which was a little new at the time), so I found stop motion.
If you don’t make time for yourself, you’ll lose yourself completely.
At that time, stop motion was a very small business, so there was only one class. I took it 3 times. Now stop motion is a major at SCAD and there are hoards of new SCAD graduates in stop motion every year.
You’re a very, very busy person with some big professional projects in the works and a young son at home. And yet, despite having so much pressure on your time, creativity, and energy, you still pursue creative side projects that are just for you. How do you manage to recharge the batteries so that you’re able to fully commit to everything you have going on?
It’s hard! But if you don’t make time for yourself, you’ll lose yourself completely.
I try to plan to have a music night once a week, but it doesn’t always happen. It takes a lot to prioritize, but you have to put yourself up there on the list, and honor it.
And sometimes at the end of the day, going to bed early ends up being the priority…. But when I do get to have music night, it is fully energizing and inspiring, and I’m always so proud of myself for making that time that my soul needed.
Melissa Goodwin Shepherd’s “Chase the Sun” for Restless Townies:
What does creativity feel like? How would you describe the initial spark of inspiration?
When I was animating, a director would come to me and tell me what he wanted for a shot. He’d ask if I had any questions, and I said no. He’d leave. I’d look at my set and my puppets and say to myself, “How the heck am I going to do this?!” The same thing happens when I want to make a song.
The trick is to start. That spark is motivation. As soon as you start, you have to keep going. It’s always ok to cut back.
It’s the same with writing, too. You just have to start. Do it. And then go back and rewrite as many times as necessary until it’s good.
And then sometimes I’ll look back at something I wrote or animated or composed, and I’ll think, “How the heck did I do that?!”
On a day-in-day-out basis, how important is it for you to feel “inspired”? Or, another way to put this: When you sit down to do the boring, humdrum parts of your job, how do you manage to keep the work feeling fresh and not fall into a rut?
I am very easily distracted when I’m not being creative. Part of my job right now is keeping track of the status of 20 different scripts. So I make a lot of spreadsheets and I use a lot of colors.
My husband/partner and I also stream the Elder Scrolls: Skyrim soundtrack while we write. Music is key for inspiration, and that score is soothing and familiar, so it keeps us on track and in the zone of our story.
But I absolutely fall into ruts on the regular. Creativity is a muscle that needs to be exercised, and sometimes I need a break. It’s hard to be creative on command. So many times, I have to “come up with a joke here” and I sit on it for a couple of days. It’s too much pressure.
Other times it just comes out naturally. But sometimes you need to walk away from the project so inspiration can strike and you can dive back in.
Do you believe that things like passion, motivation, and inspiration can be manufactured? If so, how do you do it? And, if not, where do you think it comes from?
Passion is something that comes from within. I don’t think you can manufacture passion.
You may be motivated or inspired by something completely different from one project to the next, so those things can be manufactured.
And I believe creativity and talent can absolutely be taught, learned, practiced, and perfected. I’ve always had ideas for animation, but am just now learning to write. And even though I was animating for 15 years, I was still learning. Especially from the new graduates who were coming in who studied the very stop-motion projects I was working on while they were in school.
Art is fluid and it is always changing, so there will always be something new to learn. But the passion that drives you to that art, I don’t believe can be manufactured. I think that has to start from within.
Something that I find very inspiring about you is that you’ve managed to build an entire career out of your creativity and yet your output never seems to slow down and your originality never seems to suffer. Where do you think that deep well of creative energy comes from? Is it just a gift, a skill you’ve honed?
Inspiration comes from creative energy, especially if you surround yourself with creative people. I can’t imagine doing anything non-creative or surrounding myself with people who don’t think creatively.
Growing up, I spent a lot of time around people I felt didn’t understand me. When I went to college for animation, I realized I just needed to be around creative people. There was nothing wrong with me, I’m just a storyteller, and I needed to be around other storytellers. I can’t do anything else, and I don’t want to. (Except when it’s really hard to pay my bills and then I think maybe I should have gotten a different job…)
There are lots of us who struggle to maintain enthusiasm for the work or projects that we love, even if we feel a calling to pursue them. For us who aren’t yet at your level, what advice would you give for dealing with dark days when we feel like we’ve run out of motivation?
These questions are so hard. I don’t think of myself as being on a higher level than anyone. I’m always learning and changing and growing. The world is constantly changing, and we have to adapt to constant change.
Sometimes it’s hard to stay motivated if we don’t like the direction we’re going, but you have to make every project your own. You can’t just complete a project for someone else and not make it for yourself.
Of course, a lot of projects are really hard and we struggle through them. But you have to make sure you put yourself into [every project], so you can not only learn and grow from that project but [also so that] you can be proud of what you’ve accomplished.
And, finally, how do you take your coffee?
I love coffee. A lot. I drank a lot of coffee to get me through Robot Chicken while I was working all night on "Spaghetti Western." And "Wicked Woods" was in a new building at my old studio where the owner is a coffee aficionado, so we had gourmet coffee every day. It was spectacular.
I like cream and a tiny bit of sugar. Right now I’m drinking a little decaf here and there, and I can’t tell you how much I miss the real stuff.
We’re always on the lookout for more artists, creatives, entrepreneurs, and everyday heroes to interview for our Inspiration Fuel series. If someone you know is pursuing their life’s calling in a way that inspires you, tell us about them by emailing: email@example.com.