Saturday, September 17, 2011

Interview with Shelley Low

When I met Shelley Low at SVA as a freshman in 2007, she was already a junior. At the time, she was working diligently on a scene for a class project in Howard Beckerman's third year class, of a horse trotting in a circle. There was so much involved in that one scene; perspective, believable horse locomotion and solidity of the drawings, and of course I was pretty blown away by it all. Over time, I got to see more of Shelley's work. Her drawings have a natural flow and grace, loaded with appealing charm and character. That is something I've always strived for in my own work, and Shelley seems to capture it effortlessly. It was a driving force and inspiration to me for the remainder of my studies and pushed me to hone my craft as far as I could.

Over the course of the following year, I saw bits in pieces of her thesis film in progress and how much time and energy she was devoting to it. The final film (which is embed below) was one of my favorites at the Dustys screening in 2009. And although her education at SVA was over, I continuously ran into her working in the computer lab and the studio. For the following two years, she came back to the studio to give a helping hand to her underclassmen friends and their own thesis films. She seemed to be reliving her final year of school all over again, along with holding down jobs outside the studio. Her devotion not only to her work but to her friends never ceases to amaze me.

Over the summer, I met again with Shelley and talked to her about her inspirations, her work, her time at SVA and what she's been up to nowadays:


MR: So what inspired you to become an animator? What was it that appealed to you? Was it an early age thing?

SL: An early age... I did grow up on classic Disney and Warner Bros., primarily Looney Tunes. There was a period where I refused to watch anything that wasn’t animated.

MR: So in Singapore, were they subtitled or were they dubbed?

SL: Oh no, they weren't dubbed. My family is English-speaking anyway. Tom and Jerry I grew up on too and that didn’t even have dialog. But yeah, a lot of classical Golden Age stuff I watched as a kid did inspire me. And of course, you know, Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, etc. The Second Golden Age really came up during my childhood, so that was really inspiring for me. I started acting like a cartoon character for a long time. I honestly learned how to anticipate and stuff like that before I even knew what I was doing, just by watching Looney Tunes and such.

MR: So even before you started to say, "I want to be an animator"…

SL: Well, art was the one thing I knew I was good at.

MR: Oh, so you already drew?

SL: Yeah, I was drawing my whole life, but it was just a hobby for a really long time, and then I actually started to pay attention and try and get better, and realized, "I'm actually improving! Wow, I'm actually pretty good. I should keep going with this," and so I did.

MR: Did you just think, "I want to be an artist", and then it kind of followed up into animation?

SL: What's odd is that my other love is science.

MR: You love science? It's a good balance.

SL: I didn't get terribly good grades in science. Not good enough to do anything with it.

MR: Is it because you're interested in the concepts of science, but not the nitty-gritty... details and formulas?

SL: That's pretty much it, I think. I love science, I love the beauty of it. And mathematics too, but not in the same way. I used to anthropomorphize chemical elements and draw little comics to help me study.

MR: Did it help you on tests?

SL: Well my teacher thought it was amazing. It never really went anywhere in the long run, because everything got more complicated and abstract as we progressed and finally I had to say, "Okay, I can't draw this." I would still love to revisit some of those topics from a creative point of view and see what comes out of that.

I really loved chemistry, and I liked biology a lot too. I could never really get into physics, but you know, maybe I'll try again. I appreciated mathematics a lot more as I got older. Not so much when I was a kid, obviously, but more so when I actually started understanding what it was about, as opposed to just going through the motions with the formulas and such. I don't think I have a particularly mathematical mind, but once I get it, I get it.

But science was my other big love. And I wanted to go into veterinary school at one point too because I would love to work with animals, but then I actually worked in a vet's office and a dog died, and it just made me think: I don't know if I could deal with that on a regular basis. It would be good to help animals, I would love to do that, but you’re not going to be successful all the time. Not even doctors are successful all the time, and I'm not sure if I could deal with that.

MR: But was it like a 50/50 thing, like veterinary work or animator?

SL: Yeah, I wasn't really sure. I was fifteen years old or so, I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do with my life. I just knew what I was good at. I liked writing, but that was not really something I was great at or had a real passion for, so that was out. Then it was just between being an artist and being in vet school and I was afraid that going to art school would kill my love for it. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case.

MR: As far as veterinary stuff – the interest in animals, do you think that helped you artistically? Given that you’re known for being good at drawing animals.

SL: Oh, completely. You draw what interests you, and I’ve definitely drawn a lot of animals.

MR: Did you study anatomy books or anything like that?

SL: I actually studied my dog, because my dog is a greyhound, so she’s basically a live skeleton! I just followed her around the house and drew her in different poses. I had a Victor Ambrus book about drawing animals, and he had a lot of tips about how to successfully draw animals. A big thing that I learned from the books was just how to get the basics of the pose down immediately, and with animals that's important because you can't really ask them to stay still for hours on end like you can with models. So I practiced on my dog and I actually got pretty good at it. Just roughing out poses, getting down the anatomy really quickly.

MR: And did you use any of those drawings when you submitted a portfolio?

SL: I definitely included life drawings in my SVA portfolio. I was really good at life drawing for a while. I don't have the patience for it anymore.

MR: Life drawing in terms of people, or...?

SL: Still life. I was good at that. And it was good for me because it trained me to replicate on paper what I saw with my eyes. But I could only go so far with realism before I got bored with it, and it was just like, "Yeah... I want to move on now, because I've done all I can with this."

MR: What was the name of the book? Who's the author?

SL: Victor Ambrus. I haven't really heard the name around, so I don't know if he's really known here at all. Anyway, he’s an illustrator, he did some illustrations for children’s books I used to read, and he wrote several books about drawing that were helpful to me.

MR: So you get to SVA in 2005?

SL: I get to SVA in 2005, after finally deciding that I want to go into art and animation.

MR: Was it a big deal, coming to New York City and trying to get immersed? Was it a big change or did you get used to it quickly?

SL: It was a HUGE change, but I actually got used to it pretty quickly because I met a lot of people here that I clicked with in a way that was different from…

MR: Back home?

SL: I have a number of good friends back home. But they're not really arty people for the most part. I enjoy their company, and I can even share my love for animation with them, but it's not the same.

MR: Yeah, they don't have as much of an interest in it.

SL: You remember the Satoshi Kon film, Paprika? SVA had a screening of it and they had Satoshi Kon come in and everything because I was busy with projects and I was really annoyed because I wanted to see it. I went home that summer and it was showing at an arthouse theater when I was back, and I thought, "Oh, awesome! I get to see it on the big screen after all!" So I asked some of my good friends, "Do you want to go see this movie with me, because I'm really excited about it" and they said "Well, we’ve already downloaded it, so why don't we just watch it at my house?"

And they would not pay for tickets, because they already had the movie, so, "why pay for tickets?" And I think that was actually pretty heart-breaking for me because of course I’m going, "but it's different on the big screen and... animation..."

In the end, I just went to see it with my parents, who are film buffs, so I can usually count on them to watch things with me that nobody else will. But still, it’s different when you see movies like that with people that do that kind of work. If it had happened here, I would have easily been able to get a bunch of people to go see it with me. And we would all have been excited about it and we'd probably have gone to a diner or something afterwards and had a long conversation about the film over dinner. It's that kind of thing that I can't really do with very many friends back home.

MR: At SVA, you immediately clicked with a bunch of people.

SL: I had a good vibe about SVA in general, and I don't really have any regrets going. The animation program isn’t perfect, but I met a lot of people there that I'm really proud and happy to know.

MR: How was thesis year, anyway?

SL: It wasn't as horrible as people were making it out to be. I guess because I didn't bite off more than I could chew? I mean, people always try to do more than they're capable of and then they kind of... oh well.

MR: On your film, was it a one-man show, or did you have people helping you out?

SL: I had a handful of people help me out. I had.., it was mainly for menial stuff like scanning and coloring. I actually would rather not have had any help at all, just because I'm a control freak like that.

MR: You're a perfectionist?

SL: I am, and I also don't like having to explain the process over and over. But two of my friends, Tris (Waples) and Brian (Kaufman) actually wanted to help me, and they came up and asked if I needed help, and I said, "Well, sure. I can give you a couple of simple scenes just to try." Tris mainly wanted to figure out how he was going to color his own film for the year after that. So I said, "sure, try this method out. This is what I'm doing." They just wanted to get experience where they're really working with people, and that's why they were going around asking thesis students if they needed it. So I was happy to oblige, really.

But other than a handful of people, I basically did it all myself. I mean it's a three-and-a-half minute film. There's really no excuse for me not to finish on time, you know?

MR: When did you finally come up with the idea? Was it late in the game?

SL: It was... it kind of germinated in March before thesis year, and then over the summer I kind of developed it. I knew I wanted the central idea... I think I wanted the film to be a lot more wacky originally, just cartoony-styled stuff bouncing all over. I was getting into doing more of that at the time and I wanted to try it, but I don't think my skills were up to snuff at the time, I was still figuring a lot out in terms of both drawing and animation. I could probably do it now, and I’d probably have designed the characters more differently now too. But at the time I was still relatively naturalistic so in the end I just opted to go with what I was good at.

I wanted to challenge myself, because I knew everyone was going to expect I would do a puppy film and I didn’t want to go the easy route. I wanted to challenge myself, but I was thinking, I don't know if I could do a whole film with people. Firstly because that's not really what inspires me generally, I’ve always been more inspired by nature and animals. And secondly because my skill at drawing humans was not as developed as it is now. I wanted a challenge but at the same time didn’t want to be tearing my hair out during the production process.

So I focused on animals that I would enjoy drawing, but that I had not really tried drawing before, so I would have to figure out the movement of them by looking at actual reference and studying how they move.

MR: So instead of doing something with dogs or cats, you tried to do a pangolin and monkeys.

SL: Yes, yes.

MR: Did you study a lot of...?

SL: I did, actually. There's a lot more pangolin footage around on the internet now than there was when I started making my film, which I'm happy about but also kind of annoyed about because it's like, "Well this would've been helpful."

MR: Did you realize, "Oh, a pangolin can't move this way?", or...?

SL: Yes I did. They mainly walk on their hind legs and they only use their claws now and again for balance. The claws are mainly for ripping apart insect mounds and stuff like that, so they don't really use them to walk because they have to grow out really long and powerful. So they're not really for walking. I was doing all this research about the adaptations that these animals have to thrive in their environment.

I also wanted to pick something close to home because durians are a big symbol of my country to me, or of my region of the world at least. My dad loves them. I'm not a huge fan, weirdly enough, the taste and smell are too strong for me, but they always make me think of time spent with my family since we’ve spent many a night sitting around chatting and eating them. That’s how I spent a lot of nights during my summer vacation home, since that’s also when they’re in season.

MR: Four years of school – what did you think you got the most out of them?

SL: I learned a great deal, my drawing and technical abilities have definitely improved. But probably the best thing I got out of college was meeting the main group of friends I have now, we hang out a lot, talk a lot about movies and games, and collaborate on a number of projects too. It's fun being friends with creative people.

MR: Did you get anything out of your thesis film?

SL: I did feel like I accomplished something. And it was the first full-color, full-sound, full-everything film that I ever made. It was cool just seeing it on the big screen, though it was also terrifying – the screen is so huge! But people apparently liked it, and that makes me happy.

MR: So what happened after you graduated?

SL: I got a full-time internship at World Leaders and was there for quite a while. They were still doing Venture Bros. at the time, so I had a fair amount to do. I got to work on a nice variety of projects, definitely a big learning experience. And I get to say that I worked on Venture Bros.!

MR: And what were you doing as an intern there?

SL: A lot of the stuff was data checking and organizing things. I had to panel storyboards – cutting the panel part of the storyboard out and saving that as a separate file so that they can make the animatic. Most of the interns were doing that kind of thing, at least at first.

MR: So it was more like computer management and leading to the editing process?

SL: It was like that at first, but if you get into good relationships with people, which I did, you start getting more and more responsibility. At one point I got to check lipsynch on the x-sheets – which was pretty amazing for me, to be trusted with something so important.

MR: And how long did you do that for?

SL: I was at World Leaders for about a year, full-time and then part-time when I got another part-time job. After that, they didn't really need that many people anymore because they were wrapping up production on Venture. And by then I had been hired on at another studio anyway, so it worked out.

MR: That was Bunko Studios, yes? How did you find that job?

SL: I made friends with another intern at World Leaders, and she recommended me to the head of Bunko. I sent him my reel and my film and he liked it, so I became an intern there. At first it was relatively quiet because they weren’t working on a lot of projects when I came aboard, but eventually they asked me to come and work as a Flash animator on Sid the Science Kid, since they were going to be starting production on the second season of that, and I was more than happy to jump on that. Fun project to work on, and I learned a lot.

MR: So you do traditional animation, AfterEffects, Flash animation…

SL: Yes, and I'm a lot more comfortable with Flash than I used to be since learning some tricks from professionals. I can do basic motion graphics work with AfterEffects but I’ve yet to really explore it.

MR: Photoshop, Illustrator? I know you're learning, because I've seen some of the stuff you're doing with Illustrator.

SL: Yes, I'm attempting to learn Illustrator. I'm trying to get used to it, it's just really different from what I’m used to. Photoshop I have been using for years, and sometimes it’s hard to break out of the mindset of how that works. And Flash I'm actually very comfortable with now, I can do vector art in Flash no problem. Using it is relatively intuitive for me, whereas Illustrator...

MR: It's more technical.

SL: Definitely. Drawing mechanics in Illustrator are a lot better than Flash, though – I'll give it that. I hated Flash at first and now it's like my best friend, so I am hoping that in time Illustrator and I will have a better relationship.

MR: The thing I like about Flash is that it's quick, you can just dive in and animate something, but the problem is that just trying to make things look beautiful in flash is hard.

SL: Yeah, very true!

MR: What do you enjoy doing when you're not working?

SL: I would really like to start working on my own projects again.

MR: What, like a personal film or...?

SL: I don't know about a film just yet. I still have to recover from helping last year’s thesis students. I’m good friends with a number of them and I spent so much time in the studios helping them out, it was like living thesis year all over again.

MR: So it was like Thesis, Part Two.

SL: I didn’t appreciate how much I had taken on until after that year was over and I realized how tired I was. Don’t get me wrong – it was fun hanging out with my good friends, and helping them work on their films. They’re good films, and I’m happy I played a part in making them, but it all took a lot out of me, more than I would have expected.

MR: Besides animation, do you just enjoy drawing?

SL: I love drawing, always have and still do. I haven't done it in a while, and I think it's because I stopped going to classes. That's kind of sad, but it's true – and I think this holds true for a lot of artists my age – somehow the drawings I like the most are the ones I doodle on my notes during class.

Right now, I'm kind of drawing blanks on inspiration of my own, but I’d still like to practice my drawing skills. I still want to draw, I just don't really feel like being creative right now – but I’m hoping to get ideas again as I get back into drawing. You can’t force these things.

MR: Right. I've been drawing the same stuff over and over.

SL: I know, it gets boring after a while, so then you think, "Okay, I feel more like drawing other people's characters than my own right now." And that’s what I’m planning to do pretty soon, actually. Drawing things you didn’t design or create yourself can be really challenging and rewarding, and a nice change of pace. It’s fun to either try drawing in somebody else’s style, or transmitting a character into your own style.

MR: What do you enjoy animating most?

SL: Recently, my animator sensibility has been getting more and more cartoony. I love squash and stretch, that's not a surprise, and I use it all the time right now. I'm trying to get crazier with expressions, because I know that's not a big strength of mine, but I'm attempting it.

MR: So you're trying to exaggerate?

SL: I'm trying to exaggerate more, yes. It’s a challenge for me since I’m relatively conservative in my drawings, but we all know by now I love challenges.

MR: I know you said your influences were classic Disney, but was there any movie that made you just click? Was there a ‘click’ movie?

SL: I don't know if there was any one movie in particular. I would say a big artistic/story influence is Brad Bird, I've loved all of his movies, and from interviews and his commentaries and such, he just sounds like a really great person to work with. It's what I'd aspire to be like in the future.

MR: You'll work towards it.

SL: I don't know if I'm really a story person, I don't think that's my strength. I think I'm mainly character animation, and I do intend to get better with that. I’m not as good as I’d like to be by a long shot, but I’m working on it.

MR: Well, you're branching out, so...

SL: It's a process, you know. I can't get too stuck on that. I'm not sure if there was any one pivotal thing that made me want to do this. Maybe it was just seeing all the behind-the-scenes animator stuff on the Disney Channel that they used to show whenever they had a new movie out – when they have the concept art, and they have the people talking about that, and the process of making the film. Just seeing the animators talk about what they do, it was really fascinating to me.

MR: Do you remember long enough ago that they still used to show the old Walt Disney show on TV?

SL: Yes, I think. I just liked seeing the behind-the-scenes stuff, and I thought that it would be great if I could do that someday. At first I was afraid because I know it's tedious work. You know how some people go in thinking, "Oh, this is going to a party! This is going to be easy"? No, I knew it was going to be tedious going in, but surprisingly, I liked it.

I think that was partly because of my first year teacher, because he's Mr. Positive-Reinforcement. But that was actually a fantastic first year for me as far as academics, because he gave me the freedom to experiment and play around, and I felt invincible. I felt like I could draw anything, I felt like I could do anything and I was just on top of the world.

MR: Now your other teachers... second year you had...?

SL: I had Doug Crane. And that was good too, because he helped tone me down a little bit. I learned how to be on model better, and also his effects animation exercises were really useful. But at the same time, I did kind of fall into that trap where it's just like "key, key, now inbetweens"…

MR: It became more technical.

SL: It became much more technical and I did have to break out of a formula, and I feel that I eventually did. But I broke out of that much much later – at Bunko, actually. When I worked on Sid, I was animating stick figures, and you don't have to pay much attention to getting stick figures on model, except for things like keeping count of the number of fingers you were putting on him, the number of hairs he has coming out of his head, things like that. Aside from that, you can just do whatever you want.

MR: It's also good to sort of get outside of your comfort level.

SL: Exactly, for example – I never really played around with smears before I worked on Sid, and then I started using them all the time. And I was playing with timing, I was playing with different movements, things I hadn’t really experimented with before because I was worrying about other things, and it was just a lot of fun. I felt like I was learning how to animate all over again.

MR: And you had Howard (Beckerman) third year...

SL: I did.

MR: And what did you get out of Howard's?

SL: I had to collaborate with my class on a film based on an idea that he pitched to us, and that was definitely a learning experience. Also, I was assigned to design and animate a horse. I was known for being the ‘animal specialist’ in the class by then.

MR: Once you animate a horse – a horse is different from any other animal.

SL: They’re difficult because they're-

MR: Rigid creatures?

SL: Yes, more so than dogs and cats, anyway. But they're fun at the same time. I did a cycle of the pony that I was really proud of, her prancing around in a circle. I did a lot of work I was proud of on that film in fact. Everyone worked hard and we were all happy with it in the end.

MR: And with each year, did you feel like you moved to a new level?

SL: Most definitely. Technical skill first and then more branching out to actual narrative, I suppose, Howard’s big on storytelling as you probably know. Also it was good to work with people I knew, and I learned a few things about how to work as a team.

MR: Where do you see yourself in five years?

SL: I'm not entirely sure where I'd like to go or where I'd like to be at this point. I mean, I know I want to be doing art, and I would love the freedom to be my own boss, but maybe in five years I’ll want stability instead of freedom, I don’t know. For now I would actually like to bounce around for a while. I'd like to work on a variety of projects, build up my portfolio and reel more, just spend a while developing my skills some more in the professional world. Maybe attempt to do motion graphics or 3D, even though I'm not hugely into that. The technical side of things is definitely something great to know and have in your skillset. I just feel like there’s a lot I still have to learn, and frankly, I’m excited.

all artwork in this post © Shelley Low

Check out more of Shelley's work on her blog.