Friday, October 14, 2005




1. Tell me a little bit about yourself, about your life? Where did you go to school, and what classes did you study? What helped prepare you to become the artist that you are today?

My name is Robin Joseph, and I come from a very very small town from the coast of South India. I am very much an Indian (lost the funny accent) but still have a tan of Brown and unexplained cravings for fish curry. Mostly all my schooling was done in India. Being a southern state, and being from a very traditional family background, finding artistic training was always tough. You are born into a state where you are expected to either go become an Engineer or a Doctor. A very Sectarian mentality... well which my family shared to a certain extent as well. So growing up I never really had access to formal art training.
Art was the last thing my family wanted to see me do. But I did use to draw a lot... and I did receive a lot of encouragement for it. Everyone sort of expected me to enroll for engineering or medicine and pursue art as more or less like a hobby. Things changed before high school. I got picked up by a south Indian animation studio, namely Ajit Rao( who went on to become one of my best friends and mentor over the next two years of high school) . Due to Ajit's persistence, the studio heads decided to give the freedom to a 15 year ol squeeker to come and sit along with animators for two months of the summer. It was sort of like a very informal internship...and boy was I excited. I was given my own desk and animation table and lots of paper... and they just let me draw. It was great. So i was completely certain by this point that I wanted to make a living out of drawing. I was introduced to names like Walt Stanchfield, and Rew Loomis, Glen Vilppu, Glen Keane and schools like Sheridan and Cal Arts. It was too much to take in at first. But boy it was information I was looking for ..and here it was. In high school, (since we didn’t have art high schools down south) I opted for the humanities stream (courses were psychology, sociology, politics, economics and literature).
The main reason I opted for this stream was, well this was the easiest one to get through. A no brainier... just lots of text and how u presented an argument. It bought me a lot of time to sit home and just draw. It was almost a foolish perseverance to just draw... not exactly knowing how to get to or break into animation. I complied all the work during my final year of high school... and send off a portfolio to Sheridan and Cal Arts. Two schools and I had run out of money for applications. But thankfully one of them paid off. Sheridan College in Canada accepted me. (Which I suspect was still because of the money they'd make from an international student in three years... ha-ha) Anyways... after three months of going and applying for bank loans and applying for visas and what not. I ended up in Canada. I was very disheartened of the process... and even when I finally got to Canada I only had money for one semester. After a Christmas of looking at the snow from indoors and panicking of what to do next, an education loan came to my rescue. and three years went by with struggle, a lot of sleepless nights( i should say sleepless and hungry nights). How did all this help my drawing? Well drawing was my little sanctuary. It made me go through those three years at Sheridan and my hectic times in India like a breeze... and always kept a smile on my face.

2. How do you go about designing a character, and what goes through your mind, from start to end?

I think I took all the space with the last question there. Ha-ha (sincere apologies). Designing a character is not an independent freestanding thing. It has to have a purpose. It has to have a reason for existing. In animation a character is designed to carry the story forward. Animation is a visual medium. The ideas have to work visually. A lot of things influence design. The most important being story. Stylization in design has to be employed with a purpose.
I remember when i was in high school; I had just discovered the Hellboy comics. Man, i was in a fix to draw everything like Mike Mignola. Probably the stupidest thing i started to dictate on my self was the limitation of a style. It hindered free thought. Even without knowing i had closed myself off to any new idea. It took me a while to get off this fix. I personally don't think there is this one ultimate rulebook to design characters. It changes from one character to another. There are some characters that just work off the top. They naturally come to you...there are others you gotta work and work at. You just don't get it for the longest while.
A lot of luxury in design also comes with the money in the project. For features, the budgets are bigger, investment in pre-production seems more. When I was doing development on my first feature project... the design went through considerable change as the script and characterizations of the character evolved. The same time I had friends working on a spot advertisement, where they had to come up with the designs by the end of the week. For some of the freelance work i did, such as spot illustrations...there were deadlines of a couple of hours. Well, in those cases you just hope and pray that what your doing does work and you do get paid... But once I started my professional career (which I have to remind is only a few months old) I have been given the luxury of time to sit and explore character.
Work to the story, and for the story. I am encouraged a lot to think of character interaction and the purpose for the design being a certain way. Definitely, story and design are two things that do go hand in hand, A LOT. One carries the other forward and vice versa. All these being said, you don't want every single film out there to look the same either. So of course doing something distinguishable and interesting will be appreciated. To put it into light. I love 'Triplettes of Belleville', but I also love 'My neighbor the Yamadas'. Two, very distinct films in terms of style. Adaptability is a virtue for a designer and an asset. I am not saying a designer should be able to draw like anyone and everyone. I respect people who are known for their individual sensibility of design. You should be able to bring something unique to the table. but also be open to ideas and embrace it. So to wrap up that question. When I personally design a character there is no rule of thumb or formula I follow. Usually it is a struggle, and for me a lot of learning. The thing I am trying to remind myself is it is 'CHARACTER DESIGN’. Not simply a pretty picture. A drawing with story telling capability. I'd like to cite the work of Tadahiro Uesugi as an example (a Japanese illustrator with storytelling in every single drawing) or Bill Peet Or Joe Grant for that matter. For me it is a very slow learning curve. But I am slowly learning bit by bit. P.S: I am still a huge Mignola fan.

3. What do you think really helps you out in designing a character?

An open mind. First and foremost. Everything thrown your way might not be exactly up one's alley. Design can be challenging. But is rewarding as hell when u get that one drawing you look at and say. That’s it. That’s totally that character. Sometimes it is a process to get there. I used to be a huge Fellini fan (still am) and used to look at a lot of his photographs and films for inspiration. But the best inspiration has to be life itself. Real people you meet leaves more of a confirmed mark in your head.
After all character design is about adding a certain dimension to a drawing. adding that degree of believability so you can look at the character perform. and feel and care about it. Miyazaki talks a lot about how each and every character in his film is based off some one he knows. An employee, a good friend or his friend's 10 year old daughter for that matter. When you design characters from life. you get that certain sense of appeal and dimension which just breathes an altogether new life into things and makes it a lot more interesting to watch. I am not talking about doing a caricature of someone you know. But rather capture the essence of the character. I know it is abstract in explanation. But it is actually kind of abstract in application too. Keeping a regular sketchbook or journal is one way to preserve free thought on a lavish scale. I find it very helpful. Also expose yourself to films, theatre, music and what not. Art is so diverse. It cuts through a lot of boundaries. There is no specific pool that gives you guaranteed enlightenment and inspiration.

4. From your own experience and maybe from some people that you know, what should we put in our portfolio and what should we not?

When I came out of school, I knew I wanted to get into design and specifically character design. Over three years of animation school, the thing I realized the most was that the reason I got into animation was because of drawing. I didn’t get into it because I wanted to animate. I love animation and admire it a lot. (2d, cg, stop motion, cut out, glass, sand what not)... But my first love was drawing. I had to draw. Be it a Cg world or not. Over three years I decided I didn’t want to battle to find a 2d animation job in the current industry, but rather battle to find a design job. My final year portfolio was purely a folio illustrating character. Everything from the sketchbook pages I chose to the way I laid out and designed my work presentation was geared towards design. FOR ME IT WAS A HUGEEEEEEE RISK. Basically that shuts down every other job that might come your way...and I thought I was stupid to do it, especially when there is a fat loan behind you. But I kept with it...and it seems to have worked so far. Perseverance in your portfolio is important.
I do not advice or recommend anyone to do an all around decent portfolio of the 5 pages of life drawing, two pages of character design, three pages of animal drawings, three pages of caricatures three pages of layouts...Dear lord no. If you whole heartedly know specifically what you want to do then tailor your portfolio towards that.(story/design/animation whatever it be) It pays off, and when it does you get the biggest darnest smile you've ever had. Finding work in design can be a bit of a task. Please don't be disheartened. Draftsmanship is one huge thing, but so is a tactile tangible drawing board. Be diverse and promote diverse work samples. It's great if you can push for a signature sensibility of design through all your work though. What I mean is, instead of having one of page of designs looking like Mignola, another page looking like glen Keane and another looking like Mary Blair...if you can simply present your diverse work with does bring your individuality and individual design sensibility out more.

5. What are you working on now? (If you can tell us)

I am going to shun away from this question. I am under contractual obligations which I have to respect. All I can say is I am currently doing character design for an upcoming major Feature film.

6. Where is the place you would like to work if you had a choice?

It's very hard to find a patient employer and an equally dedicated team of draftsmen and artists who are willing to help you learn and collaborate with you. At this point in my career, I’ve been very lucky to find that at the company I am in. With the way things are standing now, design is becoming more and more autonomous. It is possible to have a designer work from one corner of the globe and network and meet online. Internet has definitely revolutionized communication. The very idea that i can type away this interview from my comp at home is amazing. So it'll be great to get to such a position where you are afforded that kind of flexibility. But again, i am one for the studio system. Sitting in a room with a couple of artists provides this level of interaction results in some great design work or story work happening. Personally, i don't want to be stagnant in animation design alone. I am very excited about children's books and magazine illustration, teaching, story development, traveling what not. A lot of them professionally... and a lot of them for personal reasons and goals. So as far as a choice work space or studio, where i am at the moment seems great and simply ideal. But I wouldn’t try and dare predict my own future in an unpredictable industry. Much more than a studio name it's the people you work with that is more important. a very convoluted answer to a simple question. ha-ha

7. Who do you think are the top character designers out there?

I love the character work of Tony Fucile (he purely approaches design from a character standpoint) also he is a brilliant animator, so he understands design for animation... but I also love people like Nicolas Marlet ( I haven’t seen a lot of his work, except for in artbooks.. but he approaches design from an aesthetic and appeal standpoint). There are tons of contemporary greats out there like Peter De Seve, Pete Sohn, Louis Gonzales, Carter Goodrich, Carlos Grangel, Steven Silver... the list goes on. I don't think i could name one single amazing designer... all of them are great in their own respective ways. With Cg , design has made a huge leap...there is no more the need to hold back on something because 200 other people couldn’t draw it a certain way down the line. If the design works... they can totally pull it off with out thinking... oh god now someone has to draw this thing and clean it up 24 frames a second. Cg has opened a lot of avenues...mind you it also presents its own challenges in translation of design. But there are a ton of films coming your way through 2006 to 2008 and beyond where design is taking a huge leap forward...for the better i pray and hope.

8. How do you go about coloring the character, what tools do you use?

I do both digital and traditional. But lately I’ve found myself inclining more towards traditional. I think linearly. There are people who think purely in shapes... but I find myself helplessly thinking in line. When I realized line is just a concept and a pure interpretation of an idea, i had the hardest time wrapping my head around it. But i slowly warmed up to line again...the abstract nature also lets you experiment and play around a lot more. Once you recognize line as a concept, you find yourself a lot more freer in using it. You feel liberated. When it comes to approach, I usually pencil in the design trying to find and search what i am after. Usually I ink it...I have developed an affinity to brushes over the last couple of years. Then I try and add a wash of color... usually watercolor. It kind of grounds everything. I have a hard time adapting colors to line. It's one area i am trying to work on a lot more. Washes make it freer to play around and experiment. It seems to work for me so far. Sometimes i purely start and stop with just a ballpoint drawing. I feel it stands on it's own. So sometimes I find color obstructing design...and sometime helping it a lot. I have successfully muddied up more than a handful of designs. Where I just applied color when I should have just held back and stopped myself. Again, no rule of thumb I follow. Keep it intuitive and fun and what the design requires.

9. What part of designing a character is most fun and easy, and what is most hard?

Once again, design is an intuitive process .Technique and application can be broken down much more easily. But breaking down a pattern of thought is hard. So in terms of what is fun, easy and hard in a character... it would entirely depend on the character. Early development is great. Because, nothing has been etched in stone yet...there necessarily isn’t one direction. It can also be frustrating because you get lost a lot more. Once the style and visual direction for a film is set there's a better pathway laid for you. This stage is pretty neat as well. The hard part is taking all these drawings that work well on paper to production. If it is Cg making it work. Make the design cross borders between a 2d world and a 3d world. But this stage shouldn’t inhibit the freethinking in the earlier stages. You want to able to design and get it right. The translation and the technical challenges will follow suit later on... but shouldn’t dictate the design. For CG, I don't think the Pixar team wanted violet to have short hair because generating long hair was hard...the design of the long hair played and added a lot to her character in the film...the technical challenge was met with later on.

10. What type of tools or media do you use?

Mainly traditional media. occasionally digital. Photoshop when doing digital work. Traditional includes brush for inking, pencils...watercolors. I usually prefer a certain variety of Fabriano Paper. Fabriano Ingres (90 lbs). It's responsive and well receptive to ink and washes. But besides that usually any surface that you can make a line on. It's all fair game.

11. What wisdom could you give us, about being a character designer?

I am figuring out the wisdom part for myself at the moment...and I’ve been accruing quite a lot over the last few months. But on a side note I’d say it's a very Rewarding field. A good designer should also respect story and the purpose of design for that story.....I’d love to add that he/she should know how to capture the Hollywood celebrity voice actors face as is on paper...( but i think I’ll hold off on that one for now..)

12. If people would like to contact you, how would you like to be contacted?

I am easily reached and best reached by email.

I know everything I mentioned in this interview might be up everyone's alley. I hope I do not influence anyone in a negative fashion. Also I am obliged to say that I am speaking with very limited experience but complete passion for this medium. I respect that everyone needn't necessarily agree with my point of view. At this point these are the things I hold and give regard to and the views are my own. I sincerely thank you for giving me this opportunity. Thank you
Robin Joseph