What is your name and your current occupation?
My name’s Robert Burrows and I’m a comic illustrator and story artist.
What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?
I was a courier for a while, being on the road 10 hours a day you tend to develop a pretty zen approach to traffic. You also see a lot of carnage. I also worked at an ahem… adult shop. I call this my “character building” phase.
What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
The two graphic novels I’ve illustrated:Something Animal, which is a gritty look at a man losing his grip after witnessing a terrible attack on his sister and Beatrice Is Dead which is the first story in a set of short horror/dark fantasy volumes about Beat, a sixteen year-old girl coming of age in the afterlife. Both are fully painted the old fashioned way using acrylic, gouache and gallons of india ink.
Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I was born and raised in the southeast of England, then I lived in Detroit for most of my grown up life. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but the place is a wasteland! Sometimes the only thing to put a smile on your face after shoveling 18 inches of snow is a cup of hot chocolate and a nice episode or three of Ren & Stimpy. I’m actually in the middle of making the leap into story art for animation. With comics you tend to do a little bit of everything that’s involved in animation but on a much smaller scale. First you storyboard everything and design the characters, then you paint the backgrounds and inhabit them with these characters. With the art you try to hit the beats of the story for each panel and then you render everything out so it looks nice and fits the mood of the piece. The thing I like the most and the thing I’m good at is the expressions, the poses and the characters interacting on their adventure. You can render everything out with paint, effects and “mood”, but if you don’t have that strong core of characters and story you’re lost. I think that’s why I’m drawn to storyboarding: it’s focusing on the clarity of idea rather than all the fluff which can at lots of times just be a distraction.
What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
I warm up with some gesture drawing, hands and sketches. I’ll pull up a site like Posemaniacs and just draw 20 one-minute poses or I’ll open a Loomis book to a random page and just do a page of hands or arms or something. I’m a chronic doodler so a lot of times a sketch on the side of the page will morph into a character design or a way to figure out a tricky perspective shot. I’ll then get to work immediately on any “action items” I have before I even check my email. If I need to get a page or two done that day I find it best just to wade in as soon as possible before anything else comes up. If I’ve spent a few hours drawing and I need a change of pace I can move to inking, If I need a breather from that I can always check my email and start painting the cover. Recently a big part of my day has been working on my portfolio. With comics the initial sketches are really just an intimate look at the process, but with storyboarding those sketches and those poses, camera angles and expressions are the key to the whole job. Part of me wishes I’d kept better copies of that initial artwork, the other part of me is busting my ass every day to create new pieces that show off that clarity.
What part of your job do you like best? Why?
The freedom of being able to take a sketchbook truly anywhere and work is a pretty incredible thing. Plenty of times a doodle I did while sitting in traffic will end up as a finished panel or a sketch I scribbled while watching a hockey game will become a character design I can use. As long as you have a computer at the end of the day to scan things in, tidy them up or paint over them and make it all work together presentation-wise you’re golden.
What part of your job do you like least? Why?
Comics and animation both take a long time to do and you’re always getting better. If I work 12 hours a day for 6 months on any project there is no avoiding becoming a significantly better artist at the end. Great! The problem is that you have to fight this enormous urge to redo all the stuff towards the beginning that you feel no longer represents your talent. For both of the graphic novels I’ve done I actually repainted the first 5-10 pages to make sure it met this new standard before going to print which was time consuming and tedious. In a collaborative production environment you’re not given this luxury. You have to just try to not be precious with the art and trust that the next person down the line is only going to improve upon what you’ve done and make the project better. If the level of work I’ve seen out of some of the people I’ve been talking to recently is any indicator this doesn’t seem to be anything to worry about.
What kind of technology do you work with on a daily basis, how has technology changed in the last few years in your field and how has that impacted you in your job?
I think because I’ve done painted comics people get the impression I’m some sort of luddite which I’m not. Mostly everything starts in a sketchbook or on 11″ x 17″ Bristol board but I have a big scanner, Photoshop and a tablet and that’s where everything ends up. For the painted stuff I just fix the levels, dodge/burn and boost some outlines here and there. For comics I like the look of ink splatter and paint on paper but for storyboards it’s just not practical and I do it all digitally, on the tablet in Photoshop. I would say the biggest piece of technology that’s impacted my job overall is being able to have a library of reference materials, model sheets, scripts and audio files all on my iPod. As long as you have a coat with enough pockets you never have an excuse to not be able to get stuff done.
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
I’m trying to make the leap from comics into animation and it’s sometimes difficult to convince people that I can do the work without being given an opportunity to PROVE that I can. A lot of people also say “wow, you’re stuff is so dark why would you want to work on cartoons?” Or that because I might wear a black T-shirt two days in a row people think I don’t have a sense of humor or understand gag development. Fortunately both of these issues can be quickly remedied with a test or interview!
In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
At a comic convention my girlfriend got a personalized Jim Smith Ren & Stimpy sketch which was pretty incredible. The sad thing was that so few people walking past his table realized who he was or even what the show was, I felt like screaming at them!
Describe a tough situation you had in life.
I grew up in England.
Any side projects you’re working on that you’d like to share details of?
Beatrice Is Dead, the graphic novel I just finished with writer S. Zainab Williams, is going to be brilliant. It’s just a rich story with compelling characters and it all comes together really well. It’s fully painted in color and if all the publishing stars align it will be available later this year.
Any unusual talents or hobbies like tying a cherry stem with your tongue or metallurgy?
I have a terrific memory; I remember everything about everyone. Sometimes that can be pretty fun, sometimes not so much…
Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
I think it’s the same for anything really. Find a career path that fits your uniqueness and sparks your interests then immerse yourself in the great works of that field. Take a look at the best artists and do your best to emulate what they do that has made them successful. You tend to find a lot of the same stuff in there, like figure drawing, fundamentals and lots and lots of practice. I’ve been really lucky lately, lot’s of great animation artists have responded to my emails and been of tremendous help directing my focus and suggesting books to read and tutorials to study etc. The amount of information out there is no longer the bottleneck to anyone’s advancement, it’s simply the time you’re willing to spend honing your craft.