Tuesday, January 27, 2009



Mark McDonnell Interview

Tell me a little bit about yourself, about your life? What helped prepare you to become the artist that you are today?

I'm a native Californian who grew up in a town called Westlake Village, which is about 45 minutes north of Los Angeles. I think I was just one of those kids who was always alert and able to see things others either looked over or didn't take the time to notice. I suppose I am just talking more about being more observant than having a super power here. In fact, recently I just had a nice lunch with my parents where my dad was telling me stories where I would pull him aside during one of our walks when I was young and ask him if he could see the elephant that appeared in the clouds or the lizard that was crouching on the rock next to the bed of dried leaves by the river bed. I was the kid always chasing butterflies and picking daisies when I was supposed to be getting ready to catch the ball in the outfield in my youth. As I grew older I was more into sports and the thrill of competition . . . But it was not really until I saw the movie Aladdin (in 1992) that I realized animation and art was something that a person could do for a living. It just was the right place at the right time. I sort of looked like Aladdin when I was around 17 or 18 and all the girls at my high school began calling me Aladdin. Needless to say, it definitely struck a cord.

From there I went to CSU, Chico to study art but the art program was less than desirable. It was more about using pig intestines to create sculpture or how to create a paper boat that had to hold you afloat in the local stream than foundational artistic ideas. They were trying to teach more cerebral ideas than technical know-how, which I think is good but is more meaningful after you have learned the fundamentals. The one lucky thing I learned was the beginnings of Photoshop (2.0) and what the digital world was about to unlock. After graduating I realized that I really needed to learn the fundamentals and what it really takes to work at a studio. I started taking as many night classes that I could to learn figure drawing, anatomy and the fundamentals that would make an artist able to work in the industry. In the Animation and Entertainment business (more often than not) it's not the piece of paper that says you graduated with an art degree, it's the solidity of your craft and the skills you have at your disposal. It was a big wake up call. I began pouring myself into my art and spent countless nights drawing things over and over and over again just to make sure I understood what was in front of me and later what I could create from my imagination. Something that I feel is very important to understand is, Art and Craft are really a never-ending goal to obtain. However, this is a goal that you should be comfortable knowing that it will take one and a half life times to obtain and be okay with that. It took me a while to understand this and even longer to be at ease with it.

How do you go about drawing, and what goes through your mind, from start to end?

Shiiish! I think drawing is more about answering questions and thinking more than the physical application of placing a pencil, pen, or stylus down on the page. These questions will lead you to what needs to be drawn or created. It's easy to get lost when you first get started on a design. I know I often do. The excitement of a new challenge makes the mind and arm start to throw lines down. But you really have to pull back and think it through to try to get something truly unique and different down on the page.

- For character design I try to think about the most important thing; to know who or what this person or entity is. Is it a hermit that lives in the depths of the forest, collecting fairies and woodland creatures to sell to witches and forest dwellers as ingredients to their spells? Or is it a lovely princess in a long silken dress bathed in light, the light of enlightenment that loves first kiss will break the spell and unite the two once great kingdoms her father (the King) died protecting from the evil troll Mainyu (the one that formed a thousand legions of goblins and other unsavory creatures lurking throughout the land)? From there it's a fun battle of refinements and adjustments that leads you down the road of discovery. It becomes more of a game of compare and contrast and trying not to repeat a design either yourself or someone else has done . . . unless that is the goal of the studio or job. I do have to say I am greatly fascinated with shape and shape design. But I am definitely aware that within the shape(s) there has to be an understanding of the character or persona exemplified and embedded within the design, not just a pretty shape that does not pertain to who the character is. You also have to ask yourself what medium is this character going to be created for? Television, film, a video game, or feature animation? Is the medium going to be 2D or 3D? All of the technical requirements of each will change the nature of how you design it in many regards. Most recently I have been more aware of posing my characters. I have begun to ask myself more and more, does the pose communicate who the character is at their core? Is this pose indicative of who they are . . . is it a clear readable sign that says what their personality is? From there it's playtime because I have figured out who they are and now it's on to acting and what they are thinking about. I suppose it all sounds a bit daunting but it really is a fun game of discovery and a challenge that will make you smile in the end.

- For Layout/Background design I attack the design the same way with asking questions but I think more about mood and how this particular structure(s) should feel. Is it a dark and mysterious port at the outreaches of a major city where far-away travelers seek to blend into the crowd? Is this damp cool port surrounded by a choking fog that is symbolic of how they feel about the constraints of the city life around them? Or is it a warm hazy city that was once a gleaming image of a homeosynthesis and balance between humans and nature existing together as one? Or has this city now fallen into pollution and a lack of natural resources with no clean air unless you are wearing the right apparatus . . . an apparatus that comes with a price? I feel it's more about how it makes you feel than a design. There are different technical challenges to consider but it is very similar to designing a character. It does ask more questions at times than character design but is no more or less important than one or other. They should be a refection and union of both character design and layout/background design in both applications.

-For Story Sketches I tend to just go at it and see what happens. You usually have an idea or a short synopsis of what you are after capturing in the frame so it's a free-for-all. Sort of a get dirty and go from the gut sort of thing. It's more about compositionally fitting in all the elements to portray the story and the feeling the scene or image should have. If you don't come out with dirty hands or sweat from the heat of the Cintiq . . . it could be time to start over.

What is a typical day for you, and who are the people you work with?

I don't necessarily have a typical day. I have been a freelance artist for the last couple of years, so the jobs vary a great deal. I was an Art Director for a small branch at Technicolor Creative Services that serviced a great deal of studios and helped with a large amount of overflow from the studios. I am very lucky that I get to try my hand at a great many things. From character design, layout, backgrounds, color key set ups, set design for 3D, beat boards, storyboards, theme park design, video game design, graphic design, and recently book design . . . I get to work on a great deal of different projects. At this moment I am happy to be working as a development artist designing sets for an undisclosed 3D animated feature who I design characters, sets, and props for. It's a tough business so I set out to try to learn as many things as I can related to the creation of animated films and television shows. I've worked my way up to where I am today, and still striving for more along the way to becoming a better artist.

What are some of the things that you have worked on?

The first artistic job that I got out of college was working for Applause INC. I was working as a toy and product designer, helping to create toys and products for Warner Brother's, Waterford Crystal, The Franklin Mint, Thomas Kincade, Goebel's Hummel collectables, Keebler, Fox and Disney to name a few. But my primary job was working with the Disney products that were the give-away toys in the McDonald's Happy Meals. This was the first time I learned to love the smell of a PrismaColor and Tria Marker's. From here I was hired by Technicolor Creative Services shortly after. This was a small branch located right next to the Burbank Airport. We were based on the "North Side" lot were Disney created Dinosaur and a few other films. By the time I arrived on the lot, they had vacated but it was a great campus to work on. I worked as an Art Director for 7 years before they closed the creative division. It was here, working as an Art Director, I learned a great variety of skills out of necessity to get the job done and quickly and it helped me realize how much I wanted to be a part of the Animation Industry. Looking back it was great training and I worked with a lot of great people. I still do work with some of the same clients and people today. It was during this time I worked on nearly every Disney DVD that was put out creating content and added elements for their features. Coming full circle, one of the greatest experiences at this particular job was working with Eric Goldberg as the acting Art Director on the release of Aladdin on DVD.

Some of the clients that I work for currently and have worked for in the past are: The Walt Disney Company, Walt Disney Feature, Walt Disney Television Animation, Disney Toon Studios, Pixar, Miramax, Fox, H.I.T. Entertainment, New Line, Mattel, Sony, Sony Pictures Animation, Legendary Pictures, The Jim Henson Company, and Big Idea INC.

After the "Design Group" at Technicolor closed down I began working on the Tinkerbell series for Disney Toon Studios. I worked on that film both in pre and post-production, as well as the sequel North Of Neverland that is not out yet. Disney Toon Studios has a great deal of very talented artists and it was nice to be working in-house with some of them for a short stint. After Tinkerbell I was hired on to help out designing a 3D animated television show called 3-2-1 Penguins that was the product of Big Idea Inc. and is now playing on the Qubo television channel. I was working as a layout, color key, prop and character designer for the show. During that time I worked with about 8-10 directors on many episodes. They were really a great group of people to be associated with. At the same time I began working with Mattel on a new video game for their Hot Wheels brand. I created a new character that is to be one of their top products to expand and market and soon to branch off to other games as well. And from here I was contacted by some of Disney's Imagineering folks to help out and design a new store that is a character and environment based store front, while working at the same time on designing on a new theme park attraction at Avalanche Bay in Boyne Fall, Michigan where some of my family still lives. Whew. So it's been a whirlwind the last few years but I have been making my way into the Animation and Entertainment Industry at a steady pace. Oh. And I work at The Walt Disney Company teaching the costumed gesture design class to the employees as part of the Enrichment Department.

What are you working on now? (if you can tell us)

I am currently working on an 3D animated feature designing sets for Tina Price and Rick Maki's company, Digital or Not. And I have just finished my first self-published book: The Art And Feel Of Making It Real: Gesture Drawing For The Animation And Entertainment Industry!

I am very proud of The Art And Feel Of Making It Real as it has taken about a year and a half to write and put together all of the artwork. I thought it was a natural progression to put this book together since I had begun taking the class for the last 6 years, while teaching it the last two. I have been a teacher for several years and come from a family of teachers and I think it's naturally in my blood, for which I am very thankful. My parents are very thoughtful and encouraged me to answer my own questions with them pointing me in the right direction. I began teaching layout and background design at The Animation Academy and for the last few years I have taught my own updated version of the Walt Stanchfield style of drawing at The Walt Disney Company in regards to gesture drawing with an emphasis on storytelling.

Who do you think are some of the top artists out there?

Man. There are a lot of them.
I think too many artists shy away from this question so I will name the artists that mean the most to me and offer me spark and a raised eyebrow when I see their work.

Paul Felix is an artist that means a great deal to me. He is someone who has such drama and impact in his work, the same way Frank Frazetta makes you feel when he brings you into the picture plane and choreographs it to a "T." His tonal work is the pieces that resonate with me the most. It is very direct. Very primal and they just so happen to be elegant at the same time. Marcelo Vignali is another. His work is so beautiful it makes you want to cry. He is an artist that can conjure up an image that is so beautiful in spite of the subject matter. What I mean is, he can take a brutal fight sequence and create poetry out of it, for that I don't think there are many artists out there that can do that as well as he can . . . if any. Peter De Seve is so wonderfully comical yet his designs are anything but childish. His work is intelligent, sculpted and beautifully handled in his own unique style crafted in watercolor. Glen Keane's guttural animation and design work still gets me every time. The Beast, Long John Silver, Tarzan . . . it does not get better than that! And the fact that he does it with movement and design . . . he's remarkable. Hans Bacher, for his mastery of composition and the "suggestions" he offers. Steve Silver and John Nevarez. Two of the greatest mentors I have been lucky enough to know and be friends with over the years. Paul Lasaine, Luc Desmarchelier, Colin Stimpson, Jack Davis, Mort Drucker and of course the amazing Frank Frazetta, just to name a few.

Could you talk about your process in coloring your art, as well as the types of tools or media that you use?

I do the majority of my work in Photoshop. It's such an amazing tool that I have grown quite comfortable with over the years. I do prefer to do all of my layouts (the background drawings) traditionally and paint it digitally though. Somehow I still feel that the tactile quality of doing layout by hand cannot be replaced, but with character design I don't think that is true. But if I am not designing a background(s) for a production I will begin in the computer and just go straight to color, it's just so much faster. But I still do a great deal of sketching in my sketchbook traditionally of course. I have a love for almost anything I can get my hands on. Experimentation is key in the early developing stages of an artistic career. I have been doing a lot of pen/pencil sketches with maker on toned paper lately, mostly at local coffee houses and at the zoo in recent months. I have been seduced by watercolor over the last few years as well. I love to open up my watercolor box when I am doing my figure drawing and sketching on location. There’s something about it, it's so freeing and it really makes you feel attached to being “an artist” and the artists that came before you (and the digital era).

What part of designing is most fun and easy, and what is most hard?

I think the most fun part of a design (be it character design, layout, story sketches, or visual development) is in it's beginning stages where there is free reign to experiment and try all sorts of styles or techniques at coming up with something new and different. I also do enjoy when you reach an understanding and can see where the design is heading and you can dig in and polish it to where you would like (time permitting I suppose). It's hard on a production because many times you may want a chance to finish a painting or color a design but there is not enough time as the design needs to be sent down the production pipeline so more work can be created.

- On the other side of the coin, the most difficult part of a design for me is generally making sure the design adheres to the look and feel of the film or show you are working on. Not getting it close, but making sure all the designs and the shape language is unified with the other designs and designers that are working together. That is something that I struggle with more than anything else. Coming onto something new takes a little time to get in the flow on a project. I am personally drawn to comedic designs and a feeling of great character, but at times that is not something that needs to be communicated and I have to really work hard to pull back and make sure my first pass is more on point as my designs tend to lead to comedy at first thought. And creating a compelling model sheet and doing your turns is a battle sometimes. It's much easier to create a nice 3/4 pose that you are proud of, but then you have to make sure the design works and can be used for production purposes. Because of this I do feel that I have a lot to learn and that over time the fun things and the hard things will change depending on my level of experience. This is something I look forward to over the coming years.

What are some of the things that you do to keep yourself creative?

Keeping creative is a full time job! I do a LOT of sketchbook sketching when I can. I am the guy at the local coffee shop or shopping mall trying not to stare at any one person for too long. I think a sketchbook really is a gift to any artist. In it you can practice and noodle on a limitless amount of things. From character design, action analysis, location design, color, pencil, pen, acrylic … any medium is perfect to experiment with in a sketchbook. If you like to sketch animals, creatures, or people, it's all at the tip of your fingertips. In the class I teach at Disney, as well as in my book, I talk about different places that are perfect solutions to practice or experimentation away from the prying eyes or a supervisor of a classmate sitting right next to you.

I also keep a journal that is full of creative thoughts and ideas. It could be a character idea, product design, quote, or a feeling of an environment that I dreamt about. It's more about having one place that you can jot things down and know it's in this one book, not on a million scraps of paper littered around the drawing table or buried deep within your computer somewhere. Working in production really does help to keep yourself organized and efficient, it's a nice byproduct that you can carry home with you.

I also really like to draw a great many things or subjects. There is a quote, "Jack of all trades, master of none." I think it's got a lot of truth to it but on the other hand I feel that it's really a cop out and that you should experience and be good at a great many things. The people that are a master are very respectable but many times you can tell they are hooked into just one thing and that they get bored down the line. You can see it in their designs. More often than not they are just repeating themselves. But, for the record, that's not to say "they" are all like that. I just think there is more to life than doing one thing for a living. We all have to stay employed but there are other things you can do to spice up your creative and commercial nature. Do you really think Da Vinci or Michaelangelo just wanted to do one thing?

What are some of your favorite pieces of art work that you have seen?

I love John Singer Sargent and Anders Zorn's works! Sargent's watercolors are so exceptional, heartfelt and freely individual it is tough to compare anything else to it. I had the privilege to travel to Sweden to see the Zorn Museum last winter and it was amazing! There is one piece, Tornsaret, and it still captures my attention with the highest of raised eyebrows. It's the only piece of work that was his own hanging in his house. It was hanging in his wife's bedroom and still remains there today. Spectacular.

I suppose I am drawn more to the feeling of something still "in the process" of being made. The feeling that something is still loose but all the pieces and parts are there; what's said is all that needs to be said . . . but it could still be carried to completion if need be. I am sure this stems from being in the Animation and Entertainment world where quickness is key and a strong idea outweighs a solid tight finished looking design. I believe this is why so many others and I are drawn to animation and entertainment development work. Artists such as Paul Felix, John Nevarez, Frank Frazetta, Rick Maki and a slew of others exhibit that rawness, where the idea is king and the feeling of everything is already there. There is a series of drawings that Paul did for Tarzan, where Tarzan confronts Kerchak and challenges his ideas and leadership. In these drawings is the heart of what I am talking about. Composition, story, value control, leading the eye, rhythm . . . there are loose pieces but the idea is there and they are really beautiful, masterful drawings. That's what I hope to achieve as I follow my own path in animation and entertainment. Whether it’s on the side or for production.

I also love the classic artists such as Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci, Pontormo, Rodin, and Raphael. My great aunt Elaine always encouraged me to look at these artists by handing me books to take home with me while I was on vacation visiting her. Their will to overcome and study anatomy and movement is really the basis for the industry, as it exists today. That's impressive! But at the same time I also love Eyvand Earle, Sebastian Kruger, Rein Poortvliet, Heinrich Kley, Brian Froud, Jean-Baptiste Monge, Regis Loisel, and Eric Canete, just to name a few. Inspiration is everywhere. That is why it is so nice to work in-house on a job. There are so many good artists and it's really nice to see what inspires others as it might inspire my own work as well. Also the blogging and deviant art world is such a great way to become exposed to a great deal of different and talented artists you never knew existed. It's pretty cool to be a part of it. It amazing really!

What is your most favorite subject to draw? And why?

I love to draw many things. But if I were pressed I would have to say characters are always something that is on my mind, more specifically creatures of the forest and woodlands of late. Going to Sweden really let me see though the eyes of my youth. I remembered and really enjoyed imagining what was around that corner or hiding underneath the ground as my girlfriend and her family invited me on many hikes in the Swedish countryside. I love taking out my sketchbook and creating characters or pulling the character out of an individual I encounter. It's really fun to be able to chuckle at your own work. Most of the time artists are so hard on themselves, it's nice to be able to look at one's work and be objective. I enjoy it. I also truly enjoy sketching with my friends in a group where we can casually discuss who we are seeing and share afterwards. Art is a great gift and I feel very lucky that I chose it, or it chose me... It comes with hard work but at the end the work is really it's own reward.

What inspired you to become an Artist?

Gosh. I was always drawn to art and my mom and dad were very aware of it and fed me a steady diet of plays, artwork, museums, and experiences that was much more than sitting in a dark room away from people hovering over my work. I am an outdoors kind of guy and I think I was lucky to see things like Yosemite and Hawaii and such in regards to environment and locations that inspire the human spirit to create a likeness. Aladdin really gave me purpose. That was the movie that inspired the "diamond in the rough." And soon after when Lion King was in production, my Aunt Jill was kind enough to introduce me to Kathy Bailey who was working on the film. She was very inspiring and that was the first time I could see that people really did make these sorts of films and had a good time making them. I also grew up with three films in particular that made an impact on me: The Wizard Of Oz, Pete's Dragon, and yes . . . Flash Gordon. They were all VHS copies that we would watch at my grandparents’ house. My brother Matthew and I would watch them over and over again. We never got sick of them. And the third, come on . . . "Go Flash, Go?" Guilty pleasure. He's the savior of the universe. It doesn't get better than that does it!

What are some of the neat things you have learned from other artists that you have worked with or seen?

That it does not come easy and that is takes time (and experience) to become good. If you work hard and really try to accomplish a task, you will. It only takes time and determination. If you are passionate at what you do, it will show in your work. I feel I got a late start. Working for 7 years as an Art Director was a great experience. But somehow I wish I had gotten a chance to start solely in animation. However, with that being said, I would not trade anything to change things. I have met a great many artists and friends that have made my life and my artistic life much more rich. Teaching artists at the Walt Disney Company has given me a great understanding of how many good artists are out there and you can learn from them, just as they can learn from you. Check your ego at the door. You can learn from many artists but you have to live life for yourself. I am an artist. However it is not my identity, it just happens to be a major part of who I am. It is easy to be consumed by getting better and obtaining knowledge and experience in the field. We all go though that stage. Some never get out of it. I feel it is important to live your life and learn from the experiences but not to let it contain you and limit your growth. Sounds a bit Tony Robbins, but it's true.

What are some of your favorite websites that you go to?

I start the morning off by checking five main sites: Cartoon Brew, Drawn, Lines and Colors, Animated News, and Character Design (your site). I'm not sucking up here. It's nice to see what is going on in the industry and to see what artists have to say about their work and their experiences. Especially how they got where they are today. On my blog: www.markmcdonnell.blogspot, I have a bunch of links to artists and the art community that I enjoy looking at. These are the people I keep my eye on and enjoy looking at over a cup of coffee in the morning.

What wisdom could you give us, about being an Artist? Do you have any tips you could give?

I think many of the things that I have already said speak about how I might approach things. The main thing is, there is no one-way of doing things. There may be different technical approaches that stay somewhat consistent, but in reality it's your mind and what you have to say that will make the difference. An artist that is amazing does things a specific way. But all his or her unique experiences and personal goals as well as training has lead him/her to that style or particular way of expressing themselves. You can't learn that in 10 minutes or by copying one drawing. Stay open to seeing things through another's eyes as well as your own, but follow your own vision. But be aware that there are many styles and design approaches that if you only stick to one . . . you may be missing something. Even the greatest artists that have a "signature style," often look at another's work or different ways of approaching the same subject they have worked with before. Never be content! Always follow a task with passion!

If people would like to contact you, how would you like to be contacted?

I can always be reached at two places


(I am pretty quick to respond, so please drop me a line if you would like.)

Finally, do you have any of your art work for sale (Book, Sketchbooks, Prints, or Anything) for people that like your work can know where and when to buy it?

Yes. I have a book that is going to be released the last week of March this year (2009).
The book is now officially available for pre-orders on my website and on my blogsite, which are listed below.

The synopsis of the book is as follows:

Mark McDonnell's The Art and Feel of Making it Real: Gesture Drawing for the Animation and Entertainment Industry is the one-source book that animation and entertainment enthusiasts have been waiting for! This self-published hardback contains 208-pages of full color illustrations and instruction offering you the key to opening the door to the long guarded secrets of studio only techniques, theories and practices.

This book will help to explain how to design and capture the essence of life through the knowledge of gesture drawing, increase observation skills and use basic design principles that will help to fuel the power of your imagination . . . all of which are important and necessary skills to have in the animation and entertainment industry! This book applies to animators, storyboard artists, visual development artists, concept designers and any person interested in working in the animation and entertainment industry. From hobbyists to industry professionals, this is the book that will help you create successful images with a strong focus on storytelling skills!

Mark McDonnell has blended his own sensibilities of instruction as well as continued teaching Walt Stanchfield's theories and practices at the Walt Disney Company to it's employees. This book is in addition to Stanchfield's previous thoughts and practices and more focused on tailoring teachings and words of wisdom to the industry and how it functions in today's times. It comes with a foreword by the legendary Eric Goldberg (Director/Supervising Animator at the Walt Disney Animation Studios), and contributing words by Andreas Deja (Supervising Animator/Visual Development Artist at the Walt Disney Animation Studios), Marcelo Vignali (Art Director/ Visual Development Artist at Sony Pictures Animation), and industry instructor Karl Gnass (Master Draftsman & Figure Drawing Instructor).

The book is now officially available for pre-orders on my website and on my blogsite