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Dobson native finds his path in California

October is the month for ghouls and goblins, witch’s brew and ghost tales, horror movies and chilling novels.

It’s also the time of year Rick Clifton found his calling in life — at a horror movie convention.

And despite the sometimes horroresque tenor of 2020, this is the year that Clifton reached the pinnacle of his career — snagging a Daytime Emmy Award in the category of Outstanding Promo, Brand Image Campaign, Network or Program for the “She-Ra and the Princesses of Power: International Women’s Day 2019” episode of the animated web series.

Clifton, a Surry County native, did the award-winning project for Dreamworks Animation, where he serves as Creative AV Director.

Despite success in his chosen field, working as a marketing and audio visual artist was not on his radar when he first set his sights on a career path — he wanted to be a television and movie actor.

Growing up in Dobson, Clifton said he attended Copeland Elementary School, where the acting bug first bit him.

“I certainly did some acting in elementary school,” he said of that first exposure to the stage. “The plays I did in school were always fun. Nerve wracking as hell, but when you do that you get this charge when you go on stage, and you want to do it again. As soon as it’s over it’s like ‘What’s next?’”

As he moved through middle school and then high school, Clifton said he had other interests and wasn’t involved in any theater productions, though he kept the idea of eventually being an actor close at heart.

“The big thing for me, Andy Griffith was always an inspiration for me, and the fact that he was from our area. I wrote a letter to him when I was 14 or 15. I was trying to figure out how to break into this business, asking him what I have to do.”

While he didn’t receive a reply, he kept the idea of pursuing screen work in the back of his mind, finishing his studies at Surry Central High School, then earning an associate’s degree in commercial art from Surry Community College.

After that, he headed west.

“I left home when I was 20, maybe 21, started making my way here toward California,” he said recently from his home in the Los Angeles community of Sherman Oaks. “I came here wanting to be in the movies…When I came out here I dove right in, acting for three years.”

Eventually the sobering reality of how high the odds were stacked against him making it big started to settle in. He did have some limited success, acting in three pilot shows for series that, unfortunately, were never picked up by a network or cable outlet.

“Trying to be an actor in LA is extremely challenging in and of itself just because so many people come here wanting to do that,” he said of those early days of his career. “Trying to survive in a big city while going out on auditions all day long, and having a job that allows you the flexibility to do that, and pay your bills and pay your rent, buy your food…it was a hard lifestyle.”

Many eventually wash out, never making much more than a pittance from acting before leaving the entertainment field entirely — often going back to wherever home is without much to show for an entertainment career.

Clifton, however, discovered something about himself during those hard-scrabble days.

“I found much more love behind the camera. I liked storytelling, I wanted to tell stories, but what I found …was you have much greater control of the narrative working behind the camera.”

So he switched fields. Instead of audition after audition, he began taking other jobs on the sets, whatever he could get, “Working my way up to learn to be a producer for movies and television, things along that nature.” While that path offered regular employment, it was still a long haul, with plenty of folks around him working toward the same goal.

“I started out as a production assistant…I was lucky enough to land a job as a production manager about a year later, I did that for quite some time. It was great, it wasn’t just one particular role, when you’re three people in a company, you have to be extremely flexible and learn so many different skills. It was extremely valuable, I was able to learn what all goes into a television show or movie.”

Still, it was his work on one of those failed television pilots which eventually put him on the path to his present career.

“One of the failed pilots I was working on had me going around through different (film) festivals as part of the show,” he said. At one of those festivals he met Rachel Belofsky, who in 2001 was a co-founder of Screamfest, which has become the largest and longest-running horror film festival in the United States.

“I met her in doing that show (the failed pilot). The next season of her festival, we talked, she asked me to come and help her out,” with publicity.

That was in 2005.

“I worked for her for one season, it was really what opened the door for me in terms of marketing and publicity,” he said.

Clifton began taking jobs and projects that would fit within his newfound profession, offering paychecks and the chance to learn. All the while, he had his sights set on working for one of the biggest players in Hollywood — Dreamworks.

In 2007, he finally landed an interview — but no job offer came of it.

“I knew someone who worked there who managed to get me an interview.” While that first interview didn’t pan out with any job at the company, he kept going back, every time he could get someone to talk with him about a job opening. “I just kept interviewing, it took me about a year, honestly, getting multiple interviews with multiple people.”

Finally, in 2008, he was hired in the marketing department, and since then he’s worked his way up to his present position.

“Basically, I produce all the trailers,” he said. Any sort of promotional piece that’s put together for the company’s television shows, which stream on Netflix, Hulu, the Peacock Network, and other outlets, as well as web-based series. He also does a lot of the video promotions on the Dreamworks Facebook page.

“It’s a very fast-paced industry, that I love, the energy of that.”

This year’s Emmy Award isn’t his first brush with peer recognition. Earlier in 2020 he won a Clio Award, which he described as essentially the Academy Awards of advertising. “One of the biggest advertising awards you can get,” he said. Prior to this year, he’d been nominated for four Emmy Awards.

“The first time I got nominated, I was out of my mind ecstatic about it,” he said. “It was just one of the best feelings in the world. That old adage it’s just an honor to be nominated, is really freaking true. I was on top of the world.”

And winning?

“That was taking it to another level. I don’t know that I can find words to describe how I felt that night. I was in a meeting and my phone starting blowing up, I thought ‘What is happening?’ I was afraid something bad had happened.”

Despite his success, Clifton hasn’t forgotten his roots. He stays in close contact with his mother, Bertha Clifton, and the rest of this family, and tries to make it back to Dobson at least once every year to visit family and friends.

When he’s not creating marketing pieces for Dreamworks, Clifton spends his spare time pursuing a hobby that lets him enjoy the mild California climate: running and competing in triathlons.

“I’ve always liked running, I did a lot of running in elementary school. When I got here, the weather is so great, I started running again. When I got to Dreamworks, we have a triathlon team, someone asked me to join. I fell in love with triathlons.”

As a runner, he said he’s done quite a few half-marathons, two full marathons (26.2 miles) and “a lot” of triathlons. While the distances of those vary, the ones he mostly competes in consist of a half-mile swim, a 5K run (3.1 miles) followed by an 18-mile bike ride.

“It’s fun. Running is my thing, biking is great, too. I did a bike ride from San Francisco to LA once. It just relieves a lot of stress for sure, but it’s just fun to be active, be in the outdoors. “

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