What is your name and your current occupation?
My name is Christophe Vacher, I am currently doing the VFX Art direction and color design for the TV series “Transformers Prime”.
What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?
Well, everything I did outside animation was actually parallel activities. Although I never was interested in being an actor at all, I had the opportunity to be an extra on different indie movies and commercials here in Hollywood. Nothing too crazy, really, but I think the most fun I had was the day I was hired as a stunt man on the History Channel show “Deadliest Warrior” (because of my martial arts background). We rehearsed stunts for 2 days and had a blast, but at the last minute, the producers and director changed the story, and instead of being a French commando freeing hostages from Somali pirates, I became a French tourist on a yacht being assaulted by Somali pirates en route to measure themselves to a Colombian drug Cartel. Bummer… Still got paid and had lots of fun doing it, though!
What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
I think my favorite project to this day remains having been the art director of the movie “9″ (produced by Tim Burton), for which I was nominated for an Annie Award. The “Transformers Prime” TV show I am art directing now is pretty cool to, and I won an Emmy Award for it last June.
How did you become interested in animation?
I had many artistic interests as a kid: Comic books, illustration, art gallery painting, movies and animation. I almost became a full time comic book artist: Caza, one of the veteran French comic book artists who created the magazine “Heavy Metal” in the 70s, was offering me to do a book series with him. He had written a synopsis for it, and one chapter. It was cool, a hard core Heroic Fantasy saga with a female character, pretty epic and intense. But I had just entered animation, and eventually moved to the US to work for Disney. I had to turn the comic book project down. The series was achieved several years later, though, with another artist.
Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I am originally from France, and got into animation showing a portfolio in the French company that had introduced anime TV series for the first time in Europe, with the TV show “Grendizer” (called “Goldorak” in France). At the time I joined them, they were co-producing the second season of “Ninja Turtles”. That was my first TV show.
What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
On a TV show, at the beginning, I spend a lot of time doing paintings (color keys and color scripts) that will reflect the look of the final images on the series. Then, when the show reaches a regular pace and has found its marks, my typical day starts with checking the final shots of the day coming from the production studio (in the current situation, “Polygon Pictures” in Japan), then give my notes on each shot, along with the director’s notes and the head of design. Make Photoshop paint over frames if necessary for clear comprehension. Then, check the work of my team (usually 2 or 3 people) and give them more if they are finished with their assignement. Then work myself on color keys and color scripts and talk with the director if some aspects of the episode need clarification. On a feature film, it is a similar process, but everything goes slower, because emphasis is put on higher quality, which usually takes more time to achieve all the way to the final shot.
What part of your job do you like best? Why?
I think that having to handle the final look of a show, TV or feature, is what excites me the most. You are responsible to create a final vision for the project, a visual bible that will both satisfy the director and will give the whole production team a sense of direction toward what the final result should look like, which I still have to control at the end, when the shots are finalized.
This process is actually often misunderstood or undermined in TV animation, which is why I was excited to come back to TV -just for a “Transformers” show- after more than 15 years in feature films. The challenge for me was to see how far we can go in terms of visual quality with a fraction of the time and budget that movies usually have. I sure ran into obstacles, but eventually, I am pretty happy with the result.
What part of your job do you like least? Why?
Well, there would be a lot to say about how studios work sometimes, and how the people who manage them handle the whole thing. I’m not going to point fingers at anybody here, but I think that when internal politics, power play and personal gains come in the way of truly supporting the artists, or even worse, in the way of bringing the show to the quality level expected, at this point we have reached the point of what I call being… mmh, what’s the word… unprofessional? Fortunately, not all studios are like that.
What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis?
Photoshop. Sketchup a little bit. And having been fully trained on Maya, I totally understand the problems related to each CG department.
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
Having to constantly deal with the “faster, cheaper” people when all you want to is to draw and paint and be happy.
But I think it is part of the reality of business at large.
In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
I think right now, there are many great things happening in animation everywhere, particularly Asia and Europe. I attended the last Siggraph event in Vancouver, BC, and based on what I saw, I believe we are still only scratching the surface of visual possibilities. CG tools are opening the door to a plurality of styles that were not available untli now. But it’s going to take a few more gutsy porducers and investors to see the full potential of the current field. I look at it as being some kind of Far-West rush of the CG world. A fully open horizon on brand new CG territories that are begging to be explored.
Describe a tough situation you had in life.
Definitely, the day I left France. The future was opening for me as an artist, but as a French person, you have to basically erase everything you have become.
Any side projects or you’re working on or hobbies you’d like to share details of?
Well, I have been doing my own work for art galleries since 1997. And that is still going. My website is: www.vacher.com I am currently doing a 4×6 foot oil painting for a Fantasy painters museum project in Vegas. And I am preparing a painting for an art auction that will be hosted by Michelle Obama for the Centennial of the Cherry blossom Festival in Washington, DC. All the profit will go to the Japan Tsunami relief fund.
Any unusual talents or hobbies like tying a cherry stem with your tongue or metallurgy?
As I mentioned before, I’ve been in martial arts for a long time (more than 30 years), practicing more than 15 differents systems along the way, and still have a real passion for it. I have a federal instructor diploma of Hapkido and still practice boxing, Filipino Arnis and Brazilian Ju Jitsu. I also go to the gym very regularly.
Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
Persistence! There are a lot of ignored genius artists out there – because they didn’t have persistence. Work hard, show your work to good professionals to get their advice, and when you are ready, show it to companies that might hire you. If it doesn’t happen immediately, try again later. Very often, it’s a matter of timing. Sometimes, a company will have too many really good artists showing their work and won’t be able to keep them all, and other times, they will need artists but won’t have enough candidates, so they will be ready to hire even artists with not much experience. Timing is everything. Now, if they tell you your work is not strong enough, don’t get discouraged: go back to work on your artwork and try again later. However, always be aware of your skill level.
If your art is not strong enough and you think it is, you will run into a lot of trouble. We now have a lot of information tools (like internet) to learn and to gather reference material, something I didn’t have when I was in my teens. I would have done anything to access this kind of information. Use these tools! Get interested in everything around you, learn, find your own way, and be persistent!