Sunday, September 29, 2013

Those Unrealized Influences

Every creative person can cite some other creative person whose work had a major influence on them.    For me, it's Chuck Jones' cartoons.   But was he really as influential as I thought?  I don't draw or time my animation like him.  I don't steal art direction from  Maurice Noble nor animate like Ben Washam.  So really, they influenced my desire to get into the business, and I am certainly a fan, but my artistic influences came from other people, people I had not always recognized.

First, there's Jay Ward.  In 1999, I was hired to direct Fractured Fairy Tales: The Phox, the Box, and the Lox, a short that went before the live-action Dudley Do-Right Movie.  I had the honor of rummaging through Jay Ward's office for design reference material.   His daughter, Tiffany, kept the office exactly as he left it. While designing the characters for the new short,  I came to realize how much my personal drawing style was influenced by Jay Ward's cartoons.

Second, there's Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss.  While doing development artwork for Horton Hears a Who in 2004, I had the same revelation as with the Fractured Fairy Tale five years earlier.  His style came very naturally to me.  This was further reinforced while storyboarding on The Lorax in 2011.

And lastly, there's Friz Freleng.  While working on my short Chief, Your Butt's on Fire, I came to realize how much I was influenced by the humor and animation in his shorts.  And as the project proceeded into color, the influence of his DePatie-Freleng studio era art direction became clear as well.

As a child, I read all sorts of picture books and watched all kinds of cartoons on TV.  But something about the work of Ward, Geisel,  and Freleng rubbed off on me.  Being curious to see if other animation artists have had similar underrated influences, I asked some friends of FLIP about their heretofore unrealized influences.

I've always been influenced by Ronald Searle, Chuck Jones and Charles Schulz. I've always acknowledged my influences and never underrated any of them.  I'm also influenced by T. S. Sullivant, Walt Kelly, and many other cartoonists.  But Kelly and Jones were definitely influenced by Sullivant and Searle, respectively,so it goes back many generations.

My art teacher from my community college (pre-CalArts) once told me that my life drawings reminded him of Rodin's sketches. I didn't even know who Rodin was at the time… did a little research and WHAT a major disappointment when I saw his sketches! They are nothing like his sculptures!! But as the years pass, I started to understand what I think my art teacher wanted me to see. Rodin started with a general (rather blobby) idea of what he wanted to do, then he found/discovered the heart of it as he worked in his real passion of sculpting. And I LOVE his sculptures… they are like 3-dimensional rough sketches or gesture drawings - the kind that aren't necessarily perfect, but have real life in them… you know?

My drawings basically suck… but what I really love is searching out and finding the heart of the characters in a story.  I draw not so great versions of them in boards, but they come to life as I dig deeper to figure out who they are - and now, not so much drawing as writing.

Realizing that a sculptor could have an impact on how I think about story is a bit of a revelation for me… or stretch, depending on how you want to look at it... And you, Steve, just helped me figure that one out! Thanks!  I know that probably sounds like bull-shillelagh, but that's what I think.

If I had to pick ONE person, though, it'd have to be the great film production designer, Richard Sylbert.  His thought process, his artistry, and his dedication to CHARACTER above all.  How he provided a "world" for characters of the films he contributed to inhabit.  His ability to traverse the politicking between business and artistry.  And how he was able to rise above it all to create believable worlds that never got in the way of action, but contributed mightily to advancing both character and plot--with style.  

"If I've done my job right, no one will notice!"

Christ, that's hard to swallow.  But he's right.

I grew up watching lots of movies....and saw his name in the credits of a lot of films I liked.  I was into cartoons, but one day decided to look his name up in the library.  I found bits and pieces about him in many magazines, and trade papers---but little about his artwork.  I couldn't figure out WHAT he did, exactly.  I just knew he worked on a lot of films I liked:  Baby Doll, Chinatown, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Graduate....

There are MANY better artists in the world....but his unique talent of climbing into a story and working his way from the inside of character out provided ample meat for the better artists he hired to execute his vision.

Since my initial fascination, I was  lucky enough to meet him, prior to his passing.  In many cases, meeting someone you admire can be a let down, but not in this case. He was BIGGER than life, and had the eye of a wandering artist.  Our occasion to meet happened to be at Pixar (his daughter was dating one of our P.A's!), and while giving him a tour he commented "You GET to actually DESIGN everything?"  Our response was..."GET to...?  As artists in animation, We HAVE to!"  He was genuinely floored.  His mentor was William Cameron Menzies, the first credited Production Designer (Gone With The Wind), and we couldn't have been more flattered when he wrote in the introduction of his autobiography that if he and his mentor were just beginning, they 'd be working at Pixar.

I wouldn't say I "underrated" him, but I would say he  provided evidence of what we all strive for in what we do:  : CHARACTER identification with an AUDIENCE!

Simple is HARD!

Thanks Nancy, Brenda  and Ralph for sharing, and maybe introducing us to NEW influences.

Post Script -
Animator and author Frans Vischer added his thoughts on the issue:

"I can’t pin-point to just one single influential person. Walt Disney played a major role in my life. But growing up in Holland in the 60’s, where animation was a rarity on our three TV channels, and my parents never went to the movies, my early influence was comic books: Asterix and Obelix by Goscinny and Underzo, Lucky Luke by Morris, Prince Valiant by Hal Foster, and Donald Duck magazine by Carl Barks. I spent countless hours copying their wonderful drawings.
In high school I gawked over the draftsmanship of political cartoonist Jeff MacNelly, as well as his comic strip “Shoe.”

Chuck Jones’ cartoon timing took me years to fully appreciate. I met him when I was in high school in Northern California. Mr. Jones spoke at Foothill Junior college, and I lugged my projector there, (it had a small, built-in screen,) naively hoping to show him my short 8mm animated film. He kindly gave me his business card, and I sent him my film. Two weeks later he called me at home, and on his recommendation I was accepted at Cal Arts."

Post Post Script

From director Kirk Wise:
Sorry if I'm late to the party! Some of my earliest favorite cartoonists were found in the pages of those paperback reprints of old MAD comics from the 1950's. Wallace Wood, Jack Davis, Bill Elder.... their poses, expressions, and silly sight gags made me giggle for hours, to say nothing of their amazing ability to duplicate the styles of the newspaper comic strips they lampooned so mercilessly. Even the dialogue, laced with Yiddishisms this suburban white kid would only come to understand as an adult, killed me.

Years later, I learned that the real creative force behind those comics was a gent named Harvey Kurtzman. He wrote all the dialogue, and roughed out the poses and expressions for the other artists to follow. They all added their own stylistic flourishes to be sure, but when I saw Harvey's original page layouts at a comic-con in Los Angeles (and had the honor of meeting the man himself) I realized it was all him. When Harvey became ill, Tom Sito passed a get well card all around the Disney Studio, which was quickly adorned with dozens of drawings and good wishes. I felt fortunate adding my own note telling Harvey how much his work meant to me growing up.


  1. My big influences are probably not the ones I necessarily like to admit to. They include the comics I read and loved as a child. A reporter came up to me at Annecy a few years ago and said; "I know what your work reminds me of - The Beano!" I slightly grimaced - but in many ways he is right. --- Alex

  2. There is a really cool influence map going around in art community on deviantArt:

    It tends to show who artist admire, but you can also notice the pursue of the same style, feel or ideas. It's really cool way to know where you are going to realize where you take from : )