The Gallery Elsa Garagarza
by Evan Miller, Jan 31st 2009
After last week's column delved into the trials and tribulations involved with a job in art, I found it ironic that the art world one-upped me this week.
Clearly, this is a sign that there are more workaholic artists in the world than anyone could possibly imagine. The link leads to the "24 Hour Comics Day at La Maison des Auteurs." This online competition (a side project of a major French comic convention) challenged artists to complete a full 24 page comic in just 24 hours, based on a topic set at the beginning of the 24 hour period. The results, as you can imagine, are a mix of all sorts of styles displaying varying degrees of effort - some good, while others look like the artist fell asleep halfway through. Although I've pulled all-nighters for term papers before, I really doubt I could do something like this without injuring myself with some kind of writing utensil.
But hey, I get a custom banner this week! That's good enough for me.
This week's artist started out as an architect in her home town, but a desire to try her hand in Illustration brought her to California - and led to her becoming an integral part of one of the most popular American animation projects in years.
It is no secret that a lot of aspiring manga and comic artists struggle with creating backgrounds. For a character driven art form like manga, it makes sense; the character should naturally come first, and the background is something that should complement the mood of the scene but not get in the way. It's a tricky thing to master, but for establishing the tone or feel of a story, backgrounds are often as essential as the dialogue and pacing that bring a story together.
Fire Lord Throne (Avatar) - Line/Color
Elsa's path to LA began in the south, in the busy cosmopolitan setting of Monterrey, Mexico. From an early age, she seemed destined for a career in the arts; all of her cousins eventually pursued some kind of display or performance art professionally. Specifically, she cites her brother Javier, who works professionally as a drummer, as a huge inspirational figure whose work reminded her that she didn't have to limit herself to a "traditional" career. For Elsa, work as an artist seemed almost like a foregone conclusion; as she puts it, "I've had a pencil in my hand as long as I can remember." Like her western counterparts, she grew up watching Hanna Barbera and Disney cartoons. However, TV in Mexico also offered a lot of animated programs that weren't broadcast in the United States - many of which were anime. As she grew up, Elsa found herself drawn to popular 70s era anime such as Heidi: Girl of the Alps, Candy Candy, and Nobody's Boy Remi. Anime appealed not only to her artistic sensibilities, but also to her sense for a good story. "The realism of stories where characters die or suffer...that was haunting, but it was also enriching," says Elsa, who continued to follow anime and manga into her teenage years. In high school, Elsa was especially captivated by the story and visual style of Yukito Kishiro's popular manga Battle Angel Alita (seen below in an exclusive sketch for this interview). Convinced that she wanted to pursue art professionally, Elsa checked the schools in her area until she found something she felt would work for her: a major in Graphic Design.
Alita (Battle Angel Alita)
Following high school, Elsa enrolled at the Monterrey University and began working on establishing a foothold in the art world. Unfortunately, the world of Graphic Design held little appeal for Elsa, who quickly tired of the idea of designing logos for a living. She wanted to work in Illustration, but there wasn't a school in Mexico that offered the kind of curriculum she needed. Stuck at a crossroads, her father suggested that she pursue another discipline that required detail and strong artistic sensibilities: Architecture. On her father's suggestion, she enrolled the Technological Institute of Monterrey and changed her major to Architecture. She graduated with a BA in Architecture in 1995. For Elsa, the change of focus wasn't necessarily a bad thing, but her desire to work in art remained in her thoughts. As she accepted jobs with construction companies, she was presented with the opportunity at the Institute to illustrate manuals and books for the academic departments on her campus. The work, while not exactly ideal, was fun, and compared to the engineering-focused world of modern architecture, Elsa felt like she was naturally adept as an artist. She had a choice to make: remain in architecture, or attempt a jump into the world of art. It was then that she heard about the program for Illustration at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. "I felt like it was now or never," says Elsa, who decided in 2001 to use her entire savings and borrow money so she could go to the United States and begin studying Illustration.
After arriving in the United States, Elsa took on the first major challenge in developing her style: building her color palette. Since architecture didn't involve much in the way of color, Elsa found herself catching up with her peers in certain fields but matching their skills in others. "In this field, you need to be a 'complete' artist, with a good sense of mood and color," says Elsa, who also rediscovered one of her other loves while at the Academy: manga and comics. She started drawing manga and small pieces for herself and friends, and began to ponder the possibility of producing her own graphic novel. Unfortunately, as graduation approached in 2004, Elsa faced a dilemma: if she was going to remain in the United States, she would need to find employment at a company that would be able to support her staying in the country. Although the world of comics was tempting, she eventually focused on hunting for jobs in the field of animation around California. Although she wasn't sure at first if she would find what she was looking for, her application found its way into the hands of Nickelodeon, who were impressed with her portfolio and signed her on to one of their newest projects, Avatar, as a background artist. At the time the third episode of the first season was being developed, Elsa joined the team for the project that would change her perspective of the world of animation forever.
At first, Elsa was assigned to work on layouts for the animation. As she describes it, the project became a major undertaking in a short amount of time. "The production started small," says Elsa. “The backgrounds consisted of small villages and campsites.” By midseason, the plotline for Avatar had become more elaborate than before as the characters traveled through their world more. The story started to include bigger cities, which called for more characters and backgrounds, and it wasn't long before the show needed more staff in the design department. After episode 13, layouts for animation were passed to a Korean studio, and as a result, Elsa was moved to the design department of the show. Her role in the production of Avatar expanded again in Season 2, when she became the supervising background designer. The role required her to meet Avatar co-creator and art director Bryan Konietzko on a weekly basis to discuss direction, design, and get a clear idea for what the show required. "Bryan was looking for a Chinese architectural influence, and he also wanted it to have a realistic layout," says Elsa, adding, "He wanted a world that looked so real that it could have existed at one point." Although the work was demanding, Elsa is quick to cite the other two members of the background art team as a reason everything came together so well: "They were so experienced. We worked together perfectly."
By Season 2, Elsa knew that she was part of a very special project. The creators were very specific about keeping things in line with the "vision" of the show, and put an extreme amount of care into the production process - a dedication that the staff reciprocated. For Elsa, Avatar also allowed her to experiment with other roles involved with the animation process. In Episode 18 from Season 3, Elsa was given the chance to storyboard the sequence where the character Aang is hypnotized by a mysterious island.The experience appealed to her love of storytelling instantly. More importantly, it reminded her that working on backgrounds wasn't the only field that she could contribute to. With this in mind, Elsa began applying for additional work as a freelance storyboard artist. Meanwhile, production of Avatar rolled on, and it wasn't long before Elsa and the rest of the creative staff were receiving letters from fans that the show, some of whom even went to the trouble of profiling every staff person involved with the production. In the end, the job that Elsa chose over graphic novels became the most important experience of her professional career. "The fans have been so wonderful," says Elsa. "It feels like I worked on something truly special."
Mine Town (Avatar)
Although Avatar has concluded, Elsa is just as busy as she was during its production. Currently, she's working on backgrounds for the CG animated series Penguins of Madagascar for Nickelodeon, but her work isn't limited to just backgrounds. She's also becoming known for her storyboard work, which she has contributed to projects for Warner Brothers and Cartoon Network. As for Avatar, she still maintains friendships with many of the staff from the show and views it as a highlight in what has become a very promising art career. Despite her busy schedule, she continues to read manga and study the techniques of European comic artists in her spare time. Work can pile up, but Elsa hasn't lost sight of what truly matters: producing something beautiful that people can enjoy. In the future, she still hopes to produce a graphic novel of her work, but she doesn't want to limit herself. In her words, "I'd love to have a project of my own. Whether it's a graphic novel or short film... I want to produce something as inspirational as the art that has inspired me."
ANN: Could you tell us about the steps you took in creating the "Ruins" background? Which parts did you draw first?
Elsa Garagarza: That was a particularly fun location because of what everybody brought to the table. In the original start up meeting, Bryan expressed his vision of a civilization with visual influences of ancient Mesopotamia, particularly the tiered pyramids (called Ziggurats). The city was to have a ziggurat in the vary center and then continue to tier down outwards. In that meeting, Seung-Hyun Oh, the supervising director sketched a possible shot down looking the valley where this city would be. I took the direction and the shot and made a rough city design (this shot basically) with its tiers and avenues and clusters of temples engulfed in foliage, which subsequently Bryan approved to hand to Giancarlo Volpe, the director of the episode, for boarding. Normally because of scheduling, each designer is in charge of his or her own section. But here I took the opportunity to give the same location to my team of designers, Jevon Bue and Enzo Baldi, so that they could separately add their ideas. After a week, I took these drawings to my weekly design meeting and all visions were incorporated into the city. For example, Jevon added interesting motifs like the inverted cones on some rooftops, and some building placement around the ziggurat is Enzo's. Then I could finish the master shot that you see here.
ANN: What kind of research was involved in creating the Avatar backgrounds? Which places and architectural styles did you study?
Elsa: The show was for the most part inspired by Chinese culture. We had books of all kinds of motifs. Mike and Bryan went to China and took a great deal of pictures of Beijing that became our library. Ba Sing Se and its palace were very influenced by these pictures. We saw a lot of Chinese movies, both recent and old. A calligrapher took care of the Chinese signage. Everything was referenced to look authentic. Other Asian cultures were featured too. To name a few, Kyoshi Island was Japanese. The Eastern Air temple was referenced from Angkor Wat ruins. Sokka's Master, Pian Dao, lives in a castle with Tibetan influences. The Western Air temple is also influenced by Tibetan monasteries. And the island where the Firelord's beach house is located is inspired by Thailand. Other non-Asian architectures came into play too. The most notable example is the Inuit influence on the water tribe. The north water tribe had Inuit and Indian influences in its buildings (Well, India is part of Asia). The Fire Nation landscapes, heavily affected by volcanic activity, were based on Iceland.
ANN: What inspired the mix of industrial and traditional styles that you feature in Palace View?
Elsa: Anime! A mixture of Laputa: Castle in the Sky from Miyazaki with Osamu Tezuka's Metropolis. Both are artists I admire. This particular piece strayed away from realism as an exercise in stylization, given the stylization in a lot of what we see in American animation today. But the story I plan behind it follows my manga/anime influences, and I think that if I went to develop it as a project in the future, an adjustment in style towards realism is due.
ANN: What is the average day like for you working at an animation studio?
Elsa: My current job allows me to have a nice routine that I am very endeared to. Arrive at 9:30-10:00 am, ready for a quick design meeting with my supervisor to check where things are at. Work away in my station until lunch at noon…I tend to have a 15 minute lunch unless I go out with friends from work or run an errand…. come back and work away at my station 1 pm-ish. 3 pm is super-awesome coffee break time, so I have a French press and some coffee flavors at my desk. I brew a mix of the day for me and my office mates. Wake up. Then work away at the station until I complete my 8 hours, with a check-in meeting with my supervisor around 4 for immediate updates (if any). What I like about working at a studio like Nick is the opportunity to meet and befriend people from different disciplines. I am very social so I enjoy company and am comfortable in team environments.
North Air Temple (Avatar)
ANN: You mentioned that you would like to produce a graphic novel in the future. What kind of story line would you like to work on?
Elsa: Yes I would!!! I like action adventure/drama… Enter here my Miyazaki/Katsuhiro Otomo and European comic influences. MY FIRST STORY will have female protagonists and the story will revolve around a political situation that moves the characters to take action, whether they want to be involved in it or not. I am inspired by the political scenario behind Frank Herbert's “Dune”, for example. I'm checking out the books because I've only seen the film & TV adaptations. It's research time for the moment. I'll start posting some teasers in my blog as I solidify the outline. Right now I'm filling a journal with writing, drawings and cut-out collages (glued old school style)….it's all in Spanish for the moment.
East Air Temple (Avatar)
For a closer look at Elsa's work, check out her art blog here.
Are you an aspiring manga artist looking for some extra page views? Do you have a friend or loved one who draws extremely good original manga but needs a boost? Don't just sit there! Submit two links to your work, including one original piece (no file attachments please! File attachments will lose their heads when shot, but they may come back to life when some weird alien thing pops out of their necks), to evan [at] animenewsnetwork dot com, and you could be featured in a future Gallery column!
Personal works © Elsa Garagarza. All Avatar works © Nickelodeon, Bryan Konietzko and Mike Dimartino, Battle Angel Alita © Yukito Kishiro.
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