Interview with Pierre De Celles, master painter, draftsman and animator from Canada to SuZhou, Cina.
Here I am in Suzhou again, and my good friend Zhang Hua have just decided to organize a dinner. He is a draftsman, working for several companies creating cartoons, and looks like that all the guys attending the dinner but me, are draftsmen and artists. And it is during this dinner that I have the good fortune to meet and know Mr. Pierre De Celles, Master Draftsman and Animator.
During dinner my curiosity is aroused by Pierre bubbling personality, and I learned that he is Canadian, from Montreal, living and working in China for almost 15 years. Oh, I am so surprised. So he invite me to go around his place, the flat and atelier where he lives and works with his lovely partner, ShanYu. Before meeting him I do some research about Drawing and the art of Animation, and I prepare a paper that I submit to him, I would like to invite him to be part of our “The Making”.
So here we are, drinking a delicious Korean style refreshment.
Marco M. Gobbo: “ So Pierre, what do you think about the material that I found, so far?”
Pierre De Celles: “Dear Marco, I did read all the text for drawing and animation, lots of research my friend. I feel that you did a great job in the two domains… About drawing, I would add something, I feel that historically the coming of printing was the greatest event ever, because it gave a chance to develop Illustration and Illustrators in Europe and in America… the greatest Art could be seen everywhere on magazines or books, and there is an old saying that goes like this, ”Everyone can claim to be an Artist, but if you want to become an Illustrator, you better be a damn good Artist!” The Golden age of Illustration and the Golden Age of Comix, and the Golden Age of Animation are closely linked in time in America and the basic talent requirements are quite close, for all 3 disciplines. For instance the Disney studio attracted so many Artists who wanted to paint but once they got hooked on animation, the idea of creating a living character that could think with a personality was too much to resist… and just to be able to use color for drama in a decor, plus music, you know… was just fabulous…”
Marco M Gobbo: “The other day I noted that you often quoted Disney and Disney Studios, could you please tell me more about your personal experience and feelings about the great Walt and his Studio? In which way was influencing artist in USA and Canada? And you?”
Pierre De Celles: “When I grew up in the 50′s I was exposed to TV, like many others of course, and that allowed us to see the morgue of movies from all different studios, films from the beginning of Cinema that had not been seen for decades, that otherwise would have rotten inside the vaults of studios, were shown on TV…
Walt Disney created his ‘Disneyland’ show and he used his Archives of old films, cartoons, etc. better than anyone else. In fact he was the first producer to distributed all his Classics of animation, such as ‘Snow White’, every 7 years, he knew the new generation of parents who had seen it when they were younger, would go see it again with their own kids, or simply as grown ups. In the early days films would last in the theaters for a few days or a few months depending on their success, then they would disappear in the vaults. He was always ahead of his time and was optimistic about a better future, always seeking a way to improve while even re-cycling what was good…
But you know, what makes him so special was that he re-invested his profits in the quality of his films ans his artists (training them), he cared about giving the best to his audience, never cheated them. He gave better stories, a better and greater illusion that animated world was real and the characters were alive. He went back to the great artists of the past for inspiration, Arthur Rackam and all the great illustrators or painters of the past. He hired good artists that aspired to become painters, but who would fall in love with this new medium…
The studio had a great morgue containing all the drawings they could collect of ‘Heinrick Kley’, (1863-1945,1950 ?) and ‘Thomas Sullivant’ ( 1854-1926 ), these two alone did inspire the studio a great deal of their fantasy, parody, exaggerations… it shows in the designs and subject matters of some of their films, ( Fantasia)… But most important of all he made his artists to study life and nature to interpret the truth and exaggerate it,to know the laws of gravity, locomotion, storytelling, acting, drama, etc. etc… Of course they watched plenty of films of the past and those made in their time… The Disneys studio invented the animation Bible, their influence is still felt today in the whole world, the basic blue print they laid down is a shortcut for any studios, to guarantee a minimum of descent quality if anything else, but to succeed is to go beyond just copying the ‘Disney’ interpretation of nature, (that is, what most amateurs do)… but to understand nature, yourself as an artist and to do something that is you, not ‘Disney’. A great deal of artists imitate and copy ‘Frank Frazetta’, but it is not their Art, it is just a ‘Pastiche’. And it is good not to pretend you will do better, specially if you did not invent the salad, the next thing left is to create your own unique dressing.
So when Walt created his amusement park, he studied everything he could and eventually learned from what was good in architecture, urban planning, etc..and what they did wrong, and found solutions, improvements, to make ‘Disneyland’ unique. Besides making cartoons, Feature Films, he created his studio ‘Imagineering’ to fully studyand design to the best the other parks….’Epcot’ is the most incredible project of them all, the ”Experimental ‘Prototype Community of Tomorrow’,when you look at the planning of it all you know this is not a cartoonist, but a genius at work. So how is it possible for us Artists not to be influenced by the ‘Disney’ accomplishments? Animators around the world did the same as the cartoonists in ‘Hollywood’, they went to see the ‘DISNEY’ films to learn how to better their craft, or to go in a different direction, but the canons and inspiration of Disney made it even easier for them to rebel, and experiment….The old cycle of artistic competition, or simple jealousy has been going for centuries, is it?
So as a kid watching all kinds of cartoons on TV, I knew without knowing why, that Disney cartoons were so much better than the others, later came ‘Tex Avery’, ‘Warner’s'… etc…but Walt by sure was a major guide in the history and exploration of this Art form.”
Marco M Gobbo: “Cartoon and Animation for adult have a long history, see the Japanese masters wood prints, for example. What about this field? Any anecdote, special story?”
Pierre De Celles: “Well it is a shame that most of the animation market is orientated towards kids, I myself would love to create a porno animated feature film for teens and adults, and I believe we can make a great romantic comedy and go beyond ‘Fritz the cat’ or specially the recent Japanese porn animated shorts (which, in my humble opinion, are boring as hell and just rotorscopped live porns). Sometimes we think we have all the technological tools in the Cinema, but we lag behind with subject matter and imagination. In Hong Kong I once saw a replica of a Chinese junk boat… on top there was a bunch of 4 or 5 kids looking thru the windows, then when you took off the top you could see the couple in the cabin, papa and mama f….. I wish I would have bough it then, it was cute as hell, being a copy I wonder when the first original piece was made. Actually it was nice to see a few decades ago world exhibitions of Erotic Art from many countries and from many famous artists, the Japanese wood carved prints are the most beautiful examples of great color designs, but great exaggerations, almost a caricature ( the Penis in particular). I can just imagine a story animated with that visual style it could be so much fun and beautiful. In the world, and in the Art world, there are still too many Taboos. But in Japan and, specially, France and Belgium there is a great range of comic strips for kids, adolescents and adults, much more diversified market then ‘U.S.A.’.
Marco M Gobbo: “ I see… so, Pierre, in your opinion who are the artists or the first animations that really inspired artists like you? Draftsmen and Animators, I mean”
Pierre De Celles: “Sure they have been many individual Artists who were a great inspiration to the world of animation, but ‘Gertie the Dinosaur’ was the first real personality, therefore for me the first real animator was Winsor McCay, because he had a drawing of a dinosaur and made it look as if it was thinking. To move things is one thing, but to give it a soul, well this is the Art of Animation.
Then, well, I met Lotte Reiniger in Montreal in the early 70′s, she gave a lecture and did some cut-outs of silhouettes for us, I remember she was a short little lady… she used a very basic stand with no more than 3 multi plane levels with bottom lights, she never did fancy camera stuff she cut from static scenes to static scenes, simple silent movie storytelling. Her actual characters were all various pieces attached with loads of staples and in a certain pattern to allow movement it was very simple but ingenious; Shan Yu and I watched a good deal of her films a few weeks ago, the poses are really elegant, and very strong for such little movement, she really had good sense of design and composition….
And, yes, ‘L’idee’ by Berthold Bartosch. Was animated with paper cut out but great designs and such a deep philosophical premise that is so modern still today. I always wanted to find it, I never forgot it, after seeing it at the ‘Cinematheque Quebecoise’…The work of Alex Alexeieff is important because he created the pin screen process and he was an illustrator so it shows in his work in the way he uses light. Later he went to the ‘National Film Board’ (Canada) to teach his process and the tools he used; many years later ‘Le Paysagiste’ came out from a young french Canadian Artist ( forgot his name! sorry! ). This is a technique that seems even more time consuming and difficult than stop motion with puppets, it is crazy,ha,ha, ha…From a story telling point of view it is more limited than Reiniger, specially with the locations and number of scenes,but it is extremely impressive.
You know, ‘Limited Animation’ is usually confused with the quantity of drawings used… ‘The Flintstones’ was more along these lines, walking cycles side to side of all characters, medium and close up of just talking characters, with head bops (head going up,then down), in Japan they had a very, in my opinion too simplistic, approach, drawing counting is what they did, the more and you have full animation,the less and it is limited and poor animation….The fact is that they never did use proper methods or animation techniques, they would have a hundreds drawings of two walking characters, where they could have used just a 12 drawing cycle of walking legs, with variations on the heads and harms of the characters…I always laughed, but they eventually learned a lot because of Disney producing TV shows there, now they are probably doing the same habits again..”
Marco M Gobbo: “But why, in our opinion, Japanese draftsmen choose this way? Saving time and money? Does not looks like. Talking about countries, which, in your opinion, have a good tradition and actual masters? or people that you particularly admire the work?”
Pierre de Celles: “The ‘Ghibli’ studio in Japan is one of the rare, unique creative studio, they spend more and take more time, but even with all their great classics, if you look carefully, the animation is not “great” but fine, they have a system and habit of work which comes from the whole industry, they use a lot of free-lancers who are used to a way of working, just like artists in China who paint Bamboo trees, they have technical skills and a memory of how to paint the trees, they learned all of this by rote, but often they lack imagination, their point of view… Obviously this is just my modest opinion and I admire anyone who actually succeeds in completing any animated film, cause it is an incredible challenge. And of course it is always easier to criticize than to praise. There is so much to admire in the Art of Animation all over the world, it is a matter of staying in tune with history and to be exposed or to research all you can see.
In Japan there has been incredible little short films, as in so many other countries thru out the last hundred years or so, you must see and decide on your own what is “great” for you, it is a personal choice based on your knowledge. I would have a hard time choosing a particular artist or country, besides we are talking in the context of what time? In the last few years for Feature Films the U.S. still dominates for the quality of storytelling and technical achievements, of course they have gigantic budgets and long schedules, and they scout out the best artists around their country and the world. Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks, are very strong entertainment companies and they have chosen to do mostly 3 D films, but in Europe there is still an interest in doing 2 D animated films with some blending of 3 D animation, fx ,etc… Tom Moore’s ‘Brendan et le secret de Kells’, 2009, Silvain Chomet’s ‘L’Illusionniste’ 2010 or ‘The Triplets of Belleville’ 2003, are good films, but one could question the stories and the depth of the characters…
One of the greatest anticipated film was Richard Williams ( b.1953,Canada ) ‘The Thief and the Cobbler’ released in U.S.1995, but it was released as ‘Arabian Night’ by ‘Miramax’, they destroyed it totally with junk songs… and bad editing of new ‘Blah, blah, blah‘ animated scenes, a mess of what was a real ‘Art’ film, started in 1968 and funded by Williams himself, he got a load of old master animators of three Golden Age to come teach his artists and got them to work on it, Ken Harris did a load of work on it…Now there is a bootleg version of ‘The Thief and the Cobbler’ closer to what was supposed to be the planned film. Williams did complete a short film ‘Circus Drawings’ in 2010, I did not see it but he is a great master of animation no doubt,’ Christmas Carol’ 1971 is still a great Classic and a tour de force,besides he wrote an excellent book ‘The animator’s survival Kit’….There are many new and young animators and directors but they don’t get to make films as often as they should…And to be a master takes a decade or two or even tree, and besides that one has to mature as an Artist, to experience life and study hard….The masters are pretty much like Brad Bird working for big studios, or if they are rich and can afford it… perhaps they are working in a secret basement somewhere in France, Italy, or China ?! I feel there were more masters of animation in the past than now, and ‘Flash’ and other software have destroyed the chances to really evolved, to animate is to draw, to flip and to feel things…
Marco M Gobbo: “ Pierre, it is really such a pleasure and an honor to talk with you about this so little known modern art. Please tell me something about your hopes and fears, when you decided to enter in this field and profession, and what you feel drawing and animation gave to you.
Pierre De Celles: “Well drawing was a way to express myself as a child, and I only wanted to be an Artist, I felt lucky to find a job in an animation studio where they would pay me to draw, ’cause I realized when I was very young that to be a successful painter in a gallery was really a big dream and difficult… Drawing was a kind of therapy for me as well, because the family life was often “Chaos”, parent disputes, 6 kids disputing as well… yeahhh it saved me and gave me confidence….
Learning animation was magic, and at that time there was no video tapes or DVD’ to study from, one had to go to see ‘Fantasia’ or any other film a few times in the theater to learn, or read articles about the subject, or find the few rare books available on animation. If lucky, ones could find a small super 8 mm, black and white film to hand operate on a small projector, it was just a few minutes long, but you could study frame by frame at the speed you wanted…I was never afraid, I was eager to learn, to improve, because animation was Cinema, the seventh Art containing all other forms within, there was so much to learn. And to animate forces you really to learn drawing cause animating a character or a vehicle in perspective, takes a hell of a lot of observation and meditation. You never stop learning about human emotions, acting, locomotion.
But there were ups and downs, for example I realized that I was being cheated and exploited for 5 years in the first studio where I started in Montreal… I created ‘Winnie Witch and the Giant Potato’, and got convinced to let go the rights for a dollar, I was young and innocent, I hated the boss and the place and I left… I hated animation for about a year, then got back into it. I did keep two artistic lives, in one I was working for the Animation studio, in the other I drew just my personal stuff to keep evolving as an Artist. And I did that all my life, still do.
I left Montreal in 1984, for Japan, a one year open ticket and about $ 900.00 U.S., in my hands (all I possessed! ),the pen pal never joined me in Tokyo, so a nice young student helped me find a Japanese Hotel, and located her for me, I hoped for a job in animation, and a wife… but one month 2 days later I was leaving, broke, with no success, ha,ha, ha… Than I had a little fear, I went back to ‘L.A.’a bit depressed and defeated, but I survived and then got work as animation supervisor in Taiwan, got married 6 months later, then I supervised or directed Features, and a 65 Tv series in Taiwan, Korea, Japan, China, etc….I do fear only that I can’t get another chance to direct a film, jobs are rare, and there is so much connection and politics involved, and all this has affected the Art form, along with the computers. Maybe is a matter of age, but I feel that producers and artists are often, somehow, more stupid and ignorant than the previous generation. I fear that greed and the politics have very much affected the Art form, and there is less respect for the audience, and much lesser passion and commitment to quality.
A quick, winking smile appear on Pierre De Celles face, then he add: “Hey, I might be just all wrong ?! But what is life without good Art, good food and good sex ? To me life is Art, and life is Art… So drawing is my life, I feel happy to accomplish even just a small sketch or watercolor, I feel ecstasy…”
Marco M Gobbo: “And that I hope will be, for many many years to come, Pierre. And many thanks to let me know better you, your work, and this wonderful insight in the Animation world!”
Pierre De Celles: “ Thanks to you, dear Marco. What about a beer…?”
Pierre De Celles, Painter, Draftsman, Illustrator and Master Animator is born in Montreal in 1951. Currently lives in SuZhou, China. Among his many works and cooperation I would like to remember: Storyboards for “Tiny Tunes” for Warner Brothers Studio, “The Smurfs”, “Rick Moranis in Gravedale High” for H.B. Studio; Director for the Animated TV series, “The Spiral Zone” for Atlantic/Kushner-Locke Inc. Animated feature – “The Pound Puppies and The Legend of Big Paw” for Atlantic/Kushner-Locke Inc. The artwork of Pierre De Celles have been on show in China in two exhibitions. The book “Pierre De Celles Drawing Cartoons” was published in China by “The ShangHai People’s Fine Arts Publishing House” in 2002.
Exclusive interview with Marco Maurizio Gobbo, September 2011