Check-out Character Designer Chris Ayers’ The Daily Zoo
Character designer Chris Ayers has been drawing as long as he can remember, so it’s no surprise that he turned to something he loved (creating amusing and joy-provoking characters) during his fight with acute leukemia a few years ago.
It all started a year after his diagnosis when he decided to draw an animal a day in his sketchbook to help buoy his spirits and push his creativity. Then he filled another sketchbook. And then another. And another. The results are uplifting and hilarious, and can be found in his series of books, The Daily Zoo (published by Design Studio Press use the ARTZRAY discount code).
This clever and talented character designer who has worked on numerous live action and animated projects, graciously took time out from his busy schedule to share a bit of his wit and positivity with Artzray readers.
“Life’s more fun, more fulfilling, and more rewarding when you’re actively pursuing your passions.” –Chris Ayers
Tell us a little bit about yourself, and how you got into this crazy little business. Is this where you thought you’d land?
I’m originally from Minnesota and have been working in the entertainment field as a Los Angeles-based character designer and concept artist for the past fifteen years. I still have to pinch myself from time to time when I realize that I’m making a living doing something that I love to do, and have loved to do my entire life.
Growing up, I dreamt of one day working in the movies, helping to create the types of characters, monsters, and stories that I found to be so inspiring, entertaining, and just plain cool! That dream changed from a “someday dream” to a “why not now? dream” during college, specifically when I had the opportunity to study abroad for a semester in Florence, Italy. That experience of being out of my element, surrounded by people speaking in a foreign tongue, helped me build the confidence and independence that was necessary to move out to L.A.
I had no idea where I would end up or what I would be doing—or if I would even “make it” at all. But I did know that if I didn’t give it a shot I would always wonder, “What if…”
How long have you been drawing?
I don’t really remember NOT drawing, so I believe I started shortly after I could hold a pencil. Many, many, many hours of my youth were spent with pencil, crayon, marker, or paintbrush in hand, slowly teasing out characters and monsters from my imagination and onto paper.
What was your first job (& tell us a little bit about your career trajectory)?
My first “steady paycheck” job was at Walgreens while I was in high school. But a much more interesting answer is that I’ve been doing freelance art and pursuing entrepreneurial endeavors since I was a child. I created an extensive line of greeting cards, rather uncreatively called “Chris Cards,” when I was in grade school, selling them to teachers, staff, students, & parents. I even took my business on the road and went selling them door-to-door around the neighborhood.
My first “steady paycheck” art job was drawing caricatures at the Mall of America. I started doing that during my senior year of high school and then during summers while I was going to college. That was a productive experience in many ways. Through the sheer force of practice—drawing face after face after face for long shifts—my drawing skills improved greatly. So did my speed and the confidence of my lines (you have to be fast, especially when there’s a line of customers). It also improved my skills of observation and allowed me to overcome any nervousness of having people watch me draw. Plus it was my first real experience of a being a part of a community of artists.
My first job in the entertainment industry was at “Academy Award-winning Makeup and Creature Effects Shop” Amalgamated Dynamics, Inc (ADI). I put that in quotes because that was how it was described on the item description at a silent auction that I attended just a few weeks after moving out to L.A. Up for bid was a behind-the-scenes tour to ADI. I was familiar with and a fan of their work (creating memorable characters and creatures for films such as Jumanji, Starship Troopers, Alien Resurrection, The Santa Clause…) from reading copies of Cinefex and watching Movie Magic during college.
The thought of a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the world of monster making—and perhaps, just perhaps, a chance to show my portfolio to someone in the Biz—was extremely enticing (much more so than the wine & cheese basket up for bid on the table adjacent), however, the minimum bid was $100. I was still sleeping on a friend’s couch, unemployed, and $100 was a big chunk of change at the time.
Turns out it was probably the best $100 I’ve ever spent. I won the item and toured ADI with my family, visiting from Minnesota, a few months later. Tom Woodruff, Jr.—one of ADI’s owners—gave us the tour…and it was magical. As the tour was wrapping up, Tom asked if we had any other questions. My voice was probably quivering a little when I only half-jokingly asked, “Are you hiring?” He gave me a polite denial, stating they usually look for people with previous film experience or once in a while will take someone on as a runner (gopher). When it was mentioned that my portfolio was in the car, he—again politely—agreed to take a look at it. I think it helped having my family along, as maybe he didn’t want to squash the dreams of this kid in front of his mom and dad. A week later he called me for a couple days of character design work for the film Bubble Boy. A few months later they called me back again to work on The Santa Clause 2 and it has been a wild, fun, challenging, and rewarding career since then.
Who are your influences?
Too many to list! The first movie I ever saw was Star Wars. I was two and my parents had taken me to the drive in, figuring I would fall asleep in the back seat. Instead I sat transfixed through the entire thing. I was imprinted!
My childhood was also fueled by heavy doses of Bill Peet, Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak, Steven Kellogg, Mercer Mayer and many other children’s book authors & illustrators. A little later I discovered comic books (X-Men and Alien Legion were my favorites).
As for those who influence me now, there are too many and I’d probably forget someone very important if I tried to list them, so I will just say there are a lot. And I’m always very curious when there’s an opportunity to learn about a fellow artist’s creative processes and techniques.
It can vary quite a bit depending on a project’s scale and needs and what part of the design phase it is in, but generally there are a lot of hours put in at the drawing table or computer. Character designers are most often involved in the pre-production phase of a project, before the cameras start rolling. We help give visual form to the characters and creatures described in a script, treatment, or as thoughts in a director’s head.
I enjoy certain aspects of the entire design phase, from thumbnail sketches to finished renderings, but my favorite is usually the early stages. It’s here that you often have the most freedom to go exploring and take chances. Coaxing my imagination onto a blank piece of paper is one of the things that get me out of bed in the morning.
In addition to drawing and designing, a freelance designer also has to handle the business side of things too: reviewing contracts, communicating with clients, creating invoices, etc. Not nearly as much fun as sketching ninja octopuses.
What is your favorite thing about what you do?
The creative process. Starting from the spark of an idea—or sometimes from virtually nothing—and working to create a character that is entertaining, appealing, and an effective storytelling tool is something that I find consistently rewarding. And the best is when the results surprise even yourself.
What is the best advice you ever got?
Hmmmm…another question seeking a superlative…I don’t know if this is the BEST advice I’ve ever got—and it wasn’t even given to me personally—but it was the first thing that came to mind:
“Breathe deep, with the beat.”
It’s a line from a song by an Australian didgeridoo band called Gondwanaland that I discovered while visiting my uncle Down Under during high school.
It may be a bit general, vague, and perhaps a bit simple, but it’s sound advice. If we don’t remember to breathe, the other stuff won’t matter much. I was introduced to yoga shortly after moving to L.A. and it taught me breathing techniques and mental stamina that have proved essential during challenging times in my life, none more challenging than being diagnosed with acute leukemia on April Fools Day in 2005.
What would your life be like without your art?
A black pit of despair and nothingness. Just kidding! Sort of.
It is hard to imagine my life without my art, since it has been with me for as long as I can remember. It definitely helps sustain me. It may not provide sustenance for the cells of my body the same way an apple does, but creating art definitely feeds my soul.
I would like to think that if, for whatever reason, I was no longer capable of or interested in making art that I would find some other outlet for expressing my creativity.
What advice would you give a person trying to get into character design?
“Work hard. Work hard. Work hard. And then work harder.”
It’s not unique, earth-shattering advice, to be sure, but if there is one thing that I would try to instill in an aspiring artist it’s that you need to put the time in. You need to wear hundreds or thousands of pencils down to their nubs. You need to choose drawing over food, sleep, and hanging out with friends (not all the time, but sometimes!). But it’s also important to be patient with yourself and the development of your skills. I rarely seem to improve as fast I would like or as fast as I think I should. Keep at it. Keep feeding and then diving into your imagination. Keep fueling that passion because ultimately your passion for your art is what drives the boat. True passion trumps uncertainty, insecurity, and fear.
How do you think your art is related to your physical / emotional well-being?
My wife would probably say that my art is the one in the driver’s seat when it comes to my emotional well-being. And she wouldn’t be wrong. I have come to realize that there is a definite link between how my creative exploits are going and my current mood. I could be having the worst day—flat tires, cancelled flights, George W. Bush getting reelected…—but if I’ve done a drawing or have had an idea that I feel excited about, all the negative things just don’t seem as bad or as stressful. However, if I’m having a really frustrating time trying to get something to work on a project I don’t think even winning the lottery would produce a prolonged smile. Well, maybe. That’s one scenario I wouldn’t mind testing out.
Understanding this connection between my creative output and my mood, and not allowing my pencil strokes to overly influence my state of being, is something that I’m slowly getting better at. I have learned that if I keep at it, whether it is continuing to draw and problem solve now or coming back to it another day, I will almost always break through any creative roadblocks that decide to pay me a visit.
I’m not a big fan of “failure” or even the use of the word. I think how someone chooses to define “failure” can reveal a lot about him or her. Have I experienced “failure?” Sure, I guess. There have certainly been times when I have not been able to experience the results I had hoped for. There have been times when my art or I have disappointed someone, or at least have not met his or her expectations. There have been times when I have let myself down too. But usually there is something I can learn or gain from the experience. And that can turn it into a positive—or at least not such a negative—experience.
To me, the word “failure” has a very finite implication. It marks the end. Done. Thanks for playing. Game over. But I choose to view all our experiences as a part of a larger journey full of ups and downs. When looking at the big picture, how can today be a “failure” when tomorrow we might succeed? The scorecard isn’t complete until we stop playing.
And the word “failure” also carries with it a heavy dose of negativity. If your life takes on too much of that, it can weigh you down unnecessarily, sucking up valuable creative energy, and making it that much more difficult to focus on pursuing your goals.
If we choose to do so, we can strip “failure” of its power.
Chris Ayers studied art and graphic design at St. Norbert College, a liberal arts school in De Pere, Wisconsin overlooking the Fox River, before moving to Los Angeles to pursue his life-long dream. He’s worked on projects for Disney TV, DreamWorks Feature Animation, Sony, Rhythm and Hues, ADI, Rick Baker’s Cinovation Studios, Amazon Studios and others; in addition to teaching upper level courses in Character Design at Art Center College of Design; as well as being a sought after speaker and guest lecturer; and the author, illustrator, and contributing writer of numerous publications including his Daily Zoo book series.
To find out more about Chris Ayers, you can visit http://www.chrisayersdesign.com
Or catch up with him at the following events:
Phoenix Comicon FanFest, Dec. 4-6th https://phoenixcomicon.com/
Los Angeles WonderCon, March 25-27th http://www.comic-con.org/wca
LA Times Festival of Books, April 9–10th http://events.latimes.com/festivalofbooks/
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