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Interview: Michel Gagné (Author/Illustrator, The Towers of Numar)

by John C. Snider © 2003


Michel Gagné is an artist's artist. He has had a successful career as a feature film animator/FX designer, working on such movies as An American Tail, The Land Before Time, Mortal Kombat, and The Iron GiantHe's been a comic book writer/artist, both with ZED, his own creation, and with the controversial "Spore", a Batman backstory that appeared in a five-issue run of Detective Comics.  Through his own publishing company (Gagné International Press), he has produced a series of highly-acclaimed illustrated books, including A Search for Meaning: The Story of Rex, Insanely Twisted Rabbits, Frenzied Fauna, and (published in June 2003) The Towers of Numar.  He's even been known to produce the occasional painting or sculpture!


Gagné will soon add television to his accomplishments, with the Fall 2003 debut of Cartoon Network's Star Wars: Clone Wars, a series of 3-minute animated shorts that bridge the stories of Episodes II and III.  Gagné is providing animation design for Clone Wars, which is directed by the legendary Genndy Tartakovsky (Dexter's Laboratory, Samurai Jack).


Despite a troubled childhood and the loss of an eye at age 12, Gagné has used his natural talents (and his wife's business savvy) to become a successful and respected creator of both mainstream and "alternative" entertainment.


scifidimensions: Michel, thanks for talking with us.  Let's start off with The Towers of Numar, published in June 2003.  What's it all about?
Gagné: The story takes place at the dawn of creation, on a world called Numar and focuses on a little alien named Meeka. The synopsis could be summed up like this: Meeka is an awesome little creature with a constant need to create. Her compulsion leads her to a feat of engineering so great, that it changes not only the fate of her world, but the very foundation of the universe
The imagery is very soft and meditative. I used a muted palette and a lot of gentle shapes. It's very cute and non-threatening, but at the same time, it has a weird adult sophistication.
You could say that the idea for the book is rooted in my life long obsession with the origin of the universe, a variation on a theme that I started exploring with my short film Prelude to Eden. It's a subject that fascinates me. My third graphic storybook, The Great Shadow Migration, dealt with that subject also. I'm just obsessed with creating and to me, the beginning of the universe seems like the ultimate act of creation.
sfd: Much of your work (particularly your books and comics) is thematically very deep, serious and philosophical - yet the artwork looks like something that will appeal to younger children.  Who do you consider your core audience?  

MG: Well, that's a tough one. You see, I'm the audience. I don't aim at anybody in particular, I just create. My audience finds me without being targeted.
If you'd like me to be more specific, I'd say that judging from our demographic studies, my books appeal to a varied spectrum that includes individualistic thinkers, college students, mature children, open minded parents, animation fans, artists, alternative comic fans, and people in search of something different.

sfd: Do you offer any caution to parents about your work?

MG: If they ask, I'll point out things that they might find offensive. But parents should check the content to see if it's appropriate for their children. A lot of parents have told me that their kids love my books so much that they sleep with them. I think that kids are very smart and they probably welcome something different from the usual pap you find in children's bookstores. But then again, what do I know? I've never had young children. Like I said before, I'm not doing these books for kids. If they respond to it, I'm glad.

All my books so far would be in the PG - PG13 range, I don't think any of them would warrant any cautionary disclaimer. I am planning on tackling edgier and more adult subjects in the future, and when I do, I'll put a warning on the front or back-cover.

sfd: In your recent film work, you've had titles like "Special Effects Animator/Designer," or "Conceptual Effects Animator," etc.  Can you explain, briefly, what the division of talent is for doing feature film animation or special effects?
MG: There are so many different positions in the production of an animated movie, it would make your head spin. Although I've done character animation, most notably for
[Don] Bluth, I'm better known for my effects animation work.
FX animation could be described as anything on the screen that is animated (moving) and is not a character. Say, for example, you have a ship on a stormy ocean with a bunch of pirates on it. The pirates will be done by the character department. The ship, the water, splashes, the rain, clouds, lightning, etc. will all be animated by the FX department. In the case of traditional cel animation, the FX department is usually broken down into two units: digital and hand-drawn FX. I specialize in the latter. Here are a few distinctions between the positions you've mentioned:
Special Effects Animator: This is when I create all the final key animation drawings. Some animators rough out the keys and let their assistants clean them up. As for me, I like to clean up my keys as I believe this is where the beauty in the design happens. Once all the keys are completed, I create the timing charts and my assistant (Matt Maners) does the inbetweens.
Special Effects Designer: Here, I create one to four main key drawings per scene, with some notes on how to animate the scene. Often times, this happens right after the storyboard stage, well before animation starts. I usually blow up the storyboards and work from there. The animator who gets the scene is expected to adjust the designs to the final layouts and characters, and to complete the key drawings and the timing.

Conceptual Effects Animator: This usually happens at an early stage of production. I will meet with the director or art director who will explain a certain concept they have in mind. After some brain storming, I'll come up with some experimental animation and the director decides if he likes the direction or not. If it flies, the experimental animation will be given to the FX or digital crew as a guide for the actual production scenes. I did about 4 months of conceptual animation on Osmosis Jones and it was a real asset in showing my crew the artistic direction of the overall FX.

sfd: Speaking of your animation work, tell us about the upcoming Star Wars: Clone Wars shorts you're working on for Lucasfilm and Cartoon Network.

MG: I can't really say much about it because of my confidentiality agreement. What I can tell you though, is that it's been a lot of fun to work on. It's loaded with super cool FX, like nothing I've ever seen in an American TV project. As you probably know, it's a series of 20 three-minute short films. The fact that the episodes are so short allows for a very small crew of stylists to handle the whole thing. I think that's very cool and it should result in a very coherently styled show. And of course, Genndy Tartakovsky (the director) really knows his stuff, so I'm confident these little films will be quite something.

sfd: Can you talk a little bit about the various tools that animators use nowadays.  Things have changed so fast over the last few years, with computers and so forth. Is EVERYTHING done with computers now?
MG: Well, the computer is definitely a big part of the picture. There is still a lot of drawing involved, though, but everything gets scanned in the computer at some point. Ultimately, the whole thing lives in cyberspace. I'm a pencil and paper kind of guy and I always start that way. I like the computer as much as the next guy, but the immediacy I get from a pencil and paper, I just don't get that from a computer. Besides, the demand for me as a draftsman is a lot higher than me as a computer artist. That's the way I like it!
sfd: You've worked in film, comics, books (and even do a little painting and sculpture).  Which medium is your true love?
MG: Art is my true love. I'm happy as long as I'm creative. I get a different kind of satisfaction with each medium. I have to say though, I really love doing books. That's something I see myself doing for a very long time.
sfd: You lost an eye as a child - how does this affect your work as a visual artist?

MG: One of the thing that happens when you only have one eye is that you loose your depth perception. I see the world as a flat plane. This has somewhat translated in a lot of my artwork. I'm not very good at perspective but I've developed several tricks to cheat the illusion. I usually build depth in my illustrations (and animation) by layering flat planes on top of each other rather than building a tri-dimensional environment. I've also become very aware of silhouette and have a heightened perception of positive/negative shapes interplay. I believe that a lot of that can be attributed to my monoscopic vision.

sfd: You gained some notoriety in 2001 with your beautiful (but, um, disturbing) book of illustrations titled Insanely Twisted Rabbits. What was the inspiration for that work? And why rabbits?
MG: I did those rabbits drawings around 1991-92 while I was working at Don Bluth Animation Studios. I saw a drawing of one of my friends' pet rabbit and it somehow triggered my compulsive nature. I've always had a weird obsession with rabbits. My student film was about a rabbit, my favorite book is Watership Down, etc… Anyhow, I started sketching these weird demented versions of rabbits. Eventually, my friend joined in and we just kept trying to outdo each other. After Bluth Studios shut down in '92, I put all my rabbit sketches in a big envelope and shoved them in a drawer at home. Years later, when I started lecturing at colleges, I'd bring the sketches to show the students. They would get such a kick out of them. They kept asking me to publish them in a book. For years, I'd get the same request. In 2000, after two years in the publishing business and getting the hang of putting a book together, I finally decided that the time had come. In January 2001, I published my fifth book: Insanely Twisted Rabbits. Little did I know that this would become my most successful title. I used to be pissed about that. I couldn't understand why that one book was outselling all the others. I guess there's just something about these rabbits that hits a chord with people.
sfd: What upcoming projects should we look for?
MG: I'm currently working on a couple of books. One is called Freaky Flora and is a sort of sequel, or companion if you will, to Frenzied Fauna, which was released last year. I'm shooting for a holiday release. The other one is called Parables.  It's my thickest book so far at 128 pages and it'll be released in February 2004 both as a hard and a soft cover.
I recently entered a partnership with Sideshow Collectibles. Those guys create some of the best sculptures in the world of collectibles. Our first release comes out in July and is based on one of my Insanely Twisted Rabbits. I got an advance prototype of the sculpture a few weeks ago and I can tell you that it's awesome. The second sculpture is planned for Christmas.
And of course, I'd like to finish the ZED saga sometime next year. ZED: Volume One ended with a crazy cliffhanger and some of my fans are getting sick of waiting!
sfd: Thanks for your time.
MG: It was my pleasure.

The Towers of Numar is available from Amazon.com.



The Towers of Numar - Review

Gagne International Press - The Art of Michel Gagné


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