We used to criticize the
hell out of each other’s
work back in the day,
and it definitely
The SPA Studios is planning to bring traditional 2D animation back with Klaus, an animated feature film by Sergio Pablos. It’s important to note that Pixar and DreamWorks Animation have been dominating the animation industry with computer animation as opposed to hand-drawing the frames like Klaus, so this is an interesting development for this industry. Szymon Biernacki is one of two art directors—working alongside Marcin Jakubowski to develop the art style for the feature—and he is the one we are talking to today. Of course, you’ve probably seen his work if you frequent websites like ArtStation, after all, he’s worked on many successful projects with renowned clients like Blur, Platige Image and Warner Bros. over the years. Biernacki seems to be enjoying his time in the limelight as the AD for an ambitious project like Klaus, and you can see his personal style shining through in the teaser trailer.
We at Vox Groovy are always on the lookout for projects like this one. It’s interesting, and it wants to rewrite some of the rules that have been set in stone in the last couple of years. All in all, we are hoping that our conversation with Mr. Biernacki can bring you some useful insights into what it’s like to work on a project that swims against the tide. Oh, and let’s not forget that we’ll be asking questions about his own journey as an artist, so anyone who’s here because you’re a fan of his personal work won’t be feeling left out.
What sparked your interest in digital art?
I first learned about digital art, and the thing we now call “concept art”, when I was starting my studies at the Faculty of Architecture in Warsaw. I saw all of these things in The Art of Star Wars, Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, and I studied hard for six whole years whilst knowing deep down that I didn’t want to be an architect. Instead, I was spending all of my spare time learning about digital painting and making portfolio pieces. I continued to post my work on various Internet forums (the pre-Facebook web) and those posts would slowly get more and more popular. Then small commissions started to crop up every now and again. I imagine that all of this combined made me come to the decision to give up architecture.
Of course, my first clients as a full-time freelancer were all Polish, but the first major breakthrough came when Axis Animation hired me to art direct a cinematic for Age of Empires Online. The studio was searching for someone with a cartoony art style because they were focused on photorealism up until then. Surprisingly, this particular job involved moving to Scotland, the company was based in Glasgow after all. To tell you the truth, this was a big deal for me because I never lived in a foreign country before. Looking back now, this project was absolutely amazing. It allowed me to work on a very popular title, and gave me the opportunity to live in Scotland for quite some time.
Next, I was asked to work on Smallfoot, which was a 3D animated movie developed by Warner Bros. It was originally created by Sergio Pablos and involved moving to Madrid for ten whole months. This work opportunity made me want to work The SPA studios for a long, long time. Three years to be exact. And it’s one of the reasons I’m currently an AD for Klaus.
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Tell us a little bit about your work as an AD on Klaus.
Klaus is a 2D animated feature, created and directed by Sergio Pablos, a former Disney animator and the original creator of Despicable Me. The feature film is currently being produced at The SPA Studios and we released the first teaser some time ago. Klaus uses highly innovative techniques for character shading that, as far we know, haven’t been used in an animated feature before now. Marcin Jakubowski is the other AD, also from Poland, and he’s actually the guy that came up with the character shading system we use.
We’ve been working for The SPA Studios exclusively for the past four years, doing artwork for all kinds of projects, but mostly based around Sergio Pablos’s original ideas. And Klaus was his favorite one, his baby. What he really wanted was to animate it traditionally, without using 3D, so he was looking to find an opportunity to fund this project. Thankfully, he was able to find an investor willing to fund a year-long research and development period. Sergio wanted for me and Marcin to art direct this project. The idea was to try and see if we can revive traditional 2D animation – making it relevant once again, but also using the technology available to us today to see how we can maybe differentiate our work from the old Disney look.
Me and Marcin were hard at work coming up with the new tools for character shading, developing the general look and feel of the film, painting the backgrounds, establishing the art style and so on. After that, we created a teaser trailer that was supposed to serve as proof of concept. Honestly, this was the best job I ever had because I had complete artistic freedom, and I could really base the art style around things that interest me. I had the opportunity to play around with value structures, simple textures and clear shapes etc. The trust Sergio placed in us is so clear to me, he makes sure that whatever we do helps with telling the story, the rest is up to us.
The teaser had a massive impact on the others working in the animation industry, and people are really wanting to see the whole movie now. Apparently people like the style we developed a lot. I have to say—thanks in large part to the success of the Klaus teaser—I began getting a good number of great work opportunities and attention from big animation studios like Disney.
Of course, the teaser trailer along with the script and art was just the first step when it comes to getting this thing funded. But we finally managed to achieve this a few months ago, so now we’re doing our best to make this movie look as good as the trailer!
Post Office – Visual Development for “Klaus.”
You’re a big fan of animation. Tell us a little bit about your favorite animated movies?
One of my favorite animated movies of all time has to be How to Train Your Dragon, and it’s because of the scene where we see Hiccup and Toothless bond. It’s probably my favorite scene from any animated movie. Honestly, the emotions they were able to achieve through that was absolutely amazing. I could watch it over and over again and still enjoy it.
Next is Mufasa’s death from The Lion King. This is another great scene that has stayed with me for years. I can still remember when I first watched it in the cinema at age nine. What else? I love Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit because I like British humor and the general flavor it has. The British approach is so different to the American one. It’s more subtle and tasteful. Oh, and the fact that its stop-motion animation is incredibly refreshing. The last western director I would highlight is Brad Bird. He has this innate ability to tell stories in a way that makes you care about each and every one of the characters.
And of course, I love Miyazaki. Films like Princess Mononoke, Porco Rosso and Spirited Away are so amazing, mainly because of the original atmosphere. They are completely different to Western animated movies because the flavor they have is coming from elsewhere.
Walk us through your process from start to finish.
My techniques are very much related to my “style”. The first thing you’ll notice about my workflow is that I’m usually very organized and follow simple steps that tend to reflect my thought process somehow. I begin by sketching it all out, doodling the basic perimeters of the image. Maybe some basic compositions come to mind, or I spend time looking at different character poses and so on. After that, I’ll do the second pass where I define things some more, adding some stylization along the way. If there is a character involved, it’s going to take me a little bit longer because it’s not as easy to get a nice sketch that’s easy to read.
Next, it’s time to move on to the painting phase. I’m more interested in nice clear shapes, so I use the lasso tool a lot. I do my best to finesse the design of the shapes as much as possible, keeping everything on a separate layer (my file-size is always so big). After that, I have all of my basic shapes laid out and I need to lock all of my layers before I move on to designing the value structure. Once I’m happy with the values, I try to apply some flat colours without messing up my value structure. I just pick a load of different colours from the Coolorus colour wheel, trying to get the right value. And once again, I push and pull with the adjustment layers to preserve my original value structure. I even have a hotkey set up to turn my image gray-scale when I want to quickly check if it still looks like the original values.
I’m happy with the colour palette at this point, and I begin to render the entire image. This is all about giving things volume and a simple indication of texture on the objects. The layers are still locked so that I can preserve shapes and edges. Another thing I like to do is clipping new layers to the ones that already exist because I need to have full control over how a certain effect impacts the image.
I am obsessively meticulous with my process, and not everyone can have a good time painting like this. But I really enjoy having total control over my images, and I keep feeling like those little adjustments that I’ve allowed myself to make along the way are making my work so much better. Of course, the mental fatigue that you get from this level of micro-management is insane. I would be lying if I told you that I don’t envy the artists who are capable of jumping right in and coming up with a loose painting in just a couple of layers. I want to get back to doing something like that at some point.
Splash – Illustration with a little process video…
What motivates you to continue creating art after all these years?
Hah! I feel like I’m just getting started! In all honesty, it’s a mix of some kind of inner need to paint and my love for animated movies. The amazing artworks I see on the Internet every day motivate me to learn more about art. I really want to understand how to draw and paint well. Honestly, the process of making an animated movie is just amazing. You can always see how your work changes as it travels through each and every department, and seeing it transcend you is simply indescribable. I think that the final product is mind-blowing!
And yeah, I myself get tired every so often, and I don’t do personal work like I used to. It’s mostly because I get physically tired from sitting at the computer 24/7. Maybe it’s time to mix it up a bit, you know? Throw in some traditional mediums and have a play around. But traditional painting takes so much time, you have to really commit to it if you want it to look good, and I don’t have time for that. All in all, I’m just making sure I don’t push myself as far as I used to. If I feel like painting, I will paint, if I don’t then I don’t.
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Any advice you’ve got for people who’re just starting out and want to work in a style like yours?
The best advice I can give you is simple: follow your instincts and search for information wherever you can. All of the knowledge you are currently looking for will come to you after a little while, and if you’re really passionate and dedicated, you will get there.
As for books, I’d say that my current favorite is The Noble Approach: Maurice Noble and the Zen of Animation Design by Tod Polson. This book is based on Maurice Noble’s notes (he was actually Chuck Jones’s main designer) which give insight on how this master approached art and design. Also, I would recommend any course that focuses on art fundamentals more so than technique. Learning about colour and light, composition, storytelling, etc. is essential. The fundamentals of art are something you can apply to any art style, and the knowledge you get will allow you to find what excited you about art the most. I would be very careful with courses that promise to teach you a particular technique or approach because it’s so easy to get stuck with someone’s point of view instead of looking for your own.
Lastly, I’ve got some artists you could look at if you want to get inspired. But everyone has their own heroes, so maybe you ought to look for your own too. My favorites are Mike Mignola and his Hellboy – pure genius when it comes to shapes and simplicity. Next, we’ve got Alberto Mielgo, a man I can only describe as “the complete package”. Lastly, you can take a quick look at Joaquín Sorolla or Anders Zorn if you want to see some great colour and light, and maybe Annette Marnat for her lovely personal style.
Klaus teaser – Sergio Pablos Animation Studios © 2015
Can you tell me a little bit about the Polish art scene? What’s the atmosphere like over there?
Poland has a few world-class artists working in the digital medium. Piotr Jabłoński and Michal Lisowski are two of my personal favorites. We’ve also got a bunch of successful concept artists for movies and games. People like Maciej Kuciara and the like.
The interesting thing is that the scene used to be pretty small. But a very strong group of artists emerged, despite the lack of attention they were getting. Each and every one of these people was self-taught because we didn’t have (and still don’t) any real schools that teach you about digital art or entertainment art. We used to have this Polish forum that was very vivid and stimulated growth, but it’s not what it used to be. I think that Facebook killed every kind of real art community. Nowadays, you have to leave a like or you’re a hater, and God forbid you leave any kind of criticism. We used to criticize the hell out of each other’s work back in the day, and it definitely paid off.
Can you tell us more about your thoughts on social media?
There are two sides to every coin. Firstly, it’s great how we’re able to follow other artist’s endeavors so closely, seeing how they grow and learning from them. And even having the opportunity to talk to them so casually. I think that it’s a good way to share various resources, spread knowledge and discover new amazing artists.
The Internet being so full of “instant recipes” is the flip side of social media. You can watch someone’s video tutorial, download their brush pack and begin to paint like them without really understanding where all of this knowledge originally came from. It seems like newer artists don’t take enough time to figure things out on their own. The vast majority of these people have a tendency to come to understand technique quite quickly, and are rewarded with likes and praises in the comment section. Honestly, it’s scary to see how many of them are satisfied with this. I sometimes scroll through my Facebook feed and I have trouble telling artists apart. Their art is only about technical proficiency, leaving any personal touches behind.
As I said before, we have a new etiquette where you’re only supposed to leave likes and praise other people’s work. There is little to no room for criticism, and they’ll label you a “hater” if you do something like that. Also, I have a slight problem with the fact that we have celebrities in our industry now. They try so hard to create an online persona that is essentially just an idealized version of their real self. I guess we’re no different from the rest of the world.
Hunters – Image for a charity auction
What’s next for Szymon Biernacki?
What’s next? Right now I’m not entirely sure. I am looking forward to spending two more years working on Klaus, but a lot of things can happen in such a long time. Perhaps I’ll take it easy for a little while after the production. The last few years were so intensive that it made me want to see if I can do a better job of balancing out my professional and personal life. I didn’t expect it to be so easy to get completely swallowed up by pursuing a career in art.
By Vox Groovy staff writer;
All images used with permission by the artist.
© Szymon Biernacki or respective copyright holders.
Article in Slovak language;