'Alice' Cheshire cat concept. Image courtesy Disney Enterprises Inc.
|"She told me it was for 'Alice in Wonderland' and the director was Tim Burton, and I almost fainted," Kutsche says. "I'm a big fan of the work of Tim Burton. I couldn't believe it. It meant a lot. And she made me a really good offer. It wasn't like here's a guy in Germany that we don't have to pay well."|
Because the film was in pre-production, there was no central location for production yet, so Kutsche worked from his Berlin studio for the first six months. Then, he asked Ralston if he could come to London and meet Burton. "Ken is such a great guy," Kutsche says. "Without him I would have been totally lost in this industry. You can easily get pushed around by people if you don't have someone like him saying, 'Let him do his work.' He was very supportive. He gave me tips and he protected my work; he gave me creative freedom."
Kutsche worked in Burton's London office for a week, flew back to Berlin, moved to Plymouth when production started, and then after the shoot, worked on set for three months in Los Angeles. He's been in California ever since.|
"This wasn't like 'Avatar,'" he says of 'Alice.' "We had only a half-year for pre-production and only a year and a half for doing the shoot and the effects. And it was tough to nail down the designs, to get the final goal for each character from Tim, so that's why I was still there when they were already filming."
Ralston typically gave Kutsche and Chiu different characters to work on, and only occasionally would send early designs from one designer to the other to see what he'd do with it. "I didn't see a lot of Bobby's work until the end, and vice versa," Kutsche says. "It was a little weird. You'd think it wouldn't be that way because the characters had to be in the same world, but on the other side, we could be more creative. Anytime I start a new project, if some artist has done work before, I always ask not to see it. Seeing it is like an obstacle. It's in the back of your head and keeps you away from doing something original."
For 'Alice,' Kutsche worked on the dormouse, caterpillar, Red Queen, Knave of Hearts, Mad Hatter, the red and white knights, the executioner, the jabberwocky, and did the complete design of the March Hare. "I also did an early version of the white rabbit," he says. "I worked on the final version, but Bobby did the real rabbit because mine was dark and twisted in the beginning. It's more his design."
'Alice' Dormouse concept. credit: Image courtesy Disney Enterprises Inc.
Tim Burton comes visiting the LA studio.
'Alice' Jabberwocky concept. Image courtesy Disney Enterprises Inc.
|While Kutsche was still on the 'Alice' crew, Ralston opened the door for his next opportunity: A surprise introduction to Andrew Stanton, the Oscar-winning director of Disney/Pixar's 'Wall-E' and 'Finding Nemo.' |
Ralston was hosting Stanton on a studio visit and suggested he meet Kutsche, who had an office in a small trailer in the parking lot. Later that day, a producer for 'John Carter of Mars,' the live-action film Stanton is directing, called and asked Kutsche to work with them. Kutsche finished 'Alice' in December, 2008 and moved to Berkeley in January to start on 'John Carter of Mars.'
"It wasn't like 'Alice,'" he says. "I was just taking some of the designs they had and giving them more personality. I often find that because it's so technical to create in 3D, the technical side of characters is more compelling than the underlying personality. It isn't like I make caricatures; I just slightly change little things. A slight proportional change from where they put a mouth, or the shape of a mouth."
'Alice' Knave of Hearts concept. credit: Image courtesy Disney Enterprises Inc."
This, he explains, is one of the differences he sees between character design and comic art. "Comic artists try to work on their personal style," he says. "They're not looking at how to make something different from what they usually do."
When he finished with 'John Carter,' he and his wife moved to Venice, California and he became the character designer for Marvel Studio's 'Thor,' thanks to an art director from 'Alice.' Then, he did a little project for Sony Animation. Now, he's a freelancer at DreamWorks Animation. He doesn't want to move up the ladder into production or management at a studio; freelancing is just fine for him.
'Alice' White Rabbit concept. Image courtesy Disney Enterprises Inc.
Kutsche often looks for photos of people to find characteristics he might use ? wrinkles around the eyes, interesting facial anatomy, and so forth. "I always look at a lot of reference because that creates more complex characters than when you do everything from the imagination," he says. "I can do that [create from imagination]. But, that always comes down to something you already know."
'Alice' Mad Hatter concept. Image courtesy Disney Enterprises Inc.
|'Alice' March Hare concept. Image courtesy Disney Enterprises Inc.||"I don't like to tell artists what to do," he says. "So production design is not the right job for me. Also, as production designer, you'd have to deal with politics. I'd rather work in a tiny group of people, be more flexible, and have more freedom. I think if I keep doing art in general and not think too big, just think about tiny things enough to support me, that's OK. I don't need to be way up there." |
And that gives him time, he hopes, to continue working on his large-scale oil paintings. "I still keep thinking about fine art," he says. "The jobs I do finance my personal work."
His personal work is darker and more surreal than the art he does for hire. "For film, it's more illustration," he says. "I'm trying to get the perfect design for a particular creature and script. I have none of these restrictions when I paint."
'Alice' Red Queen concept. Image courtesy Disney Enterprises Inc.
|Nor does he feel restricted by what some might define as 'fine' art. I think it's easier for me to have my own style because I never went to art school," he says. "I haven't been influenced by professors or students who might say, 'That's too comic.' Sometimes the fine art students look down on illustrators, and illustrators think fine artists can't really draw. I'm in between all these different worlds."|
And, it works. Recently, he sold a large oil painting, and he has the gallery show coming up. But, even if he could switch to a full-time career as a fine artist eventually, he would still consider doing character design. "If a movie came along where I thought it would be amazing to be part of it, I would do that," he says.
Someday perhaps, we'll read about Kutsche doing character design between gallery exhibitions, rather than personal work between character design projects. That would bring his world full circle, back to the amazingly talented child who couldn't stop doodling.