Saturday 10 November 2012

Interview: Pete Oswald, Vis. Dev. Artist on Hotel Transylvania and ParaNorman

This latest A113Animation interview seems particularly relevant given our recent competition to give away a copy of an Art of book. The companion books to most animated films are a great portal behind the screen, giving you a look at the colossal glut of fantastic visual development artwork that goes into a production and that we might otherwise never get to see. When reviewing The Art and Making of ParaNorman and The Art and Making of Hotel Transylvania, one artist consistently stood out to me, Pete Oswald.

Pete's work was colourful, lively, caricatured, playful and full of cartoony energy! So, I sought Pete out, I found his website and sent him an email saying how much I enjoyed his work and asking if he'd mind doing an interview. Thankfully, he said yes - and expressed a great deal of enthusiasm about it too! Pete's a great guy; modest, helpful and very talented, and I'm grateful he took the time to speak to me.

In our interview - which we did via email - Pete and I discuss his role on the two aforementioned films, what working on them was like, his other work (including The Ricky Gervais Show!), working on Cloudy 2 for Sony right now, and broader animation. Check it out after the jump break!

A113Animation: Most recently you’ve worked on Laika’s ParaNorman and Sony’s Hotel Transylvania, in the art department; can you talk us through exactly what your role was on these films?
Pete Oswald: On ParaNorman I was hired as a concept artist. My job was to come up with a look for the environments of the film. I was given the script and line-up of characters designed by Heidi Smith. The directors, Chris Butler and Sam Fell, launched me on the basic story and tone of the film. From this I was able to start the process of developing the look for the environments. Since the characters were designed with an organic and asymmetry quality, I designed the environment to reflect the same feel. Throughout the film I worked closely with Nelson Lowry, the production designer, and Ross Stewart, a fellow concept artist.

I actually worked on Hotel Transylvania twice, once in 2010 with director Todd Wilderman to help develop Dracula. And most recently with director Genndy Tartakovsky to design characters. By the time I came on the film the majority of the main cast was designed, so Craig Kellman and I worked together to finalize additional characters in the film. I also did a few color story beats. 

A113: Which did you enjoy working on the most and why? I imagine they were quite different!
PO: I equally enjoyed working on both films for different reasons. I worked on ParaNorman for a longer period of time, so being able to see the film evolve was very rewarding. This was also my first stop motion film, which allowed me to experience the making of a film through a whole new dimension. Being able to hold and touch the characters and sets was amazing. Working with directors, Chris Butler and Sam Fell, was very refreshing. I felt a great sense of trust from them. Chris wrote the script so there was never a lack of vision. He is also an amazing story artist and designer. The whole package. I can't wait to see what his next project will be.

Hotel Transylvania has been in production at Sony for over 7 years, so being able to work on a film at the end of such a long process was a unique experience. I was always a fan of Genndy Tartakovsky's television work-- Samurai Jack, Dexter's Lab and Powerpuff Girls. Actually Samurai Jack had a huge influence on me and was a big reason I chose to study animation in college. So being able to work with Genndy was an honor.

A113: And which finished film did you like the most, ParaNorman or Hotel T?
PO: Two different films, I can’t compare.

A113: How do you though, from an artistic standpoint, go from working on a film as fun and zany as Hotel Transylvania, to a much darker-toned one like ParaNorman in such a short space of time? It must be quite jarring!
PO: It’s like any project, you just have to change your mindset when you’re working on one versus the other. Once the design of the film is established it is easier to compartmentalize them. Also, there was a period of about four months in between projects where I got to relax.

A113: I loved your work in the ‘Art of’ books for both films too – you were one of the standout artists of both for me! How important do you think these books are in helping get talented artists, like yourself, some recognition?
PO: The “Art Of” books are something that I look forward to on any film, sometimes more so than the actual film. I think it’s a great representation of the design and process of the making of the film. It allows the artist to get some recognition for their work, as well as their process and the many steps it takes to get to the final product. These books give inspiration to aspiring artists by allowing people to see “behind the scenes”.

A113: And to what extent would you say the visual development work done on a film affects the final product? Can you watch a film and pick out ‘oh, yeah, that’s my bit!’?
PO: The visual language of the film is crucial to any story. Visual development and story go hand in hand, they each influence each other to reach the final look of the film. It’s satisfying to watch a film and see a design I created end up in the final picture. For example, on ParaNorman I was very pleased to see how close the final sets came to my illustrations. From the organic lines on Norman’s house to the asymmetrical shape of Norman’s station wagon, the modellers did an amazing job maintaining the spirit of the design.

A113: Sony, Laika and more: which studio has been your favourite to work with and why?
PO: Ultimately it is more about the people you are working with and the project that determine the experience. Each studio has it’s perks but there is not one that I could pick as a favorite.

A113: And what’s been the film you’ve most enjoyed working on, and why?
PO: To date, ParaNorman has been the most fun to work on. Mainly because I was part of the process from the beginning, so I had a greater influence on the final design of the film. From traveling to Salem, Massachusetts for a research trip, to designing Norman’s house back at the studio in Hillsboro, Oregon, I was fortunate to work on the film throughout it’s production.

A113: I had a look at your IMDb page, and one thing that I found really interesting is that you worked as an animator on The Ricky Gervais Show! I’m a huge fan of Ricky, Steve and Karl; it must've been a great experience – did you get to meet any of them?
PO: Ricky stopped by the studio once and met all the artists, nice guy!

A113: And how does TV work differ vs. feature work? And, furthermore, what’s it like working on something, like The Ricky Gervais Show, where the entire script is already flushed out and recorded? Is it limiting, or just a different challenge?
PO: In television your design is directly reflected on screen, whereas in feature, your design is modeled, textured, lit, the design can change somewhat.

With TV work there is a lot less development/blue sky work because the schedules are so tight. In feature the extra development time is needed but can also allow hinder a design with the additional hoops to jump through. 

A113: What are you moving on to next then?
PO: I am currently working on Cloudy 2: The Revenge of the Leftovers as a vis dev artist.

A113: Oh wow! That must be great. I loved the first film and can't wait for the second! How long have you been on that then? And how's it been so far; will it live up to the first do you think?
PO: I've been working on Cloudy 2 for about a year now. It's been a blast. On the first film I was a character designer. On the sequel I'm working as a vis dev artist designing environments. Being able to design both characters and environments has been a big benefit. It's enabled me to work on multiple films with very different styles.

The film is being directed by Kris Pearn and Cody Cameron. They are bringing the Cloudy franchise to another level. 

A113: Which studios and what directors or artists would you like to work with in the future?
PO: Wes Anderson [Fantastic Mr. Fox] has always been a big influence and I would love to work with him someday.

Some more of Pete's work on Laika's latest film, ParaNorman.

A113: Which animated films are you particularly looking forward to at the moment?
PO: I'm most excited to see Laika's next film. I believe it's "Here Be Monsters". While I was working on ParaNorman I saw some development art. It's fantastic. While many of the bigger studios are producing mainstream animation, I feel Laika has a cutting edge. They are setting a new standard in stop motion animation.

A113: And finally, what’s your favourite animated film and why?
PO: Pinocchio. It was one of the first films I saw growing up and is one of those stories that sticks with you. I've always loved the dark tone of the film. And the design is absolutely beautiful. Pure classic!

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