What is your name and your current occupation?
My name is Curt Chiarelli and I am a designer, sculptor, illustrator and writer.
What are some of the crazier jobs you had before getting into animation?So many candidates for the title, so little time. The boundary line between the absurdity of the jobs and the lunacy of those running these three-ring dog and pony shows were always somewhat blurred. One part-time summer job does stand head and shoulders above the rest because it played out like a bad TV sitcom directed by Ed Wood. I worked for a telemarketing company that peddled worthless coupon books to impoverished retirees for services and products not offered in the cities where they lived. And quite a motley crew we had assembled too: The top telephone salesman in our field office was a guy who looked and acted like Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs. A sullen fifty year old who suffered from some kind of anti-social personality disorder, his primary source of employment was as a pizza delivery boy. We nicknamed him, appropriately enough, “Psycho Ed”. He was one scary dude, but once he was on the horn he transformed into a regular Svengali of the shill. If you only knew him through his voice, you’d swear he was as debonair as Robert Mitchum. Little did his customers suspect that it was more like Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter . . . . If you think that was brilliant, you should have met our direct supervisor: a young, callow sociopath who charmed and bullied his way through all his daily interactions. He ended his employment with the company by swindling them out of tens of thousands of dollars and hopping a single-engine Cessna in a hasty retreat back to his hometown of Moline, Illinois. It remains vague in my memory whether or not he was ever tracked down or caught, but the direct result for his former employees was that everyone was laid-off, the office was closed and our final paychecks began to bounce like Flubber. All in all, the experience was more a source of bemusement for me than anything else: I was nineteen at the time and going back to college for the fall semester anyway.
What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?
I’m proud of them all, but some more than others. Ironically, the projects I’ve made the most creative, original and extensive contributions to are the ones that are the least known to the public. One project that I loved working on was a production design I did for an animation and effects house called Metropolis Digital back in the summer of 1995. It called for character and environment designs and I had free reign to indulge my own uniquely wacky style of German Expressionism on it. It was very satisfying, creatively speaking, and is still represented in my portfolio. Another character design assignment for the same company was of the San Jose Sharks hockey team mascot. I nailed the look immediately within three thumbnails. From inception through to finished full color illustration in fourteen hours straight. That one is also still in my portfolio. More recently, my sculpture work on the Boris Vallejo Mistresses of Fantasy figurine line has to rank up there at the top of the list. Boris remains amongst the best creative directors you can imagine. He had a certain constellation of virtues found in common with all the great ones: he was very secure in his abilities, communicated his ideas deftly and trusted you to do your job. You couldn’t ask for more than that and the results show.
Where are you from and how did you get into the animation business?
I’m a born and bred Chicagoan. If you really want to know the origins of my involvement in animation you have to go back to the moment when I clapped eyes on the creations of Ray Harryhausen and Willis O’Brien for the first time. The thunderbolt struck – stop-motion had a new fanatical, tub-thumping convert. I had to become a part of that world, someway, somehow. And for a kid growing up on Chicago’s Southside in the 1970s that was really exotic stuff. In fact, it wasn’t considered out in left field, it was out of the ballpark entirely. Mom was genuinely worried that I’d grow up to become a convert to something other than the holy-rolling church of ball socket armatures and foam rubber dinosaurs; she was concerned I’d become a Satanist or some other form of social miscreant (you know, the typical parental fears about Monster-Movies-As-A-Gateway-Media-To-Devil-Worship). Anyway, segue twenty years later, I was attending the 1991 Chicago Comic Con when I ran into my friend and colleague, John Tobias who had just started working for this company called Williams Electronics. Well, John was developing a video game and invited me to create a stop-motion animation model of a character he designed for it. The game happened to be Mortal Kombat, the character was named Goro and the rest is, as they say, history. I went on to create some more stop-motion models for Williams Electronics, namely for the characters of Judge Death and Precious Leg-Lock for the video game, Judge Dredd and Kintaro for Mortal Kombat II. At about the same time I provided the stop-motion animation models for an unusual Trix Cereal commercial that was being shot at Calabash Productions in Chicago. All of this was an excellent dress rehearsal for my next job as a fabrication lead on James and the Giant Peach.
What’s a typical day like for you with regards to your job?
I go gently into that Good Morning with a large pot of strong, black coffee. With all cylinders now firing up at a suitable level neurologically speaking, I reach for that other indispensable aid in getting my creative mojo flowing: the stereo headphones. Having taken care of the basics, I can now hunker down to the business at hand. Depending on the kind of project or the stage of development it’s currently in, that means either the workbench, the easel, the drafting table or the computer screen. I typically work from about 9:00 AM to 9:00 PM six days a week, fifty-two weeks a year. As you may have guessed, I’m no respecter of holidays or birthdays. I see each day as yet another opportunity to grow as an artist. Why squander those opportunities? After hours, I often wind the day down to handle my backlog of correspondence.
What part of your job do you like best? Why?
Pushing clay, graphite or paint really floats my gondola and in the last five years I’ve discovered yet another passion: wordsmithing. No matter what mood I’m in, fair or foul, creative activity has this soothing, trance-like effect on me. Outside of good coffee, it’s my addiction of choice. The only other things that come close are listening to great music or playing an absorbing game of chess.
What part of your job do you like least? Why?
Cold-calling! “Hello, I’m this guy you’ve never heard of who’s done stuff you may not have seen, please give me a job!” Not my kettle of fish. The only thing that approaches it in sheer unpleasantness is dunning companies for payment on a job well done and handed in ahead of schedule. I prefer to build bridges, not burn them. I try to avoid stuff that creates bad vibes. And bickering over money owed is a great way to achieve that. Still, I can only be responsible for my own actions, not those of others . . . . and I do have bills to pay like everyone else.
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 work comfortably in all kinds of media: from the traditional (gouache, oils, acrylics, graphite, clay and resin, etc.) on through to a wide variety of digital software and hardware (Photoshop, scanners, printers and cameras, etc.). Although there were many in the 1990s who cheered the passing of the analogue era, misguidedly thinking that technocracy would now triumph over meritocracy, gratefully, this isn’t how the dust settled. Digital technology isn’t a crutch for the untalented, it’s an enabler of talent. I have always contended that you cannot weave a silk purse from sow’s ear. The tools are only as good as the person wielding them. The trend over the past twenty years is towards cheaper prices, greater availability and enhanced platform stability. And believe me, that last one is a real life saver when you’re meeting a tight deadline! Over all, digital technology has made my life as an artist much easier (with the noted exception of Windows 8, of course) and allowed me to exert greater direct quality control over reproductions of my work. Let’s face it: anything that cuts Kinko’s Printing out of your life, must, by definition, have a salutary effect.
What is the most difficult part for you about being in the business?
I hate the politics. As I see it, we’re all so privileged to be doing this for a living our gratitude should crowd out this nonsense and banish it forever to the outer-most periphery of our lives.
In your travels, have you had any brushes with animation greatness?
You mean outside of meeting Ray Harryhausen in person? I suppose Goro and my work on James and the Giant Peach best fits that description, but my outlook informs me that the best is always yet to be. I always keep an eye fixed on that far horizon and I can’t wait to see what tomorrow will bring in the way of creative challenges. It’s what puts the wind in my sails and keeps me afloat during the doldrums that inevitably occur in this business.
Describe a tough situation you had in life.
The first twenty-eight years of my life, growing up artistic in an environment where that sort of thing was despised. The only thing that matches it was going through the Great Recession. Not my idea of a picnic.
Any side projects you’re working on that you’d like to share details of?
Yes. I’ve developed and production designed a themed entertainment venue which I am currently trying to get linked up with the financial element. I’m also in the process of preparing a large gallery presentation of paintings, designs and sculptures based upon the works of H.P. Lovecraft. In addition to this, I’ve written three books in the last three years: a short story collection of satirical Lovecraftian fiction, a volume of arts essays and a memoir of my career in the arts/entertainment business. Thanks largely to the influence of my friend, writer and journalist David Bates, I’ve bypassed the usual, brick-and-mortar channels of getting published by going the e-book route. I retain a deep love and respect for print media, but not the way it is currently being mismanaged by greed and a fortress-mentality. And the e-book format has given me a greater degree of control over the quality of the final presentation. Once again, digital tech has been instrumental in making this possible.
Any unusual talents or hobbies like tying a cherry stem with your tongue or metallurgy?
I’ve a quirk – I wouldn’t exactly call it a hobby – of satirizing and subverting TV commercial jingle lyrics and providing snarky running commentary on whatever show happens to be on: the more inane or inept the program is, the juicier the target becomes. Watching TV with me is an experiment in some kind of improv theater of the damned that makes Mystery Science Theater look like an episode of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood by comparison. Crow has nothing over on me. I’m also a pretty keen chess player with a rating of 2200. Other areas of interest remain unexplored: one passion I’ve yet to indulge is digging for fossils.
Is there any advice you can give for an aspiring animation student or artist trying to break into the business?
Develop a real work horse of a work ethic. This goes beyond the basics of professional acumen, it goes straight to the heart of your own self-esteem. How you feel about yourself will reflect on how you treat others. You’re young. You’re untried. You’re insecure. Get over it. Arrogance is a sign of deep insecurity, not great ability. Respect your art and your colleagues by being humble. Embrace the rôle of lifelong learner and take calculated risks. Accept periodic failures as a part of your career trajectory because you will learn far more from one failure than a hundred successes. I’ve been in this business for over twenty-five years and I’ll be the first to admit that I’m the most ignorant man I know of! Use that lust for knowledge and excellence and openness to experience to drive your talent. When you approach art from this perspective a whole universe of growth opens up for you. But don’t expect others to back your play: your example will remind them of their own cowardice and you’ll make them feel uncomfortable, if not jealous. While this approach to life and art is incredibly liberating, it’s also scarier and lonelier than hell. But, take it or leave it, that is the nature of the beast. The life of the artist is not for the faint of heart! Beyond this, I always tell my students to build bridges, never to burn them, but they rarely listen. Every time they screw someone over they think they’re speeding up their career ascent when all they’re really doing is prematurely hastening its demise. With our society’s growing alienation being intensified by an over-reliance on media to replace meaningful human interactions, empathy for others is becoming increasingly rare. Your talent is a wonderful accident, but how you manage it isn’t. The arts/entertainment business has a fragile ecology. It is a small, insular world where small gestures can have big consequences. So, think beyond yourself and your immediate gratification when you act or speak. The best long-term strategy for success in a tough economy isn’t found in ruthless competition, but rather in mutual cooperation. Want to live in a better, fairer world? The change must first begin with you. The world is, after all, what we make of it!