interview: chris georgenes

A designer and animator specializing in Flash, Chris Georgenes has created character animation and motion graphics for clients such as Adobe, Microsoft, Yahoo!, Hasbro, Digitas, Fablevision, Carnegie Hall, Gillette, Pileated Pictures and AOL. His work has also appeared on broadcast networks such as ABC, HBO and the Cartoon Network. Chris is the author of How to Cheat in Flash, and his latest book is Pushing Pixels, published by Focal Press. He lives in Boston and blogs at keyframer.com. You can view his work at Mudbubble.com.

Your animations seem to have a life of their own. You can’t tell where they’re going to go or what they’re going to do next, which keeps the viewer engaged.
That’s awesome, I love hearing that.

Like the Teletubbies ten-year logo animation. And it was so simple.
It’s much harder to be simple. I’ve always had an appreciation for anyone who can do simple characters that are spot-on in just a few lines.

The logo was made entirely in Flash, and I love telling people that because it doesn’t look like Flash. I like creating things that make people ask, ‘how did you do that?’

Where do your ideas come from?
Wow. That is a great, hard, difficult question. Sometimes it’s like tripping over a dinosaur bone, I find the best ones when I’m not looking for them. For instance, the Twinkle, Twinkle holiday animation featuring my daughter—I never sat down to write that, I don’t think I could be simple and clever enough to write it.

My daughter had just turned two and she was in my office, singing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. She was being cute and natural and kind of screwing it up, trying to teach herself how to sing it. I hit record on my microphone and got 20 minutes of really cute audio. One day when I wasn’t even thinking about it, it hit me that she messes it up so many times, maybe she’s auditioning—and I knew exactly what to do. I recorded myself saying, ‘Action!’ and edited a soundtrack. Then it was a question of how I should draw her character. I wanted it to be really simple—it wasn’t about the art, or even the animation; it was about her voice and character in the audio. I felt the soundtrack was the best character of all.

I sent it as a holiday animation to friends, family, and some clients, and it just exploded, it really went viral. I knew I had something a few months later when someone sent me an email saying, ‘Hey, check out this cool animation!’

You have a background in printmaking—do you ever miss it?
I wouldn’t say I miss it; I loved it when I was doing it at Hartford Art School. I was really into the process—it was lithography, we were drawing on limestone with grease pencils and chemicals, and you would spend a month or two on something. It was very fine art, very old school.

But I’ve always liked getting quick results, relatively speaking—though I don’t mind spending 100 hours going the extra mile to make something clever or cute. But in printmaking, the process itself just took too long; at least it would for me now. Back then it was fine, because it was all about learning.

When did you start working with Flash and how has your relationship with it evolved?
There’s a point—I always refer to it as a moment of clarity—where you’ve used a program long enough and you’ve learned so much about it that you break through to another level; you begin to use the program from the inside out, rather than outside in.

I discovered Flash when I was working for a company that did animations for television. We needed a program that could export to QuickTime and Flash was it. A year later, we were asked by shockwave.com to do a web series. Since I’d learned more about Flash than anyone at the company, I was appointed art director and technical director. Suddenly I had to figure out how to deliver a two-minute episode with audio and a pre-loader (the majority of Internet users were 56K) that had a game incorporated into it, and the game couldn’t be more than 1 MB. I couldn’t—and still can’t—code my way out of a paper bag, but suddenly I was immersed in it and had to figure it out. We delivered eight episodes over the course of two or three months.

That summer, the producer sent me to the Flash Forward conference in New York to fill in for a speaker who had to cancel. At that point, I still had no idea I would go on to become a freelance animator, and that Flash was going to become my livelihood.

I feel for people who are learning Flash for the first time now, it’s so deep, and there are so many palettes, menus and features—but I’ve had the luxury of ramping up with every version. I know the program very well, to the point that, when a client comes to me with a project, I don’t think about how Flash is going to do it, I think about how I’m going to make Flash do it.

Do you cover some of that territory in your book How to Cheat in Flash CS3: The art of design and animation in Adobe Flash CS3?
Yes, and I don’t hold back any tips or tricks, I show people how to make things look 3D, I show how I drew my daughter, I show everything. I don’t keep secrets, I don’t believe in it.

That’s very generous.
Some people ask, ‘why do you give up all your secrets?’ My response is, you could give 100 carpenters the same hammer but they’ll all build something different.

You’ve said that you approach Flash like a ball of clay, and that many animators get too hung up on the mechanics of the software program. Could you elaborate on that?
You can easily fall into using Flash too technically by relying too much on Flash’s tools. For example, it’s easy to create an animation using motion tweens, which is an automated way of making something move across the stage.

I’ll often get asked for help by someone trying to do an animation; they’ll ask if they should use a motion tween, shape tween, or do frame by frame, which is very traditional, with each new frame a new drawing. And I always tell them, you should never ask that question, you should always use the technique the animation calls for. That could be one, or two or all three, depending. But I never look at something and think, ‘I’m going to just tween everything and hope it works out.’

What’s a good way to get beyond the basics?
Beyond spending eight years with the same program? It’s easy to say thinking outside the box. But how do you show someone how to do that? I’m not sure. The more you use something, the more you naturally are going to push the boundaries.

It’s like when you get a project brief, you want to think creatively about how to solve the problem, rather than making creative choices based on what a program can or can’t do.
Last year I had a client that wanted a frog character as its company mascot, and they wanted it to be fully animated on its website. They didn’t want a cartoon frog, they wanted him to be sophisticated and likeable. I wanted him to be textural because Flash is easily—almost by default—associated with a flat, South Park-type of style. But the sky is really the limit in terms of the look, because you can import images. So I took photographs of textures—a close up of the street, some wood and rust—brought them into Flash, tinted them green, and just played with them, not thinking in terms of, is Flash going to be able to do this?

Then I drew the frog and instead of filling him with a solid spot color, I used the tinted textured fill; all of a sudden he took on a whole new look and feel. So that’s another technique I can add to my rolodex of techniques and in future, push and perfect it even more. Maybe mix some vector gradients with a texture to give it more volume—a linear gradient that’s black to alpha so you can imply the illusion of shading.

Today someone asked me how to make gradients look 3D in Flash, because they saw a sample file I’d made that shipped with Flash 8. I did a little video tutorial and showed him how easy it is. It’s simple once you know how, but it harks back to my art school training. A lot of people ask me what my favorite tool is, and I say it came years before Flash, computers and the Internet—it’s knowing how to draw, and understanding light. If you understand form and light, you can sculpt anything, you can push or pull it into whatever you want it to be—which is the essence of the ball of clay metaphor.

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interview
chris georgenes

flash animator and author