Thursday, May 10, 2012

Interview with Giorgio Renna

Like my friend Shelley Low (who I interviewed last September), I met Giorgio during my freshman year at SVA in 2007. Over the following four years, I got to know Giorgio and see his work progress and grow exponentially, culminating to his 2010 thesis film, Short Winded (a short excerpt appears below). His film was a highlight of that year's animation screening for me. Great animation, creative designs, incredible backgrounds... all done by him singlehandedly! His film was nominated for Best Film at that year's Dusty Awards.

A few weeks back, I met up with Giorgio and talked about his experiences so far and what his plans are for the future:


MR: At what point did you say "I wanted to become an animator" and how old were you at the time?

GR: I've asked this question myself to a lot of friends and they've all given me more or less this same answer. While it's hard to say exactly when it happened, I was one of those kids was drawing since the age of 2 or 3, who sees a Disney movie and thinks, "I want to make cartoons like they do", and it doesn't really hit you that you want to do it for a living at the time. But I would say I always wanted to do it, though I didn't know it for a fact until my late teens. But I've always had an inclination towards this profession.

MR: So you had an affinity for it early on, but you hadn’t considered it until later on, until high school that "I want to do this, I want to be an animator"?

GR: Exactly. I hadn't really considered it as a viable option until then. It seemed like it could only be a hobby and nothing more, at the time.

MR: Was there any specific movie that just made you click in your head that you wanted to do this?

GR: I have very fond memories of Aladdin and The Lion King. Those two are the main inspiration that eventually pushed me to want to be an animator.

MR: You’re from Italy.. and you’re seeing these films in Italian. And I know about Bruno Bozzetto, but is animation really a big market or does it have any sort of prominence in Italy?

GR: For the most part, it's all imported Japanese shows or American shows. But having said that, I've recently discovered of an Italian studio that actually produces some Italian cartoon that are being aired in the state like Winx Club. That show's been in Italy for a number of years now. There's a little bit of a movie industry there, though it's not as mainstream as Hollywood is here US. At some point in time, the movie industry in Italy, which was really strong in the 60s and 70s, just became much weaker than used to be.

MR: Have you been looking at any Italian filmmaking and animation?

GR: There aren't many recent films that pop out at me from Italy's modern film industry. They made a feature film about 10 years ago, which translated into English, was called The Seagull and the Cat, which is based on a Chilean novel of how a cat tries to teach this seagull how to fly. And it's actually a really nicely animated feature film with a really cool story.

MR: As far as art is concerned, was your family supportive of your decision? Did they embrace it or try to guide you into something else?

GR: My Dad was expecting me to get into architecture or nanotechnology. So you can imagine how well that conversation went [laugh]. But eventually, they were very supportive of my decision, and they did not hinder me from doing it, even if they might've been skeptical at times. And now my younger brother is also pursuing animation.

MR: Was he inspired by you?

GR: I wouldn’t say he was inspired by me, he always had the same general interests as I did. But I think seeing me go for it made him understand it was possible for him to go for it as well. Now he's studying CG animation at Ringling.

MR: Is Ringling in-

GR: It’s in Florida, and it's one of those schools were they take the students and put them in big companies right out of school. You could almost say it's the CalArts of CG animation.

MR: What made you decide to come to the US for college? Did you apply to any other schools? And was coming to the States a really really big jump for you?

GR: Well, it wasn't that bad since I lived here from the age of 6 to 10. Then I left to go back to Italy and came back for the 7th grade in to live DC, and have been here in the US since then. By this point, I've lived just as much in DC as in New York City.

MR: Why SVA? Did you look around for any other schools, or did you apply for any other schools? And what appealed to you specifically about SVA?

GR: SVA was close to DC, where my family was staying at the time so it was a convenient location. But, the last time I had lived in New York I was 10 years old, so I was way too young to begin too appreciate the environment the city can have, like the artistic culture, and the fashion styles and all those things. In retrospect I'm glad I chose SVA, because I got to experience the City in that sense. It has a lot going for it in the artistic scene, but being in an East coast city, animation-wise, it's different from what people tend to do over in the west coast.

MR: And did you ever think of going to the west coast?

GR: The west coast has a different style of animation, but I think it's just as appealing. I would love to go see what it's like there.

MR: So did you apply to other school besides SVA?

GR: Besides SVA? I applied to the Academy of Art University, which should be west coast… and I think I applied to RISD, and I got waitlisted there. In the meantime I got accepted at SVA, so I went straight for that, it was one of my top choices.

MR: Did you get accepted at any other schools?

GR: I got accepted into the Academy of Art, and for RISD I got waitlisted, but I can't remember past that.

MR: I see. So looking at it on a scale, you thought "I can go to school in New York City, that’s the thing for me."

GR: You know, it is. I've actually visited RISD too, and it's like a small town kind of environment and it's very suburban. Most of the students, to get around, they ride bikes. I had a friend there who I visited often, and after seeing the difference, I am so glad I went with SVA. Because living with all these people in a building, all together, in a crammed space… and then going to the studio – getting to know them better - helps build a big sense of camaraderie for me and I like that a lot.

MR: And you hit it off with people immediately?

GR: Yeah, right away. Since Orientation, I've been meeting people that I'm still very tight friends with today. And then I also met people like you there, and people that had been there years before me... everyone was just very friendly.

One of many backgrounds Giorgio painted for his thesis film, Short Winded.
MR: Who were your teachers? Did you get a lot out of them? What did they teach you?

GR: I had Doug Crane for first year, and I'm so glad I had Doug Crane. I had no idea who he was when he was assigned to me, because I didn't get to choose my teachers for first year, but... Doug Crane is really just one of those teachers that knows what he's talking about. He's been there, in the industry for a long time. He worked on He-Man and Raggedy Ann and Andy. He just knows all these little tricks... he is basically very old school but that was the great part about his teaching method: he wouldn't teach you how to animate how they would today, but how they used to animate. So you got to go from this basic sense of how to do things and, during my second year, I had a more modern teacher, Celia Bullwinkel, who introduced me to Flash and started getting into that. So now you get these two very contrasting approaches to animation.

MR: It’s a good foundation. Because everything’s analog. You learn everything the hard way first, and it gets easier as you go.

GR: Exactly, exactly. And I think it makes it easier than someone just handing you a program saying "Here's Macromedia Flash. Lear it and animation at the same time" and it's very counter intuitive. Whereas you can learn animation -you know how to use your right hand, or left hand if you're left-handed - and you just draw. Then, here's the program, apply what you learn by drawing and use it on this program. It's just more intuitive.

MR: And how was Celia’s second year?

GR: Celia's second year was great. We did a lot of acting exercises. One of my favorite ones that I did, was the sneezing exercise. You know it's little things like that. You think, "you know it's just a sneeze". But when you start getting into all the little details and nitpicking all the muscles that might move, the twitches of the body… the sneeze is a very complicated motion and it can vary a lot.

MR: What I liked about her assignments is that it was something either quirky or fun. One of them was a fat person sitting on a chair, and you would learn about weight and how to anticipate. And the fishing pole assignment.

GR: She does do a lot of those. I didn't get those two, because teachers seem to add stuff to their curriculum so I didn't get those. But, yeah, she did do a lot of thing that, at least on a subconscious level, would force you to use weight and form and incorporate that into your work. I'm guessing for third year you also had Howard [Beckerman].

MR: Yeah, I had Howard.

GR: So did I. He was great to have for third year. He had all these acting exercises and he was very… intricate about going about them.

MR: And what did you think you got out of Howard specifically?

GR: Howard is great, he is a very easygoing guy, but he's very strict and he knows what he wants you to get out of his animation exercises. He knows when the acting is good. Whether you're a good or a bad animator doesn’t necessarily mean you're good at making your character act the way he should be. And I was a pretty decent animator by that point, but my acting for my characters was not up to par. Howard's class changed that and made me see how much further I could push a character to express things or how to pantomime things.

MR: Any other favorite teachers or classes you think you got a lot out of?

GR: Don Poynter's Layout and Background class was very good. Just learning about colors and composition… that was so important.

MR: And now 4th year comes, and you’re up to your thesis year. How did you come up with the concept for your thesis film.

GR: My thesis film, which was Short Winded, is about this little wind sprite getting chased around the forest by a monster. The way I came up with it is that, earlier that summer, I had found out about a little French animation school called Gobelins. And their students make all these amazing quality little animated shorts, usually not lasting more than a minute, as you know. I had seen my first one that summer, which was Fenrir. And anyone who's seen Fenrir will ask me "Did you base your film off of that film?" And I would say yes, because I totally did. I was so blown away by how beautiful Fenrir was that I wanted to do something along those lines. Something kind of Tom and Jerry-esque, without too much of a character plot, not too deep, not too overwhelmingly emotionally involving… but something fun and light-hearted. You know, fast-paced, but light-hearted.

MR: I remember seeing it back when you were working on it, and you were doing everything. You did the backgrounds, the animation, everything. You had a lot on your plate. And it was about 4 minutes long… is it that long?

GR: It is that long, maybe a little bit past that now, because I added a little bit to the ending.

MR: How turbulent was your thesis year? [laughs] Were you killing yourself right at the beginning? 
Were you going through a lot of hurdles or was it pretty straightforward all the way through?

GR: It was a bumpy ride, but in the sense that there were times you felt like you were going uphill and other times where it felt like it was just smooth sailing all the way through, until you hit another bump and then you're again going uphill. I think the biggest problem for me was in the way beginning, and I gave myself time to buffer for this. And that was that I did not know how to paint in Photoshop.

MR: And who taught you?

GR: I taught myself.

MR: Really?

GR: The first background I did for the movie, which is also one of my favorite ones, took me three days to do. But it took me three days because I was learning to experiment with the program. After that I learned to work out and spit out background within a day's time. And I would get at least one done a day until I was done with all the backgrounds.

Another background from Giorgio's thesis film, Short Winded.
MR: And was the animation all on paper?

GR: No, I went completely digital. I used Flash. I wanted to do it with paper, but I knew that if I had gone traditional-

MR: You would never have finished.

GR: Yeah, because I planned for the fact that I didn't have time to scan papers and to composite them. 
By going completely digital, at least, I could guarantee that I could get that consistent that I was going for.

MR: After finishing you film, ranking up to your peers, your film went over pretty well?

GR: Yeah it did actually, it was nominated for Best Film.

MR: Looking back did you feel that SVA was overall a good experience? And what did you think you got the most out of those 4 years?

GR: Well definitely a lot of regrets, but also no regrets at the same time. The management of the department was a common concern of the students, and even of the faculty, as it's not run too well. But on the same count, so many of the students there are great friends and they're great contacts, they've given me jobs and tips, and the teachers keep in touch too. After getting the chance to meet all those people, I wouldn't give it up for anything, even if I had the chance to go back and change it.

MR: And that’s what you think you got the most out of it, the people?

GR: The people was the best thing, you can learn animation if you put your mind to it on your own time. Just buy the Animator's Survival Kit, spend tike practicing every day on your own time and learn it yourself, but you can't buy a book and meet all these great people. It's something that comes with the experience of being in that kind of environment.

a short excerpt from Giorgio's thesis film, Short Winded

MR: What do you enjoy doing when you’re not working? Do you like to draw or do you only draw when you’re working?

GR: After I spend an entire day working, it's really hard to go back to the computer and force yourself to draw for pleasure. You just want to go like "eh, I just want to watch TV for a bit", and you just watch TV [laugh]. But I do enjoy drawing, it's still fun, as it should be.

MR: How much outside drawing do you do?

GR: Not enough, that's always the answer [laughs].

MR: Have you thought of doing any work, like a personal short or work for your reel?

GR: Oh all the time. I always get some ideas I wan to do for some short. Recently, I was thinking that I would like to combine my interest for animation with my interest for video games, and I was thinking about programming a game. I want to learn C++, so I could eventually make some 2D side-scrolling old-school game.

MR: And this would be a game you would download on a game website, or something that would blow up to full proportion?

GR: Ideally I'd love for anything to grow to full proportion and be able to sell it, but you've got to start out small, especially when you're like me and you don't know any coding at all. You've got to look life in the eye and be real about it and understand that you're not going to make that huge game in the first shot. I'm going to go small with the first couple. If it's going somewhere from there and I'm having fun with it, from there I can always move on to something more serious.

MR: Do you do anything besides drawing, like sculpting or painting?

GR: Sculpting and painting, no. My main interest has only been drawing, and I couldn't turn my back on it for anything else. I would consider it counter productive to take up another interest, at which I'm not skilled to boot, in exchange for time I could be using to get better at those few skills that I'm really interested in.

MR: Do you prefer drawing on paper, or do you prefer digitally or either?

GR: I probably like drawing on paper best. It's more natural and the feel is nice to the hand. It's harder. On a computer you can erase, no matter how bad the mistake is. If you're using a pencil on paper, you can't completely erase the pencil line all the time. For painting and coloring, I would go digital all the way.

MR: Do you use Flash, or Photoshop-

GR: Yeah, Flash and Photoshop are the main ones. Photoshop mainly for painting since it can at least meld colors. Though I would like to try SAI some time soon.

MR: Have you tried other programs like TV Paint or Toon Boom?

GR: I tried Toon Boom very briefly. I want to get more into it, but I can't get my hands on an 'Animate' copy. The basic version doesn't have all the features I would like to use to actually be able to begin exploiting the program. I like that it takes the key components of Flash and it actually improves them for animation, whereas Flash seems to be moving away from that trend.

A digital piece by Giorgio Renna.

MR: What are some people or movies, that your work is either based or inspired from?

In The Lion King, the scene where Simba loses his father is very powerful. It's one of those scenes that is just burned into your brain, where I can still close my eyes and see it happening. As far as names go, he's not really related to my business, but Shigeru Miyamoto, the Producer from Nintendo.

MR: What inspires you about him? His style, his creative approach...?

GR: Yeah his approach to creating games and characters and starts with a simple idea. : let's take an Italian plumber, make him move from left to right, and if he reaches the flag pole enough times, he saves the princess. In terms of storytelling it's simple but it's still a narrative. As you move from left to right you create your own story as you go along. It's a very interesting way to tell a story interactively. Even with such a basic structure, the fact that the story can be, not just entertaining, but also enthralling, to me is very surprising. Playing "Super Mario World" and watching the ending credits I almost remember crying because I was so moved by the overall game experience, by the story. Not only did I just see the story, I was a part of it. It involves you and it moves you.

MR: Speaking of video games, have you heard about Wreck-it Ralph?

GR: I have, I have! I’m very excited about that movie, maybe even more so than Brave. Even though Brave looks gorgeous, the potential behind Wreck-It Ralph is amazing.

MR: Yeah, it will be mixing animation and video games. As far as an audience goes, not everyone is into video games. So to that point, they say it’s not very universal. On the other side, die-hard video game fans are kind of jumping saying... whenever anyone tries to do anything parodying or based on a video game, it never turns out exactly right. So from your perspective, how do you feel? Do you feel like you’re in the middle, are you gung-ho about it, do you have any reserves about it?

GR: Oh, I'm gung-ho all the way, but in respect to how people feel about video game movies, that it's a very narrow sector culturally-wise, could be said about any movie. There's things like Ratatouille, that's very cooking-specific. I don't cook. My cooking skills are basically limited to using a toaster. And Ratatouille was still a touching movie. It's not the subject matter that matters; it's the characters within that subject that make the movie good and the story. I don't think that having video games as a subject matter makes it a weaker film.

MR: When you sit down and you animate, what do you enjoy animating most?

GR: Definitely character. I don't like animating effects very much as they can be tedious and difficult to do. But during a very extreme movement for a character that involves a lot of twisting and turning. If it's a very extreme action and complex motion you can get away with morphing the character a lot more. That makes drawing it more fun and organic.

MR: Do you prefer comedy, heart-felt or will you enjoy any kind of-

GR: I would say a little bit of everything. I can't do just all-out comedy or all-out heartfelt. I would get bored. A little bit of both I think is the best recipe.

Giorgio's animation for 11 Second Club (April 2011)

MR: Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years, what would you like to do?

GR: I see myself still doing what I'm doing now, still doing animation. I would like to be somewhere in the west coast, working there.

MR: Do you think that you’d like to make the jump out there soon?

GR: Maybe after seeing how things go, I would like to go within the next couple of years.

MR: If there’s a dream job, what is it that you would like to aim for?

GR: My current goal, would be to be able to one day work for Dinsey or Pixar. Even if should ever get to that point, I wouldn't want to stick around there forever. I would want to move on to something different. I get bored easily.

MR: Would you only stick to animation: would you do storyboarding or cg or do you have anything in mind and you want to keep to that?

GR: I don't mind doing anything as long as it relates to animation. I just have a very complicated love-hate relationship with drawing backgrounds. But I am learning how to do CG as we speak.
MR: You’re learning what, Maya?

GR: Yeah learning Maya. Learning the nuances of animation in CG, as opposed to traditional, is a little different. I learned it back in college. Now I think I'm more comfortable that I can start doing some more decent animations with it.

MR: What are your feelings on CG?

GR: CG is just as good of a form of animation as any other, but I secretly resent it for injuring the 2D industry, in the sense that we're not seeing as many 2D movies. I guess I more so resent the corporate aspect of animation for thinking that 2D is not a profitable means of animation. But -

MR: There’s a sentiment that seems to say that 2D is only for kids.

GR: Exactly. But asides from that, CG is just as good as 2D. You can do things differently but they can have the same effect. Sometimes they can have a better effect. It's just another art form.