D: First, Robert, a brief overview of your credentials is in order. In no particular order, you’re an accomplished animator, art director, and graphic novelist; your character designs have appeared in such animated series as Tron Uprising and Motor City; you’ve been involved in the production of the Gorrilaz music videos and the opening cinetmatic for The Beatles: Rock Band. You’ve also had the opportunity to work alongside Peter Chung, the legendary creator of Aeon Flux. Presently, you’re in the midst of self-publishing your own multi-media film and comic series, Massive Swerve, which is now wrapping up the second half of the radical two-part story, “Pear Cider and Cigarettes.” So, moving forward and sticking with the present: what would induce a talented animator such as yourself to pursue the graphic novel medium?
RV: Well…i've always been interested in the graphic novel/short film crossover. I played with that crossover a bit with my 2002 Massive Swerve film and 10 page Massive Swerve comic. Now I am trying to improve on the idea, first starting with the script, then the creation of the first book, which functions as the storyboard [for the film]. The panels are all the same aspect ratio, sort of an extended letterbox format. These panels are then imported into an edit and assembled into an animatic.
In a perfect world the animatic should promote the book, because everything comes down to book sales. In my case however, I may have given away too much story in the animatic—that may have affected book sales, but live and learn. Book sales were a bit low, and to help subsidize the printing costs I decided to do a kickstarter for the second book. Now I am starting to introduce a series of stretch goals to push the film part forward as well.
D: Fantastic. It appears that there are plenty of people checking out your work these days, and they seem to like what they see—last time I checked Kickstarter.com you had accumulated more than two hundred backers pledging nearly twice your stated contribution goal of $16,500. Your distinct use of perspective, great colors, and angular characters really makes the work you produce stand out in the crowd. How did you come by your art style?
RV: That's a good question, my own personal influences come from the people I have worked with in the past. Stylistically Peter Chung has left quite an impression on me. He kind of opened my eyes to what they were doing in Japan, creating animation for adult audiences. I really like the elongated characters of Aeon Flux; that obviously has influenced my decision making when it came to designing the characters for Tron. Another big influence was jamie Hewlett. Stylistically I don't really draw like Jamie, but his attention to groovy details regarding hats and jeans and shirts etc., I think is so fucking cool, a bit like a hip version of Mad Magazine.
D: Your color palette has a unique quality to it. Seems very deliberate. What’s the deal?
RV: I have always struggled with color. My first attempts looked like pizza. So I started again right at the beginning, only using grey tones. Then I would colorize the grey tones in photoshop. Eventually I mustered up enough courage to use 2 colors, usually blue and orange. One day I had my layers organized in such a way and (purely by accident) came across a way of colorizing my work which created this nice range of orangey red to a nice rich ochre effect. This was so pleasing to me that I have continued to use it ever since. Since then I have included red and green to my arsenal of colors. So you see, it's a very slow process with me and color.
D: People responded very favorably to the Gorillaz music videos; they do a good job of showcasing how much of an influence visual art can have on the flavor of music. How did you find yourself working with them?
RV: I can't take too much credit for the Gorillaz stuff. That's really the Jamie hewlett and Pete Candeland show. I saw Clint Eastwood and loved it so much I was basically on the next flight to London. Pete was Nice enough to let me be part of it.
D: Humble is good. How did you go from working on the animation for “Feel Good Inc,” back in 2004, to the cinematic for The Beatles: Rock Band in 2008? It’s a bit of a jump don’t you think?
RV: That was another Pete C job. There was some concern about drawing and animating the likeness of the Beatles. They were going to just use silhouettes at first. I did a round of designs that seemed to put everyone at ease. That sort of paved the way for us to blaze into production mode.
D: I was struck by how polished everything looked. Loved the Rhino. How long did that take, and how many people did they have working on the production?
RV: The designs and storyboards took several months. When the production finally kicked in we had about 12 weeks to finish the job. Most of Passion Pictures was busy working on that job at some point. I'd say something like 30-40 people. Good times.
D: Now I would like to swing our focus over to the largest and most recent story in your self-published Massive Swerve graphic novels series: “Pear Cider and Cigarettes.” It’s an interesting tale. Where did you get the inspiration for the main character, Techno? He isn’t exactly your standard comic book superhero.
RV: This is my 4th Massive Swerve graphic novel; books 1-3 were generally a collection of short stories, usually autobiographical. Book four is my first long story, which will conclude in book five. This is a story I wrote the night my son was born. Not to sound like a weirdo. Let's just say there was plenty of waiting around that night. I clearly had this story bottled up inside of me because it came out in one big burst of writing. It's about a buddy of mine I grew up with—his name was Techno. Let's just say his life had some high highs, and some really low lows. I found it all quite fascinating from my pedestrian point of view and thought I would share it.
D: That’s cool. Guess truth can be stranger than fiction. So what made you go to kickstarter for the second half of the story? Last question.
RV: I released [the first] book in April and internet sales were a bit slow, so I loaded my truck full of books and hit the road. I made stops at animation schools and productions studios all the way down the west coast. I hate public speaking, but if it sells books then so-be-it. More often than not, people would come up to me afterwards and ask me why I [wasn’t] doing a kickstarter. After giving it much thought I decided to give it a go and launched about 3 weeks ago. Currently I am in that quiet middle part that most projects seem to go thru. Hopefully it will pick up again before the end of the month. It's been quite a ride.
D: Thank you so much for your time, Robert.