Jun 042011

I recently found the drawing that got me my first job here in the USA. These rough character designs of Marty McFly & Doc Brown ultimately landed me an art director job at Colossal Pictures; my favourite company of the many I have worked at.

When I faxed this from France in 1990, I was working for the Paris Disney Studio (on direct to video movies and TV series) and I’d spent the previous 5 years essentially living out of a backpack; following animation jobs (on crummy Saturday Morning shows) from outsourced-country to outsourced-country, with the occasional side adventure to interesting parts of the world. It was a very fun period that I look back on with great fondness, but by the end of it, I was looking for any chance to stay for a LONG stretch someplace, preferably a nice town where I could understand the language and hopefully settle down a bit and make some FWENDS.

Which is exactly what DID happen.

My good friend Tony Stacchi (another veteran of the Porkchop Hill of overseas Saturday morning animation) recommended me to Colossal Pictures’ directors John Hays & Phil Robinson at around the time that Colossal was getting into animated TV series. The original plan was for me to work in San Francisco for a few months alongside the “animated BACK TO THE FUTURE TV series” pre-production team and then go to Taiwan to supervise production of the show (an area I had some experience in by that time). However that plan was revised, happily, and I became one of the two Art Director/Character Designers on the series (John Stevenson being the other) and then stayed at Colossal for many more fantastic years (working on all kinds of fun projects) made a ton of lifelong friends and made San Francisco my home.

All in large part due to this silly, simple drawing.

May 302007

These days, many artists (even those still in school) have their own web-sites, with links to artists who have influenced them. Hop-scotching around the internet from site to site has been a great source of inspiration for me in recent years. You can see links to artists that I admire on my LINKS page, but some of those who have influenced me the most have been those that I have worked with personally, and in many cases they don’t have websites and are therefore unknown by people who have not worked with them too.

Part One: Early Influences
I didn’t attend art school. When I started working in animation, at the age of 17, I was trained on the job and there wasn’t time for much “proper” training in the midst of production. So, while a lot of people remember the early influence of their art teachers, I am grateful to those few artist/co-workers who took time to show me some tricks and give encouragement when I was starting out, and had even less idea of what I was doing than I do today. Here are a few of the cartoonists who influenced me early in my career.

JON McCLENAHAN is an American, but he entered the animation industry in Australia, which is where I met him, when I started out at Hanna-Barbera’s Sydney studio, as an inbetweener. Jon was already an animator and he was the first artist ever to take an interest in me and I owe him a lot for that. He gave me encouragement and help with some animation I was doing in my spare time, because I was getting frustrated with being an inbetweener. Partly due to that after hours experimentation, and Jon’s encouragement, I did eventually get a chance to animate. Jon was, and still is, a very focussed, hard worker and he got a lot of work done by staying in his chair all day and drawing, rather than yakking with co-workers, which was my habit back then. I have since acquired his ability to work hard, day after day, but sadly I have never been able to apply Jon’s straightforward approach to creativity; he doesn’t second guess himself, and forges ahead with his first idea. I admire that approach very much and tried to adopt it for myself, but sadly I am rarely happy with my first idea, and so my method is is to “noodle” and try alternatives and throw away a lot of work along the path to making something I am proud of. Years later, after Jon and his family had moved back to his home town of Chicago, I had a chance to work with him at his own studio, called STARTOONS. Fans of Animaniacs, Tiny Toons, Tazmania and other quality TV cartoons from the 1980s and early 1990s may have heard of that studio because many of the funniest (and Emmy winning-est) episodes of those popular shows were animated by Jon and his crew.

Jon and I haven’t worked together for many years but we are great friends to this day.

Simon and Chris. These guys are often mentioned in the same breath by people who know them, because they are such complementary friends. When I first started working, they were like the big brothers I never had as a kid. In addition to picking up a cynical sense of humour that I hadn’t really earned yet, I learned a great deal about animation and cartooning from watching these two blokes:

CHRIS HAUGE has animated on the influential Gorillaz videos, including that first one for “Clint Eastwood” that blew everyone away (I must have watched it about 100 times). He did those when working in London for Passion Pictures. Before being part of that buzz, years and years earlier, Chris turned on a light bulb over my noggin when he was the first animator who explained to me that animation wasn’t just individual drawings or even pretty drawings… it is the relationship between those drawings that is important; he made me think about TIMING, which is something that he excells at himself. Chris showed me how to plan out the action in thumbnails first so as not to jam too much “stuff” into a scene, and ensure that the drawings each had enough screen time to “read” for the audience. That may seem obvious, especially to those of you who have had formal training, but it was a revelation to me when I was 18. (He later tried to teach me to surf, with much less success. My thrashing and splashing around made him look “uncool” in front of his surfer peers). As well as enjoying working with Chris at Hanna Barbera in Sydney, I also learned a lot from him when we both worked on commercials at Colossal Pictures in San Francisco (my favourite company I ever worked at). Chris now has his own animation studio in Sydney called HALO PICTURES with not only a great showreel but also a great location; near the beach. (Being close to the surf was one of the major factors in choosing a studio location for Chris).

Chris is the only of my art-pals on this list who actually does have a website, so please check out his animation for GORILLAZ and various other bits and pieces of coolness.

SIMON O’LEARY has worked on projects such as Disney’s Tarzan (in the Paris unit) and now directs commercials in Sydney. His cartooning ability, dry sense of humour and unpretentious approach to working were all major inspirations to me when I started in the animation industry and he inspires me to this very day. He is one of those guys who can do FUNNY drawings… drawings that’ll make you blow your coffee out your nose; you are laughing so hard. This is especially so when he busts out a savagely accurate caricature of a co-worker (or YOU) or a funny doodle based on something that happened at lunch hour. For 25 years or so Simon has both written and drawn a comic strip called Fred Gassit which runs in the Australian Motor Cycle News magazine (and several other motorcycle magazines around the world). While the strip is ostensibly related to the world of motorcycling, the humour is really about Simon taking pot-shots at the world in general, via the persona of Fred; a sarcastic dog-like character who is a cantankerous bastard but appealing none the less (much like Simon). Both the humour and the artwork are vulgar yet sophisticated (much like Simon), which is a winning combination for me; the hardest laughs happen when neurones within the low-brow and the high-brow are firing simultaneously. I have a collection of these strips that is a treasured possession I look through when I want a laugh or need to swipe ideas on how to draw a vehicle, a goon, a bikini babe, or anything for that matter. To my mind these cartoons are insanely funny and I wish that Simon was rich and famous as a result, but the fact is that he doesn’t even sign them let alone “promote” them. Self-promotion is not what Simon is about. Which explains why he doesn’t have a website and why you probably haven’t heard of him.

I have worked with Simon in Sydney, Paris and San Francisco and I look forward to working with him again some day.

DEANE TAYLOR may best be known as the Art Director on the Nightmare before Christmas (and a spin-off game). He also did design work on the animated shows Cow and Chicken and I.M. Weasel by Dave Feiss (yet another animation hero of mine, from later in my career). But years before that, Deane ran the layout department at Hanna Barbera in Sydney. After I had been animating for a few years, Deane offered me a chance at learning layouts under his supervision. Consequently, most of what I know today about composition I learned from Deane, or picked up by working with him and watching him go. He was the most prolific artist in the department. He has a very dynamic drawing style, featuring a clever use of shape and silhoette, that many of his trainees tried to copy, but nobody ever matched Deane for graphic dynamism and energy of line. He taught me some simple compositional guidelines that I learned to apply over and over again, but apart from art tricks, he also showed me quite a bit about work ethics and attitude. Even though the shows we worked on were pretty crappy in those days, and many people just went through the motions when making them, Deane was one of the few who tried his hardest on every show, no matter what. He took pride in his work. He respected people who did a good job on whatever they were given to do, rather than those people who will work on only 2 cylinders, saving themselves for the big deal job on the distant horizon.

Deane taught me to always think of how to “plus” the material that came across my desk. That is certainly what he always does.

I am very lucky in that I have worked all over the globe, at some really great studios, on some quality productions, with loads of amazing artists over the years… but these guys listed here had a huge influence on me, disproportionate to the quality of the projects we worked on together. In many cases the stuff we collaborated on was a lot of crap, yet these artists are still some of those that I respect the most.

Sep 182006

I have worked in three main types of work-spaces: at home (which is what I am doing now) in a big, company studio (either as a freelancer or on staff) and in a shared work space with other freelance artists. Each has something to be said for it. For me, the best thing and the worst thing about working in animation is that it is a collaborative medium. It is genuinely a great experience to be working in a team where the end result is greater than any of you could have achieved alone. Yet sometimes I do need to be able to close the door, have some thinking time, and get away from the politics. I have learned that a certain amount of “alone time” and communal time is required for my best work, and finding the balance between the two can be very tricky.

My workdesk at Home

1: Working at home
My apartment is my studio these days and there is certainly plenty of freedom and alone-time but I generally don’t enjoy it very much. Part of the problem is not having any separation between work-place and living-place (sometimes I never change out of my pyjamas all day) but the main issue is the lack of inspiration that comes from the company of creative human beings. No structure and no stimulation makes for some pretty powerful stagnation sometimes… In a perfect world I would be one of those creatively self sufficient people, but I’ve learned that just isn’t me… I like seeing other artists working around me as I work, and that is just as true even when I am working on my own personal projects.

2: Working at a company
I have spent a lot of time at big animation studios and for the most part they can be really fun places to work, even in those places where the quality of the work itself isn’t so great. I recently read an essay by BRAD HOLLAND (actually, his introduction to an old edition of LOVE and ROCKETS) where he theorised, in some very funny writing, as to what kind of hack would choose to work in a factory like an animation studio… which made me laugh even though I am the butt of this particular joke. (By the way, many years after he wrote that piece, I worked with Brad Holland briefly at Colossal Pictures. He had illustrated a print campaign that we were turning into animated commercials. His horror at seeing we animation monkeys attempt to ape his painting style was palpable…) The very first animation studio I worked at certainly felt like a factory, but even so, It was exciting to be surrounded by other people who were drawing, painting and making things and ever since then I have really enjoyed working in studios surrounded by other artists, hacks or otherwise, because I find it very inspiring to see other artists’ way of working. I have learned so much just from having the chance to see how other people work and it never ceases to re-energise me.

The crew at Walt Disney France, in 1990.

For me, the downside of working in big studios is the inevitable politics that exists wherever there are more than 2 human beings… those little frictions and micro-dramas are the small price you pay for the many benefits of human company. Also, immersion in company culture can sometimes wear me out over time. I start to take the deadlines so seriously that I can lose perspective on life… For example:

Years ago, I was working at a studio making TV commercials, while my brother Jo was working in Mombassa, Kenya. Every few months he would propose that I should visit and accompany him on another of his adventures. Each time, I very much wanted to go but would put it off because of the “very important” work on my desk… That went on for almost two years until my brother finally left Kenya… so I never ever went. Now, these many years later, I cannot remember what was important enough to trump an African adventure with my brother… Probably a long since forgotten commercial featuring dancing sausages or singing candy… But if I had gone to Kenya and seen Kilimanjaro with my bro’ I would surely have remembered that experience for the rest of my life… So while solitude leads to stagnation there can be problems working in a creative “village” as well… Sometimes a bit of detachment is a GOOD thing… it can give you a much needed perspective. I like working in big studios very much indeed, but sometimes I need to make sure that I can walk out the door and leave work AT WORK.

Some of the wonderful fools at Maverix

3: Shared workspace
The Goldilocks option; the best balance I have ever found is to share a work-space with other artists. There is some of the camaraderie and creative stimulation of a big studio but with a minimum of the company-politics to deal with. There is a measure of detachment, as you work on your separate projects, yet there isn’t too much isolation. There is the freedom of being “freelance” but with a certain amount of structure. There is also the stimulation of other artists and the networking that comes from their contacts. When it works well, there is also a great blend of working on paid jobs and personal projects (working on your personal projects while at at big companies can lead to intellectual property grey areas). When the mix of people is right this is my favourite working situation. You can also get the best of both worlds if you do some freelance work at a big studio but have your shared workspace to go to for your personal work.

There are a few things required to making this work. The first is to get the right mix of people. Hopefully you have a shared understanding of the Manifesto (Artists tend to hate the word “rules” so think of it as the manifesto) which means that you have to have some overlap in what you consider the ground rules- I mean; the manifesto to be. Is it OK for me to have my buddy sleep on the couch at the workspace or hold a party there?… that sort of thing. The other thing to think about is the right ratio of people to the size of space that you are sharing. If it gets too crowded then it can become a raucous place to work, and also you have to worry about the infrastructure stuff.. the chores.. who paid for what, who took the trash out etc… that can be a hassle. My experience is that the more members there are the more of a grey area that becomes..

But some of my best work experiences have been in shared work spaces. I hope to do it again someday.

Mar 082006

Toiling away in the creative vacuum of my apartment I sometimes need to jolt some ideas into my brain. Like a tired old geezer in the ER room, who needs a blast of electricity to bring his ticker back to life: “CLEAR!” ZAP! Here’s some stuff that I’ve been getting a BLAST out of lately:

3 little rigsTHE THREE LITTLE RIGS is the latest children’s book by my old pal David Gordon. This is the 2nd in his charming series loosely based on classic nursery rhymes and fairy tales, with the twist being that in Dave’s versions the protagonists are all cars, trucks and other humanised machines. The first in the series was “The Ugly Truckling” and he has ideas for many more. While the appeal to gizmo obsessed little boys is perhaps obvious, the classic story-lines and charmingly-cute artwork should appeal to little girls as well. Dave draws trucks so cute you want to give them a saucer of milk and cuddle them.

BLUTCH is an artist that I’d heard about but only recently got properly aquainted with. Sam Hiti repeatedly told me of his admiration for this French comics artist and since Sam has never steered me wrong in any of his comics recomendations, I went in search of this “Blutch” guy… without any luck. Next thing you know, I get some copies of Blutch’s “MITCHUM” books in the mail. Sam had kindly picked up a few copies for me when he was in Canada. Then I spotted some copies of Mitchum in at MELTDOWN comics (so if you live in LA you can buy Blutch too).

Blutch’s drawings are energetic and use either a scribbly pen or a fluid brush. Some of the books are drawn in a very crude fashion and some with a fluid grace but all show a bravery and boldness to the fearless throwing around of the ink. Most of the stories are dreamlike atmospheric and surreal and many of them have no dialogue, so don’t be put off buying them just because you can’t read French.

NICOLAS de CRECY is yet another French comic-book artist who’s work I admire. He also happens to be one of the two that I have actually worked with (at the DISNEY Paris studio where we did layouts, along with TAO BANG’s Didier Cassegrain). I remember seeing some pages for a graphic novel that he was working in his spare time, and being very impressed with the rich intricate artwork. Years later, while on a visit back to France, some artwork on a book cover caught my eye. Picking it up, I realised that it was the finished work of the pages seen years before. That book is called FOLIGATTO.

Lately I’ve been looking at Nicolas de Crecy’s books again, both ones bought years ago and a few acquired recently. Along with Foligatto I’ve got LEON LA CAME, PRIEZ POUR NOUS and BIBEDUM CELESTE. His brush line-work is superbly crazed and spidery but his detailed compositions never become messy, partly due to the use of a simple duo-chrome palette (usually using shades of two opposite colours) which has a beautifully clarifying effect over his agitated line. Some of the books he has illustrated were written by Sylvain Chomet who is best known as the writer/director of the Oscar nominated “Triplettes of Belleville”. Later, de Crecy and Chomet also collaborated on an animated short. If you enjoy the quirky visuals of Chomet’s films, then seek out de Crecy’s books from the 1990’s and you will see the visual motifs that later appeared in Chomet’s films. De Crecy’s visual world has had a lasting impression on Chomet, or perhaps it more fair to say that they have influenced eachother, having collaborated on both books and animation.

I have also been reading stuff that will be more familiar to fans of American comics.

ESSENTIAL SILVER SURFER. The B/W printing puts a focus on the beautiful drawing and inking. Yes, the dialogue is overwrought and corny (portentious pulse-pounding prose) but entertaining nonetheless. Plus, I like the character; he is not the typical superhero… He’s “sensitive.” Don’t despair Silver Surfer! I understand your pain, unlike all those guys shooting cannons at you…

LOVE AND ROCKETS. I just got “The Lost Women and other stories” and I’ve also been reading “Locas in Love.” and ““WigWam Bam.” The artwork is clean; every panel is a lesson in how evocative simplicity can be. The writing is entertaining too; the richness of Jaime‘s world is very engrossing. No need to go on about these; everyone else is way ahead of me.

Feb 132006

Having been labelled pretentious for posting about Fellini, (and by an Italian no less) I’m now in tactical retreat back to lowbrow territory with a post about comics. Specifically Wondercon 2006, (AKA: the Nerd Prom) which I exhibited at this last weekend.

When exhibiting at conventions, Nerve Bomb international has been affiliated with the Abismo multimedia giant for the past few years. However on this particular occasion, Abismo CEO and CFO Mr Rhode Montijo, was attending to urgent affairs abroad, and so the fabulous Ms. Michelle Ritchie came along to move product in his stead.

The Bizniss:

There was a great reaction to the advance copy of Rhode’s latest book, CLOUD BOY. It was a tractor beam; stopping people in their tracks and reeling them in with its magnetic powers of cuteness. Everyone familiar with Rhode’s oeuvre agreed that this book is a huge creative breakthrough for him, because although it continues his focus on cute characters, this one doesn’t get murdered, mutilated, maimed or mauled by the end of the story.

Sales of Nerve Bomb titles were lower than last year, even though Saturday was so crowded that potential attendees were turned away at the door. I assume that my entire customer base was amongst those turned away. It has always been a mystery why sales are better some days than others. The calculus of sales are influenced by so many factors: attendance, booth-placement, booth-layout, sales-pitch, quality of display, quality of material and whether I have a shitty look on my face, or not.

The People:

But for me the cons are not only about selling my books (just as well, eh?). I also go in order to buy other stuff and to socialise, not only with people I get to see around town (such as Nate, Ted, the Ghostbots, the Maverix, Enrico, Ronnie and Tess), but all kinds of fun, cool, and crazy folks that I don’t see anyplace else but at cons (such as Mark and Anne, Ragnar, George, Amelia, and others). Where else can you chat with Spiderman and his Dad?

Although he was away for the con itself, the night before the show Rhode morphed into a Roadie, and helped setup the Abismo/Nerve Bomb booth, which is when we met the folks from Steam Crow. Thankfully, they took this photo (below) that provides documentary evidence that Rhode was physically present for at least part of Wondercon 2006. As you can see in this pic, Daniel is ready for action and that pumped up ‘tude is evident in the Steam Crow art and their fine booth display. The booth especially so, considering that this was their first show. I still haven’t got a nice vinyl banner, after a few years doing these things…

Socialising got off to a great start this year when I found out that we were sitting next to Rafael Navarro (who is also in that category of good friends who I only see at cons). This year Raf introduced me to some of his cronies, Mike Wellman and Joshua Dysart. The three of them lounged around like lazy rockstars strumming guitars, while waiting for their hangovers to wear out, occasionally leaping up to serenade any passing ladies with a pitch about their comics, and then languidly slouching back in their chairs again.

On the Friday evening a whole gang of us (including Mark and Anne, Rafa, Mike, myself and more) went out for Hunan Food. We managed to find a table that would seat about 10 of us in a place (the always good “Henry’s Hunan”) that would tolerate our loud, obnoxious conversations about a broad spectrum of assinine subjects.

Ms Monster and the B-minus crew graced me with their presence at my booth, (for photo evidence, see below) and I got to feel validated by their cool a few times during the weekend. Also I had quite a few fun and interesting chats with people who’s names I didn’t catch; just people who bought something and stayed to talk for a while, and that was a really fun aspect of the show for me this year. So thanks a lot to all you folks for coming by.

Early one morning, before the doors opened, I got talking to Stuart Ng at his booth. He told me of his recent trip to the Angouleme comics festival in France, and his meetings with the artists and publishers there. I droned on about European graphic novels and my desire that more of them would be translated into English and distributed more widely in the English speaking world. To thank Stuart for patiently tolerating my bending his ear, I then bought almost my entire swag of stuff from his booth… As I said before, buying books was on my list of things to do. So without further ado here is…

The Swag:

Claire de Nuit” is by one of my favourites, mr Jordi Bernet. This is a French collection of his strips about a cute streetwalker (“Clara de Noche” in the original Spanish) who is reminiscent of the pinup icon Bettie Page. (in English translations the character is called “Betty by the hour”). The art style is more cartoony than Bernet uses in other titles, such as “Torpedo” and the drawings are so full of appeal that he makes hooking seem wholesome and fun, so this book requires a lot of suspension of disbelief and certainly isn’t for everyone.

Tao Bang” is an epic comics series that feels like an over the top fantasy film. The formula for a Gomer piece of popular culture is, any two fanboy obsessions plus sexy girls, so the recipe for this book is: pirates+dinosaurs+sexy girls=Tao Bang. The artwork is a superb collaboration between Fred Blanchard and a fellow I once worked with, the super talented Didier Cassegrain. Years ago, at the Paris Disney studio, he would distract the rest of us layout artists with his drawings of beautiful girls (usually featuring curvacious bottoms).

les Lumieres de L’Amalou” by Claire Wendling. I’ve had my eye on this series of beautiful comics albums for a while, looking through the pages at cons before, but the cost of all 5 seemed exhorbitant. I finally broke down and bought the BIG album that collects the series. It was expensive but well worth it, as the art is simply amazing, page after page. Plus, at the slow speed that I read French, I have reading material to last me a year, so it wasn’t expensive at all, if I look at it like that… (rationalising guilty pleasures is one of my super-powers)

Without question Wendling is one of my all time favourite artists and she has exerted her influence on many others as well, including an artist I had never heard of before, but whose brilliant work I became acquainted with at this year’s Wondercon….

“AYANIMEYA”, the beautiful colour sketchbook by Alina Urusov, was the prize find of the show for me this year, and I recommended it to everyone that I could. The range and depth of her drawing skill immediately blew me away, but when I found out that she is a recent graduate from Sheridan college and is about 20 years old, It didn’t only blow my mind; It made me want to blow out my brains. But I quickly thought better of that particular plan, instead, I went home broke all my pens and pencils, threw my art supplies out the window, then set my portfolio on fire and danced around it in the nude, wailing and gnashing my teeth.

I’m hoping that in exchange for this ritual sacrifice, the gods of drawing talent will finally send me some… If not then I guess I’ll just have to do some more sketch practise…