If you spent any portion of your childhood in the 90s, chances are you were at one point shovelling cornflakes spoon-to-mouth in front of the work of accomplished illustrator (Far Out, Brussel Sprout !) and animator Peter Viska, creative director of Viskatoons, the studio responsible for such animated series as Li’l Elvis Jones and The Truckstoppers (1998), Lift Off (1992), MonsterChef (currently on ABC 3) and the Australian Game of the Year 2010 – Jolly Rover by Brawesome.
With a career spanning more than two decades, Peter provides Ozanimate with valuable insight into the nature and direction of animation in Australia, and how to build a career within it.
Ozanimate: Do you believe there is any particular visual style, tone or narrative that defines Australian animation?
Peter Viska: I don’t think we stand out globally with a distinct visually Australian look. I believe it will come though. The more we create the more it will have an Australian signature. That is not necessarily a good thing, as it needs to be a global success because it is great, not because it is Australian.
I really like the look of Dogstar as it wasn’t trying to copy a current U.S. or European look. Co-productions tend to homogenise shows as there are many cooks tinkering with the broth. The creative head needs to be strong with their vision.
We tried to be original with Li’l Elvis and I think the look is still memorable although the character designs were helped by the input of Jan van Rijsselberge who went on to create Roboboy. The background style was defined by the brilliant Richard Zaloudek.
OZ: Over the years, what changes have you seen in the culture of animation in Australia? Have attitudes changed drastically? Should they change?
PV: There have been massive changes in that culture. Most of us are much more aware of there being a culture of followers, fans and creators.
There are still two main groups of producers. Auteurs and production studios but many animators cross over from one to the other.
Many of the old school heroes who learned their trade from Hanna, Disney and Yoram Gross have been caught in the digital change over, and wonderful clean up artists have been left sharpening their pencils while the Wacoms invaded.
But the new industry is alive, vibrant and ready to go.
The major problem is that it needs MORE AIR TIME so that great ideas and concepts can reach audiences. ABC 3 helps a lot in that there is more pressure on other networks to win back the time slots.
Other networks fight for airtime but this is squeezed out by their own current affair and morning shows.
The attitude change needed is from the top management down at these networks. Local audiences love local shows that are well made. I still have people tell me how much they loved Li’l Elvis when they were kids. (all of ten years ago)
The current future talk is questioning the effect of i-pads (and the likes) and whatever they become in the next five or ten years. All content will find its way there and we need to plan accordingly.
OZ: What is your opinion of animation education in Australia? Would you have any recommendations for young people considering a career in animation?
PV: I have a lot to do with the schools and believe they are in good hands.
Most of the crew at Viskatoons has come through the animation course (AIM) at RMIT.
If you are contemplating entering the world of animation you should understand that most productions are marathons and need a lot of devotion and stick-to-activity.
Personal projects need the same stamina if not more.
Creatively, animation is rewarding on many levels. Concept creation, Universe (location) creation, Character Design, Animation, Story ideas and direction. Learning to be a Producer (especially of your own work) is also very VERY important. ie Budgets, production schedules pay rates.
It also helps to be able to draw well and this covers humans, animals, vehicles and buildings. It can be in your style if you are designing your own show but needs to be in the series style if you join a production house.
OZ: What qualities do you look for in prospective employees?
PV: I look for a love of the art of creation, flexibility in their application to projects and an add-value, can do, philosophy. The ability to work in a team is essential. Drawing ability is essential. Being a very good animator helps.
OZ: Providing a recipe for a successful children’s series, what would you consider to be the most important ingredients?
PV: Banal and obvious as it may sound, FUN, quality and originality are very important. The problem with originality is that it is harder to sell, as the call is usually for the next “Sponge Bob” or the next “Pokemon”.
It is very important to understand the difference between character based shows and group shows. Nick and Cartoon Network usually prefer their shows to be led by one major character, and all the stories revolve around that character. Group shows tend to be more story based with a core group driving the battle against a baddie’s plot to rule the planet or the universe.
The character based shows are better models for merchandising potential.
The most important ingredient though, is to believe in your idea, and not to be afraid to be passionate about it.
OZ: What are some common mistakes people make when pitching series concepts?
PV: Pitching is nearly as important as creating the concept. Thousands of words have been written about it, but pitching needs to be practised. If necessary, write your pitch and learn it. Record it to hear yourself. Time it. Don’t talk too quickly. Learn what ‘format’ means, and be sure of the current age range the networks use. (eg 6-9, or 8-12, preschool, 9-13 ) This is sometimes found in their guidelines on their websites. State funding bodies can help here.
Know your show and be yourself. Let your personality show.
GET THE CONCEPT ACROSS. Don’t go into too much unnecessary detail. (Can you pitch it in seven to ten minutes?)
Explain the concept as clearly and as simply as you can. The Back story should be incorporated as succinctly as possible. Remember the show is about NOW. The present tense. Be prepared to listen to Network Executive’s advice and modify your pitch if it needs to be improved.
At Viskatoons, we usually work on the principle that visual material should be weighted to be around 65% artwork and 35% words. Keep some pages/screens with as few words as possible, then have the wordy bits balanced by great poses and the best characters.
OZ: If you had an infinite budget and no deadlines, what kind of project would you work on?
PV: Good question and the answer would be three of the current series we are developing, namely The Jar Dwellers, Billboard Boy and Little ThunderCloud.
OZ: How would you rate the communication between animation studios in Australia? Do you perceive any interstate rivalries.
PV: From my experience it is great in Melbourne where we all help each other if needed and many animators move around from project to project.
The industry is still relatively small and everyone knows everything that is going on.
The Sydney scene was always where it was at when I started Viskatoons a couple of decades ago. That was where the Americans set up the studios to teach us the industrialised animation process. Flying Bark (formerly Yoram Gross) has just had a steroid injection and will lead the way in the near future.
OZ: Australia is sinking like Atlantis and you can save only one example of our animation for future preservation. Which is it?
PV: Anything with which Deane Taylor was involved.
OZ: Many animation studios come and gone but Viskatoons has stood the test of time. To what would you attribute the studio’s longevity?
PV: Stupidity and blind faith.
OZ: What is Viskatoons currently working on?
PV: The Jar Dwellers SOS- which features three strange animals caught, bottled and hidden by Darwin until they are found by two expat kids 170 years later. They release, train and prepare them for repatriation. The creatures outsmart the kids to enjoy modern life while trying not to get caught by a biologist and his penny pinching offsider.
Billboard Boy– where a mysterious billboard changes the life of a neighbourhood. Our hero Ed becomes Billboard Boy and with his side kick, Nurse Florence, enters a strange world known as Posterland.
Here they find the bad dude using posters to control the minds of the unsuspecting public.
Little ThunderCloud- A shape shifting, globe travelling cloud helping animals and children in the battle against climate change.
OZ: Generally speaking are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of animation in Australia?
PV: Always optimistic because I see many great concepts being developed and know that when they get to air they will be loved here and abroad.