Production Designer Samuel Michlap Deconstructed
By Immersed in the Movies, Bill Desowitz
Animation layout artist-turned production designer Samuel Michlap has worked at Disney (The Lion King, Hunchback of Notre Dame) and DreamWorks (The Prince of Egypt, Shark Tale, Monsters vs. Aliens, Rise of the Guardians) and is currently working on his first live-action feature, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (May 5, 2017). His first local exhibition is on display at the Center Stage Gallery in Burbank through Sept. 13, where he will have a workshop on Aug. 29. A companion book, Cinematic Storytelling Deconstructed, will be available at CTN Expo Nov. 20-22.
Michlap’s drawings and paintings contain great versatility in composition and scope, color and lighting, encompassing city streets and a particular passion for trains as well as Goth fantasy and horror. We spoke at length about his exhibition and career.
Bill Desowitz: Let’s talk about the exhibit.
Sam Michlap: Tina Price (owner of the Creative Talent Network) pitched me the idea of creating a show using the theme of recreating my sketchbooks. I thought that was an amazing concept as I had only exhibited finished artwork in the past, and never rough sketches or preliminary art, so I jumped at the opportunity to help her create a show that, at it’s center, was completely raw. I mean, most artistS love to see roughs, but we rarely see full exhibitions of this type of art. The sketches in the show are all from my personal archives, and many have never been hung on a wall or even shown to other as they are very personal for several reasons. I have enjoyed painting outdoors for years and still believe it’s one of the most effective way to learn natural light and color. But the sketches in this show are for my own growth or enjoyment, and so most will not be for sale. They represent moments of time for me — where I was in my artistic growth or in my personal life while I created the art.
BD: What was your dad, DeWitt Michlap, like?
SM: He was larger than life, a master carpenter who became a practical effects artist and set builder for MGM (he worked on Houseboat and Ice Station Zebra). Anyone who knows me, knows I say too often, “There are 24 hours in every day, and if the task at hand requires me to work them, I will.” I don’t think it’s healthy, so for anyone reading this, don’t follow these words!
BD: How’d you get into this?
SM: I went to CSUN, knowing I wanted to be an artist. But in ’92 I was scared and wasn’t ready for a school like Art Center, for instance. The stars aligned, though, and during my time at CSUN, my core illustration teachers were from Art Center! They helped me get a solid understanding of illustration. One of my instructors could see how much I wanted to succeed and told me about another little school called California Art Institute, formerly known as Brandeis Art Institute on Reseda, started by a man named Fred Fixler. He came out of New York with great illustrators and founded his own school, west of Topanga in the hills. I entered the small school and was instantly blown away by the amazing charcoal studies of figures that hung on the walls. So I quickly signed up and studied on the weekends and at night while I earned my B.A. in illustration from CSUN.
I liked the idea of becoming an illustrator, but I had one particular teacher who was a working professional freelance illustrator doing movie posters and such, and he just hated it. I think I learned to dislike it as well based on his stories of the crazy deadlines. So I made the choice to enter Disney for two reasons: I have loved Disney animation my entire life and the security of knowing where and for how long I would be working. I grew up with modest means and just couldn’t see myself being poor for another five years while I established my brand. But how could I get into the biggest studios in the world? I was a student member of Society of Illustrators. I would volunteer and helped hang shows. Every month they would host a working illustrator who would share their stories of the industry and how they started. I lived for these events. Back in September of ’91, there was an artist named Terry Naughton speaking at the Pacific Design Center. He was creating magazine illustrations for Sports Illustrated. My MO was to be the last person in the room and help him carry all of his stuff back to his car so that when I called him in a month he’d remember who I was. I told him what I wanted to do and he said he was an animator, and I told him I didn’t want to be an animator. I tried animating while in high school and just knew, even though I loved it, it wasn’t for me. I wanted to be a layout artist and Terry said he didn’t know much about that department but would think of a way to help me out!
At the same time, I was also taking Bill Matthews’ class at CSUN. He was a recruiter for Disney. I was doing live action boards, which are very different from animation boards. And the lesson that I always tell my students is: Know who you’re interviewing with, make your work feel applicable to that person. I didn’t do that: It was a standard student book and had a few nice things, but it didn’t look like an animation book and it was devoid of emotion — just renderings from my illustration classes. So one night I decided to show him my book, hoping to get a job. He opened my book, got to the third page and slammed it shut. “You don’t know how to draw!” I was devastated, especially because I was set to graduate in four months. I went home and reworked my book over the next 24 hours, remembering my belief that we can work these hours if needed, and showed him again. But unfortunately he already made up his mind that I couldn’t draw! That was a blow and a huge life lesson! Thankfully, Terry came through for me and set up a meeting with a co-worker. It turned out to be Bill Perkins [from the art department at Disney]. Bill had been the art director for Aladdin. Bill was awesome and gave me a ton of notes, but I promptly addressed every one of them and showed up a month later for another round. He endorsed me and ultimately, after I dropped his name to Bill Matthews, was hired into the layout department on The Lion King a couple months before graduating. What a crazy ride, but persistence will reward you back.
BD: What was it like learning your craft on Lion King?
SM: It was the best time of my life, working 90 hours a week. I had one of the best mentors ever, Dan St. Pierre [who brought Deep Canvas to Tarzan], who taught me the art of filmmmaking. The first thing I did was storyboard. He gave me an assignment and it took me 400 story board panels per pass and he put me through boot camp. Brenda Chapman was the head of story and she also helped me by beating me up too about all my stiff poses and bad facial expressions. I watched a lot of classic films and broke them down. That’s how I learned to draw and paint for film.
BD: You were training in the layout department but how did you learn to paint for film?
SM: I never took any painting classes, so I had to teach myself how to paint for film. I was landscape painting every lunch so I was learning real light, and drawing Disney layouts at work, and studied from great cinematographers’ film work at night for the five years I was at Disney. I made up an assignment for myself: I thought, if I want to learn how to capture the essence of a film frame, maybe I should paint them. So every night after work, I put out a TV tray with my painting setup and paused the VCR. (No, we didn’t have DVDs back then and thankfully so, because the reason I can paint quickly today is because the darned VCR would un-pause after five minutes.) Well, it took 25 minutes to find the exact frame so I figured I had to get it done within five minutes! That wasn’t easy or pleasant, but after 1,000 little film paintings I started to get the hang of it.
BD: And how did you wind up at DreamWorks?
SM: I received a phone call from a friend who had recently left Disney to pursue other things, and soon I found myself gathering my work for an interview with a start-up company called DreamWorks. You have to remember, back in ’94 the animation industry was small and Disney was the only major studio in town doing features. I was known as a Disney layout artist, though I secretly wanted to be a Vis Dev artist. I said, Now’s the time to change my course. I had about 50 paintings that I was proud of, which were created over two years while working on Lion King and Hunchback. I decided to take a chance and replaced most of my professional layout work with these un-seen, un-tested paint sketches. That was scary because this was a big deal interview for me. I laid my paintings out on the floor of this new start-up, and I pitched my work to Sandy Rabins, who was the producer of The Prince of Egypt. I told her I wanted a design position, but only have these sketches, and to my surprise, she hired me right then and there! I was so happy I stuck to my plan of painting every night regardless of how long my day was because these little paint sketches opened the door and expanded my career 10 fold. I left Disney at the end of ’95 and started with DreamWorks Jan. 16, ’96. Other than leaving for three years between 2005-2008, to pursue other goals, I worked with DreamWorks the entire time.
BD: And what was it like being there at the beginning of DreamWorks?
SM: Anyone who worked on The Prince of Egypt reminisces about how DreamWorks was like a renaissance of animation for us. The crew was very small by Disney standards. But all of us came from big studios world wide. We had so many countries represented at the studio and it made the experience wonderful. On POE, since the crew was so small, it was all hands on deck, which meant you could work across departments and do just about any job you wanted — as long as you didn’t fail at it! That almost never happens in the big studios. I was very fortunate to style most of the Red Sea sequence and even more fortunate to work side by side with some of the most talented artists ever.
After POE, I was an assistant art director on El Dorado. I was 27 and in hindsight, I feel I was too young to maneuver the management side of the job. And I was disillusioned with the show and my performance. That soured me for a few years to go back into management. I would work 100 hours a week honing my craft while working on many of the early films, before returning to art directing.
BD: You were on the cusp of CG at DreamWorks, so what was that like?
SM: I worked as an art director on Shark Tale. But since it was my first CG film, it was frustrating. Back then I was adamant about painting traditionally, as we had for years, and initially did not want to make the transition to digital painting. I was so new to the world of CG and Shark Tale was an amazing introduction and after that film I was much more comfortable dealing with digital films. That film set me up for the next chapter on my journey — how to bend the will of the computer toward more of an artistic expression. After Shark Tale, I was offered my first production designer role on Monsters vs. Aliens, but it was short lived. Though I helped initially style and greenlight the film, I ultimately decided to leave DreamWorks after 10 years. I was very interested in new opportunities and wanted to build a more efficient art department, which would include much more CG tool sets and new skills from a new generation of artists. This goal led me to work with Imagi, a small Chinese studio, who had just finished TMNT. The results were outstanding so I joined and finally realized my goals of creating a new art department. We had such amazing talent and did things faster than I thought possible because we were utilizing new methods and tools to get things done quickly.
BD: What do you think of CG now?
SM: It blows my mind what can be achieved with computers. And desite all the amazing results we have seen over the past 15 years, I feel the art form is just starting to realize some serious efforts. I love CG because it offers so much opportunity that hasn’t been tapped. But to bend the will of the computer and make it be something that’s more artistic is not an easy thing to do.
BD: What was it like returning to DreamWorks after Imagi?
SM: Strange and great, like a well oiled machine turning out some very cool films. It was fun to see how well 2D and 3D sensibilities were meshing. I was on Rise of the Guardians for a year helping as a concept designer and then bounced around for a little before my next film, B.O.O. was ready. It sounds crazy but I was on that film for about five years as the production designer. I worked with amazing people and learned so much more about design and management. I’m not sure of its current state, but for now it’s off the slate. It’s too bad because it had so much potential, and had a great all-star line-up of talent in Seth Rogen, Melissa McCarthy and Bill Murray.
BD: How did you get involved with Kathryn Bigelow on Last Days of Ivory, the PSA about the illegal ivory trade?
SM: I was asked to create a few preliminary poster comps about the ivory trade. Specifically, I was instructed to paint an image that was extremely raw. ”Don’t hold back the horror,” my producer instructed.
So I started researching that directive and was shocked at how horrible it really was. I mean, I didn’t expose myself to much of what was happening, and I was sick to my stomach by the butchery. In fact, in took me over a week to start drawing anything because I had to desensitize myself so I could begin painting images of massacred elephants. When ivory is taken from an elephant, most of the head is also removed and the carcass just decomposes where it fell. That’s not easy to paint.
Ultimately I ended up as the production designer, responsible for creating the entire look of the 3-minute animated PSA. Everything was hand drawn in Photoshop and composited with After Effects. We didn’t use any CG elements, as Kathryn wanted artwork that looked and felt like a pastel or oil painting. At the same time, I created the poster, I didn’t know Kathryn Bigelow was the director who asked for these poster comps, so I was thrilled to finally meet one of my filmic inspirations. I feel very fortunate to have had the privilege of using my skills and experience on such a worthwhile project.
BD: And now you’re at Marvel because of a chance meeting with Dylan Cole at last year’s CTN design panel. What can you say about that?
SM: Dylan and I instantly hit it off — I love his energy and have been a fan of his work for years, so I asked him about the world of live action design and he thought it would be a great fit for my style. He recommended me to Ramsey Avery, a very talented art director, who in turn showed my work to Scott Chambliss, who had just finished Star Trek and Tomorrowland. I met Scott and we had an instant connection, like I’ve known him for years. I am currently working with Scott and Ramsey on Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy 2. I love the film and the people I’m working with. Every day I wake up and feel very fortunate that I’m living my dream of being an illustrator. I can honestly say, despite all the crazy hours, that I love what I do and it has never felt like a day of work — it feels like it did when I was a teenager drawing comics and dreaming up new stories and worlds to create!
BD: Now you’re giving back as a teacher.
SM:I get so much satisfaction out of helping students pursue and reach their dreams of working in the entertainment industry. I currently work as an adjunct instructor at Art Center and online through LAAFA. Most recently, I was given a great opportunity through LAAFA to make up a new course for their online program. I decided to go back to the style of learning that worked for me at the beginning of my career — speed painting from film frames. The course is called “Dynamic Color Sketching for Entertainment” and it deals with making very quick decisions based on solid understanding while painting digitally from classic films. Never have I had a composition quick sketch class for film design where the goal was to get a near finished statement within a matter of minutes. I have seen a huge leap within the students because they learn how to make clean, effective choices while blocking in their images.
Painter - Traditional, Production Designer, Visual Development