How many people could say they possessed the passion, talent, and determination to produce something that required several years of dedication, while simultaneously putting their talent to work across a multitude of other projects? Richard Van As is a man who has not only taken on that challenge, but has mastered it - creating a stunning dedication to ‘Dream Eyes’ by Gorillaz, while also lending his gifts to productions such as ‘Rick and Morty’, ‘Hell and Back’, ‘Bojack Horseman’, and ‘Anomalisa’. His dedication to his work and desire progress as an artist are deeply inspiring, but what makes Van As stand against his contemporaries is his sincere perspective of the industry, and his willingness to assist aspiring artists. To see his work or have the opportunity to speak to him is an inspiring moment you will not wish to miss.
What is your earliest memory of being interested in art?
- I don't think I ever remember deciding art was something I wanted to do, it was just always there. As early as I can recall I was doodling, building things with Lego, playing with clay, anything where I could create something. Then when school began I realized that I was not the best at concentrating and I would disappear into drawings on the inside covers of workbooks, or making flick books on the side of textbooks because while I was never a bad student, I think I was more just interested in learning things that were interesting and getting out of there so I could doodle and sculpt all day.
Did you grow up reading comics or watching much animation?
- I only ever read Spiderman really when I was growing up, and cartoons yeah, a ton. All the Saturday morning stuff, the disney channel and cartoon network stuff really got me excited of course. I think the first time I really watched a cartoon that I was obsessed with the backstory and the mythology was Samurai Jack, but before that I was all about Dexter's Lab, and the Disney show Recess was a big favorite too. Of course there were the Disney features too, from Little mermaid, Lion King and Aladdin, through Lilo and Stitch and Emperor's New Groove that made a huge impression on me growing up.
Was art something you pursued in your educational life? In schooling years and/or further studies?
- About as soon as I was able I switched to doing art exclusively in school. We have a slightly different system in England where I grew up than we do here in the US. When you are 16 you are allowed to leave school if you wish, or you can take what we call A-levels which is about same level as a person with a high school diploma plus some college. I chose to do an A-Level equivalent course that was only focussed on Fine Art because by that point I knew I was never going to be a great academic, but a career in art I could, at the very least, enjoy.
- That course was very fulfilling and a great way to spend 2 years. We just unleashed our inner creativity and made whatever came to mind (within certain guidelines of course). But it was very important for 16 year old me to understand that art wasn't either something you see in a museum behind glass, or something you see on TV or in a comic, it was all of the above and more. I am very glad I took that course. After that it was a bachelors in 2D animation and a Masters in CG animation, both of which were perfectly fine courses, but felt a lot more like technical training than artistic.
- Currently I am taking the Animation Mentor program for character animation and that is a really wonderful program that successfully blends technical and artistic disciplines in the way that I wanted from my degree courses.
Besides the visual arts and animation, are there any another hobbies you have that people may not know about?
- I am obsessed with Lego. Outside of being an animator the only career I ever seriously considered was that of Master Builder for Lego. I find that after a long day of feeling burnt out and creatively empty, dumping out a bucket of Lego on the floor and just letting my mind go blank as I click and snap those little plastic pieces together is the perfect thing to get my mind to reset and let me feel like a normal person again.
How would you describe your artistic style?
- I would say detailed. Probably more than it should be, but it isn't something I can help. All throughout my artistic training teachers and mentors would always say "you are too interested in the little things, paint broad, get the big strokes in and worry about the details later" but that isn't how my mind works.
- In my process the details are sometimes what pulls me into an idea. I often think about one particular element and build a whole idea around it. If I were designing some sort of sci-fi space ship my mind would jump right to "what do these engine intakes look like, how do they work" before I even have the general shape worked out. It's probably not the most conducive to producing work efficiently since I often waste hours thinking about the minutia of a thing only to later realize the whole idea isn't working and have to scrap it.
- I have tried over the years to change this trait about myself but I seem unable, so I guess now I just kinda go with it and embrace it as a part of my identity.
What aspects of your personality do you feel come through in your work?
- I think a lot of aspects, from my generally optimistic outlook on life to my insecurities, they are all there. You really can't separate yourself from it. You can more so with work for hire where you are on a very tightly directed show and all the elements are already in place. At that point you are just injecting what tiny bit of personality you can but into someone else's vision, but honestly, those are nice projects to work on because you don't need to focus on how this element will affect the whole, or what message this sends etc, that has already been plotted out for you, so you can just enjoy the work for what it is.
What was your first job in the animation industry?
- I was in Florida at the time, still in school doing my Masters, and I got hired to create an animated segment for a little commercial where some kid was trying to fall asleep. It was one of those things where I had just enough knowledge of everything in the pipeline at that point to create the thing, but if anything went wrong I would have no idea how to fix it. It was a CG thing, and it turned out ok actually, to my surprise (though I have not had the courage to go back and watch it since).
- I think of that as my first job even though I had others but they were either unpaid or I just simply didn't get paid when I was supposed to. The world of freelance is tough for students and new grads. You learn to guard yourself early on. It was such a relief that the CG commercial worked out and I actually got paid, since I used that money to purchase an engagement ring which I could definitely not have afforded otherwise! I was 22 at the time and naive as they come, so it would have been all to easy to screw me over.
Do you think the majority of people are unaware of just how much talent, effort, and people are involved in creating an animated project?
- No. Not at all. People - especially if you go and look at the comments people leave on different sites, or just listen to people on the bus or something - they are so ignorant to the sheer amount of man hours and sleepless nights that go into making anything that you see on TV or on the big screen.
- I think in Europe there is much more the sense that animation is something for adults and an artistic means of expression like any other. Experimentation is encouraged! Here however when something doesn't look overly slick and smooth, people think of it as being "cheap" or "lazy" when overwhelmingly there are a series of choices made that determine how a show will look, and what that look will evoke to the audience.
- Even when a show is low budget (which, they almost always are, relative to the aspirations of the show creators) the people working on it have to work even harder because usually less budget means less people in each department, less departments and more work for the few people on the show. Often when there is less money but the show is good, artists will subconsciously absorb that deficit by working more hours, working harder and faster to try to make sure that this wonderful piece of work doesn't suffer because of lack of budget. I have seen it happen dozens of times.
- What it really comes down to I think is that people assume that you are doing what you love so it must not feel like work, or that you just push a button and the computer spits out a TV show, when that of course could not be further from the truth.
What is something about becoming involved in the animation industry that surprised you the most?
- I think that the level of generosity and quality of character of the people that I have worked with, and been mentored by that has continued to surprise me the most. Animation industry folks are some of the best people period and I feel so lucky that I just happened to pursue the only thing I was ever any good at, and it led me to an industry where all the people involved are so great.
How did your work on the animated series ‘Rick and Morty’ come about?
- Well I had previously worked on a couple of shows for the same studio where 'Rick and Morty' is made. When I was leaving on my last day for the 'Community' animated episode GI Jeff I just happened to ask when Rick and Morty season 2 was going to start testing - and I wasn't even asking for myself, I was asking for my wife who is a background painter and was absolutely in love with 'Rick and Morty' as I was.
- I got the info and she got a test and was hired, and eventually I got on as well doing what's called "held cels" what it boils down to is whenever you have a scene with a bunch of extra characters in the background not doing much, they have me draw them out in a separate file, so that the animator working on the main characters doesn't need to have all of those assets in their scene slowing it down. I was over the moon because I got to just draw the zaniest 'Rick and Morty' characters doing fun stuff in the background for months - it was a really fun job and a nice change of pace from animating.
- I actually did end up getting to contribute a little animation to the Moonmen song in episode 202, a hand drawn shot involving a giant Morty head and a character name "Fart" so that was awesome as well! It really made me appreciate the level of care and detail that goes into the animation on that show, it really is quite astounding.
Can you explain the differences between the various roles you have filled over the years? For example, what is involved in being a layout artist compared to a compositor?
- Well being in Hollywood and having bills to pay means you have to wear a lot of caps, or wear one cap really, really well. I am the former, so throughout my career I have done everything from prop and set building for stop motion, pre-visualization for animated films, visual effects, compositing and of course animating. Each role differs in so many ways, the software you use, the objectives of the work you are outputting etc.
- Predominantly for visual effects work I have used After Effects, and what is involved is combining the various elements that might have been shot or created into the final image, while adding the last remaining elements. Sometimes that is as simple as adding smoke to a lit cigarette, sometimes as complicated as building a whole 3D environment for a character to inhabit, or replacing large elements of a character's body that for whatever reason didn't turn out the way the director wants for that shot.
- Compositing is pretty similar, only most of the time there is more layering of different elements, and less creating stuff from scratch (though of course it does need to happen from time to time).
- Layout basically deals with placing characters and elements in a scene for a given shot, and then the animators can use that set up to have a better idea of what will transpire in the scene.
- It's really nice to have worked on so many different ends of the spectrum because I have a much deeper understanding of what each department goes through, and how best to collaborate between them.
What would an typical day or week working on ‘Rick and Morty’ involve?
- Well on 'Rick and Morty' I was freelancing from home, so what that essentially involves is wake up, brew coffee, look at the new scenes I have been sent, check out the animatic for the episode if it's available, draw characters in their poses in the background of a shot, brew more coffee, draw more, sleep at some point, rinse, repeat.
- I do enjoy the times when I get to work from home from a convenience standpoint, but after a little while you start to yearn for the outside stimulus. Usually 3 months is about my limit and then I have to get back out there.
What is the hardest part of your work?
- I think the hardest part is treating what is a passion, as a business. Not allowing yourself to let your desire to work on a project mean that you get taken advantage of. Also learning when to say no to a project that you really want to work on, but for your own sanity and health, you have to decline.
- There was a time when I was working on 4 different projects at the same time, and on any given day getting 2 - 3 hours of sleep a night, just because I hate the idea of missing out on anything. After a while though, your body doesn't allow you to do that anymore and you just have to accept that sometimes the timing just isn't right for a particular opportunity.
What do you enjoy the most about it?
- I think for me the range of different things you get to work on, and the ways in which you can express yourself and really be yourself through your characters is so amazing. Every project has it's own challenges and each one grows you in it's own way.
- I love the feeling that every day I am starting out my career for the first time, because you really feel like there is so much our there, so much to learn and do that you really are just starting your journey fresh each time you wake up in the morning, and there is something exhilarating to that feeling.
Is there a certain style, character, or theme that you prefer to work with?
- My own sensibilities tend towards action, adventure and sci-fi stuff. So whenever I get to work on something like a 'Rick and Morty', or just working on my Gorillaz fan project where there are a lot of crazy characters and madcap action, that's where I feel the most at home.
Was there much variation in working on a Netflix series, as you did on ‘Bojack Horseman’, compared to that of a studio like Adult Swim?
- Well each show you work on you mostly are doing the same job throughout, most of the time the studio producing it or the network airing it has very little impact on the day to day work.
Most of the projects you have worked on have been targeted at an older age group, do you prefer to work on such shows as opposed to program more suited for children?
- I think I enjoy working on stuff targeted at adults mostly because things targeted at kids tend to be more pandering. I think that is a mistake and that kids know when they are being talked down to. I think growing up I would have been watching 'Rick and Morty' or Bojack for sure, because they are shows that don't just hand everything to you on a plate, they make you work a little, and I think kids need that in their entertainment just as much as adults.
- I did work on one show that is very much aimed at younger kids called 'Tumble Leaf' and the thing that was great about that show is that it crafted a world that was huge, and breathtaking and filled with magical charm, and even though its aimed at the sort of 3 - 6 type age range, it doesn't speak down to the kids at all.
- When I was growing up it was stuff like 'The Terminator', 'Robocop', Tim Burton's Batman movies that I really loved, and those things definitely deal with darker, more violent issues. I think today there is so much less edge to stuff because people are too concerned about what kids watch.
Do you think the production process or creative freedom would differ greatly between the two?
- The production process is more or less the same for the people actually making the show, I'm sure its different for the writers and producers. I think with adult oriented shows that are on adult oriented platforms the freedom is of course much greater to put penises or curse words in your show, but I think that doesn't necessarily lead to more creativity.
- 'Community' is one of the most creative show's I have ever seen or worked on, and it has the strict rules of being on TV to adhere to. I think in some ways having a lot of rules in place for what you can't do makes you more creative because you have to think if interesting ways to get around those hurdles to tell the story that you want.
- A great example of that I think was 'Samurai Jack', where Genndy Tartakovsky wanted to have a great hardcore action show where a samurai warrior dices hordes of enemies, but in order to allow it to be on TV the enemies were robots who's limbs could be severed with no worry of offending anyone - even if the robots spurted black fountains of "oil" like something from 'Kill Bill'.
How does working on 2D animation compare to 3D animation? Do you find the challenged of one are more predominant?
- The main difference I find tends to be in the type of performance. 2D is much more of a stylized approach, where things like stillness tend to be more forgiving. CG however tends much more towards the naturalistic in most shows or movies, so its much more fluid, organic and broken down.
- CG movies now are starting to embrace the more flat, graphical approach of 2D (movies like The Lego Movie or Peanuts which really do a great job of breaking from those more naturalistic roots). I think to do either 2D or CG (or stop motion for that matter) really well there are different but equally great challenges to overcome, and I think people who say that one medium is better than the other are mistaken. Each one is capable of incredible, wondrous imagery, it's just how it's done.
Has there been any particular scenes or sequences that you enjoyed working on most on ‘Rick and Morty’?
- I enjoyed 'The Simpsons' couch gag the most I think, purely because I got to draw a bunch of characters from 'Rick and Morty', 'Futurama' and 'The Simpson's all interacting at the cloning facility Morty visits to get new Simpsons. Unfortunately that shot did not make the final cut, but it was still really fun to do.
Was it difficult merging the styles of ‘Rick and Morty’ and ‘The Simpsons’ during the couch gag sequence featured on ‘The Simpsons’?
- Not at all! Each of the characters were drawn in the styles of their respective shows, and sat side by side perfectly well. The style of the Simpsons' house and everything was left in tact, and then when they go to outer space, it's more of the 'Rick and Morty' style of background, and it just sort of works.
What has the experience of working on the Gorillaz clip been like?
- It has been wonderful because Gorillaz was definitely an early inspiration for me, and the fans have been so supportive and their outpouring of love for the project has overwhelmed me. I just wish that I didn't have so much on my plate all the time and could work on the video full time to get it done!
- It's been creatively really satisfying too because its really called for all of my different skills in almost every medium I have worked in to come together in one video. It's also the first time I have collaborated with my wife on anything - she has been creating a lot of the backgrounds and it's been really fun to bounce things off of each other.
How did you become involved in that project? (its looking incredible at the moment by the way!)
- I became involved because I saw the incredible 2D animatic for the video that got released after it was cancelled, and having seen the journey so far in the Stylo and Melancholy hill videos, I just couldn't believe it wasn't going to get made. After speaking to various people who advised me not to do it because it's a ton of work that I can't get paid for, I decided to go ahead anyway because I just was so drawn to the material.
Is this an area you’d like to continue to work with in the future?
- The thought had crossed my mind, but I think that the amount of work that the Rhinestone Eyes video has taken (it's been 3 years and I'm still like half way done) means that I will probably only be doing the one video. It was a special case because such a detailed animatic was already done for it, and I don't think I would want to try and create anything more in that world. That's Jamie Hewlett's job.
You’ve done several projects involving stop motion, did you find that the work involved was as you expected, and how do you manage the lengthy and detailed process of creating such work?
- My work in stop motion has always been either in building sets and props (for which the detail and work involved astounds me to this day) or in visual effects for stop motion films, which are a whole interesting beast of their own. Like any other project the hours are fairly normal, we just spend a little longer in production than you do on other shows.
- The cool thing about stop motion is that the VFX are being done at the same time as the animation, because as soon as footage is shot we can work on it instantly (being that it's shot digitally for the most part). So we got to conjure up effects, and then the animators could see what we were doing, and we could see how the animators were working on the rest of that sequence - it was really pretty cool.
Is stop-motion something you have been involved with for a while?
- When I first moved out to Hollywood my first job was in stop motion. I met Donald Faison while I was working at the Lego store in Glendale and we got to talking about how he creates stop motion shorts for fun, and how I had an animation background, and a passion for Lego, so we started collaborating on shorts.
- This was back in 2010/2011 and through working on those shorts I got to work along side other people that were in the stop motion industry who were also there to help out on these fun shorts. These contacts were what got me my first I guess you would say "proper" job which was working in the set department on the stop motion feature Hell and Back.
Does the work of a stop-motion series differ to that of a feature film, such as 'Hell and Back'?
- Not especially, no.
Do you think it will continue to persevere as an art form as things move more towards a digital age? (please note here that I absolutely love stop-motion and greatly hope we do not lose it)
- I think stop motion will always be around, and that a whole new generation of future stop motion film makers are already on their way up because of the ease of access to cameras and capturing software. There are thousands upon thousands of "brick films" on youtube where kids take their lego figures, use any old camera and capture some animation.
- As far as the industry today, you've got Laika doing some crazy stuff to push the art form forward in a way that you get a similar level of subtlety in facial animation that you do in CG - mostly due to the advances in rapid prototyping. 'Anomalisa' was just nominated for best animated picture at the oscars and that film is now going head to head with Disney, Pixar etc for that award.
- Also there's shows like 'Robot Chicken' and 'Tumble Leaf' that are doing really well. So yeah, I think stop motion is going to be around for a very long time indeed because it has something unique to offer.
You are very consistent in posts on your blogspot, do you find this is a necessary aspect of being an artist these days to maintain a relationship with your audience and gain more recognition?
- I do, and I think I am actually really bad at it compared to a lot of artists I know. This is actually something that has created some friction between artists and studios, the need for artists to promote themselves, vs the studios desire to keep material off the internet.
- It's interesting to see how things have shifted now where studios are a bit more understanding about that, and where exactly the new lines will be drawn as far as when you can put stuff up, what you can put up etc. I think any artist working today needs a strong online presence though, yeah.
Do you follow comments sections on your work, or do you prefer not to open yourself up towhat can often be an unwarranted level of criticism from the internet?
- Oh no, I read everything. Every comment I get on my blog, Youtube, all of it. Because I have the ability to filter out the obvious trolls, or people who are just out to be mean, I find that there is a lot of great constructive criticism that can be gleaned from that.
Do you find you get much time to work on personal projects among your work for studios and the like?
- I find I have less and less these days. It gets harder as you get older and you want to spend more time outside of work, and as I am trying to put time into growing myself as an artist too with stuff like Animation Mentor. It does get very tough to put time aside for personal work.
- The Gorillaz project is something that I keep coming back to though because it's just such a passion piece for me. I don't know when I will finish it, but I know that I will. I am fairly certain that Gorillaz will have split up, gotten back together, put out a new album and then broken up again before I get this video done, but that part doesn't matter to me, what matters is just finishing it.
Do you find that you view animated feature films or series differently now since becoming involved in the industry yourself?
- I find that the shows and movies I have worked on are almost impossible to view from just the standpoint of being a regular fan, but other shows I can still enjoy as just an audience member. The only big difference is when I see something amazing I don't think "oh wow, its cool what they can do nowadays" I think "oh wow, someone worked REALLY hard on that".
Do you also feel to view the world in general in a different manner, drawing inspiration from things in a way in which most people may not?
- I think I always have. Ever since I was young I can remember pointing things out that people scratch their heads to. Sometimes it would be a pattern on a wall, or a piece of moss on a park bench, or the way someone made a certain gesture as they thought about this or that. I learned that people I spoke to didn't really seem to notice the things I did, or think they were particularly interesting or note worthy.
- I have tried as I got older not to lose that sense, I still find myself playing out epic battles in my mind when I see an interesting arrangement of trees or rocks, I imagine the characters that would live there, their lives and their struggles. Hopefully this way of seeing things will come in handy when I start to create my own content to pitch etc. Or maybe it'll just drive me mad.
How much interaction do you have with your fan base and how have those experiences been so far?
- My interactions have been 100% positive. On my videos and other works I have put online the fans have been so supportive and so hungry for more that I really feel privileged. I can't wait to have more to show the fans as time goes on because they really have been the greatest audience an artist can hope for, and ultimately the reason we put up with the lack of sleep, the aching wrists and lack of what most people call "a life" is because we want to do something that the fans will appreciate.
Are there any artists or animated series/features that have grabbed your attention lately?
- You know what, I have been so absorbed in my own world of late that my tastes have gone to the absolute mainstream, most accessible stuff. I have nothing interesting to answer for this question I am afraid.
To see more from Richard Van As be sure to check out his blog, Richard's Animation