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Karim Charlebois-Zariffa: The Invisible Artist

http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2009/07/23/karim-charleboiszariffa-the-invisible-artist.html

Sara Veal

Karim Charlebois-Zariffa creates the kind of magic you see all the time but never really thought about.

Commercials where buildings explode with paint, music videos where rock stars appear to be floating in thin air or film title sequences where plasticine figures morph into live action people and back again.

This is motion design, sometimes known as “the invisible art” – on average, twelve minutes of every hour of broadcast television is the work of a motion designer, taking the form of commercials, title sequences, trailers and special effects.

“Often people think motion design is a new field of graphic design but in fact it has been around for many years, in different forms,” Charlebois-Zariffa said, citing the 1950s and 1960s work of Scottish experimental filmmaker Norman Maclaren, Czech surrealist artist Jan Svankmajer and American graphic designer Saul Bass, who created the film title sequences to several Alfred Hitchcock films.

“For me, motion design is a mix of everything. It’s mainly graphic design and movement. It’s using a variety of techniques to get to what you want to say. What I find most interesting is finding a new technique of animation every time. it’s always a challenge.”

Recently, Charlebois-Zariffa came to Jakarta to present a talk, “International Motion Graphic”, one of the highlights of the “Plaza Desain 2009: *Kinesis'” graphic design event organized by Bina Nusantara University, which took place between July 7-12.

The 25-year-old was born in Quebec City, and is currently based in nearby Montreal, which he says is “a great city to be a designer”.

Artistic from an early age, Charlebois-Zariffa joined the local graffiti scene, and from there learned about graphic design, which he studied at CEGEP level, a Quebecois qualification between high school and university.

His first professional foray was as a fashion designer, starting a company, Colourblind, which offered shoes, hats, t-shirts and skirts. However, he eventually decided he needed to find something that offered more opportunity for innovation.

He soon found what he was looking for after doing Photoshop work for an animator who was making a music video clip involving motion design.

“I had no idea at that time about motion design. So I saw him work and I was curious and interested. I asked him to show me what motion design was and how it worked. I became hooked.”

As there were no specific motion design courses on offer, Charlebois-Zariffa largely taught himself, and soon received many assignments, which kick-started his career.

Most of his jobs have been making title sequences for soap operas and documentary series. These include title sequences for science show Le Code Chasteney and Montreal in 12 Places, which highlighted spots around the city such as a street market and horse race track. The latter, which required a year of intensive work to create a minute of animation for each of the twelve places, netted his team “pretty much every motion design award there was to win in Montreal”.

He also aligns 3D objects, such as pills and colouring pencils, for magazine spreads. At one point these were so in demand he began to feel typecast and so ended his run with a print book, which showcased on everything he owned, all aligned in his apartment.

“Nothing was hidden. Everything I owned was shown, without any shame or whatever. If I had something I wanted to hide, my rules were that I had to show that.”

Most recently he has been making title sequences for feature films, like French-Canadian De pere en flic (2009), which he prefers, as they can be longer and have a larger budget and more time.

Charlebois-Zariffa always strives to “do what a camera couldn’t do”, which involves combining a range of techniques from stop-motion, live-action and 3D animation. The end result appears effortless, but requires endless hours of meticulous work and planning, from methodically positioning glass strings to creating 24 frames of stop-motion animation for one second of animation. He says he is driven not by patience, but by passion.

“If I’m doing a stop motion that takes me months, it’s because I love it.”

Charlebois-Zariffa says what made him fall in love with graphic design was the work of “rockstar” graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister, who has designed album covers for the Rolling Stones and Aerosmith.

Last year, he did a week-long workshop with Sagmeister, and eventually plucked up the courage to offer himself as an intern. A few months later, Sagmeister invited him to join him during his sabbatical year, which he takes every seven years.

So for the past five months, Charlebois-Zariffa has been in Bali with Sagmeister, who asked him to extend his stay, as an employee.

Along with a small team of graphic designers from all over the world, as well as Balinese artisans, Sagmeister and Charlebois-Zariffa are working on a top-secret, experimental project.

Charlebois-Zariffa says Bali feels like home right now, remarking on its natural beauty and inspiring craft culture.

Although he looks forward to returning to Montreal within a month, he knows he will come back to Bali, particularly because of his ongoing collaboration with Sagmeister and the facility of working with Balinese artists.

“We could never find these kinds of talents in New York and if we could, they’d be too expensive. Balinese are very happy people and very willing to try out new stuff.”

Although he is still passionate about motion design and the constant, creative challenges it offers, Charlebois-Zariffa does not see himself focusing on it indefinitely.

“I really like sculpting right now, and art in general. I love everything about designing art, so I hope I can move on. Right now I’m moving more into video clip direction.”

“I’m never going to be a lawyer or accountant, but for sure, in the same field or tree, I like to touch all the branches.”

Visit www.karimzariffa.com for more information.

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Pioneering animation fusion with ‘Wanga-Manga’

http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2009/07/16/pioneering-animation-fusion-with-%E2%80%98wangamanga%E2%80%99.html

Sara Veal

During the 1920s, a young man created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, a cartoon character that quickly became a success for Universal Studios.

But when he asked the producer, Mintz, for more money, the producer insisted upon a 20 percent budget cut, reminding the young man that the studio owned the character. The young man disassociated himself from Oswald and moved on.

He was, of course, Walt Disney, and his next project was Mickey Mouse. Today, both Disney and Mickey are famous the world over, synonymous with animation and imagination.

Oswald will always be Mickey’s shadow, but for animator James Speck, he remains an inspiration.

“The irony is that [Mintz] did Disney an enormous favor. Yes, Mickey Mouse resulted from losing Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, but the bigger lesson was that Disney never ever again trusted his business partners,” Speck says.

“He realized that they were all short-term thinkers, and that they underestimated his talents. Had Mintz given Disney what he wanted, Disney would have been tied to Mintz, a producer whose films are basically obscure.”

Speck has learned from Disney’s experience. Since he first became interested in animation at age 15, he has continued to hone his craft, always endeavoring to remain in creative control and own the rights to his own creations.

His projects include Hollywood films, international television productions, commercials, fine art exhibits and live motion capture performances.

Born in Michigan, but calling Arizona home, Speck first came to Jakarta in 1992, when a Montreal-based company, Softimage, sent him to ASEAN to develop their 3D software. He moved to Singapore shortly afterward, where he has remained.

There, he founded Cowboy Water Design in 1994, a company that aims to “continually push the boundaries of computer animation and exceed client expectations”.

His company’s unusual name and idiosyncratic logo (the rear view of a naked child in a large cowboy hat, peeing) were inspired by Speck’s earliest childhood memory.

“When you name something it should be really personal and it should have meaning for you,” he says. “My youngest memory was in South Bend, Indiana, four years old, in front of a mirror, going ‘Drink cowboy water’. It stuck in my head … It’s timeless, it’ll never go out of fashion. That little boy in the hat is me.”

Last Thursday, Speck was in Jakarta to present a talk on “Technology vs Creativity”, one of the highlights of the “Plaza Desain 2009: ‘Kinesis’” graphic design event organized by Bina Nusantara University, which took place from July 7 to 12.

Speck might not have found his Mickey Mouse yet, but he already has a host of creations under his belt, ranging from a perky blue-haired television host to a urinating chihuahua.

At the talk, Speck declared a new art movement, “Wanga-Manga” or “Wanga”, a fusion of Western art and Japanese manga.

Lili, a real-time virtual character that debuted in 1998, is arguably his most famous creation to date, as well his first realized example of Wanga, a figure displaying manga-style facial features and a Western-style body.

The Lili Show, on the MTV Asia Network channel, involved Lili interviewing pop stars such as Madonna, Bono and Coco Lee.

In 2000, The Lili Show won the Asian Television Award for Most Innovative Program. It remains one of the most highly rated Asian MTV shows of all time, attracting an audience of 1.2 billion at its peak. Lili, along with sidekick Bibi, appeared in Time magazine and on the CNN network and performed live at the MTV European Music awards. Both Lili and Bibi continue to represent a fashion line and appear at live music events.

“It was so far beyond what I could imagine success-wise: thousands of screaming fans in Taiwan for this character,” Speck says.

“That show opened up a lot of doors for me, but that was it. I thought, now the money’s just going to come rolling in … but then nothing… I own the rights to this character and have done a few things with it, but mainly, I’ve moved on.”

In 2004, Speck created Quu and Tee, a pair of Wanga-style characters designed to represent Animax Asia, a 24-hour Japanese anime channel.

Adding to his live motion performance work, in 2007 Speck developed five real-time virtual characters for the Woolworth’s Corporation in Australia, which over a period of five days performed live for an audience of 40,000 people at the convention center in Melbourne.

“Grown businessmen were suddenly talking and laughing and having a really good time, because of the crazy cartoon characters.”

In 2008, he created canine mascot Randy for Singaporean IPTV channel “Razor TV” (www.razor.tv). The chihuahua’s most notable feature is his frequent urination.

“Why put a cartoon dog in a live set? Why put a cartoon dog in anything?” Speck says. “Because people love to be entertained. People like talking to cartoon dogs.”

Speck introduced two Woolworth characters — a laddish household cleaner and imperious washing powder box — and Randy to the seminar attendees, demonstrating real-time lip-synching technology.

The characters are controlled by a computer keyboard, a mouse and a microphone. Their rate was between 57 and 60 frames per second, which approaches Pixar or movie quality. Speck also included secondary motion, which enhances lifelike performances.

The seminar attendees responded to the characters, performed by Speck, with laughter and smiles, a response that Speck is used to, but never gets tired of. “People behave so interestingly when they talk to a cartoon character.”

His latest project is Tra the Tiger, a ukulele-playing, Wanga-style Sumatran tiger that dances with musical durians. He hopes to collaborate with the WWF and use Tra to promote environmentalism internationally in a fun, accessible way, through television, merchandising and licensing.

“Tra the Tiger will be a spokesperson for all animals and all different types of tigers. He’ll be talking and dancing and singing, with the ukulele,” he says.

“I don’t think there’s any other tiger that plays the ukulele. I’ll be the first one.”

While his other characters have usually been voiced by professional actors, Speck plans to voice Tra himself.

“I want to make him a tiger with a real attitude, like, ‘Dude, get your hands off my skin’.”

Speck hopes that Tra will eventually be able to interview high-profile conservationists such as Jane Goodall.

He plans to target palm oil plantations and large-scale companies such as Tiger Beer and Tiger Airlines for funding, as part of their CSR (corporate social responsibility) programs.

He hopes to convey through Tra that it is not a simple case of megacorporations being the bad guys and ruining the environment, and that these are issues that should be on everyone’s conscience.

“None of us are innocent. Palm oil is used in shampoo and foods … I probably used a product today, maybe it was in my soap,” he says.

“I found that Exxon Mobil spends US$10 million a year to save the tiger.”

Inspired by his treks around jungles in Sumatra, Speck decided to focus on saving the tiger, because he observed that their presence was linked to the condition of the environment.

“If you go and try to save a bird or snake or whatever, there’s no point if there’s no tiger. If you’ve got a tiger in a forest, that [place] is in really good shape. If there’s no tiger, everything goes downhill.”

He intends to remain in Asia, which he feels currently offers far more opportunities than the US, but hopes to leave Singapore soon, possibly for Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

“Singapore may fund this project, but after that it’s going to be game over. They have their own animators now, I trained a lot of them … It’s time to wake up and do something different,” he says.

“I want long-term, I want sustainability… I hope I can retire with Tra the Tiger.”

James Speck can be contacted at cowboy@singnet.com.sg. Tra the Tiger is available to add as a friend on Facebook (search “Tra Tiger”).

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