How To Create Animation
Interviews by John Cawley



JULY 23, 1990

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Mike Giaimo's distinctive designs have kept him busy at studios since he left school. Whether at Disney, Warner Brothers or freelancing, Mike keeps continually active. As well as working on numerous films, he regularly teaches future designers at Cal Arts.
We interviewed Mike at the Warners Classic Animation offices. His desk is surrounded by vivid color drawings of locations and humorous character designs, as well as a number of small plastic figures of classic animated characters.

Q: Could you please give a brief description of your career, including studios you've worked for and specific productions you've worked on.
MG: I started right out of school at Disney in June of 1978. That was my first professional job. They were doing production on THE FOX AND THE HOUND at the time. I was a trainee and I went from trainee to in-betweener on FOX AND HOUND and got up to assistant animation working under John Musker. After my first few weeks of assisting I don't know (laughing) if they didn't like my animation or what but at any rate, a couple of people, I think it was mostly Glen Keane and Randy Cartwright, saw that I had some potential for development and story.
At that time they were starting story development on THE BLACK CAULDRON. I was put into story development on CAULDRON with Pete Young, a very gifted storyman. I was on CAULDRON for only eight months. After that I worked with Darrell van Citters on a little short called FUN WITH MR. FUTURE doing character and story design. After the short, a property was dropped off to Tom Wilhite's office. It was the galley proofs of *Who Censored Roger Rabbit* and they put Darrell and I on it initially. Believe it or not, I was on that for two years doing initial production design and lots of character designs from 1981 to 1982. After ROGER RABBIT, which went nowhere during the Ron Miller period, I was put on various projects developing Mickey Mouse featurettes. MICKEY COLUMBUS was one, I remember. I did some work for Tokyo Disneyland developing some animation that was used in conjunction with audio animatronic figures for one of their pavilions there. I also did some design work for EPCOT's seas' pavilion. I was on GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE for two weeks. Basically my career was one where I would usually dodge features (laughs), you might say.
I've never been known as a feature person. Usually my taste is a little more eclectic; a little more offbeat. So after a period of short term projects, which may have been about two and a half to three years, they put me back on ROGER RABBIT when Ron Miller left and Spielberg took over with Zemeckis slated as director. For a brief period Darrell and I were on it and they had me redesign Roger toning him down, with Zemickis' suggestion to "make him a little more like Michael J. Fox," because my Roger was a bit too clown-like (laughs).
I started freelancing in 1986, working for small production houses as well as Hanna-Barbera, Southern Star Productions, Kroyer Films, and Hyperion Films where I did character designs for THE BRAVE LITTLE TOASTER. My freelance stint lasted for three and a half years until 1989 when I went to work for Warner Brothers in Classic Animation as a production designer.

Q: What schooling, if any, did you have in animation?
MG: My first real training was at Cal Arts. I had a couple years at a junior college where I took some art classes and a brief stint at Hot Dog On A Stick, but it was really Cal Arts that gave me real insight into animation and film making. At the end of my second year at Cal Arts, Disney saw the work I had done there and asked me to work for them.

Q: As you do both layout and production design, can you explain both tasks?
MG: A layout artist is one who actually sets the stage for the animation. He will design a sequence, shot by shot, breaking it down scenically and cinematically, working closely with the director, who has a great degree of control as to the shots themselves. So the layout artist designs the environmental stage in which the characters are going to be placed in. A production designer or an art director, which is what I do at this moment, is a little different from a layout artist. A layout artist will follow an art director who sets the whole style of a picture and the aesthetic tone of what it's going to be. And an art director will often incorporate, which a layout artist usually doesn't do, color sketches that will be followed later on by a background artist or reinterpreted by a background artist to help set what kind of approach the color is going to take as well. So I will set up not only the graphic but also the color sensibility of a production.

Q: Would you say this would be closer to what the layout man back in what they call the classic days of shorts did?
MG: Yes, I would say so.

Q: As opposed to TV?
MG: Right. Television is so much more compartmentalized that it has to be broken down more stringently to adhere to time schedules and air dates.

Q: Speaking of design layouts and production design, can you give me an example of good and bad work that a person could look at.
MG: I think 101 DALMATIANS is a great example of wonderful layout. When I speak of layout, again I will mix layout and art direction together because I think they are intertwined. Some people will say layout and they'll think "oh, a person who really knows perspective; a person who can stage and render the heck out of anything." I think those are, indeed, certain qualifications but I think over and above that what really sets a great layout artist and/or art director apart from the rest is someone who has an individual POV [point of view] that he or she can offer to a particular film that will always enhance, never detract from the character because it's always the character that is the thing. I prefer films that have very, very strong art direction styles and are extremely design oriented.
Getting back to 101 DALMATIANS, it has a spirit and a wit that is reflected in the story and the characters that I think is just beautiful. Everything is meshed together so well in that film. SLEEPING BEAUTY is another choice; not so great on story, but an art director's dream! There's a totally unique yet believable world that Eyvind Earle created for that film - very lyrical and consistent throughout.
I also think a film such as ALICE IN WONDERLAND is a beautiful example of great art direction. When you look at the layouts, even though they are very caricatured and stylized, you'll find an extreme amount of control and restraint. In fact, a lot of the layouts are vignetted. In other words, there are dark areas around the sides and just a spotlight effect on the character or on a group situation. It's one of the darkest films, literally, that Disney ever did.
PINOCCHIO is dark in total mood but ALICE is actually the darkest film in terms of color and styling. For being such a wild film with such eccentric characters, it's mood with this vignette style creates a focus and a nice balance for all the eccentricity that takes place, so I really respond to that film in the way that it balances out. In blending layout with color and design, it's one of the most readable films, because you'll notice that the background values are very, very dark so that the characters become luminous and stand out. Almost in every scene you'll see that the characters pop forward where the backgrounds, as eccentric as some of them are, tend to recede. I respond to that film very, very much.
I would also have to include Maurice Noble's work at Warner Brothers. His Ralph Phillips' series and DUCK DODGERS are, I think, stellar examples of what you can do with creative design and color and layout, without a Disney budget. A great production designer will take you somewhere that is familiar and yet unfamiliar. It's like the plausible impossible. You believe it and yet it's just different enough. He'll take you on a fantastic journey but have you rooted enough so that you're not lost or alienated. Take SONG OF THE SOUTH for instance. You wouldn't think of this film as the most intriguing, art direction wise, but I think it's wonderful. The "Zippety-Do-Dah" sequence calls to mind a beautiful spring day that you've experienced, but yet the color and the design takes it over the top. It elevates it so that it's even *grander* and more whimsical than the most beautiful spring day you've ever experienced. That's successful art direction; the power to communicate mood and feeling to an audience in a unique and intriguing way.
In 101 DALMATIANS, even though it took place within a contemporary time frame, the design of the furniture, interiors, and exteriors had a sense of caricature, a sense of whimsy, a sense of fun and uniqueness. If you're going to render and do things exactly as they are, why even bother doing it? Take people somewhere they haven't been before.
In my opinion, an example of a weaker film in terms of good layout/art direction would be THE ARISTOCATS. I thought the contemporary styling inappropriate, failing to capture the mood and atmosphere of a Parisian town at the turn of the century. In other words, it seemed to rely on some past Disney efforts and was, at best, a mediocre solution.

Q: When do you generally get involved with a project?
MG: I prefer to get involved from the very beginning. I've experienced situations where I have accepted a project, but have come in on the middle. (Laughs) As a production designer, I have to be involved right from the beginning, even if the boards are in a state of flux or only a rough treatment is available. I work best with a blank sheet of paper. If a film has already been set stylistically it's too late for me.

Q: How much assistance do you get from the director and the story board people?
MG: Actually I get a lot of assistance. We all need help in this business (laughs). I work very, very closely with the director. He will definitely guide me in certain areas. I think we all need to be pushed and the director often provides that extra nudge that will send you over the top.
The story people may have an idea and if it requires a certain scenic set that needs to be designed I'll come up with visual ideas and concepts. I feel very fortunate coming from an animation and story background, so whenever I do production designing I never think the layout is the thing. I'm constantly thinking of how to best support the character. I try to be sensitive to the overall concept.

Q: Do you have a particularly strong area in your layout or design field?
MG: I would say my strongest suit would be my sense of design, color and style. I'm not a production designer that people hire to be a chameleon. I'm best with my particular point of view.

Q: What is a daily routine for you?
MG: I probably start out doing some rough production designing, which could incorporate some color sketches, as well as pencil drawings, and working with the background artist on any given production, overseeing the color sensibility. I'll also confer with the director in terms of the story boarding process and how I can best aid in that.

Q: Is most of your day spent at the drawing board or are you more coordinating?
MG: I would say at least seventy percent is spent at the board. The rest would be coordinating.

Q: How much freedom are you given on each production?
MG: I'm given, by and large, a great amount of freedom because people who would hire me to do a job would know what they're getting up front (laughs).

Q: What project have you been associated with that's given you the most professional enjoyment and satisfaction? Whether the project was a success or not is not important.
MG: I would say there were two; my development work on ROGER RABBIT, as a designer, and my art direction at Warner Brothers Classic Animation starting with BOX OFFICE BUNNY. Only because those tend to be the two that made me grow and stretch the most. I am having a great time and I always try to have a good time at whatever I do, but the projects that I tend to be the most personally satisfying are the ones that usually (chuckles) cause the most pain.

Q: Which would you consider would be a failed project, one that you weren't satisfied with?
MG: I could say ROGER. I could say THE BLACK CAULDRON, (chuckles) that's an easy one. I suppose it would be ROGER RABBIT. I really admire the technical dexterity and the incredible visual style of it [the final film]. Since I do come from a story background, though, I felt that from a character standpoint, just from a personality standpoint of character animation it fell short, but it certainly had enough visual appeal to keep people amused.

Q: If you were to start in the business today or if you were to give someone advice for starting the business how would you have them prepare?
MG: Art direction requires the culling of so many experiences in animation; to get a sensibility of what the story is, what character motivation is, so that the whole scenic backdrop can play to that. It requires an understanding of basic drawing skills, and staging, but more than that, a keen sense of aesthetics and a real sensitivity towards art and art history to bring the production styling to a working whole the entire process of animation and I would venture to think that as an art director the only one who would even have a bigger grasp of that would be a director, who even sees the whole picture. I oversee it graphically, but that isn't to say that other art directors should have a strong background and all of that, but I know that just for setting the stage for the characters it has really come in handy, knowing the entire process and having been involved in it.

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