Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Snowman

I had quite a few Illustration majors enrolled in my classes last semester, and several of them seemed almost apologetic for wanting to focus their careers on children's picture books and not animation. I assured them that the two often influence one another and have a great deal in common, including character design, storytelling, staging, and (at times) backgrounds. There are dozens of examples of picture books having been adapted into everything from simple animated shorts, like this early rendition of "Where the Wild Things Are" by Weston Woods , to feature length CGI films like the 2008 adaptation of Dr. Seuss' "Horton Hears a Who!". But few adaptations retain the look and spirit of the original like the 1982 BBC Channel 4's 26 minute animated version of author Illustrator Raymond Briggs' picture book "The Snowman".

Aside from the introduction (two versions exist, one featuring a very blond David Bowie) and the now classic song (shown above), which was sung by a young Peter Auty, the film is wordless, as is the picture book it was based upon. The animation retains the look of Briggs' sensitive colored pencil illustrations because it is hand animated in colored pencil on frosted cel vinyl, which is truly a monumental achievement and an almost unimaginable undertaking by today's standards. The film was brought about by independent Producer John Coates, who in 1981 seized upon Channel 4's call for new independent projects and teamed up with late Director and animator Dianne Jackson.  Jackson animated the snowmen's Christmas party sequence herself. The sequence where the boy his brought by the Snowman to meet Father Christmas was also added by Jackson. Author Briggs was not pleased by the addition, though critics agreed that the added sequence felt like a natural extension of the original tale.

                                                      The Snowman, left, and author/ illustrator Briggs, right

Though Coates had to mortgage his home and hit up The Snowman's original publisher, Hamish Hamilton, to supplement Channel 4's original investment and enable the film to be completed, the gamble paid off. The film was broadcast to great acclaim during Channel 4's first Christmas. It has been a holiday classic for British audiences ever since, and has continued on to success in other Countries through DVD and soundtrack sales. I personally saw it for the first time when we had a screening of it in 1989 at Walt Disney Feature Animation Florida. At that time we were told that it was one of veteran Disney animator Glen Keane's favorite animated shorts, and it's easy to see why.

View Part1, Part 2, and Part 3 The quality of the uploads on YouTube is quite poor in comparison to the DVD quality.

Official website:


Monday, December 20, 2010

An Interview with Jean-Baptiste Monge, Part 2

We continue with part two of our interview with French born illustrator, character designer and concept artist Jean Baptiste Monge. Part 1 can be found here.

Note: the following interview has been edited for the sake of clarity. I barely speak any French, and although Jean-Baptiste's English is very good, a few grammatical adjustments were made here and there while making every attempt to maintain his voice and intent.

JGO: What projects are you currently working on?

JBM: I'm preparing a new book for a French Publisher (Le Lombard) : Nordic Faeries, Winter tales. I love snow. The project also served as a good excuse for me to come to Canada. I always have had a passion for snowy landscapes. There is nothing more magical and enchanting than a walk in the early morning when it has just snowed.

I am also working toward enlarging the scope of my services to offer conceptual work and character design for the entertainment industry, including feature films, animation, and video games. Montreal is a good place for that. And, of course I'm also continuing to work on my new company; Mr. Dumblebee, adapting my pictures on new derivative products. Last but not least, there is a chance that my graphic universe will be adapted for the cinema in animation. Sorry, but for the moment I won't say more! Just that I keep my fingers crossed.

JGO: What haven't you done yet as an artist that you would still like to do?

JBM: What I would like is to really enter the world of animation and to participate with a crew to create a project from start to finish. It would be set in the marvelous 1900's in London. It's something I have in mind since so many years.

JGO: Do you ever have "artist's block"? if so, how do you overcome it?

JBM: Oh yes I do, I'm afraid so! And a lot! Usually, it's by continuing to work through a project and sheer stubbornness that I could overcome it.
I'll give you an example : my big dragon Ragnarok. I was like Penelope, Ulysse's wife; I undid each night what I had done the day before,  for month after month. I finally manged to finish it in only one night, after a great drunken evening with an Illustrator friend, Pascal Moguérou. I could very well missed it completely but I have to believe that that night, which had been so nice, also without a doubt had something magical about it! If I have a defect that can also be a quality (asset), it is stubbornness.

JGO: Can you tell us about one of the most important lessons that you have learned from a fellow artist?

JBM: The most important lesson I learned was when I was beginning to work with my friend Erlé Ferronnière. We learned it from each other : it's to work a lot and to not be afraid to spend a great deal of time on a project. I keep on applying it.
"It's with time that we develop our own universe" Norman Rockwell used to say that when he was young. It was hard to find ideas for his illustrations but with the time, he realized that he would never have the time to paint all what he had in mind!

JGO:  Can you tell us about one of the most important lessons that you have learned on your own as an artist?

JBM: Well I would say the stubbornness: you have it or you do not. But it is better to have it if you want to forge ahead and succeed;  don't give up at the first doubt. And if you have the opportunity, share a workshop with friends. It's a very rich environment for the mind.

JGO:  What do you think is the key to creating a character with "appeal"?

JBM: For me the key is the imagination. I began to copy those I liked but then I did my own pictures. All of us are always feeling the inspiration of other people, it's normal! But what is magic it's the imagination behind and our perception underneath. A scene can have thousand looks (in the hands of different artists) but could be very unique and special with great imagination. You can be poor draftsman, but with good imagination what you draw will attract attention. You can be great draftsman but without imagination, what you draw is flat and ordinary. There isn't a special recipe, just do it with your heart and conviction.

JGO: Do you have any additional tips, advice or words of wisdom that you could give to a character designer or artist who is just beginning their career?

JBM: Of course, Jennifer. Some say that illustration is not a job … Some say it's the best job in the world : it is!

I won't embellish and will be honest with you guys. Ours is a very hard job, some can't make a living of it and must have another job to get by. It's hard to begin because of the supplies, schools,... and most can't afford it. I was in this case. My parents couldn't help me. You will pass through fear, doubt, depression, anger many many times because you'll feel like you can't manage, and that you see other people's stuff is better than yours (in your perception). So you have to be tough above all and hang on no matter what happens and you will find that finally there is also fun, good people to meet, pride, and happiness! If you have the imagination it's good because, in my opinion, that's 80% of the job and the 20% left, very important, is … working working working, just keep working and don't give up.
These are my five words : Curiosity, Imagination, Observation, Work and Meetings.

That's all folks ;-)
Good luck for all of you and Thank you for all Jennifer.

JGO: Thank you Jean-Baptiste for taking the time to do this interview, and for all of your valuable advice and insights which I know will be very inspirational to our students and readers. We hope that we will soon be able to enjoy more of your work here in America, and across the rest of the globe as well!

See more of Jean-Baptiste Monge's work at the links listed below:

All images on this post copyright Jean-Baptiste Monge

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

An Interview with Jean-Baptiste Monge, Part 1

I met the amazing Jean-Baptiste Monge as an online friend more than a year ago. I was already quite familiar with his beautifully rendered and inspiring fantasy and faerie themed illustration through his books, including Halloween (1997), Baltimore & Redingote (1999), À la Recherche de Féerie tome 1 & tome 2 (2002 and 2004, respectively), and Celtic Faeries (2007). All of which are hugely popular in his native France. While Jean-Baptiste's works are filled with every bit as much charm, wonder and enchantment as the wildly successful "Gnomes" by Rien Poortvliet and "Faeries" by Brian Froud and Alan Lee, no U.S. publisher has yet been savvy enough to snap them up and re-published them in English. Hopefully, for the benefit of all lovers of great illustration and fantasy art, that situation will be remedied someday soon!

Jean-Baptiste Monge was born June 11, 1971 in Nantes, France. After 15 years in Britanny, he decided to continue his adventure in Montreal, Canada where he is currently working on projects for Sony Pictures and the gaming industry.

Note: the following interview has been edited for the sake of clarity. I barely speak any French, and although Jean-Baptiste's English is very good, a few grammatical adjustments were made here and there while making every attempt to maintain his voice and intent.

JGO: Thank you so much for generously giving us your time for this interview JB! First question; what kind of art education did you receive?

JBM: Alas, I wasn't a good student and my parents weren't wealthy. They didn't have the means to put me through the school I wanted to attend. If I had the chance I would have chosen an animation school in Paris (les Gobelins). The true story is that I learned all by myself. I left college early and an Advertisement and Graphic school in Nantes accepted me into their classes thanks to my portfolio, not  my good grades in college! I spent 2 years studying there but I didn't learn what I really wanted to, so I left again and began to work in advertising. It wasn't very exciting, but I think I learned a lot about working professionally during those times. And then I met Erlé Ferronnière (co-author of the books Halloween and À la Recherche de Féerie tome I & tome 11)  with whom I shared a great adventure, and I began doing what I really wanted to do with my career.

JGO: Could you tell us about some of the artists who have inspired you over the years?

JBM: There are so many artists who have and still continue to inspire me.

When I was a boy I read Uncle Scrooge, Disney has always made me dream! It was my very first true inspiration. I grew up and I read Tolkien who made me realize that the universe that I had in my head exists and that it was possible to create a world with my imagination.

When I was 14-17 years old, in my parents cellar, there were the Edgar Rice Burrough's books (John Carter, Tarzan). I read them of course,  but above all for the covers they had that were painted by Frank Frazetta. Around the same time I discovered the book "Faeries" by Brian Froud and Alan Lee (I wasn't able to buy it because it was in English and I didn't read very well )!  I love the line of Alan Lee, perfect I would say! And the style of Brian Froud is even crazier than Alan's. I found so much inspiration! And then, there was Dark Cristal ! So amazing !

It was hard to find books I really like because there was no internet. All the books I wanted were in English, and I couldn't imagine there were so many in fact! From the age of seventeen I kept on reading and I discovered so many artists : The pre-raphaelite painters and the Pompiers painters with my artist friend Erlé Ferronnière; J. W. Waterhouse, Gerome, Gustave Doré, John Bauer, Edmund Dulac, Arthur Rackham, and Alphonse Mucha. I discovered the Art of Norman Rockwell (my second Master after Disney), Leyendecker, Haddon Sundblom, Rien Poorvliet... the list never will never end !! But today, they are so many that I'm sure to forget some, my French Friends : Pascal Moguérou, Erlé Ferronnière, Olivier Ledroit all very talented but also English and American artists like John Howe, Paul Bonner, James Gurney, PJ Lynch, James Browne, the world of Pixar, Dreamworks, Disney...They all give the strengh to go on.

I have been completely subjugated by Disney's "Tangled" and "How to Train Your Dragon" (Dreamworks). I love being astonished like that!

The further I go, the more I find other talented artists who have their own perception, and that makes me try different things. I'm still learning in fact! I'm like Jack Skellington of Tim Burton : I want to know and I want to understand how each thing is made. It's my curse and my burden.

JGO: What else inspires you as an artist?

JBM: Landscapes and moods first (rain, snow, mist), the clair-obscurs, the moment before the dawn.
Secondly, trees, forest even though there are not many in my pictures – it's really inspiring. Animals, people, architecture and everythings which compose the world. I'm always looking at people in the street (sometimes staring, which, I must confess, can be very frightening for the one who is being stared at!!) My mom always said to not to stare people like that but in fact it's such an inspiration! I can find appearance, appeal, something to mimic, … I love that. I prefer the old men with their wrinkled face, ruddy and craggy.

I never sketch in the street, I keep it all in my mind and then I often dream of what I saw, and I create new characters.

JGO: What mediums or programs do you use to create your art?

JBM: I'm a traditional painter. It's quite new that I use digital in fact. I use digital mediums for concept work (video games and movies). It's faster and more convenient to work and modify the characters like that. I bought a Cinitiq when Brian Pimental from Sony Pictures Animation asked me to work on his project in 2009. For the moment the project is on the side but I hope that it will change ;-) It's a really deserving project, in my opinion.

For my traditional work, I use watercolor with white gouache to add highlights on watercolor paper (Laungthon... my favorite paper), or sometimes acrylic inks (not in tube – I hate tube acrylics, the texture is so plastic to me) or oil on canvas paper. All depends of what I want to do. First I do a sketch-or several sketches- with charcoal. When I arrive at the drawing I like best I transfer it to the canvas and I add the color. I'm a curious man, I touch evreything and I try everything. For the moment, I'm working on digital – just for me, to learn. The Cintiq board is such a fantastic tool. I learned how to use Zbrush. I think it a good tool. I'm not as fast as I want, but I begin to create things and it's quite enjoyable It can be an advantage for some concept art. Some people prefer to see work in 3D, but some not at all. When I create a 2D character I know how to envision him in 3D and I can show them what his volume are with the program. So I can explain to them what my vision is even if what I show them is simple. A fast sketch on Zbrush can give them a good vision of volume  in 3D. It's also an asset for creating a picture. I sculpt when I have a doubt with the perspective and then I choose what the best angle for composing my picture.

JGO: Do you begin designing your characters with something specific in mind, or do your characters evolve as you draw them?

JBM: My characters evolve as I draw them. But I would love to have a more organize mind so that I could build a picture which never alters from the moment I begin to the end. I mean it would be less sportive!

Sigh – I'm never satisfied !

So I change, erase, sometime I give up, begin again and give up again and begin again until I feel and I hear the picture living! For the pig pulling the alambic I knew that it was over when I heard the sound of the rain falling in the mud.

JGO: What kind of reference do you use when creating your character designs?

JBM: So many! First, for 80%, it's a lot of imagination,  but for the rest I find what I can in the books of the artists that I love or the internet (sooo convenient, the datas are quite huge), the photos I take. Usually, I put together little pieces of my reference and I re-organize them. For example; for the faces of my character I have some photos that I use for the color of the flesh. Because usually, the shapes of the faces come from my imagination, the grimaces I do in a mirror or they come from the people I meet in the street. I especially appeal to my memory.

I begin an illustration sitting at my great blank table and I finish it at the tiniest corner of it (for the best sometimes I finish it on my knees) because by the end of it my table looks like a mountain of books that I have used for reference. That is the fun !

I often put on a film chosen with care in the background to set the mood, and I listen to different music (the chieftains, instrumentals...).

JGO: What part of designing a new character is the most fun? What part is the most difficult?

JBM: The most fun: the sketch! Finding the pose, the idea is really fun. It's the moment I prefer best because it's so alive. And after that I find pleasure in creating the textures that are found in the details of my work. The details of the faces and clothes of little people, the animals, I would be able to spend hours and hours to find the perfect color with the perfect shade and light of the skin, a cloth, a bell, a big schnoze (I learned this word in Baltimore ^^) of a goblin who appreciates some good whisky. Some will say that I'm a kind of geek... sure they are so right !

The most difficult : to know very sharply when I have to stop before going too far out before it's too late and that the illustration is missed for me. I'm not so confortable with organizing big scenes: large decor with characters. I tend to prefer little intimate scenes. I would like to have much time to work on it. Unfortunately, the realisation of a book doesn't give me the opportunity.

JGO: Are there any character designs that you have done that are your favorites?

JBM: Dunlee Darnan, the cover of Celtic Faeries, the illustration which won the silver award in Spectrum 16. The pig which is pulling the alambic under the rain, Whiskey Man,
Ragnarok le grand Dragon which has been unfortunately misprinted in the book. The original oil is really full of details but in the book it seems that it's a bad gouache quality.

JGO: Who are some of your favorite character designers that are working today?

JBM: A lot as usual! Iain McCaig, the guys of the Weta Workshop (Paul Tobin ...),
Peter de Sève, Aleksi Briclot, Nicolas Marlet who worked for Kung Fu panda and How to Train Your Dragon (Dreamworks), Alan Lee of course, Chris Sanders (Lilo and Stitch...), Glen Keane (Tarzan, Pocahontas, The Little Mermaid), Jin Kim (Tangled)... etc. etc. etc. I wish I knew all of the them in person. 

To be continued in Part 2! 
 All images on this post copyright Jean-Baptiste Monge

For my students

This post doesn't have much of anything to do with character or creature design. It will only take my students a few seconds to realize who the animator behind this beautiful short film is; it's Ryan Woodward, the original instructor of the classes that I've taken over from him at AAU.

Thought of You from Ryan J Woodward on Vimeo.

Ryan says The birth of “Thought of You” came from my desire to unite several of my passions into one art piece.  Figurative works, 2d animation, EFX animation, and contemporary dance.  Put all three of these forms together to support a theme centered around the complexities of intimate relationships…and whalaa, “Thought of You” is born!

Rather than creating a narrative animated piece that communicates a well defined story, this piece allows for each individual who views it to to experience something unique and personal that touches their own sensibilities."

When I view this piece I interpret it several different ways; a story of loneliness, dreams, unrequited love, shattered illusions, fleeting joy and utimately heartbreak and loss....but up until the 2:30 mark it could be viewed differently; we dance in and out of one another's lives; sometimes intentionally, sometimes by chance. We can pass through like a comet, burning brightly then flaming out of sight in what seems like moments, or remain in one another's orbit for a lifetime. I hope that you enjoyed our time together as much as I did! These industries are small, and there's a good chance that you will meet with your fellow students again some day in the future, if you stay on your chosen path. One last bit of advice; life has a funny way of throwing things at us that temp us away from the pathway that we've chosen for ourselves. If you have a dream now is the time for it, not "someday" as someday gets further and further away while the world spins madly on. My older students can back me up on this one! So give it all that you have now; grab the opportunities that fly by, including every opportunity to learn and grow as an artist. Dreams can be turned into reality, and I hope that they all are for you. In the meantime, enjoy the dance!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Model Sheets 101-Part 2

We continue with our overview of model sheets as my students head into the last few days on their final projects. Part one can be found here.

Expression Model Sheets are sometimes specially created as such, but often are compiled from scene samples, both in rough form and from final line/ clean up drawings.

Note how some of these sheets include full body poses. Body language can add enormously to an expression. Just check out the body language of these characters and notice how well the action line and gestures harmonize with the facial expressions:

Often times when two characters appear together frequently throughout a film, a duel model sheet featuring both characters can be created.

Obviously there are several formats for creating an engaging and effective expression model sheet. One thing you DO NOT want to do is line a bunch of heads up like a template and simply draw a different expression on each:

Instead, vary the view to correlate with the emotion you are portraying. Head cocked to the side for a skeptical sideways glace or curiosity, head lowed in shame, sadness, shyness, or anger, head raised with pride, laughter, or indignation, and so forth. Some expression are best shown in a three quarter view, some from the side, others from a near front view or full body pose. Always experiment to find the best way to convey the emotion you are illustrating or animating.

The Comparative Size Model Sheet  (sometimes called a "Character Line Up Model Sheet") is just that; a line up of characters who appear together in a film or sequence that provides comparative size reference: