This is the seventh in our series of interviews with those animators whose work has particularly appealed to our students here at South Axholme. Each interview is available in a more colourful format, along with suitable illustrations, on our website. Lewis' will be posted there this week.
Lewis Allery interviews Isaac Botkin
Lewis: Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed by me. I hope the questions are neither too obvious or too many.
Isaac: No, no, these are excellent.
Lewis: How long have you been animating?
Isaac: Well, I started when I was 14, and I'm 26 now, but I've taken lots of time off from being an animator to be a video editor, or a cameraman, or other things, so I haven't been constantly animating for the last 12 years. I'd be much better if I had.
Lewis: In "Men O' War" what made you go for Lego as a sort of building block? Would you continue the use of Lego into you other animations?
Isaac: I picked Legos for many reasons. First, they are very simple, so they can be modeled, animated, and rendered very fast. Each man only has seven joints, and plastic is easier to simulate on the computer than other materials are. Also, my brothers and I love Legos and have spent probably way too much time building with Legos, and we had knew that several Lego animators would at the Film Academy where we premiered the film, so we thought it would be fun. And it was, but I think for future projects we will use characters that we have invented ourselves.
Lewis: What's the best aspect of animating for you?
Isaac: I like all aspects of production, but it's only when I'm animating that I get to be the cameraman, lighting engineer, set builder, set dresser, and to some extent, actor. The animator controls all the elements in his shot, and if he's making a short by himself, he has complete creative control over the whole thing. I like that because you have a better sense of your skills - nobody does anything for you, and the problems are all your fault. Plus it's just fun to make your own ideas come alive, especially if they are interesting characters.
Lewis: When you first start to animate, do you just get an idea in your head and go with it, or do plan in great detail before you start.
Isaac: I plan as much as I can. If I'm only charge of one shot, I try to draw little thumbnails of the action so I can get good poses and staging - unless it's very simple. If I'm directing the whole film, like I did with Men O' War, I storyboard the whole film and edit to the final dialogue before I do any animation. You can read more about that here (http://www.outside-hollywood.com/2006/10/men-o-war-pre-production/) and see my storyboards. Animation is very time consuming, and even though the planning can take a while, it means I don't have to go back and re-animate anything, so gives me a stronger result, faster.
Lewis: Could you tell me something about the software you use? We tend to use Flash here at school because it is quite practical to create a full movie in the limited time we have available.
Isaac: I used Lightwave 3D for all the 3D and After Effects for compositing and color grading. Flash is a great program for 2D animation and my younger brothers are pretty good at it. I prefer 3D animation because it offers me more flexibility, and because I can't draw very well (as you can see from my storyboard).
Lewis: Thinking in terms of time, how long did it take you to produce "Men O' War"?
Isaac: Just over five weeks, from the start to the end. The first week we wrote the script, made the storyboards, recorded the voices, and modeled the Lego men. Then I spent two weeks animating the characters, one week setting up the backgrounds, and one week compositing. Meanwhile, my siblings were composing the music and adding sound effects and building the props and sets.
Lewis: What comes first for an animator, ability as an artist, or technical ability?
Isaac: Artistic ability is the most important part, but I don't necessarily mean drawing ability. Being able to use animation software doesn't make someone an animator. Being able to tell a story or communicate an idea or capture a character through movement is the main thing. All artists are defined by the talents they've been given and the skills that they've worked to acquire, not by their tools.
Lewis: What has been the most rewarding aspect of animation for you?
Isaac: Probably discovering that a lot of the skills are transferable, as much as anything. For example, becoming a more patient animator has made me a more patient person. As I learn to plan my shots better I become a better planner in real life. And I'm a much better camera operator and DP as a result of all my camera and lighting work in animation. I also find the unlimited creative potential to be great fun.
Lewis: What animations are you working on now, or thinking of doing?
Isaac: Well, at the moment I'm actually working on a number of live-action projects, but I'm writing a few scripts for feature films and television shows that would benefit from animation. I'm afraid I don't really have any concrete plans for my next short.
Lewis: When you're creating an animation, what is the most important thing your animation has to do for you to consider it a success?
Isaac: Tell a story. Visual richness and snappy character animation are all good, but only if they serve a compelling story. Everything in the film needs to serve the story, so my goal is to tell a strong one. Even if I'm only working on one shot, it first and foremost needs to support the over-arching story, and have a little beginning, middle, and ending of its own.
Lewis: Do you have any hobbies apart from animation, and do they affect your animations?
Isaac: Well, I dabble in different kinds of art, and that often teaches me principles that help across the board. For example, in the last few years I've started painting, and the sky background in Men O' War is a fairly stylized painting that I did by hand to match the blocks and convey a mood. I think it adds something to the film that a sky photo or 3D procedural clouds would not have. I'm also a history buff, and an understanding of history is, I think, vital for any storyteller.
Lewis: Your animation is very much a family orientated adventure on the seas, and I can see from my research that you are a strong Christian. How much will your beliefs shape your future animation work?
Isaac: Great question. My beliefs shape everything I do, because this is true of all people. Because my beliefs are based in the Bible, I want my work to honor God and my parents, and to encourage and inspire anyone that sees it. I also want my characters and my stories to communicate the truths of the Bible, such as justice rather than revenge, or honor rather than selfishness. Not only it my duty to do so, but I think these principles make for stronger stories.
Lewis: Can you tell me something about the San Antonio Film Academy?
Isaac: It's one of the highlights of my year. I'm on the faculty with five or six other men who I greatly respect, including my father, and last year we had about 300 students and a number of guests. Panavision is one of our sponsors so we get some cameras for hands-on demonstrations, and we have some competitions where we give away copies of Final Draft to the winners, and for three solid days it's non-stop teaching and learning and interacting. It's a great place to learn from the pros, meet new friends, and find work or crew members for upcoming projects.
Lewis: There seem to be a lot of people working on your animation. Tell me something about the process this involves?
Isaac: Well, I'm the oldest of seven children, and we all sat down to write the script. Then I drew up the storyboards, and we all, with the help of our uncle, who is a professional voice actor, recorded our lines. Then my youngest brothers (11 and 13) built the ships using 3D Lego blocks. My next youngest brother and two sisters (17, 19, and 21) composed the music. My 23-year-old brother started worked on the sound effects and editing and I animated the men and composited everything together. Because we had a storyboard from the beginning we all had a similar goal in mind, and all the pieces came together well.
Lewis: Are there any animations you love/hate or could recommend?
Isaac: The early Disney shorts and features, in my opinion, represent the best craftsmanship, and were really responsible for inventing the industry and technique from nothing. If you watch a few shorts from the 20s moving on to the 40s you can literally see the principles of animation being discovered and honed before your very eyes. I recommend that all animators read "The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation" by Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas for more really fascinating information about that golden age of animation and film.
Lewis: I notice from my teacher's blog that you have set up your own company with your brothers. What inspired you to do it professionally and is it as tough as I imagine?
Isaac: I think we work best as a family and can do more together than apart, plus I like to be self-employed and have the freedom to pick and choose my own projects, to some extent. It is tough, both the find work and please the clients, but I think it's worth it. At the moment all we've really done are video documentaries and TV commercials, but feature films are our ultimate goal. Documentaries are a great stepping stone, though, because they have a short production schedule and small crew, but can pay pretty well and are usually very interesting to make. If working in film and television is your goal, look into the humble doco. I think you'd be good at making them, since you're such a good interviewer.
Lewis: Thank you for agreeing to let me interview you, I hope it's not to much trouble. It will be a great help for me on this course.
Isaac: No, thank you, Lewis. This has been fun, and I hope you're able to stick with animation and media work after you leave school.
Isaac Botkin’s site reference is: http://www.outside-hollywood.com/2006/10/men-o-war
His animation is featured on our animation blog and is also 2007 movie of the week 17