Christopher Papa ’02 (general fine arts) loves to tell stories, and animation gives him a unique outlet for his creative expression. There are few playgrounds for animators like Nickelodeon, the kids-based network built on creative irreverence and a natural home for outside-the-box thinkers like Papa, who is the director of animation for the network’s Brand team.
He has been nominated for five Emmy awards for promotional work for well-known shows including Dora the Explorer; Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; and SpongeBob SquarePants. In 2011, he won for the launch trailer for Bubble Guppies, which incorporated the drama of a big-budget movie trailer to reveal details about the new show featuring goldfish-sized mermaid children. Papa works out of the network’s New York offices in Times Square.
The Long Island native has always been inventive. Even before college, he was already drawing comic books and teaching himself interactive arts and animation. He enrolled at MICA before the current animation major was created, so he used the flexibility of the general fine arts major to combine painting and drawing classes with video and 3D design classes to create his own animation curriculum. For Papa, the most impactful elements of the experience were the critiques, which forced students to show and talk about their work in front of audiences.
After MICA, Papa went on to get his graduate degree from New York University (NYU), where he expanded his understanding in technical areas of the field, including production and post-production. There he made connections in the industry that led him to the promotions team at Nick Jr., where he became a central creative voice. As one of the earliest animators working in promotions at Nick Jr., a younger brand in the Nickelodeon family gaining legions of international followers through shows like Dora, Papa quickly gained a mountain of experience and enhanced credibility at the company and within the industry.
Now, Papa is director of animation for the Brand team at Nickelodeon, where he oversees projects that raise visibility for individual shows, the network, and its associated properties overall. In addition to television, he also manages creative projects to address Nickelodeon’s store, online, mobile app, and packaging branding needs, like interactive billboards in Toys ‘R’ Us stores. His team is constantly looking for ways to expand the brand both on and outside of television, which led him to direct a series of online animation shorts for the network’s Legend of Korra series, for which he hired a MICA student to be an illustrator on the project.
The critique sessions Papa enjoyed at MICA were critical preparation for his current role. “It’s pretty much what my job is now—getting feedback, giving feedback, and trying to craft something with a team of people,” Papa said. He enjoys the “super short” storytelling format of promotions, which includes projects such as 5- to 15-second network identification, often themed around holidays. “It’s like sprints instead of marathons,” he said, though those “sprints” can often take four to six weeks to create.
He does run his share of creative marathons, however, including overseeing projects for Nickelodeon’s iconic Kids Choice Awards. Those projects may last for a year or more, from concept and development of promotional spots to the stage design. They allow Papa’s creativity to run wild. Last year, for example, his vision of stage design revolved around a “spacey jungle theme” that included giant Venus flytraps and enormous LED screens that featured a virtual waterfall made of Nickelodeon’s famous green slime that flowed into an actual slime river on stage populated by futuristic animals. As the show progressed, the lighting gave the audience the illusion of moving from daytime to nighttime. He also conceptualized and oversaw production of the animation that set up the announcement of the “favorite musical act.” The 30-second spot featured a giraffe, panda, and a monkey singing Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry songs in a karaoke booth.
His work utilizes a wide variety of artistic techniques. For a series of spots put together to show a day when kids took over the network, Papa had the opportunity to direct a Chihuahua, and for another project, his team used stop motion to bring yarn models to life.
A key function of his team is to address the promotional needs of the various divisions at Nickelodeon, often involving pitching a solution to a corporate problem and securing buy-in. Papa’s work frequently centers on collaboration, creating a vision for a project and then managing a team to ensure that it gets completed. In the process, he works with people all over the company, from marketing to show producers. “It’s kind of like ‘intrapreneuring,’” he said. His teams’ work allows the company to get a quality or superior promotional product for a fraction of the cost of external services.
Papa’s supervisor, Matthew Duntemann, senior vice president of Brand Design for Nickelodeon Group, heralds the MICA graduate’s ability to find new ways of getting things done as one of his most valuable qualities. “I get to lean on him to solve many problems that I don’t have to worry about,” Duntemann said. “He’s quite inventive when you want to push things [further]. He always comes up with something,” he said.
Papa’s MICA education also has been a key factor in his ability to get buy-in for his concepts, going all the way back to his training in sketching and drawing. “You have to make them believe the vision,” Papa said. “You can talk them through a concept, but it’s important to put pictures in front of them. That’s why the MICA critiques were just so crucial, because there are a lot of talented people out there that have good ideas, but they might not fit exactly right, so you have to figure out a way to tweak them so they fit into the timing, style, brand, and messaging.”
Quickly evolving technology means that animation is one of the fastest-changing fields. Papa stays current by teaching—he has taught at NYU and will soon take a position at Parsons The New School for Design. It’s also been important to expand his department and bring in new talent, he said. “That’s why we go to MICA,” he said, adding that they also recruit from schools in the New York area. “We’re always thinking about what’s next.”