Alexis Brandow talked to TechRepublic about her journey from comic book illustrator to web designer to app maker, and how artists have to be nimble to make it in this industry.
Alexis Brandow got her first job while she was getting her hair done. She blurted out how much she wanted to work in comics, and the woman next to her just so happened to have a boyfriend who worked night shift at a comic book studio. Soon after, Brandow started a job at WildStorm Comics, which made Fantastic Four, Wildcats, Gen 13, and Vampirella, and was led by owner and artist Jim Lee.
Everyone at WildStorm was a cartoon character themselves. The room they worked in was called "The Pit," and everyone had nicknames. One guy was named "Lil Snack," because he always had a little snack in his hand. A man named JJ reminded her of Fat Albert, because he always wore whimsical outfits and crazy hats, and had the most beaming personality. They'd all rap on their dinner breaks, in the car, or at the office.
Brandow knows how to attract the characters. She knows how to draw them, too — she's spent her entire life doing it. Her career as an artist has taken a lot of weird turns, but she's followed them through. So now, in the age where technology and art have collided more than they ever have before, she's ahead of the game.
Brandow has her own business, Amorse Inc., a virtual design firm that focuses on interactive design, with clients like HBO and Disney. And on the side, she's building apps that focus on educational entertainment.
Born in Pasadena, California, she lived in Pennsylvania and Tennessee growing up. For college, she wanted to get back to California, so she attended University of California San Diego. That was around the time she first attended Comic Con, where she met some of her all-time favorite heroes, the people that had drawn some of her favorite cartoons and comics, including John Kricfalusi, who made Ren and Stimpy.
She realized then that people could actually get paid to do art. So she quickly finished her undergraduate degree, and went to the Art Center College of Design — the most technical art school she could find.
The Art Center had a mentorship program where they set students up with three professional artists in Los Angeles. Most of her classmates were sent to Dreamworks or other big studios.
But Brandow was set up with three guys who were all freelance independent artists. One had a really hard time paying his school debt back, and ended up going into construction, which was super depressing for her to hear. Another guy worked constantly, and didn't live a glamorous life, but he survived. And the third was a man who was about 70, a famous modern artist. He told her, "Well, it took me like 20 years to get known and to become famous and you just have to stick with it." It was a total motley crew, but it was perfect for her.
"I look back on that, I thought this was so depressing, but truthfully that ended up being the way I [went], and it's a lot about doing your own business. It's not glamorous, but if you love what you do, it's worth it," she said.
Brandow found out Kricfalusi worked in Glendale, so she made it her goal to get a job at his studio. She worked there in the summer, which was a profound time in her career because that's where she learned how to design in Flash. It paved the way for her when she left her art program.
"Everybody needed Flash, it was the go-to program for animation for websites, and I got lucky and fell into it," she said.
One of her first jobs was Spumco, where she was a Flash animator. Then she went to Warner Bros., to work as a web design contractor. She loved it there, but they closed down her department after a while, so she went to her first big studio job at Fox, and then to Disney, then to NBC, where she was a senior designer. Her job at Fox meant a big commute — about three hours a day from her house in Pasadena, but a great thing to have on her resume.
Inspired by the immense amount of driving she had been doing, she wanted to own her own business. Brandow had been working on a project since she was in art school — which would eventually become Notespace,her educational app game. She needed to trademark it, but couldn't while she was working for another entertainment studio. So she took the jump, and quit.
Around that time, the Flash bubble burst. She was a big animator, so it was a horrible thing. When the iPhone and iPad came out, there was no animation work available. Brandow had to find a completely new niche to work in, and new software to work with. She had to get into apps, and had to find programmers to work with, which was completely foreign to her, and took some time to get used to.
"That's the path of art. You have to be super nimble and change, learn a whole new toolset to keep going and pick your chin off the floor," she said. "We just aren't the generation that could be in one job forever and ever."
Brandow mainly works on UI and illustration for Amorse, so for clients, she does a lot of the work herself. The way she makes it as an artist in the digital age is to offer it all — programming, branding, marketing, and design. That way, she gets bigger jobs, "which is good, but also a lot more stress," she said.
When she had big clients like HBO and Disney, as well as independent clients, and felt more secure, Brandow launched Notespace. She wanted to do something meaningful, and felt passionate about educational games. And she started with something she knew really well.
"Music has always been a huge inspiration," she said. "When I was in the darkest parts of my life I would dance my way through them."
So when she wanted to build a story and game for tweens, she wanted to use something that brought her back to her childhood. She designed an educational game to teach music concepts called Notespace Beat, about three magical sisters of musical fate.
She worked constantly in 2014 and released Notespace in December in order to get it out before the game festivals, but found out that timing the release around Christmas wasn't the best idea. She wanted to do it all herself, and realized she should have waited, but Brandow always has the attitude of "live and learn."
Recently, she presented at Women in Technology Summit about making serious games for kids. That's something she has become incredibly passionate about — putting out games that are more thoughtful than the Candy Crushes or Temple Runs.
"They're fun and I'm guilty of playing all of those and being completely addicted, so its like where is that line drawn?' she said.
She speaks to school about incorporating educational apps into classrooms, to teach kids how to use the internet in a better way, knowing that they spend most of the time on their phones anyway. She got into educational apps through her work on Notespace, and is now designing a phonics series for Colvard Learning that contains 75 digitized phonics games through her company Amorse Inc.
"My career has taken a wild twist but that is the industry we are in," she said. "I love it and I hate it. You never know what's next and apps are right now, but two years from now are they? Is my job going to be secure? I don't know. What's kept me alive in this business is everyone needs art, and that's not going away."
In her own words...
What is some advice you'd give other entrepreneurs?
"Be strong. I don't know what I would do differently because I always put everything into what I did and that just kept me going. I might have said don't be an artist, haha. Too hard. Anyone who wants to do this road, be true to what you truly want to do. I worked on Notespace for 15 years...this idea I kept pushing and pushing until finally many years later I was able to do it. That's what kept me interested. You have to figure out what keeps you interested. There's going to be a lot of times you'll be in drudgery."
What are some of your hobbies?
"Now I'm trying to have more balance, with certain projects have to go nonstop. My favorite thing to do is travel. I work to travel. I'm going on a honeymoon to Switzerland hiking hut to hut. Nature for me is my hobby. I have a big golden retriever, he's my work associate. I work from home and have a virtual firm. I'm on Skype all day, so my dog gets me out and get my breath of fresh air. My husband I worked up in a cabin and start off days with hike in mountains and swimming in rivers, then come back and sit in front of computers.... being outside is a necessity. I've always loved traveling, meeting new people and trying new foods and being in nature. Seeing all the natural wonders of the world."