Interviews With Animators: Sean LattrellBlake Harris 07.14.2016
In this week’s installment, we speak with cartoon-loving, illustrator-turned-animator Sean Lattrell…
Last week, we shined the spotlight on an outstanding explainer video about a real-life war hero nicknamed “The Berlin Candy Bomber.” To find out how that project was made, we spoke with the explainer’s incredible animator: Sean Lattrell.
Just like the animated work he creates, Sean Lattrell was humble, charming and chock full of interesting nuances. Which made for a great time as we discussed not only the making of his most recent explainer, but his journey into the world of animation and some of the lessons and insights he’s picked up along the way.
Blake J. Harris: Hey, Sean! Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me.
Sean Lattrell: My pleasure. Thank you for writing that nice piece about my work on The Berlin Candy Bomber.
Blake J. Harris: Well deserved. It’s an excellent explainer video. I want to talk more about the making of that video, but first let’s talk a little bit about your background. Can you tell me when you first became interested in animation?
Sean Lattrell: I always liked it. I grew up watching Saturday morning cartoons like every other kid. But, unlike the other kids, I just kept watching them. So on Saturday mornings, when the other kids would turn off the TV to play football or something else, I’d stay inside and make up excuses. I didn’t want them to know I was watching cartoons!
Blake J. Harris: Haha.
Sean Lattrell: Back then, I wanted to be a Disney animator. Like a lot of people…
But I didn’t have quite the Disney chops. I still don’t have the Disney chops! At the time I was really depressed and heartbroken about it. Turned out I actually kind of fell in love with a little more independent-style animation. It just happened.
Blake J. Harris: How did it happen?
Sean Lattrell: Well, I went to school to be an illustrator. So I guess my pull into the animation world was through CD-ROMs. My roommate at the time and I found an ad for a small CD-ROM company in Hartford, Connecticut that was looking for artists to make little animations for children’s CD-ROMs. Super simple animations. We went in, both got jobs and, believe it or not, we were actually drawing with a mouse back then. Pixel by pixel.
Blake J. Harris: Wow!
Sean Lattrell: That was a nice springboard into digital animation. And a little while after that I met this guy J.P. Dillard, who was a great animator and kind of took me under his work. He showed me a lot of animation techniques. Taught me about things like blurring and just, really, timing in general. Little tricks and stuff. He was a willing teacher.
Blake J. Harris: That’s so critical.
Sean Lattrell: Absolutely, which I was I’m also very appreciative for the guy I started working for next: J.J. Sedelmaier. J.J.’s whole thing was that he was a chameleon studio. He could make anything move. Unlike the Disney style for example, he could take an illustration—keeping it true to how the illustrator envisioned it—and animated it.
Sean Lattrell: His whole philosophy and approach was catered to each project.. So I think that’s really where I blossomed. He just puts so much into his artists and his people. Finds their strengths and helps to bring them out. I owe so much to him for helping me become a professional animator. I ended up working there for about four years.
Blake J. Harris: That’s wonderful. Tell me about some of your favorite projects from over the years.
Sean Lattrell: Well, funny you should ask. I saw you interviewed Andy Kennedy. I actually worked with him on one of the jobs that he mentioned. My Depression.
Blake J. Harris: Oh yeah? What was your role on that project?
Sean Lattrell: I did a lot of the boards for that, actually. That was fun. With Rob Marianetti and Dave Wachtenheim [of Wachtenheim/Marianetti]. They’re a great directing duo (who actually both came out of J.J.’s as well).
Blake J. Harris: Oh wow, small world. So tell me about how you got involved with The Great Big Story?
Sean Lattrell: Sure. So I recently moved to New Jersey. Into a small suburb town where, as it so happens, a lot of digital media folks seem to live. One of the guys I met was Ben Whitla, a creative director for Turner for The Great Big Story. Met him at a coffee shop there, we started talking. He saw that I did animation. We knew a lot of the same people too. And I’ve been lucky enough to animate some projects for them.
Blake J. Harris: Like the Berlin Candy Bomber!
Sean Lattrell: Yes! I really appreciated your review, by the way. You actually vocalized a lot of stuff that I was thinking about when I was working on it. Stuff that crossed my mind for a second, but I didn’t think anyone would pick up on it. I was actually surprised and pleased that you picked up on it.
Blake J. Harris: Oh, thank you!
Sean Lattrell: I was kind of shocked, but it was great to see that you appreciated it.
Blake J. Harris: My pleasure. I love breaking down and shining a light on the better explainer videos out there. Which this absolutely is. So take me back to the beginning of this project. At what point did you come in to work on it?
Sean Lattrell: Thankfully, the audio was locked in ahead of time. That always makes it nice. When you’ve got the audio track locked in, it makes it so much easier to envision it. You can just get in there, start playing around, and trying to hit those beats.
Blake J. Harris: How did you come up with the aesthetic style for the explainer?
Sean Lattrell: Well, I had recently been watching these things for VH1 that were done by this illustrator Paul Blow (http://www.paulblow.com/). He’s such a great illustrator. His images are not only cool, but so clear. So strong and striking. I thought: I want to do something like that, sort of in that style.
Blake J. Harris: Okay.
Sean Lattrell: So that helped inform the style. As for the color palette—and I think you mentioned this in your review—we wanted to use something that looked somewhat similar to the interview footage so that the transitions wouldn’t be so jarring.
Blake J. Harris: Which included coloring the characters in that blue-ish tint. Where did that decision come from?
Sean Lattrell: Again, I gotta throw that over to Paulie Blow. He does that a lot. And making a decision like that kind of makes the story more fantasy, right? Brings it into another world. Once you step into that, you have license to do so much other stuff. You can be a little less literal. Now you’re in sort of a space dream world.
Blake J. Harris: Absolutely.
Sean Lattrell: It also helped with—another thing you mentioned—the age of the main character. The coloring helped draw him in a way that looked a little more ageless. And also, luckily, even as a young guy, he looked kind of old. He didn’t have a super boyish face.
Blake J. Harris: Yeah, he kind of looked like J.D. Salinger in that way.
Sean Lattrell: Haha, yeah. After that it was just kind of a matter of going nuts, I guess. I got the drawings locked down and then tried to add as much as possible. And contrasting the color palette with bright, happy candy colors. And that’s why, I think, the people work too: they’re blue and sort of candy-like too. There’s almost this idea of everything being kind of candy colored.
Blake J. Harris: Agreed. But I like how, even so, it still feels relatively grounded.
Sean Lattrell: Yeah! Thank you.
Blake J. Harris: What was the hardest part?
Sean Lattrell: It’s funny. For me, the hardest part is always just sitting down and getting over this hump of…is this going to work or not? Taking that chance. Because this could fail. And sometimes with animation, if it fails, you’ve got another few weeks to continue on with that fail before you fully realize that’s the case. So it can be pretty daunting and , especially at the beginning, I’ll sit and second guess my self.
Blake J. Harris: Yeah, I know the feeling.
Sean Lattrell: But after I get that, I’m flying. It opens up and I have license to get loose.
Blake J. Harris: Do you have a favorite part or moment of the video?
Sean Lattrell: I think I liked that final shot, which you mentioned at the end of your piece. With the candy coming down from the sky. Because it’s like a kid’s dream, right? Candy raining down on you.
Blake J. Harris: Yeah, I loved that.
Sean Lattrell: Also, for some reason, I really like that sequence where the kids reach up to grab the gum. I think I put that in as a placeholder initially, but I liked how it looked and felt in the story. So that might be my second favorite.
Blake J. Harris: One last question for you, as someone who’s been animating now for over two decades. What advice would you have for someone trying to break into the industry? Or even just trying to improve their skills?
Sean Lattrell: It’s really important to keep an open mind and stay curious. Try different styles. I think I made a mistake early on my career of trying to be the guy known for doing something specific. Or drawing in a certain way. Which is fine, there’s nothing wrong with taking that approach, but it does limit you. And one of the most important things I’ve learned is even if you try new things and it doesn’t work out—or doesn’t look as good as you want—there’s a good chance that the experience will still influence you and make you better at what you want to do.