Tuesday, March 17, 2009



Tony Merrithew Interview

Tell me a little bit about yourself, about your life? Where did you go to school, and what classes did you study? What helped prepare you to become the artist that you are today?

I went to school at PNCA, and two of the local community colleges where I studied life drawing, painting and sculpture. I started out wanting to be a special effects guy, cable articulation, robots, sculpting, that sort of thing. I’d always been a “car guy” so I had the mechanical, fabricating and welding skills already. The only studio in town doing anything close to that was Will Vinton Studios (now Laika). In 1986 I stopped in with a mechanical head and although they were quite amused it wasn’t what they were into. After many offers from them I agreed to sculpt a background set for the first California raisins commercial. At first I was NOT interested in the job but as the California raisins became animated and the phenomenon began, it was the coolest job I could have imagined. After a few months they put me out on a set as an animator and I really enjoyed that as well. After twenty years of animating and sculpting I changed pace and became primarily a Maquette sculptor. Clay animation taught me to sculpt fast and to sculpt “life” into my characters.

How do you go about sculpting, and what goes through your mind, from start to end?

I start with an aluminum wire armature and concentrate on getting that part of it to already look like the character. The pose and flow has to work at the earliest stage to be successful. I work fast at this stage to keep a sense of life and vitality to the piece. I’ll often keep this first pass as a sketch and start another sculpt and take that one to the final form. Knowing when to quit is an important part of a good sculpture.

How long does it take you to sculpt a character when you get the final design?

Some characters take a day or two while others can take up to a week or more. Often if the drawing isn’t working the sculpture suffers and becomes an R & D project thus taking way more time to complete.

You’re also an animator, what are some of the movies you have animated on?

Most of my animation has been on commercial work and TV specials. Just a few of the projects I’ve worked on are Wacky players, Domino’s pizza (the Noid), Nissan, Ritz, The Raisins sold out, A Claymation Christmas, Tang, Lipton tea, Listerine, Twizzlers, Ninja turtles, Hershey, M&M’s, Maryland lottery, Speed Demon (Michael Jackson) and Samsung.

What was a typical day for you at laika, and who are the people you worked with?

Get to work at 9:00am turn on the heat lamps to get the clay warmed up, maybe work up a few drawings to get the pace going. Meet with the director to find out what’s working on a particular character, sculpt or animate for a few more hours, meet with the producer or even the armature department so that we’re all working towards the same goal. Continue to sculpt till the end of the day to be ready for a review the following morning.

What are some of the other things you have worked on?

I did get a chance to work on an articulated puppet. We did a commercial for Listerine where we brought barnyard animals to life. I sculpted a realistic horse head and then cast that in foam latex and was able to build a mechanical under structure so that it could breathe, blink, talk and move around all with stop frame animation.

What are you working on now? (if you can tell us)

Right now I’m between projects after having spent lot of time working on Coraline as a character sculptor. I also did a lot of drawing during this project, which was based on original designs from the production character designers (mostly in my free time and while riding the shuttle bus to and from the studio). This helped me get a feel for each character, bring them into a 3D world and develop a style that I later used on my sculptures. Some of these sculpts that I’ve shown here are works in progress while others are finished designs that were later molded and reproduced as animation models.

Who do you think are some of the top artists out there?

There are a lot of good contemporary artist out there but I always go back to the old masters like Rodin for sculpture, Sargent for painting and Rockwell for character inspiration.

Could you talk about what types of tools or media that you use?

We normally work with oil based modeling clay because it has an unlimited working time and is quite firm. The tools can vary depending on whether you’re a wood tool sculptor or like working with metal tools. I tend to make all my own tools out of a very tight-grained smooth hardwood.

What part of animating is most fun and easy, and what is most hard?

Lip sync was always the most fun for me. There’s something rewarding about getting an expression just right or hitting a vowel on target and bringing a character to life. The hard part is defying gravity while doing stop motion Sometimes it takes threads of fishing line to suspend the character or suspend various props that need to fly through the air one frame at a time.

What are some of the things that you do to keep yourself creative?

I belong to two or three different art groups and I paint or draw almost every day. I find that it’s like music or any other art form.. To stay on top of your game you have to exercise those artistic abilities as often as you can.

What is your most favorite subject to sculpt? And why?

I like to sculpt animals more than anything. They have great potential for capturing charm and personality as well as strength and action.

What inspired you to become an Artist?

Not sure really but I do remember that in second grade I drew two giraffes and a palm tree and the teacher phrased me for that more than anything else I’d done. It seemed to encourage more of the same.

What are some of the neat things you have learned from other artists that you have worked with or seen?

I learned how to draw and paint after being blown away by some of the original artist at Will Vinton Studios back in the day. I learned most of my sculpting skills the same way as well as how to make clever tools, rollers and texturing pads for speeding up and simplifying the process.

What are some of your favorite websites that you go to?

I use Google a lot to find just about anything I need for reference material there. I also frequent nature sites and YouTube to see animals and figures in motion. In the early days we collected an extensive and organized picture file for all of our reference needs and I think that’s still the best way to go sometimes.

What wisdom could you give us, about being an Artist? Do you have any tips you could give?

Keep in mind that when doing commercial work for a studio it isn’t necessarily the way you’d do it if it were up to you and in your own studio but it still requires 110% of your effort and can be a tremendous learning experience. As far as being a fine artist goes, stick with your own style and don’t try to jump around to what’s hot or trendy at the moment. You’ll be happier expressing what’s in your own heart in the long run.

If people would like to contact you, how would you like to be contacted?

The best way is through my blog at http://www.tonymerrithew.blogspot.com/ or via email toneboye@yahoo.com.

Finally, do you have any of your work for sale for people that like your work can know where, and when to buy it?

Occasionally I sell paintings through my blog when I have time to produce the work.

Tony Merrithew Gallery

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