Oct 222017
 

Late 1996, I resigned from Colossal Pictures, the only full time staff position I’d ever had. By then I’d been working in animation for 15 years, but recent job disasters had soured me to the industry, and I was unsure what to do next. After traveling for a few months, I’d decided to focus on the enjoyable aspects of being a cartoonist by creating some projects of my own, and by February 1997 I came back to San Francisco to draw. Although my plan was to save money by working at my kitchen table, Robert Valley suggested that I sublet some space at an animation studio he’d founded in 1995. I did, and it represented a turning point in my creative life.

For several months I didn’t think about paid work, but came up with silly characters and goofy situations for them to be in. I’d recently created some characters for a company and loved the creating part, but the process of getting it made wasn’t a fun experience at all. To rekindle the joy I once felt at being a cartoonist, I resolved to make something primarily for fun. My own thing, not tied to schedules, budgets and the whims of others. I started doodling in the solo medium of comics, and gradually, I began enjoying drawing cartoons again. ROCKET RABBIT, SEPHILINA, and many other personal projects, were all born out of this period of play.

Rocket Rabbit Rocket Rabbit Rocket Rabbit

At around the same time, more freelancers moved in to Robert’s studio; Bosco Ng, and Steward Lee, two more colleagues from our Colossal Pictures days. Maverix slowly became a shared workspace for a loose collective of freelance artists, each working on their own professional or personal projects, while sharing resources and sometimes collaborating on certain jobs, and my American freelance career had begun. More artists joined; Sho Murase, Derek Thompson, Vaughn Ross, and Robert’s brother, John. I’d been on staff continually since arriving in the USA, but once Maverix became my base of operations I could try my hand at a variety of different projects at many different studios, both in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Following various leads (from ex-Colossal Pictures colleagues) I worked for ILM (‘Frankenstein’) Pixar (‘Finding Nemo‘) PDI (‘Tusker‘) and on various commercials and shorts projects at Wild Brain.

The balance between my career, private life, and personal projects had always been hard to manage. When working in a professional studio, I’d get wound up in the cogs of production and think of nothing else but my job, but working at home as a freelancer didn’t give enough structure and I’d waste my downtime. At Maverix Studios however, I had the freedom of a freelancer with the routine and inspiring camaraderie of a studio, allowing me to do my personal projects for the first time. The studio changed its spelling from MaveriCKS  (initially named for the NorCal surf spot) to MAVERIX, to mark the transition from the commercial studio it once was to the collective it had become (besides, that domain name was available). Around 2000 we bought a shared G4 computer (the first time I’d ever used Photoshop) and soon after got a shared website:

Maverix at times became a hive of industry, that expanded from the core membership to include friends helping with various animation projects (commercials and the like) and this meant that it was often a raucous place to work, with loud music, people playing video games, a barking dog running around, and friends of friends dropping by with beers. It could be a difficult place to concentrate in, and ironically I sometimes had to work on my kitchen table at home simply to get away from the noise in my paid workplace, but it was always an energetic and inspiring place to brainstorm, despite those distractions. When we were buzzing with activity, we’d take breaks by playing video games. I remember those competitions fondly, even though I was the loser every time, and the brunt of good-natured smack talking that was a fun feature of these bouts of digital fisticuffs.

During a slow spell at the studio in early 2001, Bosco Ng, Derek Thompson, and I were sitting with nothing to do, and somebody suggested that we should each make a comic for that year’s Comic-Con and actually exhibit. We’d all been attending and submitting portfolios for years, but actually making something to sell had never occurred to us before. We were perhaps inspired by the recent example of a colleague from ILM, Steve Purcell, who had a Comic-Con table the year prior to sell his own artwork. We decided to do something similar ourselves and just make something for a change, instead of getting raked over the coals by snotty art-directors at portfolio reviews. Many times throughout my career, in eager beaver conversation in pubs or coffeeshops, such notions had been mentioned before (“let’s make an animated short!” etc) but this was the first time we followed through, and made the things we said we’d make: three separate comic books.

We knew nothing about printing or exhibiting, but it was remarkably easy to exhibit at Comic-Con in 2001; there was no waiting list, and in February 2001 we booked a table for July that same year, which would be unthinkable now. We’d committed to exhibiting and the ensuing period of making stuff remains one of the most pleasant stretches of several months in my entire career. Each day, the three of us would come in to the studio, jazzed to draw our comics, excited about what we were each doing, and what the other two guys were doing too. My effort was NERVE BOMB (my first Rocket Rabbit book) Derek made BINDU (a collaboration with Brian McDonald) and Bosco made METALUSION. We got them printed just in time. It is quite common for a group of artists to self publish these days, but it wasn’t as common back then, and we got a good reaction simply because of the novelty of a booth containing three artists selling their own stuff. A high point was when Mike Mignola visited our table and bought our books.

I got a rude shock when I finally got my bill from the printer. I’d cut the print deadline very close, and asked the printer to ship a few hundred of my comics expedited direct to San Diego, so they’d make the convention deadline, and ship the remaining 1800 books to San Francisco, at regular rates. They instead sent ALL the boxes to San Diego. The bill for expedited international shipping (from Canada) for 2,000 books was brutal. As that last minute transaction had been all arranged on the phone, I had no paper trail as to who said exactly what & when, so when the printer sicced a collection agency onto me I had to pay up. This was my first lesson that getting things printed was often the sour note in self publishing..

The next few years saw all Maverix members exhibiting their own projects at Comic-Con. There was the annual drama of getting various personal projects drawn and printed in time for the show, shenanigans with printing companies, Kinkos, or ink-jet printers. Hare-brained money-saving schemes to drive to the Con, all Maverix members crammed into a rented van, like the Scooby Doo gang or some lame rock band. Several years of fumbled bookings in shitty San Diego hotels, and assorted shenanigans; Robert accidentally drinking Sho’s contact lenses (twice) or getting stranded in Tijuana without his passport. Oh, such tales could be told (and might be one day.)

Maverix was a chaotic band of loons that nevertheless helped me break the cycle of my own creative lameness. I am not sure why it took me so long to actually make something of my own, except that when younger, I had no idea how to get things printed or made. Researching the means of production wasn’t easy in the 80s and 90s, and it’s only relatively recently that those technologies have been accessible to your average Joe & Jane. Even so, I deeply regret not getting off my arse many years earlier and making something. Anything. I always thought about it, but somehow had the feeling that I needed permission or validation from someone else to move forward. The younger generation of artists today do not make that mistake, and self publish books and make short films right out of school. This is definitely the way to go. When you’re young and before you have a family, you should make stuff of your own as much as you can, as personal projects are the gymnasium where professional artists get to train their creative muscles and stretch themselves.

Maverix became known as a fun place to hang out. The studio was not far from San Francisco’s South of Market club scene, and would often serve as a staging area for night club away teams, and after-parties. There were themed movie nights (“Ape Night” or “Monster Night”) or we’d simply gather to watch the latest anime blockbuster or foreign hit film on Bosco’s groovy projector. Maverix knew how to throw a very fun party on any pretext at all, and members of other bigger studios would all mingle on our common ground.

On the fateful day of September 11, 2001, I was the only person working at Maverix. This was before the era of carrying the internet in your pocket, and I was unaware of the world-changing attacks on The World Trade Center. I walked into work early that morning, and assumed that the police vehicles surrounding City Hall were there for another episode of ’Nash Bridges’, and continued to the studio, where I was working on paper and therefore not connected to the internet. By mid-afternoon, no one else had come to work but I didn’t think much of it, because Maverix was the kind of place where people kept odd hours. Later in the day, I went out to get something to eat at a nearby deli, where the the radio broadcasted something hectic in Korean. The guy making my sandwich was agitated about something in New York, but didn’t speak clear English, and I assumed it was a sporting event. After I walked all the way back home at about 11PM that night and turned on my TV, I finally saw the nightmarish images of airplanes dissolving into the Twin Towers. It still took 20 minutes for it to sink in that this was NOT a movie. That this was real. For the next 24 hours I stayed glued to the TV trying to make sense of it all. Al Qaeda who? Osama Bin What? Why?

My girlfriend at the time was in Europe traveling with her family, stranded by the USA flight ban imposed in the wake of the attacks (for everyone other than the fleeing Bin Laden family). It was a stressful and gruesome time. At the national level there was great distress, but many things in my own life started to fall apart after 9/11. Freelance work started to dry up almost immediately, and most of my friends were out of work for a long time. As the disasters stacked up – political, personal, professional, financial, psychological – it was almost comedic, like a sequence from a movie where a shlub (a Jerry Lewis or a Jim Carrey) is subjected to one humiliating pitfall one after the other, to teach him ‘a lesson’. The difference being that everyone was experiencing this spiral of disaster at the exact same time. For me this grim period culminated in a bitter break up with my girlfriend in September 2002, leaving me dejected about life in America, about relationships, about work, and human beings in general. It took several years to find my optimism again.

The original 9th Street address of Maverix Studios was in a seedy part of town. My memories of Maverix itself are overwhelmingly positive, but any negative memories come from that low-rent tawdry neighbourhood, rife with petty crime and scuzzy ne’er do wells prowling about. I had two different bikes stolen from inside the studio itself within three months, and I wasn’t the only Maverix member to have issues with theft. There was a strange ecosystem of Fury Road shantytowns in the alley behind the studio near our dumpsters, ruled over by a semi psychotic Hobo Warlord in camouflage combat pants, stripped to the waist. This methed-up alpha hobo was known to us as ’Hatchet Man,’ because we’d often see him out our back window flexing his muscles and practicing tossing his tomahawk into a telephone pole; wzzzz THUD! We’d have to thread our way gingerly past Immortan Joe and his underlings to put stuff in our own dumpster.

The back alley shanty town would grow, and periodically the city would swoop in to roust the squatters, and steam clean their paste off the alley. Then another shanty would slowly re-assemble, only to be purged when it too became a festering sore. The City wanted to offset costs for these frequent cleanups, and clearly the hobos had no money, so The City would attempt to send US the bill for these cleanings. One time I was at home in the shower in my own apartment when there was furious rapping on the door, with an officious voice demanding; “Open up! City Trash Police!” (or some such). I opened the door in my bath towel to be confronted by a guy we came to call ‘The Garbage Nazi‘, an enforcer with the city who’d found a scrap of rubbish in the alley bearing my name and address, and this was to be the justification for a BILL from City Hall; if any of our trash was strewn about by the human racoons that lived in the alley (as it often was) we’d get hammered by The City for alley cleanup. There were already stiff penalties for not having a padlock on our garbage can. However the entire system broke down when the guys driving the garbage trucks and emptying our dumpsters wouldn’t put the locks back on after emptying our trash. Then our garbage cans became prime scavenging sites, and even impromptu porta-potties for Hatchet Man and his homies (yes, not kidding).

The initial draw to the area was cheap rent, when most businesses around us were fabric sewing sweat shops, likewise taking advantage of low costs. The first wave of internet start ups happened around that time, and when the tech boom hit the neighbourhood, suddenly those crappy sweatshops were turned into tech lofts and the area was awash with hipsters on scooters. But the .com boom of San Francisco wasn’t all glamour. Sometimes, when working late, we’d overhear tawdry transactions taking place in the medieval monkey cage in the back alley below the studio. It’s a strange disconnect to be working on a child’s cartoon at 2 in the morning, when you hear some drunk tech-nerd stumble out of a nearby bar to haggle a drugs-for-sex swap with a hobo-junkie. This sleazy Blowjob Bartertown was an aspect of the SF tech boom not covered by WIRED magazine.

Maverix soon lost its lease due to the escalating crazy rents brought on by this .com boom, when our landlord suddenly wanted us to pay something like $10,000 a month for a space that cost less than $2000 a month previously, which was very indicative of the greed of that time. The combo of tawdry sleaze & crummy infrastructure and high prices was brutal (and became the problem with San Francisco in general). When it was time to renew our lease in 2003, we couldn’t afford to be in the area any more, so the studio moved to 17th street and the new space was infinitely better than the original place. By that time, some of the members chose to become a proper LLC company, and the loose collective dissolved, and I left Maverix (thinking that we could barely manage the studio trash cans, let alone file paperwork for an actual company). This separation was 100% amicable, it was simply that our different goals for the studio had changed. Although I was no longer officially a member, I still participated in many Maverix events, and often dropped in on my old studio mates. We are all still good friends to this day.

One of the things I was most happy to collaborate in were the Maverix charity art auctions. The first was held out of a desperate need to express our love and support for our friend Mike Murnane, who’d been brought low by a tragic accident. He required surgery but had no insurance, and thus no funds to cover his ballooning medical expenses. The broader Maverix community came together to generate money in the only way we knew how; by making and selling artwork. Organised in a matter of weeks, this first auction raised a significant amount of money, even though many of us were out of work ourselves at the time. It became the first charity fundraiser of many, and such auctions became regular events at the studio. People from Pixar, PDI, ILM, Wild Brain, Ghostbot, and other studios in the Bay Area all assembled for good times and good causes.

This was my first experience of artists doing what they do to raise money for charities without any goal of self-promotion. I have seen similar things since, but for me the Maverix auctions were always the best. They may not have raised the cash of bigger art auctions that came later, but they were always all-inclusive and immensely rewarding to be part of. Lately, I’ve had a visceral sense of what such fundraising activities can do for a person who’s been medically devastated, when I was a beneficiary myself (in 2013). Though the money is very welcome, I found the support from the community to be the real force for good.

I’d recommend any freelance artists who work at home to find like-minded friends to share a workspace with, at least once in your career. In my opinion, an essential ingredient to make the whole thing work is a sort of rulebook (or ‘manifesto’ if you prefer) to ensure that the day to day nitty-gritty of bill paying and trash removal happens smoothly, and it it’s clear in everybody’s mind’s to what extent the studio is a workspace, and to what extent it is a fun space. If you can get those things mutually understood, this is one the most satisfying ways to work as a commercial artist.

When I first fell in love with San Francisco in the early 1990s, the Bay Area had a healthy cross-section of big studios, medium-sized studios, and small studios. Over 25 years later, the middle of that ecosystem has died. There are still a few big places (impenetrable fortresses like Pixar, and ILM) and a few tiny studios too, but the mid-size studios are gone (perhaps because animated commercials are neither so common nor lucrative as they once were). Mid-sized studios were my favourite places to work, providing the bulk of the freelance jobs for people doing what I do, while taking more chances on younger talent than bigger studios. I miss these mid-sized studios a great deal. A lot of innovation is happening in the South Bay in GAMES, but my focus has always been on animation for broadcast or film, and in that respect San Francisco is not the vital town that it once was, sadly.

In 2011, MAVERIX STUDIOS finally closed its doors, marking the end for this fantastic collective of independent, Bay Area animation artists, though ex-members have gone on to work on many high-profile projects in a wide variety of media, from comics & games to film & TV. All members look back on the studio with fondness, despite some setbacks here and there. It was quite an achievement that such an unwieldy group of screwballs could operate so well for so long, during some very difficult years in the Bay Area media community, when many studios with ‘business plans’ and MBAs all went kaput. For many years I’d toyed with the idea of making some projects of my own, but it wasn’t until Maverix that I actually did it, and interestingly, it made me a more professional worker for others, when I had an outlet to do my own thing. Becoming a self publisher led to exhibiting at comics conventions, which I did for about 10 years and got a lot of satisfaction from. Being a member of Maverix Studios remains one of the most fruitful periods of my career.

Founders of the Maverick commercial animation studio: Robert Valley Jeanne Reynolds.

Initial members of the Maverix Studios collective: Robert Valley, John Valley, James Baker, Steward Lee, Bosco Ng, Sho Murase, Vaughn Ross, Derek Thompson.

The 3rd wave: Tom Rubalcava, Osamu Tsuruyama, Tony Stacchi, Sergio Paez, Ted Mathot, Chris Petrocchi, Garett Sheldrew, Ed Bell.

Other friends who collaborated, or hung out: Patrick Awa, Mike Murnane, Gennie Rim, Granger Davis, Lyla Warren, Charlie Canfield, Dan McHale, Chris Carter, Charlene Kelley, Victor Gascon, Sam Hood, Dedan Anderson, Joel Hornsby, Jamal Narcisse, Lance Hughes, Ken Kaiser (and many more!)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Jun 102015
 

INSIDE OUT is an unusual film for a big studio to make; it is very ambitious and abstract. I worked on the story team from 2010 to late 2012, and everyone was excited about the idea, but dramatising that idea was at times quite challenging. I finally saw the film at a crew Wrap Party screening last month, and I’m very pleased to say that it has come out wonderfully well.

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While enjoying the screening of INSIDE OUT, many conflicting and complicated feelings bubbled to the surface for me. Not long after wrestling with the challenges of dramatising the inner workings of the human mind, as part of the INSIDE OUT story team, a blood vessel burst in my head, and I was trapped inside my own mind for quite some time, as my body dealt with the effects of a swollen and ruptured brain. I’ve had a very rocky few years, and seeing the film reminded me of my own struggles; locked inside my own mind and struggling like crazy to get out.

So understandably, this film will always have personal significance for me, and perhaps I’m unable to be unbiased when I watch it. Even under less dramatic circumstances, working on these things means that it’s hard to know how other people will respond. Sometimes the general public likes a film more than me, sometimes less. Will my own feelings about this film be typical?

An early INSIDE OUT Story Crew lunch in 2011.

But for whatever my biased (and emotionally charged) opinion is worth, I feel that this is one of the great Pixar movies, and Pete Docter and his team have once again made a film to make people sit up and take notice. It is deep, and heartfelt, but funny and imaginative, and takes you to places that only an animated film can go. It’s a real return to form for the studio.

I hope with all my heart that this isn’t my last film as a pro story artist (I’m currently pushing hard on physical therapy and left-handed drawing practise to get back in the game) but if it is to be my career epitaph, at least I’ll be ending on a very high note and a movie to be proud of.

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The entire story team at the recent wrap party.

INSIDE OUT opens across the USA next week, on June 19th. Please go see it. I think you’ll like it.

Oct 102014
 

Here Be Monsters is a book illustrated and written by Alan Snow that inspired the animated film, The Boxtrolls. The book is a rambling grab-bag of fun ideas, seemingly every idea that Alan Snow ever had up till that point. It is a very enjoyable read, but presented a problem to adapt into a 90 minute movie. There was so much material that the biggest job was to edit it. If you made a 90 minute movie of the Bible (almost as thick as Alan Snow’s book) would you try to sketch out the entire narrative? And what would that be? Or would you just show one particular part?

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Most of my work on the film was in the early period, focusing on storyboards, but occasionally I’d attempt a design, such as these guys above; the Laundry Pirates, whose captain was a dashing rat. The book was full of such whimsical characters; such as the Rabbit Women, the Trotting Badgers, The Cabbage Heads, and weird little sentient cheeses that ran about the town, or were chased through the countryside by gentlemen on horseback (as in a fox hunt).

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This project was full of many lovely ideas that had to be cut, as there is only so much that you can show in only 90 minutes. Alan Snow’s book is brimming with eccentric characters and whimsical scenarios and has enough material for a TV mini-series, but with a film adaptation, there was bound to be some aspect of the book that was someone’s favourite part, but that had to go.

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I had a lot of fun wandering about in Alan Snow’s kooky world. Working on the development of any movie is a fun phase to be involved in, although you do have to be philosophical about the possibility of up to 100% of your work being grist for the exploratory mill, and being deleted.

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Sep 262014
 

I’ve admired the films of Laika for years, and now I’m pleased to say that I’ve been involved in one; THE BOXTROLLS. From 2008-2012 I worked on this film, and to make this an extra special experience for me, it was directed by my dear friend of many years, Tony Stacchi, and Graham Annabel, a new friend made during this production. I finally saw the finished film a few days ago, and absolutely loved it. Now you all get a chance to see it too, as it is released today in the USA.

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When I first got into animation, over 30 years ago, working in the typical animation studio meant you were surrounded by people spattered with paint or smudged with graphite, and you toiled away to a soundtrack of buzzing electric pencil sharpeners and the flipping of paper. Next, I worked at studios that did commercials and special effects, back in the days when it was all done by hand, and required things to be built by carpenters, model makers, and tinkerers, and even the sci-fi glow of a lightsabre was analog; animated by hand with smudged pencil on paper. That gradually changed when computers entered the biz. As wonderful as the new computer studios are, and I’ve worked at many, I sometimes miss the tactile qualities of the industry I first fell in love with. If you squint your eyes and look around the typical animation studio of today, all the people at their computer workstations could be working at a bank, or an insurance brokerage.

But when I flew to Portland to work with Laika, I was immediately charmed by the fact that I was once again in a building full of people toiling with their hands. Their plaster spattered smocks, paint-smeared aprons and vests, and grimy fingers were the telltale signs that they were not merely pushing around ones and zeroes, but sewing tiny clothes, building armatures, and sculpting and animating puppets. They were tinkering, experimenting, problem solving and making things; real actual objects to be manipulated by nimble human hands. I took great delight in arriving at the studio very early in the morning and creeping about the vast warehouse downstairs, where the final shots were being made. I was mesmerised by the beautiful sets, props and puppets. I could have been in the Boxtroll cavern itself, surrounded by ingeniously designed, intricate handmade wonders. Crazy clockwork toys made by a demented Geppetto.

When you see THE BOXTROLLS, and I really encourage you to do so, remember that the ballroom full of people you see dancing on screen, or the cave chock-full of toothy beasties with their kooky gadgets, were not produced in a render-farm, but are real handmade objects. The elements of the film were all designed, sculpted and hand-built, then expertly manipulated in front of cameras by human hands, and you are watching something unlike anything else in animation today. Stop-motion animators work ‘straight ahead’ and there is a certain jazzy improv to each shot that other modern animated films do not have, because the constant iterations of CGI boil that magic ingredient of spontaneity away. Spontaneity is impossible in most animation, but a form of it is possible in stop-motion. When watching a Laika film, more than any film by other modern animation studios, you are watching a performance and not a process. Stop motion is an intricate ballet, a spatial guitar solo, and a unique sort of performance capture that does not involve someone in a blue jumpsuit covered in ping-pong balls.

I’ve worked in animation myself since 1982, and yet the special skills and thought processes required of stop-motion animators fill me with mystified awe. Laika films have a different rhythm, perhaps as a result of this process, and of course there is a quirkiness to all things handmade. Popular reaction to stop-motion has always been mixed; many people don’t appreciate the irregularity of handmade things, and prefer instead the machined smoothness of the mass produced. If other animation is thought of as a sculpture in clay; an additive process, with plenty of chances for revision, refinement and correction, then stop-motion is a statue chipped from solid rock, and there are limited opportunities to fix mistakes, but when done as well as the Laika artists do it, stop-motion is a rare form of beauty. A dance of toymakers and animators, caught on film.

I’ve been In animation for a long time, but it is only in the last few years that I have begun to see feature films directed by my friends. It is unbelievably exciting to see themes and ideas I have long associated with these pals now on the big screen. Knowing Tony as well as I do, I see so much of him in there; so many poses and face expressions that I know he didn’t actually make or animate himself, but I see him in the film everywhere. He is in its DNA, and it is immensely gratifying to see his quirky subversive masterpiece. It is very hard to say whether the general public will embrace it as I have. Who can say? One person’s ‘quirky subversive masterpiece’ is another person’s ‘boring directionless ramble’, which is quite funny when you think about it, but that is the subjective nature of such things.

THE BOXTROLLS presents a weirder, more lush, expansive world, and sweeter characters than Laika’s other films. While Laika again showcases the awkward and the misshapen, the subterranean heroes of this film are strangely appealing, like the cute/ugly of a pug dog. Where other studios are quick to pounce on the heart strings, Laika has always been admirably restrained, but at times that allergy to maudlin emotion created a coldness on screen, and characters did not connect. But in THE BOXTROLLS, while there are creepy villains aplenty (and the main villain is a wonderfully funny and disturbing creation, with some of the most astonishing animation I’ve ever seen, in any technique) there are also characters that have an undeniable warmth, despite their weirdness, and thus it doesn’t feel like weirdness for its own sake. This is not to say that longtime fans of Laika’s particular brand of darkness will be disappointed, because there are images and themes in THE BOXTROLLS that are weighty and grim. This film somehow manages to be both lighter and sweeter while darker and deeper.

It is tragic that even mediocre CGI films can have a 40 million dollar opening weekend, while Laika’s typical opening weekend is less than half that for utterly wonderful films. But Laika already knows that no matter how lovingly they craft their work, it is an uphill battle to get the general public to care as much as they do, yet they do it anyway. Like a tiny shoe shop that stubbornly makes hand made shoes in a machine-made age, the cobbler does things his own way, for the love of it, and the hope that the minority of the public that do care too, can keep him in business. So, if you are any kind of animation fan at all, I urge you to go see THE BOXTROLLS this weekend, and treat yourself to a lovingly handmade feast for your eyes, mind and heart.

(more about my work on this film HERE.)

Feb 062012
 

Last Weekend, Julia and I returned from a fantastic 2-week visit to France. Our first few days in Paris were a blur of activity; sight-seeing, visiting the Musée d’Orsay, and meeting with my old friends from when I worked at Disney Paris (in 1990). Then we got on one of those fancy TGV trains, and spent the next few days down south at the Angoulême International Comics Festival for more of the same; sightseeing, lots of socializing with book-buying besides! By the time we got to SAINTES over on the Atlantic coast, for a visit with my Dad and his wife Wendy, the pace slowed down enough to finally fit in a little sketching, though nowhere near as much as I would have liked.

These first two drawings show some of the Roman artifacts that are highlights of a visit to the region around Saintes, including a spectacular Gallo-Roman Amphitheatre. It is really something for someone raised in the New World, to behold such antiquities as these. In fact, one of the things that struck us both about this town was how matter-of-fact they are about the cultural riches they had. We went to a small museum that was a treasure trove of goodies, but it was all presented as if it were no big deal. We were lucky with the weather the first week, and many days were even mild, but during our 2nd week, the weather turned decidedly colder and the sketching moved indoors. These sketches were drawn inside the chilly Cathedral of Saint Pierre:

After a very pleasant few days with Dad and Wendy, we left them to their own devices and headed back to Paris. We spent our last full day in France inside the the Louvre, that repository of Western Civilization’s greatest hits… A day is not enough to see anything but a teeny fraction of all the marvels in there, so we decided to focus on SCULPTURES, and the sketching thereof:

As a consequence of being a nest of over-achievers for well over a millennium, France is a country with such an embarrassment of riches in History and Art that it is impossible to take it all in… but I can’t wait to go back and try!

Sep 172011
 

Here are some visual development designs I drew for FINDING NEMO back in 2000, when I was freelancing for the Pixar art department and RALPH EGGLESTON.

shark

This was around the time that I began doing artwork in the computer, and in fact this first colour image was one of the first I’d ever finished in Photoshop. The character was drawn on paper, scanned in coloured in Photoshop (but the background is a bit of a cheat because it’s a composite of a couple of photographs I found in magazines).

shark

While working on the visual development phase of the movie, I tried my hand at rough designs for dozens of characters, but these sharks were particularly fun. In late 2001, Pixar called me back in to work in the story department, and I storyboarded on the the sharks sequence (following the incredible work done by the amazing Jim Capobianco).

shark

The fact that I’d already spend time researching and drawing sharks helped me when storyboarding that sequence, and I was very pleased with how it worked out. One of my contributions was the ending, where an underwater exploding submarine results in one tiny bubble breaking the surface of the sea, misinterpreted as a fart by a prudish pelican. An internet discussion about FINDING NEMO referred to this as the “thinking man’s fart gag”.

shark

I followed all the internet chit-chat about FINDING NEMO with keen interest, both before and after the movie was released, when it finally broke a several-year streak where nothing that I worked on actually got made.