Borja Montoro Interview

Tell me a little bit about yourself, about your life? Where did you go to school, and what classes did you study?  What helped prepare you to become the artist that you are today?

My name is Borja Montoro. I was born in Madrid, Spain, in July 1966. My wife, Conchita, and I married in September ’94. We have six children. I never went to an art school. I studied and graduated from Law at the University. But I have never worked as a lawyer. I love drawing and earned my living as a draftsman. I’ve drawn since I was a child. At the beginning I used to copy a lot. I started copying from some European very well known comic artists, like the Spaniards Ibáñez, Raf or Tha, and also Uderzo,  Ergé, Franquin, Peyo… from France and Belgium.

After copying some drawings, watching the way the solved their problems, I was able to imitate them and, little by little -taking this thing from one and that from the other- create my own style.

Once I was able to achieve some little draftsman skills I tried more difficult goals, like classical illustrators: Rockwell, Gibson, the Leyendeckers, Alphonse Mucha…
I didn’t know a word about animation until I was eighteen (except, of course, what I saw as any other spectator in a theater or in TV).

I happened to have my first contact with the world of animation at the university. Yes, at the Law University. In 1984, I met someone who saw my drawings and told me he knew a guy who had just opened a little school of animation… I started to go to classes during the evening. It was not Cal Arts or Les Gobelins... In terms of technical skills, I learnt not much, just enough to be able to in-between for TV series (thing that I did as a freelance at home for a while just to earn some cash to have a good student’s time). What I really learned was that there was a type of absolutely fantastic art out there that I wanted to do. I got a shock. I forgot illustration and comic strips. I just wanted to be animator.

God, I met Milt Kalh! After that, you can’t look for anything else. I simply told myself I wanted to draw and animate like him. No more no less...

In 1988,  I joined  a small  studio  named  “Overlay”,  where  I spend  some  years  first  as assistant animator and then as animator. We mainly did TV series for Cosgrove Hall productions. It was great time and I have loads of funny souvenirs from it.

From then on, I started to consider this as a job for living and I became a professional.
In the early nineties the whole Overlay team (four people) joined another small studio owned by an Spanish very experienced  artist - Manolo Galiana - where I could animate feature films for the first time.

I also had the chance to do my first character designs for an aged strange wealthy woman from Madrid who wanted to produce an animated feature. The project didn’t come out, of course. It was just a crazy thing. I didn’t even keep the original final drawings, but I could use some of the pencil concepts to set the portfolio that allowed me to go to Ireland later...  I’ve learned  everything  I know -the few things  I know-  directly  from professionals  ever since.

How do you go about designing, and what goes through your mind, from start to end?

Difficult question! There are so many different thinks involved…
First of all, I try not to forget this is a job. It isn’t that easy, because it’s something I love to do. But it’s a job. I mean, it is not about having fun with your pencils. You can enjoy it, but at the end of the day, the goal is to please your client, to find exactly what he is looking for, because he’s got the last word about your designs. You better be preparing for the critics. Sometimes you’ll realize that what you considered a good design isn’t good for him. It’s a pity, but it is the way it is. At the same time, sometimes a whole bunch of movie characters never see the light because the whole production crashes, the movie don’t came out and you have to put everything  in a drawer  and forget about showing  any of your designs because you don’t have a right to do it. That is tough too, but you must be prepared for it as well.

Sometimes the Director or the Producers know very well what they’re looking for, but some others they may not have a clear idea of it and simply trust in your ability to create. The kind of like “surprise me with your best”.
In any case, talk to them, show them different possibilities  and discuss with them about what kind of style do they want, how do they see the characters, etc... Until you are sure that you know how to help them. The more you understand them, the better it is.

I look for references: pictures, films, music, drawings. I must fill my imagination with some useful tools that I might use. And ask myself a lot of questions about what I am going to do, why is it going to be this way and, moreover, why not that one. You have to force yourself to think, to do, to draw things you just wouldn’t do naturally in order to not to be repetitive.

Once I face a blank paper, I have a kind of image from what I’m looking for, but I still don’t have a clear idea, like a picture of it. So I let my pencil help me. I draw and erase hundreds of roughs.  When drawing I’ll probably find things that I still hadn’t thought.  I watch my drawings and try to keep very critical with them.

How do I draw? I know some people just start by playing with different shapes and combinations and only go to look for poses and attitudes afterwards. It’s probably a good method. I don’t know. In any case it isn’t mine. I cannot help going directly to the attitude, to the character’s personality.  The problem with this way of doing the things is that you may fall in love with a pose, with a single drawing and think that the character is good because he works in that concrete attitude. And you might be perfectly wrong. To avoid this  mistake,  once  I’ve  found  a good  drawing  with  a nice  pose  that  expresses  what  I consider could be the character’s personality, I draw the same character in very different poses, with different expressions and attitudes -which could match the character as well- just to see if they work too. Or I try to draw the same pose and attitude with different shapes, because it might work better with them. I simply try a lot of different possibilities before I choose the final version of the character.

And once I have it, I draw as many poses and attitudes from him as I can.
If I need to design several characters at the same time, I never end one up till I’ve tried the others too, so that I can be sure that they’ll work together. I try to have a global view of the whole bunch before I say ok to anyone among the group.

What is a typical day for you, and who are the people you work with?

I am up at six thirty. I have six kids. Five must have their breakfasts and be at school by nine. The little one stays at home with me, and I must give her her bottle, dress her and play a little bit with her before sitting at my desk. There’s always some other homework to do during the morning too, like clothing to hang up, dishwashing to empty...etc.

I have to read and listen to the news on the radio because every morning I must do a couple of cartoons for the newspapers. If I’ve been good and gained some spare time, I can dedicate it to my own, drawing or reading and studying things that I like.
In the afternoon I go to work at the Sergio Pablos Animation (aka SPA) Studio. It’s about half an hour far walking from home, so I relax and enjoy it.

There I share my afternoon with what is probably one of the best professional and creative teams you can imagine (and the funniest, no doubt): Sergio Pablos, Fernado Moro, Juan Pablo  Navas,  Manolo  Galiana,  Carlos  Zapater,  Alberto  Braojos,  Javi  Ledesma,  Dani, Capote, Guille… It’s nice to work with this people. Depending of the day, I come back home around nine, nine thirty, dinner time, children go to bed.

I don’t watch TV at all, except for the weekend family or classical B&W movies that we see together. If I want to watch a present one, I rather go to the cinema with my wife... when we find a minute. At night, I seat on my desk and take care of my own stuff: my blog, my mails, some things to read… And then I go to sleep. Never vey early.  It is 1:06 at night right now while I’m writing these words. I don’t sleep much. Spanish “siesta” turned into an urban legend many time ago...

What are some of the things that you have worked on?

I’ve mainly  worked  as animator,  but I’ve also worked  as character  designer,  and done visual development, some illustrations and a lot of newspaper cartoons.
As animator, after those early years in Madrid, once married, in January ’95, we moved to Dublin to start a major career. I spent one year doing “All dogs go to heaven II” at the Sullyvan-Bluth Animation studios. I shared my office there with Dough Bennett, a young Canadian animator at that time who later on became directing animator at “Bolt”. He drew and animated with such natural ability… I think I definitely understood what animation was all about.

At the studio in Dublin I attended life drawing classes for the first time in my life! At the end of ’95 I was hired by Disney to work in Paris for the movie “Hercules”. We first spent some moths in Los Angeles, before we got to Paris. I stayed at Disney France seven years and, apart from “Hercules”, I worked on “Tarzan”, “The Emperor’s new groove” and some other projects like “The jungle Book II” or “The little match girl” short.

We had anatomy  and life drawing classes there, as well as good training in many other matters, like acting, film narrative... Disney is an extraordinary school to improve your draftsmanship and animation abilities.

The most important thing that happened to me at that time was that I had the chance -the great chance- to work with Glen Keane as animator for the main character of “Tarzan”.
He is simply the best draftsman I’ve ever met at work. I’ve seen this man sitting at my desk doing corrections  upon my roughs  and I promise  you that if I’ve ever learned  anything about drawing in my life, it was then and there.

At  Disney  LA  I  specially  remember  the  moment  I  went  to  see  the  early  designs  for “Tarzan”. I got stuck in front those incredible drawings made by the very sadly recently disappeared Harald Siepermann. I’d like these lines to be a tribute to his memory.

In 2002 we were told Disney was going to leave Paris. At the same time, my good friend and former Disney supervising animator Sergio Pablos called me and asked me if I was interested in coming back to Madrid to work on his new project “Giacomo’s secret”.
I was, indeed. We worked together on the script, visual development and character design of that movie for about a year. And just the two of us animated the whole movie’s trailer.
It was the first time someone seriously-(remember that wealthy crazy lady?)- gave me the chance to do design for a feature. Something that I’d always wanted to do but never came out before. Since then, I have split my career. I keep working as an animator when there’s 2D stuff to do. Same with character design. I have been with SPA studio ever since, or through SPA for Hollywood majors.

At the same time, since 2006, I also do newspaper cartoons, which is somehow another way of doing character design most of the times, as you can see in some of the drawings with this interview.

Is there a design you have done that you are most happy with?

Sure, the character of Nino, from “Giacomo’s secret”. That’s why I’ve chosen him to illustrate my blog’s banner. We struggled with it for months before we got him. Sergio really wanted something very, very special for that kid. I’m very happy with that, because I really think I finally got exactly what he was looking for.

What projects are you working on now? (If you can tell us)

I start to work on a new project named “Smallfoot” at the SPA Studio at the first of April. It’s a Warner Bros. feature animation movie. I’ll be doing character design.

Who are some of your favorite artists out there?

I give you a list of past and present ones:
Milt  Kalh,  Glen  Keane,  Bill  Watterson,  Nicolas  Marlet,  James  Baxter,  Sergio  Pablos, Harald Siepermann, Kiraz, Norman Rockwell, Marc Davis, Chuck Jones, Fred Moore, Alphonse Mucha, Charles Dana Gibson, Gustav Klimt, Uderzo, Hergé, Franquin, Nicolas de Crècy, Antonio Mingote, Sylvain Deboissy, Carlos Grangel, Christophe Serrand, Tony Fucile, Roldolphe Guenoden, Juanjo Guarnido, Annette Marnat, Cyril Pedrosa, José Luis and Fernando Moro, Quino, Sempé, Raf, Jin Kim, Pedro Daniel García, Dani Fernández, Cory Loftis, Pierre Alary, Sebastian Krüger, Natham Fawkes… and yet I’m sure I must be missing someone.

Could you talk about your process in coloring your art, as well as the types of tools or media that you use?

I never knew how to color my drawings in a “traditional” way. The computer saved my life in this aspect. I think that little by little I’ve reached skills enough to work with color in a standard level. That means to help the drawing look a bit better. I do not pretend being an illustrator.  I’d love to, but I’m not skilled enough for it. My field is the character.  Basic coloring and shading is ok, but serious lighting and landscaping is out of my possibilities. To do my work, at home, I use a Mac Pro connected to a Wacom Cintiq 21’ (a Mac Book Pro17’ with a 12’ Cintiq if I’m out); at the SPA studio, another 21’ Cintiq, but with Windows OS.
Applications?.  The  classical  Adobe’s  Photoshop  (  I still  work  with  the  CS3  )  and  the Autodesk’s Sketchbook pro (I just bought the very last version: 6.0.1). I animate with a 4B or 2B pencil on paper, but this week just downloaded the TV Paint Pro trial version, and I like it very much. I’ll probably pay for the complete App soon.

What part of designing is most fun and easy, and what is most difficult?

Everything is fun and difficult.
I prefer-and I have more skills for- drawing than coloring. Recently, I’ve started to draw directly with color shapes so that I can get a complete idea from the beginning. I think it may sometimes work.  You  do a quick  silhouette  rough  indicating  a basic  attitude  and balance, fill it with color to get a color shape, and then you go and work over it by putting small details on it, etc. It is fun and fast and it works for a type of graphic style which is nice and beautiful if you master it the way Dani Fernández does at The SPA Studio. He’s only twenty years old, but he is a master. And he’s also going to be designing on the Warner’s project, with Sylvain Deboissy and me. I’m happy for having the oportunity to work with them. I’ve learned lots of things from him during the last weeks.

What are some of the things that you do to keep yourself creative?

I draw six or seven hours every day. And every day I try to draw something new, something different from what I drew the day before. I am extremely critical of myself. I talk to myself, ask questions to myself, disagree, shout, and yell to myself… until I’ve got it. Only then, I say “OK, Borja, looks good enough”.

I spend hours and hours diving into the web sites and pouring over whatever drawing, illustration, painting, picture or animation that pleases me I find. I look at the people everywhere, the way the move, dress, comb themselves, react, what’s their body balance… I record them into my hardware and I try to draw them.

What are some of your favorite designs which you have seen?

Again, a list:
Madame   Medusa   and   Snoops;   Shere   Khan,   Bagheera,   Mowgli;   Robin   Hood   ‘n Nottingham’s Sheriff; everyone from “The sword in the stone”; the Tramp; Christopher Robinson, Winnie the Pooh ‘n the Tiger; The penguins from “Mary Poppins”, those from “Madagascar”, and the ones Sylvain Deboissy made for “Surf’s Up” too; Pinnocchio, Roger
‘n Pongo, Rapunzel,  Ratigan;  the three fairies, Aurora, Philip and his horse, Maleficient and the king, from “Sleeping Beauty”; Tinkerbell, Wendy ‘n the kids, captain Hook and Mr. Smee  from  “Peter  Pan”;  The  whole  Incredible  family;  everyone  from  “The  Iron  Giant”; Almost  everyone  from  “Ratatouille”,  Wall.e,  Spirit,  Doppler,  the  Hunchback  of  Notre Damme; Po -the kung-fu panda-, his red panda master and the tiger girl; Mulan, Lilo ‘n Stitch, Mufasa ‘n Simba as a kid; Mrs. Brisby, the villain and the crow from “The secret of NIHM”;  Marnat’s  Count Dracula’s  daughter, All the Vikings  and some of the dragons  in “How to train your dragon”, the parrots and the toucan from “Rio”, the Pink Panther, Fagin from “Oliver and Company”, Vicky the Viking, Calvin & Hobbes, Mickey mouse, Bugs Bunny, Duffy duck, Sylvester, the Road Runner and the Coyote...

What is your most favorite subject to draw?  And why?

 I mean, more than animals or whatever else. I love drawing random people normal people from all ages and times. Men, women, boys and girls, children or babies, it makes no difference to me. They are all so full of life.
I mean, animals are alive too, and they are beautiful to draw and animate, but the human being is something different. We share something with the rest of us. We can understand what the others think and feel. And we can learn how to show it on a drawing. That is giving breath to lines and color shapes. Suddenly, something on a paper is no longer something, but someone. It is alive, and has got a soul.

Your character breathes, thinks, feels, suffers, laughs, moves… by his own.
When doing character design, I think the big deal is to transform a simple design into a character.
Sometimes we must draw humans with animal features. Let’s say… Pongo. It is a dog, a Dalmatian, physically. But he is a human being in terms of personality. That’s what makes him a character, the humanity he’s got. Without humanity there’s no character.

What inspired you to become an Artist?

I don’t know... Am I an Artist? That’s a very serious word, too commonly used today and whose meaning isn’t likely appropriately noticed. Artists inspired me, but I don’t think I’ve become one of them. Not an Artist. Maybe just an artist, in a smaller letter, I consider myself more a professional than an artist.

What are some of the neat things you have learned from other artists that you have worked with or seen?

Apart from how to draw, how to use my time, what references are good to use and which aren’t, etc..., everyone at the animation vineyard that I can consider a good professional has taught me not to fall in love with any of my drawings. We work for filmmakers. They are the owners of the drawings and they have the last word about them. They’ll say if they like ‘them or not. Sometimes you agree, sometimes, not. You must be prepared to say bye bye to your characters at any time. It isn’t yours, but theirs.

I know it sounds tough, but the sooner you realize that, the best. Our job is to show them something so good that they fall in love with it. They can only do it, not you.

What wisdom could you give us, about being an Artist? Do you have any tips you could give?

About being an artist? I don’t know…
I think what I’ve said above about professionalism is important.
If I had to say something else it probably should be that when you like someone’s stuff, it is important to try to search the sources that inspired the artist. Do not simply stop on what you see. Go beyond the man. Look what he likes, what he drinks, the artists he admires and why.

It is impossible  trying to understand  Kahl’s way of drawing if you’ve never seen Ronald
Searle’s cartoons.

Every time I went to see Glen at his office in Paris, my eyes look over the walls where he stuck paintings, pictures, drawings. Glen had all that stuff inside his brain. Try to look for good references for yourself too.

If people would like to contact  you, how would you like to be contacted?

I think the best thing should be to write a comment on my character design blog:
I promise I always try to write back if you leave a mail.

It happened to me that recently someone wrote one asking me to contact him.
He wrote down his email address,  but instead  of using it, I answered  the message directly replying to the sending address, which unfortunately was a  I’m sorry about that. If you want to contact me, please be sure the reply with your address.

Finally, do you have any of your art work for sale (sketchbook, prints, or anything) for people that like your work can know where and when to buy it?

Most of what you call “your art work” isn’t mine, so I cannot sale it. As I’ve said above, it belongs to someone else. I own my own stuff, but I don’t think it’ll be what people are looking for. Anyway, if somebody wants to contact me, go through my blog, please.

Borja Montoro Gallery