Dan Berry: This is Make It Then Tell Everybody. I’m Dan Berry. Graham Annable and I got together to talk about his career in comics and animation, co-directing an Oscar nominated stop-motion feature film, and getting into that delicious mood. This is Make It Then Tell Everybody. Hello Graham Annable, how are you doing?
GA: Good, I’m doing fine today Dan.
DB: Excellent. So we’ve just been talking before we hit record, and you’ve just come off the back of how many months publicity for a film you had something to do with?
GA: A lot longer than I’d thought. It ended up being about seven months of travelling and promoting, and as one friend put it, schmoozing and then being schmoozed as it progressed. So it’s been the craziest seven months of my life, for sure.
DB: Schmooze unto others as others schmooze unto you… something?
GA: Yeah, it goes back and forth. There are different phases. At the beginning you’re the one schmoozing everyone as best as you can, and then later on, if things go well, then suddenly everybody’s schmoozing you, and it’s this weird system that everybody seems to accept.
DB: So this is for a feature film that you were, kind of, in charge of, called The Boxtrolls.
DB: I say ‘kind of’ in charge of, and it sounded like I’ve just diminished your role entirely there. I apologise!
GA: No, diminish away. It was a position I never expected to be in, to be honest. I started out as the head of story on the project a few years ago, and suddenly found myself co-directing it with another fellow, Tony Stacchi, and it has been the wildest time in my career that I’ve ever spent. I never could have predicted the intensity of all of it.
DB: So, can we work backwards a little bit? Let’s have a think about how to do this. So you’ve just finished all the publicity for The Boxtrolls, and you said that the relationship has turned from schmoozer to schmoozee, (laughs). So can you explain why that is, why that relationship changes, and who’s that relationship with? Who is being schmoozed and… too much schmoozing. I can’t… I’ve lost the word.
GA: I know it’s hard to say, I know. I started tripping on it too. Well, you know, it was a first time experience for me, so take it with a grain of salt, this is just through my eyes, and having lived through it for one time. At the beginning, you know, you’re just promoting the film. You’re working up to that release date when the movie comes out, you want to create the biggest buzz and noise you can, so you do so many interviews. I remember the one…
DB: (Laughs). I apologise for this one.
GA: Oh no, it’s fine! This is great. This is much more relaxing. There was one day in LA, right in the middle of the junket, just a week before the release of the film, we must have done 60 to 70 TV interviews in one day.
DB: Hot dog! What? Six-zero to seven-zero?
GA: Yeah, it was the craziest thing. Each interview was about four minutes in length, and we were just set up, me and Tony, the other director, just sitting in chairs with the little backdrop behind us in a hotel room, and they would just file in journalists, like, one after the other. They’d do four minutes of questions, and then out they go. They leave the seat, the next journalist comes in, and it went on from morning ‘til night, to cover as many people and get the word out as much as possible. You have to be in constant schmooze, promotion mode of just getting people to be interested in the film, wanting to see it, creating the buzz and all the rest of it, and then once the movie comes out you get a lot of interviews with journalists who want to know why you did what you did, or what’s the reasons and all the behind the scenes.
DB: What’s the meaning of this!
GA: (Laughs). Exactly! You think of stuff really fast on your feet, because it’s been so long you barely remember anymore. You do a period of that, and then if you’re lucky enough, and we were, award seasons start to rear their heads, and you’ve got to go back into real promotional schmooze mode, where you’re having to meet the right people and make sure the right folks are talking about your film. You’re going to all these events and you’re giving a lot of… oh, and in between all through that, when the film’s out you do a lot of Q&As with audiences, and that’s a real fun thing actually to do. You’re just constantly answering questions. One of the coolest things doing a kids’ feature, is that you get to do a lot of Q&As with kids in the audience, and far and away that was the most fun. I mean, I really love talking to other animators and filmmakers of course, but…
DB: But they say the darnest things!
GA: You know, everybody’s looking for deeper meanings and all kinds of sophisticated things, and with kids it’s just straight up, like, you’re just getting their gut reactions. They don’t have any other ulterior motives beyond anything other than enjoying the movie, or not enjoying the movie, so the types of questions and the energy that kids have, I mean, there’s just no denying it. It was really fun and gratifying to do a lot of those Q&As with kid audiences. Then once, if again, if you’re lucky enough and the award seasons kick in and your nominated for a bunch of stuff, then suddenly it flips, and you turn into the person that everyone else is schmoozing, because you might be that winner, and you might be that important film that everybody wants to make sure they’ve got some kind of connection to.
DB: They want to be hanging off those coattails.
GA: I guess, I mean, not to sound arrogant, but it is a funny system how it just, sort of, flip-flops and everything. Then the coolest thing for me personally, because I got into comics and I got into cartoons because I liked being the person in the back of the room drawing on stuff and not getting a lot of attention. I mean, you want your artwork, obviously, to get the attention and all the rest of it, but me personally, I don’t want to be the guy in the front having to give the talks and do the speeches.
DB: Wearing the crown and the cape and, you know, waving a sceptre everywhere!
GA: (Laughs). It never quite got to that point.
DB: It could have done!
GA: Close at certain points. You know, you find your comfort zone doing it, but it was amazing that once the final award – the Oscars was the last one. Once that finished and we hadn’t won it, all the attention and all the focus on you, just instantly disappears. It’s like a black hole just ‘whoosh’, gone.
DB: Cold potato.
GA: Yeah, no one’s emailing, no one’s calling, no one’s trying to arrange interviews, and you’ve had seven months of constant focus on you and on the film, and it just immediately turns into a void. I loved it! I was so excited. I feel like I’m finally… it’s been about a month later now, and I’m finally feeling like my brain and my personality, everything’s beginning to return back to a normal level, because it’s just been the wildest ride.
DB: Oh boy. So again, let’s keep working backwards then. So you made a film, and you were the co-director of it. Now I think comics an animation and computer games, I think they share this triangle of perception with the people who like them. I think sometimes that people, they’ll read a comic and they’ll pick it up, and it’s fun, and it’s easy to read, and they assume, ‘Oh, making comics is fun and easy.’ Or they’ll play a computer game, ‘Oh, this is fun and challenging and all the rest of it. I guess this must be fun and easy to make,’ and the same with animation. ‘Gosh, that was a lot of fun.’ So animation, I guess the process is, you write a script, you do some storyboards, and then you just finish a film.
GA: Yeah, pretty much.
DB: Is it more complicated than that? (Laughs).
GA: You know, depending on the medium and the form of animation, things get a little more complicated once the story reels are done, but it’s funny you say that. I’ve been working Laika Animation now for almost ten years. I started as a story artist on Coraline, and then storyboarded on ParaNorman, and then, like I said, sort of unexpectedly ended up co-directing on The Boxtrolls, and up to that point, yes I knew there was a lot of work beyond the story department that was done to finish the film, but I have to say that walking into the co-directing job, I did have a bit of the perception that once you figured it out in the story reels and you had, you know, essentially the film all drawn out…
DB: They just need to do it.
GA: The heavy lifting’s done. The big thinking stuff is over, and you just need to execute.
DB: So you take your storyboards, and you post them through this mailbox, and then wait 18 months and a film pops out the other end.
GA: Yeah, pretty much. It was so much more involved, I had no idea. I think some of it is definitely specific to stop-motion in general. The process of stop-motion is insane. I’ve worked in CG, and I’ve worked in 2D, but I didn’t have a true grasp of what’s involved with stop-motion until I ended up being in this co-direction position, and suddenly saw day-to-day, the amount of detail and the amount of decisions that just get mounted on everybody, and how much the film evolves beyond that point of the story reels. You start to recognise why they didn’t follow your boards. There’s just so many realities that, as board artists, we can’t predict and we can’t get there. It’s just all about pushing that ball down the field and getting it to the next step, so somebody else can pick it up, and they’re going to slightly change direction because they’re going to have to. There’s going to be some unforeseen reason why, and again with stop-motion, there are so many physical elements working against you all the time. Some of the weirdest stuff I never would have thought of, they constantly deal with something they call ‘set swell’. No other form of animation has to worry about set swell. Stop-motion does.
DB: Can I guess what it is? I don’t know what it is, I’m going to try and guess. Is it underneath the hot lights, everything expands or sags in some way?
GA: Yes, but it isn’t the hot lights that are usually the culprit. For us, at least in Portland, Oregon, it’s the weather. We were in a massive warehouse, and if we get a drastic drop or rise in temperature, as hard as they try to regulate the temperatures in the building, you just can’t do it perfectly, and so sets will either contract or expand depending on what’s happened, and they’ve always got to shoot these safety plates. There are always these things, and the animator won’t notice until the shot’s pretty much done that, ‘Oh, wait a minute, the bricks in the background are undulating.’ There’s just, all these weird physical things that are always working against you in stop-motion.
DB: I guess you work on that glacial time scale, aren’t you? So you’re not going to notice this geology moving.
GA: No, not until it’s already happened and it’s a little too late. There’s just all these weird little factors that play into it, that make it a little crazy.
DB: So how did you come to work as a storyboard artist then?
GA: Well, comics. Comics has been my gateway into animation all the way through. I think back all the way to getting into Sheridan College, I grew up in Canada. I wasn’t completely sure what I was going to do when I was finishing high school. I really thought I was going to do something in biology or sciences or something, I didn’t even know specifically what, but I enjoyed it a lot.
DB: Yeah, me too.
GA: Or possibly art, and I looked at all my textbooks for biology. They were covered in doodles. I mean, just completely coated in doodles, and I thought, ‘You know what? Maybe I’m just more naturally inclined towards art?’
DB: ‘This is trying to tell me something!’ (Laughs).
GA: It was a pretty obvious sign I guess, when I look back on it now, but I still didn’t know what I was going to do with it. I loved comics, I always made my own comics. I’d been running my own little small press comic company with a good buddy of mine. It was this paper called Small Press Comics Explosion. It was this weird little indie zine back in the late ‘80s, mid ‘80s.
DB: Like a mail order catalogue, kind of thing?
GA: Yeah, and my friend and I made our own little company, and we would sell our little mini comics either at the high school, or mail them out through mail orders. It was the most awesomely exciting thing ever, so I loved creating comics, but I also loved film. I though, well, in my mind comics plus film must equal animation. That’s the obvious thing, so Sheridan College was the one…
DB: In the Venn diagram of comics and film, you’ve got animation somewhere in the middle.
GA: Yeah, it just seemed to combine the two things that I loved the most, so I applied to Sheridan College and got into their classical animation programme there, and within the first week realised I knew nothing about the process of animation, and I was surrounded by all these kids who had studied the Illusion of Life book, they knew all the Nine Old Men from Disney. They could recognise shots that were done by Milt Kahl. They could recognise Ward Kimball. I was like, ‘What?’ I didn’t understand any of this stuff.
DB: It’s pronounced ‘Walt Disney’.
GA: (Laughs). Not Dis-nay? It was three years of learning a lot really quickly, but I really loved it, and it allowed me to draw more… you know, I thought you drew a lot when you did comics. You really draw a lot when you’re doing 2D animation, so it was great. Sort of a similar thing showing up at Laika. I spent about 14 years in the Bay Area working for LucasArts, the video game company as an animator. I loved it, it was a great job, and when I initially started working…
DB: Oh, can I ask you a question then? So your training was as a classical animator.
GA: Yes, so hand drawn.
DB: Then you move into – so this is animation for computer games. Was that a big leap?
GA: Yes. Again when I started at LucasArts I was still hand drawn animation. I caught the tail end of… I mean, I don’t know how many games you play, or the whole world of games, how familiar you are with it, but I caught the tail end of the golden age of their adventure game stuff in the mid ‘90s. I finished up some scenes on Full Throttle and I did Curse of Monkey Island, I worked on The Dig, a bunch of pretty awesome adventure games.
DB: Some classics!
GA: They were all hand drawn at that time, and at a certain point, of course, inevitably everything shifted to CG animation and I was freaking out, because I was like, ‘Wow, I got into this to draw, not to work on a computer necessarily,’ and I wasn’t sure how it was going to go, but they did in-house training for all of us, and basically converted a whole chunk of the hand drawn animators over to 3D animators, and I found I totally loved it. It was different, but I still felt the same satisfaction in finishing a shot, and the computer offered a whole bunch of new, interesting, amazing ways to do animation. It was different, but I enjoyed it, but I did realise once I started doing 3D everyday, that I was missing the drawing aspect of things, and that brought me back to comics. I started doing my own comics on the side at night, or whatever, when I get home, and I basically wrote for myself. I just started doing short little stories, and I had a lot of fun doing them, and I started to relive my small press days when I was in high school. I started stapling these things together, and of course began to reacquaint myself a lot more with the world of comics, and realised, yes of course there’s a whole small press movement that has continued to go on forever since I left it, and the comics, I just started naming them Grickle. It was a nickname my dad gave me when I was a kid, and it just seemed like the best word or description – I don’t know, it just fit.
DB: It’s a satisfying word to say, ‘grickle’.
GA: (Laughs). Yeah, and it just fit the oddity of the weird short stories I was doing. That was the perfect roof on top of that house. So I made these little booklets and I got lucky enough to start… for the first while I just gave them to family and friends, but there’s a shop in Berkeley California called Comic Relief. It was run by this guy, Rory Root, who was a real amazing dude in the comics world. He had a small press shelf that I noticed, and I asked him if he’d be willing to sell my comics, and he said sure. He took a look at them and said, ‘Yeah, why not?’ Great, so I started selling them there, and it was awesome, but the comics started selling out every week. Every week Rory would email or call me and say, ‘Hey, can you print some more, because we’re out of them.’ I started going, ‘Oh my god, this is starting to be a lot of work,’ because I had to constantly go to Kinko’s at the time and print a bunch more out.
DB: And have a job!
GA: And still do the job thing! So I got lucky enough that Alternative Comics picked it up and started publishing it, and that was an awesome thing. It was those published comics that essentially, long story here, that essentially got me the job on Coraline as a storyboard artist.
DB: Right, explain how this happens then. So, did someone pick it up and say, ‘This is the guy we need for this particular job’? Or were you more active in making that happen?
GA: There was a few different factors. One factor was that my wife and I, we had a friend living in Portland, Oregon, and every time we visited we thought, man, this is the city to be in, if we were going to stay on the West Coast, but at that time we both worked in the video game industry, and there really wasn’t much of a video game scene in Portland itself. I thought, how are we going to move here? There’s nothing for us to really do. But I had always had in the back of my head, the hopes that I would get back into the film industry. So anyway, a friend got hired at Laika and mentioned that they were looking for more story artists, and that was the thing that I really wanted to do if I got back into film. So I put a small portfolio together, but he basically showed my comics to Henry Selick, who was beginning to crew up his story team, and Henry really dug my comics. I think I benefited from the fact that I was part of the animation industry.
DB: You were already in.
GA: Yeah, so I think a lot of folks in animation knew of my comics, because there was a certain connection there. So, yeah, Henry just liked what he saw and had enough other people tell him that it might be a good idea, that I could probably swing being a story artist on it, and next thing I knew I was up in Portland working on a stop-motion feature. Again, if someone had told me, when I graduated from Sheridan that I’d end up co-directing a stop-motion animated feature, I would never have believed them, but here I am. This is what happened.
DB: So explain to me then how comics and a storyboard artist, how they overlap then. Are they exactly the same thing, or are there subtle differences that the outsider wouldn’t notice?
GA: There’s definitely difference. A lot of it has to do with the camera movement. Comics, you try to figure out compositions that will suggest something that you would actually accomplish with a camera movement in film, but there is, I find, a lot of similarities. Some obvious things that are different, I mean, word bubbles. You’re always planning, you know, spacing your text in comics, and that’s something that the older I’ve got… it’s taken me so long to learn stuff. I’m amazed how old I am and how little I still know about making a comic, for the amount of time I’ve done, and the amount of them that I have done. I’m still figuring out basic things of like, ‘Oh yeah, I should leave more space for the word balloon here.’ Vera’s constantly looking over my shoulder when I work on comics stuff, and always correcting me on stuff. She’s made me a lot better than I was! Yeah, there’s a tonne of similarities, but there’s definitely some differences, and one of the biggest is certainly representing camera movements in film. Depending on the film too, because it’s funny, Coraline, because of Henry’s style and what Henry wanted to do with it was the camera would be much more still and more traditional stop-motion camera stuff, where there wasn’t a tonne of movement. But man, working on The Boxtrolls, one of the things Tony really wanted to do was free up that camera and bring a lot more movement in. I think it shows. I’m really happy with the way the film turned out, because it has a slightly different feel. I think the camera’s a lot more active, but it does make it trickier for the story artists to constantly keep thinking of ways to represent how to keep that camera moving, and ways to keep it moving, and motivate it in ways that don’t feel just arbitrary. That’s definitely, I think, the biggest difference, is thinking about how that camera works for the film, as opposed to a comic where you’re constantly just creating those single compositions. Certainly they all have to work as a unit on the page, but slightly different.
DB: So does the physical process change at all? Do you do preliminary work, and then neater work, and then final work, or do you jump straight in and get all loose with it? Is this a personal thing, or is it a regimented, ‘this is how you do it’?
GA: At least for me personally, and from what I’ve seen from most of the other story artists, it does step through a similar process of, you know, you do your little thumbnails loosely, not worried too much about the final arrangement, and then you’ll do a rough pass, and then things progressively get tighter. On a comic, you’re always going towards the end result, which is a page that will be presented to people to read and turn and look through. In the early phase of storyboarding, you certainly follow that step through of rough, to more polished, to final polished, and depending on certain moments in the project where higher up people need to see finished storyboards or whatever, you can get really polished, especially in this day and age now, where we all work on Cintiqs, and we’ve got all the power of Photoshop available to us. We can doll it up like never before in terms of little lens flares. You can do all kinds of stuff!
DB: Oh la la!
GA: But man, once production really gets hot and heavy and you’re in the thick of it, and stuff just needs to get done, that polished phase usually goes away. When the boards are just for internal use, and depending on your director, but most of the directors come from a story background. They don’t want to see a lot of shadows and nuance, they just want to figure out the proportions of the shot, and the flow of the shots, and things can get ridiculously rough and ugly looking, but they do the job and it gets it done. You never quite have that in comics, because you always do have to get to that end page.
DB: Yeah, you do. So what’s your process then, for getting to that end page in comics?
GA: I almost always start with thumbnails, doodles, tiny little… actually even before that, if I’m doing my own personal work, my stuff usually starts from a couple of ideas. I look back on it now and the majority of my stories always come from one moment or scene where I’m like, ‘Oh man, I really want to draw that scene,’ and now I need to find context and find a way to bring everything before and after it, to build up to it, and make sure that it’s a natural scene happening within the context. So it usually starts with a drawing or two. It’s almost always visual, and then from there I get into really tiny little thumbnails, where I start to…
DB: When you say really tiny, how tiny are we talking?
GA: I usually draw the page about that big, and just plot out the panels.
DB: So what’s that, an inch or two?
GA: I guess, maybe six inches, five inches high.
DB: It’s difficult to understand how big your hands are on this tiny screen.
GA: (Laughs). Yeah, I guess you can’t tell how close – woo!
DB: And I don’t know how big you are either. You could be enormous for all I know.
GA: Yeah, or I could be really tiny.
DB: Or really tiny, that’s the wonder of the modern age. Graham, carry on.
GA: (Laughs). Yeah, so really tiny little thumbnailed pages, just so I can start to figure out panel to panel how things are going to flow. Then usually from there, actually in this day and age I’ve jumped back and forth, because sometimes I’ve done stories the old school way, where I’ll take those pages and I’ll physically draw them on paper. Actually I’m lying. I haven’t broken out the vellum in a long time, but I used to do the inks on vellum overtop of the pencil roughs, and all the rest of it, but as we all have, I’ve gotten increasingly more comfortable with the Cintiq and what it can do. I’ve done a little bit of a back and forth where some comics, I’ve taken those thumbnail stages and then redrawn them very quickly and roughly in Photoshop, worked out the pages, and sometimes I’ve printed out those pages and used those as my pencil roughs, and then I’ll ink over that with vellum, or I’ve done it all in Photoshop, and I’ve done the inking stage with Photoshop brushes and finished it up in there.
DB: Okay, this might sound like a strange question, but does working on the Cintiq and in Photoshop change the way you think about your drawing?
GA: A little bit. I mean, it’s all down to whatever brush or pen you’re using, I think. That somehow incredibly effects your brain when you’re working on it.
DB: (Laughs). Those tiny little increments just change it slightly.
GA: Yeah. Some instruments make you really, really tighten up, and other instruments let you get crazy loose. I still feel like I’m still trying to find what’s the perfect level of… maybe you never find it. Maybe that’s just part of the journey as an artist, you just never quite find that perfect melding of exactly the aesthetic you feel most comfortable in. I certainly get pleased with a lot of my drawings, like we all do, and you’re like, ‘Yeah, that felt great, that looks wonderful,’ but there’s so many things you do, and you’re like, ‘Oh, it’s just… I wish… I need to figure this out more. This is not quite where I want to be,’ or, ‘This isn’t the result I thought it would be.’
GA: (Laughs). I’m sure we’re all there.
DB: Yeah, I mean, I think I’ve spoken about this on the podcast before, but I’m constantly trying to find the perfect pen, and I’ve been looking for this pen for a long time. I’m starting to think I might have found something that is close to being as good as it’s going to get, and it’s this Swan Mabie Todd with a #1 nib that I’ve custom ground a little bit, so it’s slightly oblique if you hold it this way, and it’s slightly round if you hold it this way, and it’s so close to being just perfect. But every so often a line will come out just slightly differently than I think it’s going to, and I’m like, ‘Ahh.’ It’s still pretty good.
GA: ‘Maybe this isn’t the one!’
DB: It’s still pretty good. It’s the best yet, but I guess it’s okay. You know, and for me, you get all excited about this tool, and you’re like, ‘Oh, this is going to be great,’ and then that anti-climax of, ‘Oh, it’s not perfect.’
GA: I know. You’re always in that state, but then, you know, you get surprised by certain doodles or drawings and you’re like, ‘Oh! I nailed it!’ Just for that instant. It’s funny, I keep trying to figure out where’s my most appealing comfort zone. Where do I feel most satisfied with the art I’m creating, and yet I can detach myself from the actual joy of the process and know that the end result is the most appealing to look at for other people. There’s a certain amount of self indulgence that we all do, I think when we create art, and it’s good. I think you should create art that’s fun to create.
DB: I mean, why would you do it if it was miserable?
GA: Yeah. You know, you’ll see where you’re like, ‘Yeah, that dude just loved drawing birds, or whatever, but I don’t actually like looking at those birds that much.’
DB: I’m not getting much of any story.
GA: Yeah, you’re trying to find that balance. I recently have been… I kick myself. I don’t know why, I just never really read Roald Dahl as a kid. Everybody I know has read all his books, everything.
DB: Everything, yeah.
GA: I’ve always been aware of it, and certainly working on The Boxtrolls, we started looking at a lot of his work to influence the tone of the film, and that really has sparked me reading a lot of his books, and I’m getting to read them for my two little boys as well, and of course in reading Roald Dahl you discover Quentin Blake.
DB: Of course.
GA: I’ve always been, again, aware of his art, and I’ve always appreciated it, but I never really spent a lot of time with it and really looked at it, and now I’m obsessed with how good it makes me feel every time I look at his stuff! It’s that elusive quality, he looks like he just did it in two seconds, but it’s got all that life to it, yet it’s communicating everything it needs to do. It looks like it was so fun to create and it’s so fun to look at. I just, I want to keep working towards finding somewhere even remotely close to that for myself. It’s him and Sempé, Jean-Jacques Sempé. Those two guys for me, they’re incredible for how loose everything feels, and yet how perfect it all is. It’s just so much fun to look at. That’s my obsession, is to try to find somewhere near there, for myself.
DB: Is this something that you’re going to try and work into your work then, the real, loose spontaneity?
GA: Yeah, I hope so. I’m saying it now. We’ll see if that shows up.
DB: You’re throwing your hat over that wall, let’s go and get it back. (Laughs).
GA: Yeah, that is definitely the direction I want to try to continue in, or go towards.
DB: I think it’s difficult. I remember reading an interview with Quentin Blake, and he said what he’s trying to do with his artwork is to – and I think this is just such a lovely way of saying it, he’s trying to capture some phantom felicity. I like that. I like that idea, and I think about my work in the same way. I get people saying, ‘Oh, have you ever heard of this illustrator called Roald Dahl? I’m like, ‘No, you mean Quentin Blake. Yes of course I do.’
GA: I guess for folks it is synonymous, right? It just all becomes… yeah.
DB: It all becomes the one thing. I love the spontaneity and I love the approach, and I love the fact that it looks like, ‘Oh, this is the first time I drew it.’ I really love that. And you know that it probably wasn’t the first time he drew it.
GA: It couldn’t be.
DB: It can’t be!
GA: I mean, maybe it is. Maybe he gets to a certain point in his life where it is the first time, because he’s got enough knowledge.
DB: I’ve drawn these people this many times, I don’t need to bother doing any…
GA: Yeah, because I feel that in Sempé’s work as well. He draws Paris and New York and stuff, and he just whips off buildings that just, they look like they’re just drawn on a napkin for the first time, and one time only, and yet you know he’s got so much knowledge of architecture and things that he knows the right ways…
DB: He can just pull it all out.
GA: Yeah, there’s just a lot on display, very, very loosely.
DB: Can I ask you a dumb question? Where do you get your ideas from?
GA: My brain. I think it’s my brain. I mean, like everyone else, the ideas always show up randomly and at bizarre times. I definitely have found, maybe the older I get, it’s whenever I’m doing mundane tasks, washing the dishes. I mean, I’m sure everybody says this, but in the shower, whatever, or driving the car. It’s like, when your body’s doing something where your brain can detach a little bit. It’s that act of being physically somehow active, doing something, but it seems to charge the brain and then pieces start to be put together up there. Then you find yourself pulling off the road and scrambling to find the notebook, just write it down quick before you forget it. That’s the other thing I’ve found I’ve got to get better at is, maybe being a parent, being married, having a responsible job now, there’s a small window of time to actually be creative, a much smaller window now to do personal creative things than there ever used to be. And dammit, now I have to be a lot more organised about it, because it used to be, I didn’t bother writing stuff down because I would get to it, and it would sit in my brain, and whenever I was sitting at the drawing desk again I’d pull it out and work on it. Now I find, there’s just so many times where I’m like, ‘Gah, why didn’t I write that down, or jot it, because I can’t quite get back to that space I was in when the idea hit me!’ I get so frustrated, so I started to get a lot better, I’ve just got notebooks and sketchbooks tucked around every corner of the house, so that something’s always hopefully within reach immediately to just jot it down. The other thing I’m finding everybody these days, it’s your phone. You’ll just quickly put it down in a note, text it down fast, and at least you’ve got it saved there and you can get back to it again.
DB: Yeah. I mean, it’s the most important thing for me. I always think, ‘Oh I’ll remember that idea. That’s such a good idea, I’ll remember it. It’s always going to be with me,’ and I’ll go to sleep and it’ll dribble out of my nose and ears while I sleep, and it’s gone forever. It’s evaporated, it’s gone, and, ‘I had this thing, I had this idea about, I don’t know, this talking dog or something. Ah, it’s garbage, I hate it. It doesn’t matter anyway. I didn’t want to do it anyway! I’m gonna go and eat yogurt. I don’t care.’ But capturing it, so for you it’s notebooks, it’s an iPhone. How do the notes take shape? Is it words, or is it pictures?
GA: Usually pictures. Almost always pictures. Pictures sometimes accompanied with text, but I do find primarily, I always tend to think of stuff visually. It’s funny, it almost can’t exist for me unless I can visualise it. If I can’t visualise it, then I feel like the idea hasn’t formed enough yet, for me to really nail it.
DB: So if it’s a text idea, it’s like a verbal thing, whereas if it’s a visual thing, it’s got tangible weight, it can become an actual thing that you can control.
GA: I feel like then I can work with it. I can begin to pull it ways, or work with it. Again for me, because I’ve done a lot of work in animation and I’ve done a lot of work in comics, it’s funny, I find that whatever the idea that hits me happens, is immediately categorised. ‘Oh, that’s an animation idea,’ or, ‘Oh, no, that’s a comic book idea. That’s something I’m going to work in the format of a comic,’ because I’ve been doing those YouTube cartoons for years as well. I don’t know if you’ve seen those on the Grickle Channel.
GA: I love making those things, and I’m always trying to keep track of ideas and continue to create things for that. When I get ideas and hit with stuff, it’s like, immediately, ‘Ah, that’s a short. That’s definitely a short,’ and I can start to visualise how I would board it, or other stuff as I get, ‘That’s a comic book idea, and that’s something I want to work out in a comic format.’ I couldn’t honestly lay out exactly…
DB: What the classification criteria is.
GA: Yeah, why they get classified, but in my brain, it puts it in one of the two boxes, always.
DB: It’s got to be like, an intuition based on experience.
GA: I guess. A lot of it probably has to do with sound.
GA: One of the most appealing things for me, doing those animated shorts is the sound design aspect of it. I work with super crappy stuff I just pull off the internet in terms of the sound, but it’s so much fun to try to find ways for sound to do a lot of the lifting in terms of the storytelling for you. I mean, my artwork is minimalist for sure, and I always try to do as much as I can with as little as possible. It’s the only way for me to get anything done. I definitely think of those animated shorts with sound heavily in mind with how that’s going to propel or motivate and move the story along, without me having to do a tonne of drawing.
DB: Do you do a tonne of drawing first, and then add sound to it, or do you find the sound, lay out the progression of it, and then animate to that?
GA: Most of the time the drawing’s done up front, and I have an idea of what I think the sound will be. Sometimes I’ve hit the sound first, I’ve heard something, or a piece of music or something where it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s something I want to animate to,’ but most of the time it’s usually the visuals first. That’s, again, one of the most exciting things for me doing animation, is that as much as I have it in my head of exactly the sound that’s going to work, you never ever find the exact sound, not usually, unless it’s already in the sound database that I have, so that marriage of sound and visual is incredibly exciting. I mean, it’s what excites I’m sure, all filmmakers. That marriage of those two things, that image with that sound, and/or music, creates something that even though you thought you were perfectly controlling it, can’t predict how that end result’s going to be, and most of the time it’s even more satisfying than where I thought I was going to take it anyway. It becomes something even new to me, and that’s the best thing.
DB: So you mentioned having kids as well. When I had kids, I don’t know if this is the same for you. I’ve spoken to a few other people about this, I don’t think I’ve spoken about it on the show though. When I had kids, I remember feeling a real sense of urgency in my artwork, like, ‘Oh crap, got to do a bunch of stuff right now. There’s no more time ever again, you’ve got to do this immediately. Go, go, go, go, go!’ Do you have a similar thing?
GA: Oh totally, yeah. Again, I feel that window to be creative and to get yourself in the mood to do all this work, it’s so much smaller and you have to be so much more organised for when you get that little moment, you get that hour before bed.
GA: You want to make the absolute most of it, but I like to think that in a lot of ways, the older we’ve gotten and being parents, you do get better about your time, and you do maximise it better than you probably ever did.
DB: Sure, yeah.
GA: The amount of work you achieve is probably greater than you did in the early days anyway, I think. I like to think.
DB: Magnitudes more!
GA: Yeah, you make more out of it.
DB: Sure. So, the traditional parent’s hour before bed, in which you can do your own thing, do you have any rituals or things that you do to get yourself into that mode, or do you just jump straight in?
GA: Some nights I’m able to jump straight in, because I’ve been anticipating, or I’m in the middle of a project, or a lot of the ducks are all in a row, so I can just ‘boom’, jump into it, but it depends on what phase. Because yeah, when you’re in that creative phase where you’re trying to initiate and bring a brand new idea to fruition, yeah, then you’ve gotta… man, and it’s funny, the older you get, the more you start to… I guess it’s why old people are the way they are. You have all these little patterns and routines that you need to do. I need to turn my radio on, I need to figure out my playlist, I need to look at my books for a bit. Ah, maybe I should make some tea, I need a hot drink of some kind. There’s all these little pieces of the puzzle that have to be in place before it’s like, ‘Okay, now I can do the work.’
DB: Now I can start. Oh, now someone’s woken up, so now I can’t do anything. Now it’s bedtime now.
GA: (Laughs). Yeah, and there’s always that! Yeah, I do find the older I get the more I enjoy the rituals of it too. It used to be, I don’t know, you’re younger, you’re just like, I don’t know, whatever. You just flip open the sketchbook and start to go, and you don’t even recognise how awesome a space your head is in at that point, you know, until years later. You’re like, ‘How come I can’t get back to that feeling?’ So much of it is getting your brain into that… I don’t know, the term I’ve come up with lately is ‘that delicious mood’. That mood where everything tastes and feels great, and everything feels creative and it’s trying to get yourself into that vibe.
DB: It’s like, a super positive way of thinking about things.
GA: Yeah. Everything just seems incredibly interesting. I guess it’s why people do drugs too, because sometimes you just artificially lift yourself into that space. Yeah, it’s just making everything feel delicious, and then wanting to create art.
DB: I’m going to steal that. That’s mine now.
GA: Yeah, go ahead. I just, I made it up.
DB: Nice, no, it’s a great way of describing it. So if people want to, I guess, see the films that you’ve worked on, view the YouTube stuff, buy some books, visit a website, do something on Twitter, what would you like people to do right now?
GA: Well, the easiest and most all encompassing place probably to go, is my website, Grickle, grickle.com. I made it as easy as possible for people. I apologise, the website’s pretty old. I haven’t touched it in a while, but it should still all function as it should, so it’ll get you to the Grickle Channel on YouTube, and Twitter and blog, and my books, all of it.
DB: Awesome. Graham, thank you very much for speaking to me.
GA: Thanks Dan, it’s been a blast.