Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Student Spotlight: Jorge Almeida

Jorge Almeida has been a student at Watts Atelier for about three years. He is also a well established professional designer of motion graphics for movies including Minority Report, Star Trek (2009), and Eagle Eye.

Credit List: Lead designer on MINORITY REPORT, MR. AND MRS. SMITH, THE ITALIAN JOB, 2 FAST 2 FURIOUS and LITTLE BLACK BOOK. Also worked on STAR TREK, EAGLE EYE, and UNTRACEABLE as well as a few Adam Sandler movies. Also lead background artist for Snickers’ “Instant Def” webisodes- an episodic adventure staring The Black Eyed Peas which combined live actors with an animated world in a style similar to “Sin City.”

Other projects included producing web animations for The Disney Channel, as well as animating the online comic book “Necrobots.” He also wrote and illustrated his own comic book “Captain Cosmo and Phil, the bionic dwarf.” He currently works as a freelance motion graphics artist and illustrator.

1)What initially inspired you to pursue motion graphics as a profession?

Actually, I didn't pursue it. About 9 years ago I drove to Los Angeles from Florida to try to possibly look for work in animation (I had a comic book that I had done that I was going to show around town). A relative who I was staying with introduced me to a friend of his, Kent Demaine, who co-owned a small VFX company, Black Box Digital. By small, I mean 3 guys working in the back of an office they shared with another VFX house. Black Box specialized in interface design and animation, a niche in the entertainment industry that I didn't even know existed. Despite their size, they had worked on some big movies like "Armageddon" and "Enemy of the State." However, being a small company, they also took all the work they could get. They had just picked up a client who wanted to create an online comic book, so Kent thought I'd be a good fit. I was happy just to be working so soon after arriving in LA. Over time, I was given the opportunity to learn After Effects, Director, and Flash on the job. I started helping with interface designs, then motion graphics, and eventually was trusted to lead design on a number of films. I left Black Box in 2006 and began working freelance. Last year, they decided to close the company and go their separate ways, but I still do freelance work for both of them. While it is certainly nice to land positions with large, well-known companies- there is a great benefit to working for small upstarts. While they may not have name recognition and salary potential, you are often given the chance to be involved in many more stages of the creative process. However, it is crucial to work with someone whose opinion you respect. Kent is a fantastic designer, and he and his partner Will both put a lot of energy into their work. It was great opportunity and I learned a ton.

2)What is your educational/training background?

I have a BFA in visual communications (commercial art) with a minor in computer art and design from Jacksonville University (in Florida). It was a typical college art program. The winner of the student art show my senior year was a female mannequin made of paper-mache that had been dipped in red paint. My first job was with a small company in Jacksonville that creates catalogues and flyers for the restaurant equipment industry. The majority of my work involved desktop publishing- lots of pricing charts and product descriptions. However, I was also responsible for all of the cover art. I created mostly illustrations of chefs, or people wearing chef hats. I also had to provide space for 6 or 8 featured products- usually chafers, industrial ovens, and giant mixers. All of the work was done in Illustrator and Photoshop, so anything I drew was tweaked and re-tweaked on the computer until it looked halfway decent. Three or four years later I enrolled at Florida International University in Miami to pursue an MBA. It would be something to fall back on in case my "art" career didn't work out. Those were the worst two and a half years of my life. I did well in school, but I ultimately had no interest in what I was studying. While enrolled, I took a part-time job at a small comic book studio as a computer colorist. It was my first job where I actually got to focus primarily on artwork. The company's best-selling title was "Double Impact" which featured two female government agents "Jazz" and "China." Both had a bit of a violent streak and both were very comfortable with their bodies. I was responsible for coloring all of the covers and alternate "erotica" covers- as well as putting the books together and adding the text. I once made the mistake of editing some of the witty dialogue so that it would fit on the page, and was subsequently fired. Probably for the better, though, since I hadn't been paid in over a month. I have since found out that the owner/lead artist went on to publish his own book of pin-up girls, and that all of his work turned out to be obvious forgeries of a lesser-known and superior artist from Mexico. Soon after, I took a job as art director for a small local newspaper in Miami. I was responsible for laying out the paper, designing the ads, creating cover illustrations, and occasionally creating political cartoons. A couple of the comic book guys I had worked with decided to start a company of their own, and they asked me if I would be interested in creating my own comic book that they would publish. I would have complete creative freedom and would be responsible for writing, illustrating, and designing the entire book. So after graduating with an MBA in International Business, I wrote and illustrated 3 issues of "Captain Cosmo and Phil, the bionic dwarf." They couldn't affort to print a fourth, but the experience was priceless. I even received some fan mail. About a year later I left my job, packed my car, and drove to Los Angeles.

3)What was your first big break working in movies?

I didn't necessarily have a big break, but the first moment when it dawned on me that I was working in Hollywood was our first meeting with Steven Spielberg to discuss the work we were going to do on MINORITY REPORT. I had only been in L.A. a little over a year. Kent, Will, and I went to his office at Dreamworks. We all sat around a small table and listened to his ideas for the interfaces. Then, a few minutes in, his assistant interrupts to tell him "Tom's on the phone." "Tom Cruise?" "Yes" "Tell him I'll call him back." I remember thinking "what in the hell am I doing here?"

4)Do you feel your traditional drawing skills have improved your design work? If so how?

Not in a way that I've noticed. It's actually been the other way around. My years designing interfaces has improved my compositions. My design style is more dynamic. I pay more attention to how it my compositions read in black and white, and try to keep them simpler with more contrast. The photo/illustrations I did for Snickers "Instant Def" Webisodes were definitely influenced by my work at Black Box. It's been my experience that you don't need drawing skills to be a good designer, but you definitely need design skills to be a good artist. When it comes to animating my designs, however, cartoons have had a major influence on my work. Interfaces are usually on screen for just a few seconds, so I need to focus the viewer's attention as quickly as possible on the first story point. I then need to direct their eye from one story point to the next- hopefully in a more creative way than just making words blink. I learned try to make my interface animations feel as gestural and organic as possible- much like a cartoon bouncing ball.

5)What do you feel are your strengths and weaknesses as a designer/artist?

I don't know how to answer this question in terms of strengths and weaknesses. Overall, I think I'm a decent designer. However, I approach my designs more like an illustrator. Rather than seeing shapes in my head or compositions, I will try to come up with a concept or purpose and then try to illustrate that through design. For example, on MINORITY REPORT we were given reference imagery from the production designer, but I really struggled with the designs until I began by thinking of data as if it were an organism you'd see through a microscope. That idea fed the look of layering and transparency that eventually led to my treating all of the interface designs as if they were hard drives with the cover taken off. All of the software, code, data, etc. was represented as a visual patchwork with minimal text. The challenge then became how to make that practical enough so that the audience got it. For the giant prevision interface, the initial design I did was based on the idea of an autopsy table. I thought of the murder as a giant clump of raw data that Anderton needed to dissect to find the evidence that would help him solve the murder. I approached the design with that in mind, as well as the classic police evidence board- and everything flowed from there. I then handed the design off to Kent, who punched it up a couple of notches and did an amazing job animating it. Not enough is made of the mental stamina that is required to be a successful artist. That was something I learned at Black Box, where normal working hours did not apply. Most of the stuff I've done might start off as a good idea, but it almost always goes through a period where it looks like crap. At that point I tend to go a little crazy tweaking and changing, hoping that eventually I stumble onto something cool- knowing full well that also I may be completely wasting my time. Working on a computer makes things worse in a lot of ways, because the options are endless and you can always undo. Not to mention the amount of time you spend rendering, saving, copying, sending, etc. If I were to add up the number of hours I have spent watching progress bars and spinning wheels, I would probably throw up on myself. Ian McCaig said on one of his instructional videos something like "'ll never know how far to take an idea until you go too far. Fix it until it breaks, once you do then you take it back a step and your done." That sounds about right. It can definitely get out of control, though, and I am yet to figure out where to draw the line. I remember once I stayed up all night working on a 3" x 5" gps screen animation that would only be seen in the background. I ended up creating three different versions and still wasn't happy with it. It's times like that where you think you might have a problem, but whatever... you just try to do your best. (Of course, that morning we showed up on set to find that the monitor didn't work, so they shot the scene without the animation. Good times.)

6)Which skills are you hoping most to improve?

I need to spend more time practicing perspective. Not only with landscapes, but I've noticed that many problems I've had with my figurative work turn out to be basic perspective problems. I was hired a few years ago as lead background artist for a series of "webisodes" produced by Snickers called "Instant Def." The goal was to create a hip-hop "Sin City" world that we would then comp the actors in front of. I deliberately distorted the perspective on the environments as much as possible because of my lack of perspective experience. I tried to hide my weakness by making it irrelevant. As it turns out, I think the work ended up being more interesting to look at than had I known what I was doing. I'm not sure what my point is anymore.

7)What motivated you to pursue the illustration/fine art side of things after the success you have had in your current field?

I loved to draw as a kid, but I pretty much abandoned it through my teens and twenties as my career focused on design. Over time, I developed a number of problems that were clear signs of depression. The long hours at Black Box only intensified it. While I enjoyed much of the work we did, and was certainly passionate about it, spending that much time in front of the computer just drained me. I became increasingly detached and anxious. I finally went to see a therapist and listed a number of problems I was having. He basically told me that I needed to pursue my art, and everything else would work itself out. So I started waking up at 6AM and drawing every morning before work, that way I knew I would get it done. Eventually I quit my job and started working freelance, giving me even more time to draw and work on a portfolio. I went to Comic-Con 3 years ago, and wandered into a live head drawing demonstration given by Jeff Watts and Erik Gist from Watts Atelier. A couple of months later I had packed my stuff and moved to Encinitas to train full time. Although I'm still a headcase, I definitely feel better than I used to. I had aIways thought my anxiety and hyper self-criticism were preventing me from practicing art. What I came to find out is that not practicing art was causing me to be anxious and irritated. I compare it to owning a dog. You need to take it outside and exercise it daily. Otherwise, it's just going to run in circles, bark, pee on the floor, and drive you crazy.

8)At this point which artistic achievment are you most proud of?

As a piece of art, I'm probably proudest of the illustration I did for the "Ozzfest 2001" concert tour. It's not my best work, but it was an important piece for me. We were hired by the same production designer who we worked with on LITTLE NICKY. The main piece I was asked to do was to be printed on an enormous banner and used as the second stage backdrop. It was the first time I really pushed myself to a fully rendered illustration that wasn't cartoonish. It was also the first time an illustration I did actually turned out better than I though it would. That being said, the most rewarding artistic achievement I've had was for the title sequence of the kid's movie THE MASTER OF DISGUISE. I came up with the original concept, which was a simple childrens' flip-book with the mismatching heads/torsos/legs on one side and the titles on the other. Although it became more complicated and less funny than I had hoped, it still turned out pretty good. Still, the whole experience was so frustrating that I had absolutely no intention of seeing the movie in a theater. When it was finally released, it received a whopping 2% rating on with reviews such as: "The worst film ever made: a film about idiots, made by idiots, for idiots..." "The fart jokes get the biggest laughs..." "I cannot disguise my feelings - this film sucks" and finally "...feels like a longer, better movie that was chopped up and reassembled by retarded monkeys." Farts? Retarded monkeys? Well, now I had to see it. So that Friday night after work I went by myself to see THE MASTER OF DISGUISE. Friday night. By myself. In a theater full of kids and parents. The lights couldn't have dimmed fast enough. Finally, the title sequence started playing, and I felt myself getting nervous as I anticipated each coming gag. The theater was quiet at first, but soon the laughs started coming. It was awesome.

9)What is your dream job/project?

As far as interface work, I would love to do one more sci-fi movie where the graphics are heavily featured- like a MINORITY REPORT. As an illustrator, I've always wanted to do comic book covers. And as a fine artist, I hope to one day have my own show of original paintings.

10)If you could go back in time 5 years what advice would you give yourself?

Quit your job, move down to Encinitas and enroll at Watts Atelier. Don't ask me how, that's your problem.

11)Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

Option A is to be out of motion graphics and working full-time as an illustrator/fine-artist. Option B is to move to Mexico and try to find work as a beer-drinking donkey.

12)What is your favorite cartoon?

I don't remember having a favorite cartoon as a kid, but my favorite character was definitely "Pepe Le Pew." As of now, my favorite cartoon is "The Simpsons," or at least seasons 4 - 10. I had a chance to see Nancy Cartwright speak at an animation convention a few years ago. She was the voice of Bart and Ralph Wiggum, among others. I bought a copy of her autobiography and had her to sign it "I bent my Wookie!" (which is what Ralph said after he was tripped by Lisa and dropped his Star Wars diorama on the ground). Her book is now my favorite book of all time. I even plan to read it some day. Probably tomorrow

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