Last January, we talked with director Dan Lund about the premises of the production of an unlikely animated short called Aria For A Cow, based on a song composed by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken at the time of their work on Little Shop Of Horrors.
At that time, Dan concluded our interview saying: “Art direction-wise, we are still in the scary unknown…everything seems to change with each step of the process but with a solid song and a good attitude towards the creative process, Aria will be a very special short, in front of the camera and behind…”
We decided to accompany that intriguing work in progress in talking now with none other than the Art Director himself, namely Amos Sussigan.
Amos has always been a restless, creative soul, never interested in the obvious. After studies in Languages in his native country of Switzerland, he enrolled at Woodbury University, Los Angeles, majoring in Animation and specializing in Entertainment, where created the official commercial for Woodbury’s School Of Media Culture And Design, won the Academic Excellence Award as Best First-Year Student, won the First Prize of the Tom Baron Business Competition (for the first time won from a non-business student), and graduated with Magna Cum Laude and the Departmental Award Of Academic Excellence in 2013.
He has since been internationally awarded for writing and directing his heartfelt animated short Broken Wing, well received around the world and on the festival circuit. His second animated short, Swan Cake, resulted from the collaboration between artists and students around the world, and made it into the Official Selection of two major Academy accredited Festivals.
Following Swan Cake, he was hired to art direct Aria For A Cow.
Now, we let him tell you the rest of the story….
AnimatedViews: How did you become involved in the project? What interested you in it?
Amos Sussigan: Aria For A Cow has been around for a long time. The first time I had a tour at Disney Animation Studios here in Burbank, I saw one of the early concept designs and I was extremely intrigued.
I have never worked with animal characters and it seemed something fun to do. Dan, who soon became my mentor and followed me throughout the production of two of my animated shorts, asked me if I would like to work on it, and of course I could not say no. An animated musical is a genre that interests me. Two men who basically were part of my childhood have written the song: Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, who wrote the music for some of the biggest Disney movies. To have chance to work with Dan was a plus, too.
AV: Can you tell me about your role as an Art Director and the challenge that function represents to you?
AS: The role of an art director in Animation understates that you will have to create a look, and a constant style for the short throughout the entire film. The challenge with Aria was several since the movie did not have a set media when I jumped on board.
It could have been stop motion at first, then extremely realistic CG, and finally what we are doing now, which is an in-between 2D and 3D.
Another challenge was that I wanted to treat the short as a real musical. That implied that, aside the barn in which our story takes place, each singular shot was going to have a different feeling and a different set up (since we are on stage and recreating a musical). The difference between a live musical and an animated musical is that with Animation you take away the “live” part and you have to be careful not to cheat the audience, thinking, “Since it is animation, we can do whatever we want.” So one of the first things I did was to set some definite rules that had to be kept in mind in order not to go all non-sense in each shot.
AV: The Aria crew is made of strong and diverse artistic personalities. How did you all get on the same page?
AS: I smile thinking about this, because it was not easy. I would love to answer that we all were on the same page from the beginning, but the truth is that making a movie is a tough craft. So many people are involved, and many times you will be faced with different ideas. It’s about a lot of discussions and sometimes yelling, but eventually you will find a way to get everybody on board.
AV: How did you discover the song?
AS: I had heard an early recording of the song. It was some sort of bootlegged version recorded in the nineties. I loved, and still love, how simple and fun it was. That is why I wanted to try to keep Aria‘s art direction free of any extremely realistic and elaborate special effects, and try to go back to a more 2D look. The song was in fact written when animation was still 2D and I liked the idea of having some sort of connection between the 2D and 3D world of animation.
AV: How would you describe Aria For A Cow design-wise?
AS: Aria will be a painterly short: colorful, layered, and with a cubistic approach. I have always loved doing visual development pieces for a production; and usually, once the film is completed, some of the magic that transpired from those concepts would get lost. Using this cubistic approach, designing very raw and geometrical “supposed shadows and lights” as if I was designing a concept drawing, hopefully it would retain some of the raw quality of the pre-production work.
AV: How important was your experience in New York, working in the theater environment, as a source of inspiration?
AS: During my first month on the production I spent some time in New York where I had the chance to see some of the most famous musicals such as Lion King, Chicago, and one of my favorites, Matilda, which I had the pleasure to see with Sarah Ashman. Also, the work of Pascal Campion has been a great source of inspiration for the use of light and color.
Most of the inspiration came from the use of lights, the staging, and the transitions that are used in these musicals to make them feel and look so spectacular. Working in New York has been fantastic. The cast of Chicago was super cordial and let me peek behind the scenes of their show, and New York is such a vibrant city that even walking throughout the streets was a boost of inspiration.
AV: How was it, meeting with Sarah Ashman?
AS: Sarah Ashman was wonderful. Extremely kind and eager to know what we were up to, even outside the project. She really loved my previous works and she was enthusiastic to be working with someone young and “just out of school”. She really treated me super well; we even went to a special restaurant, where she used to go with Howard when Little Shop Of Horrors was playing on stage.
AV: How do you see that project compared to your former animated creations?
AS: Aria is definitely more complicated and layered. The crew is bigger. There is much more work to do since there is a lot of lip-syncing and to keep the feel of the song into consideration all the time. Also, Aria is my first professional work. I am not the director like in my previous projects, so I need to be able to accomplish everything I am asked for. I am working for the first time with veterans from the industry and that can be really challenging sometimes.
The Howard Sings Ashman
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With our thanks to Amos Sussigan and Dan Lund. Artwork from Broken Wing and Swan Cake by Amos Sussigan, all rights reserved.