A Chat with Kenard Pak About Working for Disney and Dreamworks

Posted at 12 pm on June 6, 2013 by

Posted in: Animation, Character Illustration, Digital Illustration

Cartoons and feature-length animated films would have undeniably had an early influence on the majority of people working as illustrators today in at least one form or another. The mass of colours, fantasy and story telling form a perfect vehicle for encouraging creativity at an early age. Recent years have seen a huge shift in a preference for computer generated art work from painted cells but the fundamentals are the same.

That being said, the scope of work in art and design is so varied that the animated feature industry might still seem completely foreign to someone working in editorial illustration or advertising for example.

The large production companies that dominate the industry may seem unapproachable to some. How would you go about working for Disney? What does someone working in visual development do?

Illustrator Kenard Pak has worked for both Disney and Dreamworks so seemed like the right man to shed a little light on these questions. We ask him a few questions and take a look at some of the work he did for ‘Madagascar 3′ and some of his other great illustration work.

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Please tell us about your creative background and how you came to work at Dreamworks.

I studied illustration and film at Syracuse University, and then animation at CalArts.  After I graduated from CalArts, I started work as a traditional layout artist on ‘Prince of Egypt’ and finished my first round with Dreamworks as a vis dev artist on ‘Flushed Away’.  

Please tell us about the kind of work you do and what you use to make it.

I’m an illustrator in the picture book tradition.  I also work in the animation industry, but my illustration work is not as literal or realistic as my animation production work.   Most of my time is with the computer, but I do like to draw in my sketchbook.  

My gear is modest:  a computer, a Cintiq, a second monitor, and a scanner.  When I work traditionally, it’s usually a sketchbook with pencil, pen and ink.  With ink, I like to use old brushes/nibs, paper scraps, dry markers, sticks— anything that will make interesting textures. Pentel makes great brush markers, especially the Japanese Sumi brush imports.  I always have a nice brush pen with a fine tip at hand.  

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My sketchbook is more of a source for textures and patterns than drawings and thumbnails. Everything is eventually scanned: paintings, found objects, and the pen/pencil drawings from my sketchbook.  I don’t really work with photographs.  In Photoshop, I often start with shapes first using my own made brushes.  I use adjustment layers, and introduce whatever textures and patterns last.

What was it like to work at Disney?

A dream come true!  At Disney Feature I eventually worked into a particular style that I still work with today.  Lots of experimenting and playing.  I was very lucky, had fun, and met some talented, wonderful people there. 

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What kind of work does being a visual development artist at PDI Dreamworks entail?

The PDI vis dev artist is very versatile and quick on his/her feet.  The first things that come to mind is maneuverability and technical skill.  As a contrast, a singular voice is also what’s most valued.  A lot to ask for — a combination of both assembly line production skills and uniqueness. 

What I mean by productions skills is prop design, film grammar/layout skills, surfacing/texture, and, probably the most important, the ability to light.  Good color key painting skills is a prized skill at any animation company.  The artist is expected to paint, usually in Photoshop, with skills in executing storytelling,  mood, time of day, light stylization, camera eye, etc. 

What I mean by uniqueness is having that approach and style that no one else can mimic.  This is really important in pre-production where a lot of exploring is done. 

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What kind of skills and qualities are important to have as a visual development artist?

For pre-production: a unique style and, if need be, the ability to shift between other styles, good ideas, problem solving skills, storytelling. 

For production:  a good color eye, lighting, classic design principles, ability to work with scale/perspective/space, and, for some, modelling.  Most importantly, you need to be able to work with a group, with different kinds of creative directors, and be ready to handle criticism well.

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Were you inspired by any animations in particular while growing up? 

To this day I love the classic Disney movies, esp.  ’Bambi’, ‘Lady and the Tramp’, ’101 Dalmations’, and ‘The Sword in the Stone’.  I also really enjoyed Miyazaki and whatever experimental stop motion animation I could find from Europe.  And of course cartoons, like Looney Tunes.

Is there much difference in doing work that will be used for CGI animation than for 2D?

Not really, at least for me.  Pencil, pen, Photoshop— they’re all ultimately mediums to execute your creative ideas.  That said, when I work on Photoshop, I miss the tactile, textural quality of pencil or pen on paper.  When I sketch or paint, I really miss editing tools like adjustment layers. Drawing also seems to tire me faster than working on the computer.

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I feel lucky to be of the generation that has seen both traditional cell animation and the development of CGI. What do think about the growth of the medium and where it’s headed in the future?

I know, I feel lucky too!  We even witnessed some of the clumsier forays from analog to digital animation.  As for the future of animation, I think creative pursuit is always prevailing among the hard-working artists.  As long as we’re fortunate enough to have this talent pool of inspiring artists and technicians, the future of animation looks good.

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What steps would you recommend for someone who would like to do similar work to what you do?

I see a lot of younger artists copy animation vis dev art work, esp. Mary Blair, Hans Bacher, or whatever ‘art of’ book is on the market.  I think this is fine, but understand that there’s an ocean of animation art blogs with color keys, character design turn-arounds, and set designs that look exactly the same. 

Maybe it’s a matter of displaying technical proficiency that exceeds your colleagues/competition, but I’d like to think it’s more about what makes an artist particular or unique.  I recommend working in a way that you like or feel confident with, and stay mindful of the technical traditions that the animation business demands.

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© Kenard Pak, 2013