Director, Writer, Art Director, Production Designer, Story Artist, Layout Supervisor, it would appear that Deane Taylor has covered most pre-production positions on countless animated productions over the last 30+ years. Although Deane has worked with classic animated shows such as Popeye, The Flintstones, Casper, and Scooby-Doo,the excellent Cow and Chicken as well as features like Happily N’Ever After, he is most well known for his superlative work on Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Still incredibly busy on a variety of projects, Deane has been kind enough to answer a few questions about his influences, his art and his work on that classic film.
GEORDIE: With the imminent release of ParaNorman and Hotel Transylvania it would appear that the influence of The Nightmare Before Christmas is stronger than ever, are you still surprised at how popular the film remains after all these years?
DEANE: I used to get really surprised but not so much anymore. I worked on the game in Japan and the President of Walt Disney in Tokyo told me that history has shown it gets a new audience every 3 years and can go as low as 4 years old. The film has been criticised for being too dark which I believe is rubbish. “Dark” is often confused with depth of detail and distinctive, original character.I think it has elements of a modern-day fairy tale told with strong humorous undertones . To me, those are the ingredients for classic. ParaNorman has the flavour too…brilliant. I actually did a bit of early concept work on Hotel Transylvania for my very good friends David Feiss and Tony Stacchi.
GEORDIE: Your design style is very distinctive, looking at your work and the work of Tim Burton, recently on show at the Gallery of Victoria, it would seem that you guys are a perfect fit to work together. Can you explain how you came to work on the project and how your working relationship developed?
DEANE: Henry Selick looked at a hundred or so art directors but in visiting animation studios across the States his eye was drawn to faxed cartoons that I’d done, that were on the pin-boards in a number of places. (yes…it was that long ago) This was pure dumb luck in my opinion…these sketches were just me having a laugh with mates I had worked with around the world at different times. Henry saw Tim’s style and thinking in this work and he contacted me for that reason. I was working out of Sydney at the time, but found myself on the job in San Francisco within weeks of that contact. I met with Tim on two occasions. Once for 3 minutes, and again for 4 minutes. Having said that, I believe it was enough. He is very clear in his thoughts, and his style very obviously unique. My brief was to make it look like Tim’s work, and we’d hear about it if it didn’t. Rick Heinrich’s was put on the project as visual consultant. They had worked together as early as Vincent and much more.He was Tim’s eyes and ears, and he is an amazing artist. As an art department we worked very closely with him. I have had a much more direct working relationship with Tim since that time (specifically on the game ) and have found him just as direct and clear as I had before.
GEORDIE: The art direction for The Nightmare Before Christmas is iconic, I can see an incredible blend of Gothic Noir, Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Dr.Seuss and Edward Gorey. Can you describe some of your personal influences and where you drew some of your inspiration from?
DEANE: I really only looked hard at Tim’s work. In that, I saw heavy influences from Edward Gorey and another favourite of mine, Ronald Searle. As you’ve accurately mentioned… Caligari and Seuss are in the top ten also. The way I saw it was that Tim had really blended the flavours of all of these things and brought his own stamp to it, and that’s what I should do as well. We as an art department stayed true to this while allowing additional detail to develop. Kendal Chronkite in particular, brought some very tasty design work into the process, and Henry had the eye to allow it.
GEORDIE: The background work on this film is as much a ‘character’ as the actual characters. Do you have a favourite piece, and speaking of characters, is there a particular character that you identify with?
DEANE: It’s no accident that the environments play into the character so heavily. I believe they really have to, to be believable. I wanted to create illustrations that you could fly in and around. Kind of a pop-up book. The sets were realised with amazing accuracy to the sketches, and in the rendering of the surfaces we went in and painted the hatching as a guide, which really added to the expressionistic finish. We used fat water-colour brushes and black ink. The ink was crushed from hardened coal from the Altai Mountains. Just kidding…it wasn’t THAT long ago. As far as favourites…I am still very fond of Jack’s study, the Evil Scientist Laboratory, the treehouse and Oogies lair. Coincidentally, these were mostly the first sets produced and I believe have the strongest essence. The treehouse interiors especially: you should freeze frame through that sometime and look at the painted lighting and other detail. In characters, I have a very soft spot for Lock, Shock and Barrel.
GEORDIE: You’ve worked in traditional 2D, 3D and Stop-Motion animation; can you explain the difference in approach that was required to bring your designs to life?
DEANE: I think design principles remain largely the same despite the medium but I have to say that the years of having to cheat production value into the limitations of 2-D cartoons was the biggest influence in achieving the style of our sets. Fake perspectives, distorted architecture and scene planning were pivotal. Forcing the viewers eye to look at what you choose to reveal is my preferred way to work. More often than not it’s about what you don’t see rather than what you do. It’s like Keith Richards guitar playing. He knows when to shut up.
GEORDIE: On the audio commentary from the Nightmare DVD, Director Henry Selick talks about how the 1933 King Kong and Night of the Hunter (two of my all-time favourite films), were big touch stones for him throughout the duration of the project. Were there any particular films you could point to as major influences for prep or while you were working on the film?
DEANE: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari obviously, but also the early Universal Frankensteins and Dracula’s…the really early ones. Simple and direct, these films were about three course meals, not pizzas.
GEORDIE: Our influences and tastes change and develop as we age, what were you drawn to as a kid, and what are some of the constants you always return to, or one that simply had a lasting effect on you?
DEANE: The turning point in art for me was seeing huge prints of Ronald Searle’s’ designs for The Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines. They were probably huge because I was a runty eight year old but I can clearly remember thinking that an adult had done these, and that he was doing this for an actual job. I though they were beautiful to look at, and they were funny. After that I tracked down the St Trinians books and feverishly tried to copy them. Ronald Searle became my personal tutor, though he probably still doesn’t know that. After that…Wizard of Id, BC and Mad magazine, who I eventually did work for. I still keep a lot of Searle’s work handy, for inspiration.
GEORDIE: What advice would you give to any aspiring young animators, story artists or art directors?
DEANE: You have to keep your eyes and ears open to new influences as well as your heroes. Look for the strange, and understand what it is that makes it so. This can be remote tribes, cultures, weird architecture and of course the minute detail of nature. It’s all out there waiting to be interpreted with a fresh eye or a different wrist. Look for the backstory, the “why”
DEANE: I love visual storytelling and in recent years am more convinced that this should be done with a conscience. It’s easy to produce a well told story, but I believe it should matter. I’m in development of an animated property that I believe does this. It’s a mix of styles that draws heavily on the flavours that have shaped my own work for the last 30 plus years. I’m very excited about it, and look forward to bringing it to fruition with a crew of seasoned veterans and new generation artists. I look at new work all the time and am hugely inspired by the freshness and skills that are scattered around the world.
GEORDIE: Thanks to Deane for giving up some of his (VERY valuable) time to do the interview, and for sharing his thoughts and inspiration. For more of Deane’s sketches, pearls of wisdom, and often hilarious recollections, check out his blog: deanertaylor.blogspot.com.au