Barry Kooser

@manyhoopsbarry

The Spice of My Variety (part 1)

I’ve been all over the map as a professional artist and creative: Walt Disney Feature Animation Background Painter. Illustrator. Fine art painter. Graphic Designer. Instructor. Filmmaker. Writer. This used to be of some concern because of the old saying: “Jack of all trades, master of none.” I’ve heard other unpleasant connotations as well;

“He seems…unfocused.”

“You should get a real job.”

“Hello, McFly?”

I’ve since let this stigma go. Maybe you need to let go too? Let me tell you why.

I’m fortunate to have many world class professional friends & family (artists, authors, entertainers, filmmakers, speakers, musicians, educators, business men & women) who generally focus on one thing (and they do it well). I used to envy them because oftentimes I felt scattered, ill-defined and out-of-place, like the drunk uncle you see at family gatherings, “Hey c’mere, I have an idea.”

The fact is, I like many things. I can’t change that. My personality dictates doing & learning a variety of things. I feel like Captain Kirk of the Starship Enterprise,

“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship… Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and...so on. (To be read in the voice of William Shatner).

By the way, I realize how nerdy this is. And an overstatement.

But honestly, this is what life is about for me; to seek out a variety of ways to express my art & creativity — and to share it with others. I acknowledge the “renaissance man” whispers in my head, but this doesn’t seem practical in today’s world. To put it more succinctly, I can’t do the same thing, 24–7. I will go crazy. I’ve accepted that this is who I am, and meant to be. I feel more satisfaction being versatile. And I know I’m not alone.

“Sameness is the Mother of disgust, variety the cure.” -Fransesco Petrarch

“There is no time for cut-and-dried monotony. There is time for work. And time for love. That leaves no other time.” -Coco Chanel

“I’d rather be a little weird than all boring.” -Rebecca McKinsey

As a professional artist, the spice of my variety began at Walt Disney Feature Animation at the age of 24…

Disney Background Artist

Six months into my studio tenure, I became a Background Artist. IMDB

As stated in the wonderful book “The Illusion of Life, Disney Animation” by Frank Thomas & Ollie Johnston,

“He (the BG painter) must stage the character and support the action. That comes before anything else. His work may be dramatic, startling, powerful, or thrilling, but it still must be only a background for the action.”

A background is comparable to a theater stage for the actors, complete with visual queues to set the location and mood with the story.

Along with some wonderful and very talented people, I had the privilege of working on several traditionally animated films (The Lion King-1994, Pocahontas-1995, Mulan-1998, Lilo & Stitch-2002, Brother Bear-2003 & The Princess and the Frog-2009). Film Works

Above from top: Lilo & Stitch background — watercolor. Middle: Princess & the Frog background — digital. Bottom: Mulan sequence 1.0 thumbnail board — acrylic.
Above: Lilo & Stitch thumbnail board — Acrylic.

Thumbnails and color keys are small painting studies (postage stamp size to 3x5 in.) produced quickly to set the mood, style and tone for the story. These help the Art Director and Directors see the environmental design and color of a given sequence or scene before committing to the final “on screen” background. It also sets the location and time of day.

A good example of this was Brother Bear, utilizing the spectacular geography of the Yukon and Alaska. Below is a color key. From this artwork comes a larger painted background, animated characters, voice-over, music, effects etc.

Color Key Thumbnail for “Brother Bear” Acrylic 1.5x3.5 in
Final film version of this scene — Finland

The beauty of Disney, from the very beginning with Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs, is that every film was different stylistically. This really pushes the artists into uncharted territories and expands the toolbox. No easy task. Experiment-fail-learn-and repeat, until progress is made. Great life lesson.

Background styles:

The Lion King backgrounds were referred to as cartoon realism.

Pocahontas was very graphic & clean.

Lilo & Stitch was a “Pinocchio” style throwback using watercolor.

And Brother Bear emulated impressionism with the buttery flow of acrylic paint and loose brushwork.

As I’ve become older and more introspective, I’ve inquired as to the deeper meaning: Why do I have such a strong yearning for variety? It donned on me one day when I was shopping for cake decorating tools…you know, to paint with. (More on this in another story). I said to myself,

“yearning for variety is the acceptance of challenge.”

So when I say I like variety as a creative, what I’m really saying is, “I like the challenge.” Something new to learn, change, different, unfamiliar, original, maybe even uncomfortable. I want to test myself. I want to see if I can do it! And if I can’t do it, I’ve learned that it doesn’t work this way — which is valuable too because I will no longer spend time and energy pursuing it, I may simply need to adjust my approach.

Working in an animation studio like Disney forces you to embrace the challenge. The talent level is so high and the expectations are through the roof, on every film, that you have no choice but to accept the challenge. And I loved it. However, it was time to move on to another chapter in the variety story (next blog post — stay tuned).

Captain’s Log: Star-date 12/26/18. Learning to accept variety and life’s many challenges has lifted the proverbial monkey off my back. I no longer judge myself by saying, “I shouldn’t do it this way.”

I now go with the creative flow, for growth, knowledge and for the sheer spice of it. How about you?

See you next blog.

Kooser Studios

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