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This past fall, DigiPen graduate Shannon Parayil (BFA in Digital Art and Animation, 2019) began binge watching decades of Nickelodeon shows in her spare time. “I didn’t have cable growing up,” Parayil laughs, “so I started watching at least one or two episodes of every cartoon they had ever made.” The Nickelodeon viewing spree wasn’t just for fun though. It was research. That September, Parayil was “shocked” to discover that her application had made it past the first round of the Nick Artist Program, a six-month full-time job offered by Nickelodeon Animation that provides industry mentorship, as well as a chance to work on a studio production, to up-and-coming artists.

During Parayil’s preparatory Nickelodeon binge, she saw an early storyboard animatic of the very first Spongebob Squarepants episode. “It was just really, really funny. I was surprised about that, since I wasn’t expecting as an adult to find Spongebob so funny,” Parayil says. Months later, Parayil was surprised for a very different reason. After multiple rounds of interviews, she suddenly found herself at Nickelodeon chatting with current Spongebob artists about how the show is produced.

Shannon Parayil poses in front of a large, orange Nick sign with the other 2020 Nick Artist Program winners.
Shannon Parayil (far right) with her fellow artists selected for the 2020 Nick Artist Program.

Parayil, who is about to jump into her first Nickelodeon production, says she feels more than ready now that the time has come. “I’m really excited to be here, because I actually do feel really prepared from the experience of working on DigiPen short films,” Parayil says. “The way they talked about everything here at Nick felt really similar to how we talked about our projects at DigiPen.”

But according to Parayil, that self-assuredness didn’t materialize until fairly recently. Just before graduating, Parayil was named Student of the Year by the DigiPen Student Senate. “She cares a lot about the success of other students, and she’s been a great person to talk to for motivation,” one of her fellow classmates wrote on the occasion of her nomination. Ironically, that very same drive to help others led Parayil to doubt her own chances at landing the Nick Artist Program spot, or a job in the animation industry at all once she graduated.

“A lot of what I was doing after graduation was trying to find jobs for my friends who were interested in storyboarding. I actually spent most of my time looking for them instead of myself,” Parayil says. “I was too afraid to help myself find a job – I could only see where I was lacking as an artist, so I didn’t think I had a chance anywhere. I was just like, ‘I’ll help everyone else instead!’” Her support efforts paid off when one of her former teammates, Jessica Gallaher, who directed their senior film project Flap, landed a position at Kuku Studios. The two moved to San Francisco together, and Parayil prepared to double down on her own job hunt. Just prior to leaving for California, however, Parayil submitted her application to Nickelodeon, even though she didn’t have high hopes of being accepted.

“I felt like I didn’t really have anything in my portfolio that showed how I had helped people on my film teams, because I didn’t really focus on how I myself could grow as an artist,” Parayil says. To turn things around, Parayil decided to create an art regimen for herself in San Francisco based on the words of her DigiPen figure drawing professor, David Longo. “One of the things he said was, ‘If you want to get better at art, there are three things you need to do. You should draw from life, draw from people you’re inspired by, and draw from imagination,’” Parayil says.

Taking Longo’s advice to heart, Parayil began drawing and plein air painting every day, promising herself she’d post one new work to her Instagram each week so she could tangibly see her own progress as an artist. “It’s actually funny to me that I got the Nick Artist Program position, because I felt like so much personal growth and development happened after I submitted for it, even though they didn’t take that into consideration during the process,” Parayil says.

Parayil poses with two other artists in front of a Nickelodeon sign superimposed over pictures of succulents.
Parayil (far right) will join in on an animated Nickelodeon production as part of the Nick Artist Program.

Now in Burbank, California, Parayil says Nick Studios is as fun as you might imagine it. “When you walk in, they have a big sign that says NICK, and the N is actually a secret door into a movie theater,” Parayil says. “There’s so much fun stuff around, and everyone is so welcoming and friendly and wants to meet and talk to you.” Parayil has spent the first 30 days on the job preparing an art book with her fellow Nick Artist Program finalists, as well as meeting professional animators working on the new Rugrats show, The Loud House, The Cassagrandes, Butterbean’s Café, the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film, and of course, Spongebob Squarepants.

Parayil also recently met with alumni of the Nick Artist Program who have since gone on to work at big industry names like Chromosphere, Netflix, Warner Brothers, Cartoon Network, and Nickelodeon itself. “One of the ladies who is an art director was talking about how much communication affects her and her job,” Parayil says. “For me, having been a producer on DigiPen short films, I related to everything she was saying. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I know exactly what you’re talking about!’ Being a producer, I had to understand how to communicate and learn what understanding my teammates really means, especially as far as making the production process work better.”

That talk has given Parayil an extra boost of confidence now that she’s about to start working on her first real Nick production. “I’m interested to see what it’s like to work on an even bigger production versus a smaller project in school,” Parayil says. “I’m really excited!”