Thursday, 4 November 2010

Michael Knapp Interview

I don't know how I stumbled upon Michael's work or when I first saw it. What I do know is that is that it looks is that I really love the style and uniqueness to it all. With nice usage of colour and the conception of interesting looking characters, Michael's art is something that I am very fond of.

By day, Michael Knapp is a mild mannered art director for a busy film studio  and by night, he is a family man and freelance illustrator (although he admits that lately he has been a bit to busy to do the freelance work...familes eh!?).

But, he doesn't complain.

Having created worked on some visually stunning films (such as Robots and Ice Age) and been involved in the charity event "The Totoro Forest Project," Micheal has had a good solid career so far and I firmly believe we will see a great deal more from him in the future.  

Lloyd Harvey: What is it like being an art director for a busy studio? What are the biggest rewards of the work you do and what are some of the biggest stresses that you encounter?

Michael Knapp: It’s a pretty crazy job in all the best ways. I get to work with an amazingly talented team of artists both in the art department as well as along the entire pipeline. Lots of extremely smart creative people - usually smarter than me - with great ideas and talent to back up those ideas. A lot of my job is helping them make choices that both help the story from a design perspective while also thinking about how those choices will affect other departments. Some of the most fun comes from brainstorming with either the director, the story artists, or my design teammates. Especially earlier in the process before the schedule and production constraints really kick in. But on the other hand, few things are as satisfying as helping a bunch of artists tackle an impossible problem with a tight schedule and still have it look great. It’s all about collaboration. Something I missed greatly when I was working as an illustrator.
"Building Security" - This was a concept piece for the movie Robots illustrating an idea that the main character Rodney is trying to escape from building security using one of his inventions. He just didn't realize that an actual building would get up and chase him through the streets of Robot City!
Art Directing - for me anyway - still often entails a lot of drawing and painting, but usually from a broader perspective than that of a character designer or a set designer, and usually early in the process before production really begins on the film. It’s not easy to make time to draw and paint with all the meetings I have to attend, but for me it’s often a lot easier to explain something with an image than with words.

On Ice Age 3, my role was to help make sure all the artists understood the style of the film by putting together a ‘style guide,’ gathering reference, and doing a lot of draw-overs and paint-overs. My job also includes overseeing the palette of the film (color logic to the characters and sets) and putting together the color script. Once our designs leave the art department, it’s also the Art Director’s job to guide those designs through all the other departments: modelling, fur, rigging, cloth, set dressing, materials, effects, lighting and compositing, to make sure everyone understands the creative intentions, the priorities of an environment, story moment or shot, and if problems or flaws in those ideas arise, then it’s the Art Director’s job to help figure out solutions to those problems. All while working closely with the Director to ensure that his/her vision of the story is successfully making its way to the screen.

The biggest stresses usually stem from last minute changes in the story that start poking holes in all our best laid plans and designs. It’s all part of the process, though, and it keeps you quick on your feet. With any luck, those changes will help tell a better story and the stress is short-lived.

The biggest reward is without a doubt getting to work with so many talented people who just continue to amaze me. When I actually get a chance to stop for a moment and take in what’s going on around me, I just have to shake my head and wonder how I wound up here doing what I’m doing. It’s a great job, and there aren't many like it. I count myself extremely lucky.
"The Factory" - This was more of a mood piece trying to flesh out the scope and feel of the world in Robots. We were trying to avoid a purely "science fiction-y" vibe to the world and wanted to infuse it with a moody but whimsical sensibility.
Now, I know this can be a subjective question in a sense, but what qualities does it take to become a good art director and what constitutes good art direction?

Well, from my experience, (in no particular order) to be a good Art Director you have to be a good communicator, collaborator, to some extent a team manager, have a great understanding of the Director’s vision and tastes, have a great understanding of how other departments work (especially the more technical ones) and what artwork they need to best do their job (and in some cases learn to speak their language), and you have to have a solid understanding of how to support the story through design and color. You also have to be decisive and a good problem solver.

I’m still working hard to get better at most of those.

Good art direction should visually help the viewer get immersed in the story. It’s not about making everything look as cool as can be, it’s about pulling the viewer into the world that in which the story takes place so that they buy into it.
This was a study I did during the development phase of the second Ice Age movie where I was trying to figure out how we were going to show this giant ice dam melting away and threatening to destroy the valley all the characters lived in.

So far, you have produced work for some lovely films, Such as Robots and Ice Age 2 & 3. Would you like to do conceptual art for other types of film? Maybe try your hand at computer games?

Sure! The films that appeal to me most as an artist are the ones that create a world that’s something beyond our own - not necessarily completely fantastical - but those that allow some visual surprises or interpretations. I think it would be an interesting challenge to design for a video game. Especially those where the stories are more open ended and you never know where the player might look.

You’ve mentioned to me that because of your busy work and home lives, you don’t get a lot of free time to do freelance illustration. Is this something that frustrates you (that is to say I don’t mean, is having a family frustrating) and if time was permitting, do you think you’d concentrate on that side of illustration or would you keep your job as an art director and return to making music?

I occasionally take on an illustration job depending on my schedule, but I don’t really miss it that much. I’ve grown a taste for telling longer stories than a typical illustration really allows. Working on films satisfies that taste, and working on the Out of Picture stories was really satisfying, too. Children’s books still have an allure to me - they’re still such a great source of inspiration - but right now I can’t imagine having the time to work on one. They seem all encompassing and extremely time consuming. But, who knows?

I would love to find more time for music, but I’ve never been able to be a casual musician. I tend to put my all into whatever I’m doing, and dabbling in this or that always just drives me crazy.

"Fantastic Contraption" - This was my contribution to a calendar project that served as a group promotion for myself and 11 other illustrators. We all took a month and did a piece on the theme "fantastic contraption." My month was August.

If you could suddenly change careers, would you keep to an illustrative role or would you go all out and become a rock star?

In another life, I’d probably just be a musician. I love performing - the instant feedback of a crowd (when you don’t suck) is really gratifying, I love song writing and arranging, and I love collaborating with other musicians.
"The Totoro of Franklin Avenue" - This was my contribution to the Totoro Forest Project where artists from around the world depicted what their personal Totoro might be. I drew my inspiration from the attic bedroom I spent most of my childhood in.
You work almost exclusively in Photoshop when you work for clients and on film projects and use the computer to build on pencil sketches you have done and scanned in. You say you would miss the grit of the pencil on the page if you sketched images using a Wacom tablet but, in a similar way, do you at all miss the feel (and smell) of using paints? The element of (minor) danger of messing up an image? The randomness that paints bring?

Absolutely. I’d do everything in oil paints if I could, but I live in a Manhattan apartment with my wife and toddler, and my deadlines tend to be measured in hours or days rather weeks, so it’s just not really an option. And I wouldn’t want to do anything like use toxic driers or crystal clear to speed things up. The other reality check for me is that I haven’t really used oil paints in over ten years so I’m guessing I’d need a little ramp up time to not just be embarrassing. 2 or 3 years maybe? Maybe ten?
Finally, is there going to be and Out of Picture 3 and can we hope that you will contribute?

Well, if there is an Out of Picture 3, I would certainly like to think that I’d be involved, but maybe not to the extent that I was in the first two. I not only contributed stories to OOP 1 and 2, but I also designed and laid out the books which took almost as much time as creating my stories. It was an enormous time investment that I just couldn’t pull off now.

We don’t really have any plans to do a third book, however. The publishing world has changed quite drastically since the economic downturn a couple years ago, and we’ve all gotten so busy with our day jobs and home lives that it’s a lot harder to make that kind of time commitment. We’re all such perfectionists in our own ways that nobody wants to do something in which they’re not completely invested. I think most everyone involved loves the idea of doing another book, though. It’s a great excuse for a bunch of friends who no longer live near each other to do something together.

Perhaps we’ll find ways to make smaller more bite size book projects materialize? Who knows?
This is from my short story "Under Pressure" from Out of Picture Volume 2. It revolves around a prisoner who while trying to escape from his underground mining prison finds himself far below the surface where he discovers strange creatures who threaten to destroy any mining operation which might endanger their habitat.

Questions Every Artist Gets Asked

What has been your career highlight to date?

This would have to be the Paris gallery show opening for Out of Picture 1. First off, we had a gallery opening in Paris!!! That was unbelievable - but then so many people turned up that the crowd spilled outside the gallery and it was like a street party on one of the oldest streets in Paris! We made a lot of friends that trip, and it was really amazing to meet so many people who just loved comics and animation. Just thinking about it makes me smile.
This is the last panel from "Under Pressure". The now recaptured prisoner holds the lone piece of evidence that his strange journey actually happened.

What was your big break into the illustration industry?

I think I’m still waiting for it! I started out as an illustrator local to the Pittsburgh area when I got out of art school, and never really did any high profile illustration work.

The coolest illustration job I did was for a magazine called Diversity, Inc. A magazine devoted entirely to diversity in the workplace. They asked me to illustrate an entire special issue in 2006, so I proposed using birds as the theme for the issue. They went for it! The real challenge was coming up with over a dozen different bird metaphors for all the various articles without repeating myself. The art director on that job was awesome. He only gave me notes on one of the pieces and let me run with rest. That NEVER happens. A lot of the bird illustrations on my site are from that job.
"Birds of All Feathers..." - This was the cover illustration for a special issue of Diversity Inc Magazine for which I was asked to do all the illustrations. Best illustration job EVER.

What was the best piece of artistic advice you have received or can offer?

Alan Cober - an illustration legend here in the US who I was fortunate enough to do a workshop with before he passed away -once told me that lots of people can draw and paint, but what sets an artist apart from others isn’t style, it’s how they think. He encouraged me to focus on my thought process, that that was where my voice was in my work. By far the best artistic advice I ever received.

What do you think is the most effective way you market yourself and your work?

I got a few jobs when I listed my work on the iSpot, but just having a website has done more than the thousands of dollars I spent on ads in some of the big illustration annuals.
This is an image from a short graphic tale called "Newsbreak" from the graphic anthology Out of Picture Volume 1 about a guy who gets obsessed with 24-hour cable news and let's his obsession get the better of him. 

As an artist, what are your biggest challenges that you face?

Complacency in my personal work. I get so invested in my work on films that I find it harder and harder to muster the energy or creativity to just create work for myself.

Michael don’t Knapp yet, there’s some more: Randoms

If you could go back in time and witness a historical event, what would it have been?

I would have loved to be in the audience when Windsor McCay first showed Gertie the Dinosaur. I was always blown away by hand drawn animation as a child, but just imagine watching an animated cartoon before anyone even knew one could exist!
I also kind of wish I’d been alive and old enough to appreciate when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. I get the feeling we won’t see anything quite that mind-blowing in our lifetime, but I hope that’s not the case.

If you could have lunch with a fictitious character, who would that be?

Derek Smalls. Because he’s awesome, and he might possibly make me feel better about myself as a musician. But probably not.
This is a panel from the second page of "Under Pressure" showing an overview of the deep mining operation which is the setting for a prison break gone wrong. I relied heavily on tight pencil renderings for this story since I really liked the texture and atmosphere it gave to the story. I initially thought I'd save time by doing less painting, but the pencils and layout changes wound up taking at least as long as the work on "Newsbreak."

What film do you wish you had originally directed?

I’m going to answer this as films I wouldn’t change but wish I could have been responsible for... The Game (by David Fincher), The Hudsucker Proxy (by the Coen Brothers) or The Jerk. There may be other greater films that I love, but I feel like these films have more commonalities with my sensibilities than other films.
What really grinds your gears?

Having photoshop crash right as I’m trying to save a file.

What painting (by another artist) do you wish you had originally painted?

Anything by N.C. Wyeth, Craig Mullens or Ralph McQuarrie.

You can see more of Michael Knapp's work at

1 comment:

  1. Got to love Knapp...
    Great Interview, thanks.....



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