If you grew up watching Nickelodeon (or have kids who did), there’s a good chance you’ve encountered the work of Michael Lapinski. The Nashville-based artist, who now calls local digital animation and CGI studio Magnetic Dreams his professional home base, was the lead digital designer on “Blue’s Clues” — the wildly popular children’s television show, which ran from 1996 to 2006 and earned nine Emmy nominations.
If you weren’t hip to “Blue’s Clues,” the odds are still good you’ve already encountered Lapinski’s work on a number of popular animation properties including “Doug” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” He also co-created the comic book series “Feeding Ground,” directed commercials for Firestone and the Tennessee Lottery, directed music
videos (including one for Blake Shelton) — and those are just a few of the many projects Lapinski’s had a hand in since beginning his career.
“Pretty early on I realized [art] was something I wanted to do for a living,” Lapinski says. “[I was] a fan of ‘Sesame Street’ and ‘The Muppet Show.’ Jim Henson was one of the first people I recognized as being the artist behind the work that I liked. It dawned on me that there was a guy who actually did this. That was what let me know, initially, that this was something I could turn into my life.”
Lapinski got his start as a professional artist at Jumbo Pictures, painting cels (short for celluloid, the transparent film on which animation frames were painted prior to the digital age) for Disney’s version of the animated series “Doug,” which ran on ABC from 1996 to 1999. The job (which began as an internship while he was a graphic design student at Rutgers University) was a dream come true
“For me, [working at Jumbo] was one of those amazing steps to realizing it was something I could do,” he says. “They were still doing cel painting at the time, so for me, it was a step into the animation world as I knew it to be. I was learning Photoshop at the time, and it was crucial because the studio went digital soon after [I started]. I was one of the first people there who knew the program and made it my first job, essentially going right from college into that studio. … It was amazing realizing, too, that it was this new era of television animation.”
While working at Jumbo, Lapinski had a fortuitous night out. While at a show by the shock art rock band, The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, Lapinski ran into a co-worker, who told him about an opening at “Blue’s Clues.”
“I think it’s so ironic that it led to working on ‘Blue’s Clues,’” Lapinski says, laughing. “The show was already in production for a season or two, but that was really crucial in terms of bringing animation [work] back to America. A lot of the 2-D stuff had been done overseas and, with the Adobe Suite, we were able to get the entire production pipeline back into the studio in the States.”
Lapinski stuck around at Nickelodeon for several years, describing the network’s Manhattan studio as one of New York City’s great hubs for animation. From there, he moved across the river to Dancing Diablo in Brooklyn’s Dumbo neighborhood, where he did color work for a version of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”
“That was another leap,” he says. “I had been working on pre-school shows up until that point, and I had to refine my background painting skills and learn to work in a style that was pretty removed from the kid stuff we had been doing.”
Lapinski says that his early career path found him, “hitting these moments just at the right time — knowing the right software for these major changes that determined what jobs were even available,” strokes of luck (and talent, no doubt) that bolstered his ability to work on such acclaimed projects at a young age. During his studio days, when work was scarce, he still found his way to compelling,
“Back in my Nickelodeon days, a friend of mine told me about an idea for a movie about werewolves on the U.S.-Mexico border,” he says. “I knew there wasn’t going to be a chance for him to make this movie, because it was pretty big in scope, but I was on break and had always loved comics. Alongside working on animated projects, I always had the idea to do a comic. And this was a chance to pitch that.”
Lapinski and his friend, Swifty Lang, pitched the comic, “Feeding Ground,” at Comic-Con 2009 and sold the project to the
publisher Archaia Entertainment. Once the pair began work, Lapinski found both creative fulfillment and a new set of artistic challenges in bringing the story to life visually. “It was cool to sit down and do this thing I had admired for so long,” he says. “But at the drawing table, it was a real effort.”
It would take two years to complete the comic book series. Around that time, Lapinski got married, and with his wife’s desire to be closer to her home state of Georgia and her new job with CMT, they settled in East Nashville. A cold-call to Magnetic Dreams soon led Lapinsky to a new Nashville job of his own.
“I was told to move out to L.A. if I wanted to make any kind of consistent living in animation,” Lapinski says. “I had been working on a comic book property, as well as children’s television and animation, and the studio here, Magnetic Dreams, has been around for 20 years and the two major properties they were working on were ‘Sesame Street’ and Marvel Comics. The idea that I could come from New York and find a nice hub in Nashville was really a gift.”
Once again, Lapinski was in the right place at the right time; the move to Magnetic Dreams has proven fruitful for his career. He worked as art director on the “Sesame Street” segment “Elmo the Musical.” He directed the aforementioned Blake Shelton video, and the Oak Ridge Boys’ music video for “Doing It to Country Songs,” which features animated critters in humorous situations. He’s worked on commercials for major brands, including Coca-Cola and Crayola. And in his free time (if you can imagine him having any), he’s taught art workshops for kids and youth through the Nashville Public Library and at the Frist Art Museum.
A prolific and energetic artist, Lapinski is always on the lookout for innovative new ideas in animation and graphic art. He sees the new era of streaming television content as a particular boon to animation. He’s also optimistic about the resurgent interest in graphic novels and comic books. More than anything, though, he’s eager to pursue his personal creative visions, a goal he believes he can achieve through his work with Magnetic Dreams.
“I’m looking for a chance to work on my own series,” he says. “I’ve had ideas in the past, selling pilots to Nickelodeon and developing something from the ground up where it’s not just refining an idea that comes to us. That’s what I’m excited about.”