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Career Conversations: Autumn Berggren Hilden ’99 and Justin Hilden ’01

Autumn Berggren Hilden ’99 and Justin Hilden ’01 answer questions about their Hollywood journey.

St. Olaf College alumni and married couple Autumn Berggren Hilden ’99 and Justin Hilden ’01 are currently working in Los Angeles. Autumn is a freelance writer and editor whose clients include Disney Publishing Worldwide and The Jim Henson Company. Justin is Creative Director at Makefully Studios.

As part of the Career Conversations series, which highlights the paths Oles take after college, Autumn and Justin sat down for a conversation with Piper Center for Vocation and Career Associate Director of Alumni Career Services Jenele Grassle.

Autumn and Justin, to get things started what is your favorite memory from your time on the Hill?
Autumn: It’s so hard to pick just one! If I can go super serious right off the bat, it’s probably the opportunities I took intentionally to grow myself. Some friends and I used to gather in Mellby Chapel every day and address our spiritual needs and questions together, which really changed me. And I enjoyed about three times my fair share of caf brownies.

Justin: Definitely the first time I saw Autumn.

Autumn: OMG, you get so many points for that!

Justin:But second to that, my favorite memory is working on my senior film in the old art barn, when it was located outside of Flaten Hall, when Flaten was still there. I loved the smell of that old art barn.

You both have had fascinating creative careers. Tell me about your current role. What are you currently working on?
Autumn: I work independently. At the moment, I am working on a young adult novel about kids who complete their senior year of high school on a spaceship that is en route to Mars. It’s sort of The Breakfast Club in space.

Justin: In January, I started as Creative Director of Makefully Studios, which is a children’s media company. My daily work consists of drawing and animation, and overall I am helping develop both original shows and content for clients.

What personal or career experiences did you have before your current role that led you to where you are today?
Autumn: I started as a high school English teacher. My favorite part of the curriculum was always the writing, and when we moved from Minnesota to California I decided it was a good moment to pursue that passion more directly. The transition out of education was very difficult, and I worked several jobs that were education-adjacent before I got my first job in publishing at the The Jim Henson Company. From there I went to Disney, and now I work on my own stuff at home.

Justin: I grew up knowing I wanted to work in animation. After years of animating in my parents’ basement and watching behind-the-scenes content on VHS tapes, I got my first job in animation by moving to Chicago and turning a tour of a studio there into a de facto interview. From there I moved to LA and started by working at a See’s Candy store! By luck the Chicago studio also later relocated to LA, and we re-teamed. I was there for many years and then stepped back from production. I wanted to stay in entertainment and continue to use my art skills, so I joined The Jim Henson Company. Makefully Studios reached out right when I was looking to take a new risk.

How much has your career area changed since you got into the field? What are the biggest differences?
Autumn: There’s just so much more content now. Anyone can publish anything at any time, so the gatekeeping aspect has changed. On the one hand, you don’t have to wait for permission to publish. On the other, your work is much more likely to be lost in the sea of what all is out there. It’s harder to be found.

Justin: One positive change I have noticed is a trend toward a diversity of creators. In animation, it has been white and male for so long (me included). But as I meet aspiring artists, it’s such a powerful force of female voices and perspectives from people of color. That richness is something that has been missing from the industry and is finally coming into play.

What skills do you utilize most frequently in your professional life, and how have you honed or developed those skills?
Autumn: I work mostly alone, so a lot of those “soft skills” don’t come into play for me. It’s really just getting the words down on paper. But I have grown a lot in my knowledge of the industry and its processes, which I’ve done largely through joining professional associations and attending workshops and talks. Social media has also played a role, in terms of connecting me with other writers and keeping up on trends.

Justin: Drawing, drafting, and color theory are the things I use most often, and those are things that I learned at St. Olaf. I actually still hear [former St. Olaf art professor] Wendell Arneson in my head when I choose colors.

To further your career, what do you wish you knew more about (skills, knowledge, and so forth)?
Autumn: I would love to experiment with more short-form content. Justin and I have a dream of working together, but I need to figure out how to scale down my storytelling without sacrificing depth or nuance.

Justin: For me, it’s not necessarily “knowing more.”  It’s just spending more time honing my drawing skills. I see some of the art that has come out of Disney animation in their Renaissance era, and it is staggeringly beautiful and full of life, even as still drawings. I would love to get to that point of communicating intense emotion while using the simple lines that characterize my personal style.

Autumn: You hang out in that neighborhood already. In the past five years or so, your drawing has taken on a really emotional bent.

Justin: Well, I have a ways to go, but thank you.

What do you see as a current need or challenge in your industry/career?
Justin: I would love to see the larger producers circle back to storytelling with heart. You see it from the smaller studios, but in terms of the popular stuff that everyone knows about, I feel like the current focus is on form — does it look cool, is it using new tech, does it hit the expected beats — rather than on being genuine and personal.

Autumn: I guess this is similar, but maybe the heavy reliance on trends. I get it from a business standpoint, but then what ends up happening is forty books about vampires. I would love to see great work, not safe work.

When you think about trends in your field, what keeps you awake at night?
Autumn: I worry about whether there’s room for going with my gut and writing what I’m passionate about or whether I just need to cave in and write that forty-first vampire book.

Justin: The homogenization of animated films really frustrates me. I want to see individual, creative voices on the big screen.

What gives you hope in your field?
Autumn: I just spent four days with Oles visiting Los Angeles on a Connections trip. Them. They give me hope.

Justin: Now you get the bonus points!

Autumn: No, it is 100% true. It’s really invigorating to see those embers of hope and to stoke them. Like pour a whole gallon of gasoline on them. We need that spark of fresh voices and new perspectives.

Justin: Well, we are pretty much on the same page here. Based on what I see online, I’m encouraged that young people are still excited about good drawing and thoughtful design.

What is the most challenging aspect of your job? How do you navigate that challenge?
Autumn: Sometimes it’s really hard just to keep believing. I think creative fields require an excessive and constant amount of hope in the future, whether it’s believing that you’ll get that gig or that your work will get noticed or that your parents will finally be proud of what you’re doing. For me, it helps being surrounded by other creatives. Justin and I encourage each other a lot, and we can look around and see people around us who are also chasing those dreams. If I can throw in a little piece of advice here, it’s to find those people. If you look around and don’t see any of those people, make a change.

Justin: The most difficult thing for me is time management. I work from home, so it’s become especially important for me to keep a firm and effective schedule. I also try to let myself be finished as soon as I’m satisfied with my work, rather than continuing to nitpick, trying to achieve ultimate perfection.

You have done some very interesting work. What are you most proud of?
Justin: Really good question. Probably an original series I created called The Roadents. I did it for Sony Pictures Television, and they gave me a kind of carte blanche, which, for me, meant I could load it down with humor and heart.

Autumn: I remember how much we freaked out when that series aired. People still find you online and ask about it. As they should. My favorite work is some travel writing I did. It was an unexpected chapter but a great fit, as I am obsessed with Disney parks and had an opportunity to put my passion to use with a few weekly columns I did over a couple of years. When I look back on them, I’m always really proud of how voice-y they are. They could have been so dry, but I just had so much fun doing it, and it really comes through.

We know that relationships are important for personal and professional growth. How do you build and maintain your network?
Justin: My network is composed of people I’ve worked with who became genuine friends. It’s pretty easy to maintain friendships with people you actually like.

Autumn: You make it sound so easy! I have a little network of writers whom I met through a writing group I started. I basically put up a notice on a writing website, inviting total strangers to my house to read and write together and give feedback. It’s really a couple people from that group that I trust for feedback on my writing now.

You both have busy careers and lives. How do you balance everything? Any suggestions for other Oles?Justin: Just keep in mind you are more than what you do, even if your work is a personal extension of yourself, which is the way it tends to be for creative people.

Autumn: I’d add on a practical level that we tend to have a quitting time. Not that we don’t sometimes stay up late working on something if we’re really in the zone, but that is the exception. Cut yourself off and enjoy the evening. And for us, we made a pact never to work while the other person is sleeping.  I think that has probably preserved and added to our relationship. Love above all.

What is the best career advice you have ever received?
Autumn: I don’t know that I’ve ever received career advice. Maybe that’s it, then: find someone who’s ahead of you on your path and put yourself in the position of receiving advice.

Justin: Don’t give up. Honestly, creative pursuits are tiring, and most people will sideline themselves out of psychological fatigue, but if you just keep going, you’ll find yourself where you want to be. To be balanced with the quitting time advice from above.

What do you wish you could tell your 22-year old self?
Justin: Take advantage of your free time and make more art. Also don’t wait another two years to ask out that Autumn girl.

Autumn: I agree, we definitely should have got this going a little bit sooner! But it was worth the wait. One thing I would not wait for is to try fiction writing. I thought I couldn’t do it, and at that point I didn’t want to try things unless I knew I’d be the best at them. I was trapped by perfectionism, and I knew I excelled in non-fiction. It turns out that fiction and non-fiction both bring me a lot of joy. I wouldn’t postpone that.

If you’d like to read more stories from our Career Conversations series, check out our Alumni Career Services program.