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The Questionnaire: Yvonne Grzenkowicz, Independent Animator

Yvonne Grzenkowicz is an independent animator and interactive designer based in New York. As the lead animator and director of Eyesnare Inc she has produced award winning music videos and worked with some high profile clients including DreamworksTV and Sesame Street. She also just happens to be joining team AFA as our New York writer and we thought what better way to get to know her than by asking her a few questions?

AFA:. First a bit of background, how did you first get into animation/animating?

YG: My path to animation was winding but there were a number of road signs along the way which pointed to my being an animator. My Mother is a self-taught portrait artist and a talented teacher, too. She gave me portrait lessons at an early age and the knowledge stuck. I've been drawing ever since. Also, when we were young, my sister and I used to pop into an electronics store on the walk home from school. The shop owner would let us play text based adventure games on the display computers. We had a TRS-80 in the house for a short time and I played text based games on it and created hand drawn maps that I wished were interactive. During high school I had a very supportive art teacher who let me sit and draw whatever I wanted. I attended summer programs that solidified Fine Arts in my mind as something I wanted to pursue.

I attended The University of Georgia in Athens GA and I met some terrific local artists and musicians. I moved to Boston to attend the School of the Museum of Fine Arts to continue my studies. Throughout that time I studied, sketched, wrote, and painted. I had no interest in electronics save my watch and my Walkman. I did paintings based on old family photos and found photos. I created imaginary environments for the scenes. The paintings always contained a story and a narrative. I had friends who played around with Super8 cameras and I did a little bit of experimenting myself, creating creepy frame by frame drawings of babies biting off their thumbs and of adult heads evacuating liquids. During college I always had side projects going in my bedroom or garage.

I've always wanted to live in New York City. I cobbled together some extra cash from a second job and moved to Brooklyn with a kindred spirit I met at the cinema art house that was funding my relocation. I found an apartment with my new friend and we moved in the middle of the winter, during a blizzard. The apartment had no refrigerator so we put our groceries on the fire escape. Once I finally made it here I made a living waiting tables at different coffee shops and historic taverns around the city and painted and tried to hang my work wherever and whenever I could. It was a fun time. I worked many different kinds of jobs to pay the bills.

At one point, I worked as an artist's assistant, helping her gear up for a big show she was having. After her show, she introduced me to her husband who owned an architectural firm. He said he needed someone to help him organise the office. It was that job filing slides at the architecture firm which really changed things for me. I was bitten by the technology bug. I became his executive assistant and I suddenly had a computer on my desk. I started studying HTML and learning to build websites. Eventually, I moved to an Autocad position at the firm. After working on large pieces of paper and canvas, the idea of an infinite virtual space in Autocad grabbed me. I made replicas of my apartment to practice. I started studying 3D Viz, Architectural Desktop and 3D Studio Max. I made replicas of buildings from my childhood. The technology opened a door to a whole new world of possibilities.

I studied Flash, HTML, CSS, and 3DS Max and then left the architectural firm and started getting work doing idetails and banners. I continued making narrative drawings at home. I was also creating interactive portfolio sites (www.grzen.com).

I began to try modelling characters based on my paintings and make animation based on my narratives and I realised I had a deficit of knowledge when it came to animation. I started studying. I had been following Animation Mentor and I was really impressed with the student work so I signed up for the program. It was fantastic. I took the core program, some refresher courses, and the animals and creatures program. I studied in CG, did thumbnails for homework, and created idetails and flash banners to pay for my tuition. Attending Animation Mentor I thought, "I have met my people. I am an animator!"

After AM, I began freelancing and working at various small studios around the city. It was challenging and fantastic.

Now I work primarily from my studio in Queens, NYC. . . though I sometimes work on site at different locations around the city.

Can you tell us about your company Eyesnare INC? How did that come about?

Initially, it was a way to get paid corp-to-corp instead of getting paid through a third party. Now, I am trying to create more of a brand for myself. I've reshifted my focus to project collaboration and animation production.

Generally anybody who goes into animation first has a love of the medium. In terms of other animators who (individual or companies) would you say are you biggest influences?

Bill Plympton has been a huge influence on me. I grew up watching Liquid Television and Plympton's hand drawn work hypnotised me. A couple of years ago he offered two full term classes out of his studio. I was fortunate to participate in the first class. We were a small group of animators and artists ranging in age and experience. Bill was extremely generous. He presented the experience as more of a workshop. Everyone created their short film and each week we critiqued work and brainstormed. Bill Plympton created a short film, too! It was amazing to watch him draw. We all learned his workflow pipeline. He gave us advice on submitting to festivals. We met his small team of collaborators and office support. It was wonderful. You left each week feeling like you could change the world with a pencil.

Richard Williams and Joanna Quinn inspire me.Also, the founders, mentors, and students of Animation Mentor have had an enormous impact on my life. I've also been influenced by painters, of course. The work of Larry Rivers, Giacometti, May Stevens, K├Ąthe Kollwitz, Paula Rego, and William Kentridge has influenced me.

The first thing we noticed on looking at your reels is that you are able to work in an amazing range of styles. You seem to be just as at home making 2D or animation. Do you find any particular style more challenging than the others?

It is all very challenging. I love it all and I have much to learn. In my mind, I see the differences between hand drawn 2D and computer 3D animation like the differences between a donkey and a racehorse. With 3D computer animation you are kind of reigning in the immediate creation of computer tweens and with the hand drawn 2D you are plodding along creating every key. Though, when you are really cooking I guess it's all the same. It's a masochistic love and addiction.

Do you have a personal preference for one style over the other? If so, why?

I don't really have a preference. I love learning new things and it's great how one style feeds into the other. I also do editing in Premiere Pro and that kind of work feels directly related to animation. Animation is also directly related to sketching. The art process is about observation, transcription, and expression. It's been interesting to see my own sketches evolve since I began studying the art of animation in earnest.

You've also worked in CGI effects for live-action productions (eg The Starving Games). How did you find this compares with full animation?

For me the elements are the same. The project is broken into chunks. For each chunk, you work within a set of boundaries and you have a certain amount of freedom within those boundaries. It's like actors staying within certain areas of the stage in a theatre production.

Your music video for 'Archaeology' recently screened in New York. How did this project come about?

Danny Weinkauf was looking for animators to create videos for his solo kids album No School Today. He is a long-time bassist for They Might Be Giants and I am a big fan of the group. I listened to the song "Archaeology" and I loved it. No School Today is a really fun album. The video recently screened at the NYCIFF and it just won a Rising Star Award at the Canada International Film Festival.

You also worked on an App for the kid's classic Sesame Street. I'm sure our readers are dying to know- what was that like? That must have been an exciting gig to land! (confession: I'm a big Henson nut)

I loved that job. We created a digital publication of "The Great Cookie Thief" for iOS with a small team at Callaway Digital Arts. We did 2D puppet animation in After Effects based on original artwork. I did prototype development, rig development, prototype testing, and a ton of animation. The office was located in the South Street Seaport. I worked with wonderful people. I had a gorgeous daily bike ride and I got to listen to cookie monster VO all day long! The experience set a high bar for me with regard to studio work environments.

What would you say was your proudest or most creatively satisfying achievement in your career so far?

I would say that just working as an artist has been my most satisfying achievement. I love the work. I love having so much to practice and to learn.

Do you have any advice for anybody reading this wanting to get into animation themselves?

Watch the world and sketch it. Look everywhere for work. Remember, all the experiences you’ve had up to this point help you make your own unique acting choices. Work hard but take breaks. Make short films and attend festivals!

I am currently finishing a short film that I've had on the shelf for a long while. I can't wait to finish it. It's called "Grounded". I am also editing a feature length film by Joe Lazenby called THRU :The Hereafter Remains Unknown.

Please feel free to contact me regarding project collaboration!

If you're an animator (or otherwise in the animation industry) and are willing to take part in a future edition of The Questionnaire, please get in touch!