Emily Clarkson, concept painting for the Overture, Red & The Kingdom Of Sound (2017)
Truth be known, I’ve been badgering Emily to get her feet under Red’s table for a while now and we’ll be talking about her initial reluctance a little later. Before that, I just want to say a few words about Emily as they’re words she would never use about herself, but someone has got to say them. Emily is one of the most commensurate animation-centric creatives I know, and it’s been my pleasure (and saving grace) to work with Emily on a bunch of very challenging, time-pressured and under-funded projects. Emily has seen me at my best – and at my very worst – absorbing my stress, my ineptitude and my poor temper without rancour. Emily can build entire worlds in her mind and communicate them to other people through ravishing production art; she is a designer of charismatic characters, and a skilled animator with nifty comic timing.
If Emily is reading these paragraphs, her first instinct will be to bat these endorsements away. Okay, her first instinct will likely be to blush rather unhappily, and then bat these endorsements away, but don’t listen to Emily, listen to me. Better still, before we meet Emily for a proper chat (and while her blushes subside), I’d like you to watch Marcus & The Mystery of The Pudding Pans (2019) commissioned for The Seaside Museum Herne Bay and funded by Heritage Lottery. Everything you see here, Emily envisioned for us first.
Welcome back (oh, and I will be asking questions later on the provenance of the pudding pans, so I hope you were paying attention!). So, let’s meet production designer and all-round class-act, Emily Clarkson, and begin by finding out why, on God’s green earth, she was worrying about taking up her rightful place as an artist-in-residence at Red’s Kingdom…
Emily Clarkson, concept painting for the Harp District, Red & The Kingdom Of Sound (2017)
Phil: Hey Em! You’re here then? I’m very happy about that, but when I originally asked if you wanted to take up residency in Red’s Kingdom, you were definitely a bit reluctant! I’m going to take a guess and ask if you’re suffering from ‘imposter syndrome’?
Emily: I guess the answer is yes? I don’t feel like a fraud who is about to be exposed, I just don’t think I’m capable a lot of the time. My experience of imposter syndrome is characterised by performance anxiety, obsessive comparing, (‘at this age, I should be here… etc’) and a lack of confidence. When you asked me to take part in the A.I.R (Artist-in-Residence) I just felt a bit odd, as I see it as a spot for those who are successful, experienced and who can share lots of wisdom.
Phil: You realise how crazy that sounds to me, right, given everything I know about you and everything we’ve accomplished together? My own experience of imposter syndrome is that it is rarely evidence-based; it’s a ‘feeling’ and not based on any empirical observation. If the real test of a creative’s legitimacy is that they often undertake creative projects – sometimes for actual cash! – so you pass this basic test?
Emily: Yes, I would pass the test. Yes, I make creative work (and have been paid to do so in the past!). However, I’d say my imposter feelings aren’t rooted in doubts about my creativity, but more in my capabilities in a professional setting. Being creative doesn’t feel like a high stakes situation; it’s freedom of expression, exploration, experimentation and sometimes just a fun way to chill out. Being creative in a professional setting is achieving very specific tasks in a concrete time frame, with the added stress of mistakes having consequences. That is the root of my imposter fears – messing up badly and having a directly negative impact on my employer’s credibility and mine.
Phil: Tell me more about ‘obsessive comparing’. I’m sure this is something most of us can relate to, given the likes of Instagram etc. Do you have any advice for ‘breaking the cycle’? How do you get past it?
Emily: The obsessive comparing comes out of (what I perceive to be) society’s expectations. By the time you’re 30, you’re supposed to be in some kind of stable job and living independently at the very least. Social media makes it very easy to see the accomplishments of others. It’s hard not to look around and feel like a failure and far behind those who appear to have their lives more together!
I don’t have a fix for breaking the cycle of comparison. It’s something I’ll always do. More recently I’ve taken comfort in tweets by professional artists and creatives who point out age means nothing in this field. What I took from them was everyone makes their own unique journey in the creative world. Two people in the same career will have arrived there in entirely different ways, at different times, with totally different experiences and credentials! I just have to remember that. Maybe I should turn it on its head and think instead of being ‘behind’? I’m taking the scenic route and meandering my way through different possibilities.
Either way, I’ve learned a creative career isn’t necessarily time sensitive. It’s there, waiting for the moment you choose to do it. Being successful at it depends on how long and hard you work at it!
Phil: You and I have worked together on two big projects, Red & The Kingdom of Sound and Marcus and The Mystery of The Pudding Pans. For both projects you were the principle production designer. What is it about production design you enjoy?
Emily: Have you ever read or heard a kick-ass concept, where you can’t help your imagination running away with designs, solutions and ideas? You just have to nail the ‘feel’ of that idea. That’s it. The act of doing justice to the concept is the bit I enjoy. Bringing to life what may never have existed visually before is thrilling, especially when it inspires an emotional or thought-provoking response from other people who see the end result.
Inside the Seaside Museum, the digital set derived from Emily’s concept art, Marcus & The Mystery Of The Pudding Pans (2019)
Phil: Are you able to talk about some specific examples of production design in these projects – how you resolved particular designs or made sense of something that was otherwise poorly described in my scripts? Hahaha!
Emily: In Red and the Kingdom of Sound I was assigned environmental design initially. The big deal about R&tKoS was the world was built entirely out of musical instruments, entire cities of them. The art style was based on UPA (United Productions of America, a kind of Looney Tunes and old Pink Panther-style, line art and block colours, which I love. One thing I was intimidated by was the colour scheme, so I took colour-picking out of my hands by using real world reference. Red’s adventure takes place over the course of a day-to-night. I colour-picked from photographs of instruments, and the sky at different times of day.
“The horn district gleams in the last light of day… The music here is characterised by a quick succession of notes that align with a montage of shots compressing Red’s journey through the Horn District. We’re shown him going under arches, ascending staircases, arriving on bridges etc…” from the original script for Red & The Kingdom Of Sound.
One of my favourite environments to design was the Percussion District, also known as the construction site. Unlike other segments of the orchestra, percussion entailed multiple instruments, so I had LOADS of structures to play with; drums, xylophone, cymbals, tambourines – all sorts! That segment of the script was chock-full of moving parts, like a wildly swinging wrecking ball and a conveyor belt of doom, which made everything fun and exciting! It was even more fun to animate the shenanigans!
For Marcus and the Mystery of the Pudding Pans, I started with the characters after visiting the museum and actually HANDLING 2000 year old pottery! The script clearly described our four main characters personalities, so it was just a case of marrying up their shapes to their characters. The Drama Queen (Gaius) was cracked and smashed. The Old Bore (Saturio) was covered in barnacle-like structures, the Sage (Belsa) was a round welcoming-shaped bowl, and our protagonist, Marcus, was the new and smallest member. My favourite character was Scuttle, the crab. He was the perfect mime in the script with great character. His physical design was purely trial and error until he jumped off the screen at us.
Phil: You were also the storyboard artist for Marcus & The Mystery Of The Pudding Pans. Can you give some insight into what that process is like? You’re essentially ‘directing with a pencil’ and likewise adapting someone’s words into images. Your ‘mind’s eye’ is very powerful, Em! Do the images arrive fully built in your head? What does it mean to storyboard?
Emily: My mind’s eye is an instinctive thing. My vivid imagination has been picturing stories since I was a child. In storyboarding, I use the same skill to picture events in a script, but then embark on the huge challenge of getting it down in a visual way and framing it for a camera. (I find framing for camera is the hardest bit!) Super-descriptive, evocative writing practically appears fully-formed in my head. Other times, things can be foggy until discussed with the author. A lot of my creative thought processes are about whether it ‘feels’ right. When I’m trying to storyboard a script, my main goal is to communicate what I’m reading as authentically as possible, without spending too much time on it (You can’t spend years and years on a storyboard!) I usually feel out the rest in the animation process!
Phil: Any sequences you particularly enjoyed storyboarding?
Emily: I enjoyed sketching out the shipwreck sequence because of the silliness of it all. Gaius recounts such tall tales! It really lent itself to a cartoony-style of storytelling. The studio ‘reveal’ and fake tentacle was a funny punch line, especially when Scuttle is highlighted as the stagehand managing a bunch of props at once. I enjoyed designing fake cardboard tentacles for Scuttle to dangle from his stepladder!
Phil: You were also an animator on both Red & The Kingdom Of Sound and Marcus & The Mystery Of The Pudding Pans. Animation is a laborious, slow job, but I think you find it rather thrilling – why?
Emily: Granted, animating is long winded, BUT that’s literally the moment the production comes to life and it’s really satisfying. Character models start to feel like actual beings and people. It’s the turning point in production when you can start showing clips to people and there’s a reaction, a suspension of disbelief. You connect to what you’re watching. That bit is always exciting to me.
Phil: Can you recall a particular moment in a particular project when that connection to a character first happened?
Emily: I know I got very excited every time I saw team submissions of Red moving during the production of Red & The Kingdom Of Sound. Those developments genuinely felt like unwrapping Christmas presents! My personal ‘it’s alive’ moment came from my first major character scene, chapter 14, shot 9. The Percussion District...
‘Imagine a montage of shots that begins as a wrecking ball swings into shot followed by Red ducking, swerving and dodging… the overall impression should be dynamic and exciting’ from the original script for Red & The Kingdom Of Sound.
I was given all the freedom to play with Red as a character, and I felt it was my first major animation accomplishment on the film. The character went from being essentially a 3D puppet, to a panicked character, whose evasive techniques were ridiculous but balletic.
The big difference with Marcus & The Mystery Of The Pudding Pans was the speaking characters. (Red was always silent.) Also, this time the characters were bowls, who didn’t have limbs with which to act! One of my favourite sequences to animate was Scene 14 (it must be my lucky Scene number.) All the pots sink to the ocean floor, then, at the prospect of sitting dormant for a thousand years, the big old boring one starts gasbagging about their history. Each pot had to react differently as time passes and it was fun applying their personalities to the situation.
Phil: You’ve always been very honest about freelance life. What are the highs and lows, and what is your advice for anyone trying to make a living on the strength of their creativity?
Emily: Freelance life is a perpetual state of ‘where’s my next job?’ So when a client decides you’re the one to solve their creative problem, that’s already a bit exciting. The work is unbelievably varied and it depends who’s asking for your aid! I’ve had calls from advertising, filmmaking, live events, you name it! If you like variety, it’s brilliant. You never know how high profile your projects could be. Your work could turn out to be something for a big brand or feature celebrities or it could turn into a viral sensation.
Every job comes with its own challenges. Sometimes the best bit is nailing down something that’s been particularly prickly only to find the client loves it at the end. It was amazing the first time I had someone I’d worked for come back with another job for me months down the line. It was exciting to be doing more work, but I also had concrete evidence I must have done a good job before – something to stick to that imposter syndrome!
Freelance is completely unpredictable. You never know how long you’re going to need your money to last. There are times when a job ends and there’s nothing coming up. It gets worse when that period of silence extends. It’s prime territory for some dodgy mental health; doubts surface, about your skills, about whether you can make it in this line of work… It can be really, REALLY hard to stay positive and keep the faith.
No one really teaches you how to go from school to freelance. I’m bumbling along and learning as I go. What I have learned is, when things get quiet, keep busy. Practice something new. Explore creativity and go in a weird direction to your usual methods. Stagnation is an awful, negative, place to be.
Networking is everything. And it’s something you have to constantly work at. I’m led to believe consistency is key. If you have a constant presence in the online universe, you’re more likely to be spotted in the vast digital sea of creatives. At least, that’s what I am hoping!!!
Phil: Can you tell me about some of your other projects you’ve worked on? Any favourites? Any really challenging projects? Any personal projects?
Emily: My favourite project to-date was Red and the Kingdom of Sound. There was a really amazing sense of community throughout. I unexpectedly had multiple roles throughout and really enjoyed each of them. The best part was witnessing an audience’s completely honest, joyous response to the final film – with live orchestra! – auditoriums of smiling little faces, madly clapping at the end of the performance.
Marcus & The Mystery Of The Pudding Pans was probably my biggest challenge because of the level of responsibility and again, I had multiple roles. (It was a very small crew.) The last few months of production gave a new meaning to the term ‘crunch time’ haha! But the final live exhibition was well worth it.
Towards the end of 2019 I worked on a project featuring David Attenborough for the Wildlife Trusts, called ‘the Nature Recovery Network.’ Which was amazing. The short film entailed segments of 3D animation with live action footage- something I had zero experience in. Fortunately I was able to contact Ethan Shilling to help me fill my skill gaps with his 3D wizardry!
For personal projects, I tend to go traditional, card making, scrapbooking, or art journaling. More recently, I’m playing in digital. I made animated holding screens for a Twitch streamer. Then, in place of a birthday card, I sent my brother a homemade Final Fantasy themed gif. I have started a mini project in After Effects that came out of missing a job opportunity. Shortly after the role went to someone else, I discovered a physics-based plug-in that would have been ideal for the job. (Sod’s Law!) So I took the plunge and bought it, making it my mission to work out how to use it to make cool things!
Phil: What or who are your creative inspirations? Who do you look to for inspiration? What gets the juices flowing?
Emily: I don’t think I look to any one particular source for inspiration. Over the years I’ve been building myself an art book library. Whenever I have a new project to work on, I like going through my books to see if there’s anything that will spark something. Some favourites I tend to grab first are ‘Illustration Now! Volume 2’, and ‘Sketching from the Imagination: Sci-Fi’. These two contain dozens and dozens of varied artists work, which is a great starting point. Then I’ll look to the studios, ‘The Art of Blue Sky Studio’, ‘The Art of Pixar’...
Beyond there, I’ll pick up graphically interesting books (The ‘Art of Juan Ortiz: Star Trek’.) Instructional books, kids storybooks, pop up books. (Robert Sabuda is an incredible Paper engineer). Of course, graphic novels or comics, absolutely all sorts. I’ll refer to films, TV and video games and their behind-the-scenes. And when all else fails, there’s a whole universe on Pinterest!
I tend to take inspiration from stuff I consider textured or quirky in some way. ‘Coraline’ springs to mind. It had a wonderful dark, whimsical style, and everything was totally tangible having been almost entirely handmade for the stop motion production. More recently I saw ‘1917’ and was utterly awestruck by the camera work. I can’t forget the hauntingly striking lighting in one scene. (Flares over a ruined French town. You’ll know it if you see it!) The behind the scenes revealed that the sequence was sussed out using scaled models, which is something I really admire. One of the best examples of a textured animated film is ‘Spiderman: Enter the Spiderverse’. The mixed-media type approach opened my eyes to the limitless ways you can present animation. (I’d never have dared to animate some elements on one’s and other elements on two’s). The three-dimensional smearing, the sound effects as text onscreen, and textures – like colouring outside of the lines – blew my mind. I’ve never seen such an organic, moving, representation of a comic book before.
I’m often inspired by art style in games. So off the top of my head, fun silly games would be ‘Kirby’s Epic Yarn’ and ‘Paper Mario’, where the developers literally play with yarn and paper textures. Big strong art styles that spring to mind would have to be ‘Journey’ and ‘Abzu’. (I’m a sucker for a view, scale and scenery) Then, to contrast completely and delve into horror, the sound and environment design in ‘Alien: Isolation’ blew me away. It balanced the look of the original ‘Alien’ film with the projections of future space travel beautifully, and I always liked the gritty, chunky, mechanical nature of it.
Pinterest – okay, I’ll admit I probably don’t use it properly. I just pin a ton of stuff to a couple of badly organised boards!
I essentially have three art folders; 1) Art Journal/ Book, where I pin anything and everything I’m inspired to try myself, things like sketchy life drawing, graphic posters, character design, abstract watercolour, and illustrations. 2) Travel journaling, where I’ll pin other people’s beautifully artistic travel journals. I adore urban sketching, pasted with nick-nacks from adventures. And finally 3) Scrapbooking, where I pin other people’s beautiful and ingenious methods of photo and memory keeping, in the hope it’ll spark ideas for my own scrappy stuff.
Emily’s travel journal on a theme of Barcelona
Phil: I’m curious. How did you manage the lock-down, Em? How have you been pushing things along and not twiddling your thumbs too badly?
Emily: I’ve tried to keep busy! I started out with some painting and decorating; then I got back to the sketchbook. I’ve got a tiny square art journal – The Book of Mish-Mash – which I’m trying to post to Instagram as I go. It’s very much a freeform art book, no rules, just full of mixed media and creative whims. I’m hoping I’ll complete it before the year is out…
‘The Book Of Mish-Mash’
On a completely different tangent, I’ve taken on a digital marketing course, the intention being to learn from it, then build a decent website and make myself an efficient business hopefully. It’s given me some valuable pointers I can turn toward freelancing. Beyond that, I feel like I’ve seen the matrix in online advertising! (The course is free and run by Google if anyone is interested- Google Digital Garage).
Besides the little After Effects plug-in experiment I mentioned earlier, I’m hoping to take part in the ‘Kick-About’ every two weeks here at Red’s Kingdom. The prompts have been brilliant so far. It’s fun just bashing out artwork so freely, and the community, and variety of work produced, makes for brilliant viewing, reading and listening to! More please!
And after that, my conversation with the always lovely, multi-talented Emily Clarkson turned to the idea of how we might collaborate together on a new project. We chucked a few ideas about and we might have the beginning of a cunning plan. More as and when it happens.