In a film career spanning nearly thirty years, Colin Stimpson has worked on beloved animated classics from Disney and Illumination Entertainment.
Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge caught up with Colin to talk about his legendary career and his most recent work on Christmas hit The Grinch.
Q: ‘The Grinch’ is set to be one of the biggest films this Christmas. How excited were you to be Art Director on this beloved Dr Seuss tale?
A: When I was first offered the job as Art Director on The Grinch I was over the moon!
I have always been a huge Dr Seuss fan, in fact I learnt to read as a child with Cat In The Hat! Seuss’ books made a huge impression on me. I distinctly remember the realisation that you could have fun with words and images in surprising and surreal ways. His books were a marked contrast to the other more traditional children books that we were given to read. Since my early introduction, I have always been fascinated by his unique illustration style and storytelling.
It felt like a huge honour to be offered the job of overseeing the look of the film!
Q: Can you talk about putting together the visual look of the film and what inspired you along the way?
A: I worked very closely with the very talented Director Yarrow Cheney.
Yarrow is also a big Seuss fan and was the driving force for the look of the film. He is amazedly prolific and produced hundreds of wonderful sketches that the art department used as reference when building the props and environments.
The original book is quite sparse in the depiction of Whoville and the Grinch’s cave, so we looked at all of Seuss’ other books for inspiration. We studied the way he drew architecture and landscapes and tried to interpret his shape language in a way that works for the 3D world of an animated movie.
Our main aim was to design an appealing whimsical world that the audience would want to explore.
Whoville needed to look like a flourishing happy community that had lived that way for generations. We looked at Alpine villages for inspiration and then gave our town a Seuss twist by adding winding narrow streets, tall thin buildings with multiple balconies, archways and spiral staircase etc.
We were very keen for the film to have it’s own unique look with the focus always being on appeal.
Q: Obviously there are a lot of visual gags and fun at play in the film. How much fun is it for you helping put those together?
A: One the nicest things about Seuss’ drawings is his wacky sense of humour and that’s certainly something we concentrated on throughout the production. Yarrow worked on the designs for most of the Grinch’s machinery. The result is a film packed with fun inventive gadgets. In our movie, the Grinch’s sleigh is the equivalent to James Bond’s car in the 007 movies, so I love the moment when the sleigh is revealed like a custom car at a glitzy car show!
Q: Do you have a favourite character or setting from the film?
A: My favourite character is Max, the Grinch’s dog. I love his animation and how faithful he is to the end! There is something about his character that remind me of Gromit!
For me, the most interesting setting is the Grinch’s pipe organ and the surrounding cave. The modelling and surfacing teams worked really hard on that set to make the ice look translucent and to give the cave walls such wonderful natural texture.
Q: ‘The Grinch’ continues the great work you’ve been doing with Illumination Entertainment, including ‘Minions’ and ‘Despicable Me 2’. How do you reflect on your journey from Art Director of Steven Spielberg’s Amblimation to working with Illumination Entertainment?
A: I have been extremely fortunate to have been able to work for some of the best animation companies in the world and to be surrounded by such talent artists. I can honestly say that I enjoy my job now working for Illumination more than I ever have.
It’s a constant learning curve. I’m surrounded by talented artists and I am always learning from those around me in the studio. It’s very friendly and collaborative environment with people allowing for each others strengths and weaknesses.
I love the fact that we are always striving to make the latest film better than the last!
Q: Obviously the technology has moved very quickly over this time. What have been some of the greatest challenges and changes for you over this time?
A: When I first started animation was drawn on paper and we painted the backgrounds in watercolour, oil, acrylic or watercolour. Mostly we were looking backwards to the incredibly high standards of the films that had been made when Walt Disney was alive. Movies such as Pinocchio, 101 Dalmations, and Peter Pan were such masterpieces.
So when Pixar got started it was a complete revelation for me, they seemed to be making movies that Walt would have made if he had still been alive. The lighting, set design design and animation performances were all so fresh and wonderful! I clearly remember being blown away by Toy Story and and Bugs Life and thinking that things had moved on so much and I had missed the boat!
I’m not at all technical and it came as a huge surprise to me how much I enjoyed working on the computer. I would never want to go back to paint! Although I do love looking at watercolours and oils, I much prefer working digitally.
Basic drawing and painting skills are still just as valuable as they ever have been. I still feel the pressure to improve and enjoying having the belief that my best drawing is still around the next corner!
Working at Illumination for nine years has been wonderful for me. The other artists in the studio are always happy to share they digital painting tips and they have helped me enormously.
Q: You worked with Disney on films that enriched my childhood such as ‘Hercules’, ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ and ‘The Emperor’s New Groove’. Do you have any memories or thoughts you could share from your time working with Disney?
A: Working in California for Disney Feature Animation was certainly one of the highlights of my career. I loved the fact that at any time I could visit the animation research library and look at original artwork from the classic Disney films. It was a huge shock to me how amazingly good each and every background was from Lady And The Tramp!
I am extremely lucky to have worked with some amazing people at that time, and I made a lot of lasting friendships. One of the best moments was when we travelled to Peru on a research trip for The Kingdom in the Sun/ Emperor’s New Groove. Although it was a difficult production process the people on the movie were wonderful and I learnt an enormous amount during that production. I will always be grateful to Roger Allers, Randy Fullmer and Mark Dindal for giving me the opportunity to art direct a movie which I still enjoy watching today!
If I had to pick another highlight it was having a lunch with Maurice Noble, who was actually the Art Director for Chuck Jones’ TV special of The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Fellow Art Director Tom Cardone and I listened to Maurice as he told us some fascinating stories about his time in the studio working with Walt Disney himself. It was a priceless moment that I will never forgot. I have to thank Randy Fullmer for that opportunity!
Q: We were recently saddened by the passing of Stan Lee. Were you influenced in any way by Stan’s work?
A: I was extremely sad to hear of the passing of Stan Lee. He was a giant in the industry and had a huge influence on the film animation industry as a whole.
Q: I believe you are currently working on ‘The Secret Life of Pets 2’. Can you reveal anything about that and any other upcoming projects?
A: I have also been working as the Production Designer on The Secret Life of Pets 2. All I can say is it has been enormous fun to work on. Chris Renaud is a fantastic Director to work with! He brings to all his movies a great sense of fun and develops all of the characters in really fresh original way.
I love the sequel and I think it’s going to be a bigger hit than the first! It’s even funnier than first with absolutely superb voice and animation performances. I think the marketing department are going to have a ball with it because there are so many entertaining sequences to pick from for the trailers!
I have just started work on a new movie that is being directed by the amazingly talented French Director Benjamin Renner. Benjamin has previously directed the charming movies Ernest And Celestine and The Big Bad Fox (which he wrote and directed). I recommend people watch both of those movies, they are absolutely wonderful!
Q: You’ve had such a wonderful career. What are you ambitions for the future? What do you still want to achieve?
A: I have been extremely lucky to have been able to work with such amazing people and companies throughout my career. I just hope I can keep doing it as long as possible! I would love to be like Joe Grant, who kept working into his 90s!
I know I still have a huge amount to learn. I honestly feel like I’m only just getting started!