Interview with Jérôme Vocanson (May 2003)

1-For a start, maybe you could tell us about yourself, your personal and professional background?

My name is Christophe Vacher, I am French, originally from Issoire, near Clermont-Ferrand in Auvergne (for those who remember Lestat the Vampire, in Ann Rice's "Interview with a Vampire", he was coming from that specific location) where I grew up.
Internet being inexistant at that time, I didn't really know where to go to get precise information about professional artistic careers like Animator, Comic book Artist, Illustrator, visual conceptor for movies, or even gallery Artist.
But my head was full of dreams, and my determination fierce. Of all these careers, I didn't know exactly the one I prefered the most, but I was sure even before I knew how to write that I wanted to be an Artist.
Then, in 1984, I passed the test for Clermont-Ferrand's Fine Art school, where I staid for a year. This opened for me new horizons on mediums of expression I didn't know (especially acrylic and oil paint). But it was just a quick introduction, without real development: modern Art being, at that time, more in the trend, I didn't learn much more. After I failed by very few points the test to enter the French comic book school of Angoulême, I went to the History of Art University of Clermont-Ferrand where I staid for two years. Once again, I failed my degree, but everything I learned there, particularly in the fields of medieval and antique Architecture, Mythology and History, revealed itself extremely useful later on. All these experiences, rather than teach me a real artistic technique, actually opened my mind on the multiple possibilities that were available out there.

Then, in 1987, I did a little bit of illustration for home building companies, before I had to serve a 2-year stint for the French Government (instead of one year for the Army). During that time, I could put together a strong portfolio.
In 1989, I was lucky enough to be able to show it to IDDH Company that was co-producing at that moment the animated series "Ninja Turtles". It was my first job in animation. I started with character conception, then background layout, then background painting, and ended becoming head of backgrounds. I left and traveled to different towns, working for different studios, before I finally entered the Disney Studios in Montreuil, who had just been put in charge of their first big budget feature film -"A Goofy movie"- on which I served as Head of backgrounds. After that, I staid to work on a short featurette -"Runaway Brain"- and "The Hunchback of Notre-Dame" (this will remain a great memory for me, as we were working so close to the real "Notre-Dame" and were able to see and touch it everyday, putting on film one more time in History this fantastic piece of architecture. An Artist's dream!).

From that moment, I was able to negotiate with different American studios, directly from France. Disney came up with the best offer, and I staid with them, but asked to go to their Burbank studios in California.
There, I worked for six years, on movies like "Dinosaur", "Hercules", "Fantasia 2000", "Tarzan" and "Treasure Planet".
In parallel, I had started to develop my own paintings, and I entered Morpheus Gallery (the only US gallery to exhibit the works of painter H.R. Giger -creator of the creature in the movie "Alien"). I also entered "Powell Street Gallery" (now renamed "Gallery Carla") in San Francisco, and finally Kaleidoscope Gallery, in Mission Viejo, Ca, where I had a new one man show on the 3rd of May 2003.

I left Disney in February 2002, to pursue a solo career full time. I share my time between several activities -from creating book, CD and videogame covers, to visual conception for movies and videogames, to painting for galleries.

2-What were the most important events that guided your choices?

The first important event after my shaky student period and my short illustration stint in architecture, is the introduction to Bruno Huchez, President of IDDH Company, who allowed me to enter TV animation.
The second most important event is my admittance at the Disney Studios in France when they were just starting their feature film "A Goofy movie". For the first time in Disney Studios history, not only a branch was open in France, but this branch was also about to start working on big budget feature films.
Since then, the situation has changed and traditional animation's "Second Golden Age" has ended. Big budgets have collapsed, and the digital world has turned the Animation world upside down. In a short space of time, I was lucky enough to be offered a window of opportunity that shut down right after I had entered: because opportunities to be transferred to the US are extremely rare.
An older friend of mine was telling me that, in Life, we all have one day the opportunity of changing our Destiny. This opportunity, we take it or we let it go. But if we let it go, it will never present itself again.
Then finally, the last important event for me to this day, is when I quit the Disney Studios after working there for almost nine years, in order to dedicate myself entirely to my own paintings and freelancing. A new Life, with a lot of constraints, but also, a lot more creativity.

3- Before all those events, were you always focused on succeeding, or did you often think about giving up?

At the beginning, I was really focused on succeeding. And then, years go by, you send portfolios to studios where you hope to be hired, but it doesn't work. So, you accept different types of jobs, you take whatever opportunities are offered, even if they don't lead exactly where you were thinking. One day, you are down and resigned, the day after, you catch yourself still dreaming of the Future.
To tell you the truth, after four years spent in Paris, I had rather given up, and I thought I would stay there for a long time. Although deep inside, I still had these visions of America that were following me. And when, in 1995, "The Lion king" was a big hit at the worldwide box-office, and that all Hollywood studios wanted to open Animation departments, I took my chance.
But it's not that easy to leave everything behind, to change your Life and dive into the unknown. I saw a lot of French people who, either could have done it but didn't want to, or wanted to do it but didn't measure the consequences of such a choice: to leave everything behind costs a lot, emotionally and psychologically.
It is often after you have left something that you realize how you really miss it. Nevertheless, in my mind there was no half measure: to come to the US had always been a Lifelong dream. And with the different trips I had made in the US before, I was used to the mentality and the difference of Culture.

4-What opinion do you have of Art schools and people who study there?

There is a lot to learn in Art schools (at least the ones that have real Teachers with real technical and intellectual capacities, who will lead their students toward real openings in the job market!), but this must only be a step in an Artist's Life. Passed that point, it only belongs to him (or her) to seek a personal path, to deepen personal knowledge, meet other Artists and Teachers to discover new techniques, explore new horizons.
And that, nobody can do it for you.
In fact, I'd say that an Art school is only the first school in an Artist's Life. It's the base, the beginning. When he (or she) will learn the most, it's coming out of the school, entering real Life, exchanging with other Artists in a Gallery, or an Animation team, or a videogame team, etc…

5- Discovery of the Digital World:
How did you discover it, and in what aspects computer became for you a new creative tool? What does it bring you?

I discovered Digital for the first time working on Art concepts for the movie "Dinosaur". I did paintings and photo manipulations on Photoshop and Painter. Then, I dropped it for a few months and went back to traditional. But I started to miss working with Digital. So I went back to it. And I learned how to really appreciate. Since then, I bought my own material, and constantly juggle now between Digital and Traditional. For instance, I do my paintings for galleries with oil or acrylic paint, and most book or videogame covers on Photoshop. It's faster, more effective, and the control of all parameters (values and tones, color saturation, etc…) allows easy changes. And publishers don't need originals, only the image. To paint for a gallery is different. People who buy a painting don't do it only for the image, but also for the tactile and sensual experience. Something that Digital will never be able to give -at least not the same way.
In terms of 3D, I did a little bit of traditional sculpture, but in Digital, although I had a few Maya classes, I still have a lot to learn. I'm really interested, it's a different world, and it requires a big personal investment.
I'm interested in Digital Matte Painting as well, and I wouldn't mind trying my hand at it soon, if the opportunity comes.
In Animation, Digital has disrupted everything, especially these last years. Many people and Artists didn't believe at the beginning that Digital would take so much magnitude into Traditional Animation, until it submerged it. The best proof: here in Burbank, Disney Studios' headquarters, their Feature Animation department literally exploded, reassigning all its traditional artists to digital tasks (3D modeling, texture mapping, compositing, lighting, etc…)

6- What was the hardest project you have to work on?

I think that all the projects I had to work on presented, in their own way, their share of challenges. Whether it was the opening shot of "The Hunchback of Notre-Dame" that was the longest shot in Traditional Animation (51 levels of background elements, if my memories are correct, without mentioning Special Effects) or the new technological experiences like "Deep Canvas" in "Tarzan", or "Virtual Set" in "Treasure Planet", everything was, at one moment or another, a new challenge to the passed experiences.

7- What is the atmosphere in the team on this type of project?
Do you like to work with a team?

The Atmosphere in a team is always about the same from one movie to the next: at the beginning, everything is very relaxed and jovial. Everyone experiments, looks for ideas, explores. Then, the rhythm accelerates; with time passing by, and the budget diminishing pressure increases. Evenings spent in overtime accumulate, and tensions rise; until the movie is completed, and the opening night rewards at last years of sustained efforts. And that, I have to admit, is an irreplaceable moment.
I like to work with a team. It's very different from working alone. Being in a team, it's accepting to lose your individual freedom for a while, give the best of yourself to work with highly qualified professionals toward a final product that you wish to be as best as possible, but that you know you wouldn't be able to achieve on your own.
It's a bet. But if the final product is matching the level of individual hopes, then it's really an unforgettable moment.

8- Freelance:
What status do you have?

The status of Artist.

9- Why choosing this status?

I didn't choose; in the US, whether you are Painter, Actor, Musician or Illustrator, you have the status of Artist. In France, everything is separated.

10- What are the advantages and inconvenients?
The main advantage is that you can claim everything under the same business. So, less complication, and less papers.
Besides, it allows you to do a variety of different things: painting for galleries, book or CD or videogame covers, visual concepts for for films and videogames, etc…It's very creative.
Although, after working for a full year home alone, I miss the social aspect a little.
In fact, the biggest advantage of being an independent Artist is also its biggest inconvenient: Freedom. Being free also implies isolation and a solid self-discipline.
These aspects are not always perceptible, when you observe from outside.

11- What are you working on right now?

Well, I just had a one man show that did very well, at Kaleidoscope Gallery, in Mission Viejo, California. So, I'm already starting to work on the one next year, and to develop the publication of my images. In parallel, I just completed a cover for a teenager sci-fi novel, for HarperCollins Publishing in New york, and I must also finish a cover for the publishers "Wizards of the Coast" who are republishing their very popular series "Dragonlance" by trilogies, and asked me to do a cover for the second trilogy.
Finally, I am in the process of totally rebuilding my website (www.vacher.com), and I would like to go back soon into artistic conception for movies and videogames, at least for a while.
So, busy, busy, busy.

12- How long do you work everyday?

I get up around 7:30 am, and when I'm ready, I share my time between computer and traditional painting. If I can, I work non-stop until very late at night, but it's often interrupted by regular activities, like eating, of course, or working out from 6:00 to 8:00 pm.

13- Global overview:
Do you still have the same passion for your job?

Yes, even though the dreams are more tinted with reality now. You learn the ropes on your job, you learn how to be wary of fake mirrors, be more prepared for hard times. But I don't regret anything, and I still take a lot of pleasure in what I do.

14- What are your desires for the Future?

Make my name well established in Painting and Illustration, and keep doing concept artwork for all sorts of projects.

15- What advice can you give to beginners?

The first thing is to be aware of your real capacities, and start from there. Then, there are no secrets: Passion, Work and Persistence. Many creative geniuses remained unknown in History for they were lacking one or several of these qualities.