'Rick and Morty' director Erica Hayes wants you in the workplace revolution
"I would like to see a future where there are no more non-union animated series."
Erica Hayes was fresh out of college, having spent her first three months in Los Angeles crashing on a friend’s couch while working at a Starbucks — a far too relatable situation for many under-employed creative millennials post-college — when her friend emailed her about a job posting.
“Hey, this studio has an opening for this new show called Rick and Morty. Do you want the link?”
In March 2013, nobody had ever heard of Adult Swim’s wacky, adult animated sci-fi series that would chip the zeitgeist a few years later. Hungry for work in storyboard artistry, Hayes sent her application in straightaway. After a few rounds of tests and interviews, she scored the gig. Cool, right? It may sound like a lot of fun (Hayes assures me that it is), but creating art for Rick and Morty is still really challenging.
“Art is work!” Hayes tells me during an hour-long phone conversation. “It’s not just fun when it also becomes your job.”
Before being promoted to director for Rick and Morty Season 4 (the first-ever female director for the series), Hayes was a storyboard artist on the show almost since the very beginning. Technically she started out as a storyboard revisionist, a “storyboard cleanup artist” refining the work of others. Season 1’s finale, “Ricksy Business,” was her first episode as a full-on storyboard artist, a role she held all the way up until her promotion to director when Season 4 production began. Now, she gets to lead a team of artists and assign each of them to specific scenes based on her creative assessment of the script, working with state-of-the-art tech to transform ideas on the page into visual art.
“The artists all work with two monitors: one Mac monitor that displays reference images we need and one Wacom Cintiq monitor, which we draw directly onto,” Hayes explains. “The software the directors and storyboard artists all use is Toon Boom Storyboard Pro. Many of us have home setups using this exact same tech.”
On the phone, Hayes is enthusiastic, straightforward, and confident. She’s open about her experiences on Rick and Morty, marveling as anybody would about how just another job launched her career as an artist on one of the most popular shows on TV. She’s also very quick to laugh, something that feels like a requirement for the Rick and Morty team.
Midway through our call, a voice interrupts us on her side of the line. It sounds hungry. “RAAAWWWRR!” a cat meows. “I’m so sorry,” says Hayes, laughing it off. “That’s Marcy.” I’m a huge cat person, too, so we don’t skip a beat.
While Hayes is living the dream as a director on Rick and Morty, she hasn’t forgotten how she got here — or how tough it is for the vast majority of artists working in similar positions.
"Millennials were raised to believe that if we just follow our heart, all our dreams will come true."
“People in general seem to devalue artistic positions and take advantage of them quite often, whether that’s writing or drawing or anything else,” Hayes says. The American dream for millennials is kind of bullshit, and the nature of how we work in the digital age needs to change, particularly in creative positions in media and entertainment.
“People say things like, ‘Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.’ That’s not exactly true,” Hayes says. “Millennials were raised to believe that if we just follow our heart, all our dreams will come true. The work will be wonderful and we’ll be happy forever.”
"I’m passionate about creative workers getting paid fairly and working fair hours."
Hayes acknowledges the harsh realities that many overeducated, underemployed millennials face in creative industries where freelance work is the norm, leaving countless without benefits or even a regular paycheck.
It’s for this reason that Hayes self-identifies as “very pro union.” It doesn’t take long perusing her Twitter history to see confirmation of that. Between retweets of the NY State Department of Labor dragging the Barstool Sports founder for public anti-union comments in August or a celebratory “FUCK YEAH” in June when the crew of Netflix’s BoJack Horseman successfully unionized, Hayes is a noteworthy example of a certain kind of social media activism.
“I’m passionate about creative workers getting paid fairly and working fair hours; any benefit that any other trade gets, we should get equally,” she argues. In conversation, Hayes comes across as relaxed, confident, earnest, and totally unafraid to laugh at something. You can tell that she genuinely loves her job and has a good relationship with everyone else on the Rick and Morty team.
Doing what she does comes with a host of unique challenges. Even though she works behind the scenes on Rick and Morty, there’s still a certain kind of spotlight that comes with that.
The first time most Rick and Morty fans — myself included — ever laid eyes on Erica Hayes was during the much-hyped June 2017 Rick and Morty livestream event. It was almost three full months after the surprise airing of “Rickshank Rickdemption,” the Rick and Morty Season 3 premiere. Adult Swim had teased some kind of event via Twitter billed as a “LIVE, spontaneous evening of Rick and Morty.” Nobody knew what was going on — but Erica Hayes knew.
"It’s stressful enough when only one person watches you draw, let alone thousands on a livestream."
That night included a Season 3 trailer and release date announcement, but also a fun, improvised Rick and Morty episode. There was Erica Hayes, seated between Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland, drawing quick storyboard-like sketches while they improvised a wacky story with Rick and Morty characters where they cure syphilis. At this point in time, she was a storyboard artist on the show.
As exciting as such an event was for the fandom, it made for a nerve-wracking experience when you’re trying to sketch images on the fly while Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland make improvisational sci-fi jokes.
“It’s stressful enough when only one person watches you draw, let alone thousands on a livestream!” Hayes remembers of that night. “Not to mention, I was working with an extremely glitchy setup that simply did not want to work with me, so yeah, it took some years off my life.” Perhaps inspired by Justin Roiland’s method acting of getting drunk in real life to voice Rick, Hayes drank a bit beforehand to ease the stress. It helped. But even then, she remembers that night as a tough experience she probably wouldn’t want to repeat. “It wasn’t all bad of course, and I remember enjoying the little Star Rick and Star Morty I drew.”
Born on the South Side of Chicago in 1987, Erica Hayes grew up during the Disney Renaissance that was a steady stream of animated features in the ‘90s: Beauty and the Beast , Aladdin, The Lion King, the kind of stuff that reinforced the millennial fairy tale that everything would work out alright for all of us in the end.
Hayes began drawing Disney characters while watching the movies at a young age and fondly remembers watching behind-the-scenes specials for Disney movies. They made her realize that working in animation was something she could pursue as a career, one that she settled on by the time she reached high school. If Hayes has any advice for people who also find themselves gravitating towards animation, it’s that you have to pinpoint an aspect of the process that appeals to you.
“Animators don’t really have much creative control,” Hayes said. “They get to do small embellishments with expressions and things like that, but they’re basically following the storyboards almost to a tee.” For anyone who wants to bring a scene to life, animation is the way to go. Hayes wanted something different that was closer to the script with more creative control.
“I want to be the one setting up the scene and deciding where the characters are going to be,” Hayes says, “making all the cinematography decisions about cuts and camera moves and things like that.”
Hayes started college as an animation major at Columbia College Chicago but then transferred to the sequential art program at Savannah College of Art and Design, a specialized area of study that emphasizes “storyboarding, comics, children’s books — anything that focuses solely on telling the story in a sequential form.” She interned at Nickelodeon Animation Studio, where she made one of the most important friendships of her life with a fellow “Nicktern.”
Hayes says that Season 3, Episode 1 — “The Rickshank Rickdemption” — was her favorite to work on, and she personally worked on the Summer-Morty story that has them travel to dimension C-137 trying to save Rick before they’re abducted and taken to the Citadel. “We had just come back from our hiatus and we were so full of energy and really gave this premiere everything we had,” Hayes told Rooster in an August 2018 interview. “My director, Juan Meza-Leon, wanted this episode storyboarded like a feature film, so we really went for it.” It shows in the final product. One dramatic sequence has Summer reclaim a dead Rick’s portal gun, and it’s one of the more understated yet epic shots in the entire series.
As is the case with any project in Hollywood, be it a series or film, working in animation often comes as a project-by-project basis. For someone working on the show, Rick and Morty offered its own unique challenges. Remember the long, long delays between Season 2 and 3 — and again between Season 3 and 4? Fans might be upset about it, but that also means everyone who works on the show had to find other gigs in the meantime.
“I’ve kind of jumped around at other studios to get bounced around town on different productions in the meantime,” Hayes said. “But I always come back for a new season of Rick and Morty.” During these periods, Hayes worked on series like Netflix’s Big Mouth but took other freelance work to supplement her income.
“Freelance work is nice to have if work is slow or if there are extra bills to pay on top of a job you already have,” Hayes said. “But if you’re only hired as freelance help and you’re never protected and never get benefits, then it can be extremely damaging.” Therein lies the plight of many artists, journalists, and people in one of many other creative positions. When most of the work available is freelance, it presents a unique professional challenge.
“If you’re in the Animation Guild and you work non-union productions, your health care hours can run out,” Hayes said. “Your hours aren’t counted towards pension and retirement.” Translation? If you’re part of the Animation Guild and you work too many freelance jobs, then you just sort of run out of health care. What if the only work you can find are freelance gigs? Uhhh … you still just run out of health care. Pay from non-union work also doesn’t count towards retirement plans.
"I would like to see a future where there are no more non-union animated series."
“I want to see all of Hollywood unionized,” Hayes tells me when I ask about her hopes for the future of her industry. “I would like to see a future where there are no more non-union animated series. To me, that shouldn’t even exist.” For many companies and productions across industries, unions can be a sore subject because it ultimately means that the company will have to spend more money investing in its employees, be it in terms of direct wages or in other enhanced benefits. That’s a good thing, but more money is still more money.
“I find that if studios don’t have to unionize, then they absolutely will not,” Hayes said. “If they can just hire freelance help that is not covered under a union contract, then they will definitely utilize that.” Hayes is deeply passionate about the subject, and she’s grateful and proud that not only is Rick and Morty the pinnacle of adult animated comedy on television, but the show’s production has been unionized since 2014 during Season 2’s production.
"That nihilistic humor, we’re relating to it more, and it’s hitting home in a way it maybe didn’t years ago."
As the Rick and Morty production team expanded for Season 4, they moved into a new office to accommodate the larger group size. The show’s co-creators Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland are also pursuing other creative projects. Harmon is developing an adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan novel along with the ongoing HarmonQuest live role-playing game.
Roiland is making a Hulu series with former Rick and Morty producer Mike McMahan, another sci-fi animated show called Solar Opposites.
Roiland also runs a video game developer called Squanch Games that over the summer released Trover Saves the Universe, a wacky VR-optional space adventure starring a purple eyehole monster alien named Trover who wields a lightsaber and screams profanities at you. It’s all part of a holistic endeavor to keep everyone together, but Hayes hopes that as conferencing technology gets better, living and working in LA will become less necessary.
“We should allow people to work on animation series — or any creative role that you could do anywhere — from home,” Hayes pitched. “LA is such an expensive city to live in. It’s asking a lot of young artists to just move here.” Industry-wide, most jobs require that you live in LA and work at an in-house production. But as housing costs only get higher in big cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York, how long will that be sustainable?
“Our housing crisis is so terrible,” Hayes said. “The prices are awful. There’s just no possibility really of buying a home unless you’re willing to spend, you know, $700,000 on a shitty two-bedroom house.” For the vast majority of people, housing then becomes an endless string of overpriced and undersized rentals that don’t allow you to invest in real estate — or in your future. Facing this harsh truth and embracing technology as a means of evolving the workplace feels like an obvious next step. Why hasn’t it happened yet?
“I think the entertainment industry is too stuck in its old-school ways right now,” Hayes theorizes. “I hope it changes, but I’m not sure that it will.”
The state of the world can sometimes feel troubling in that way, and Hayes sees a connection between the increased number of mature animated TV series, including the explosive popularity of Rick and Morty.
“Maybe we just live in a sort of dark time,” Hayes says. “That nihilistic humor, we’re relating to it more, and it’s hitting home in a way it maybe didn’t years ago.”
Rick and Morty airs Sunday nights on Adult Swim at 11:30 p.m. Eastern.
Erica Hayes is a member of the Inverse Future 50, a group of 50 people who will be forces of good in the 2020s.