Enter the Weird, Wild Imagination of Animator Ken Turner [Interview]
Imagine – if you will – a world filled with misunderstood monstrosities and outlandish outcasts. a world where vampires falling out of the sky are as often an occurrence as ufos and the decay of Winter is as delightfully magical as the renewal of Spring. This is the world of animator and director Ken Turner.
Turner, a huge Tim Burton fan, has been in the animation industry for over 5 years and worked for some of the biggest names including Cuppa Coffee, CORE Toons, Jib Jab and Nelvana (to name a few). Recently, however, Turner has kickstarted his first web series starring the child-like duo of Snowboy (an adolescent snowman) and Crow (uh… he’s a crow). Embarking on an ambitious 6-episode stint, Turner hopes that Snowboy and Crow will catch on with fans of Burton’s equally odd menagerie of misfits, albeit with his own twist and sense of macabre humor.
What was life like growing up, were you an especially creative kid?
I think as far back as I can remember I was always drawing or making things in general, [which] came from being a part of a TV generation that grew up on Saturday morning cartoons. For me, shows like Batman: The Animated Series, Beetlejuice, My Pet Monster, all the Warner Bros. Looney Toons shorts – amongst others – had these images that would seep into your brain and never really go away. It definitely feeds your imagination as a child and stays with you as you grow up.
How did your imagination land you at Sheridan College?
Well, I was told about Sheridan College by my art teacher Ms. Blondin. She told me to apply to Sheridan for Art Fundamentals. It was customary for most students to do a year of that and then apply to the Animation program and then if you were good enough you got in. It’s funny, I can’t remember a lot of teachers names from school but she was one I could remember. She’s probably one of the only teachers who was really encouraging to me in my art and telling me to keep going with it.
What would you say was the most important lesson or skill you learned there?
I think the most important lesson was not giving up on your dreams or aspirations. For me it took 3 years (2 years of Art Fundamentals and 1 year of General Arts & Science) before actually getting accepted into the Animation program. I was better for it and more prepared. I think if I had gotten accepted right away I probably wouldn’t have gotten as much out of it as I did.
Although not your first film, TiM has won you some major recognition in the past few years. What was the inspiration for the short?
TiM was an idea I thought up before getting into the Animation program at Sheridan. I knew in the last year of Animation, students got to make short films. In the middle of the night, I woke up wrote on a piece of paper the words “boy who wants to be like Tim Burton”. I woke up the next morning, read it and it really inspired me. If ever I was given the opportunity, I would make that into a film. I knew people would think Tim Burton’s Vincent right away, but to me that wasn’t the point. It was a very personal story and turns out it was for alot of other people too. Just as much as Vincent Price films inspired and helped Tim Burton when growing up, for me the same was just as true about Tim Burton films for me as a kid.
How did you go about making it? Can you take us through the entire process?
So, for 5 years I worked on and off on developing the story and character designs. It wasn’t until my final year in Animation where I was able to go full time on it. I knew the film had to be stop motion and, even though the school didn’t have the facilities to do stop-motion, I was still determined to make it. There wasn’t a lot going on with stop motion films at Sheridan [at the time].
I was living in the basement of a house and was given more or less the whole space to use. I bought long tables to set up the sets and I had two primary rooms to set things up. So while shooting on one, I was getting ready a set in another room. I nicknamed it the “Batcave” because it was dark and you didn’t know if was day or night at any given time. I’d go to sleep in darkness and wake up in darkness, it was a very strange, but I think a lot of factors played into the making of TiM. Timing was key as I feel alot of talented people were able to come in and out to help and contribute. I don’t think the film would be made possible without their passion for the project so I owe a huge debt to those them.
Artistically, your style does share certain characteristics of Burton’s work. Do you get many comparisons to him and, if so, how do you typically respond?
I get that a lot but its understandable. I always take it as a compliment. I don’t think you can ever take it the wrong way anytime you get compared to your heroes. It’s great when they see your influences but when they respond to the work itself and get something emotional out of it, that’s where the real heart of it is. Whether it be sadness for a drawing of Henry the Heart Boy hunched over walking all depressed with his heart dragging on the floor or laughter to an animated vegetable monster eating a couple of elderly people, that’s what I hope any artist is striving for.
Okay, fan to fan, what do you think of the upcoming Frankenweenie remake?
Well I don’t think it’s a remake. I like to think its the fully intended story, an expansion upon the main story that was told in the short film. I believe Frankenweenie will be especially unique and very personal film. His animated films are always very special to watch and Frankenweenie is definitely no exception.
What other artists or types of art inspire you?
I think many of the artists I like have this strange and weird imagination. Artists like Gustav Klimt, Edward Gorey, Dr. Suess, Charles Addams and Ronald Searle all have this dark but very clever way of thinking about things. All types of art inspires me, from sculptures to paintings to photography, I’m always looking for inspiration. I think it’s very important to be inspired and look at things in a different way.
Do you experiment with any other sort of art forms outside of illustration and animation?
It’s important to try new things and find new challenges. I’m into sculpting even though I’ve only made two complete ones. [In fact] I’m looking to take more of my drawings and make them into a 3-Dimensional sculptures, it’s a challenge but very rewarding in the end. I also enjoy photography and I would eventually like to make a short, live action film at some point.
You’ve worked as a character designer and animator for several studios, including Nelvana and JibJab. Any highlights you care to brag about? Any projects that were especially fun to work on?
I’ve been fortunate to animate on some really great shows. I was also a character designer on a show called Ugly Americans for Cuppa Coffee, its a show about a guy living in New York filled with monsters, demons and creatures of all sorts. Everyday I was drawing any kind of monster I wanted and I even designed a zombie “Bob Barker”. I was able to have alot of input into the characters I was designing too which was great.
Jib Jab was fun too, as I was designing and animating short 15 sec e-cards. The first one I designed was a skeleton waiter who shakes a bottle of wine and it explodes sending him flying off screen.
More recently you’ve embarked on a series of shorts called The World of Snowboy & Crow. Can you tell us a bit more about it?
It’s about these two friends named Snowboy and Crow. They live in a snowy landscape where bats are constantly flying through the sky, monsters lie right below the surface and vampires emerge out of the most unlikely of places. Crow talks a lot and Snowboy is the shy, silent one. There’s a weird dynamic while making these shorts that really works between the two of them. Either they are just watching things unfold before them, oblivious to the reality of what’s happening, or getting themselves into trouble. They were initially created for a short animation project in school and actually have short cameo appearances in Attack of the Giant Vegetable Monsters and TiM, but I always wanted them to have something that was all there own.
I created a mini-comic called The World of Snowboy & Crow that featured 10 little stories, which was well received, and thought it could really work well if adapted into an animated web series. The plan is tell those 10 stories in 6 episodes. Currently, the a trailer and the first episode are out and a second episode will be out before the end of June. The last episode will arrive just in time for Halloween.
For personal projects like this, do you typically start with a script or does it evolve more from drawings you’ve done?
I think it’s always a drawing that starts these personal projects. Usually, if I’m constantly redrawing the same thing, it’s a good sign that there’s something there that needs to be explored further.
Who is Freak Show Studio, is it a one-man operation or do you have a team?
I’m the owner and director at Freak Show Studios and we have a group of talented individuals local and international with a passion for the books and films we make. In the coming months, we’ll be debuting new episodes of Snowboy & Crow as well as re-releasing Attack of the Giant Vegetable Monsters & TiM with all new original scores. Next year we have hopes to release an all new short film based on the illustrated book, Henry: The Heart Boy.
Where did that name originate?
I suppose it was based on the idea that Freak Show Studios is a place for weird and unusual projects to call home. It’s very much how I see a circus freak show family feeling very normal when they are all together.
Going back to your childhood, what’s the strangest thing you can remember doing as a kid?
I remember when I was younger scaring people alot, especially family. I would hide behind doors, curtains and in laundry baskets. I would also scare myself thinking I couldn’t touch the floor because I thought there were “carpet sharks” who would eat my feet. I’d be jumping from my desk to my chair to my bed. I must of just seen Jaws or something so it makes sense how my imagination would go there. There’s a quote from Vincent Price that reads: “It’s as much fun to scare as to be scared.” I guess that was my way of having fun when I was a kid.