from BOOTLEG MAGAZINE Oct 2007
BOOTLEG: After twenty years as a working artist, what do you see as the most significant change in the form? Has technology had major impact on creativity or quickened the process?
Mike Sosnowski: Animation has been my main bread winner since I graduated from art school. Styles of animation have changed primarily by the way that it’s done. Computers have been the biggest change. They help to speed up the process and make it more cost effective. They help to expand the range of possibilities. As far as creativity goes, machines don’t make you more creative. They’re just a tool. Creativity still is in the hands of the guy pressing the buttons.
BOOTLEG: Many of your pieces are humorous and ghastly, like Tex Avery doing Forrest J. Ackerman’s wildest dreams. Does inspiration come from fifties horror and Sci-Fi?
M.S.: Most definitely. I would say that the majority of my inspiration has come from sixties popular culture. “Shock Theatre” came to television. That brought the Universal Monsters into everyone’s home. The baby boomers just ate that stuff up. That was the start of the “monster craze”. It spawned a slew of merchandising like Famous Monsters magazine and all kinds of comics, toys and trading cards, ect.
BOOTLEG: As a working environment, was working for television or film more conductive to creativity?
M.S.: It depends a lot on the project. I do storyboards, which is a very creative step in doing a film. I visually interpret the script by composing the scenes and acting out the characters. Some projects have been more fun than others. The most fun I ever had was doing visual development and a final color animatic for a horror anthology promo at Warner Bros. It was basically scary stories for little kids complete with a host that was sort of a Rod Serling/Alfred Hitchcock type. I was working with the producer/director/writer: Bill Kopp who was the creator of Eek the Cat and the Shnookums and Meat Funny Cartoon Show. We met at Dreamworks T.V. Animation and I worked on Toonsylvania with him there. Then later on Mad Jack the Pirate for FoxKids.
BOOTLEG: Are directors more open to ideas on a film versus television given that television may
have a tighter production schedule?
M.S.: I think most directors are always open to ideas. But with film there seems to be considerably more time to play with things. T.V. tends to be just get it done as soon as possible.
BOOTLEG: Were classes at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, or anywhere you learned, focused on shaping and encouraging the individual artist’s style?
M.S.: The Art Institute was good for the basics. I was a visual communications major. Their curriculum was geared toward commercial art, specifically advertising. The majority of what I know about working in animation was learned on the job. Through trial and error and studying other peoples work.
BOOTLEG: Is there a piece of literature or modern novel you’ve read that you’d find it a challenge to bring to life artistically? Has a piece of art inspired one of yours?
M.S.: Actually, I’ve got a painting in the works right now that was inspired by one of my all time favorite authors: H.P. Lovecraft. He wrote a story called ‘Pickman’s Model.’ It’s about an artist that paints pictures of monsters. At one point in the story one of the main characters is describing one of the paintings. It’s of a witch being hung on gallows hill while several dog-like creatures huddle around her baying into the night mourning her passing. I first read that when I was about thirteen or fourteen and it always stuck with me as being really cool. The idea of these monsters sad that their mentor had been hung presumably by angry villagers intrigued me.
BOOTLEG: What are some of the artists that you’ve enjoyed over the years?
M.S.: That’s a pretty substantial list. First off I’m influenced by a lot of comic book artists. Creepy and Eerie were my bibles. Especially the first dozen or so of each. They had a lot of the original EC artists that worked on the Tales from the Crypt and Weird Science comics. Jack Davis, Al Williamson, Wally Wood and Frank Frazetta were guys I would constantly go to for inspiration. Then in the later years of the magazines came Richard Corbin and Berni Wrightson. Jack Kirby was the reason I picked up a pencil in the first place. Others of note are Vaughn Bode, Dr. Seuss, Gahan Wilson, and more recently Mike Mignola and Humberto Ramos. I loved the painted covers of the Gold Key comic Turok Son of Stone. The prime inspiration for my monster paintings is the box art done by James Bama for the Aurora monster model kits of the early sixties. They were absolutely beautiful. A lot of magazine illustrators from the early part of the 20th century like Norman Rockwell, J.C. Leyendecker, Haddon Sundblom and Andrew Loomis. More recent painters are Mark Ryden, XNO, Todd Schorr and Dave Cooper. Also the three dimensional work of Yasushi Nirasawa, Takayuki Takeya and Tony McVey.
BOOTLEG: “Shock Showdown” is reminiscent of This Island Earth while some pieces reveal a fondness for the Universal Monsters. “The Culprit” recalls the accidental playfulness of Michigan J. Frog. Where does your interest in horror and Sci-Fi originate?
M.S.: Being a kid in the late fifties and sixties. T.V. was my first drug and god, the vehicle for monsters and cartoons to enter my life. The original black and white Frankenstein with Boris Karloff was probably the first monster movie I had ever seen. I was profoundly affected by it. I wanted to be a mad scientist. I found the idea of locking oneself away to obsessively work on something that passionately, very inspiring. Dr. Frankenstein appeared to be enlightened or ultra alive to the point where his brain could barely handle it. It was like he was high. He was experiencing something that took him to another reality. He was so focused on what he was doing that the outside world really didn’t seem to matter.
BOOTLEG: What advice do you impart on young artists today?
M.S.: Go with your guts. Turn of the T.V., radio and computer and listen to your insides. Be sensitive to the things that make you feel the most alive. You can only go where your demons drive you.
BOOTLEG: Your work is playful, colorful and wonderfully grim. How did that go as far as a resume, for Disney and children’s television animation?
M.S.: The only studio that really saw that side of me was when I graduated from art school and submitted my portfolio to Ralph Bakshi. It was mostly a hybrid of illustration and cartooning with a lot of monsters and dark themes. I had originally planned on getting into illustration until I got a call from a friend of mind that graduated before I did and moved to California to get into animation. He said that he was drawing Aquaman. I thought that sounded pretty cool so I came out to Hollywood and got into Hanna Barbara’s night class. They were the studio famous for doing The Flintstones and Scooby Doo. There I learned how to do in-betweens which are drawings that go in-between the key drawings an animator does to fill out an action. I got the job at Bakshi’s and worked on the original animated version of Lord of the Rings. From there I went into T.V. animation and worked my way up to storyboard. The only work I show to the studios now is stuff that I have done in animation.
BOOTLEG: Do you like to work on projects that have a message to get across (Ferngully, Land Before Time) or are you more interested in the challenge of the project?
M.S.: It’s nice when an interesting project comes along or something I feel I could have fun with. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes you just have to pay the bills.
BOOTLEG: Most animated films today are produced completely with computer animation save for the recent 2D looking Curious George while much of television animation is a mix of traditional and new technology. Do you think this change has hurt the final result or merely changed it?
M.S.: 3-D CGI has added a reality to animation that 2-D has been trying to do for years. Gradation of shadow on form and cast shadow just bring you more into the world. It reminds me of the old View Master toy. Where they would take models and photograph them in miniature sets that you would look at using a slide projector. It was so cool to see these 2-D cartoon characters in 3-D. Like they were real. I love that about 3-D CGI. That being said, I have had a problem with the cold sterile feeling of it. It’s kind of the way I used to look at airbrush. It’s mechanical. I particularly don’t like the way it’s being used in illustration. It’s basically an airbrush with a memory. I see a lot of drawings scanned and colored in Photoshop. Sure it gets the job done but so what. I just find it unattractive.
BOOTLEG: Regarding film, you graduated college the year Star Wars was released. What impact did it have on artist such as you, creatively and professionally?
M.S.: The period of the late seventies really opened the doors to what’s popular today. The success of films like Star Wars, Close Encounters and Alien basically took what was originally considered in the past a “B” type of a film and gave it a big budget. Look at the huge budgets of Spiderman and Lord of the Rings. Film studios realize now that there is an enormous market for fantasy, sci-fi and horror. The opportunities for artists increased just because the market opened up.
BOOTLEG: When working on a painting has the idea fully materialized for you or does it continue to change as you work?
M.S.: Sometimes I’ll get an image. I’ll actually see the painting already done. A lot of the paintings come out of nowhere. Just pop into my head. Like they were bubbling around in my subconscious and suddenly came to the top. Other times I’ll get a fragment of an idea or a title and have to work at having it come together. I’m always open to change when I’m working on a piece. Thinking, am I getting the story across? Does it read? Are the values right? I work in stages so things inevitably change as time goes on.
BOOTLEG: Creatively, do you still surprise yourself? Do you still get that little shock, that excitement at what you’ve done creatively?
M.S.: It’s interesting how some of the stuff develops. I’ll be thinking of one thing and that will lead me to something else and in turn will spark off another train of thought. So sometimes I’m surprised where my mind will take me.
BOOTLEG: Your art is very rock and roll. Do you listen to music while you work?
M.S.: I love music. The majority of my tastes are in some type of rock. My collection includes 50’s, 60’s 70’s 80’s, 90’s and some of the current alternative stuff. Gothic, Dark Ambient, early heavy metal, pop, glitter, punk, post punk, electro pop, old pop vocal, and movie soundtracks. Among other things, stuff from the 30’s and 40’s big band jazz. The first album I ever bought was 2001: a space odyssey the movie soundtrack. Next I bought nothing but Beatles albums for a couple of years. Then I saw Sparks on American Bandstand. This was early seventies way before they became popular on MTV in the eighties. The unique thing about Sparks was their sense of humor. That was a big turning point for me and really influenced my take on things.