Justin Lovell on hand-drawing animation in Cloud Train


Justin Lovell on hand-drawing animation in Cloud Train

In Justin Lovell’s upcoming indie project Cloud Train, a foot chase through a futuristic cityscape leads our nameless protagonist to learn more about this society – and, perhaps, about himself. The short is a passion project, taking inspiration from Lovell’s love of animation across eras and continents. 

Lovell, who has been part of Emmy, Annie and BAFTA award-winning productions, also hopes Cloud Train will help to push back against the current franchise-based business model that has become so widespread across entertainment. We had a chance to chat with Lovell about Cloud Train, the changing face of the animation industry, and the synthesis of influences that inspire the project.

Trailer for Justin Lovel‘s Cloud Train, originally published for a crowdfunding project.

Let’s start with a bit of background. What brought you to Atomic Cartoons Inc., and what then prompted you to create an indie project?

Justin: I got my full-time job at Walt Disney. I was there for three years, working my way up from in-between artist to rough animator. That was my first big hand-drawn gig. I left New Zealand to go work at that studio, which was in Australia. And we were the last hand-drawn studio that they had. I was left with two options at that stage. Hand-drawn was slowly falling off, and 3D was becoming such a big thing. And then digital animation started to really boom. It was one of those forks in the road. 

I really wanted to stay with the 2D aspect. There’s something about 2D that I just love. I’m addicted to 2D. That’s where my heart is, that’s what got me into the industry. So that made that decision easy. Flash was starting to come around, and a lot of my colleagues at the time were like, “You can still draw like this, it’s a drawing tool.” That was my jump into digital animation.

Like I said, I left New Zealand to go work in Australia, then I was in Vancouver for a little while, then moved back to Australia. I worked at Flying Bark for a bit of a time, and then I was just itching to get back to Canada. I love the culture here, I love the lifestyle here. It’s also a very cold country, so I enjoy that. So I ended up moving to Ottawa. I worked at Mercury Filmworks for five years. Then I got an opportunity to move up in my career, so I moved back here to Vancouver, and that’s where I was at one studio, which kind of ended up being a bit of a dead end. 

But at that time, Atomic Cartoons was looking for senior staff, so I was very, very fortunate to meet with Joel Bradley and Carl Upstell. I’ve been there for almost eight years now. The crew is lovely. Jen Twiner McCarron and the whole Atomic team has always treated me so well, and it would be a sad day if I had to leave. I feel so at home with everybody that works there, and I think we’re all pushing for the same idea.

We’re doing great stuff, even though the industry’s in flux at the moment. I feel like the animators here are still very proud of what they’re doing. Everyone’s throwing a thousand percent into every project that they’re doing. Even though the industry is on shaky ground, it’s still awesome to turn up, and everyone’s still having a good time, everyone’s loving being there, and everyone’s doing the best work they possibly can. 

Storyboard sample from Cloud Train, provided by Justin Lovell.

Was it the industry’s current shaky ground that prompted you to work on Cloud Train now?

Justin: It was a couple of things. I’ve been working on this for the last twelve-ish years. I put it down for a while, because I’d done a couple of short films and they’d been misses. I really needed to kind of work on my storytelling skills, and so that’s what I did. Once I got to Atomic, and I started moving up the ladder, I started broadening my horizons as far as how to tell stories. I think it was aroundNight at the Museum: Kahmunrah Rises Again when I was like, “I feel like I’m in a good spot.” 

So we got a team together. We got the boards together, we got designs, environments, we got everything thrown together. Then it was just a matter of finding the time myself to do some line tests, to get the animation where I was happy with it. There was a lot of collaboration with artists.

As far as the timing [of the project], I miss hand-drawn so much that I was like, “Well, why not now?” We have all these amazing, talented people out in the world that potentially are looking for jobs, looking for something to do. A lot of younger animators haven’t had the chance to do hand-drawn animation, so there’s now a path that they potentially could take to get a bit of a taste of what it would be like to work on a hand-drawn film or series. Unfortunately, hand-drawn is not, not really the norm at this point.

A scene from Cloud Train in Harmony Premium, showing behind the scenes material from the ink, paint and lighting passes.

I have spoken with artists who have hand-drawn animation within Harmony. What is your team using, as far as software, or are you going even more old-school than that?

Justin: I wish! We don’t have the time. I don’t know if I want to sit here punching reams of paper for us to go super old-school. We used Storyboard Pro to do the boards, and we will use Toon Boom Harmony to do both the animation, the comp, the lighting, the effects. We’ll go all in with Toon Boom products.

I want to take everything that I did at Disney, everything that I loved about hand-drawn, and bring it into the software. So, it’ll all be hand-drawn. We’re doing roughs. We’ll do cleanup and colour. All of that will be in the animation pipeline, as if it was hand-drawn pencil and paper, but it’ll just be within the program itself.

We’ve just modernized a very old way of doing animation, but I feel like we still capture that nostalgia. We still get to see that craftsmanship in every frame, which is super important to me. It’s not just an art. It’s something that you can learn, you can get better at, and you can master your craft. And there’s a desire for it. I can see it in the way that media is going. I think people are looking for deeper stories, but something that resonates with them visually. That’s what I’m hoping to get: people being like, “This is new, but it feels like something that I’ve seen before.”

I’ve taken so much inspiration from Miyazaki and the quality of films we used to get back in the golden age of the 90s with Disney features, so I’m literally just trying to take everything we can and just kind of smash it into one project. If it resonates with the artist, hopefully it would resonate with the viewers.

I’m glad you brought up Miyazaki, because it’s very clear even from the Kickstarter that Cloud Train takes influence from Studio Ghibli.

Justin: Anime is what got me into this industry. I watched Dragon Ball, and I was just like, “People get paid to draw this. Maybe that’s something I can do.” And then from there, that just exploded. I found Miyazaki’s work. Lupin III was a huge inspiration for this one. And then My Neighbor Totoro to Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke… the list goes on. We’re all kind of mesmerized when we watch his work. It’s hard not to be inspired by someone who’s such a master of their craft.

It’s the way he goes about his storytelling, and the amount of love and passion he puts into his work. So it’s inspiring for a lot of us. And I think even his latest film being up for so many awards shows that the general public are looking for something different than what has been the norm for so long. 

Cloud Train background roughs, provided by Justin Lovell.

A lot of indie directors have been talking recently about the synthesis of Asian and North American influences, particularly a synthesis of the Disney-style sensibility and Japanese animation. 

Justin: I think that fusion will end up being its own genre. That deeper storytelling followed up with unbelievably well-crafted animation. Growing up in New Zealand, going through animation school, that was the dream: to bring both those styles together and push for something that potentially would be new. 

Given that the industry is in flux right now, do you think indie projects are going to become more common? Or do you think that people are going to push for more standard, full-time work? After all, so much of the industry is freelance, even at big studios.

Justin: I’m really hoping that we get away from this idea of we’re only going to buy franchised media. Let’s use superhero movies as an example. They were really hot when they first came out, but now the sales that I’ve seen are going down because we’re a bit fatigued. 

I think the industry needs to really take a good look at that and be like, “Maybe we need to support more original IP. Maybe we need to start pushing original ideas from new creators.” I would like to hope that in the next five to ten years, we see a huge swing in what people want to get behind. I think the push for original content will start to come because we’re starting to hit that plateau of recycling the same stories in a different medium.

Background from Cloud Train provided by Justin Lovell.

Do you think this new wave of independent projects might be part of what swings the pendulum a little bit further towards original IP? 

Justin: I’m really hoping so. I deal with a lot of creatives every day, and there are so many creative people with so many fun, exciting, very new takes on life and takes on tales. I sit there and I hear these young artists’ ideas, and I’m like, “Wow, someone needs to pick that up. That’s hilarious. I would watch that.” We need a season of that.

And I think it really does start with people doing Kickstarters, people getting their IP out there and trying to create communities and get backers to help push their ideas and their projects forward. It does start like on this smaller scale. And hopefully we will see that blossom into something bigger and something more exciting.

I think we’re going to get a lot of passion projects from some very talented and interesting people in the next little while. So purely from a consumer standpoint, it could be a very interesting time.

Justin: That’s it. I’ve seen a lot of projects on Kickstarter recently that fit the same mould as mine: There are X amount of dollars. It’s five to six-minutes. And it’s done by a small team. 

It’s crazy because we’re all looking at roughly the same amount of money. And we’re all on the same page as just making enough to live, and to pay our artists. Once you take out that push for finances, you can see how much things actually cost and how much maybe the middleman is skimming off the top. 

Speaking of passion projects, let’s hear a little bit more about Cloud Train in particular.

Justin: Cloud Train is a six-minute short, hand-drawn. We have a couple of story plots. One, we’ve got a hero who’s chasing someone down and he thinks, “Oh, this is going to be a simple situation, point A to point B. I’ll do my job.I can go home.” But within chasing the lead, he finds something completely different. It takes him on a journey of a little bit of self-discovery, a little bit of realization of the world that he lives in.

I’m being a little bit cryptic with my answers. I don’t want to give too much away because as soon as I pull one story thread, the rest of it kind of falls into place and I’m very cautious. It’s also why I’ve only shown one of the two main characters so far. 

It’s set in the future. So it’s a bit of a sci-fi, a little bit of a mystery. It has a lot of passion, a lot of action to it. A little bit of comedy thrown in there for good measure. I like to think of it as a well-rounded short film. 

There’s no dialogue. This was a way for me to stretch my artistic acting chops with hand-drawn animation, but also a good way to lower costs a little bit. Not that [finding voice actors] would be hard in Vancouver. We’re blessed with actors out here. But it also adds a level of difficulty to the animator’s jobs because now we’re pantomiming a story. 

We’ve got a whole bunch of new techniques that we’ve thrown in. At the end of the day, it’s a love story to all of animation, whether it was pantomiming animation very early on, whether it’s the way we’ve lit this piece where it feels a little bit more anime-esque. And then, like I brought up earlier, the golden age of 1990s animation with the quality of animation that we’re trying to do on this project.

How big is your team on this project? Are you looking for folks with particular skill sets?

Justin: We have a very small team: the crew that put together the teaser that we currently have. But we’ll probably look at expanding, definitely, for the hand-drawn department.

I know Sam Wheeldon probably wouldn’t mind some help with the background environments. And talking to Elton Su who’s our effects lead, and lead comp artist Shannon Hamilton, they potentially would want help too. 

I would like to get it done within the year. So if we were to look at that schedule, yeah, I don’t think Dante Mercer and I could animate six minutes of hand-drawn animation by ourselves while still having our foot in a full-time job. Cloud Train is me writing my love letter to the industry. So if people are getting excited, I would love to hear from them. 

I think producing Cloud Train would be a solid win for everybody, to show the world that there are original creators trying to do original stories. And for us to make this more mainstream, we have to support these small projects. I think if any message sinks through, it’s just to support these indie filmmakers. Because without them, we might not see change.

  • For more details about the production of Cloud Train, check out the project’s and Kickstarter campaign. Be sure to also follow the project on Instagram.
  • Interested in working on your own independent animated project? Artists can download a 21-day trial of Harmony Premium.

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