What is your name and your current occupation?
Craig Elliott, I am a visual development artist and character designer, as well as an illustrator and fine artist
What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?
I only had one job, as a paperboy, before I got a job at Disney. Not a very exiting or crazy job, unless you consider a glass perrier bottle blowing up and cutting my hands up with flying glass exciting… or being unable to carry the papers some Sundays and sitting crying on the driveway at 3 am alone! There was the occasional dog that chased me for several blocks, making me have to come back later on to do the deliveries in that area. That always made customers mad, and they would call to complain about late papers. What can you do? I didn’t want to get eaten alive! These occurrences seem less common in animation for some reason…
What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
I think Treasure Planet, and Enchanted are some of my favorites. There is something about any project that is a joy though. The challenge of turning a story into a visual is always rewarding no matter what the final outcome, or even if my work is used in the film. I always enjoy shows that require a greater amount of imagination- Treasure Planet definitely qualified in that sense. The movie wasn’t set in a specific place that is real, so anything goes! My mind and energy really get pumping in a situation like that. On Enchanted, Kevin Lima (the Director) asked us to come up with a Disney forest world, but with a twist. It was that twist that had us trying all sorts of creative things to help Kevin find what would satisfy his vision. I think it was my friend Christophe Vacher that thought to suggest we try using the Art Nouveau movement as a springboard. We all took off, working from that starting point. I put together a 30- something page style guide with Art Nouveau cues throughout, and even had a chance to speak with Alphonse Mucha’s Great Granddaughter on the phone at length as part of my research!
How did you become interested in animation?
I think I always was attracted to animation because of it’s limitless possibilities for imaginative expression. Films like Fantasia, and Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind really fascinated me when I was young. I think imagination is the biggest draw for animated films. No other medium can be imaginative with the same ease and grace as animation. Sure, live action can do things very realistically, but it is very expensive, and not really necessary. Our minds are great at adapting to different styles of expression and suspending disbelief if the look is consistent and well constructed. A good imaginative animated movie can make the jaw drop, and keep it open for 80 minutes!
Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I am originally from Cupertino, California. I moved to Pasadena in Southern California to go to art school, and got my job at Disney right out of school. I didn’t know anyone in the business at the time, and was lucky that The Lion King had really infused a new life into the animation industry. Everyone was hiring and I got offers from Both Dreamworks and Disney at the time, as well as Industrial Light and Magic up in Northern California. Disney was close and paid well, so I went with them! I started as a layout artist on Hercules. I always did some Visual Development work as part of that job, and my focus on that area grew naturally from the layout job. Layout is a great place to get better at drawing too. Nowhere else are you forced to draw absolutely everything under the sun and more, from every angle and mood. it is also great fun!
What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
These days I work pretty much 7 days a week, 10-14 hours a day for one or 2 clients at a time. There is some down time, especially at the end and beginning of the year, when nobody is hiring, but if I do have work I might work on Christmas day! This year I have been so busy with my new book and finishing some freelance illustration that I haven’t even opened the presents under my Christmas tree. I am almost a month late on that! My clients and their deadlines come first for me, as they have a much bigger thing to keep moving than me. I have a lot of respect for how difficult it must be for a producer to keep a whole production on time and moving smoothly. I am the last person who wants to gum up the works with late work! I usually get up and get myself together like I was going in to a studio, so I feel awake, and professional. This keeps my mind set on work and keeps me sharp and alert I think. I have a tendency to work like a freight train, not breaking for lunch and eating breakfast lunch and dinner at my desk! I cook for myself in batches and try to keep at least 2 dishes ready to eat at all times so I can just run in and heat something up, so I can keep working. I think focus is a big part of creating good art, and having long periods of time where I can really focus on my job at hand really helps.
What part of your job do you like best? Why?
I think learning from other artists, and occasions where I can really feel like I have pushed myself and done a painting or a piece of design that is somehow better than I was able to do before are the best things about what I do. I guess both of these things boil down to getting better and growing as an artist. That seems to be the core motivation for much of what I do. I think if I didn’t grow and turned in the same quality of work all the time, I would be bored and disappointed with myself. Maybe I would choose to find something else to do where I felt like I could grow. Thankfully that hasn’t happened yet! I think I have too many ideas and visions in my head that I will never run out, or feel like I have “done it all.” That is one of the great things about art. You are really never finished, there is always another fun, mysterious or challenging thing you can do!
What part of your job do you like least? Why?
Printers. There is always something going wrong with them at the last minute before a presentation to the Directors! For this reason I have 6 printers. There is almost 100% likelihood that at least one of them is operating when I need a hard copy, and I can often print more than one piece at a time. Anything that will give me more time to work is an advantage!
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
The fact that I can’t work with everyone I have worked with before all at once! Even though the industry is actually very small in terms of number of people, they are, or have become dispersed throughout different companies and divisions or disciplines over the years. It is nice though to encounter people on new projects and see what they have been up to and what they are doing now. It is like a mini high school reunion when I start a new project!
What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis?
I mostly use a pencil and paper, and photoshop for my work. I also use maya for many things, especially when time is a constraint, and elegance or mood is not! I did many designs for Father of the Pride at Dreamworks right in maya, and had Jeffery Katzenberg looking over my shoulder making notes and having me fix things in real time because we only had a few hours left to send the work to the overseas studio! Maya is good for that sort of quick and precise stuff. Anything with feeling is much faster with a pencil or painted in photoshop/ painter. You can create mood with just a few strokes of a pencil if you know what you are doing!
In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
I worked with Joe Grant on a few Disney films, that was a great brush with a legend. Not coming from an animation point of view, I never knew who he was when I worked with him, I just admired his ability as an artist, and kindness as a person! Now I realize he is a big deal. It was also great to have worked at Disney when Roy Disney was still involved in the making of the movies to some degree. Again, that was something I took for granted at the time, but look upon fondly now. They are both missed. I personally consider many people as greats, people that not everyone would know. Mike O’Mara comes to mind- he was a Layout artist at Disney who really helped me in the early days, as I knew nothing about animation when I got to Disney. He was also a teacher, and I think saw an opportunity to teach me! He was one of the funniest guys around the place, and really helped lighten the atmosphere as well. I learned from everyone I worked with, and even those that I didn’t work directly with I learned from. That is animation greatness to me!
Describe a tough situation you had in life.
On the production, Hercules, I was diagnosed with a brain tumor and had to leave the production for almost a year. The folks at Disney were very kind, let me keep my job, and Peter Schneider even gave me some extra sick leave pay. Ron Clements and John Musker (the directors of Hercules) even asked to have a sequence I was designing put on hold until I could return and finish work on it. That is still one of the best complements anyone has ever paid me!
Any side projects or you’re working on or hobbies you’d like to share details of?
I have always painted and sculpted for myself, among other things. I think all sorts of artistic disciplines feed into one another, making each other one better as a result. Cross- pollination in some sense. A book of my fine art paintings has just been published by Flesk Publications- The Art of Craig Elliott explores my fine art paintings in depth, and shows my process and sketches for various paintings. I have been selling prints and sketchbooks, as well as jewelry for over 10 years at shows and conventions as well as online. I have recently had a gallery show in Paris, and sell my art in europe quite often now. I also love landscape design, and did it for awhile professionally, as well as metalsmithing, jewelry design, sculpture, diorama building, architecture, construction, furniture building, and gardening. I love to fix things and build things. I think there is some genetic component to our skills, as my family is full of engineers and artists. I seem to enjoy doing both things and combining the two in new and unusual ways. I also love working with my hands, and this is evident in many of the things I do.
Any unusual talents or hobbies like tying a cherry stem with your tongue or metalurgy?
I ride a pretty mean skateboard and love to arrange flowers… I sometimes combine the two. When I lived in Pasadena I would skateboard late at night with a pair of antique Japanese flower shears collecting flowers for arrangements! My friend used to call me the “skateboarding monk” because of that!
Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
Focus on making good art, learn form the masters of all arts, not just other animation artists. If you look at the people Walt hired, and the way he continually trained and educated them, they all learned form the greats of past and present. The wider your artistic scope the faster you and the industry as a whole will evolve and the more exciting it will be.
Great interview with a great professional! I’d seen Craig’s work elsewhere but didn’t know his name. Fantastic skill and ability, along with some amazing experience. Thanks!