Interview - Mark McDonnell


Mark McDonnell
Digital Painter/Designer at The Walt Disney Company
Contact: Los Angeles, USA

Tell us a bit about yourself...When did you discover animation? What programs do you use? Or is it just a pen?

My earliest recollection of watching animated films was actually Pete’s Dragon.  When I would visit my grandmother on my mom’s side of the family, my brother and I would watch Pete’s Dragon and Wizard of Oz at a very young age.  But the first time I realized there were teams of amazing artists creating this thing called “animation,” was when I saw Aladdin for the first time.  
I use Photoshop as my primarily means to creating digital work.  I work primarily digitally as it’s a much quicker means to create and change imagery that may require notes or a deadline that is staring one in the face.  However, I try to maintain an open dialog with traditional media in an effort not to loose the touch and feel of what it really feels like to do things by hand (with out the “undo” button).  In fact, when I teach I work entirely traditional and I encourage it when teaching at Disney so others don’t forget what it feels like.

You recently published The Art and Feel of Making it Real: Gesture Drawing for the Animation and Entertainment Industry. Can you give us an insight?
The Art and Feel of Making It Real was a way for me to share what was taught to me by many artists, but namely Diana Coco-Russell who was a pupil of Walt Stanchfield.  I began teaching the same class at Disney and was surprised that the information was not available to everyone; it was a highly guarded secret of sorts.  Walt’s handouts were fantastic, yet they did not have the continuity I longed for in an instructional manner because it was a class that never ended (Just for the record, I was in grade school when Walt officially retired and never had the pleasure of meeting him or attending any of his amazing discussions).  

So, I decided right then and there to put a more instructional book out that would directly explain how to design and capture the essence of life through the knowledge of gesture drawing.  It took me 2 years to write and a month to compile my artwork and piece it together to offer it to anyone who was interested, from animators, storyboard artists, visual development artists, concept designers and any person interested in working in the animation and entertainment industry or learn it’s secrets.  My primary goal was to help others create successful images with a strong focus on storytelling skills and I am very proud of doing so!


If you are interested in seeing more or Mark’s work or interested in purchasing his book, The Art and Feel of Making It Real please visit the websites listed below:
Is animation that rewarding to make it your current career? 
Without a doubt it’s completely rewarding and incredibly fulfilling on a personal and professional level.  With that being said, the path of any artist is never easy, commercially or as a fine artist.  However the rewards are ten-fold to other industries in my experience.  I have worked as a toy designer, art director, graphic designer, author, concept artist and many other positions both inside and outside of the animation industry.  Having a breath and depth is very important to me so I can try many different things as we all know, life is short.
You are a gesture drawing instructor for Walt Disney Company. Have you discovered any outstanding talent among your pupils?
Without out a doubt.  The most amazing thing about instructing the Walt Disney Company staff is that anyone is allowed to come into class.  From technology, to recruiting and any artist . . . everyone is welcome.  It is pretty amazing to see the diversity and I heavily encourage experimentation and an individual response.  We do so much production work, that it’s such a healthy and encouraging thing to step out and try something new or in a personal style.

Do you recognize differences between animators, in terms of style? How does your style compare to the best you’ve seen? 
There is defiantly a consistent shape development between many of the artists but their personal interest takes over and you can really see what is or what is not of interest to each artist.  My personal style is on a constant path of development.  I feel very confident in what I express but the most important thing is to understand that each person’s unique “statement” is really what separates each artist from someone they are familiar with.  As cryptic as that sounds, it’s true.  I am very happy with what I put down on paper, but I am just as comfortable knowing that the next level of enrichment is right around the corner for myself.
How do you start to analyze an animation? Do you use exact references or just imagine the movement?
I actually do not animate.  I am a designer at heart and by trade.  However the amount of life that is exhibited in my work, in and out of the classroom situation, is full of life and very very important to me.  If the subject is on a particular focus, I will do my research but I do prefer to use my head and sketch from life to inspire both my personal and professional artwork.

How do you go about character design? How about Layout/Background design?
Designing characters is not as easy as it seems.  It sounds cliché but you really do have to find the right personality and shape design to communicate who this person or animal is.  I usually start with shape design but it’s really the acting that comes out of it that will determine the overall design and personality of this character that hopefully will live on your paper or screen.  It’s should be about acting and interesting shapes that can be moved around in interesting ways.

Do you use the same animation techniques from one project to another? Do you have a quick sketching technique?
There are similar approaches but each project demands a specific attention to detail.  I am currently working on some live-action character design that will be a secondary character that is pretty important to a character arch.  It just so happens that he (or she) is a penguin. That by itself is a new challenge for shape design and exploitation.  It’s just as rewarding as it is frustrating to create something new and I really do look forward to each challenge (with an espresso in hand, of course).
What is the most important part in an animation: character’s design or personality? 
That’s a hard one.  In America I think we are very shape determined and any designer wants to create a new shape-oriented design that will set itself apart from what has been done before.  But, in reality many of the best films that are done overseas are very similar in design.  If you look at Miyazaki’s films, there is a very similar design aesthetic but the story and the uniqueness of the worlds and characters he creates separate themselves out from most things that have ever been done before.  I admire that and can see the shortcomings of films when things are to design heavy.  But, I love to design and the challenges that come up and out of your hand when things are stretched for a piece of film or television.  In a roundabout way, both are important but you will remember the character’s personalities and unique frustrations more than the design.  But when you place one character against another, hopefully their individual shapes will separate them apart just as much as the animators performance’s.    

What do you have up your sleeve for future projects?
I just finished doing the concepts for a new live-action film that will have some 3D characters along side the principle actors (as I mentioned before).  It’s the forth film in the series and they do make me chuckle as they are geared toward a more family audience.  I am also working on some characters for a show that is to be pitched to both teens and adults depending on where the scripts lead the series.  I have been working on some tutorial videos that will be posted on YouTube for everyone’s enjoyment, I will be attending various conventions (the CTN Expo is right around the corner) and I have begun working on a follow-up book that will be the second in a series on the subject of The Art and Feel of Making It Real.
We know the “ups”, but tell us about the “downs” in your career.  Was it an easy ride?
Nothing is easy if it’s to be exhibited on a high level.  I have chosen to work as a freelance artist these last few years and it has been an incredible experience for starting an independent business. I have also worked alongside some very talented artists from all across the globe in-house.  Each experience has been amazing and at the start of anything new there is a period of feeling it out, but if you don’t take that challenge you may be looking back and wondering about the missed opportunity further down your career.  It all takes work.  I really do feel I am at the beginning of my career so I just focus on working hard and every now and again imagining what lies ahead, in life as well as my career.

If you had the opportunity to spend a day with anyone from this industry, who would it be?
I would have loved to sit down with Marc Davis, unfortunately he has passed on . .  yet his work still inspires many artists today.  So, I would say it would be a tie between Paul Felix or Marcelo Vignali and just for the sake of argument the Brizzi Brothers, Paul and Gaetan.
What’s your favorite movie?
Sheesh, that’s a loaded question.  As far as an animated film, Aladdin or Prince of Egypt.  I say Aladdin because I saw it at the right time.  I was in my Junior year of high school when it came out and I have very similar features to that “street rat,” and it was the prefect age and timeframe for me to see it.  It also helped that the girl’s at my school began calling me Al when the film came out!  Prince of Egypt is important to me because of the grandness of the film and I am a sucker for Egyptian artwork.  The emotional core of the film is a brother’s story and that always gets me.  I am very close to my brother Matthew and films such as Legend’s of the Fall always get to me in the ritght way.
What would you like to add to your portfolio?
I would like to see more diversity in stylistic concerns.  I have been told that I am very classical and I work hard to try new things and different approaches because of it.  I also would like to be involved in more feature films, be it visual development, layout or character design.  I’m looking forward to that challenge on a larger stage.  
If you had unlimited resources (from artists to money) what path would you take? 
I would defiantly travel more and enjoy painting from life but I would be more interested in becoming a consummate artist.  Painting, sculpting and drawing would be a way of life not a means to live.  I would love to hire two specific artists to instruct me on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis.  Those two artists are . . . now . . . that’s a secret!

If your child wants to be a 3D artist what would you tell him/her?
I would start by encouraging him/her to find a solid foundation in the arts at a young age.  Really learn how to construct the form and drawing/paint in 3 Dimensional space, after that . . . its just learning the language of that particular program.  The rest can be done in your head.  And, we are lucky to work in the arts, but that “luck” does not come without a lot of hard work.

Copyright 2009 Mark McDonnell