Red Nose Studio [Portfolio interview]
Bringing Life to Illustrations with Stop-Motion Animation
Interview by Adeline Marteil
Chris Sickels is a 3 dimensional illustrator, the owner and solo creative artist behind Red Nose Studio. Chris grew up on a small farm, solving the problems of daily life with whatever was at hand. He now brings that creative ingenuity to his illustrations and animations, often using indiscriminate items within arms reach inside his barnhouse studio to bring his creations to life.
Inside Red Nose Studio in Greenfield, Indiana, Chris draws inspiration from childhood shows like Wallace and Gromit and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, while the inspiration of rural life can be easily recognized in his organically textured work. His unique style of animation is crafted with relatively simple technology to create an emotionally accessible, beautiful, and somehow nostalgic end result.
Firstly, could you introduce yourself and your work?
My name is Chris Sickels, I work under the name of Red Nose Studio. I am a 3 Dimensional Illustrator and the sole creative at Red Nose Studio. I have primarily been an illustrator but I also do stop-motion animation. Some of my younger children are now helping me with occasional projects so it feels more like a traditional studio, but at the end of the day it really is just me.
Your work is mainly illustration but you recently underwent some stop-motion projects, are you also working alone on those?
Yes, I have an illustration representative that I have been with for several years. A majority of the time, whether I’m illustrating or animating, it’s just me. Sometimes on more complicated charts or scenes my oldest son or oldest daughter would come out and help, either run some rigging or run a camera. But generally I try to keep most of it low tech and easily manageable. Animation is probably 15% or 20% of my workload, still a relatively small percentage of what I do.
When you have an animated piece to create do you apply the same creative process that you do with illustration in term of composition and storytelling?
Oh yeah, for sure! I think the things that are additional to it are of course timing and working with some sort of linear space as opposed to just a compositor space. But really they all start with sketches and drawing and trying to figure out the best visual solution to a problem, whether it’s in motion or whether it’s with a static image.
How do you feel animation is different from illustration when you talk about solving problems?
I think animation naturally deals with time a little better. Sometimes I struggle when an animation needs an illustration to go with it or the illustration needs to live in motion on a digital platform. And sometimes I struggle with how to create a motion piece that complements the illustration as opposed to just moving. So sometimes you try to find a way to make the animation to enhance the concept or add to the concept as opposed to just being a “trick”. That’s the struggle because sometimes it is just a trick, it’s just a way to make things move a little bit to keep the viewer engaged. But when a concept works well with the motion that’s when it feels best.
In a previous interview, you said that one of your biggest challenges is storytelling, how you evolved from that? Do you now feel more comfortable with storytelling through animation?
I am still struggling with it, I think I will always struggle with the storytelling, but I am trying to push work out that involves a story. I am working on a signing out a little promotion right now where it is a short story, sort of a little magazine, and it was a way for me to send out materials that were more story driven and less portfolio driven. So I am trying but I am still not very good at it, I just have not given up yet.
What kind of story would you like to tell?
I like stories about adventure and friendship, which is nothing really new I suppose, but I feel those are the concepts that intrigue me.
You did a short, Creosote. What inspired you to do this short and is it the kind of work you would like to do more in the future?
Yes! Again, it was a challenge. It was a few years ago when I had a break in the schedule and I wasn’t very busy, so I wanted to challenge myself to try another short animation, to essentially see if I could visually tell a story without dialogue. The inspiration behind it was how Greek mythology isn’t very kind to a centaur’s intolerance to alcohol. So I thought, what if we create a centaur with a drinking problem and see if we could shape a story around that and see how it evolves. Whether it succeed or not, it was something I really enjoyed doing, and the fact that I did this animation led to other animations and allowed people to see how my style of animation is a bit different. It’s a little more crude or little less refined but sort of existing in that realistic animated world. It helped me show people how my animation style works as opposed to a client coming to me and asking for something out of my wheelhouse, such as animating ketchup packets or the like. So I thought if I put Creosote out that it would help potential clients see the type of work that I enjoy doing.
It makes sense! Back to the centaur, I feel like your work has a distinctive tone that balances dreamlike characters, humour, and a kind of dynamism. Are you consciously creating this tone and this world?
Yes, part of it is how I draw and the characters that live in my sketchbook, sort of the way I view the world, but then also I think it’s the way that I sculpt. My sculptures and my drawings feed off of each other. I am not a skilled sculptor that can sculpt a realistic horse or a realistic portrait. It has to be something that I can sculpt like I draw. I am not a very good draftsman and I am not very good sculptor but I figured out how to take what I am not very good at and create a world around that that fits my particular style.
You are creating a world with a lot of texture that you bring through the found objects and sculptures you do, how does that feed your world and your work? Do you generally have a precise idea of what you want to achieve or do you just experiment and start from a found object?
I try to have a pretty clear vision but because I like to use found objects I also have to be flexible. Sometimes the texture or an object or a surface handles differently when it’s photographed, so you have to figure out ways to use that to your advantage. Sometimes it can be very frustrating and it can feel like you are making things purposely difficult, but other times it works very well and I can create something that I couldn’t have done any other way. It allows my work to surprise me. I feel like if a piece or texture surprises me then it helps make the illustration or sculpture unique to the viewer as well.
Speaking of frustration, what has been your biggest challenge both technically and creatively?
That’s a good question. Sometimes a project is more difficult technically, and sometimes a project is more difficult conceptually. Sometimes the most conceptually demanding projects are not necessarily the hardest to execute, while sometimes the easiest ideas or the simpler concepts are more difficult to achieve. They all have their unique challenges.
What part of your work do you enjoy the most?
It’s difficult to say as it may change from day to day. Some days I prefer the drawing part and the idea part, but then I also enjoy the sculpting, the surface treatment, and the photography. I think that’s why I do what I do at Red Nose Studio because I enjoy all those aspects and I like that I can integrate all these different mediums and techniques into an image or an animation and it keeps me from feeling bored or stuck. When I started out as a painter, once I got the concept down and I transferred the drawing to the board and painted it, after a certain point I felt that I was just colouring in the lines. So when I found I can create work the way that I do now it feels like that process really allows me to keep experimenting and keep playing with the work throughout the years.
So you are more enjoying the entire process and the opportunity to introduce movement in your work through animation.
Exactly! That’s exciting for me now because when I first started out in the 90’s it was really difficult to become a stop-motion animator. There were very limited outlets for that, so I drew to illustrate, and then illustration and animation became much more parallel, working intelligently together. My work is exciting all over again because what I love about stop-motion and what I love about illustration don’t necessarily have to be separate anymore. They can live very closely together.
You say sometimes you have commissioned illustrations that they ask you to animate, and you are deciding how to make it move. Is animation your way of staying relevant in the age of the digital platform or is it just a natural evolution of your practice?
I think it is a little bit of both. With the fact that motion is needed now, that there is a call for motion, I think it’s making me feel that I am a bit more relevant. I also have experience now, it’s something that I have worked with for a while, but then it’s also exciting because up until the last ten years or so I always felt that illustration and motion was very separate. If I had an animation project it had to be independent from any illustration work, but now that they work so well together it’s inspiring to me. And it makes me feel hopeful that it can lead to other outlets for work as well.
Since you worked on the early stages of Mark Osborne’s Little Prince, have you looked for more character design work?
I find it difficult to get into, like it’s another art market/branch that I haven’t really been able to fit into. I think partially because what I do is very specific, whereas artists like Carter Goodrich or Peter Deseve can draw characters for any number of films. When I was asked to work on The Little Prince it felt very parallel to what I did as opposed to being able to create characters for any style of film. I’d like to think it’s a possibility since it was a project that I really enjoyed because it was different from what I normally do. I really enjoyed the challenge of it.
What are some of your influences for illustration and animation?
One of the early influences I had was Alexander Calder’s little wire circus that he performed. I saw it when I was in college, and when I saw that film I realized I loved seeing an artist of his caliber playing and doing something he truly enjoyed doing. Just like a kid playing with toys. I saw that art doesn’t necessarily have to be serious, it could be very playful, very joyful, so that was a very big influence on me. Just seeing that one film, I felt that I didn’t have to be as serious as the other students in school, my work could be fun. That was a big springboard, a big confidence booster. As far as animation goes, I grew up with the children’s Christmas animation of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, and I always loved that classic stop-motion movie. Then about the same time I was in college the Aardman animation shorts Wallace & Gromit and Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas came out. I started to see all this stop-motion and started to learn about Jan Svankmajer, the Brothers Quay, Ladislas Starevich, and early Russian animators, so I started to see that stop-motion had all this history to it. To find out that there were these really artistic and textural stop-motion films that were happening interested me. So it’s in these early years that a lot of my influences were the strongest.
So you’re in a place where you really enjoy what you’re doing, as you say you don’t have to be 100% serious, and just like Calder you enjoy what you’re doing and it shows through your work.
Thank you! Not every day is great but mostly they are. I’m not super successful or very financially stable but I really enjoy what I do.
Do you have some favourite animated features or studios? What kind of animation do you watch with your kids?
The last series that we watched as a whole family was called Over the Garden Wall. It was a 2D animation but I really loved the character and the adventures, the sort of wackiness of the story, the fact that I can watch it with my 12-year-old and all the way down to our 3-year-old and they would love it just as much as I did. To watch a series like that that has such an appeal, we just thoroughly enjoyed it. I admit I don’t know a lot about what’s going on in the industry as a whole. Sometimes the more I find out the more melancholic I get; you see people doing really, really good stuff so sometimes it’s depressing because I know that my stuff is not that good in comparison. I try to take it in small doses. I admire a lot of animators because I don’t necessarily call myself an animator, I call myself a stop-motion enthusiast because I enjoy it, but I am not a traditionally trained animator, I am more self-taught
That’s not a bad thing, because it means that your own your style. You also run a stop-motion workshop, is it more geared towards children or adults?
Yes! It’s very low tech and hands on, but it’s really to show people that you can do stop-motion animation with very limited materials. I work with mostly university-aged students, but I have done some workshops with creative professionals and a few with younger children as well. With younger children we usually end up doing Legos because that’s something they can really jump in and relate to. Stop-motion is very incrementally based so it helps them see movement from peg to peg, lego step to lego step. University students are the ones that get really caught up in all the materials and I try to show them it doesn’t necessarily have to be as complicated as they think. I show them that all my puppets are just wired armatures and hot glue and sculpey and fabric. I have a small little stage that I travel with which opens up so everybody can work with their own character in the space. This way they don’t have to worry about the armatures and they can just get the characters placed on the stage and they can start to animate without much planning. They kind of see how much you can get away with when you animate, as long as something goes from point A to point B, the viewers eyes sort of fill in the rest. That’s essentially the whole point of the workshop; animation doesn’t have to be terribly complicated to get an idea across. You see really beautiful work from studios like LAIKA or Aardmanand all the technologies that goes into creating it, and it can feel daunting and almost an unachievable goal to a student. I feel like sometimes they can get to a point where they get so hung up on the fabrication aspect that they lose their story. If they lose their story then the animation doesn’t work.
A lot of times when I visit a school and they have an animation department, people get really worried about armatures and 3D prototypes, mould making, and all these very complicated systems. I enjoy leading the workshops because people can do really incredible stuff with a very short amount of time. You mentioned The Little Prince, Alexander Yu Ho was the final designer and did a lot of animation with the stop-motion part of that film, what he does is high-end but again very accessible. When you break it down it’s small set, with simple elements that have been designed very elegantly. So when I watch his animation, and see what he does, it shows me that you don’t have to do animation solely with 3D prototyping or complicated systems, you can create with relatively low tech or simple technology and make something really beautiful.
Looking at your sculptures and backgrounds they can feel very refined and rich, while when watching your animations they are still stunning but they induce a minimalistic feel. Is there a minimalism to the movement as well?
Sometimes with movement that lives within illustration it doesn’t need to be a very complicated animation. Most of the time it’s a loop, and it doesn’t have to be a tremendous amount of frames. Some loops only need 9 frames to exist but sometimes a loop will take 50 or 60 frames just depending on the type of movement that’s needed. I feel that when I animate I don’t do a lot of exaggerated movements, so sometimes I feel like my work may be too minimal or a little to monotone. So I’d like to experiment more with timing that’s a little bit more snappy, contrasting it with something a little bit more slow and see how much the motion can help tell the story. I’m still learning, I don’t have it all figured it out. Sometimes I feel thatI am not a good enough animator to be teaching the workshop but I try to make it accessible.
Well that’s the main thing, especially for students. As you said, because you make it accessible it can be a huge relief for a student and their learning process.
I hope so, because I can remember as a student seeing these beautiful paintings and you don’t understand where the artist started from and how they got to this big, gorgeous painting. Now a lot of artists are more open about their process and you can see a lot of behind the scenes type of things. But sometimes even the tutorials can make it seem overly complicated. It looks like the artist got a beautiful painting in one sitting, because of how they made the process look. Like they just did one painting and it works, like there were no mistakes, and then all of a sudden it was beautiful and it only took five hours and it’s done. I think students can lose sight of the fact that there is a lot of stuff that you don’t see, a lot of the bad stuff and the mistakes and the lessons that aren’t readily apparent.
And a lot of doubt that you don’t know about...
Yes, absolutely! I have a sign on my window that says ‘stop doubting’, my wife wrote it. It’s been here for years and I left it there because every day I doubt what I am doing. I doubt that maybe I am not doing it right or that I am not good enough.
You can probably learn more from somebody’s mistakes and how they dealt with them throughout their career as opposed to just the pretty stuff…
One of my lectures comprises sort of all the mistakes, all the projects I did that didn’t quite work, but even though they didn’t work there were things that really helped me to get where I needed to go. If I stopped after that one that didn’t work then I wouldn’t be where I am at today. Part of it is just be dumb enough to keep trying.