Animation Conversations: Alumnus Varun Malik '21
BY Angeline Dimambro, March 8, 2022
Animation Conversations is an interview series with Film faculty, students, and alumni where we discuss working as screenwriters, directors, and producers in the animation industry.
This week, we sat down with Creative Producing alumnus Varun Malik ’21 to talk about his experience working in development at Nickelodeon Animation, as well as how his experiences at Columbia served as a launching pad for his current career.
Varun Malik is an aspiring Writer/Director/Producer with an MFA from Columbia University's School of the Arts. He is currently operating as an Assistant in the wonderful world of animation with Nickelodeon, where he previously completed an internship. He has a passion for storytelling, whether it be with words, or a well-timed punch. He enjoys every aspect of the film process from development through post-production. Prior to his work in the film industry, Malik spent several years as a Financial and Marketing Analyst in Oil + Gas, Consulting, and Retail.
Tell us a bit about yourself. What were you up to before arriving at Columbia?
Varun Malik (VM): I was born and raised in Houston, Texas. I was going the stereotypical doctor route in college. That lasted about three and a half years. I had a minor in finance and ended up switching to that for my major. After graduating, I worked in finance in oil and gas and also did some consulting for a while. The consulting job started to get a little dull, so I tried to find something more creative. I’ve always wanted to enter this space [of filmmaking] since I was a kid, but I didn’t feel like I had the support down south, where the industry is almost non-existent. I started looking for a new job and ended up finding a finance and marketing role here in New York. That job did me a great service in that it showed me that I did not want to work in that industry anymore. I had already been applying to some schools and eventually, I ended up here at Columbia.
Had pursuing film been in the back of your mind for a while?
VM: Completely. I had gotten to an age and to a point with my career where I thought, “I need to stop running from this and just go for it because I’m never going to forgive myself if I don’t.” So I went for it.
I love that! What made Columbia’s Film Program special?
VM: Something I’m immensely grateful for about Columbia is that it is one of the few programs that lets you touch everything. The further I get away from my time here, the more I’m eternally grateful that I got the opportunity to learn about so many aspects of filmmaking. It was such a full, well-rounded experience.
I took a development class with [Associate Professor] Jack Lechner that really surprised me because it tackled producing in a way that was so story-focused. It was the class that I had been waiting to take, because when I think of producing, that’s what I think of. It’s the reason why I wanted to enter this business.
You had the chance to really dig into development while interning at Nickelodeon Animation. How did you land there?
VM: When the pandemic hit, opportunities were really limited. I started applying to a lot of places, and I ended up interning at Skydance [Media]. It was a great look into the industry, especially live-action production, which I love so much. At Skydance, there were actually a lot of Nickelodeon alumni.
Throughout my experience at Columbia, I had several projects where if I were to realistically make them, the only way I could get the budget to do it would be to do it via animation,so I just kept asking about it and trying to learn about the process. At that time, I was still in school, so I decided to check out the Nickelodeon internship program and see what that would be like. Working at Nickelodeon wasn’t something that was on deck for me at all, but after the first week or two, I dug my feet in.
Animation was always kind of in the back of my head. I really just wanted to get to know the industry of animation, because it just feels like a great way to produce projects that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to make.
What have you enjoyed the most while working for Nickelodeon Animation?
VM: It is so much fun. It’s such a different part of the industry. The whole business of animation is so different from live-action. The people are so different. At the end of the day, so many people have told me, “Even if something is on fire, it’s just kids’ cartoons.” And that’s the attitude they go into everything with. It’s such a comfortable, relaxed environment. I talk to everyone from the highest level to the lowest level, and we all talk to each other the same way. That, in a nutshell, is why I love working with Nick so much.
Another reason why I love working with Nickelodeon Animation is that while I gravitate towards the live-action space, I love crazy, chaotic kinds of projects. I think that’s why animation fits with my own interests so well. Animation isn’t just kids’ cartoons. It covers a broad spectrum. At Nick, I’ve worked on shows across so many genres and have had the opportunity to explore the different messages that the creators are trying to deliver. It’s a lot of fun.
Nickelodeon Animation is also really great at people development. I haven’t had mentors in my life or in my career before, and I have so many here. They’re really trying to take me a long way.
What did a typical day look like for you as a development intern at Nickelodeon Animation?
VM: I did a lot of [script] coverage and script notes, but they also started to bring me onto some bigger projects. I had the chance to listen to pitches—pitches are so much fun. Especially when you’re the buyer and there’s no pressure [laughs]. I also got to sit in on a bunch of writers’ rooms, and those experiences really made me reconsider how long I wanted to stay in development. Because the writers have so much fun there.
I’m still working at Nick now, and something very specific about the job that I’m still learning how to do is visual development, which includes reviewing animators. Essentially, we pull a bunch of artists together, look at what they’ve done, and decide what kind of look we want for a given show. Then we go out to those artists and see if we can get them to come on board. I’m in the very early stages of a development project right now where I’m getting first-hand experience doing just that.
At the end of the day, Nick has given me every single possible look into the process of animation. Getting something out of your head, onto paper, and then onto the screen? It’s never been so fun. Like everything, it’s not without its pitfalls, but I’ve never felt the sense of accomplishment that I feel from finishing a development process here. Just one of the many reasons why I’m so drawn to this.
That sounds so amazing. How many projects are you typically working on at once?
VM: So many [laughs]. At the moment, I’m working on four shows and several exploratory projects. Exploratory projects are my favorite because I get to go out and find property, do a one-sheet, and say, “Can we do this?” Even if we can’t do it right now, we might be able to do it in a few years.
I want to do everything, but it’s not possible. The good thing, though, is that even if I say no to something because it’s not the right time now, it doesn’t mean I can’t join in the future. The other big thing is that projects do not stop coming. It’s good to be apprised of what you can handle especially when you’re starting out. You want to do everything, you want everyone to know you—you’re like a kid in a candy store, but I’ve had too much candy now. I need to relax. I'm older.
Do you have any current projects that you’re excited about?
VM: There is one—it’s called Max and the Midknights. It’s coming out in the near future and is based on a book series by Lincoln Pierce. Pierce is also the writer of the original Big Nate book series, and the Nickelodeon adaptation of it just premiered earlier this month.
I’m super excited for Max and the Midknights. It’s a comedic adventure story set in the Middle Ages, and the show is about a young girl named Max and her friends who go on adventures and try to achieve knighthood. The humor in the show is so amazing. And it’s going to look so incredible. It will be one of the best-looking shows on TV ever. I also had the opportunity to help staff the writers room for the show, which was such a fun and formative process.
Do you have a favorite animated work that’s been an important touchstone for you?
VM: For me, someone who’s so drawn to the superhero space, it was nice to see something as original as Disney's The Incredibles. The most impactful cartoons for me in this industry are Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra. The Legend of Korra was actually the reason why I got both of my jobs at Skydance and Nickelodeon. In my application for Skydance, I had to complete some short-form coverage for an existing property. I had watched Avatar when it first came out, but I hadn’t seen Korra until the pandemic. I thought, how could I have missed this show? Everyone needs to see this. So I chose to cover The Legend of Korra in my application, and that coverage got me the job at Skydance, which led me to Nickelodeon, who are the makers of the show. I’m indebted to the creators because it got me where I am now.