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Whats Your News? Interview with Chris Dicker

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Chris Dicker has led a fascinating career. A Dublin-born artist, he studied Classical Animation at Ballyfermot Senior College (also known as the Irish School of Animation) for four years. During his time at College, he was selected to be part of the Disney Intern Programme in Paris two years in a row and was awarded a grant from Disney for his dedication to the art form.

In 2006, he helped to found the children’s television company TT Animation, which is owned by Warner Brothers, he has developed and worked on original shows, working with Nick Jr, Disney Junior, CBC and many more. TT Animation’s first award winning show, ‘What’s Your News?’, is aimed at four to seven year olds and is a combination of animation, motion capture and live action. It won the NHK Japan Prize for Children’s Television and Grand Prix award in 2009, was a finalist in the Prix Jeunesse and last year won the Youth Media Alliance Award Canada, and has been re-versioned for CBC in Canada and PBS KIDS Sprout in the United States.

Thank you so much for talking to Skwigly today. Let’s start at the beginning, could you tell us a little about yourself and what made you want to be an animator?

Like most artists, I just never stopped drawing as a kid. Out of my six brothers and sisters, I was the only one who was always drawing away. Then, when everyone around me started to grow up and do grown up things, I just kept on drawing. I never really paid much attention in school; I spent most of my day scribbling away on the back of my copybooks. I had no plan other than to see how far my drawing could take me.

What were your influences at a young age?

Everything Jim Henson was making I loved, along with Saturday morning TV, which I later found out was mostly Chuck Jones and Hanna-Barbera shows, and of course all the Disney movies.

You studied Classical Animation at Ballyfermot; did you ever consider studying anything else? 

Not really as soon as I got the animation bug I was hooked. I love lots of different mediums, mostly I love to life draw and paint, but animation had the best of all these worlds and more. It combines drawing, painting, composition, story, music and so on. It really is such a powerful medium.

You can look at a beautiful painting but it won’t evoke the same emotional response as watching a beautiful painting come to life. Watching a scene such as the death of Mufasa in the Lion King, or Andy saying goodbye to the toys in Toy Story. Those moments stay with you forever, animation has the power to make people believe in something inanimate but it can also touch peoples raw emotions.

Do you think growing up in Ireland helped your animation career?

I think growing up in Ireland did help, Irish people have a history of great story telling. Animation is just the medium that I chose to do it in. When I went to Ballyfermot, it was just at the end of the Don Bluth Studio days. Bluth’s Studio had packed up and moved on, but the structure of the college was set up to teach students feature animation skills. It really is amazing how many talented people have passed through the doors of Ballyfermot. We had some great teachers who prepared us as artists to go into the world.

During your time at college, you participated in two Disney internships at their Paris studio. How did you get involved with that experience?

Disney used to visit our college and GOBELINS, l’école de l’image once a year and take two or three students between the two colleges to do an internship in their Paris Studio. I was picked two years in a row, which was fantastic. It’s a great thing for the studio to do as it gives students great training, we spent a lot of time working on scenes, going to acting and life drawing classes. It really was such a great experience. Plus we got to sit in on all the daily’s which was very cool.

From whom did you learn the most in your time at Disney?

I had some great mentors who were the lead animators at the studio, amazing animators like Bolhem Bouchiba, Kristoff Vergne and Borja Montoro Cavero, and a great guy called Bruno Gaumetou who ran development training for interns. We also spent some time with Glen Keane who was living in Paris at the time. The whole experience in general was great and Paris is a very cool place to be an artist. I spent many hours sketching away outside Notre Dame and in the back streets.

Early in your career, you spent some time in LA. Could you talk to us a little about this experience of animating abroad?

LA was a fantastic experience. A big group of friends from college decided to travel out there off our own backs. We knew no one. About 10 of us squeezed into an apartment and made some good contacts and new friends. One of the people I met was Richard Baneham who happens to be where I am from in Dublin (winner of the 82nd Academy Award for Best Visual Effects in Avatar) he was working on Iron Giant at the time. I went to visit him one day at his office and by accident we stumbled into a room where Brad Bird was watching the rough cuts of the film, he invited us to sit down and watch with him, I think I am still in shock. As you probably have guessed? I’m a big Brad Bird fan. A few weeks later, I arrived home in Dublin to get ready to go to Paris and start my internship for Disney, only to discover that Richie had organised to get me a place at Warner Brothers as an intern on Iron Giant.  As I was in Paris it was to late to except it.

What has been the biggest learning curve during your career?

Learning the work-life balance, as it’s so important to bring your life into your work and having interests. I heard someone say, “Interesting people have lots of interests, that’s what makes them interesting. They’re not born interesting”. If I was to just sit around drawing all day it wouldn’t be long before I started to repeat myself. The only thing fresh we can bring into our work is our experiences in life, so go out there and explore the world.

After travelling and working for several TV companies, you made the move to computer games and worked on such high-profile titles as Crash Bandicoot, Lego Star Wars and Narnia.  How did working on computer games animation differ from what you’d experienced in the past?

The games world is very different. I suppose the biggest difference was having to break down movements and turn them into cycles. It was a great environment to learn about CG animation, and the deadlines come thick and fast, so it really helps with productivity. After a while, though, I felt myself getting really frustrated with the limitations. The reason I got into animation was because I loved the idea of breathing life into characters and creating performances that audiences would care about.

‘What’s Your News?’ is collaborative project with BAFTA-award winning children’s TV producer and writer, Jocelyn Stevenson, whose credits include shows such as Bob the Builder, Fraggle Rock, Pingu and Sesame Street. How did you two meet?

Jocelyn and I met when she was Chief Creative Officer for HIT Entertainment. I had taken a show to HIT and they optioned it. Then, when Jocelyn left, I approached her to come and work on another idea I had for another TV show. Jocelyn also had a similar idea, so we merged them both and ended up with ‘What’s Your News?’.

‘What’s Your News?’ is an interesting show both for its content and for its unique approach to technology.

The show is rendered using a (near) real time rendering system. Its technology is based on a GPU game engine that allows the main character, Antony the Ant Eater (who has over one million hairs), to be rendered at just over four frames per second. This meant that the small team could render the entire series of 26 episodes on just three PCs.

‘What’s Your News?’ was recently showcased by BAFTA as part of its Crossover Event, and it has played an important role in helping the industry recognise the importance and  potential  of computer games technology.

The show is currently in production on a second season that is being created in conjunction with CBS in Canada. Why do you think it has such international appeal? 

I think it works well for us in other territories because they can make it their own; it has that local feel to it. In most countries, they buy in animated shows that don’t feel local to the audience. It’s great because the show promotes positive news, unlike what we see in world news as adults. Our goal was to give children a voice and to help their transition from their home and family environment into the wider world. Losing a tooth, getting your haircut or kicking a ball is important news to our audience. This is news children can relate to – because it’s about the kinds of things that happen to them. All these are universal stories to a four year old.

Pitching your own show is on many people’s career wish lists. What made you decide to pitch your own show and how did you go about it? 

After writing notes and designing the characters for months, it just seemed like the natural thing to do. I then gave them to Jocelyn and Jon Burton, our other co-creators, and we developed it further. After that, we did a little test then pitched it to the broadcasters. After pitching it, we took some more notes, re-jigged it a little, and then showed them again.

What tips would you give to anyone wanting to pitch their own ideas to companies? 

Do it. Follow your dream. However, you must be willing to collaborate and be ready for a roller coaster of highs and lows. Know your world inside out, you have to believe in it. Research; don’t try to give them what they already have. Make sure the idea has a strong foundation so when you go into development you don’t lose the core of the idea. Stay true to what you think is interesting about the concept.

Another big part of your time is taken up with your own personal projects and artwork. Your website, http://chrisdicker.net, is always full of beautiful artwork and fantastic sketches. Are there any tips you could give to young artists still in the early stages of learning to draw?

Just keep on drawing, go out and draw what you see. The main problem people have is they try to create a masterpiece every time they do a drawing. Draw as much as you can, as fast as you can, and keep on moving on to the next drawing. Don’t be precious about your work.

What do you look for when hiring animators? 

It depends on the role, really, but the one thing that they all have in common is passion. Passionate people who love their job really inspire me. You must really love animation. If you don’t love it, it will break you. It really is a labour of love.

Are there any other ideas in the pipeline you can tell us about? 

Not just yet, sorry. Directing and creating a film from scratch is definitely on the list. Writing is a passion of mine, but it’s a really slow process. You need to always be building on ideas and writing your own stuff but I’m in no rush. I just work because I love it.

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