Artist Spotlight: Jess Morris, Bjarne Hansen and Evgeni Tomov

MUSE had the opportunity to interview leading animators Jess Morris, Bjarne Hansen and Evgeni Tomov for our article on animations: “2D animation is not dead, say animators.” Here are the rest of the interviews, which didn’t make it into the article.

MUSE had the opportunity to interview leading animators Jess Morris, Bjarne Hansen and Evgeni Tomov for our article on animations: “2D animation is not dead, say animators.” Here are the rest of the interviews, which didn’t make it into the article.

Jess Morris is an artist and animator. Her works include Rango (2011), Iron Man 2 (2010) and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides as a junior artist.

MUSE: When did you discover your passion for animations and illustrations?

JM: Since I grew up drawing and painting all of the time, I knew I would grow up to do something in the art field. I just wasn’t entirely sure what. I loved cartoons and movies, so it would make sense that I would go on to do animation. But quite honestly, I didn’t know that job existed! There just aren’t any animators in Wisconsin! Once I watched the extras on Finding Nemo and learned there was a place that made these movies, I ventured out to California to follow a dream I never knew I had.

How did you get involved with Rango? Was there a demo reel process you had to submit?

JM: I got hired at ILM for Iron Man 2. I am sure already being in the studio helped me get onto Rango. But since Rango is a feature – character driven – I am sure my demo reel helped a lot since it was all character work at the time. To get into ILM though, I had to submit my demo reel and resume. I then got a call to come in for an interview!

Are there any insights you can give about the process of making Rango?

JM: The process of Rango was quite unique! The director, Gore Verbinski, had the actors act out their lines as if they were performing in a play rather than just reading them into a microphone. This gave the audio a lot of life and also gave us animator an excellent reference to study! I took this reference, plus my own reference I would act out, and would come up with a performance that would work in the sequence of the film and also, hopefully, capture some of the actor’s characteristics.

Do you have any advice for aspiring animators/artists out there who want to work on these types of projects/pursue animations as a career?

JM: Just keep going at it! Learn everything you can and never stop being a student. Soak in everything you can from people around you; books, magazines, blogs, etc. When you animate, start from the basics and work your way to more complicated pieces, such as dialogue. It’s extremely important to have a solid foundation to build on. People-watching has to become second nature. Having this internal library to pull from will be your most valuable tool. And most importantly, live life! It’s hard to come up with stories and ideas if you don’t get out there and experience things! All of my ideas have come from real life in one way or another. And don’t forget to have fun! You’re animating!

Bjarne Hansen, who currently lives and works in Berlin, Germany, was the Art Director of the Academy Award nominated film The Illusionist. His other range of works include Quest for Camelot, Jungle Jack 1 and 2 and other illustrative works such as coloring for DC Comics “Superman For All Seasons” art by Tim Sale.

MUSE: When did you discover your passion for animations and illustrations?

BH: As a kid, I was drawing like any other kid, and then over the time I began to see myself drawing for a living. From that point on, I started to think of what and where I wanted to go. I then got to be a member of a little studio in the town where I was living. We had a tiny space and too many to share it with, but it was great. We were all, with one exception, in the start of our path in getting good at drawing. Sitting there made me wish stronger in making a living as an artist.

Some years later when I was done with art school, I moved to Copenhagen to start my living as an illustrator/comic artist. And for the first half of that year of living there, I just did what I fancied to do. After four years of being in art school, it was brilliant to sit in a studio and just draw my own stuff and work on projects for the fun of it. I was enjoying the time with great artist I shared studio with like Peter Snejbjerg, Teddy Kristiansen, Jan Solheim, Mordøn Smet and Peter Kielland Brandt – to name a few.

I then got in contact with A-film, a Copenhagen based animation company, that at that time were working on [an] animation feature, ‘Jungle jack 1.’ In the Stone Age when I started, we still worked with sables, airbrush and real colors. A desk that was just a desk – unplugged. For several years I worked on and off for A-film as a background painter. While on the side and in between films, I were working on own projects and doing jobs for publishers and advertising agencies.

The Illusionist was nominated for an academy award; what are your thoughts or reaction to having this type of animated film acknowledged and nominated? 

BH: I think that’s great and I’m very proud to have been on that film, but then hasn’t Sylvain Chomet gotten a nomination for his other films as well? He deserves it. From a visual point of view, he has aimed at mixing the classic mainstream 2D qualities with an art-house sensitivity that makes his films such a treat for the eye.

Are there any insights you can give about the process of making an animated film such as ‘The Illusionist’-such as the hand drawings to the conceptual?

BH: In between 2006 and 2008, I was so fortunate to work on Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist. The first two month, I mostly worked as the BG (background) painter, then as the head of Art department with the responsibility to oversee the productions of BGs and layout; also, clean-up, even though that was in good hands of Isobel Stenhouse and Bjørn Aschim (he did the beautiful cityscape drawings you see through-out the film).

When I came, they had been working for some time in making the animation and were slowly starting the actual production of cleaning up the layouts. Evgeni Tomov had been working on the project on development as well on the animation, but had left midway through the animation before I came on board. Still, he did circa the first third of the roughs for the animation and Pierre-Henry Laporterie had taken over where he left.

The black/grey/white animation worked as a blueprint for the film. I do hope that it will be included in the DVD release so people can see that the film was done twice – first a rough drawn and posed black/grey/white film and then as a colour version, which I had worked on. Bjørn had done some colour work but I after a short time, when I started doing the color-keys for the BG’s, I did it mostly from scratch keeping only little from what was done before – and was a dream job to do.

First, I had those great drawings to work from and then a handful of great artist to paint the BG’s. Anne Hofmann, whom I think did close to 100 BG´s out of circa 350, did some of my favourite BG’s in the film. I enjoyed staying in Edinburgh for those close to two years I did, and it definitively added to the experience, where a big part of the film’s scenes took part just out the windows, where I lived and worked. And I’m proud of have been part of that film. I got some good friends, among them the assisting director Paul Dutton that wrote the Fiddler Pieces story – another great project. I do hope I will make it to the screen some day.

What is your particular aesthetic would you say?

BH: I have none. I do have a slight tendency to naturalism, but I work to get away from that. The artist[s] I like the most, don’t care that much about how things look, it’s more the emotional impact you get from looking at a picture. So I try to stay free of the reference I find, not to think too much, just go by gut feeling.

Do you have any advice for aspiring animators/artists out there who want to work on these types of projects and pursue animations as a career?

BH: Work hard. I understand that in America a lot of new artist are getting out and into the industry every year and they all have a strong urge to get work. So the salary gets lower. But then, I have never worked in the American animation industry so I really don’t know. But ultimately, hard work and a clear strong vision of what you want to do with your skills seem to me like a way to go.

Evgeni Tomov is a production designer, conceptual artists and illustrator specializing in animated films and shorts. His range of works include The Tale of Despereaux, The Triplets of Belleville, The Illusionist, and Barbacoa.

MUSE: When did you discover your passion for animations and illustrations?

ET: I was always interested in drawing and particularly book illustration. I started drawing when I was just 4, and it was my favorite type of fun.

When I grew up [I] studied fine arts and illustration and ironically, initially back then did not have much interest in animation. I was more interested in creating children’s books illustrations and my own drawings and prints. Illustration came [in] handy later on when I had to create an animated world with a stylistic identity and consistent feel and atmosphere – almost like approaching a children’s book but much bigger and complicated. [T]he first time it crossed my mind that I could actually find artistic satisfaction in the animation field was when I saw Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas in early 90s – I said to myself: it actually might be pretty cool to work on [an] animated movie like this one! I really liked it and the opportunity came by chance in 1995 when the director Sylvain Chomet saw my portfolio and offered me to work on his first short (24 minutes) The Old Lady and the Pigeons painting backgrounds and assisting his art director at the time Nicolas de Cressy. Other projects followed, and I have been working actively in this business for 16 years now.

Are there any insights you can give about the process of making an animated film?

ET: From my perspective (one of a Production Designer and Art Director) the challenges are different from these of a director or an animator. I have to create the visual style and feel of the film, the overall aesthetic, which, of course, has to work for the particular story and resonate with the director’s vision. We start with visual references and broad concepts gradually dialing in and defining the style and along the way developing some of the main environments and characters. Ideally, there should be a period of visual development when you just try ideas and if there is a bigger team, the artists throw in ideas and even if they are not entirely relevant, they help define the path and enrich the vision. Then we enter the pre-production when we start developing the concrete designs of the characters (with turnarounds and hero poses), as well [as] work more specifically on the look of the main locations. Often we don’t have the luxury to stretch the creative process over long enough time, and we have to combine development with pre-production or even production – pretty stressful and challenging, but the schedules and budgets are not always reasonable. 

As we go into pre-production and further, we bring more artists on board and form the Art Department, which handles all the visual development and design of every small thing we see on the screen – [it’s] created from scratch. Unlike live action, you cannot go to the shop or online and buy what you need, neither can you scout existing locations for the shoot; everything is virtual and therefore created by artists.  The whole process of designing an animated film is long and complicated, and I am afraid it cannot be covered in a comprehensive way here; it would take quite a while! 

What is your particular aesthetic would you say?

ET: I am particularly interested in making the animated movies atmospheric and believable, so the audience would immerse in what is happening on the screen. In other words, you would want to create movies with a soul and not just a fiesta for the eyes. A movie should be a surprise and hopefully fresh and new – story-wise, as well as visually. My personal taste leans towards more harmonious color palette and storybook look rather than sci-fi, futuristic and high tech look. I guess this comes from the fact that I grew up with richly illustrated storybooks and not with comic books and graphic novels.

Do you have any advice for aspiring animators/artists out there who want to work on these types of projects/pursue animations as a career?

ET: Learn to draw well and develop your visual skills; don’t rely only on the new software and CG tools to do the work for you. I see a lot of portfolios with very similar and predictable digital aesthetic and artwork created with more input from the computer tools rather than from the artist. Find your own face and style!

UYEN CAO can be reached at arts@theaggie.org.