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Globetrotters - Marlon Nowé

8 augustus 2009
Next animation professional in our series of Flemish globetrotters is Marlon Nowe, born and raised in Ghent (B). Marlon has been living in the U.S. for 9 years. Since 2007, he has been working as a character animator at the Walt Disney Animation Studios. A dream come true.
LOCATION Hollywood, California (USA)AGE 34EDUCATION Royal Academy of Fine Arts (KASK) Ghent, BelgiumFIRST RECOLLECTION OF AN ANIMATED MOVIE Jungle BookFAVOURITE ANIMATION SHORT Burning Safari (both story and style are very original)FAVOURITE ANIMATION FEATURE AladdinPREFERRED ANIMATION TECHNIQUE 3DAWARDS I was a character animator on The Golden Compass, that won an Academy Award in 2008 for Best Achievement in Visual Effects and I was the animation supervisor on Gopher Broke, nominated in 2005 for an Academy Award in the category of Best Animated Short Film. I animated on Disney's recent film Bolt, which was nominated for Best Animation Feature. When did you decide you wanted to be an animator? When I left secondary school I never considered to go to university. As a kid I was really into video games and movies with special effects, like Back to the Future or Star Wars. I did not have a passion for animation back then, but that changed when Disney started making films like The Lion King and Aladdin. So I started to read about how they were made and I tried to make some animated clips myself on my computer, not that it turned out as a big success but I enjoyed it a lot. So it felt right and 'natural' to go and study animation. At first I enrolled in a school in Brussels but I quit after a couple of months because I realised this kind of environment and education was not my thing at all. So I decided to go back to my hometown Ghent and to prepare for the entry exam at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts (KASK), since I was not much of a drawing talent. I also made a short film combining live action, stop motion and 3D because I was kind of creative in that sort of computer work. So I got in, one of the teachers was at that time pushing for more computer animation in the KASK curriculum, which proved to be quite expensive back then. The KASK was really focused on 'classic' animation, which had its advantages, because after four years I could draw a lot better, but I soon realised I was not going to have the education in computer animation that I wanted so badly. I made a couple of short films in 2D and I kept asking for 3D facilities and education, which was a bit frustrating, so towards the end of my education at KASK the relationship with some of the teachers had grown a bit sour. I ended up working at home a lot and I made a 2D graduation film, comped and coloured on the computer. At that time it was rather unusual. The teachers let me graduate, but they weren't too happy about me having produced the movie at home and not at the KASK. But as I said, I was a better artist in the end, so it paid off later in my career. How did you end up working in the U.S.? Right after school I started to work for Imagination In Motion in Brussels, a promising young company that caught the eye of the media and some big studios in the U.S. They offered me a deal: I would work 3 months for free and they would give me a training in 3D animation. I learnt a great deal in the two years that I worked with them. Unfortunately, a couple of months after I left them, they went out of business. I had been applying for jobs in the U.S. for a while, because I had this dream of working for Disney. Moreover, there was no animation industry of a considerable size in Europe back then. I received an offer from Blur Studios, a small company from Venice Beach producing game cinematics and short films. There was not a lot of demand for animators in the U.S. then, and the only way you could go and work there was to be offered a job. So one week later I found myself in New Orleans, where I met the crew from Blur at the Siggraph convention. They were a really cool bunch of young guys, we got on really well. I went back to Belgium, packed my things, went on a road trip from New York to LA and after that I started at Blur. It was a bit like my student years: working in the daytime, going out at night with all of us at Blur. I am still friends with the people I met there. In the six years that I spent with them, I learnt to appreciate team spirit. Running against deadlines, everybody stepped in to help out. Deadlines were sometimes very short, so I learnt to work very quickly. I started as an animator and I ended as head of a department. I earned good money, worked at a decision making level but ultimately I wanted to make movies so when I left Blur for Rhythm & Hues everybody understood my decision. What was it like at Rhythm & Hues? It was a bit like Blur but bigger, Rhythm & Hues also produces feature films. I worked on Golden Compass as a character animator, which was fun, but their next project was The Hulk, totally not my kind of thing. And then it happened: Disney was recruiting heavily to assemble a team for Bolt and asked me to join them. It was a dream come true. How is Disney treating you? Generally speaking, I think people have a wrong idea about the corporate culture at Disney. It is rather laid back, as long as you finish your work. For instance, there are some social safety nets, such as 6 weeks paternity leave. They treat us very well, they organise parties, trips... They appreciate your work and understand that if you treat your creative staff well, you are likely to get a good product. How does an average work day look like at Disney? We start somewhere between 8 and 10, we animate for 2 hours or so, and then we attend some kind of class for one hour, to learn more about camera work or about drawing etc. We eat lunch together and after that we show our work to the director in a screening room. Everyone is there and even the junior animators can make a comment on the work of everybody else. At the end the directors call the shots and decide what changes have to be done. In the afternoon we animate another couple of hours. So in a 40 hour week, we spend about 6 hours in meetings. When we approach a deadline it tends to get busier, in the final months this can mean working days of 12 to 13 hours with little or no classes. But any extra hour is paid double. Regulations on these matters are observed by the unions and are strictly respected. What about the projects you are working on? Bolt did really well at the box office and pulled in about 300 million dollars, the DVD is a big success and to Disney it meant a lot that it was nominated for an Academy Award. Disney is really making a comeback. Since they took over Pixar in 2006, things have improved a lot. John Lasseter is keeping an eye on things all the time. Rapunzel will be even better than Bolt. But right now I am working on a short. So instead of a team of 60, we are now 8 involved in this project. What are the qualities animators aspiring to work at Disney should have? Good question... I think they should be experienced to start with, and a classical education focused on drawing is certainly a plus. You have to be able to be part of a team and be ready to accept criticism from colleagues. Some new co-workers tend to be very defensive when that happens, until they realize that these remarks are only meant to improve the quality of their work. Finally, you should have a passion for 'old' Disney films, with Rapunzel they are trying to bring some of that spirit back.Bolt You also teach animation classes 5 hours every week... on the internet. How does it work? This is something I do after hours, not related with my job at Disney. I teach classes at Animation Mentor, an online animation school. It offers a very practical education of about 1,5 years to people from all around the world: India, Australia, South America... It would really have been something for me to learn about animation this way. As a teacher I am in front of a webcam, I draw and animate, show clips, answer questions that students ask online... These 12 students I have right now are in the middle of their education, I teach class 3 which is all about the classic Disney style of animation. You have realised your dream... By now, you may have asked yourself, what's next? As a matter of fact, I have been wondering about it, supposing someone would tell me that I could not be an animator anymore after finishing Rapunzel... if that would happen I could say that I had 'seen it all'. But I am totally still passionate about what I do, and I would't want to change company. The only thing that I see myself and my wife Michelle doing in the future, when our little boy is a bit older, is to travel and work in another continent. Moving from my little hometown to the United States meant meeting a lot of interesting people, getting to know a different culture, enjoying great challenges... It was a big thing for me, so maybe that's something I would like to experience once more, to do the same work, but in Singapore or in Australia for instance. Working on my own dream project and giving up everything for that single goal is totally not my thing. I like to keep things in balance, and that includes the happiness of my wife and kid. LINKS Marlon Nowe Disney Blur Studios Gopher Broke Rhythm & Hues Studios Animation Mentor