Ako Castuera: Giant Robots, Mangled Corpses, and Magical Dogs

Before helping to bring to life the metal band Dethklok in Metalocalypse or dreaming up the whimsical postapocalyptic Land of Ooo for Adventure Time (both Cartoon Network shows), animator Ako Castuera (Illustration 2000) was, perhaps surprisingly, a ceramics student.

Before coming to CCA, drawing really hadn't been her thing. She attended an arts high school and loved it, but thought drawing class was just too much like boot camp.

But she fell in love with drawing here, specifically in an illustration course led by Barron Storey. "He was super magnetic, and so devoted to drawing and illustration. I fell under the spell and discovered I loved to draw.

"Also it was the 1990s," she adds, "and I felt very socially activated and wanted to do something that could reach people." She found some of her greatest sources of inspiration in her classmates. "The friends I made at CCA were always very active, always drawing, always carrying their sketchbooks." She even ended up marrying one of them, the artist Rob Sato (Illustration 1999).

There's a Giant Robot at the Door

It was through this group of friends that Castuera connected with Giant Robot, a hugely popular Asian American zine-turned-storefront. Giant Robot founder Eric Nakamura visited the house of Castuera and her CCA roommates one day, after he'd been urged to check out David Choe's work (Choe studied Illustration at CCA ca. 1995–97).

("There were seven of us on that apartment above Art's Crab Shak on Broadway," Castuera recalls.)

It was the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship. She and her friends became involved in, as she puts it, "the loose yet tight-knit weird web" that is Giant Robot. They eventually started showing their work there; Castuera began with group shows and then eventually started having her own solo exhibitions.

Watch a video of Castuera from Giant Robot's "Artist Friend Series" »

Metalocalypse

Castuera got involved in animation through a series of coincidences. She moved back to Los Angeles soon after graduating from CCA. Her neighbors were a couple working in animation and comics. She drew a birthday card for one of them, and it just so happened that, a year later, he was the lead character designer for Metalocalypse, an adult cartoon about a world-famous death-metal band.

After the show's first season, he realized he needed another character designer on the team, and remembered Castuera's highly impressive birthday card.

She got the job. As a character designer, Castuera watched animatics (which she describes as like a very rough comic) scene by scene, made a list of every character and any special poses that were required, then drew out the poses. Given the cartoon's death metal theme, she says, "A huge part of the job was drawing mangled bodies."

Adventure Time

During her time at Metalocalypse, Castuera was going to a lot of independent comics functions, helping her partner Rob Sato work tables. (Sato had recently won the Xeric Award, which allowed him to self-publish his graphic novel Burying Sandwiches.)

Inspired by the whole scene, she created a comic on a lark.

A good friend at the Cartoon Network handed it to Pendleton Ward, who was looking for a storyboarder for Adventure Time, his new (and now wildly popular) Cartoon Network show about a boy and his magical dog. Ward gave Castuera a storyboard test, and her work was well received.

The time in between seasons for Metalocalypse was sometimes as long as nine months, and during one of these breaks, Castuera began working on Adventure Time. She held both jobs for a time before deciding to work solely on the latter.

She started out as a revisionist, a position that new animators often cut their teeth on because it provides a good technical foundation. "A revisionist goes through the storyboard and does a lot of patch work. Things need to be fleshed out, poses need to be revised."

She was lucky to start during the show's first season, since it meant she had a bit more say than other revisionists who came later. "The show is a well-oiled machine now, but back then it was bumpy. I ended up getting more creative work than most revisionists do."

Soon, Castuera was promoted to storyboard artist, which she says is the natural progression for animators. Adventure Time is outline-based rather than script-based, meaning that the story is initially totally stripped down, just the bare essentials.

As Castuera structures scenes and writes dialogue, a big part of her job requires knowing how a story can be distilled to its core.

When working on storyboards she says she often hears voices . . . specifically the voices of her former CCA professors. "I hear Vincent Perez saying, 'Keep It Simple, Stupid,' and Richard Gayton asking, 'Can you do this watercolor in five strokes? Plan ahead.'"

Lately Castuera has been processing her own clay from soil she collects on her hikes in the hills around Los Angeles. "It is a reaction against -- or maybe toward -- what I do in animation. I have a wonderful job, but I never get my hands dirty. I like to get my hands dirty!"

Exhibitions

In August 2013 Castuera participated in the Smithsonian's Asian-Latino Pop-Up Museum in Silver Spring, Maryland, where she exhibited some of her ceramic works.

She's got a solo opening on September 28 at Giant Robot gallery in Los Angeles, titled Magic Bodies.

And in summer 2014, the Oakland Museum of California will exhibit a Giant Robot retrospective featuring 15 artists, including Castuera, Rob Sato, David Choe, and Deth P. Sun (Painting/Drawing 2002).