A visual consultant in the films and games entertainment industry, Mr. Alexander Lindner has been part of very impressive European animation movies in the past in the capacity of co-director, art director and script consultant. In a career spanning nearly 13 years, Mr. Alexander Lindner has been involved with several movies which have won awards and nominations, the most recent being the Oscar 2011 nominee, "The Gruffalo" in the Best Short Film, Animated category. Mr. Alexander, an expert in digital and matte paining, concept design, art direction and storyboard, also has an impressive knowledge in script writing and story structuring.
CG Today : Mr. Alexander, it is an honor and privilege to get the opportunity to talk to you about your experiences across more than a decade in animation industry, which we are sure our readers would love to hear about. Please accept our hearty welcome.
Alex : Thanks a lot for interviewing me for your website!
CG Today : Let’s start with The Gruffalo. Nominated for the Best Animated Short, it includes several matte paintings by you. The story has been considered to be an aesthetical beauty with its simplistic charm that has stood true to the book. How do you go about the conceptualization when there is a story book to follow as opposed to a completely original work?
Alex : Work in films is always team work. You are just a link in a chain to make a story or a conceptual idea work, even if you are holding a leading position in the film. There is always something you have to think about: The story, the vision of the director, the financial possibilities, and the target audience. A director or producer might hire you to push the boundaries, or to come up with unexpected and refreshing ideas. But, there is always their own idea and vision as well, which usually existed long before they came to the point to actually engage someone to put a pencil on paper. So, the “completely original work” you mention is something I rarely see happening in the film industry – the exception being someone who is hired for their own artistic universe, and the film and storyline is adapted to their art, as was the case with HR Giger's paintings for “Alien”, although even he had to change some of his paintings so they could actually build the set or fit a guy into the costume!
In the case of “The Gruffalo” I was expected to follow the color keys – little gouache sketches – which were done before I came in. Of course, I was told where the animation of the characters was, what would be foreground, background and so forth. I received a 1 Terabyte hard drive by mail containing the animation files, and a very large number of set photographs, trees, flowers, grass, etc, so that I had sufficient material to work with. That was quite something! For the rest of the project I mostly worked from my home studio via internet and Skype, mostly with the compositing department. I never had any problem reaching someone there in the middle of the night when I had a question, so I guess they were quite busy too, haha!
CG Today : You are working as Lead Lighting Artist on the Magic Crystal which is slated for release this year, having reached post-production stage towards end of 2010. Can you tell us a bit more about this project?
Alex : It's quite a cool modern Christmas story with science fiction elements, involving robots instead of “elves” and a good and a bad “Santa”. My involvement on this project was rather short. I provided color keys and inspirations, end of 2009. I did not participate in the rest of the production.
CG Today : You were the art director for Laura’s Star series of animation movies. How is being an art director different from other roles like being a concept artist or being responsible for Storyboard? Do you like to dabble in several fields due to your love for animation or is it a general evolution of every creative artist?
Alex : I was art director on “Laura's Star” and “Laura's Star and the mysterious Dragon Nian” and “Laura and the Dream Monsters” which is currently in post-production. How is this role different, you ask? Answer: You don't draw anymore, the others do, haha! Seriously, being an art director puts a lot of strain on you, but you rarely have the time to draw yourself. Your role is to come up with ideas for the general look of the film, the sets, colors, the mood in scenes, and much more. You can have a great impact on the visual look of the film and that is the nice part. On the other hand, a large percentage of your time is spent on checking on the art work of the other artists. Do they follow the established style of the film? Is the set they are working on functioning in the scene as required? Are they staying close to the needs of the story, the vision of the director, the budget? Moreover, in all of the previously mentioned productions we worked with different teams in different locations. That meant I had to keep up with different time zones too. In “Laura's Star and the mysterious Dragon Nian” my days were never shorter than 12-14 hours...and that throughout the complete 2 years we spent just on designing the film!
The reward you are getting is that a lot of stuff in the visuals of the movie is your baby. That's cool, and of course it's great to have your name on the movie poster, and to shout to your friends or girlfriend: “That and that is my idea!” while watching the film. But on the other hand many of the actual designs or layouts have been manufactured by the artists under your control, so it's them walking away with the great portfolios of designs done for the film. There are really these two sides to it. I would not say that becoming an art director is a natural evolution of every creative artist. It's something you have to want, and you have to be able to do it, because it involves leading teams. That is not in everybody's nature or capacity.
CG Today : Laura’s Star won several awards including 1st Prize at Chicago International Children’s Film Festival, Animadrid 2005 in Spain and Cinanima 2005 in Portugal. What kind of effect did such acclaim have as far as your career is concerned? From the creativity aspect, how important are awards to motivate an artist in the animation industry?
Alex : Of course it's nice when the movies you have worked on are getting awards. I was surprised and excited when “The Gruffalo” was nominated for an Oscar. I can't deny that I felt like a little boy again. It's quite something after 12 years in the industry and knowing all the nuts and bolts of film making. That feeling of magic kicks back in, and you remember why you wanted to work in this industry in the first place. But the real motivation for me as an artist is if I get the impression that I am working on a truly original project, something with a true aspiration to stand out. So in the end, it's more important to work on something of quality. If awards are given for it, it's just a great bonus.
CG Today : You have been an instructor for Digital Concept Painting for CGI class, 3rd year, in The Animation Workshop, Denmark. How different do you think is instructing as opposed to working on your own as a concept artist on an animated movie? Is teaching something you have plans for in the future too?
Alex : Teaching was something I quickly felt comfortable with; for the simple reason that I have been art director so many times. There are many similarities. As art director you have to explain the style of a movie which has been established, usually early in the production, to artists who are joining the team later. You have to deal with different talents and characters, even nationalities, and to try to get the best out of everybody.
The experience at The Animation Workshop in Denmark was great; it's a fantastic school, and great people. I am scheduled to go back there to give another class in June this year. So yes, I enjoy teaching, and I am looking forward to other propositions.
CG Today : How did you get started in digital painting and how did you achieve the attention to detail and precision lighting of various shades?
Alex : I started painting at a very young age. When I was about 16 years old I had already my first professional airbrush, an “Iwata” complete with compressor and all. There was no digital painting back then! I learned all the traditional techniques, gouache, acrylics, water colors, you name it. After art studies at the Academy St.Luc in Brussels I did commercial work with acrylics and airbrush including a lot of medical illustrations requiring scientific accuracy and precision. I have cut my share of masks! Back in 2001 or so I saw the first digital illustrations coming from America, of course Craig Mullins has to be mentioned who made a great impact on many of us. Today I am a big fan of Ryan Church and Mark Goerner in concept art, Dylan Cole and Dusso (Yannick Dusseault) in matte painting.
When I started to do my first digital concept paintings for a German computer game project named “Odessa Twins” in 2007, I was still a long way from a complete understanding of the interface of Photoshop and all the possibilities it offers. But my traditional painting education helped me a lot. The rules of color, light and perspective are just the same, and no program will help you if you don't understand those first. Understanding the program makes your workflow faster, but it doesn’t make the art better! Today I use Photoshop CS5 and Painter 11 on a Wacom Cintiq, running on a Macbook Pro. I often switch back and forth between Photoshop and Painter on the same piece. I love Painter because it's designed to make you forget you are working on a computer. It's like it's telling you all the time: “You can draw and paint, forget about all the techno stuff, just do it!”. I find that very relaxing, but it depends on the job...sometimes I need Photoshop because it has the superior editing tools, like adjustment layers and the masks are great too. Masks and editing tools are the strong points of Photoshop in my opinion. But Painter is great to give you back some of the sensuality of painting and drawing, the beauty of a pencil line and brush stroke, all that.
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