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A Conversation with Harald Siepermann
“Germans ARE Funny!”
By Rhett Wickham

I have this far reaching, overly academic theory that goes something like this: the European influence on animation is growing increasingly absent in America and as a result, we’re getting less and less visually exciting.

Disney in the late 1930’s and pre-war 1940’s was undeniably under the influence of artists and illustrators like Gustave Tenggren and Kay Nielsen and Ferdinand Horvath, who had a powerful and visible impact on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio and Fantasia.  And, yes, there is a similar influence on live action with the work of directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Josef Von Sternberg and James Whale, but I’d argue that no other single studio product exhibited that influence in the same way as Disney’s films from this period.

So it is, or was, that a great wealth of European talent flowed into the industry in the United States after the production of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and studios like Disney and DreamWorks benefited from the gifts of artists like Darek Gogol, Hans Bacher, Paul and Gaëtan Brizzi, Carlos Grangel and that German guy who worked on Tarzan..oh, come on…you know his name.   Hans…no, Heinrich…oh shoot, hang on…HARALD!  That’s it.  Harald Siepermann!

Okay, I’m having fun at Harald’s expense, but to his credit, Harald Siepermann is still surprised and delighted by his increased recognition in the industry.   (How friggin’ refreshing is that?)  His influence on Character Design in the 1990’s and early part of this decade is undeniable, and he has become more and more recognizable in the past few years thanks in part to a terrific on-line blog that examines everything from character design to the satirizing of popular culture www.haraldsiepermann.blogspot.com.    Happily, Harald will be a featured speaker and exhibitor at the upcoming Creative Talent Network Animation Expo (CTN-X), November 20-22 in Burbank.

So what better place to test my platitudes on the influence of Europeans in animation than with Harald Siepermann.   I spoke with Harald from his home and studio in Hamburg, where he graciously and cleverly did exactly what a good German artist does best – supported my theory while simultaneously blowing holes through it like Swiss Cheese.  (…once again, how friggin’ refreshing!)

RHETT WICKHAM
Thanks for taking the time.  I want to dive right in and talk about something I know is near and dear to you – that is “the fundamentals”.   I was looking over some gesture drawing material and was thinking how so many of the fundamentals appear to be falling to the wayside in animation.  How well do you think that animation is paying attention to some of those basic principals?  Have we slipped away from them?

HARALD SIEPERMANN
Yeah, what can I say?  I’m afraid that a lot of today’s animation relies on standard gestures.  You know, the old guys, like the Nine Old Men and the early Disney animators ..they..um, I’m sorry for my English.  It’s kind of rusty.

RW
That’s alright.  My German is non-existent.

HS
They sort of extracted that from real life.  They observed real life and boiled it down to a hand full of rules and principles.  Sometimes, I’m afraid, those rules are the only things that today’s animators know, and they’ve forgotten about the real thing – real life.  And so some of those things become standard gestures, like ‘this is what you look like when you’re sad, this is what you look like when you’re happy, this is what you look like when you pick up something heavy.’  You know?   Not on the Pixar films, but some of the others, they sometimes, especially T.V. animation, they sometimes fall into that trap.

RW
TV animation has always had the disadvantage of…well, all television is just talking radio, so I’ve always thought television animation is just talking comic strips, where everything has to be boiled down to over-simplified gestures and expressions.   But, then again, you look at the work of great strip artists like Bill Waterson, you get more specifics.   I guess the devil’s in the details.

The very first thing in the most frequently referenced gesture drawing notes floating around is called “Go For the Truth” with a sub-header “Observe, observe, observe.”

HS
Very true.

RW
I don’t think young artists today have as much time, or take as much time, to do that.  To observe.  They simply don’t interact with other people as frequently because so many of them – well, not just young artists, everybody is spending more and more time isolated, on-line, interacting virtually through FaceBook and not getting up and doing something as simple as getting out and running errands.   Our person-to-person communication, and being able to observe people is limited to Skype.

HS
Exactly, or on the tube, or whatever.   For example, I didn’t grow up with a lot of comic strips and I didn’t watch a lot of cartoons on T.V. because there wasn’t any.  I didn’t grow up on that diet of cartoons.  I had a handful, really, four or five Carl Barks Donald Ducks, and when I was ten years old Astrix came out, and there was one a year!  Much later Tin-Tin came to Germany.  That was all I had, and the Flintstones on television.

RW
Those are pretty great influence, actually; they’re pretty well observed comic sources.  I feel like the European influence, at least on Western animation, has shifted a great deal since the break-up of the company of animators that re-built Disney and other studios in the 80’s and 90’s.     As they did in the 30’s and 40’s, Disney had a great deal of European influence during the 80’s and 90’s, but now it seems to have dissipated.    What is the climate like now in Europe, now that so much of that talent has returned to Europe?  Is it having any effect on production there?

HS
You’re right.  But to tell you the truth, the average German doesn’t think of classic animation as being influenced by Europe.  You have to point it out to them.   We think of it as being very American, or the average European does at least.

RW
Well it’s certainly distilled through an American sensibility.  But the most powerful visual influence of the visual language of animation has come from outside the U.S. and I miss that in the films produced in the U.S. recently.  But maybe I’m romanticizing, who knows.

HS
What you have to understand is that interest in animation isn’t that big in Germany.  They mostly consider it kids stuff.  They don’t understand that it’s a grown-up form of story telling which is equal to let’s say The Wrestler or normal cinema.  They keep looking at it as kids stuff.   Or you have the low-brow artists who take influence from China or Japan or India, so we don’t really take it seriously.   I mean the average German, they don’t look at it that closely.      Except, maybe the French, because comics and such are a part of their cultural heritage.  But especially in Germany it was killed with the Third Reich.

We had a lot of great illustrators, great comic strip artists, artists of every kind, and we lost them all.   A whole generation of artists and people that could tell stories.

RW
You’re right.  Germany has always had a great tradition in the last two centuries on the printed word, and I think people forget how decimated it  was during the Second World War.


Elephants Courting by Heinrich Kley.

HS
But when it came back after the Second World War in the shape of Mickey Mouse, or Superman, or whatever, it was regarded as kids stuff and not very sophisticated, cheap, and dangerous for kids.  And it’s only now that my generation has grown up – we grew up with Mickey Mouse and whatever – that we appreciate it again.

RW
Do you think there’s a new and unique German voice that’s coming from your  generation and the generation after ours that has an opportunity to influence and make something unique and its own?

HS
Not that’s particularly German.  It’s more global now.  It’s not as German like Heinrich Kley, or Wilhelm Busch.  That was very, very German.

(Editor’s Note:   It’s easy to see the influence of these two German artists on early Disney.  Particularly Kley’s playful series on Elephants, which were enormously influential on the Dance of the Hours sequence of Fantasia)

An unidentified illustration by Wilhelm Busch

HS
We Germans have a very special kind of humor, which is a very clever kind of humor. It’s not translatable in any other language, so other people think we don’t have a sense of humor. It’s very special, and very intellectual.

RW
There’s something wonderful about the globalization of our sensibilities, but something just as sad about losing the uniqueness and individuality.

So, where are you in your work now? What’s next for you?

HS
What I’m realizing now, thanks to what I’ve done so far, and thanks to the Internet, I’ve kind of created a name for myself. All of a sudden people know who I am, and they seem to like what I’m doing. What I realize is that I’ve gotten somewhere, that I’ve made myself a name. Up to now it was more a matter of finding the right place to work, and doing what I would like to do. I wasn’t so much concentrating on my career as I was concentrating on what I’d like to do and what I would like to be. All of a sudden I started to realize that people know me and they start to say hello when I go to Annecy or something, and they know what I look like and what I’m doing. That’s very strange. Up until now it was like “Hi, I’m the new guy.”

RW
How did you come to Disney?

HS
I always loved Disney, since I saw the Jungle Book, when I was six. But I never saw it as a career opportunity. I knew it was done somewhere in America and it was done by a handful of people and I knew that it was a lot of work, so I really learned it but I never thought that I would go to work there. I copied their stuff, and I drew my own sequels of Jungle Book, and I used the characters to draw the characters in invented, new adventures. I thought that I would become an illustrator or something, because there was no German animation industry. I never started to animate, I only drew the characters.

When I came to art school I met Hans Bacher, who was teaching there. He had an animation course. He saw my stuff and said “you should be doing animation!” Andreas Deja had just left the school, so there was a kind of an open eye at the school – the teachers had an open eye to animation because of Andreas; before then it was ridiculed “this is Mickey Mouse and why would you want to do that.”

Hans already had a name in advertising agencies, and he had already met Richard Williams, so he kept giving me jobs. “You know, there’s that job at the agency, and I haven’t got time to do it because I’m busy, would you like to?” So I got into advertising and through that I got to meet Richard Williams. Hans and I would go to London, maybe once or twice a year, to look for books or tapes, and that was maybe the early 80’s, and we regularly visited Dick Williams. By a strange coincidence, we visited him at the same time that Zemeckis was there and Spielberg was there to talk about Roger Rabbit. Dick had just made up his mind to direct it the animation part, so he said “If I’m going to do it I really have to get a bigger studio, and hire everyone I know! Would you like to be part of this, you two? What are your plans? Would you like to Join in!”

I was still a student, from nothing I was first at Richard Williams place in London, and then they send me and Hans to L.A. to work on the Toon Town sequence which was done at Speilberg’s place. So I was working for Speilberg and Disney at the same time! And I met Don Hahn, and Joe Ranft, and all of them in a really short time, in a matter of weeks. Then all of a sudden Glen Keane was there, and Andreas, and Phil Nibling. It was like being in a dream! Even then I never thought of “this is where I’m going to stay” because at the same time I had my comic strip in Germany – I was doing a comic strip at that time, also with Hans – and I always thought that I would go back after Roger Rabbit and continue with the comic strip. We were talking about a TV series at that time based on the comic strip.

It was only to make money, after that, that I would maybe go to work for Amblimation maybe once a year. Only slowly it dawned on me that animation was where I wanted to be. I kept getting hired, and my work was appreciated more and more, and it got more and more fun.

RW
What was the first assignment that you had where you were singled out for design work? Do you remember the first thing that got pointed out or pulled off of the board as “we need to go more in this direction”?

HS
Absolutely. I was working on Mulan, but I came in very late. Production was well under way and all they needed were a couple of more sketches of Mushu. So I was there for three months or so, and I was doing a lot of sketches of Mushu and incidental characters, miscellaneous characters. And I also did some warriors, the bad guys. Those were seen by the directors of Tarzan, Kevin Lima and Chris Buck. Tarzan was very young at that time, it was a very fresh project, and nobody knew where it was going to go – whether it was going to be a comedy or an action adventure. They saw those warriors and they called me into their office, and they said “We’ve seen your warriors, and there’s something in those warriors that we are looking for in the gorillas. So what we would like you to do is read the book and do as many gorillas as you can think of.” That’s what I did. I took the book home, and week by week I sent them sketches of the gorillas – sometimes a bit funnier, sometimes a bit more serious, and I was exploring. When those three months or something were over, they asked me “Would you like to do the whole cast ? We think there is something in your drawings that is very European, and we want it to look European because it’s a European story, and it’s something fresh. Would you like to do that?”

That really was the first time that I felt that there was something going on, and I was a bit scared even.

RW
What a wonderful way to be scared. If you have to be frightened, that’s the right kind of fear to face.

HS
I remember thinking that no matter how bad your work is, there’s always a Disney villain to look at, and you know that you’re looking at something of quality. Now, all of a sudden I found myself in charge to create that character, and there was nothing to look up to at that moment because I had to do it now! I still remember where I was sitting when I had that thought “that’s quite a responsibility now!”

RW
When you have that kind of influence, when your design will become something iconic, if not ubiquitous thanks to merchandising, you realize that you will have a lasting impact on culture for years and years to come. That is an amazing thing to think about.

HS
It’s even scarier nowadays when students come up to me and say “I grew up with your stuff.” When we did the TV series in the 1990’s, those kids are now at the University and they’re studying art, and that’s the generation who – for them, the first movie they saw was Beauty and the Beast, and for me that’s like yesterday!

RW
Man, it’s amazing to think about. Is there a particular character design that you’ve done, outside of your wonderful comic strip characters, a character for film that you have a fondness for? (sic)

HS
Oh yeah, sure. Mushu. It was my first main character that I designed – not just me, but I was a part of that. And of course the whole cast of Tarzan. Particularly Clayton and Kerchak. I love those characters. Not because they’re done well, but because they’re so close to me that they’re like kids.

RW
What was it like for you, as a character designer, to pass your work on to an animator who refines it, and brings it to life?

HS
It’s amazing. Provided that it’s done well (laughs) It’s such a great feeling. What Randy Haycock did with Clayton was amazing, because I couldn’t do it. I never learned to animate. I know the theory, but I never really animated and I never would be a great animator. Then all of a sudden you see this thing move and you see that he understood what you were thinking and what you were aiming at. And the same thing is true, in fact the very first time that gave me goose-bumps was when Ken Milton had done the sculpture of Clayton, which is a wonderful maquette. I had the feeling that he saw things in my drawing that I was meaning to put there, and I didn’t quite catch it, and he saw them and got them into his sculpture. That was a great feeling.

RW
Yeah, his ability to work in three dimensions is astounding. He’s so gifted, so amazingly gifted.

HS
Absolutely! It’s an honor to hand something over and have it animated by those great guys – Sergio Pablos, all the great names.

RW
Was there a point in that production, or just after, where you began to think differently, or something new entered into your thinking that changed the way you go about character design?

HS
I don’t know if it changed. I think it’s always been like that. When I was in art school, and still studying Disney really seriously studying it, for the first time – because that’s the first time that video cassettes became available and before that I had to look at Little Golden Books - the first thing that I could get my hands on was The Illusion of Life, and then I felt that my stuff is a little different but not in a good way. Being at Disney – because you know it’s not really Disney what I’m doing, it’s not really Disney, it’s still Harald somewhere, you know? – so being at Disney that was the first time that they came to me and said, that’s what we’re looking for! Disney we can do ourselves, but we’re looking for your stuff, which is a little bit different and a little bit more European.” So that was the first time that I realized that it was a good thing that I’m not copying Frank and Ollie a hundred percent!

RW
What are you doing now?

HS
I was working on Gnomeo and Juliet last year, it used to be a Disney project and now it’s at Mirimax. The pre-production was done in London, and now they’ve moved to Canada. I was on that team last year. I’m looking forward to being on Chuck Williams and Aaron Blaise’s next project later this year.

RW
King of the Elves
, right? Based on the Philip K. Dick short story.

HS
Yup, the Brother Bear team.

RW
You did extensive work on Brother Bear, too. Particularly on the Inuit characters.

HS
Exactly. Again, we started at the very beginning. I was approached for Brother Bear because I had done all the gorillas in Tarzan and there were a lot of different bears on Brother Bear, and at that time people thought that what I could do was get a lot of characters into characters that look almost the same. Like I had done with the gorillas. There’s not a lot to work with on gorillas, they almost all look the same, but still they had a lot of different characters and they were looking for me to do the same thing with the bears.

I remember Chuck Williams talking to me and he said, “We would like you to do some of the Indians as well. Just a couple of them.” Then it took us over a year or something because there were so many changes in story, they kept re-writing the story. It was the elder brother and then the older brother, and then the father, then the father became the third brother. It kept changing and changing, and I had to redo and redo and redo the Indians, which was great fun, actually.

RW
Those are some beautiful designs.

HS
Thank you.

RW
That’s a film that got lost in the bigger story of Disney layoffs and the presumed end of traditional animation. It’s a beautiful film. I’m particularly fond of Rune Bennicke’s work on that film. So, what else are you up to?

HS
Right now I’m putting the finishing touches on a cookbook with illustrations of the Duck, you know my Duck, the cartoon character?

RW
Yes

HS
It started out in the late 70’s as a project for UNICEF.  There’s this Dutch singer,  Herman Van Veen, who was a UNICEF ambassador, still is, and UNICEF approached him to collect some money for a water project with the Masai tribe.  So he wrote this stage show, because he’s a singer, and he wrote it as a duck because it was about water.  It was never meant to become a comic strip or whatever.  It was never visualized.  It was just him, on stage, and he would be all the characters very much like Danny Kaye.  I met him backstage one day, and he liked my stuff that I was doing, then he gave me a phone call one day and said, “We need you for a poster, for the Duck, for a stage show we’re doing in Germany.”  So I did the poster, and the poster became a comic strip, and then a second one and a third one and then it became a TV series.   So we still kept the UNICEF going, and the Duck himself now is UNICEF ambassador for children’s rights.

Right now we’re building a house close to the Dutch border in a very beautiful landscape.  It’s a house where children can go on vacation when they normally can’t afford a vacation – be they sick or poor, whatever.  So they can apply and then they can spend a week or two with their parents or their doctor in that house.  Right now we’re collecting money through the Duck for that house.  I just did a cook book with the Duck, and different recipes.

I’m working on a TV special, a little bit of animation for TV.  And I did some character designs for a commercial for America, again with Rune Bennicke.   He’s in Brazil now, and he’s freelancing from there.

RW
Will the book be published in German, French, English?

HS
German, it’s very small project.  But it’s very dear to my heart because it’s a charity thing.

RW
I hope you’ll let the CTN family know when it’s published because there a lot of people who would like to have one, and to contribute by purchasing one.  When is it due out?

HS
Somewhere this year.  It’s so small that it didn’t even have a deadline.  It’s just finished when it’s finished.

RW
That sounds like heaven!

HS
(laughs) Yeh!  Because it’s just within that town – the Mayor, the fire brigade, the kindergarten…everybody contributes a recipe and then we illustrate it with the Duck and then we sell it for charity.   Who knows where it goes from there.

Another thing that I just did, I don’t know if you’re aware that this year, 2009, is the 2000th anniversary of the battle between the Germans and the Romans, and the Germans won in the year Nine.  The Romans never got any further north than that in Europe, apart from England.    The place where that battle was, there is a great statue of a German warrior.  Of course this has always been misinterpreted all the time, because it was always a symbol for national movements, especially the Nazis.   It was always “Defend Yourself Against Your Enemies!” and that guy, that statue, is still looking towards France.

RW
Eeek!  How unfortunate!

HS
Yes, so the community of that town, they’re afraid that in connection to that anniversary that a lot of national movements, and Nazis and such,  will march and be there.  So what they are trying to do is reinterpret the whole thing and go more in the direction of “Understand Your Neighbor” and globalism and   the European Community.   So they invited a lot of schools to come there, and they’re taking walks around the battle field and they teach them about what really happened, because a lot of what is taught is just bullshit.  Actually, that guy who fought in that battle was Roman, himself, but he was of German origin so he fought against his colleagues.

So we did a picture book with a little Owl who lives in that statue, and tells you what  was the story was really like, to get away from all this nationalism and conservative movements.

RW
I remember seeing aa beautiful illustration from the book that shows Alfred J. Kwak looking into an old book that’s opened to a page literally exploding with spears and cannons and flags.

HS
Yes,  it’s all the German History of 2000 years of wars and battles.

RW
I know everyone is looking to seeing you at the CTN conference in November.  What will you be doing there?

HS
I don’t really know, exactly.  I’m hoping to exhibit some of my work that I’ve done over the last ten to fifteen years.  I’m also hoping to get a book finished by then, with my stuff  – a sort of best of.   Since I’m teaching at a number of films schools here in Germany and Denmark and such, I’m trying to put together my lecture that I do on character design.  What I’d like to do is illustrate it, and that will take me a lot of time, I’m afraid, and I don’t know if I’ll get it finished until October.

But I’m really looking forward to come to LA, because I haven’t been there for quite a while.  Because now it’s much, much easier to work with emails and jpgs and Skype and whatever, and it’s not really necessary to go there anymore, so much as it used to be.

RW
Do you miss having the day to day contact with colleagues, the face to face interaction?

HS
Absolutely!  Absolutely.  The last time that I did that was on the Gnomeo and Juliet project last year in London, and then I realized how much I miss it to go to a studio every day and work in a team.  Even if I have just one meeting a week, it’s great to be in a studio and it’s great to concentrate on just your work.  You don’t have to go to the post office in-between, or you don’t have to pay any bills in-between or help with the homework or whatever, which always happens when you’re working from home.

RW
Indeed, it’s so wonderful to have colleagues around you and to feed off of that energy.

HS
Yes, it’s so inspiring.

RW
That’s one of the great things about CTN, it keeps colleagues in touch with each other and allows us to have influence on each other.   CTN’s a pretty extraordinary organization.

HS
Absolutely.

RW
One last question.  Of all the productions you’ve worked on that went nowhere – we’ve all had a hand in one or more projects that got shelved in some way or another – is there one production that if you had the magical power to say “They never made this and they should have” is there one that you’d revive?

HS
Absolutely.  Disney-wise it would be Fraidy Cat.

RW
Oh!  Don’t you wish!!  The movie that got caught in the squeeze.

HS
Absolutely!  It sounded like such a good idea, and it was so much fun just to think about it.

RW
Especially in Ron and John’s hands.  Those guys working on a Hitchcockian ‘Wronged Man’ story.  Man.   Outside of Disney?

HS
Outside of Disney I got a chance here in Germany to work on a project here called Nick Knatterton.  It was a 50’s comic strip, very Dick Tracy like, but more cartoony.  It was almost a parody on Dick Tracy and Sherlock Holmes.  It was a weekly page in a German magazine, and there was a time when they thought about making it into a feature.  I was in charge of the development department.  We put together a wonderful story, and we kept it in the 50’s, and we developed a wonderful style with some great artists here that would transport the style of the 50’s  – you know that kidney shape and such.   When the development almost was done they pulled the plug on it.

RW
Where was the funding coming from?

HS
It was from MTV, that German guy…I knew him because my Duck was his very first job.  He had a licensing company.  He got really, really big.  He made a lot of money with it, and then it became one of those bubbles, you know.  He bought everything – the Simpsons, and the Muppets, and Formula One, the real Formula One, and when he did that it was just a bridge too far.   Then it all collapsed.

RW
So what happened to the property?

HS
I think he still has the rights, or it went back to the family of the artist.  Apparently the guy, Manfred Schmidt, hated comics and he wanted to show how silly comic strips are, but in doing that he created a wonderful comic strip.

RW
There’s so many projects like that.  Is there a property you’d like to get ahold of?

HS
Yes.  I’d still like to do that Knatterton thing.  Right now I’m reading a book to my son when I’m putting him to bed, called Jim Button, written by the same guy who wrote The Never-Ending Story.  It’s never been done properly.  It has been done several times for television and a puppet show, but it could be great.

Indeed, just about anything one could imagine In Harald Siepermann’s hands would be great, that’s only the half of it.

We all look forward to seeing him in November in Burbank.  For more information on the upcoming CTN Animation Expo (CTN-X) go to:

Online Event Registration: http://www.regonline.com/ctnanimationexpo2009
The CTN Animation Expo Event Site: http://www.ctnanimationexpo.com
Online Hotel Reservations: http://www.ctnanimationexpo.com/about/travel-housing/
If you book early the first 100 attendees to book two nights in the hotel receive a 3 day pass free of charge.

To contact Harald Siepermann directly | mail(at)harald-siepermann.com

Posted by admin at 3.18 AM | 2 Comments
Labels: Character Designers, Uncategorized

Comments

  1. Chuck Rekow (April 24th, 2009, 9.22 pm)

    Great interview! Thanks!
    ..and thanks Mr. Siepermann for all the inspirational work!

  2. admin (February 19th, 2013, 2.49 am)

    Harald Sieperman pass away on February 16th 2013. He will be missed.

    For those of you smart enough to come to CTN and meet Harald Sieperman in 2009 and 2011 you met one of the great character designers for feature film animation and an un-renewable resource in the industry. We were proud to have him as our guest and a member of CTN and are sorry to tell you now that he has put his pencil down and has designed his last character and will not pass our way again.

    I knew Harald from Disney when we worked together in Visual Development on Tarzan and many will never forget his generosity in sharing his talent with everyone at the show.

    We will miss you and your talent greatly. “THANK YOU”!! THANK YOU FOR EVERYTHING.

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