Today I am presenting another written interview with Mike Johnson of fatcactus.com. Mike Johnson is a director, animator, artist and educator specializing in stop-motion animation.
With over 20 years in the animation industry, he’s contributed to a wide variety of award-winning projects including commercials, short films, television and features.
Mike was later selected by Tim Burton to direct CORPSE BRIDE, for which they both received Academy Award nominations for Best Animated Feature.
He has taught and mentored students at the California Institute of the Arts, (CalArts) Experimental Animation Program and currently lectures at The UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television.
Check out the interview:
- What got you interested in animated art? Share your story and,
- What was it like to start seeing your creations featured in commercials, television etc?
I’ve always loved animation. Especially stop-motion. Some of my earliest memories are of seeing Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion creatures on television.
I used to watch a lot of old monster movies as a kid and I was fascinated with the stop-motion process. When I was growing up in the 70’s and 80’s stop-motion was still the way creature and monster effects were created. Jim Danforth, Phil Tippet, that whole generation of special effects artists were using stop-motion for things that would be done with computers now.
Nightmare Before Christmas was my first job in feature animation. Before that, I had made a few short films and worked on some commercials, but I had never seen the level of craftsmanship and dedication that Henry Selick and his crew were capable of, and it made quite an impact on me.
They took their stop-motion very seriously.
I was pretty green at the time and I didn’t have the experience or technical know-how that the lead-animator’s possessed, but I guess they saw some potential and hired me as an assistant animator.
My job as assistant animator mainly involved animating background characters in crowd scenes, or helping with effects like water coming out of a fountain or lightning flashes.
Basically I was dealing with the more mechanical aspects of the animation so the lead-animator could focus on the performance of the character.
Most of the lead-animators preferred to control every aspect of the shot by themselves, so there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for me to get in there and animate with them, but every now and then a shot came up were it made sense to have another pair of hands involved, so I was brought in to help out in whatever way I could.
That was a great experience for me, because I was able to work closely with a lot of different animators like Eric Leighton, Paul Berry, Trey Thomas, Mike Belzer, Tim Hittle and Anthony Scott to name few. These guys were the best in the business. Total Rock-Stars.
It was an amazing opportunity to observe the variations in their styles and techniques and I learned a lot by watching them work.
My other job on Nightmare was rigging.
Anytime that a puppet or object had to be suspended in the air, or had to move smoothly along a predetermined path, it would require a mechanical rig of some kind.
My job was to come up with a rig that would allow the animator to control the puppet in the way that the shot required.
Keep in mind, this was back in the day before you could “fix it in post.” There was no digital camera, no green-screen and no rig-removal.
The rigs we made for Nightmare had to be hidden in such a way that they were invisible within the shot.
It was quite a challenge, and it pushed me way out of my comfort zone, because before that, I had very little interest in rigging. But it forced me to develop that side of my brain, and the rigging skills I acquired during that time have served me well over the years, and given me a much deeper understanding of the stop-motion process.
After Nightmare I got a job animating on a t.v. show called “Bump in the Night”.
It was a stop-mo sweat-shop, and animators had to deliver a specific quota. Ten seconds a day, or something crazy like that.
I can’t say that I enjoyed it, but by the time I left Bump in the Night I knew how to animate.
And by the time James and the Giant Peach came along I had enough experience to be hired on as a lead animator.
For James, I did a few shots around the Shark Attack sequence, and a couple of shots when the peach is approaching New York, but the part that I spent the most time on was the under-water pirate sequence.
Jack Skellington makes a cameo in that scene,
so even though I didn’t get to animate Jack Skellington on Nightmare, I finally got a chance to do so on James and the Giant Peach, and I had a lot of fun with that.
My role on Corpse Bride was very different from my role on Nightmare and James, because on Corpse Bride I was directing.
Directing is a whole different game.
As a director, I had to guide the entire creative process, from story to design to animation to post-production.
- What was it like to work with Tim Burton?
It was a lot of fun, a lot of hard work and it was an amazing opportunity to observe a world-class filmmaker in action.
He was inspiring, creative, funny and a little bit weird.
Pretty much what you would expect.
But he was extremely busy, so his focus was divided over multiple projects at the same time, and his attention would be taken away from Corpse Bride for extended periods.
He and I directed it together, but the daily responsibility of directing the production fell to me while he was away making Big Fish and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
It’s a Tim Burton movie, but I poured a lot of my heart and soul into it, working everyday for two and a half years, guiding the crew and making choices that shaped the film.
Ultimately all of my choices were filtered through him, but I’d like to think that there’s a big part of me in Corpse Bride that comes through.
I loved working on it. Of course there are things I would change if I could, but all in all, I’m very proud of it.
- What made you decide to start teaching others about animated art?
I enjoy teaching because it reminds me of why I got into animation in the first place. It’s great to work with students who are inspired by their love of animation, and unencumbered by the reality of the business. For a lot of students, it’s all about their passion for the process.
A lot of young animators are realizing that it’s a more fun to animate a puppet than it is to sit in front of a computer, and they’re dedicating themselves to learning stop-motion.
My job as a teacher is to help them realize their vision and nurture that creativity.
- What are your future plans for 2015 and beyond?
2015 has been a busy year for me. I’m currently directing a CG feature in Shanghai. CG is a very different way of creating animation than stop-motion, and I’m learning how to work with a new set of tools.
I’m also involved with a few exciting stop-motion projects. I’ve got a feature in early phases of pre-production and I’m developing an online animation school that’s focused on stop-motion techniques. I’ve also recently launched my website, fatcactus.com.
It has my artwork, animation clips and blog, so if you’re interested, be sure to check it out.
The internet is a huge factor in stop-motion’s continued growth and development.
Back in the old days, stop-motion was shrouded in mystery. If you wanted to know how it was done, you had to really dedicate yourself to hunting down whatever scant information was out there.
Not so long ago, stop-motion animators were a small, cultish group on the fringe of film-making, and it took a lot of effort to learn their secrets.
But now, you can find stop-motion lessons on line. You can access almost every stop-motion film ever made, and study it frame by frame, and watch “behind the scenes” documentaries that explain the process in detail.
You can discuss stop-motion techniques with panels of experts, and you can put your work out there so that it’s available to a worldwide audience 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget how incredible that is. It’s revolutionary.
I think there’s never been a more inspiring time to work in stop-motion.