Thinking and Living Like an Artist: Interview with Elliot Cowan
Interview By Kathryn Weinstein
Illustrations by Elliot Cown
Interview first appeared in UCDA's Designer magazine (Vol. 41, Issue 3, Fall 2016)
Elliot Cowan is an animator, illustrator, artist, and educator. In this interview, he shares a little bit about his life, influences, and projects.
Tell us a little bit about your background?
I’m from Melbourne, Australia. My parents are British Jews. Mum is from Manchester in the very north of England and my dad is Scottish. They moved to Australia in the late 60s and have never been back.
As a kid, I was mostly genial and quiet. I loved cartoons and movies. I had, and still have, no interest in sport, which is kind of a strange thing in Australia. I spent a LOT of time drawing, making puppets, little sculptures—that kind of thing.
Were your parents artists? Who encouraged your art making activities?
My parents are not artists. I had a grandfather who was a musician who probably would have drawn if it had been nurtured or even discovered in him. My folks were very encouraging in a kind of hands-off way. They made sure I had plenty of paper and pencils and let me take art classes when I asked, but for the most part, they stood back and let me do my thing.
When did you know that you wanted to become an animator?
I’ve never been entirely comfortable being part of a pack, and even as a young kid I was inclined to search outside the mainstream for creative stimulation. As a kid I was obsessed with animation and puppetry. I don’t know when that started exactly—probably watching Sesame Street, which has a lot of both—I just know that animation has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.
My early influences were actually illustrators more than animators, I imagine because at the time I had more access to them. My mum would take me to the library every week and I’d always take a pile of books out—Murray Ball, Tove Jansson, Norman Lindsay, Gerald Scarfe, and Quentin Blake. All had a massive effect on my work that I can still see to this day.
I was born in 1974. Shortly after that Melbourne experienced a very large influx of immigrants from all over the world. In an effort to accommodate all these new people a television channel was created to broadcast international programming—local news from Greece, soap operas from China, and later on I remember seeing the Iranian version of The Nanny. When I was eight or nine they would program a four-hour chunk of international animation on a Sunday afternoon and I was crazy for it. All short films, animated series, and a crazy Czech version of The Muppet Show. It had a big influence on me.
I think I was originally more interested in puppetry. In the mid 80s in Australia the idea of going into animation was only slightly less insane than being a puppeteer so I chose that path.
Top (header): Concept art from The Stressful Adventures of Boxhead and Roundhead. Directed by Elliot Cowan. Image by production designer Neil Campbell Ross.
Above left: Concept art from The Stressful Adventures of Boxhead and Roundhead. Directed by Elliot Cowan. Image by production designer Neil Campbell Ross and Elliot Cowan.
Above right: Eggs And Ketchup; ink and watercolor on watercolor paper.
Why did you decide to attend Independent College of Art and Design? Were you a good student?
At the time University in Australia was basically free, but I chose to go to a private college because they responded to my work in such a positive way. I studied graphic design and illustration. The experience changed my life completely. I had been a very average high school student but did extremely well at art school—it was one of the most productive times of my life. My lecturers said “We are here to show you all the stuff you don’t know about, so put down your security blanket and come see this,” which I was more than happy to do. I was introduced to the idea of thinking and feeling and living like an artist. I formed friendships with my professors that have lasted to this day.
Did you go directly to graduate school? Why did you think advanced studies were important?
I did go directly to graduate school. At the time there were limited places to study animation and one option was The Victorian College of the Arts (VCA). I decided to attend based on the recommendation of my illustration professor.
I don’t I think advanced studies are important in the arts at all. As an artist you’re better off spending all that money on an extended trip to Europe or backpacking through the Grand Canyon with attractive foreigners. For myself, it was the only way I could go and do some animation and move forward in my career. These days you can learn a bit of animation on your iPhone, but at the time there was only paper and big machines and film and Steinbecks, and my time at VCA gave me access to all these things.
What were the first types of jobs you found after graduate school?
Like many art schools with a film department, VCA has an industry screening after each final semester. I started working the day after the industry screening for a small company called Oh’ Hell He Ran Productions—the guy who ran it was called Bernie O’Halloran. We were creating animated pilots for MTV Asia. They’d send us a four-minute script and we’d put the thing together. I only remember one thing we worked on called The Supermuddles, a spoof about supermodels. We also worded on a pilot that Bernie was developing himself. I did a bunch of great animation on it and also did one of the lead voices alongside Australian actor and comedian Kim Gyngall.
Bernie worked out very quickly that I was a fast and willing to work late, so he’d skip out most of the time to have “meetings” which meant he was sleeping with pretty girls. Eventually I became burnt out and a job came up at a multi-media company in Tasmania. I thought “Screw it, I’m taking it,” which is kind of like living in New York and deciding to move to a shack in the Appalachians. The company is still around so I don’t want to mention them but I worked for a guy who was part moron, part sociopath. I created several animated commercials and in-house projects called The Thungums on which I did some of the best work I’ve ever done but remains lost to the world.
After a year or two a job came up at the local television station directing low budget commercials and I took it. I was there about eight years before I was fired and went to work for their rival network down the street. It was all very, very hard work—lots of hours and little pay. Not a nice place to work.
During that time I continued to draw, exhibited twice and made several nice animated commercials.
I also developed Boxhead and Roundhead in Tasmania, which ultimately became several short films and an animated feature.
Left: Quadrilaterals Look East; ink and watercolor on watercolor paper.
Right: All the Ducks; ink and watercolor on watercolor paper.
Professionally, what are some of your favorite projects?
Well let me say this first. There is very little about working commercially that I’d ever describe as being my “favorite” anything. Unless you’re in charge of a project you’re toiling for someone else and that’s not something that works well for me unless the circumstances are very particular. Generally speaking the best commercial projects I’ve worked on were for people who paid well, paid on time and were respectful of the role of artists.
This is not to say I’m any kind of prima donna, because I’m not. When you are working on a commercial project it’s important to remember that:
1) The person in charge of it is really invested in it because it is their reputation and ego on display.
2) There is usually a large amount of money involved.
The other side of that is that:
1) As a gun for hire it’s hard to be as invested in the project as the person in charge.
2) The person in charge is making a lot more money than you.
Having said that I’ve worked with a lot of nice people who knew how to be friendly and professional and creative. How The Mormon Stole Everything was an animated short I did for The Big Gay Sketch Show, a SNL style show that ran on Logo. I had a very short time to produce a lot of animation but they paid well and pretty much let me do whatever I wanted. Remains one of the most satisfying commercial projects I’ve ever done. It was very divisive but, as I kept reminding people who were critical, it was made for The Big Gay Sketch Show not The Highbrow Shakespeare Hour.
Bitter Batter was a segment I did for Sesame Workshop. I’ve done a lot of stuff with Sesame. They’re a great bunch to work for and they pay on time! I’ve done a lot of work for Ace and Son Moving Picture Company. They’re good pals of mine and helped produce my animated feature. For Ace and Son I did a bunch of work on The Buddah for PBS and a nice extended segment for a documentary called The Texan Promise. For Red Glass Pictures (Ken Burns and Women for Change) I did 2.5D photo manipulations that were really classy. Of course my own films and my feature were great projects to work on because they’re all mine.
Throughout your career as an animator, you’ve continued to create fine art. What are your themes? And how does the fine art influence your animation?
I wouldn’t claim any specific themes but there’s always a very specific energy I try to include in all my work. Everything I draw or paint or sculpt is an immediate unplanned response to whatever spark enters my mind at any given time.
Sometimes I’ll get an itch to make something specific, sculpt a camel or paint a cowboy but I never really know what it’s going to look like until it’s done. I do draw a lot of farm hands and drovers and convicts.
Recently I’ve been drawing Donald Trump a lot. I’m not sure exactly how this stuff influences my animation but it all percolates together so it must have some effect.
What are the skills necessary to be an animator? Looking forward, what are your predictions for the field in the next decade?
Let’s assume there are two kinds of animation—Character Animation and Motion Graphics. Character Animation (i.e. Bugs Bunny and The Flintstones) involves actual characters that think and move and feel. Character animation is all about timing and character and acting and drawing (or poses if you’re working in 3D). Motion graphics is a fancy way of saying graphic design that moves and is all about design and software.
For the future, the more of both of these things you have an understanding of the more employable you’re going to be. This is all assuming you intend to put these applications to commercial use. You can learn all these things to advance your skills as an artist who wants to make things—films, installations, art pieces—and have something to say.
Stills from The Texas Promise, a documentary about the education system in Texas. Animated by Elliot Cowan for Ace and Son Moving Picture Company.
Why do you think animation skills are important for graphic designers?
Several reasons… When you are a working artist you should always be the one who knows the most stuff—even if you aren’t the best at everything, you should still know the most. You should be the person who knows how to design and then how to make that design move. The various medias are tightly integrated these days too. If you’re working for a studio and the client wants to take the design and make a commercial then you can put up your hand and say “I can do that” which makes you a more valuable player.
Nobody is saying you need to be the next Glen Keane or Eric Goldberg but an understanding of basic animation principals and the software required to producer animation gives you an edge. Also—animators are the worst graphic designers ever. The industry needs you.
What were the best animations you’ve seen in the past year?
Student films are just about the only films I look forward to seeing. I’ve been let down too many times to get excited about much other stuff. I’m always excited about my pal Eric Goldberg does, and anything from my pals at Cartoon Saloon is something to be happy about. Actually, anything by anyone I know, so I have some kind of connection to it.
What types of projects are you working on now?
I do some story work with Oscar nominated Irish animation Studio Cartoon Saloon (Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea). I recently contributed concept design and story ideas to their new film, WolfWalkers.
I’ve worked a lot with Ace and Son Moving Picture Company. In addition to working on the documentary about the Texan education system and the Buddah for PBS, I just wrapped up some segments for Tesla, also for PBS and Ace and Son.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
I have a lot, but essentially it all boils down to thinking and living like an artist everything else stems from there. Spend time with motivated and interesting people who are making things and show an interest in your work. You can’t help but absorb the energy. Keep an open mind and stay curious about the world. Keep making art.
Stills from the short How The Mormon Stole Everything an animated parody for The Big Gay Sketch Show. We used the classic Grinch cartoon to mock Mitt Romney and the complicated Proposition 8 situation in California.