The following post, written by Joseph Fortuno, first appeared in the student-run newspaper, The Cogswell Chronicle. All images are by Britney Thoreson.
Cogswell’s vibrant community is an incubator for talented artists, engineers, and leaders across various concentrations.
Each has a story to tell and a fresh career ahead. One student’s story, in particular, earned the attention of Cartoon Network. I spoke with alumna and valedictorian Britney Thoreson about her journey—and her budding career as an Apprentice Background Designer.
Britney’s story starts in a small town called Addison, Alabama. As the oldest of her siblings, she had viewed the world through a wide scope at a young age. For Britney, life in Addison was simple and calm. She enjoyed long summer days by the lake and Friday night football games at her school. Her passion for art started as an escape from a troubled childhood. Her school didn’t have any art classes, so she learned fundamentals by spending hours in bookstores and watching animated films like Spirited Away. By the time she applied for Cogswell, everything she’d learned was self-taught. Britney’s artistry helped her get out of tough times in Addison.
Early on, she’d made a vow to herself that she would never settle for less and always do what made her happy, eventually reaching a difficult insight: in order to explore the world of arts and animation, she would have to leave Alabama.
In the beginning of her college career, she was set to attend Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida. One week before starting, her financial situation got in the way, and she was unable to afford tuition at Ringling. “I was devastated,” she recalls. “It was my top choice but I had to play the cards I’d been dealt.”
In college, Britney strived for success in every class and project…
Her search for an affordable private art school put Cogswell in her sights. “Being accepted into Cogswell was a jumping platform,” says Thoreson. "The location allowed me to network with industry professionals and I pushed my artistic abilities with help from the faculty.” The transition from Alabama was both exciting and terrifying for Thoreson. “I had just graduated high school a couple of months prior and I was going in on blind faith and determination to get my art career started,” she says. “I didn’t have enough money to fly back and forth to visit the college or the area so my first time visiting Cogswell was my first day as a student.”
Jumping from a small town of about 758 to a city of over 152,000 was a big leap for Thoreson. She began adapting to the community, though, quickly realizing that Cogswell wasn’t much different from a small town in Alabama: “Everybody knows everybody, students gossip over art projects, and [just] as college football was all the talk in my town, the video game and art craze was all the talk at Cogswell.” To Britney, it seemed Alabama had held back her inner geek self – something she embraced at Cogswell.
In college, Britney strived for success in every class and project as she knew how important they would be in finding a job. On the first day of school, she visited Career Services inquire about what steps she should be taking to land a job in her field after graduation. “I didn’t like excuses,” she says, “and I never made any. If I want to work with the industry professionals, then I better start acting like one and produce quality work.”
Thoreson took Cogswell by storm—in most classes, her art stood out and became recognizable. She quickly gained a positive reputation in the close-knit campus community. Her college career, however, was not perfect. She had a lot of moments in which she doubted herself and her artistry, something she still faces today:
“The constant nagging [idea] of not being good enough invaded my headspace more than it should. Getting that nagging to cease talking took a bit of self-exploration–I kept myself busy with three part-time jobs, rewatched movies I grew up with that continued to spark my artistry and energized myself with inspirational music and coffee. Lots of coffee.”
Near graduation, Britney felt a specific kind of anxiety that made her want to spring. She spent a lot of time making plans for her post-college career, from driving to Los Angeles for networking events to emailing professionals requests to review her portfolio. She spent countless hours perfecting every detail that would propel her career forward. Though this was the height of her job searching days, Britney had been applying for jobs and internships since she was a sophomore. Every opportunity had led to a rejection. And she used every rejection on her list to motivate her to continue pursuing a career in her degree.
Eventually, her Instagram page landed her an opportunity that would set her course.
A connection she had made worked closely with a talent coordinator. They agreed to send Thoreson’s portfolio to the company the coordinator worked for. After months of radio silence, another talent coordinator contacted her in her last week at Cogswell.
Talent coordinators in the industry search through all types of social media from Tumblr to Instagram.
This one was from Cartoon Network.
“I was such in disbelief that I thought it was a fake email,” she says. “I asked how she got a hold of my portfolio and part of it was my network connection. The other part was Instagram.” As it turns out, talent coordinators in the industry search through all types of social media from Tumblr to Instagram. The link to her website was embedded in her social media page, which led to a talent coordinator reviewing her work.
After a few weeks, the talent coordinator asked Thoreson to do a background test for a show they were working on. After signing a nondisclosure agreement and receiving materials for the project, she was given one week to complete the test. “I worked as efficiently as possible. I asked a few background artists how their first test went, and a lot of them [advised me] to take advantage of the time… I spent the whole week perfecting the designs.” More than a week after sending back the test, the producer of the show emailed Britney about working as a paid, freelance background artist and apprised her that an in-house position would be available if she was a good fit for the show.
After more than two weeks of hard work, the producer and art director invited her to work full time, in-house at Cartoon Network.
“I couldn’t keep the tears in,” she recalls: “I was so happy that this all worked out [that] I just broke in two and cried ... I wasn’t sure what happened. I questioned it and eventually let it sink in. All the late nights paid off. The nagging voices [finally] went away, and now it’s just my conscience saying ‘I told you so!’”
Today, Thoreson works as an Apprentice Background Designer. She gets the same amount of work, the same benefits, and a similar pay stub to the other background designers during the six months or so that she is contracted to work on the show. She is responsible for designing the shots that the Storyboard Artists give to her. She works closely with the Art Director to make sure the settings she designs for the characters fit the style of the show. She designs anywhere from ten to fifteen backgrounds in one week, which are handed off to the background painters.
“I had nothing else to lose and everything else to gain,” Thoreson recalls about her journey from Alabama to Cogswell. Looking back at her time with the college, she wants to offer advice to current students: “The best advice I can give is to find out what you’re good with and run with it… be open to changing your career path. I [wanted] to be an animator… after finding out that animation was not for me, I explored other [positions] and found love for background designs in Perspective and Rendering with [Professor] Dave Perry.”
“Send your portfolio around,” she urges, “and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Continue to network and keep improving your craft!”
Within one year in her career, Thoreson hopes to meet more milestones: “I want to have an even more grounded perspective as to how the industry works, having worked in it for a year—not just with Cartoon Network, but with other studios too. Each studio is different and unique. I want to be able to hop around and work on more projects with various studios and start to build my feature film portfolio on the side.”
It’s been a long journey from Addison, Alabama to the Cartoon Network headquarters in Southern California for Britney Thoreson, but she says it was all worth it: “Even when you doubt yourself and you are submerged in anxiety, don’t panic—following a dream is the road less traveled. No one says it will be easy, but the payoff is worth it. Trust me.”