Profiles: GAGA, a conversation with Jessica Borutski

Smiling Jessica

Sometime back, Ottawa artist Jessica Borutski landed herself an amazing and intimidating gig.

She was asked to redesign the iconic cast of Warner Bros classic Looney Tunes characters for an upcoming relaunch.  Well, Jess has been hard at work from her canal-viewed apartment/studio here in Ottawa and the show has been announced for Cartoon Network in the states.  Sneak peeks have been surfacing, first over on Cartoon Brew, where the inevitable fan backlash began, then Jess herself posted a shot on her blog that showed standees of the characters in the LA WB offices.  More recently, her work was featured in full colour accompanying an article in the New York Times and I’ve just heard she’ll be making an appearance on CBC’s the National tonight at 9pm to talk about her experience with the famous characters.

I’ve been chatting with Jess since before the flurry started and have got my conversation with her for you here today.  I’ll apologize a bit as the interview started via email long before the images went public, and finished via MSN, so the format shifts a bit as we proceed.

Jessica was good enough to talk to us a bit about her background, the WB gig in particular, and her work in general.
We started by getting Jess to introduce herself and give the readers some background on her and her work.  So, in her own words:
JB: My name is Jessica Borutski.
I live in Ottawa Canada.
I currently work for Warner Brothers as lead character designer for the Looney Tunes show.
I work from my living room and I love that. I just got back from LA on Monday. I was there to work in studio and meet the crew I am working with on the show.
I started my animation career at Spumco back in 2003, after graduating from Algonquin College’s animation program. After Spumco I hit the Halifax animation scene. I worked at Collideascope where I picked up my flash skills.
After Halifax I came back to Ottawa and was a lead Illustrator at Fuel Industries for 4.5 years. Worked on many interactive and web games at Fuel, but decided to leave to work for WB to and get back to my cartoon/film roots.
I created my first short film in 2005 called “I Like Pandas”.
Currently, I am working on my next short animated film. I have been working on this for the last 4.5 years. I hope to have it done this summer.
From there, we discussed the Warner Bros gig.

MV: How did this happen?
JB: This happened through an email I received from Tony Cervone, my producer on the Looney Tunes show. It was a short and sweet email, one sentence asking, “hey, would you like to re-design the Looney Tunes?” I was like, “ummmm sure, but what do you mean, if you mean putting them in cool kid clothes, or making them “edgy” or something I’m not really down”.  They then explained they wanted me to just simply draw Bugs and Daffy the way I think they should look. So keeping Bugs recognizeable but with a slightly new look. So, I did some drawings and threw in some colours.  2 days later I got an email back saying “congrats, you’ve inspired us to go ahead with this new Looney Tunes show”. I was very happy cause I grew up drawing these characters to teach myself the basics of cartooning. So from there I developed the model pack, redesigned all the characters, and created notes for all the artists at WB and over seas to go by. It’s been an amazing experience so far working with Bugs and the other iconic characters I love so much. I can’t wait for the world to see the characters with their slight face lifts!
MV: You’re dealing with some of the most iconic characters in the business.  That could be pretty intimidating, especially for someone who has such affection for them.  Could you tell me some more about how you approach the task of re-designing them?
JB: It wasn’t intimidating to me because I have been drawing them for a long time. I knew exactly how I would draw them when they asked me. I love the solidness of Jones’ drawings but the proportions of Clampettt’s characters. I don’t like the late 50’s and early 60’s Chuck Jones’ cartoons, where Bugs and Daffy became tall and thin with broad shoulders. I really wanted to give them a more 1940’s proportion, but keeping it fresh by adding a more stylistic line quality and simplified shapes. I wish I could show you some but I’d be in big trouble. (:  I’m really looking forward to the Looney Tunes buffs of the industry’s opinions.  I realize most people will hate it because everyone has such a love for these classic characters as they are. But I feel I have kept a lot of their original appeal. I’d say they are 10 {f2e86ea6af82e2bb048871abf045622abf0ed27fb513932dc1ee8c05a54cbefd} different if you want to get technical!  My favorite redesign was probably doing Bugs and Petunia Pig.
Between these emails, the first image went public.  Amid Amidi over on Cartoon Brew wasn’t exactly a fan, and wrote a short piece to that effect.  Likeminded fans chimed in, and, this being the internet, the naysayers made themselves heard.  Jess posted on her blog as well, and really took everything in stride, even when some commenters, in my opinion, crossed the line.
Jessica showed nothing but good humour, and if her feelings were hurt, she certainly didn’t let on.
Shortly after, a new piece of artwork, this time her very own, was used in a New York Times article on the new show.  Here’s where our chat resumed.
MV: hi Jess

JB: hey man

Looks like she got a copy! (Jessica's art appearing in the New York Times)

MV: nice shot in the NYtimes!

JB: HAHAHAha thanks. I’m happy about it

MV: you should be

JB: was it in the actual paper too??

MV: I don’t know.  I’m going to grab a copy and see

JB: ME TOO!

MV: The reaction on Cartoon Brew is more positive this time

JB: Yeah, people are slightly coming around…most people hate my drawing though

MV: they’re warming to Daffy, he’s pretty consistent with older models.  It’s bugs they’re freaking about.  But really, there seems to be a lot more of the “wait and see” approach now.  I think the initial reaction is over.

JB: hehehe, ya

MV:  You expected a reaction from the fan community, but did it surprise you at all?

JB: I was surprised at how biased and hateful the Cartoon Brew post was by Amid. I knew people wouldn’t like it, but I didn’t think they would be as angry I guess.  I knew it would be criticized, but I didn’t think people would start to call me names.

hahaha

oh well

MV: Yeah, you know there are always going to be haters, but some of the attacks got pretty personal.

JB: yes

MV: You handled it with class though

JB: Awww thanks. At the end of it all, I really like drawing them.  So I can’t let some cranky pants nerds get me down

MV: yeah, I mean, you got to draw Bugs!

JB: I know! It’s just starting to hit me. I’m so honoured.

MV: I got to draw Scooby Doo once in an episode of Johnny Bravo way back when, I was thrilled.  Not on the scale of your gig, but getting to handle characters you grew up with is a thrill.

JB: Bahaha that’s awesome!!!

JB: I learned how to draw from the WB 40’s stuff so I just cant believe now I’m actually drawing it for WB.

super THRILL

I used to make up model sheets when I was a kid, with notes on how to draw them and stuff.  So when I was creating the show bible and character design pages it felt very funny …felt like an 8 year old again.

gaga

haha

not GAGA

MV:  no GAGA?

C’mon, all the kids are into GAGA

JB: OK fine

end the article with GAGA

MV: it will help my google rating.

How are you finding the work situation, working from Ottawa that is?

JB: Love it. I have control over my hours, freedom to take off at anytime to meet a friend for a coffee or a long weekend in Montreal. I work for WB only 3 days a week. I then use the other2 for my short film!

Jess' home/studio. There's a Dave Cooper print on the wall, an original Kristy Gordon oil of Jess' back, and a fewher goodies. ot


MV: Do you have any problems with distractions?  Some people struggle with working at home.

JB: I did at first…..but then I was like, ok, if I keep going to the kitchen to eat trail mix every ten minutes, I’m gonna get really FAT and not have a job. That would suck. It was an adjustment…..I guess I just engaged my will power. Plus, I love drawing, so I put on some sweet tunes and I’m good to go.

MV:  what do you listen to?

GAGA?

JB: Alot of stuff… hahaha! I do like GAGA sometimes….Phoenix, The Strokes, Vampire Weekend…lately I love Bon Iver. I also love electro music like Passion Pit.  So good.

MV: I find there’s some music I can draw to, and some I can’t.  Some stuff I really like, but it pulls me out of the drawing mode.

JB; yeah I mostly play documentaries on subjects I don’t get like Astro Physics. It helps me zone into my work and makes me 20 percent smarter.

MV: good plan

20 percent smarter every time?

JB: oh yeah without fail. When I did the Looney Tunes Model sheets I watched the entire

Stephen Hawking’s Universe series.

MV: Wow, so you’re like a genius now.

JB: no but let’s say yes for this interview

MV:  Gotcha.

So how long is the WB gig?

JB: Hmmmmm… no idea. I’m hoping another year at least. Depends on how many seasons get picked up. I’m hoping at least 2.

MV:  And how far are you into this one?

JB: Almost done season 1

MV: Then, I’m assuming, a gap before you find out about season 2

JB: I’m not sure. I’ve never really worked on a show this long before. I’m thinking so though.

MV:  What about the hands on side?  What are you using, hardware/software-wise?  What’s your setup?

JB: I work on a cintiq, with photoshop. I do all my sketching and clean up and color in that software.

MV:  Is that just because it’s your medium of choice? or was there a preference from WB?

JB: My choice. I don’t think they care how I do it, as long as they get it.

MV: Do you draw on paper ever?

JB: Sometimes if I’m not at home….but its rare for me to sketch on paper now.

MV:   I’m a dinosaur, I love paper.  I just still get kinda weirded out when I walk into a studio and there’s no mess.  The chaos is gone!

JB: I love that! I hate clutter, it gives me anxiety.

MV: I got into animation in 1994ish, so it was all clutter, and giant bins full of recycling.  I even learned to animate on an Oxberry.  THAT was scary.

JB: I started in paper too, at Spumco. We animated on the great big wooden desks. It was fun.

MV: How was that experience?

JB: Well, pretty exciting. I was 19. I just got hired outta school and was so excited to get into the industry. Working for John was like super boot camp for animation.

MV: That seems to be the description that most people use.

JB: Yup, cause it’s perfect. Everything I did wasn’t right, cause he has such a specific vision. But I admire him for sticking to his vision, that’s pretty gutsy.

MV: And, as I understand it, he’s also really giving of his time.

JB: He is!

MV: And he learns as much from others as he teaches.

JB: Very true.  He taught me soo much about all the directors at Warner Brothers.  He knew Bob Clampett well.  So he would tell me all about them and how they worked.

MV:  How would you describe his influence on you?  What did you take away from Spumco?

JB:  He taught me how to give my drawings a lot more structure and he introduced me to many artists I never knew about and was able to study them. Leaving Spumco I was a stronger artist for so many reasons.  My drawings just had more strength with structure and form. I also learnt soooo much about timing in animation. John’s cartoons have GREAT timing. I remember I would have a blank x sheet and he would get me to freeze frame Clampett cartoons and put them into x sheet form. A GREAT exercise to study timing, but really tedious.  I think I did like 10 pages.  I also learned all how animation is just timed to beats. Like music.  If you animated on 12’s and 6’s your animation has a beautiful flow to it. you don’t notice it as much as you feel  it. He was a great teacher to me.

MV:  Your first film, I Like Pandas, that was done while you were at Algonquin?  Pre-John?

JB: Nope after. I made Pandas after I learnt Flash. I was so excited to discover a program I could do everything in! Animate, ink and color. I wanted to create a short piece so bad…and Flash allowed me to do it.



MV: There’s been a lot of talk lately of Flash as a tool, mainly because of the whole Apple thing, how do you feel about it?

JB: I like it. It lets you animate… I use it like a linetester….and cleanup and I think the tools are fine. I don’t know what more I’d want.

MV: I guess there’s also some question as to doing camera moves

JB: Oh well, I do those in after effects. But I guess a super program would be sweet.

MV: I need to ask about your new film.  How’s that coming?

JB: Great!  It will be done late august. Very excited. I have to figure out how to get it into every fest possible.

MV: Did you have any specific goals for this film?

JB: I’d love for it to get into competition at the Ottawa festival, and maybe get into some finals…..or EVEN an AWARD! That would be sweet. But most of all, I just want people to enjoy watching it and maybe inspire people in animation to create a film of their own. It’s very satisfying.

MV: So, for you, the satisfaction is in the doing?

JB:  Yeah I love telling stories and entertaining.  I love making shows. And I have all the control with my own work. I think I love directing, maybe I’m just bossy.  But it’s necessary to get it all out, creative therapy.

MV: So, the film itself is the reward?

Jessica says: YAAAAA.  Huge. If I didn’t have it I would feel like I didn’t get to say something important. Like I didn’t get to show people “this is what’s going on in my brain……what do you think?”

MV:  And does it matter what the reaction is?  Do you need validation at this point in your creative life?

JB: Nope. Cause it doesn’t bother me. I would do it if I was alone on a planet. It’s just fun, and I get a thrill from it. It’s always so amazing when people do like it. I get a feeling like “Wow, they get it!” They get my weird humour. It’s a really amazing feeling.

MV: Bonds you to them a bit, this thing you do that comes from somewhere that’s just you

JB: Ya, it’s a cool connection.

MV: And turns out, it’s them too!

JB: YA!!!!!!! Yes then I feel like “ok, so I’m not toooo crazy hahaha!”

MV: Well, you did go into animation….

JB: Ya, god bless.

MV:  Ok, so we’ll be seeing your film by the fall, you’ve got your WB work, anything else worth mentioning that you’ve got going on?  Are you someone who’s looking ahead already at a next film, or do you just keep all your focus on the current one?

JB: No next film, but a book called “Toaster Head!”

MV:  A book, really?

JB: My friend wrote a great little rhyme!  It’s gonna be like 20 pages. I reallly wanna just illustrate for a bit. No animation.

MV: why?

JB: Cause I love drawing. I don’t love animation.  I do it cause I have to move my drawings

MV: ssshhhhhhhh….

JB: It’s true.

MV:  keep that a secret

JB: ok

MV: So this will be a kids’ book?

JB: yeah

MV: Do you plan to seek a publisher?

JB: Yeah for sure, try to.

MV: It’s funny, so many people are turning to print medium to express themselves.  Mark Mayerson wrote a great piece about TCAF and how animators are doing more comix because it’s so freeing creatively, it’s accessible.

JB: Yeah its like making a film and not worrying about animation. You get to plan your shots and colours, then you’re done. It’s a great outlet.

MV: And none of the industry interference that comes when you have big budgets riding on it.

JB: Exactly.

MV: Well, keep us posted on it.

JB: For sure. Oh, I forgot: I wanted to give LIGHTS a shout out………she did the music for my short film.  She is a great Canadian popstar (Juno winning) as  well.  We met a couple of years ago backstage.  She was an opening act for a band my ex-boyfriend did sound for.

MV: Thanks Jess

JB: Thank you!!!!!!!!! I feel so special.

MV: then my work here is done.

GAGA.

UPDATE: More of the Borutski media avalanche here and here.  Here’s the video from the National.

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