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Q: Tell me a little bit about yourself, about your life? Where did you go to school, and what classes did you study? What helped prepare you to become the artist that you are today?
I was born and raised in San Diego. My Brother and I drew since we were babies. I remember seeing The Jungle Book when I was three, and that was it for me. My bar was set high and so began an almost snobbish obsession with character design and animation. I sent a portfolio to Disney Feature Animation while I was in high school. They said, "Not so fast!" and referred me to CalArts -- who sent me all their info and a cool pamphlet, but no financial aid.
So, I crammed four years of Jr. College into two-and-a-half years. I got a 'C' in art along with an AA in Physical/Occupational Therapy and Sociology. When I was finished, I had my Mom drive me up to Don Bluth's studio, portfolio in hand, and never looked back.
Since then, I've worked for various studios and projects, doing everything from animation, character design, layout, boarding, concepting and art directing. I'm still in San Diego with my beautiful wife and daughters. I'm primarily a traditional pencil-paper animation/vis-dev artist. I use Adobe Photoshop, Painter, Maya, and have started playing around in Z-Bush.
Q: How do you go about designing, and what goes through your mind, from start to end?
Ideally, there is already background and personality info for the character I’m creating. I usually go over that background in my head, adding to it, and thinking of various scenarios that may have shaped who that character is going to be. Then the visuals start developing in my head. When I think I've got something, I start making rough sketches to find the form and visual attitude. After that, I keep drawing until it feels right. Sometimes it comes right away, sometimes it can take days.
Q: What is a typical day for you, and who are the people you work with?
I work at Sony Online Entertainment with some phenomenal artists. It's very collaborative, I love that! I usually get in early and work on concepts before everyone else gets into the office. Once they start arriving in the office, the open dialogue starts. Character artists, environment artists, designers, we all show each other what we're working on and share insight and concerns. We're all together in a large open area, it's all very informal and free flowing. We're very fortunate to be able to work in a creative environment like this! You can always learn from other artists – but this is especially true when the others are so talented. We also get together quickly each morning as smaller units and once a week as the whole art team to show and review what we are working on.
Q: What are some of the things that you have worked on?
The first paying art job I had was as a layout artist for Blackthorne Comics, but my first significant project was An American Tail with Don Bluth. That was a great learning experience. Since then, I’ve worked on many other projects as an animator, vis-dev artist and as a director. Eventually, I found myself in the video game industry with seven published titles ranging from The Mark of Kri to Clone Wars Adventures™.
Q: Is there a design you have done that you are most happy with?
I like Rau and Tati from the 2002 PS2 game The Mark of Kri. Not just for their designs, but also because they represent what I think we were trying to accomplish in videogames at the time:
bringing the same sensibility and aesthetic from feature animation to video games. Also, I really like some of the secondary characters I've done. Main characters, except for Rau, tend to be the most "comitee-ized." However, secondary characters (including ones that are more visually interesting and appealing) are more likely to slip by intact.
Q: What projects are you working on now? (if you can tell us)
Sorry, not at liberty to discuss that yet.
Q: Who are some of your favorite artists out there?
Off the top of my head and in no order: Milt Kahl, Marc Davis, Ken Anderson, Bill Peet, Ed Benedict, Albert Uderzo, Norman Rockwell, Harald Sieperman, John K and so many more influenced me growing up!
I'm also a big fan of Nico Marlett, Joe Moshier, Rune Bennicke, Bill Schwabb, Matt Nolte, Toby Shelton, Sergio Pablos, Shiyoon Kim, Jin Kim, Fabien Mense, Benoit Boucher, Baptiste Gaubert, Paul Bonner, Cory Loftis, Chris Sanders and so many more that keep streaming into my head. There are so many awesome artists out there now! Sorry to anyone I neglected to mention!
Q: Could you talk about your process in coloring your art, as well as the types of tools or media that you use?
I still draw everything with pencil and paper. Today I use the computer to color, in the past I used Colerase Blue pencils and 2B pencils for the drawings (because that's what I animated with) and then I'd color a Xerox copy with pencils and markers. Now, I like to use Colorase Indigo blue for the drawing, and scan it in and use Photoshop to clean it up and make the line black (or whatever tone I want). If I want to throw some tone or color behind it, I'll put the line drawing on another layer, "multiply" it (so that I can see the layers underneath) and add a layer underneath to paint on. I use Maya to animate at work, but always try to find any possible excuse to fit hand drawn character animation in from time to time ;) I dabble with acrylic paint on canvas sometimes.
Q: What part of designing is most fun and easy, and what is most difficult?
The most fun for me is collaborating with like-minded artists! I love throwing ideas around, trying to best each other and creating convincing and appealing designs that set our bar higher. It’s such an awesome feeling! And when you see that work on the big screen, on retail shelves or in the media it’s so cool!
When I first started in video games, the limitations of the technology frustrated me. I was always asking, "Why can't we make him look just like the drawing?" Or, "If we can't see that far why don't we just use a matte-painting then?!" I quickly understood the phrase "work with what you’ve got." On the flip side, as the technology “improves” I find myself thinking, "If I wanted you to see every one of his pores and hairs I would have drawn them!"
Q: What are some of the things that you do to keep yourself creative?
I thought I worked "out of the box" creatively. I took pride in being able to find creative solutions for characters and styles that weren't hitting the mark. I was comfortable working out of that "box.” Then, a friend and colleague helped me realize my "box" was inside a bigger box, and that box was inside an even bigger box, and so on. He challenged me to draw things that I was not used to drawing in a way that I never really wanted to draw before. BIZANG! I broke through the next box! Just because I don't find something appealing doesn't mean that others won’t find it appealing. It's a great exercise and one I still try to practice. It’s much easier when you draw and collaborate with others.
Q: What are some of your favorite designs which you have seen?
Wow.... again in no particular order: Cruella De Vil, Georges Hautecourt, King Fergus, Lucifer, Angel of Death (HellboyII:TheGoldenArmy), Tigger, Col. Hathi, Shere Kahn, The Hatbox Ghost from the Haunted Mansion, Ludwig Von Drake, Catbus, Brers Bear, Fox and Rabbit, Scar, Horace & Jasper Badun, Tony and Joe, Dexter (Space Ace), Muttly, Hellboy, Aughra (DarkCrystal), Peg, Fisherman Bear, King Leonidas, Mr. Smee, the forest animals from Sleeping Beauty, Creeper, Country Bear Jamboree, The Banana Splits, Pepe le Pew, yet again... not enough room :P
Q: What is your most favorite subject to draw? And why?
Anthropomorphic animals and fantasy creatures. I love animals and fantastic beasts, and I love expressive characterizations and characters with personality and attitude. I pretty much love drawing anything to which I can give personality.
Q: What inspired you to become an Artist?
I had already been drawing since I was two. Clowns and animals. When I was about three, I saw The Jungle Book. I don't remember exactly what it was about the film, but it set off every switch in my head. From then on I ate up animation, illustration, comics, etc. … but only the examples that I thought were particularly visually appealing. I developed my own opinion and taste early on. I was particularly drawn to Disney Feature Animation.
That's where the bar was set in my head -- and I know who to blame. I didn't know his name then, but I could already spot his work on the screen. I'd tried to see every frame to understand how the characters moved and how they were drawn, I could see the differences and as I did that I unconsciously began sorting the animators' work in my head. The drawings and scenes that inspired me the most happened to be from Milt Kahl.
John Lounsbery's work was right up there for me as well. But just as influential as Milt's work was Marc Davis's concept art as an Imagineer! That was my one-two punch of enlightenment! Asterix and Obelix comics and Norman Rockwell and Rien Poortvliet also played a big part.
Q: What are some of the neat things you have learned from other artists that you have worked with or seen?
Coming from a traditional background I needed, and still get, lots of help and advice from my peers about the in's and out's of different software. Great tips I still use today! Also that eye-opening lesson I use to stay creative: working out of the box doesn't mean there is only that one box. It's very easy to get too comfortable! Take chances and don't be afraid to fail. It's the same with animating... the more you try, the more new things you will find and learn.
Q: What wisdom could you give us, about being an Artist? Do you have any tips you could give?
Some of the things I almost always tell students and new artists is that no one can tell you that your art, the art you do for yourself, isn't right. Only you can make that determination. Others will have their opinions, but if you feel that what you've created communicates what you intend it to... it IS successful. Whatever it is, if you love it, it's a success! If you don't feel that it is working, then you might not be quite done with it yet.
However, when you're doing something for someone else with specific requirements and expectations, be ready to be wrong and wrong again and never take it personally. You may not like what they want, but if they're paying you to make "it"...... give them their "it," get paid and say "Thank you." There have many times I did work that I otherwise wouldn't have chosen to do and ended up gaining something constructive from the experience.
Also, if you do have talent or a flair for a skill like drawing, and have the passion and discipline to hone those skills and learn how to improve them... you don't need to spend your parents’ hard earned money for art schools. Some of them are great, some of them just want the money. But, if you're able to find basic art technique classes, life drawing sessions, someone(s) to help guide you and show you tricks and tips in applicable software and mediums, you'll develop those skills on your own!
Something else I found that’s important.... Many character designers and animators from my generation are familiar with these four words: Appealing, Convincing, Interesting and Sincerity. I think in order to be more successful today, I'd add the word: "Evolve." There's no shame in learning new things. You're not being a sell-out as long as you still embrace where you came from. Those original four words will forever apply to whatever medium you choose and your chances for employment and staying employed will be much better.
Finally...Draw! Draw! Draw! Draw everything you see, think you see and want to see!
Q: If people would like to contact you, how would you like to be contacted?
You can find me on LinkedIn.com, or my blog: jeffmerghart.blogspot.com and my email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q: Finally, do you have any of your art work for sale (sketchbook, prints, or anything) for people that like your work can know where and when to buy it?
I have my sketchbook, "Loose Cannon on a Gravy Train", available through Stuart Ng Bookseller and Bud Plant Books or you can just contact me directly. I’ve also just started to post on Deviantart.com.