So today I want to introduce you to an extremely talented individual. Aaron Blaise is a 20 year veteran of Disney feature animation working on such films as Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King among others. He also co-directed Brother Bear which was honored with an Oscar nomination in 2004. He is phenomenal artist and in the past few years has has made the transition from traditional media to digital embracing the capabilities of Photoshop and the tablet power of a Wacom Cintiq. I was able to catch up with Aaron and see how being an artist in this new digital world has affected his career and where he sees it going.
CB: So when did you first realize you had a knack for this drawing thing?
AB: I have been drawing and painting for as long as I can remember. Literally from the time I could hold a pencil. My mother used to put me in my high chair, she claims at 9 months old, and cut up grocery bags for me to draw on. She told me that at 9 months I was drawing crude faces. I don’t know if the face part is true or not (she tends to embellish stories) but it does illustrate the fact that I’ve been doing art for a long time. Both my parents are artistic and I was always told that I was going to grow up to be a “commercial artist” as they called it. I didn’t know what that meant but I’ve never wanted to do anything else.
Growing up I would spend hours…days in my room creating animal drawings and paintings. I was always fascinated by the animal world. To my parent’s credit, they were very tolerant of my habit of picking up fresh road kill and storing them in the freezer so that I could pose them at a later date and do paintings of them. I actually entered a city wide art show at age 15 with a painting of a Red Shouldered Hawk that I had found on the side of the road. I pinned it up on the wall and posed it as if it were doing a hard bank in flight. I won the art show. My first win.
We didn’t have much money growing up. I lived in a trailer out in the woods in south Florida for most of my youth. So college was an iffy proposition. After winning that first art show though, I continued to enter any scholarship contest I could find and was able to gain the attention of several people involved in the arts in my home town of Naples. Between the scholarships that I earned, help from other folks in the art world and state financial aid, I was able to attend Ringling College of Art in Sarasota Florida in 1986.
CB: We are both alumni of Ringling School. What did you enjoy most about attending? What would you say to young people who are interested in art school?
AB: I loved Ringling! I majored in Illustration and much of my focus was on drawing and painting. This to me is still the foundation of what we do in the world of creating images. Even in the digital age, nothing trumps strong design, drawing and painting skills. It’s the foundation of what we do. If I could only give one piece of advice to art students it would be to strive everyday to improve in your drawing and painting skills. In the world of creating images our language is the image, not the written word. So you better get good at creating them.
While at Ringling I had dreams of being a staff illustrator for National Geographic or Smithsonian magazine. Those dreams started to fade when I learned that they mostly freelanced, so I started to broaden my options. After my second year of school I was accepted into an internship at Walt Disney Feature Animation in Burbank, California. I was lucky enough to be paired with and mentored by the great Glen Keane. It was Glen that showed me the magic of animation and I absolutely fell in love with it. I learned an incredible amount in those six weeks and at the end was offered a job at the new animation studio Disney was opening in MGM at Disney World in Orlando. It was quite a load off my mind as I finished my third year of school knowing I had a job waiting for me when I finished.
CB: So you went to work a a Disney animator out of school, what was the first feature you worked on?
AB: The first thing we created was a Roger Rabbit short called Roller Coaster Rabbit that was released in front of the movie Dick Tracy. From there we moved onto features. My first feature was The Rescuers Down Under. From there we went on to Beauty and the Beast where Glen and I teamed up once again. He was the animation supervisor of the Beast and he wanted me to be the Florida animator of the character. (The film was a collaboration between the California studio and Florida) Animating the Beast was a huge break for me because after that I was given my own character on Aladdin to design and animate, the tiger Rajah. I then went onto supervise on The Lion King where I created and animated Young Nala. Glen and I teamed up once again on Pocahontas on the character of Pocahontas and then I supervised once more on Mulan the characters of Yao and the Ancestors.
It was at this point that I was offered the opportunity to direct Brother Bear. I like to call it my 6 year film making school. Never had I taken on such a task and I had no idea what I was getting myself into. To say it was difficult would be an understatement, but after 6 years we prevailed and actually earned an Oscar nomination. It was and still is one of the greatest honors of my career.
CB: You were in the industry as the digital revolution began to take over. How did that affect your career outlook being a traditional artist facing this new digital medium?
AB: After Brother Bear our studio in Orlando was shut down and a handful of us were transferred to the studio in Burbank. I had a new development deal and I along with my directing partner, Bob Walker and producer Chuck Williams began developing new projects. It was 2004 and digital film making was in full swing. Up to this point I had been very stubborn in my use of paper, pencil and paint in my design work. But I finally came around and decided that if we were going to go digital, I should probably do it in my design work as well.
CB: So you are using Photoshop with a Wacom Cintiq now as part of your process. Was this a difficult transition?
AB: So I asked to have Photoshop installed on my computer and I dove in not really knowing what I was doing. I had picked up a few basics but that was it. I was constantly running down the hall to ask anybody how to do this or that. After a while though I started to get the hang of it and I really began to fall in love with the freedom it provided. I then asked Disney for a Cintiq and that really cinched it for me. I soon also bought one for my studio at home. From that point I was constantly figuring out new ways for creating images in Photoshop. I use very little of what photoshop can do. I like to keep things simple. It keeps my images cleaner, easier to look at I believe.
Over the years I’ve discovered some very simple techniques that take my art to a place I never dreamed before. I love playing with atmosphere, form, texture, light and depth of focus. It’s enabled me to do designs that can very closely resemble what I picture to be a finished frame in one of our films. This enables me to SHOW and not explain what I want to the film’s art director, production designer, lighters, or animators. This in turn cuts down on the number of iterations needed to achieve what I’m looking for in a design, or shot, which in turn takes a lot of stress off the budget of the project.
CB: You were recently working on a new project at Digital Domain here in Florida, how did Photoshop play a role in the conceptual process?
You can see a lot of what I’m talking about in the latest film I helped to develop called The Legend of Tembo. This is an original project that my directing partner Chuck Williams and I, along with our extremely talented story crew and writer, came up with at Digital Domain back here in Florida. It’s the story of a young African elephant taken from his home and forced to become a battle elephant in Asia. He then must fight to make his way back home again. This is a film I was born for, both story wise and artistically. Creating the images for this film was an absolute joy for me because it involved, visually, everything I had been striving for in my work. Atmosphere, texture, scale and drama are all huge parts of what we were trying to convey. I worked extremely close with our Art director/production designer in finding the look for our film and it was through my ability to create in photoshop what I had in my head that made this possible. Unfortunately, Digital Domain went bankrupt 2 years into the making of Tembo and production was halted. We are currently trying to acquire Tembo out of bankruptcy and relaunch with new partners.
Through all of this though, I can’t stress enough the importance that strong design, drawing and painting skills still play in my work. All the digital tricks in the world won’t cover up bad design or draftsmanship. I am still constantly working on these skills, then applying photoshop is like putting the frosting on the cake…except it’s like a really good cream cheese frosting, not that crappy stuff from the bakery at the grocery store.
You can see more of Aaron’s work over at his blog. Everything on his site with the exception of a few traditional pieces were done entirely in Photoshop. In addition we are going to be having Aaron contribute some of his techniques in the coming weeks and perhaps a guest spot on Photoshop User TV. What would you like to see?