Sep 302017

Although I’ve worked in animation since 1982 and loved the medium my whole life, there was only one time that I made an animated project on my own (apart from flip-books). At the age of 15/16, my obsessions were WARNER Bros CARTOONS, STAR WARS and MAD Magazine, influences clearly seen in the crudely made parody finished over a year later. In 2014 I found the spool of super-8 film containing all 6.5 minutes of ‘SPACE FLiK‘, and transferred it to digital media. Watching it again for the first time in over 30 years brought back so many memories…

Initially, I’d intended to fully animate the whole thing, but quickly realised that would not be possible. Apart from the time that it would take, I couldn’t find (nor afford) animation cels. I made a few myself (out of shirt box lids and the like) but only enough for one scene. Even animating on paper presented its own problems (the pencil-mileage of redrawing backgrounds, or not having any backgrounds at all). After fiddling around, a hybrid technique developed; some scenes animated and shot on paper, some scenes done with cut-out animation (inspired by Terry Gilliam‘s book on the subject) and some animated scenes on paper, with individual poses cut out and temporarily glued to my few reuseable cells (or manipulated under camera on a homemade multiplane). It was not the ‘Illusion of Life‘, by any means, and barely even the illusion of the Illusion Of Life. It was NAFFimationâ„¢.

The drawing was fiddly but was something I loved to do, whereas the filming took me into unchartered waters of complexity and frustration. The only camera I’d ever owned was an Instamatic, and I knew nothing at all about exposure & focus, and had to learn by trial and error (heavy emphasis on the error) with a borrowed super-8 camera. In those pre-digital days, we were never sure what we’d shot on film till it came back from the processing lab, when I’d discover badly exposed sequences, weeks after shooting them. My town had no lab for super-8, so the film had to be sent away to be processed, and this iterative cycle of – shoot, wait, watch, scream, reshoot, wait, watch, scream, etc – took a lot of time. Time which ran out long before I was done. The borrowed camera had to be given back to the institution that owned it, and I had to simply remove failed scenes from the final print and submit it to my HSC art course.

Finally, after more than a year of drawing, and a few months of tinkering with borrowed camera and editing equipment, the premiere screening of all 6.5 minutes of ‘SPACE FLiK‘ was in the ‘good room‘ of the Baker family home in 1981 (on a borrowed super-8 projector) for an enthusiastic group of family and friends. The second screening was for examiners of my HSC. Hilariously, the third screening was at the Sydney Opera House in early 1982, at the National Youth Film Festival, where none other than Peter Weir was keynote speaker. My high school art teacher Ross Cochrane had heard about about this contest, and suggested I enter my film. I did, and it was accepted. By the time of the event, I already knew that I’d not won anything but was thrilled to attend and see all entries, including my own, screened in that famous building. I was very impressed with the quality of the other films shown, and some of the award winning young filmmakers went on to become prominent within the Australian film industry.

We contestants all received detailed critiques of our films written by the festival judges, who were film critics, film makers, or film lecturers at various universities. In my memory, the feedback was savage and I regret to say that I threw it away, but the truth is that all these critiques were absolutely right and I’d enjoy reading them now. At 17, I’d already understood the technical mistakes I’d made (bad timing, shoddy focus & exposure, etc) but the tragedy of expending a Herculean effort on a flimsy parody, rather than something original of my own, was only starting to dawn on me. Sadly, I became ashamed of this silly film. Although I’d intended to show SPACE FLiK to the animation studio in Sydney (Hanna-Barbera) where I’d hoped to work (and eventually did) my film was never screened again after the Opera House Ego-Massacre (besides, pro studios didn’t have super-8 projectors, and I didn’t either, so it wasn’t easy to show even if I’d wanted to).

However, all these many years later, it was wonderful to see this fun reminder of the eager young dork I was back then; a wide-eyed fan in a pre-internet small town with no resources and even less of a clue, but with enough raw enthusiasm to make a film anyway. When I discovered that the box containing the film spool also included all the original 1981 artwork, I began a fun project to restore mis-shot & deleted scenes, and add the simple soundtrack that I’d planned long ago, but didn’t then have the resources to do. A 53 year old professional learning Premiere-Pro simply to fiddle with his own teenage amateur work is self indulgent perhaps, but as the original project was a Star Wars parody, a Lucas-style revised “Special Edition” should also be fair game for the lampoon;

Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve been waiting 35 years, till the ‘technology was available‘ to complete my ‘original vision’. Without any further ado, please enjoy ‘SPACE FLiK: The Corrector’s cut‘.

Aug 292017

One of the first colour images I ever drew of Rocket Rabbit was of being chased by a big blue robot, who came to be called THE BLUDGEONATOR.

Although that image became the cover for my first ever Rocket Rabbit comic book, I never drew any continuity for this robotic showdown back then, but I’m roughing out the story of their confrontation at the moment, in a short 6 page story called ROBO-BRAWL.

This will be part of a 20 page prolog story that explains why Rocket & Professor abandoned their vagabond lifestyle, and came to work in San Fiasco as do-gooders working for THE COMPANY.

I have a BIG book planned with over 100 pages of story, about half of which will be existing material and the other half completely new. ALL of it needs to be coloured, so it’s a lot of work, especially in my current condition, but it will mean so much to me to finish this project, especially if I can seamlessly integrate my new left handed art with the pages I drew with my right hand.

I hope to chip away at it over the next few years with small, 6-10 page stories. So stay tuned!

Jun 012017

A major misstep in my childhood was made while wearing my first pair of rugby boots (which were actually a pair of cheap sneakers in my case.) At the age of 7, I’d never even heard of of rugby league, having just moved to the Australian mainland from Tasmania where we didn’t play the game, but my new classmates had been playing it for a year already. At this new school the game was revered like religion, demonstrated by the fact that our coach was a red-faced, constantly screaming (at me anyway) Catholic priest. Father Footy was a much-loved coach by those who adored rugby, but utterly useless to someone like me who wasn’t naturally imbued with the joy of football, and whose family had never explained the game.

On the sidelines of a freezing football field in a New England Tablelands winter, we puny wee athletes prepared ourselves for battle; outsized jerseys were pulled over big noggins and thin necks to cover scrawny & shivering rib cages. Spindly little legs mottled by the harsh cold thrust out of baggy shorts into big black nobbly boots, that were almost as nobbly as the boney little knees knocking together above them. Father Footy too was decked out in full rugby kit and boots, as he led a troop of pint-sized athletes onto a boggy football field on a frosty day, to vie for a ball that seemed as big to me then as a sack of potatoes would be to me now. People who didn’t innately understand God’s Game were apparently unimaginable in the theology of Father Footy, who never even considered that the new boy from interstate might actually need some tuition in the rules. Father Footy blew a piercing blast on his referee’s whistle – FWEET! – my first ever rugby game was underway, and I had absolutely no idea what I was supposed to do.

In TV shows or movies of those times, Catholic priests were either portrayed as innocuous Mickey Mouse types (like the priest from MASH) or tortured souls (like the young priest in THE EXORCIST) but I’ve never seen the likes of this particular priest portrayed in the media. He was macho, dispensing gleeful knuckle-crushing handshakes and cheerily rough-housing us boys and all the parish loved him – dads, mums and kids alike. Father Footy’s reputation, and the status of Catholic priests in general, was unimpeachable in those bygone days, which is hard to believe in the 21st century when priests have become punchlines to tawdry jokes at best, and the focus of major heartbreaking court cases at worst (including Father Footy himself, decades later) so it’s hard to convey the stature of priests before that fall from grace. Within the Catholic community of an Australian small town in the early 1970s, priests were held in high regard indeed and especially a rugby playing priest. God’s right hand, man’s man, the archangel Gabriel in cleated footy boots; his authority on matters moral, spiritual and physical is hard to overstate.

However, as no instruction had been forthcoming from our so-called ’coach’, and I was already in the midst of a game I knew nothing about, I attempted to dart about the muddy football field in as purposeful a manner as was possible for someone who hadn’t got a clue what his purpose actually was. Spying another sawn-off athlete, likewise dashing and darting, I sidled up to him and, whispering out of the side of my mouth, asked what we were expected to do. Gesturing to a big letter ’H’ at the end of the freezing quagmire, he said that if the ball was ever passed to us we were to carry it between the giant letter H at each end, which he referred to as “goal posts”. This seemed simple enough, but just to be safe I decided to keep my purposeful darting a discreet distance from all the action, rushing forward as if I was ready for something only when the focal point of the game had moved beyond me. This strategy was working quite well, when my purposeful darting accidentally blundered into “the zone” and the ball came my way. Urged on by the other teeny players, and some incomprehensible screamings and urgent flailings from Father Footy, I picked up the huge football and, like a monkey carrying a watermelon, I purposefully darted to the nearest goal posts I could find. Miraculously, no other player came close as I dashed heroically toward my target and the roar of the crowd receded in my ears as I planted the ball triumphantly, and turned around for my accolades.

Howls of protest and angry jigs from my team mates were matched by hooting laughter and finger pointing by the opposing team. Both of these sounds were blown away by a red faced angry blast from the gaping maw of Father Footy, who was passionately upset about some Sacrilege or other. I was transfixed by the foaming spittle at the sides of Father Footy‘s screaming mouth as he made it clear to me that I had scored a point for the other side. This ability to simultaneously evoke contemptuous laughter, disgust and anger was to set the tone of my athletic ’achievements’ for the rest of my life. Eventually, I became inoculated against such humiliation through constant exposure, and would learn that if the world treats you like a clown it’s best to act as though you intended it, but being the object of universal derision was a new experience on that particular day. Overwhelmed by the scope of my own apparent ineptitude, I started to blubber and bawl. This made Father Footy more furious than ever, which caused me to bawl even more, leading to more red-faced yelling, and so on. We were a breeder reactor of humiliation & fury by the time Dad showed up at the end of the game to take me home, and after hearing my blubbering recap on what had happened, he gave the footy priest both barrels from his righteous-indignation parental blunderbuss. Turns out that Dad and Father Footy were schoolmates back in the days of yore, and it appeared that there was no love lost. There was a high volume red faced screaming match in which Father Footy said I was a cry baby (which was true) and Dad challenged Father Footy’s inattentive coaching skills (also very true). This brouhaha unfolded in front of a bunch of other parents who’d just arrived to pick up their own kids, aghast that anyone would ever challenge Father Footy about footy, and on a footy field no less. GASP. Thinking back on it now, this may have been the Ground Zero Moment for my lifelong awkwardness in regards to sports.

In movies (or even the real world) parents may be resented for not supporting their children at ball games, but personally, I dreaded family members showing up, prefering as small an audience as possible for my bumbling ineptitude. If I felt any ill will toward my parents on the subject of sports it was that they made me participate in the compulsory ritual in the first place, rather than give me parental permission to opt out of the ordeal, as other ‘sensitive‘ souls had been allowed to do. Though my parents confided that they too loathed sports in their own schooldays, they nevertheless insisted I participate, invoking the phrase ‘character building’ more than once. There was no way out. Thus, a knock kneed & freckled Sisyphus played rugby on joyless winter weekends, sometimes being driven to nearby towns to undergo his grueling character-trials there. Waist-high to a crowd of adult onlookers high on parental adrenaline rushes, we tiny players scurried by, chasing the ball. As contorted fright-mask faces screamed and bellowed with vicarious passion, I could never grasp what all the frenzy was about. To me, rugby was incomprehensible torture. A pain-in-motion conundrum. It was physical humiliation algebra.

As a full grown adult, I was introduced to the idea that sports were something that people who enjoyed eachother’s company might do together, for fun. This novel concept made me wonder if perhaps I too might have enjoyed sports, if I’d been introduced to them in a spirit of joy rather than drudgery. Why, even now there may be a parallel universe in which a version of me enjoys watching and participating in games (I am obliged to conjure a science fiction scenario even to countenance the possibility of a physically co-ordinated me). However, even in such an alternate reality it’s difficult to imagine having the almost orgasmic connection to sports that most men have. When romantic couplings are heard through neighbouring apartment walls the male participants are probably inaudible, but you’ll definitely hear male climaxing when a ball game is on TV next door, and if it happens to be a championship game, the lowing rumble of male pleasure and pain will moan forth from bars and apartments across the entire town, like a rutting frenzy at the zoo monkey house. I’m grateful to be free from that primal-ritual-ballyhoo, and my Zen-like detachment is due to a Catholic priest; Father Footy. 

Apr 162017

Here’s a sketch I just scanned that was drawn last year when Julia and I went drawing in San Francisco’s Castro neighbourhood.

A week or two earlier we’d eaten nearby at a great little restaurant called FRANCES and we’d noticed that the neighbourhood had a lot of pretty houses, and came back later to draw the area.

Apr 042017

Last weekend Julia and I joined some friends to sketch from the roof of their flat. Kim & Randy live over by Japantown and the view from the top of their building is stunning. There was so much to choose from to draw, that I decided to simply attempt to sketch as much as I could.

We were expecting a foggy day and I dressed in flannel, but as more of more of Kim’s pals showed up for a rooftop sketch-posse it turned out to be bright sunny and HOT. After I spent a few hours blocking in the basic composition with pencil and watercolour, and trying my best to finish it all on site, Julia & I eventually had to skedaddle to get out of the sun and beat the heat.

After a pleasant lunch on nearby Filmore Street (a burger) we went home and I finished the the last 20% of this watercolour (of the Buchanan & Pine streets intersection) from a photo.

Feb 262017

Here are a few more visual development sketches done while working in Ralph Eggleston‘s art department on FINDING NEMO, way back in 2000.

Some of my drawings of turtles and pelicans seen here (as well as designs for a moorish idol and sharks posted earlier) actually made it into the ART OF FINDING NEMO book. None of the VisDev I drew for subsequent Pixar movies ever appeared in such books ever again.

Page space in those ART OF books is very limited, and there are literally thousands of drawings generated by the art department over several years to choose from, so it was an utter surprise and delight to be included my very first time working on a project for Pixar.

In the early days working on FINDING NEMO, I was allowed to draw anything at all in the script that interested me, and I played for a day or two drawing kids who might be waiting to see the dentist (who has Nemo in a fish tank in his dental surgery). Personally, I absolutely loathed visiting the dentist as a child (as I still do) so the scaredy cat kid you see below would be me.

In terms of appearance though, as a kid I probably looked most like the solitary little bloke in his scruffy school uniform (middle of the pic on the right, above).

I not only tried my hand at designing NIGEL the pelican, I also got to be his temp voice on the STORY REEL. When making these movies it’s common for the crew to record temporary dialogue used in early edits of the film, before the final actors are even cast.

Pixar had a few Australian employees at the time, and it was perhaps the first and last time that Australian voices would ever be in demand for a Hollywood cartoon, so I was in the right place at the right time. I was called to do several voices; pelicans, dentists, sharks, random fish, you name it. It was a great deal of fun.

One by one all my voices were replaced with the proper actors, but one of my performances actually remained in the movie, more or less as an oversight. I was on holiday back in Australia when the studio realised that there were a few lines of my dialogue left in the final cut of the film (for a cranky Aussie crab).

It took them a while to track me down in Australia and send me some documents to sign at the very last minute of some deadline or other, to make the whole thing official with the Screen Actors Guild. The upshot is that FINDING NEMO is the only movie I’ve ever worked for which I actually get residuals.

Nov 262016

This is some visual development for WALL-E drawn back in early 2005 while I worked under the great production designer RALPH EGGLESTON in the Pixar ART department, before working in the story department on the same project.


In its very earliest incarnation, WALL-E started as an idea developed by PETE DOCTER, but when it went into production the director was ANDREW STANTON. By the time I worked on it, the basic configuration of WALL-E had been already been decided- a little robot that could fold in on itself like a turtle and walked on caterpillar treads.


The story artists worked with this description while the art department tried variations. Before the great JAY SHUSTER nailed the final appealing design, I explored a few WALL-E ideas myself.


In the early days that I worked with Pixar, I often freelanced in the STORY department AND freelanced for the ART department. It was while working in the ART department that I drew these ideas for both the interior and exterior of WALL-E’s home, the dilapidated truck full of junk.


Over the years of freelancing for Pixar, I’ve spent more time in STORY, but the very first time I ever worked for them was doing ART department chores on FINDING NEMO (see here and here), and some very early visdev on RATATOUILLE (see here) and finally WALL-E. As the studio got to the size they are now, my inter-departmental mobility stopped and I worked solely in STORY from UP onward.


Most professional animation artists have more than one string to their bow; many story artists are fantastic designers, many animators can storyboard, many people in the art department are wonderful storytellers too, but modern big studio pipeline production forces most of us to stay in our designated boxes.


One of the main reasons I always opted to stay freelance is that it allowed me to move freely among the different job responsibilities I love, doing as much of each of them as I can. Even when certain studios have a rigid pipeline, being a freelance artist gives me the option of doing design at one studio and story at another.


I finally got to go on a Pixar art department field trip on WALL-E. I’d often heard about these wonderful trips to research PARIS, or to drive along ROUTE 66, but my chance to be part of such an exotic mission was when we went to research a world covered in trash by visiting the OAKLAND CITY DUMP. We in the ART department also visited a Northern California seal colony, to research, well.. BLUBBER.


In an early version of WALL-E, it was not immediately obvious that the inhabitants of the spaceship that EVE comes from were human. They appeared to be jelly-like aliens (during production they were simply called GELs).


It was only at the very end of the story that the audience learns that these blobs of jelly are what the human race has eventually become. They were very fun to design, but this revelation of human devolution was a conceptual bummer at the very end of a cartoon, so there was a major story rethink.


After a month or two in the ART department I did a few sequences in the STORY department under JIM REARDON. Storyboarding WALL-E was very challenging in its own way, simply because it required so many drawings to describe each idea and emotion.


Without dialog, the only way to convey the meaning of each character’s intentions was a ton of drawings to elaborately pantomime each bit of business, so that it was perhaps the most ‘animated’ story reel I’ve ever worked on.


However, all the work I did was in the earlier version of the story mentioned above, and my contributions were ALL subsequently redone in the story rethink of the movie.


Learning to be philosophical about having much (possibly ALL) of one’s work end up on the editing room floor is a big part of working in the early stages of animation production.

Apr 132015

I’ve been pretty excited about my first paid professional art assignment as a left-handed artist.


A few months ago, my good friend of many years, Carol Hughes, commissioned me to draw the cover for her latest book, OPERATION SNOWBALL, a fun adventure story based on the fictitious (or perhaps TRUE) adventures of her family dogs, PICKLE AND PEARL. It has been over two years since I’ve been able to earn a living as a professional cartoonist, so this was a major milestone for me, and a very exciting development. After getting the brief, the first stage in the art production was receiving a pretty great little thumbnail sketch by her husband John, that clearly showed what Carol wanted, and seeing his doodle of course prompted me to go searching for an old James Bond movie poster from YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE as additional inspiration:


After having digested those two tasty morsels of eyeball food, I set to work on my left-handed scrawl, and after my client had her input and tweaked and bought off on that design, I got to work on the (only marginally tighter) line drawing. The original plan was that after I’d done the wonky line drawing, Julia was to paint the final art. Surprisingly, Carol said that she liked the clumsy and awkward pencil drawing style of the artwork I was generating myself, which was very gratifying for me but meant a major time-hit for the project, as I messed around one-handed in both analog and digital media for quite a while.


I’m getting better at using Photoshop with only one functioning hand, but some of the key-commands are tricky . In the end, I was able to scan a bunch of my watercolour sketches and assemble the whole thing in Photoshop, using the watercolour textures pretty much as-is but goosing the colour digitally quite a bit. After some last-minute art direction by John and Carol’s daughters, Faith and Shane,  the James Bond-ish font I ‘d initially chosen was replaced with handwritten text, supplied by me in my new southpaw super-wonky style. I think this last minute fix was a very good call.


If any of you are in the market for a super-fun read for some of the younger people in your family please check out OPERATION SNOWBALL available for digital download on Amazon now (and while you’re there, don’t forget to check out all of CAROL HUGHES’ other books available on Amazon too!)

Feb 282015

Here are some watercolor sketches done on location around San Francisco in this past month.


The first was done in Union Square while Julia and I sat prior to our dinner reservation on Valentines day. It was gloriously warm and sunny, with many people out enjoying themselves, and I managed to get a scribbly sketch down, before the pleasant evening swerved and collided with a typically bizarre San Francisco moment, involving an urban wild man and his high-strung pitbull. I finished the rest of the sketch and the watercolor washes later at home.


The next sketch, of a monument to Francis Scott Key, was done in Golden Gate Park, and represents a mini-breakthrough in my lefty sketches, as it was ALL done on location. For the past two years, my location-sketching has had watercolor washes finished at home. Lately, my mobility, dexterity and balance are impaired, and it’s impossible to sketch while holding the sketchbook in one hand while I draw with the other, or balance the watercolours and sketchbook on my knees as I draw while sitting on a park bench. Now that I’m so physically unstable myself, I need a stable drawing surface to work at, even when drawing outside.

sketch_rigLast Christmas, Julia bought me a wonderful new sketching rig, including a tripod and drawing easel,  watercolor supplies and a bag to carry it all in. It was partly inspired by the setups seen in some great location sketching videos posted by Matt Jones, and blog posts by plein aire watercolourist, Mark Taro Holmes. This was my first time using it all, (borrowing Julia’s folding chair) and the rig worked very well, though I realised I need to bring extra supplies next time; paper towels to soak up excess water, clips and elastic bands to secure sketchbooks and loose paper to the drawing board, and fingerless gloves (those Bob Cratchett specials) to keep fingers my warm but still free enough to work. When I get my own lightweight and stable drawing chair, I’ll have the full kit and kaboodle.

Unfortunately, we chose a very blustery day to try this new drawing rig out for the first time. It was very sunny, but the wind was gusting so hard that even heavy obects, such as my jar of water, were blown across my drawing board. When one particularly strong gust lifted the entire drawing rig off the ground, I figured it was time to call it a day. I would have liked more time to finesse the sketch on location, but I’ll post it anyway, as I’d like to get into the habit of posting drawings done as much as possible on site.


To round-off this past weekend of sketching, Julia and I went to the Ferry Building. Julia painted a close-up of the clock Tower on her iPad while I sketched this overview of the entire building. I was using a new watercolour sketchbook that Julia had given me last Christmas, and although it is perhaps a little too small for my current dexterity I really really like the paper. Most watercolour sketches that I post are done on sketchbook drawing paper, which tends to buckle when watercolor is applied, so it was really nice to use proper watercolor paper for a change.

SF_ferry_bldg_collageWe were not assaulted by wind this time, and both had a very productive day. I set up my easel in the open space by the bayside (where the farmer’s market is held) with a good vantage point of the ferry building and skyline, with the aim of drawing the entire scene. It is challenging to cram that much detail into a tiny drawing at the best of times, but especially hard now that I’m using my clumsy left-hand. I’m still getting used to drawing on the easel, with the drawing surface vertical rather than horizontal, but hope to get better in time. I’m aware that I have a lot to learn about working in watercolour, and need to develop the ability to think in terms of blocks of shadow and light, rather than composing with lines, but I enjoy this challenge.

After we’d finished our drawings, we went into the ferry building for an early dinner and sat outside in the warm sun. Just as we were finishing our meal our table fell into shadow and suddenly it became dramatically cooler (the San Francisco air does not hold heat at all) but we were ready to go home anyway after a very satisfying weekend of painting and sketching.