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Dr. Toon: Moving Along with Patrick Smith

Dr. Toon chats with New York indie animator Patrick Smith about his new film, Puppet, his career and animation in general.

Patrick Smith at work on his latest film, Puppet. All images © Blendfilms.

Patrick Smith at work on his latest film, Puppet. All images © Blendfilms.

Independent artist Patrick Smith has animated five award-winning short films, directed several television series and has created striking works of public art. Patrick is also the mind behind a number of imaginative television commercials. A professor and senior thesis advisor at the Pratt Institute in New York, Patrick is involved in teaching a new generation of animators. His latest work, Puppet, recently won major accolades at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

Dr. Toon: Before you began your career as an independent animator, you started out in television. What were the main differences between directing the more mainstream-styled shows on MTV, such as Daria, and the work you are doing now?

Patrick Smith: First of all, I always wanted to do independent films, but I really didnt know how, and I wasnt really good enough to get one started. As a matter of fact, my first film, Drink, I had attempted to get going several times, but I was limited by my own abilities. When I was working in New York with MTV and a couple of other studios, I was really just learning to the point where I could make my own film. When it comes to directing for television, it teaches you a level of production that you never would have known on your own. For anyone whos ever made a film, theres a level of organization that you need to be aware of.

Working for television, you really get that because you can be working with a crew of a 100 people and, as a director, you have to make sure that everybodys on the same page. That taught me how to pull a production together. I now use what I learned on television all the time. As for differences, theres no one telling you what you can and cant do. Thats the most important thing. And, related to that, youre drawing your own characters. I didnt create the character, Daria, or any of the characters on Downtown or the other shows I worked on. I liked the shows and I liked drawing those characters, they didnt come from me.

When you do an independent film, it stops with you; if you want to do something, you do it. The final verdict on whether its a good film or not is made by the audience. Thats a little scary, because you dont have an entire studio behind you to filter all your ideas through, but any independent making a film has to go with their own characters and own ideas. Its your vision.

DT: Some independent animators Mo Willems, for example were approached by networks to pitch an animated series. Have you ever had an offer or thought of pitching an animated series yourself?

PS: Yeah, I get offers to pitch series, and maybe Ill do it someday. I had a pilot a long time ago at MTV, but, like most pilots, it didnt go anywhere. My problem with pitching, and maybe its because Im an independent and Im on my own, is that I have to struggle to keep my head above water. I dont have the time to put into a pitch. If I did have that kind of time, I would just wind up producing another short film.

The pitching system is a bad system though it works for a lot of people. My friend Tom Warburton pitched and pitched and he finally got a really successful show. But I see many talented artists working very hard pitching shows all the time. If they funneled that kind of energy toward making a film, they might have a little something more to show for it.

DT: Did anyone ever tell you that you think like an independent animator?

PS: Yeah! I do want to pitch shows, but what am I going to pitch a show about? A kid show? I dont know. I have ideas, but they end up being too violent or too artsy. I had an idea for a pantomime show, but whos going to do that? Cartoon Network, the shows they make, thats just not how Id do films. I guess thats why I dont pitch; nobody would want it!

Handshake is a perfect example of Smiths fluid style of animating.

Handshake is a perfect example of Smiths fluid style of animating.

DT: Your last few films seem to have an underlying theme, or at least it seems that way to me. Theres some small, seemingly innocent little thing like a box or a handshake or a little pitcher of liquid or a cute sock puppet, and these innocent little things end up producing life-twisting catastrophes for hapless people. How did this become an interesting theme for you?

PS: I have so many ideas for short films, and they all have a basic similarity. They all have to do with identity. When you deal with the self, theres a lot of places you can go, because we are such complex things. When I get an idea for a film, a great way to lure the audience in is to make your film approachable from the very beginning. You want to have images that are easy to read and dont alienate anybody.

One of the struggles that all independent animators have is that youre dealing with a medium that a majority of people has decided is for children. One way to take advantage of that is, nobodys intimidated by a cartoon. You can present them with a sock puppet or a handshake, and then you can show them things that cartoons dont. You can get into things like relationships and identity, or even abuse. Those issues arent for children. And the imagery that goes along with those types of things, the illustrations I can do for that can become visceral and emotional. I like my films to make a simple statement that doesnt try to explore too many places and concentrates on one simple emotion.

For Handshake, it was a simple thing about a relationship with a woman, and it doesnt really leave that. It goes inside of that; theres a part of Handshake that literally goes inside of what these two people look like. I guess thats why I go to these themes. Theyre simple and really fun to draw.

DT: Your films often feature hallucinatory sequences. Youve said in a past interview that you use these to go into the characters heads and express whats going on in there.

PS: A hallucination is an interesting way to illustrate an emotion. Its also something you cant do in many mediums. You can go anyplace with drawing, so that contrast between the real world and the hallucination world is something that I think Im going to have in every one of my films. It takes you away from reality and deeper into any situation youre telling about.

Smith burst onto the scene with his music video for The Planets titled, Moving Along.

Smith burst onto the scene with his music video for The Planets titled, Moving Along.

DT: Your film, Moving Along, seems to contain visual summaries of most of your work. There are visual references to Drink, Handshake and Puppet. Is this a film that you continue to draw inspiration from?

PS: The scenes that you see repeated through all my films, well, youll see that in any artists body of work. Theres going to be elements that are going to be repeated, and I used ones that Ive always liked. Moving Along was a music video, and the music actually came first, unlike my other films. So right there, youre going to have a different type of film. The music for Moving Along (performed by The Planets) was hip-hop, which I had virtually no exposure to. After doing that video, I could really appreciate what it was, particularly U.K. hip-hop, which was less about attitude and a little more about the lyrics and the poetry behind it.

It was surprising how easy that film was to do, because when you listen to music, the imagery is already there, and you just have to express it. The exec producer of that video gave me complete freedom to do whatever I wanted. When I listened to the music, I visualized these half-human, sort of plush characters that are sewn together, so theres the imagery of them sewing each other, and can also meld and move. They were characters that I had kicking around in my sketchbook that I wanted to find a use for. It just seemed right to me.

DT: What animators or directors, classic, modern or independent, were significant influences on you?

PS: I didnt study animation in college; I only got into it after I graduated. I went to my first film festival around then in 1994, and I saw the works of independent animators who were around at that time. The people that really stuck with me were, first of all, Ralph Bakshi. I was a painter before I was an animator, and I never saw animation as being for children. Bakshis films are just so brutal and gritty; I love that about his films. From Bakshi, I started getting into other things, and every animator will inevitably end up with Disney, if just for the level of craftsmanship they achieved.

After I learned a little bit more about animation, I really clung to The Illusion of Life and the Nine Old Men; I tried to do everything they said, all the principles that are so brilliant. Im going to be learning the mechanics of animation for the rest of my life. I can guarantee that Im never going to get to the level of guys like Freddie Moore or Ollie Johnston, but thats just being an artist. Its something painters have to face even more than animators. I took a liking to the sixties Disney films where they started using Xerography.

Milt Kahls character designs on Sword in the Stone influenced Smiths own designs.

Milt Kahls character designs on Sword in the Stone influenced Smiths own designs.

DT: Jungle Book, Sword in the Stone

PS: I would say that those two films in particular really dictated where I was going to go as far as look. My level of animation isnt up there with that, but its something that I shoot for. When I look at Milts (Kahl) characters in Sword in the Stone, I think, Oh man, I want my characters to look like that! I dont really care for cleaned-up drawings that much; I keep my drawings pretty rough and loose. I wish they had never stopped doing Xerography. It came back a little bit in Triplets (of Belleville). Disney never topped that look they nailed in Sword in the Stone.

They had so much more patience back then. When you look at an old Disney film, they took their time on things that the script didnt demand was important. They just let it flow. I think films in general were slower and better paced. Those action-cut animated films are very good, but theres no patience involved, no time to just settle back and enjoy the film just for the beauty of the animation.

I got interested in other films and comicbook artists. I think that a lot of the Dutch animation, like Borge Ring, is amazing. When I first saw his film (Anna and Bella), it was on one of those of those Terry Thoren videos, those compilations of independent films Animation Celebration, was it? That was really my first exposure to independent animation, and when I saw Borge Rings work, it was just beautiful. Those Dutch animators are fantastic. Theres an animator by the name of Hisko Hulsing whos also from the Netherlands, and hes one of my bigger influences.

Jamie Hewlett (Tank Girl) is a big inspiration. At the time I was learning animation, that movie came out and Mike Smith did some great animation, so I started to follow Mike Smith. There wasnt too much of his work to follow, but Tank Girl and then Natural Born Killers just blew me away. It had an experimental feel to it. He played with lighting, and that was the first time I even thought about lighting a drawing. Smith does fantastic things with light, like flicker the light every other frame. Those are some things I did for Moving Along. Then, I really like some of the comicbook artists like Humberto Ramos (The Spectacular Spider-Man and Revelations); his style is really cool.

From his early to his new film, Puppet, Smith has come to refine his style, creating more realistic facial performances.

From his early to his new film, Puppet, Smith has come to refine his style, creating more realistic facial performances.

DT: Speaking of which, your animation has become more complex and full with each film. Some of Puppet was drawn on ones and there are techniques such as silhouette animation. Faces are more realistic and expressive. Talk about the evolution of your style over time.

PS: It feels really good to hear you say that, because its something Im trying to do. I want my characters to get more complex and look better. Im learning. The better I can draw, the better my films will get; a little more detail, a little more realism, a little more anatomy is something I want to go to. Some of that is just a product of becoming a better animator, and maybe someday Ill be able to get to exactly what Im thinking of up on the screen instead of slaving over things that I dont think are quite there yet.

Anyway, Im working on several films right now at the same time and I hope to build on Puppet. Jamie Hewlett got me into detail; Id always stayed away from detail, because in animation youre brainwashed into staying away from it. Its something you always seem to hear, and I thought, But why? This is a very difficult medium and thats not going to change, so whats the big deal? Youre talking about thousands of drawings; why not just draw them with details? In animation, the lowest level of difficulty is still difficult, so why not go all the way? Whether youre in CG or traditional, its difficult.

DT: You are a traditional animator working in 2D. Have you ever considered using computer animation or making CGI a bigger part of your work?

PS: Im very comfortable in 2D. Theres so much to learn in 2D that my mind hasnt even reached 3D. Ive always liked drawings. Ive seen artists whose 2D drawings arent 2D at all, who create depth and feeling and weight. Thats one of the things about Disney animation. If I never learn how to draw, thats fine as long as I learn how to give characters weight. One of the most beautiful things, I think, is the idea of a two-dimensional drawing having weight and obeying the laws of physics!

A few years back, there was a whole movement of artists going from 2D to 3D, retraining to work in Maya or whatever. I never understood that, and to this day, I just dont get it. Did you get into this because its a job or because its your passion? 2D could die, and Id still do it. I saw a lot of my colleagues start to work in 3D. Nothing against them, but for me, from the very beginning, I was interested in 2D animation. Im one of the few people who wasnt blown away by the ballroom scene in Beauty and the Beast. Pixars films are wonderful, but thats not what I do.

Design work from Smiths work-in-progress, Masks.

Design work from Smiths work-in-progress, Masks.

DT: One of your next films will be based on prison interviews and will be your first film with dialogue. What were the challenges in making a film that is different from your other work?

PS: Ive done some dialoguing in the commercial world, but I guess that dialoguing is something I got into when reading research for a story on the lives of prison inmates. I got the idea when I was really into the OZ series on HBO. I thought, This is a harsh reality that nobody talks about. I started doing research and got 15 or so pen pals that are currently in prison. I didnt really know what I was doing at the time; I was just following an interest and I started drawing these characters that stared to take on personalities and demand even more research.

Ive been working on this film for four years now. I started drawings and tests about a year ago and did recordings with some actors, and then I did a recording with a real prisoner. I didnt know how I was going to treat it. This prison film is very difficult for me, and it might not even be my next film. Illustrating these characters and the things that theyre saying is very challenging. These characters are going to be hyper-realistic; when youre listening to a real inmate talking about how harsh and brutal prison is, you have to illustrate that character very honestly or else it wont work.

DT: Can you talk about the teaching and instructing you do at the Pratt Institute at New York?

PS: Ive been teaching at Pratt for two years now. A year ago, I took over the Pratt senior thesis class from George Griffin. Teaching is a funny thing; I didnt like it at first. I really did it because I had never tried it before. I had talked at schools but had never taught a class, and after the first semester, I didnt think I was going to come back. But I did, and it ended up growing on me, because students have a level of enthusiasm that you dont see very often in the professional world. For me, it was very inspiring to work with these kids, and I ended up becoming one of the class. I think I might even learn more than they do because it forces you to go over all the principles of animation.

Smiths unique style on films like Delivery has already influenced a new generation of animators.

Smiths unique style on films like Delivery has already influenced a new generation of animators.

I do the assignments, when I can, with the students and then we critique each other. Its not just me guiding the class; its also me participating in the class. As a matter of fact, Puppet was a product of the senior thesis class last year. I started Puppet at the same time they started their senior theses. I think I was the only one that finished on time, too! But it was cool, because we all worked on a film, and every time I see another teacher, I suggest doing that. I found myself awake at 3:00 am trying to finish a scene, because the assignment for the next day was due, and the class will hold me to it. It worked beautifully and the film was done on time for the premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. I think the class got a lot out of it because they saw me going through what they were going through.

DT: You have also created some public works of art, some of it resembling your animation. Will you continue to do this in the future?

PS: Absolutely. Its very much a part of my career. Im represented by a gallery in New York and I sell my pieces. Im actually gearing up for another public installation. It works nicely with animation; when youre frustrated with animation, you can go work on your paintings. There are columns that I do that are keeping me really busy, and theyre the antithesis of animation. Theyre completely vertical and piled up on each other, and I think that the reason I did it that way was a reaction to the confines of the animation screen.

Theyre fun to do, its extra income and it helps my studio get by. It also ties me into the fine arts world, which is always nice, because animation production can consume you and you can forget that youre an artist in other mediums. Its also nice to have a clique of friends that dont do animation, because they inspire you in other ways. They ground you and dont let you forget where you started.

DT: So Patrick if Wile E. Coyote fell off a cliff, died and never came back again, what would the Road Runner do?

PS: Wasnt that the tagline on Delivery or something? (Delivery is Patricks 2003 film in which the protagonist kills his brother). I really love that tagline because it exactly hits what Im trying to do. Cartoons are great and theyre funny, but where is the reality part? What would the Road Runner do if the Coyote died? All of a sudden, youre dealing with a character youre not laughing at anymore; youre dealing with a real, flesh-and-blood character.

The point is, youre taking animation into the real world and youre dealing with regret, abuse and all those things that cartoons stay away from. If an anvil falls on someones head, they usually dont die in a cartoon, but if an anvil falls on one of my characters heads, I guarantee you they will die. There might even be some splattering involved!

Martin Dr. Toon Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.