INTRODUCING MIKE GIAIMO...
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
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
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
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
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.
Back To Contents
Back To Books Page
Back To Main Page