Have you ever wanted to know what is going on behind the scenes when an animation movie is being made? In this week’s interview you can find out the details from the Art Director of Blue Sky Studios, Michael Knapp.
As the Art Director of Blue Sky Studios you are responsible for many areas of making the animations. Which are the most complex parts?
For me personally, the most complex part of Art Direction is taking an idea that's conveyed in a drawing or painting, and then breaking it down across 6 to 8 different departments (modeling, materials, set assembly, fx, lighting, etc...), guiding those departments in the creation of their individual part(s), then bringing all the parts back together in such a way that it becomes the original idea now fully realized on screen. Art Direction involves understanding how each department works, being able to communicate clearly to many different types of artists and technicians of varying backgrounds what is needed of them, and knowing what you want so that you ensure that everyone is moving in the same direction.
Each step along the way during production has its complexities, but it's the interdependencies between the departments that are the trickiest to navigate.
You have brainstorming meetings before starting the actual work process. How does it go at Blue Sky Studios? Is it a chaotic scene or rather organized? ☺
The brainstorming process is really the definition of organized chaos. We're very organized about the topic or story point we're brainstorming about, but within a brainstorm session the ideas usually come fast and furious, and they quite often turn into conceptual tangents. Occasionally the tangents are just a fun diversion, but often they lead to new and unexpected ideas that we can build on. At the end of the brainstorming session, we then go back through the ideas, weed out the ones that prove less relevant, then narrow things down to the ones with the most promise. You basically welcome a certain degree of chaos in these sessions knowing that once the ideas are established, it's much easier for our artists to stay organized and focused on a clear goal conceptually in their designing and storytelling.
|“The Battle for Moonhaven” from the movie Epic (Blue Sky Studios/Fox) - Digital|
Every character is challenging in its own way, but anytime an audience already has an idea of what a character should look like because they're familiar with it from an existing book or property, there's a tremendous burden to meet and exceed their expectations. The last thing you want to do is disappoint your audience right from the beginning of your film because they don't like your interpretation of a character that they already have an attachment to. So at Blue Sky, anytime we're working from an existing property, we take great care to be faithful to the spirit of any defining artwork that may have already existed whether it's Horton Hears A Who or Peanuts or something else.
When creating an entirely new character, you have the benefit of introducing that character to your audience fresh without any preconceptions. So while the design and execution of that character might not be easy, it doesn't carry with it the same baggage of something that is preexisting.
Do you have any similarities with any of the characters that you have designed? Do animators put their own personalities into their projects/characters? ☺
I think it's almost impossible to NOT put yourself into your characters in one way or another. Character design and animation involves either drawing from your own experience or people you've observed, or you're interpreting reference of people or animals and through that interpretation you are inserting your own opinion or viewpoint.
The character from my short story NEWSBREAK from Out of Picture Vol. 1 is easily the closest to a caricature of myself, or at least how I thought of myself at one point in time.
How many steps do you need to fully create/draw a character for an animation (all movements, face sets, etc.)?
It really depends on the character and the project, whether it's a secondary or main character, the character's role in the story... We'll often do dozens of sketches just to arrive at the idea of a character that we like. Then we'll create sketches of facial expressions, action poses, details of the face, body and hands, costume design variations, hair and color. All in all, to arrive at the definitive pieces of art which encompass the approved look of a main character, many sketches are created and quite a few paintings to lock down the details which get put into the final animated character.
While making an animation movie what percentage of the drawings is made with a pencil, a digital board or computer?
Probably 80% of our artwork is created digitally. It's just easier to iterate and make changes to digital work. Most of our designers begin their thought process sketching in pencil, then scan that work and continue digitally after that. I go back and forth, personally. I prefer drawing with pencil, but I paint exclusively digitally these days.
|“Bird Racing” from the movie Epic (Blue Sky Studios/Fox) - Digital|
How long does it take to complete a whole film (from the first pencil stroke to the last finishing touches)? Do you have a lot of overtime or do you still have some free time? (There is a foosball table in the office? ☺)
A typical film takes about 3 years to complete. The fastest we ever made a movie was Ice Age: The Meltdown, and that entire process took just over one year. Epic was one of our longer projects to create and finish, and 7 or 8 years of work went into that one, but it was primarily the last 3 1/2 years of work that you see on screen. We certainly drew inspiration from the conceptualizing and exploration that took place in the four years prior, though.
When I was still a set and character designer I'd have time for a ping pong break now and then, but that hasn't really happened since I started Art Directing. My free time during the day is pretty rare. I still put in extra hours when necessary, but I really try to protect the time in my personal life as much as possible. Especially since my kids were born.
You said that a film usually takes about 3 years to finish. In that time computers could get better and better allowing new animations techniques and visual standards to be developed. In these cases do you incorporate new techniques into the developing movie or do you keep the original till the end?
It's usually disruptive to change our tools in the middle of a production. So typically these kinds of upgrades happen between shows with plenty of time to test the new tools/computers to make sure everything is compatible. It's never as simple as just buying newer faster machines.
Do you like concepts, ideas that seem to be impossible to put on the screen (as an animation)? Did you have such challenges before?
Most of the films we create seem daunting when we begin, but when we bring our team together and think about how to tackle the challenges, we always find a way. Honestly, I approach each film focused on what the story needs to have portrayed on screen, not what seems impossible or might be cool. Animation is such a flexible medium, I never worry about something being "impossible" per se, rather, I try to prioritize what parts might be difficult or easy so that we can better plan out our production. That's where I'm so fortunate to work with so many brilliant artists and technicians. Something may seem impossible when we start, but it never stays that way.
Do you have a dream project what you always wanted to do, but still hasn’t come yet?
I don't really have a single dream project. My interests are so varied, I love to have a variety of challenges in my work. That said, I would love to work on a straight-up science fiction project some day.
|Image from the short story “Newsbreak” from the comic anthology Out of Picture, Volume 1 - Digital|
At the beginning of your career you have been influenced by Disney. What do you like about Disney movies and what do you do differently at Blue Sky?
Disney films were certainly a big part of my childhood. There simply weren't very many animated films that weren't made by Disney during that period. So for a time, Disney defined what my idea of animation was or could be. Toward the end of my high school years, I began discovering animation film festivals and was exposed to animated shorts from all over the world as well some of the earliest computer animated shorts. The variety was astounding, and some of it really impacted my curiosity about what was possible both in animation and even in illustration (stylistically).
One of the things Blue Sky has always done has been to develop a very specific style for each project. There's not a "house style" that we go back to or try to stay within. Each property has its own defined look specific to its tone or story. Blue Sky also has deep roots in the illustration world. Many of our artists came from an illustration background more than a traditional animation background, and that's certainly in our DNA
You have just finished working on the new “Ice Age” movie, “The Collision Course”. What has changed compared to the previous “Ice Age” films (technically or anything else)? Did you feel the pressure to make it better than the previous “Ice Age” movies?
There is certainly always a desire to make a better film than what came before, and the advancements in technology certainly help with that. But one of my main concern is a series like this is that I don't want the audience to feel like they've seen this movie before, so a lot of time is spent finding what is new and unique to each chapter of the Ice Age franchise. In the case of Collision Course, there's a cosmic element which is new to the series, and that opened up a lot of color and design possibilities that we had a lot of fun with such as the spaceship, the giant meteor and the crystal world of Geotopia.
Do you read reviews of your films? Do you listen to children’s opinions?
I probably read more reviews than I should. Very rarely do the reviewers feel the same way as the kids in our audiences, whether good or bad. I love hearing feedback from children, though. They're usually brutally honest and you just never know what details they'll latch onto. It's always interesting to see just how much they take in. Kids are sharp.
Who is your favourite ”Ice Age” character? Which characters did you draw/design? What was the most difficult to draw?
All the Ice Age characters were designed by the great Peter de Sève. I've had a part in the execution of many of those characters in Dawn of the Dinosaurs and Collision Course, but my aim is always to preserve the spirit of his amazing designs.
I personally always find Diego to be the hardest to draw, though. Mostly because Peter's drawings of Diego are always so beautiful and dynamic, and Diego's anatomy and geometry is so specific, it's really easy for a Diego sketch to go off the rails - so to speak.
Scrat always creates a significant change in the world. Do your art projects have the same impact? ☺
Man, I hope not! Otherwise people will be coming with torches and pitchforks to take away my pencils, paints and computer! Have any of the world changes Scrat has instigated been good for anyone?
My art projects tend to be ways for me to try different things as an artist since my day to day job tends to have a bit more repetition to it. Sometimes they connect with people and find an audience, but they've been more about personal growth as an artist than anything else lately.
Do you resemble Scrat in some way? Or are you more a Manny, a Sid or a Diego, or someone else?
I would like to think I've got Scrat's tenacity, Sid's optimism and Diego's instincts and wit. But I probably have more grumpy Manny days than I'd care to admit.
Does Scrat always carry the same nut? ☺
He does! Maybe it's the only one he's ever found and that's why he's so obsessed with it?
You are an illustrator, as well. What do you prefer better: making animations or drawing illustrations?
I worked as a freelance illustrator for quite a few years before joining Blue Sky, and continued for several years after. I finally had to stop when I began art directing and had kids. There just wasn't enough time in the day for it all. I have to say, though, I don't really miss it much. Illustration is visual storytelling, but usually reduced to a single image. When creating artwork for an animated film, you have the opportunity to follow the story threads through multiple images and explore the world of the story in more detail than a typical illustration job allows. As an artist it's a lot of fun to dive down that rabbit hole and explore the best ways to tell a story visually. Plus, I get to work with a TON of amazing artists who constantly inspire me. Illustration tends to be a fairly solitary career.
“Old Man” sketchbook drawing - graphite
If you had plenty of time and could work as an illustrator, what kind of books would you like to illustrate?
I'd love to illustrate stories for young kids as well as older kids and young adults. My interests have always been toward the fantastical or conceptual. I love off-kilter humor. I love stories that really engage the imagination, connect with your heart and hold out hope for a better future.
You love music. You have even been a member of a band called “Sunday Driver” and your album “Start” is available for free download. What do music and songwriting give to you that animation/illustration does not? Did you design the band’s posters? Do you miss making music?
Ha. Wow these are old. These are just a few flyers I designed that were plastered on telephone poles and bulletin boards at record stores and coffee shops in Pittsburgh in the 90's.
I miss playing music terribly. It's been about ten years since I was in a band. I've been lucky over the years to have been able to collaborate with some incredibly talented musicians. I learned a lot about brainstorming and collaboration from playing in bands. When writing music as a band, there's a magical moment when you combine ideas from several different people and they work in a way that you never would have imagined by yourself. I love that sense of discovery, and it's very in the moment. I get that feeling to some extent working with a team on our films, but it takes place over weeks and months rather than in minutes. There's an instant feedback and engagement with the audience when playing live music that you don't get from creating artwork in a studio.
Which has been your favourite project so far? What are your plans after finishing “The Collision Course”?
Every project is so different, it's hard to compare. It might not be my favorite project exactly, but Robots will always hold a special place in my mind since it was the first film I ever worked on. It was like being back in art school to a great degree (since I had so much to learn), and it was a really formative time in my life and career. I met many of my closest friends and biggest influences during Robots. Plus, it was an incredible opportunity getting to invent an entire world and populace! It really spoiled me. Those types of projects are very rare, and it was my first. It's also been long enough that, similar to the college years, Robots lives in a bit of a golden age in my mind.
Do you have any recognizable “signature” in your works that identifies it as one of your drawings? Do you have Easter eggs in your drawings? ☺
If I do, it isn't intentional. If you've seen enough of my work you might be able to tell what's mine and what isn't, but part of my job is being a chameleon and working to the style of the film, so my drawings might look pretty different from project to project.
I wish I had time to sneak Easter eggs into all my drawings, but I'm lucky to get them done in time without trying to be sneaky!
How many sketchbooks do you have? Can we get one of them? ☺
I've got a drawer with dozens of sketchbooks from over the years. At some point, I'd really like to pull together a book of sketches to publish. That would be fun. I've never been very regimented about sketching and doodling. My sketchbooks are sporadic and I'm usually working in several at the same time. I also do a fair amount of digital sketching nowadays. I don't think I'll be parting with any of my sketchbooks anytime soon, though. ;)
Pictures by Michael Knapp
Michael's drawing for our blog: