Interview by Karyn Keene

jekyllsilhouettes_originalWhile at WonderCon, I had the opportunity to meet Sabrina Cotugno who works as a storyboard artist on the Disney show Gravity Falls and also creates her own comics and animated shorts. Her storytelling is enjoyable, fun and often has a flare for fright. Right up my alley! So, I asked her to sit down for an interview to discuss storytelling, animation, and how she got into her career as a storyboard artist.

When did you know that you wanted to be an artist, specifically an animator?

Since the end of High School I knew I wanted to go into animation. I saw the movie Ratatouille and I knew that’s what I wanted to do, Ratatouille specifically. I liked to draw and write and since that’s what animation basically is, it worked for me.

I originally went into school thinking I’d want to do story. Then I did an internship at Pixar. They’re nice people, but the environment really wasn’t for me. So I thought story wasn’t for me, since Pixar was really well known as the place to go for story.

So, I decided I was going to be a character designer. I actually ended up going back to Pixar for a design internship. At the end of that summer, I knew that was not it either. I realized I really did like story when I worked on it on my own, just not in the very specific work environment that Pixar has. Then I got an internship at Disney for design – oops. But Disney ended up being much more open about what they allowed you to do for your internships and although I was in a character design/visual development internship I could wiggle my way into doing more story related stuff.

After that internship, I decided to try to get into story which is how I got interested in Gravity Falls.

So what do you do as a storyboard artist?

Jan_mudpheonix_originalIt means I work with the show runner and the director to take the script from words on a page to a visual mock-up of what the episode is going to be. It’s really fun and I learn a lot about visual storytelling. The storyboard artist is the front line for visuals, staging, composition, cutting, all the visual components of storytelling. Then we work with the director and writers on revisions.

It helps having really good writers so the content is very good; I love sitting in on the story meetings between the director and show runner. They talk shop about how to fix problems in a timely manner, because we work with tight deadlines. I like hearing how they think about story because it’s very practical. I think it’s a great job for storytellers.

How did you get this job?

I was visiting a friend of mine who was still attending Cal Arts and she said Gravity Falls was handing out animation tests at a job fair. I decided I wanted that test so she hooked me up with an old teacher I had who had been a character designer on the show a long time ago. He hooked me up with a producer and got me a test. I did the test, they liked it and they hired me as a revisionist, which is the assistant board artist and then I got moved up after a few months.

Where do you want to go with your career?

Ideally, I’d love to do my own stories sometime in my life. I would love to be doing these stories I have full time. The Glass Scientist is kind of my baby right now. Any format where that can happen I’m good for, but I don’t know what form that will take yet. I’ve done a little bit of talking with execs on the development side which is a little scary. So technically I’m doing that, but that seems so far off.

Can you tell me more about The Glass Scientist?

The Glass Scientist is a story about a man who wants to bring mad scientists into the mainstream. He wants to take people who are feared for bringing monsters into the world, corrupting nature and sinning against God and improve their reputation, keep them from being run out of town with pitch forks and having their laboratories burned down. The way he is going to do that is with his own absolutely stellar reputation as a gentleman of high society. Everyone loves him; he is everyone’s best friend. He has friends in high places, lots of influence. The only thing that could stop him is a little secret he has and if this secret ever got out not only his life, but all the lives of those he is trying to protect would come crashing down. This man’s name is Dr. Henry Jekyll.

Right now I’m looking at developing this story as a one-shot comic that I’ll ideally sell at conventions. I might do a Kickstarter for it. I already have a small following on Tumblr for that story. It would be a backstory of Dr. Jekyll, trying to get into the heart of that character. The story is about his first kiss…not with a human. That’s all I’m going to say.

I just finished the vomit pass today and it’s a mess. I’m sending it to people I trust asking them for feedback. I am working on that this summer and hopefully will have it published later this year. I really want this to be a high-quality work people can hold and be happy to have in their collection. The plan then is to have the first chapter up once I publish the book so I can direct people to read it if they liked my one-shot.

Okay so here is a fun question. If you could put yourself into any story world – what would it be?

Suddenly I am so aware of EVERY BOOK. I feel like it would have to have some magical element…I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction lately but I can already live there.

It would either be a whimsical magical realism – the one that’s popping into mind is Amelie or Brother’s Bloom. Those are my favorite love stories, kind of like our world but whimsical things can happen more easily. Or a Joss Whedon verse. I’d love to live in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer world. I wasn’t allowed to watch this as a kid, and I just started watching it and it was so good.

6779402310301016818We proceeded to geek out over how much we loved Joss Whedon – Buffy, Dr. Horrible, Firefly…didn’t even touch Avengers or Shield before getting kicked out as the café closed. In part 2 of this interview, Sabrina digs into her inspirations for her own stories and talks about her process for developing and executing animation.

You can find Sabrina’s work on her website, Tumblr and Online Store. Contact her through Twitter or email her at

Interested in reading more? Check out StoryForge’s interviews with other artists: Allison Oh and Mary Jane Whiting!