Apr 132015
 

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

OPERATION_SNOWBALL_cover

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:

SNOWBALL_process1

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.

SNOWBALL_process2

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.

SNOWBALL_process3

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!)

Jan 282015
 

A beloved longtime member of the Bay Area animation community, has finally succumbed to pancreatic cancer after battling it bravely for over 3 years. Phil Robinson will be greatly missed by his loving wife Jennifer, and his many friends from around the world, me amongst them.

Phil_desk

Phil came to the Bay Area in the early 1980s but I first met him in January 1991 when I’d just arrived from France and started working at Colossal Pictures. My contact on the project I was hired for was out of town when I arrived, so I was put in a big, freezing, empty room with two other artists assigned to the same show. The 3 of us didn’t know each other and toiled away on our respective tasks in anxious silence. I wasn’t even sure exactly what I was supposed to be doing anyway. Then one of the other guys cracked a joke– a wry observation about the ludicrouness of our situation, that made it clear he felt the same as I– we all 3 burst out laughing, the tension and anxiety melted away, and we all became friends on the spot. The cheeky joker was Phil Robinson and the other equally hilarious fellow was Dave Gordon. I wish I could remember exactly what Phil said to make us all laugh so hard, but as is often the case with the really good jokes, I was too busy belly-laughing to remember. What I’m left with is the feeling of that moment; the unmistakable knowledge that I’d made some amazing and irreplaceable friends.

In his 35 years in the Bay Area, Phil worked at studios like Nepenthe, Mill Valley Animation, Colossal Pictures, and ILM, and was a founding partner of Wild Brain and Special Agent. He was stalwart member of the animation community; an older brother figure to some, a mentor to others, a colleague to many, a business partner to a few and a friend to us all. He was one of the two directors on that first project I ever worked on in America (John Hays being the other) and because of that particular crew I fell in love with San Francisco and made it my home after many years of wandering hither and thither, and I’ve been here ever since. Phil Robinson was a huge part of my decision to stay, and was my constant friend and colleague for the past 24 years. The only time in my long career that I ever conceived of a project myself, Phil was the voice of the titular character, which was one of my few mini-triumphs in making it, and I remember that aspect of the otherwise benighted project with great fondness to this very day. I happily worked on several commercials under his inspired direction at Colossal Pictures, before Phil, John Hays and Jeff Fino split off in 1994 to found Wild Brain— that great little Bay Area studio that gave so many people their start in the biz– and I worked there with him many times too.

He was an interesting mixture of things. Phil was endlessly patient and a fantastic mentor to a generation of Bay Area animation artists in the 1990s and 2000s, but there was definitely a ’stroppy’ side to him that you’d see sometimes. Perhaps it was his old punk soul, but he couldn’t ignore pretentiousness, the putting-on of airs, or the brandishing of authority for its own sake. Then you’d see what John Stevenson called the ’strunty little Welsh git’ step out from the skin of the otherwise warm and silly fellow. I remember being in a bar with Phil when we got to bickering about the finer points of something or other— if Phil had an issue between his teeth he wouldn’t let it go, and I have that streak in me too— and our argument (and the beer) flowed till closing time. The bouncer (utterly massive in that style the Samoans do so well) told Phil in menacing bouncer-speak to shut it all down and move on, pronto. Picture a fiercely growling Doberman confronting a tiny Jack Russell Terrier– when a show of terrier steel scares the beJesus out of the Doberman and sends it skeedadling with its tail between its legs– and that would sum up what happened next. Phil and I finished our ‘debate’ at our leisure, and left in our own good time.

Even though I knew that a day might come when Phil could lose his fight with cancer– he was diagnosed way back in late 2011– it still managed to be a savage kick in my stomach when that day came. It was more of a shock than when my other loved ones had been overwhelmed by cancer before, and I wondered why this might be so… I think it’s because I’d felt that if anybody could possibly beat pancreatic cancer it’d be the mighty Phil Robinson, and despite his terrible odds I thought he actually would. Right up until a few weeks ago he looked fine and healthy, had a full head of hair, a bounce in his step, a smile on his face, a twinkle in his eye, and you’d have no idea to look at him that he was in the midst of a tenacious battle with a type of cancer that has one of the lowest survival rates of all. I’d ask him how he was doing, and he’d cheerfully admit that he felt “like crap” but he honestly seemed like he’d battle on forever. He was a tough little bugger with the constitution of an ox, and he put up one hell of a fight, but in the end, the cancer won (although, I like to think Phil gave his cancer a few savage, pub-style head-butts of his own, and made its victory really hurt). What a wonderful soul he was– witty, wry, considerate, silly, generous, talented, patient and strong– and what a great loss to Jennifer, his loved ones, his friends, his Bay Area animation community, and the human race, Phil’s leaving us will be.

Phil Robinson– you utterly splendid human being, you– You’ll always be missed, but never forgotten.

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.

Feb 172011
 

If you have around 50 minutes to spare, please watch this wonderful, wise, profanity-laden presentation, as JOHN STEVENSON (director of KUNG FU PANDA) gives his perspective on the creative process, and how to keep the spark alive as a working commercial artist.

stevo

As commercial artists, the trick is to find true enthusiasm for doing work that is not our own, and to somehow imbue it with our own stamp. John is very good at this, bless him.

Jun 182008
 

A few years ago I was given the chance to design my version of a certain martial arts bear that is currently entertaining audiences in movie theatres across the land.

 

The job was only for two or three days, just until the creative team came to their senses and used the supernaturally talented designer who was already working at that studio (there is a certain sense of satisfaction in knowing that my lameness was instrumental in pushing them in the right direction). In the short time available, I only got as far as a few pages of scribbles, but this Big Baby version is one of my favourites of the several variations I came up with.

If you haven’t seen KUNG FU PANDA yet, by all means hurry out and see it soon. I think that it is one of the best animated movies in years. It is gorgeous to look at and beautifully animated with some of the best action sequences I’ve seen in any movie lately; fast paced, kinetic and cutty without ever being confusing… The story is funny without being flippant or snide, or drenched in pop-culture wise-ass-ery. Plus, it really delivers some pure, sweet moments that aren’t saccharine, which is one of the hardest things to do in any movie.

May 192008
 

This picture shows the partnership between one of my all-time favourite human beings, Mr John Stevenson, and PO, a character designed by one of my all-time favourite artists, Nicolas Marlet. As I write this, John is currently wowing them in Cannes with his new movie, KUNG FU PANDA, which he directed (alongside John Osborne).

The look of the movie is based on the ever-elegant animal designs of Nicolas Marlet. Although he is very highly regarded by all who have ever worked with him and seen his drawings in person, it can be very hard to find samples of his work. The ART OF KUNG FU PANDA book will be a pretty good consolation prize for all of Nico’s many fans, who have been waiting in vain for him to start a blog or website, and it will certainly be on the must-have list of many artists in the animation community.

Kung Fu Panda is one of the movies that I am most looking forward to seeing this year, and that is really saying something, because 2008 is shaping up to be one of the best cinematic years to be a nerd. The last time I went to the movies (to see Ironman) there were an almost overwhelming number of trailers (or coming-soon posters in the lobby) for movies coming out this year, all of which built-in have nerd-appeal. Starting with Ironman, the nerd-friendly film roster continues with Speed Racer, Narnia, Indiana Jones, Kung Fu Panda, The Happening, The Incredible Hulk, Get Smart, Wall-E, Wanted, Hancock, Hellboy, The Dark Knight, The X-Files, The Mummy and Tropic Thunder. I am not interested in ALL of those films but I am certainly looking forward to quite a few of them.

And even if most of them suck then we movie-nerds will have even MORE stuff to complain about (which is almost more fun than actually liking stuff). Verily we live in the Golden Age of being a nerd.

Oct 042007
 

When I worked at Colossal Pictures we showed animated series ideas to TV networks every year. One of my pitches was about a marsupial magician called KOALA LUMPUR, who I saw as a tiny, mystical problem solver; a cross between Yoda and Mandrake the magician. His action-hero side kick, named Dr DINGO, was a flea-bitten Indiana Jones in a Goodwill pith helmet.

I felt that a duo comprised of a magic detective koala bear and an adventurer/scientist canine could go anywhere and do anything. Between the two of them there would be so many possibilities for funny episodes. Sluething out whodunnits, exploring watchamacallits and fighting a nutty assortment of baddies with an array of dopey invention-thingamajigs. I drew up some pitch-art and wrote out a list of episode ideas and then took the whole lot down to LA and hopped about the room as I explained it all to some network executives. But, as is the case with many a “good meeting” in LA, it ultimately didn’t go anywhere…

Then, few years later, Stuart Cudlitz and the Colossal Pictures interactive unit found the old pitch materials and thought that this goofy investigative team would be a good basis for a computer game. I knew nothing about computer games back then, or computers either if it comes to that, but I got involved in making a Koala Lumpur game because I thought that it might help get a TV show for the idea (networks are sometimes more interested in ideas that have already been brought to market in some form or other). So we pitched a game called KOALA LUMPUR: MYSTIC MARSUPIAL to a big game publisher called Brøderbund, lo and behold,  they actually gave the project a green-light.

After years of working on, and even occasionally directing, all sorts of projects that were dreamed up by other people, it was incredibly exciting to finally be directing an idea of my own. I really threw myself into the project with gusto, and thought of not much else for several years.

I was very pleased that a couple of my best friends were doing the voices for the main characters; Phil Robinson as KOALA and John Stevenson as Dr. DINGO. I had them in mind from the start and their voices were used to pitch the idea in rough assemblies of the game, yet the powers that be intended to replace them with professional actors in the final product… but came around to my way of thinking when they couldn’t find any voices that were better. John and Phil did a fantastic job of bringing each character to life. Koala had a jumbly blendo accent, that was part Hindi and part Australian, and Dingo sounded like a blustery British colonel.

The division of labor between the two companies was that there was a fair bit of collaboration on the concepting, but that art design and art production was handled by Colossal, and programming and game design was handled by Brøderbund. The early phases of production were very fun indeed. Firstly, the design phase, where we worked closely with Brøderbund game designers, and then the art production, which happened both at Colossal and Chicago’s Startoons Studio (producer of many of great Saturday morning cartoons in the 1990s) and I spent quite a bit of time in Chicago, happily working with the Startoons crew there.


Unfortunately, the timing of the Koala Lumpur production was ill-fated for two reasons. Firstly, while our game was being made, the games industry shifted quickly to 3D games, like DOOM and QUAKE, and by the time our 2D game eventually came out, it was already yesterday’s news. The second bit of bad luck was that Colossal Pictures filed for bankruptcy in the midst of production, due to some problems on other productions at the studio. This caused financial and legal rifts between the companies involved and the completion of production was stressful beyond belief.

Brøderbund became severly rattled by Colossal’s financial crisis, and lost faith that Colossal’s art production chores could reliably continue, and thereafter ensured that all game assembly happened 100% at Brøderbund, with the Colossal crew shut out altogether. Without the close collaboration between the two companies that was initially planned, there were some bumps in the final product, and in some cases the art was configured incorrectly. The end-product suffered as a result, and certainly didn’t come out as I had intended. Anyway, despite all the hardship, the game came out on schedule, retitled “KOALA LUMPUR: JOURNEY TO THE EDGE” by some marketing genius, to mixed reviews and moderate sales in the USA. It sold better in Europe, and was very popular Germany, of all places (I am told the German translation was especially funny).

Not long after the KOALA LUMPUR game was released, Colossal Pictures went bust completely. There had been high hopes that the studio could survive the chapter 11 bankruptcy and bounce back but it was not to be, and after 20 years of business, that great studio closed its doors for good. It was a sad and stressful time in more ways than one, for not only did my pet-project get mauled, but the studio too. Colossal Pictures was without a doubt the greatest studio I ever worked at, and I was very sad to see it fail. Interestingly, Brøderbund, which was one of the bigger game companies in the Bay Area when I worked with them in the late 1990s, no longer exists iether, unable to adapt quickly to a rapidly changing market.

After this experience, I came to realise that I just don’t have the stomach (or the brains, balls or spinal chord) for directing big projects, and it just wasn’t as much fun as I thought it was going to be… After this fiasco, I started to focus on on designing, storyboarding and so on; those roles where I could make things, rather than oversee others. This project really taught me the value of collaborative, good-natured crewmembers. I vividly remember those people on the Koala Lumpur crew who were problem-solvers rather than problem-creators, and how grateful I was for their prescence amidst all the other production chaos and politics. I vowed that I myself wanted to be one of those kinds of people henceforth. So as painful as this process was, I learned some very important lessons about professionalism, and creative collaboration that have made me a much better crewmember myself.

Suffice it to say that I look back on the project with a mixture of feelings these days. I learned a lot, but many of the lessons were cautionary rather than inspirational. On the other hand, I still smile when I think about the KOALA LUMPUR SHOW I saw in my mind in the first place, directing THAT could be fun…