We Interviewed Michel Gagné - Golden Age Character & FX Animator

Posted at Feb 12th, 2014 by AnimDesk.

Michel Gagne - Golden Age Character Animator

Michel Gagné was born in Québec, Canada. He studied animation at Sheridan College School of Visual Arts in Ontario, Canada and in 1985, began his highly successful artistic career.

Michel has lent his amazing talent to many animation companies, such as Don Bluth Animation Studios, Warner Bros., Walt Disney Studios, PIXAR, Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon and more. His work can be seen in over twenty animated films including "The Iron Giant", "Osmosis Jones" and "Ratatouille". Aside from his studio work, Michel is a determined entrepreneur who has created work in a wide range of media, from live performances to gallery exhibits. With video game veteran, Joe Olson, he created the critically acclaimed video game, "Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet" which was released in 2011.

Michel is also active in the publishing world having written and illustrated several books and comics, such as "The Saga of Rex" and "Insanely Twisted Rabbits". His work has been published by DC Comics, Image Comics, Random House, Fantagraphics, as well as Michel's own imprint, Gagne International Press.

Michel Gagne - Golden Age Character Animator

Thank you very much Michel Gagné this interview, we would like to start with you by telling us about yourself?

I was born in Quebec, Canada. I began my professional career in 1985 and have since worked on several feature films, television and video games

I've authored books and graphic novels. I've produced and directed short films, and a video game. I've worked on live performances, done sculptures, paintings, illustrations, mixed-media, art installations, etc.

I love to be creative. I always have. For me drawing is a small aspect of what I do. Vision is the most important asset, and passion is a required component.

For the past 11 years, I've been living in the Pacific Northwest with my amazing wife and my slightly annoying but cute dog, Whiskey. I work at home where I turned the first floor of my home into a state of the art studio.

What do you love to do when you’re not animating? Any hobbies? Extra passions?

I love to read. Lots of sci-fi. Graphics novels too. I love good TV shows, things like Dexter, How the Universe Works, Walking Dead, Rome, Breaking Bad, 24, etc.

I try to work out three times a week, and take my dog for a walk whenever I get the chance. Hanging out with my wife is also something I treasure.

How do you summaries the growing up part and how does it involves animation?

I was born in Quebec, Canada in a small town called, Roberval. I grew up in an even smaller town called, St-Félicien. Moved to Quebec City at the age of twelve.

As a kid, I loved drawing, reading, making movies (on the old clunky Super-8 cameras) and watching them. Science fiction and animation were my favorites. I almost feel like I was pre-destined to go into this field.

It combines all the stuff I grew up loving. By the time I reached my teenager years, I had pretty much set my mind up that I would either be in the animation or special effects field.

Growing up, did you draw a lot? What style did you like the most? Did you have a favorite film?

Yes, I did a fair amount of drawings as a kid. Mostly monsters and creatures. I was really into Godzilla movies so that reflected in my art. Saw Star Wars when I was 12 and that made a huge impact and solidified my desire to work in movies.

I also remembered seeing this really weird French animated film, Fantastic Planet, on TV one night and that left a huge imprint on my brain.

I loved the Walt Disney classics, and saw those in theaters whenever they were re-released. At the age of 17, I saw The Secret of NIMH, and that's when I made the decision I'd be working for Don Bluth. That became my main goal in life at that point.

Where did you go to learn the art of Animation? Which School was it?

I studied Classical Animation at Sheridan College in Oakville, which is a suburb of Toronto.

When did you realize that you wanted to become an Animator?

Probably around the age of 14 or 15. I think it actually was after a screening of Disney's Lady and the Tramp, that I made up my mind to be a traditional animator.

Before that, I wanted to work in movies or special effects but I wasn't absolutely sure where to focus.

Did you have a natural talent or you always had the skill do draw and animate?

I'm a hard worker and I think I have a sharp eye for what looks good. I believe I have a good imagination and I try to cultivate that.

What was your first work you ever worked on? How did you get it at first?

My first job in the industry was for a studio in Ottawa called Atkinson Film Arts. I worked as an animator on For Better or for Worst: The Bestest Present.

Michel Gagne - Animating on For Better or for Worst: The Bestest Present "Michel Gagne's first animation job as an animator on "For Better or for Worst: The Bestest Present".

Representatives from the studio actually came to Sheridan College to recruit some animators and I was picked with a few others to animate the TV Special. I was twenty at the time and had no clue what I was doing.

You have worked on so many iconic animated films, from ‘An American Tail’, ‘The Land Before Time’ to Ratatouille and Brave, and so many more! How does it feel to be a part of animation History?

Everything is part of history, really. You're part of history. We all are to some degree. My sight is aimed at the future, not the past. I love the process of creating. That's what drives me.

Looking back in retrospect did you really think you are going to be involved in so many amazing projects?

I always felt somehow as a kid that that when I grew up, I'd have a successful Hollywood career.

Tell us about the time you worked at Don Bluth Animation Studios. How did you end up working there?

After I finished working on For Better or for Worst: The Bestest Present, in Ottawa, I moved back to Toronto and attended Sheridan College for a third year in order to make a short film that would get me a job working for Don Bluth Studios.

I had seen The Secret of NIMH and working for the director of that film became my priority at the time.

After I finished my third year project, a two-minute short film called, A Touch of Deceit, I flew down to Los Angeles and knocked on the door of Don Bluth Studios in Van Nuys, California, and stood there with a bad haircut, homeless looking clothes, and a video cassette of my short film under my arm.

"This is the film I did while attending Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario, Canada, way back in 1985/86. The whole thing was animated on paper, inked and painted on cel, and shot on 16mm."

I never met Don on that trip, but I was persistent enough to leave a videocassette of my student film with the receptionist.

I returned to Toronto and got a job at a small animation outfit called Light Box, doing television commercials.

About a week later, I received a phone call from John Pomeroy, who was the head of animation at Bluth, asking me if I could start on Monday.

What do you most remember from working at Don Bluth Studios? Did the studio try to battle against Walt Disney? Or it was an era of creativity and exploration in animation?

Bluth was my breakthrough in the film world. I was right out of college so everything was new and exciting. I met and worked with a lot of great animation artists and absorbed a lot of knowledge. I see the Bluth period as the formative years of my animation career.

I loved the fact that I spent four of my six years working for Don Bluth in Ireland. It was a lot of fun. I remember working hard―Lots of working weekends with no overtime. But that was OK.

We were all so excited to be working for Bluth, we were perfectly willing to do it. We wanted the studio to be successful and we wanted the movies to be as good as possible.

Being in Ireland kind of separated us from the rest of the industry. That's how it felt to me at least. I didn't feel in competition with Disney per se, I just wanted to do as good as I could and have an enjoyable life in a foreign country.

Which characters did you mostly worked on at Don Bluth? And which character did you like most animating and would animate again in a heartbeat?

When I was working for Bluth, characters weren't specifically assigned to animators. A lot of us would go from character to character, and this is what I did. I probably worked on most of the characters on The Land before Time and All Dogs go to Heaven.

On An American Tail, I only did assisting on one or two scenes. My first picture credited as an animator is The Land before Time. After I finished working on All Dogs go to Heaven, I made a switch and went from Character Animator to Effects Animator. I worked as an effects animator on Rock-a-Doodle, Thumbelinaand A Troll in Central Park.

I don't know if I'd really like animating any of these characters again. I'd rather animate my own characters at this point.

Are you in contact with animators from the time you worked at Don Bluth?

Oh yeah, quite a few actually. Some of my best friends are ex-Bluthies.

After leaving Don Bluth, what did you do before ending up working for Warner Bros’? What did you worked on mostly?

I worked for a place called Rich Animation, on some religious and historical animated videos, and eventually became Head of Special Effects on their first feature, The Swan Princess.

I enjoyed my time there very much. I also worked for a special effects company called "Available Light" and did effects animation on live action movies such as Demolition Man and Mortal Kombat.

In 1995, when Warner Bros. decided to start their feature animation division, they asked me if I'd be interested in heading up their effects department. A lot of my friends were going there and it looked like the division had good potential so decided to go.

Tell us about the time you received the chance to work on Star Wars – Clone Wars, how did you receive it? And how did it make you feel?

In December 2002, I received an email from Genndy Tartakovsky, asking me if I'd be interested in designing the special effects for a series of twenty Star Wars shorts, he was producing. Being a big Star Warsfan, I told him that I’d be delighted to be part of his team.

Six weeks later, I flew down to Burbank to meet with him. We went over the storyboards, talked about the direction of the show and sealed the deal.

Working on Clone Wars was kind of getting one of those items off your bucket list for me. Star Wars was so influential to me growing up, it was nice being a small part of the continuation of that mythos. And besides, I love designing 2D FX animation. So it was just a fun job in general.

What did you love the most when working on Star Wars – Clone wars?

I got to do tons of stylized explosions which are very fun for an effects designer. There are so many possibilities. I love to play with design.

Your career let you switch back and forth between many positions in the animation industry, from an Animator to Effects to Designs, is it something you wanted to do? Did you set a course for yourself to tryout anything possible?

I like to play different creative roles. Why limit oneself? At the core, I'm an artist who uses his imagination as a mean to express himself.

Why not to focus on one field of animation and become a master at it?

Why not becoming a master of many fields?

Nowadays, when do you wake up and what do you do on average every day in regarding to your job?

It varies a lot. Last year I did two short films and kept a 45-50 hour work week. I work at home so I've learned to discipline myself with my hours.

I usually start work at 9am and finish around 7 or 8pm. This year, I've been working remotely with Gearbox Software in Texas, on an upcoming video game, doing special effects work.

Later on, I'm planning to be moving to Belgium to direct the feature, The Saga of Rex, based on one of my graphic novels, published by image Comics. Each project has different requirements.

What part of your current job do you like best and why? What makes it so awesome in your eyes?

I get to work at home, and be creative on cool projects within different industries such as movies, television, games and comics. What's not to like.

What are some of your favorite projects you’re proud to have been a part of?

I'm delighted with Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet. I had an amazing partner, Joe Olson, and together we did something pretty cool, I think.

I'm also very happy with ZED: Cosmic Tale, a 280-page graphic novel that took me eleven years to finish. The Saga of Rex is one of my baby, of course. My independent work is what gives me the most joy, my books, short films, etc.

"When a cute little alien named ZED demonstrates his invention to the Hierarchy of the Galaxy, something goes wrong—terribly wrong! Before long, ZED's universe is thrown into complete turmoil and our little hero must face nearly insurmountable odds trying to survive and save the very fate of his home world."

I certainly feel blessed to have been able to work with so many great artists on all sorts of cool projects. No matter what the film was, I always try to give it my all.

But having said that, pride is an emotion I try to avoid. I don't want to sit on my laurels, you know. I'd rather be artistically courageous than proud. As Bryce Courtenay stated, "Pride is holding your head up when everyone around you has theirs bowed. Courage is what makes you do it."

What’s your animation workflow looks like while animating? Do you still use Animation Disc to this day?

My work flow has evolved through the year. I used to animate on paper and do the ink and paint and compositing in the computer. Now, it's all paperless and I handle everything digitally.

Which cool methods and ‘tricks of the trade’ do you use the most when animating?

I have my old back of tricks but I keep discovering new ones all the time. I constantly try to push and change my methods in order not to stagnate. The best tricks are those you come up through trial and error.

In retrospect, do you look for imperfections in your work?

Not really, I'm more concerned about the next project. I'm too young to retrospect.

Tell us a little about the tools that you are using? What are your preferences? Methods? Plugins?

A Wacom Tablet or Wacom Cintiq, coupled with software such as Toon Boom, Adobe After Effects, Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Premiere. That's my main arsenal.

What are your thoughts of the general ‘work instability’ that a lot of animators talk about lately?

There's always been work instability in animation, ups and down. Nothing new.

What is your favorite 2D and 3D animated film(s), of all time and why?

That changes all the time, depending on my mood, but one film that always seems to remain in my top ten is Frederic Back’s The Man Who Planted Trees (1987).

I also love The Secret of NIMH as mentioned above. The artsy, Fantastic Planet was a huge influence. Some of the old Disney Classics, of course, like Fantasia, Bambi and Lady and the Tramp.

On the more recent scene, I thought Battle for Terra was an awesome animated sci-fi film. The Miyazaki films are outstanding too.

What are your thoughts about Japanese Animation? Are you a fan or prefer good old American Animation and style?

To tell you the truth, I really don't watch a lot of animation these days. I love doing animation more than I like watching it.

Would you like to be a part of a Japanese animation film if you could?

I'm open to any opportunity that might present itself.

Who would you love to work with?

No names in particular, just the right fit.

What is the most difficult part for you about being in the animation business?

Making sure you balance things right so you have enough income to live on for you and your family.

Have you ever had a character/scene that was too difficult for you to animate and which film(s) was that on? And how did you tackle that problem(s)?

I hit walls a couple of time when I was working for Don Bluth and starting my career. I usually resolved the situation by going to my directing animator.

One instance I can clearly remember was a scene in The Land Before Time where the Tyrannosaurus Rex (Sharptooth) was unconscious on his back, laying inside a cave. I had the worst time trying to get that drawing right.

I first went to see Linda Miller, my supervisor at the time, and she couldn't solve the problem either. Then, I remember, we walked in John Pomeroy's office and he took my drawing and fixed in 5 minutes. It was a lesson in problem solving but also one in humility. John is so good.

Michel Gagne - Animated Sharptooth in The Land Before Time "I had the worst time trying to get that drawing right, so I went to went to see Linda Miller, and she couldn't solve the problem either. Then, I remember, we walked in John Pomeroy's office and he fixed it in 5 minutes."

Who influenced you the most in the animation industry? Who is or was your ultimate Mentor during your early stages?

I learned a lot from so many great artists. Too many to mention, though I must give special credit to Linda Miller who was a crucial part of my evolution as an animator. She was my directing animator for the first three years I was at Bluth.

What are your thoughts about animated films nowadays? Do they become harder to produce or animate due to higher competition between the companies?

There are more animated films being made now than ever so I think the situation is quite good. The quality is outstanding on many of the releases. When I was in college, there was hardly anything going on. This is an exciting time.

Do you think animating a 3D film is more fun than a 2D film or the other way around? What are your thoughts?

I'm a 2D animator. I enjoy working on 3D projects, but my main love is 2D.

What are your thoughts about online animation schools like ‘Animation Mentor’ or iAnimate.net? Would you teach there if you had a chance?

Whatever way people can use to learn a trade is cool by me.

Would you teach there if you had a chance?

I'm not sure I'm meant to be a teacher. I like working in Production too much. But I don't want to say I will never do it. Can't read the future.

Do you think such schools mass-produce animators to the already ‘low demand’ from the studios themselves?

I don't know. We need talent and everyone who wants to be in the field should have a shot. Those who don't make the cut will eventually go somewhere else. There's a natural selection that happens like everywhere else.

Should students spend time learning animation at traditional animation schools (i.e. CalArts) or go to the online animation schools route?

Well, that's up to the individual, really. Some people will function better in a college environment while others are pro-active enough that on-line classes are all they'll need to take off.

2D Animation vs. 3D animation what are your thoughts on this endless battle?

I believe both 2D and 3D can peacefully co-exist.

Which animation film would you love to be a part of if you could go back in time?

I'm more interested in what's coming than what has been done. I don't want to go back in time.

How did you end up doing Comics? Were you a comic’s fan growing up? What was the first Comic book you ever read?

As a kid, I had an acute asthma condition, and spent a lot of time in the hospital. One day, when my mom came to visit me, she brought a beautiful set of French books, reprinting Fantastic Four issues 44 to 71. (created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.)

What a treat that was! I forgot all about my misery, as I read these tales over and over again. It was the ultimate escape! That, as I recall, was when I first fell in love with comics.

Marvel Vs. DC, what do you think about that battle? Is there a room for X-Men fan to like Superman as well?

There's a place for all, but no place for mediocrity. In the end it comes down to good stories, good artwork and a product that inspires people.

Who are your favorite comics’ authors? And why?

I love Osamu Tezuka, Moebius (Jean Giraud) and Jack Kirby. All three were authors as well as artist and their common denominator is a great imagination and storytelling. I'm always adding to that list though.

A couple of recent reads that impressed me: The Vagabond of Limbo(31 volumes) written by Christian Godard and illustrated by Julio Ribera is an amazing display of imagination and poetry in an intricate sci-fi setting;Kurt Busiek'sAvengers run collected as a set of 5 volumes under the name Avengers Assemble got me gleefully reading the type of material I thought I'd lost interest in; I'm always reading new stuff by Osamu Tezuka. He has done so much and I'm often blown away by how good it is.

I recently finished both Black Jack (17 volumes) and Buddha (8 volumes) and I'm currently reading Histoires Pour Tous (20 volumes) in French, and they are all full of wonder and excitement.

Who is your favorite Comics Artist? And why?

I'll start by naming my holy trinity again: Osamu Tezuka, Moebius (Jean Giraud) and Jack Kirby. I grew up on Marvel so I'd probably add a lot of the old Marvel masters to my list: Steve Ditko for his wonderful surrealism; John Buscema for his incredible draftsmanship and layouts; Gene Colan for his thick atmospheres; Joe Sinnott for his lush inking, and many more.

I love Basil Wolverton whose grotesque work appeals to my senses. On the more contemporary scene, I'm always impressed with Kazu Kibuishi, both as a writer and as an artist. His work has scope and elegance.

You know in a way it's almost unfair to name so few. There are so much talent out there. I keep discovering new "favorite" artists all the time.

Which comics’ character can you most relate yourself to? And who is your most favorable character?

Oh, I dunno. I really like the Silver Surfer. Being able to surf in space would be mighty cool.

Why did you decide to create your own comics, how did it came to be?

Despite my commitment to animation, I never wavered in my love of comics and ultimately couldn't shake the festering desire to create my own series.

In early 2001, after finishing up a demanding job as Head of Special Effects at Warner Brothers Feature Animation, I took time off to make that dream come true.

This is how ZEDwas born, and thus, my first venture into comic book territory. Of course the book was self-published, and I ended up spending a lot more than I made, but I was delighted to hold in my hand, the first issue of my own comic series, printed professionally.

Michel Gagne - Author of ZED - A Cosmic Tale Comic Book

Because of all my other duties it took me eleven years to complete the series, but I always did it on my own term and I did it for the fun of it.

When I think of doing comics, I think of it more as a hobby rather than a job. I've been lucky that my sequential work has gotten some positive attention and that I've been fortunate enough to be published by the likes of DC, Image, Random House, Abrams and Fantagraphics.

How do you come up with the stories? Do you add a lot from personal experience?

Inspiration comes from everywhere and anywhere. Conversations, books, movies, nature, concerts, can all be triggers. I mean, an article in a science magazine can spawn a whole story concept! All my experiences influences what I create.

Can an artist make a living doing Indie comics and books? Being a self-artist is tough isn’t it?

Some have done it but they are few and far between. I couldn't make a living doing indie comics and books. I do that for fun. Movies, TV and Video Games is where I can make a living income.

How does it feel to be a long lasting Annie (and others) award winner on so many amazing titles? Does it surprise you time and time again?

Awards are always nice to get but it is important not to let it become a conceit. To pay too much attention to that stuff can be disruptive to your flow.

Remember that art is about the journey. Climb mountains not so the world can see you, but so you can see the world.

When did you start doing animation lectures? Do you remember the first lecture you did? Were you nervous? And what do you mostly emphasize when teaching?

Yeah, the first lecture I did was at Rowland Heights High School in California. There were maybe fifty or 60 students, and I just froze. I actually pulled a Michael Bay and left the room and went to the bathroom and splashed a bunch of water in my face.

At that point, I was actually considering running out of the school and drive back home, but then I realized I'd come to the school with the teacher and I didn't have a car to go back to. I then took a deep breath, went back to the class and just put a VHS tape of my short film, Prelude to Eden, and played that for the students.

They loved it, applauded and immediately had a bunch of questions. That broke the ice, and I ended up talking for almost three hours and we all had a great time.

I've done many of these talks now, sometimes in front of a thousand people, so I'm not so nervous anymore and I enjoy sharing my work with an audience.

Every lecture is different. Sometimes I talk about movies, sometimes about video games. Each venue has its own set of requirements.

Tell the audience and us a little bit about your latest projects, what are you working on as for 2014?

Right now, I'm designing and animating special effects for a new game by Gearbox Software. I've been doing work for Gearbox since the fall of 2013 and I'm excited about the range of effects animation I'm doing for them.

Grid Animation in Belgium has recently acquired the option to turn my graphic novel, The Saga of Rex, into an animated feature film. I'm attached to the project as director so when that goes into production, I'll be moving to Belgium for 18 months to do that. That should be happening later this year.

"A little fox named Rex is plucked from his home world by a mysterious spaceship and transported to the arcane world of Edernia, where he meets Aven, an enigmatic biomorph."

I just finished a new animated short film called Synesthesia, which I'm currently entering at various animation festivals. We'll see what happens there.

I have a second comic book archival project I edited for Fantagraphics which will be coming out in a few weeks. It's called Young Romance 2: The Early Simon & Kirby's Romance Comics and it's a sequel to Young Romance: The Best of Simon & Kirby's Romance Comics, for which I received an Eisner Award nomination last year.

If you could choose to work with any artist(s) past or present from the animation business, who would he/they be and why? What makes them so awesome?

I've worked with so many great artists in the past, Don Bluth, John Pomeroy, Brad Bird, Jon T. Van Vliet, Bill Kroyer, etc.

I feel very blessed in that department and don't have any particular wishes beyond letting fate take its course and be open to the potential of future collaborations.

Do you find yourself checking out other animator’s/artists works? Comparing them to your own? Maybe learning new things from them?

I always learn when I look at other artists' work, but I try not to compare. I have my vision and they have theirs. Mostly, I try to learn by inspiring myself from mediums that are not currently relating to what I'm doing.

For example, if I'm doing animation, I'll usually watch very little animation and try to get inspiration in other mediums so I don't regurgitate the same things. It's important to go beyond your immediate medium so that you don't create an inbreeding situation. Cultivate your imagination by getting inspiration outside your field.

Lastly, is there any advice you can give to an aspiring animation student or artist trying to get into the animation or gaming business?

Go into it if you love it and are ready to truly dedicate yourself. There's fierce competition out there and only through hard work and dedication will you be able to make your mark. If you want to succeed, you have to look at it as more than a job, it has to be a passion.