Art Books, Reviews, Studios

[INTERVIEW] Johnny Fraser-Allen, Illustrator of ‘The Squickerwonkers’

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A while back we made contact with WETA Workshop’s Johnny Fraser-Allen, who sent me a copy of his new illustration work, The Squickerwonkers.

Johnny Fraser-Allen is a senior sculptor and conceptual designer at WETA Workshop where he has worked since his teens. His film credits include Andrew Adamson’s Narnia Chronicles, Stephen Spielberg’s Tintin, and Peter Jackson’s King Kong and The Hobbit Trilogy.

The Squickerwonkers is a delightful storybook by actress Evangeline Lilly (yes, that Evangeline Lilly). It’s a bewildering tale of a girl named Selma’s fateful encounter with the mysterious Squickerwonkers. The imperfections of the Squickerwonkers prove to be too much for Selma, and her own faults end up costing her dearly.

I was captivated by the beautiful, if not unsettling, illustrations for this book. It was cool to see another animation/vfx artist showing their talents with book illustration, like Pixar’s Artist Showcase series. Mr. Fraser-Allen was kind enough to have us interview him about The Squickerwonkers and his career as an artist for WETA Workshop.

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Rotoscopers: Your illustrations have a unique visual style. What was your inspiration behind the visuals? Did Ms. Lilly have her own vision for the illustrations or were you given total artistic freedom?

Johnny: Creatively it was very free and rewarding. Originally the story had no description of setting or characters, so in order to give myself some sense of direction I pitched her the idea of these marionette puppet characters performing the story to the little girl, and incorporating her into it, by means of a painting. As an illustrator/author/conceptual designer, I’m all about telling stories through visual images, and I have about 8 or 9 stories in my head that I mean to illustrate in time — but the marionette puppet one was the only one I had with any real story attached. Just this very visual idea of this travelling wagon with the these mysterious dangling theatre show puppets. So I offered it up to Evangeline’s cautionary tale as a means to get the best work out of me. The ship-like front of the wagon was a direct nod to my main illustrative project, “The Gloaming Trilogy”, which has a similar vehicle as a key story element.

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R: How long did it take to finish the illustrations?

J: The process took a long time, much longer than intended, because Evangeline and I were both learning as we went. The style I finally ended up with was one I had been hoping to develop for some time, and could afford to explore on this project finally, but it took some trial and error, as did Evangeline’s shaping of the words which were constantly changing as she rewrote. This would often mean changes for me in my artworks — the very reason why I chose digital over practical paintings, having worked with directors on films and understanding the need for changes.

R: Each of the Squickerwonkers has a unique personality that really comes to life on page. What was your creative process of designing the Squickerwonkers troupe?

J: At first it was only two characters, the ones which became Papa and Andy, and originally they were made of wood. But I soon realised I wanted to get a lot more expression from them and didn’t want to cheat it, so I went with stuffed sacks which offered the necessary movement. As for design, my work has always leant towards the shabby, crooked, threadbare side, I love grime and brokenness, though I never saw my work as creepy. To be honest, as a designer I feel it’s my job to selfishly draw what I personally want to see, I believe that’s how you maintain a unique voice as a designer in film, which transfers over to illustration. Also I have to keep interested as a creative for my work to be at the top of its game. After the initial painting Evangeline wanted to see a whole bunch of them, so she just gave me some names, like Greer the greedy, etc., and I came up with a quick sketch.

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R: Which was your favorite character to design?

J: I guess Papa, he was the first — and as such said everything I wanted to say visually about the Squickerwonkers, deciding their colour range, material options and the straw hair.

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R: There’s one character in the book whose presence is so discreet it’s almost missed. What was the purpose of Selma’s teddy bear?

J: Haha! Good spot! Well I’ve actually never told this to anyone… but you guys are asking such good questions. All I’ll say is the bear was always me. He is my favourite thing about the books and I hope to make him one day.

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R: Were the illustrations for The Squickerwonkers created digitally or with traditional media?

J: A bit of both. Each painting was planned loosely on a whiteboard story board, sketched on paper, and when locked down that rough sketch was traced over with care and additional detail. This was then scanned into Photoshop, where I overlaid many hand painted watercolour textures before painting in the colour and lighting passes digitally.

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R: As an illustrator at WETA, how much of your work (concept design or sculpture) is digital versus traditional?

J: It’s all mainly photoshop when it comes to film design as it’s the best tool to make options and changes with, and you can’t afford to be under the delusion that you are creating art as you are merely there to serve a director’s vision. But in some cases I’ve been fortunate enough to take my designs into the Maquette stage — which in the case of the Hobbit involved Guillermo Del Toro approving my design for the three trolls before I had even finished the painting, and getting me to sculpt all three as big busts and smaller full-body Maquettes and art directing the props and paint jobs on them (which, if you’ve seen any of my work on the gloaming, you’d know how right up my alley that is). When Peter took over the project I left to pursue my personal work and the movie was redesigned and the all the monsters went through the appropriate channels and became an amalgamation of the different departments of Weta Workshop and digital work — which is usually the case and not a bad system. But yeah, getting a chance to flesh out three great characters from pixel to sculpt to paint job is the most fun you can have creatively, which is probably why I invested as much as I did in my Gloaming sculptures.

R: Your bio mentions that you are a sculptor and a conceptual designer. How does your sculpting work relate to your illustration work creatively? Which medium do you feel the most passionate about?

J: I love all mediums and hope to express myself through all eventually, but you need only look to my work on the Gloaming to know my heart is with sculpting! The more I sculpt the better I become as a designer and illustrator however, as it’s a real hands on education in form and lighting.

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R: Which is your favorite of the Hobbit Trilogy and why?

J: Um… I’m going to have to be careful here… I LOVE Tolkien! I got a Tolkien tattoo at 14, spent my life savings trying to make fellowship of the ring at 15 and quit that at 16 when I saw the genius that was Peter’s vision and promised myself that I would work at Weta, which I achieved by 19. The Hobbit was my favourite book and I worked really hard for 2 and a half years as miniature builder at Weta while drawing every free hour of my spare time to prove I could be in the design room, only to have a chance to work on the Hobbit in a design capacity.

The years spent on Del Toro’s vision of the Hobbit were my most informative, exciting in the film industry in which I grew the most as an artist. I’ve always been very grateful for that experience. I guess if I had to choose a favourite I’d say the first, as I had a fair bit of involvement on Dori, Bombur, the trolls, and Radaghast and they were all in that one, also it’s the greenest.

R: Many who visit Rotoscopers.com are aspiring artists and animators who want to work in the creative industries some day. Given your experience at WETA, what advice do you have for them?

J: Demand more of yourself than anyone could expect of you. Put down your computer games  and pick up a pencil, nobody on earth cares what level your woodelf is at in Skyrim, they just may care about your ability as an artist though. Always push your own boundaries, accept that every mistake and failed artwork is making the next one better. You will never be wasting time if you are creating art, no matter what its end. Know your outcome, research your heroes, never copy other artists because everybody can tell and no one will respect you…but the advice I wish I had really been given is, YOUTUBE! I grew up having been diagnosed with a learning disorder and no access to the internet, now nearly anything you want to know someone has posted a tutorial for free on the net, you can grow so much from these. Watch these instead of TV and grow so fast! Also, use YouTube while creating art by having documentaries and interviews with your creative heroes on constantly, it’s so inspiring to hear them talk of their journey while you are on yours.

Also, watch Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal at least twice a year, you have to remind yourself what real work looks like, what people went through to break down barriers in the name of creativity.

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R: Where can we learn more about you and your work?

J: I am yet to create a Blog of my work and updates like so many other artists, I guess because I’m not actually looking for work, though work has found me anyway — for example The Squickerwonkers, which is a collaborative project between myself and actress Evangeline Lilly. I am published in several Art of books such as ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ ‘Tintin’ ‘King Kong’ and the ‘Hobbit’ art ofs and have several Facebook pages set up for my upcoming projects: 

www.facebook.com/JohnnyFraserAllensTheGloamingTrilogy
www.facebook.com/thewanderingwoodsbook
www.facebook.com/The-Squickerwonkers

Wanna see more Johnny Fraser-Allen? Johnny is currently working on a series of illustrated Young Adult novels titled The Gloaming TrilogyYou can follow The Gloaming Trilogy on Facebook for book release updates and current exhibition dates.

Purchase ‘The Squickerwonkers’ on Amazon

What do you think of Johnny’s illustrations for ‘The Squickerwonkers’? Thinking of buying the book? Sound off in the comments below!

Edited by: Hannah Wilkes

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About Mason Smith

Mason is a rigger/animator at Triseum Games. He's also a grad student at Texas A&M working on his Master's thesis. He loves talking about animation, watching old Godzilla flicks, listening to 80s music, and drawing cartoons. Bottom text.