F-M native, MSUM grad working with animation company in Atlanta

MSUM grad Peter Gulsvig, right, stands with Tom Kenny, the voice of cartoon character Spongebob Squarepants, at this year’s Comic-Con.

By: Sam Benshoof, INFORUM

ATLANTA – When Peter Gulsvig talks about how he spends his days working with cartoons, even he still sounds a little surprised by it.

The Moorhead native and 2008 Minnesota State University Moorhead grad is now working as a key animator for Bento Box Atlanta, a cartoon production company.

But when he discusses what he does every day for his job, Gulsvig, 27, who majored in history in college, still can’t seem to quite believe his luck.

“I was very blessed to get probably one of the best jobs I could have gotten,” he says.

Gulsvig started with Bento Box in June, and is now working on “Out There,” a cartoon series that will premiere in January on the Independent Film Channel.

According to IFC, the show “follows the coming-of-age adventures of Chad, his little brother, Jay, and best friend, Chris.”

So far, three 22-minute episodes of the series have been produced, and Gulsvig says he expects to personally work on three or four more before the season is complete.

Despite the fact that each episode isn’t even half an hour long, they take a whole lot longer to create, Gulsvig says.

Typically, animators spend about five weeks on each episode, he says, and it probably takes another couple of weeks for all departments to complete their work.

In his role as an animator, Gulsvig is passed along storyboards of the cartoon as well as audio and dialogue. The audio is typically mostly finished, he says, but that’s not always the case with the storyboard, which gives the episode direction.

“In ‘Out There,’ the storyboards are very loose, so that gives me a lot of freedom to have the characters do whatever I want,” Gulsvig says.

Animators will sometimes actually draw stills by hand for the series, but Gulsvig says characters are mostly based on models – “almost like little puppets,” he says.

“If you watch ‘South Park,’ it’s pretty clear that they’re not hand-drawn, per se,” he says.

Gulsvig then animates and edits those puppets using a digital program called Toon Boom. Before the episode gets passed on to be completed, it’s watched closely by Gulsvig and other animators. Then watched again.

“It’s amazing what you can miss when you’ve been working on something six, eight hours,” he says.

It helps that the people he works with on a regular basis are no strangers to the animation industry – the creator of “Out There” was the long-term animation director of “South Park,” and the production head of the company was the animation director of shows like “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” and “Squidbillies.”

“I’m very fortunate that the animators I’ve been working with have been in the industry for many years now,” Gulsvig says.

An animator with a history degree

To get into the animation industry, Gulsvig took something of a meandering, unexpected route.

Even though he says he was always interested in the arts while at MSUM, Gulsvig ended up majoring in history, which interested him the most.

And while a history degree might not seem like the best tool for getting into animation, that’s not necessarily the case, says MSUM political science professor Margaret Sankey, who taught Gulsvig in several history classes.

“I know that some of the history he really enjoyed; I can kind of see that reflected in his animation,” Sankey says. “It’s taking literature and history and really combining it with his talent, and that’s just wonderful.”

After graduating from MSUM, Gulsvig spent a year in South Korea teaching English before coming back to North America for a one-year program in 2011 at the Vancouver Film School, which he says prepared him the most for his current job.

While in school, he made a short, eccentric three-minute animated film called “Don’t Be Nervous,” which has since been featured at the 2012 Comic-Con, as well as at this year’s Fargo Film Festival.

When he was working on that film, Gulsvig says he wanted to put in the effort to create something that people would remember and that he would be able to show off at future festivals.

“I love watching something and not knowing how it’s going to end,” he says. “We have so many stories now where you know how it’s going to end, and I think it’s rare and it’s treasured when you don’t.”