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Creativity After Hours: The Visual Evolutions of Michel Gagné

Michel Gagn a designer and special effects animator on many major animated features, doesn't limit his creativity there. Bob Miller reveals Michel's after hours projects which range from painting to writing children's books.

I'm an artist and there's a voice inside of me that needs to speak to the world. That's why I do what I do."

Michel Gagné.

What Michel Gagné does is design and animate special effects for such movies as The Swan Princess, Demolition Man, The Iron Giant and the forthcoming Osmosis Jones. Including his short, Prelude to Eden, it's a body of work that has earned him three Annie Award nominations. Beyond his job, he creates paintings, sculptures and illustrated books, with each work reflecting a common theme.

"I'm a compulsive creator," he says. "The subject that fascinates me the most is creation."

"Prelude to Eden was the embryo of me trying to express myself. The theme of the film is about creation, and it was the beginning of my creation. So it's a fitting theme and a fitting title. Creation is a theme that I'm obsessed with. I read books about it. I always try to come up with my own theories. I'm doing a graphic novel right now, and also a children's book, that's based on creation. It's definitely a recurring theme with me."

Gagné himself was created in Roberval, Quebec, and he began his feature animation career with Sullivan Bluth in Ireland. After doing character animation on The Land Before Time and All Dogs Go to Heaven, he switched to doing special effects for Rock-a-Doodle, moving to Bluth's unit in Burbank.

Watch a movie! A clip from Gagné's Prelude to Eden. © Michel Gagné.

His Own Film

While on A Troll in Central Park in 1991, Gagné wanted to work on more compelling subject matter. Something besides dancing flowers and singing mermaids. Something that would combine the high-energy approach of anime with the fluidity of American character animation. Thus, in his spare time, he began his own short film, Prelude to Eden. It would be heavy in action, use dynamic camera angles and be animated entirely "on ones." As Bluth animators observed his pencil tests, they became intrigued and contributed to his after-hours project

At first, since he couldn't afford the use of digital ink-and-paint systems, Gagné was going to cel-paint the film. Then he connected with Cambridge Animation from England, who came to Universal Studios in 1992 to market their new system, the Animo.

"They were trying to break into feature film," Gagné recalls. "My friend Jon Hooper hooked me up with Peter Florence from Cambridge Animation. I showed him the film. It was all done in pencil test and I didn't have a system to color it. I told them, 'If you can do that, you can use my short film to demonstrate your software.' They said, 'Great.' So the next thing I knew they set me up with these great computers and scanners. I didn't know how to use any of the equipment but in time I figured it out."

Prelude to Eden became the first high-resolution 35mm project rendered by the Animo. "They basically designed the system to accommodate me," Gagné says. "I had complete creativity and control, and I 'cel-painted' practically the whole thing myself. I had help from Jon Hooper, but I did the bulk of it."

After Bluth laid off his employees in August 1992, Gagné used the pencil test version of Prelude as a demo reel to acquire work, landing a job at Rich Animation and ultimately heading the effects department on The Swan Princess. Gagné stresses, "I don't want people to think that's all that it is, a demo reel. It is really a work of art."

Then Joe Campana, the sound designer of The Swan Princess, saw the pencil tests. "He immediately wanted to do the sound and he donated his own time," Gagné says. "He linked me up with Shirley Walker [composer for Batman: The Animated Series, Space: Above and Beyond]. She saw the film and agreed to score the whole thing and conduct the orchestra. She did not get paid for this, which is incredible. I still owe you one, Shirley, by the way."

Scenes from Michel Gagné's short film Prelude to Eden. © Michel Gagné.

"We ended up getting an orchestra. All the musicians came and worked for half scale. It was amazing, how it happened. It was at a point where Cinesite started breaking into animation, so I went to London and talked to them. They basically ended up outputting the entire film with their Cineon technology, which was groundbreaking at the time. I didn't have to pay for any of this. It all fell into my lap. It's kind of like, Build it, and they will come.' It always seems to work. You do it patiently and at a steady pace and things fall into place."

Gagné completed the three-and-a-half minute short in April 1995, and Cambridge showed it to studios throughout the world to promote their software. Warner Bros. and DreamWorks later purchased the Animo and modified it to use on their own features.

Although Prelude was successful in selling Animo, Gagné encountered a major rejection, which was enough to steer his creative drive in another direction.

"After I poured my soul into Prelude to Eden for nearly four-and-a-half years, I submitted the film to festivals and basically got rejected," he laments. "Nobody wanted to screen the film. It was very much a letdown. I was ready to show the world what I had done and I couldn't get into the festival circuit. After it got around and people started seeing it, then it got its way into festivals, but it was very much a letdown getting these rejection letters. After Prelude to Eden I immediately started working on a second short, but then I stopped because I got too depressed, and then I started saying, 'You know what? Animation is going to be my job, and what I do in my free time now is not going to be animation.'

"So I started painting.

A Painting and Sculpting Journey "I went through this period where I really didn't want to do, not only animation, I didn't want to do realism or anything. I wanted to just go wild. I started putting blotches of color on the canvas to see how they would turn out."

Gagné's "painting phase" lasted two years, during which he headed the special effects department on Quest for Camelot for Warner Bros. At night and on weekends, he devoted his time to painting for himself.

Gagné's intriguing

"I was obsessed," he says with a chuckle. "For two years I was very dedicated. It was very freeing. Man, I didn't have to answer to anything. I didn't have to answer to any aesthetic. Anything goes. I was doing wild stuff. It was freedom. Definitely.

"I had my first show ["Contested Borders"] at Warners. I was scared to actually show that stuff at Warners because I'm thinking here are these cartoonists and I'm there with this wild artsy-fartsy stuff (chuckles). This is not Prelude to Eden. They're going to throw tomatoes at me."

An example of Gagné's complex wood sculptures. © Michel Gagné.

To Gagné's surprise, "It went really well. I sold quite a few paintings at the opening, so that was awesome. It was great. I couldn't believe that people would actually buy my crazy experiments. It was very motivating."

Gagné later showed his work at several exhibitions, including Available Light Gallery in Burbank, Studio C in Valley Village, Gallery 825 in Los Angeles, plus L.A. Art Seen, Gallery Morpheus and Hotel Nikko in Beverly Hills.

"Then I kind of lost interest in painting, which was interesting because I started moving into sculptures," Gagné says.

"I had done a painting for my wife Nancy, and it was on watercolor paper. Nancy wanted me to mount it on wood, so it wouldn't bend. So I cut a piece of wood, mounted the piece, and gave the painting to Nancy. I came back to my studio and I saw the remains of the cutting that I had done. So I took some glue and I started putting them together. I started hunting in the garage for every piece of wood that I could find, and pasted them together. I kept going back and forth, adding more pieces of stuff, and I spray-painted the whole thing black. I called the piece 'Potential Remains,' because in the wood remains I saw potential for something else. That sculpture was sold to a major collector in California who owns murals done by all these big names, like Henry Moore. That was actually my first sculpture."

"I'm still sculpting," Gagné says. "I don't know why I like it so much. I feel like I'm a little boy playing with his wooden blocks," Gagné chuckles. "I go into my studio and I play with my little wooden blocks, and I put them together and then I paint them."

Gagné creates an ink and collage piece reminiscent of 18th century illustrations. © Michel Gagné.

The Written WordWith Pictures "Then I went into a phase where I combined this old 18th Century illustration with this ink and collage technique that I had devised. I started reshaping and expanding upon them and bringing them into my world. That was the bridge for me into doing book illustration."

To Gagné, his books "are not a continuation of my animation but a continuation of my fine arts, starting with my painting. It evolved from that."

As production on Quest for Camelot was winding down, production assistant Scott Grieder expressed his admiration for Gagné's drawing style, and proposed writing a children's book with Gagné illustrating it.

Gagné recalls, "I did this drawing really quickly on a piece of animation paper. It was this little fox standing in front of a weird creature. I gave it to Scott and I said, 'Okay, write a story with this.' The next thing I knew, I had 20 more illustrations done. Suddenly I started seeing this story in this world, and that it was about my own life. It was agreed between me and Scott that the story had become too personal, and Scott wasn't comfortable writing it anymore."

The beginning of what would become Search for Meaning. © Michel Gagné.

The story became A Search for Meaning: The Story of Rex, which echoed Gagné's search for meaning in his own life. "I was scared even writing the Rex book because I can't think of myself writing professionally. I'm okay with pictures," Gagné says. "I was very intimidated but I said, 'You know what? I'm just going to write with my heart. I'm just going to write what comes out and that'll be my own style. Even though it's full of weird rhythms and stuff it'll be my own style.'

"I feel much more comfortable with my writing as I keep evolving with my books. I look at words the way I looked at paint when I started painting. Who cares? Anything goes. Who makes the rules about how poetry should be done? I just go with my guts and my heart."

Gagné decided to self-publish his work in a limited edition of 1000, all signed by himself. "I started talking to people in the book industry and basically realized that I did not want the book to go through an editor at that point," Gagné says. "Now, my wife is really my editor, and I have a professional reader who makes sure that my grammar is good. That's as much editing as I want in the book.

Gagné decided to self-publish his work in a limited edition of 1000, all signed by himself. "I started talking to people in the book industry and basically realized that I did not want the book to go through an editor at that point," Gagné says. "Now, my wife is really my editor, and I have a professional reader who makes sure that my grammar is good. That's as much editing as I want in the book.

"I wanted the immediacy of self-publishing. If you submit yourself to a book publishing company, they're going to take two years to publish the book. And I'm not going to be excited in two years about the book. I needed to get the book out there to communicate that excitement. If a project is two years old, it's not the same.

"And, no, I did not want anybody tampering with the work, with the odd format that I chose, which is not an official format. It is much more expensive because it's 11 x 11. I wanted to choose the paper. I really wanted the complete freedom.

"It's why I produced Prelude to Eden myself. I love the freedom. When I work for the studios, I have a certain amount of freedom, but I basically have to do it for the team. I have to do the work in the context of the film.

"When I do the books, I don't want to answer to anybody."

Gagné published A Search for Meaning: The Story of Rex in 1998, followed by The Mystery of He in 1999 and The Great Shadow Migration in March 2000. He found that writing, illustrating and publishing his own stories is his "ultimate" means of expression, for several reasons.

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The cover of A Search for Meaning: The Story of Rex. © Michel Gagné. The cover of The Mystery of He. © MichelGagné. The cover of The Great Shadow Migration. © Michel Gagné.

"There's the storytelling aspect, the visual aspect, the control that I have because I self-publish," he says. "There's the fact that I can basically do all the artwork for the book in two to three months. It's not like spending three years in doing a short.

"It's not like a sculpture or painting," he adds. "If someone wants to own the original, it's a lot of money. Then you cater to the rich, but that's not what art is about. A book is accessible. If somebody wants it, they can afford it, and that is very appealing. I like the fact that I don't have to cater to the rich. I want to cater to whoever likes my work."

According to Gagné, he has no specific audience to whom he addresses his work. "It's really every type of person," he says. "I've tried to form the demographics of the book and I can't. It's too varied. I have people who buy it for their kids. People give them to their grandmothers. People who are 50 years-old buy them for themselves. People buy them as gifts for their 30 year-old friends.

The fox atop a mysterious flying beast in The Search for Meaning. © Michel Gagné.

"A lot of people bought the first two books for their kids. When they read The Great Shadow Migration, they don't buy it, because they don't think it's for kids any more. And they go, 'Wow, you're really cutting yourself out of the market with this book.' The Great Shadow Migration is obviously not for kids. Although I do believe that the kids will love it. They'll love the mystery of it. They'll like the visuals. I actually think kids will 'dig' it. But, you know, it's not [aimed] for kids."

Rather than calling them "children's books," Gagné prefers to think of his stories as "illustrated poetry books."

"As a matter of fact," he says, "if I call my books children's books in front of my wife, she gets really upset. She says, 'They're not children's books. Don't say that.' It's really tough, because when I go to children's bookstores, they're not that interested in carrying the books. I have better luck going to places like Golden Apple [a Los Angeles-area comic book store chain] or Bud Plant [distributor] or Amazon.com.

"It doesn't matter. I'll find my audience. I have enough people that like the books that, to me, justifies it. I was bringing some books to Gallery Morpheus, and the guy who was there said, 'I love your books. I gave A Search for Meaning to my sister at Christmas and she read it and was crying.' And to me, that makes it worth it when I hear that. It's amazing. Like I can't believe somebody is crying reading my book.

Finding the Balance

Does Gagné's extracurricular activities hamper or improve the work he does for studios? "I think it makes it better," he says confidently. "It makes it better because I constantly discover things. I constantly improve my skills as an artist and I conceptualize a lot better. I can design better because I'm always stimulating my brain with new ideas, and I'm not stagnant, and I'm not learning within the context of my job. When the job is finished, I'm still going out there and researching ideas for drawings and concepts. It helps me to be autonomous and not depend on anybody. I can take the initiative a lot because of that."

Feature animation studios frequently demand overtime from employees to meet production quotas. It is an issue that Gagné faced as Special Effects Sequence Designer for The Iron Giant and Special Effects 2D Supervisor on Warner Bros.' current project, Osmosis Jones.

The Great Shadow Migration is more than an illustrated book for children. © Michel Gagné.

"I don't do a lot of overtime," Gagné admits. "I say that publicly even to people at the studio because I have no choice; I have to keep doing my own creative stuff. It's like breathing. Every time I do overtime I keep thinking," he exhales forcefully, "it's an hour I could have been doing my own stuff." On the other hand, he says, "When I earn the money from overtime, it allows me to be more independent, self-publish, and invest in my own art. So it's a balance.

"After The Iron Giant, I took four months off. I was creating full-time but after four months I was getting really empty. There were no more ideas. I realized I needed the input of other people. I was itching to go back to work. So going back to Warners was suddenly a new wave of creativity, because I was surrounded by all this artwork from all these really good artists, and it inspired me for new things and the cycle started again.

"Interestingly enough, my latest book, The Great Shadow Migration, is all about balance. It's funny that I realized this when I was finishing that book after The Iron Giant. So my books are very much reflective of 'where I'm at' at the time."

Gagné has to balance his time between work, creating for himself, and caring for his family. How does he do it? "Well, first of all, you need an understanding wife," he says with a chuckle. "It's definitely the first thing. My wife is that. She's very understanding. I will tell you, I do sleep eight hours a night, at least, so it's not like I work all night.

"Working, for me, is almost like praying. I go home and do a little bit of work each night. I work when I'm inspired, and when I'm inspired things really happen a lot. You work 20 minutes a night but if you work at that peak of inspiration you can do the work that you would otherwise do in five or six hours and it wouldn't even be as good. So you have to find out when those peaks are and work within that. I think I have that down pretty good.

"So I maximize my time that way. I really don't work as much as a lot of people think. But it's very focused time. Very focused.

"It's my theory in animation as well," Gagné adds. "It's why I'm not keen on the notion of overtime. As you increase the amount of hours, you decrease the amount of creativity that people have. So you start paying more money -- time-and-a-half -- for getting half or a quarter of what you would get during regular hours. If you work your eight hours and you're really focused, you don't need to have overtime."

An image from Gagné's upcoming The Bird, The Spider and The Octopus. © Michel Gagné.

What's Next?

As for Gagné's future projects, he says, "People have asked me to work on projects with them for the Web, so I definitely see the potential there. When Osmosis Jones finishes [Warners currently has no feature films slated afterward], I might very well investigate that.

"I do know I want to make Prelude to Eden available on the Web for people to download in high resolution.

"The Web for me is great, too, for my books. I can have Web sites put in links on my books and let Amazon.com do all my selling for me. I definitely see it as a way for the independent to reach the world, because now the independent can go out there and be all over the world. Which is great. I love it.

"At this rate I am going to publish a book a year. I'm already wrapping up book number four right now. It's called The Bird, the Spider and the Octopus. It's three stories. It's an anthology. That one has been in the works for a couple of years, now. But I'm going to wait until next year to release it, because doing two a year is more than I can handle.

"I have a graphic novel called The First Day. That's my big epic that I want to turn into a movie. It's kind of like Miyazaki's Nausicäa. It's been in the works for quite awhile. And I have another book that deals with the theme of creation that will probably follow The Bird, the Spider and the Octopus. I've already roughed out the pages on that," Gagné says.

For those who are interested in self-publishing their work, Gagné offers the following advice: "I've learned that no matter what you do, you are going to make mistakes and there's just no way around it. Don't be depressed if you make mistakes. Don't get discouraged. Every artist has to make those mistakes in order to keep going, because a mistake makes you learn something. So you use that knowledge to keep going up."

As an example, Gagné says, "I used to send original artwork to the printer. Now I scan the artwork into computer files and I send a jazz disk with all the artwork and the page layout.So I have learned that, yes. Some of my artwork has suffered becauseof that lack of knowledge.

"There's actually a good book, The Self-Publishing Manual: How to Write, Print and Sell Your Own Book, by Dan Poynter.My wife and I read it and that helped us.

"You just have to basically be willing to learn about it. The Net is great. There's documentation out there thatwill tell you how to do it. So it can be done. You just have to be willing to spend a lot of cash up front. It takes awhile to get started, but if you believe in your book enough, eventually you get picked up more and more. I have an account with Amazon.com, and they sell quite well.

As a self-publisher, Gagné has to publicize the books himself, as well as distribute copies to bookstores. "Basically I pack my books in a box and do the rounds. I get rejected eight times out of ten. But that's okay, because the people that get the books really want it and it usually does really well so that's great," he says.

Changing Times

Currently, the animation industry is in a state of flux, which Gagné believes is "exciting."

© Michel Gagné.

"There's all kinds of movies being made using different techniques, so I actually think animation is a very exciting place. I have friends that tell me that the industry is in really bad shape. And I go, 'No, it's just different. It's in films like Stuart Little.' So there's animation being done. The 2D animators think it's bad from their perspective. If you look globally at the animation thing it's not bad at all. It's in really good shape. There's a lot of exciting things happening.

"If you want to be a traditional paper animator, I'd say, Yeah, right now is a very tough time.' The tools are changing. I still believe there is paper animation going to be done, even when everything is computerized. It doesn't matter. It's a style. It's like stop-motion will never really die. But it's probably going to be more of a niche.

"If mainstream animation now turns out to be a niche, then there's way too many people for that niche. I'm sure the numbers would be very different for CGI animators, because there's CGI animation being done all over the industry. Those people are all working."

Interestingly, Gagné doesn't necessarily recommend 2D animators switch to CGI.

"I'd say listen to your heart," he says. "I thought I was going to starve to death when I went into animation. I didn't know how much it paid. I didn't even know what the job situation was. I didn't know anything. I just wanted to do animation. I went to Sheridan College for three years and I said to myself, 'I'm going to do something that makes me happy.' To me that's more important than making money. I really wasn't thinking in terms of money, ever, when I got into this. I listened to my heart. I've done that all my life and I have always landed on my feet. Always."

Bob Miller is an animation professional who has written extensively about the industry for Starlog, Comics Scene, Animation Magazine, Animato!, Animation Planet, Comics Buyer's Guide, and APATOONS. He served on the first season of Courage, the Cowardly Dog as storyboard supervisor and is currently working at Film Roman storyboarding episodes of The Simpsons.

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