Move with the times

If illustrators are prepared to animate their characters, they are more likely to appeal to the commercial sector. For many, it’s a natural progression

The traditional market for illustration has changed a lot in recent years. Graduates seldom earn their crust working solely for editorial clients. Instead, the onus is on expansion/ vinyl toys, T-shirt design, animation… even theatre. Illustration and animation is proving to be a particularly fruitful coupling.

‘It felt like the beginning of a new stage in my work, once I’d seen it moving,’ says illustrator Pete Fowler (known for his Monsterism cartoon universe) of his collaborations with animation production company Passion Pictures. ‘I’ve always worked on my own, but I find working with a team takes ideas and production to a level you couldn’t achieve as an individual.’

This creative potential is something the commercial and entertainment industries are more than happy to tap into, and they are constantly putting pressure on animation studios to reinvent what they do.

‘Clients are generally looking for something new, something they haven’t seen animated before,’ says Passion Pictures managing director Hugo Sands. Passion Pictures is constantly looking out for illustrators and designers whose work will translate well into moving images. The company makes a point of cultivating strong relationships with both illustrators and the agencies that represent them, frequently pitching to clients using outside illustrators’ work.

Demand for character animation is particularly high. Passion Pictures has collaborated with numerous artists, among them Fowler, Gorillaz co-creator Jamie Hewlett and illustrator Mari Chan.

‘After developing my world of characters and their environment, the next step was to make them move. I always think of how they would walk and talk, so to get involved with animation was really exciting,’ says Fowler. Using his designs, Passion Pictures developed an entire series of Kia car commercials. The first ads, entitled Knickers and Bus Stop, were directed by Pete Candeland in computer-generated animation. The third, Sportage (also directed by Candeland) combines CG animation with live action. The final spot, directed by Mike Mort, uses stop-frame animation.

‘Pete regarded himself very much as the designer,’ says Sands of Fowler’s input on Kia. ‘The director, Candeland, would do a storyboard, indicating the kind of images that we’d need, then Pete [Fowler] would develop the characters, backgrounds and various accessories.’

Singling out the Bus Stop ad, Sands explains how Fowler supplied images from a number of different angles. ‘These were then given to a computer graphics artist to build as 3D models. You then had someone sculpting the actual shape, a specialist rigger putting a virtual skeleton in it with all the controls that the animator needed… someone else specialised in lighting, another person specialised in doing the textures, and that was all done in-house.’

Passion Pictures was also involved in bringing Hewlett’s virtual band Gorillaz to life. ‘That was kind of a reversed process. We were working for him, rather than him working for us as a designer,’ says Sands. In this instance, traditional animation techniques were employed. Detailed storyboards drawn by Hewlett were blown up and the characters traced from the original drawings. ‘It starts small, and gradually you’ll have a whole crew of animators, CG artists, compositors, editors, production managers, a live action crew, so the process could involve about 50 to 60 people,’ adds Sands. ‘Sometimes this whole building was just full of people working on Gorillaz.’

But it doesn’t have to be that complicated. Animators at Shynola set up their own production company in their north London flat. Now based in a small studio in Hackney, the four produce animated promos and commercials. Their clients include artists such as Unkle, Radiohead, Beck and Blur. ‘Our time is consumed with animation, so the illustration side of our work has waned slightly,’ says director Richard Kenworthy. ‘If we don’t come up with a style it has to come from somewhere, and we never want to do the same thing twice, so it’s interesting to work with different people.’

Shynola collaborators include artist David Shrigley and illustrator Fiona Hewitt. Shrigley was brought on board for the making of Blur promo Good Song. ‘The humour in David’s work is great,’ says Kenworthy, ‘so it was important to get him involved in the content.’

Initially, claims Kenworthy, Shrigley found the collaborative process difficult. ‘It was weird for him, talking about things theoretically, instead of sitting down and drawing,’ he explains. ‘One big alteration David made was to change the two main characters, and that made us come up with new ideas until we had a story that worked.’

At this stage Shrigley’s role became more typical: drawing the artwork that would be used to piece together the animation. Shynola then made an animatic to check the edit worked with the song. ‘Once the shots were decided, we got David to do the proper artwork,’ says Kenworthy. ‘After that he went home and we animated it.’ The Shynola team believe Good Song is a truly collaborative effort. ‘I think we managed the perfect hybrid,’ says Kenworthy. ‘There’s definitely our humour, our editing and some of our storytelling, but it’s recognisably David’s work, it’s true to his style and sense of humour.’

Shynola was careful to ensure Shrigley’s intellectual property was contractually protected. Illustrators who haven’t worked in commercial animation before would be well advised to do the same. ‘David has deals with other book publishers,’ explains Kenworthy, ‘so we didn’t want Parlophone to put out Blur T-shirts with his imagery on them. We always try to get a really watertight contract, it’s definitely a tricky area,’ he comments, adding, ‘You always think of George Lucas retaining his rights to the Star Wars figures and becoming a billionaire. You just never know, do you?’

Fowler adds, ‘If a company wants to own copyright outright then it has to be looked at in terms of how much they will use the property and for how long. It’s good to know where you stand on these points before you proceed with projects.’

Aligning yourself closely to one brand is also a dilemma. Advertising clients may be reluctant to commission an illustrator whose style is already synonymous with another brand. Nonetheless, ad campaigns can be lucrative to a jobbing illustrator, and offer great scope for experimentation in other media. ‘Fowler now has a library of techniques and effects that have been used with his designs,’ says Sands. ‘Through experimentation he can see the potential for other projects.’ In fact, Fowler is developing a pilot series (working title World of Monsterism) with Steve Coogan’s production company, Baby Cow.

As for Hewlett, he’s gone from drawing 2000AD and Tank Girl to creating virtual band Gorillaz with Blur frontman Damon Albarn. With Gorillaz, Hewlett’s vision is implemented on every level, from the image and personalities of the band, through to sleeve artwork, merchandising, website, pop promos and live performances.

Hewlett is collaborating with Albarn again on the stage adaptation of Chinese legend Monkey: Journey to the West. Premiering at the Manchester International Festival in June, this circus opera reportedly features Chinese acrobats, martial arts performers, Shaolin monks and singers from the Peking Opera. Hewlett is applying his skills as an illustrator to a whole new world of media and, importantly, to a much broader audience. ‘It’s about designers and illustrators working across anything that’s visual,’ says Sands. ‘Animation is a good way into that, I think that’s why illustrators find it so exciting.’

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