Evgeni Tomov :: Artist Profile

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    The illustrative career of production designer Evgeni Tomov,
    focusing on 'The Tale of Despereaux'.
    CGSociety :: Artist Profile
    31 December 2008, by Barbara Robertson

    Tucked in among the prestigious Annie award nominations (from the International Animated Film Society, ASIFA-Hollywood) are a few that specifically reward artists, including one this year for production designer Evgeni Tomov.

    Tomov, widely lauded for his work on the 2D feature, “Les Triplettes de Belleville,” received the coveted Annie nomination for designing Universal Pictures’ first animated feature, “The Tale of Despereaux,” which was created at Framestore. The competition is tough: He’s up against production designers for “Wall-E”, “Bolt”, and “Kung Fu Panda.”

    But his work on “Despereaux” is beautiful and unique. Tactile. Soft.

    Tomov’s intent with the design for his first foray into 3D animation was to create an immersive atmosphere for the fairy tale, one he had yet to see in CG features. “I like CG movies in general,” he says. “Everybody does. But there is already an aesthetic, with Pixar and DreamWorks mainly setting the tone. They’re doing a great job, but everyone has to find their own voice and look. It’s still a new medium. And this was not a story that would be convincing if it were openly CG like ‘Bee Movie’ or ‘Toy Story’.”


     
    "We interpreted the style to create a fantasy land, but I wanted to base the style on the achievements of humanity."
     
    Evgeni Tomov, production designer.
     
    “The Tale of Despereaux” follows a quartet of unlikely heroes who dream big and whose fates mingle in unexpected ways. Except for the title character Despereaux, a mouse with enormous ears, the characters aren’t clearly good or evil. They have shades of gray, they make mistakes. Directed by Sam Fell and Robert Stevenhave, and based on a script by producer Gary Ross, the film stars the voice talents of actors Matthew Broderick, Emma Watson, Sigourney Weaver, Kevin Kline, William H. Macy, Tracey Ullman and many others. It has 20 main characters and 51 different environments filled with detail.

    Tomov based the aesthetic for “Despereaux” on 15th and 16th century Flemish architecture and paintings. “I went on field trips to Amsterdam, and to Brugge and Brussels in Belgium, and sent my staff there,” he says. “We took hundreds of pictures including details like door handles. We interpreted the style to create a fantasy land, but I wanted to base the style on the achievements of humanity. These towns took thousands of people and centuries to invent.”
    To achieve his ambitious new look, Tomov concentrated on having the team at Framestore create painted textures and soft lighting. The 15th and 16th century Flemish painters inspired his use of soft, rich light.

    “Light was paramount with this movie,” he says. “Light disappearing and coming back later. If you look at Vermeer, who is a bit later, but a good example, you’ll see that he let large areas of the canvas fall off, but they’re not completely black. They’re richly painted.”

    Thus, Tomov challenged the lighters to create soft shadows and irregular edges. “As soon as we saw hard-lit edges, the shots looked digital,” he says. “We wanted to make an animated movie, not a cartoon.”
     
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  • This impetus is more often associated with the animation aesthetic of Europe than America where many people think animated films and ’toons are synonymous, so it should come as no surprise that Tomov’s roots are in Eastern Europe.

    Although his mother is Russian, Tomov spent most of his childhood in Bulgaria, his father’s home. There, he studied book design and illustration at the National Academy of Arts in Sofia, a renowned school founded in 1896.

    “I specialized in children’s book illustration,” he says. “But, the quality of printing became so poor as the political system melted down that it was frustrating to see the results of my efforts. I wished I had never seen it.”

    Thus, in 1989, before the Berlin Wall came down, and shortly before the collapse of the Soviet system, Tomov slipped from behind the Iron Curtain and immigrated to Montreal, Canada.

    He left in a rush. When he arrived in Montreal, he had the equivalent of $90 in his pocket. He had taken only 16 hours of English classes, and he didn’t speak French. “I had to start from scratch,” he says. He was 29.

    “I wished I had left earlier,” he says. “But, it would have been irresponsible. I would have jeopardized my family. So I waited until after Gorbachev, when things started getting better and there wouldn’t be repercussions toward my family. It was a bit safer to then, but I was certain it was a one way street. There was no way back at that point.”
     

    In Montreal, he rebuilt his life by peddling his talent as an illustrator, showing the portfolio of illustrations he had brought to Canada with him.

    Then in 1995, after five years trying to make a living as an illustrator during a recession, he got his first break, a break that changed his life. It happened when he answered an ad for an artist posted at a small, but well-established animation studio.

    “I had never wanted to work in animation until I saw ‘Nightmare Before Christmas’ in 1993,” he says. “I was fascinated. I thought it must be fun to work on a project like that. I began daydreaming about working on an animated film team.”

    He didn’t hold out much hope for a good result from the ad. “I used a subdued, more European palette that was not so popular in North America where everything was in the more primary colors,” he says.

    He was wrong. The studio asked him to leave his portfolio, and by the time he got home they had called saying the director of a new French movie wanted to meet him.

    That director was Sylvain Chomet and Tomov became assistant art director for his short film, “La Vieille dame et les pigeons” (The Old Lady and the Pigeons), which won a BAFTA award, the Grand Prize at the important Annecy film festival, and received an Oscar nomination. It marked the beginning of a collaboration that would eventually lead to Tomov’s work on “Tale of Despereaux.”

    Immediately after “Pigeons,” though, Tomov found a job supervising environment design for children’s television shows at Cinar animation in Montreal. “It wasn’t my cup of tea,” he says. “The focus was on production objectives and budget, not on creative challenges. It was always about the delivery date. It was monotonous.”

     
    The Triplets of Belleville (c) Evgeni Tomov

    Chomet rescued him again. The “Pigeons” director had begun gathering a crew to work on a feature film, “The Triplettes of Belleville” and added Tomov to the crew.

    “I started as a designer because he didn’t know if he could trust me as art director,” Tomov says. “But in two months, he made me art director.” The film took three and a half years to complete. It won 18 awards at film festivals and received 20 nominations, including an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature.

    After completing work on “Triplettes” in 2002, Chomet and Tomov traveled with the film – to Cannes and later, to the Oscars. “That was the sweet part,” Tomov says. “But when I went back to Montreal, there were no interesting jobs in the animation industry.”

    So, he became an art director for a small computer game company developing a MMORPG, only to discover, six months into production, that Microsoft was developing a similar game. “They swallowed the bitter pill and gave up on it,” Tomov says. “I started working on a less ambitious title, ‘Circus Tycoon,’ that did come out, but when I got a proposal from Europe, I said goodbye to the game industry.”

    The proposal was from Deane Taylor who had been art director for Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” the animated film that first inspired Tomov. Taylor was production designer for the animated film “Happily N'Ever After,” which was produced in Berlin. But, Taylor left the project, and Tomov left, too.

    It was just as well, because meanwhile, Chomet, who had been “hibernating,” as Tomov puts it, in northern France, moved to Scotland and started his animation studio, Studio Django, in Edinburgh, Scotland. The first project for the new studio came from Miramax and Chomet invited Tomov to participate.

    The Triplets of Belleville (c) Evgeni Tomov
     
    The Triplets of Belleville (c) Evgeni Tomov
    Barbacoa (c) Django Film
    “It was great fun,” Tomov says. “I was doing sculpts and designs and Sylvain [Chomet] was developing what I thought were wonderful, ingenious ideas in the script.” But, the studio thought otherwise. “They wanted emotional conflict,” Tomov says, “a threat that would keep people in their seats. That wasn’t Sylvain’s approach and that was the end of this project.”

    Then, in 2004, producers Gary Ross and Allison Thomas, who had bought the rights to “The Tale of Despereaux,” a 2003 fantasy book by Kate DiCamillo, approached Studio Django to develop a film based on the book.
    “So we started working on it,” Tomov says. “But, Sylvain [Chomet] made a strategic mistake. While we were waiting for the greenlight on this project, he decided to start on another project, ‘The Illusionist.’ It proved the wrong thing for him to do.” Two simultaneous animated features became one too many, so Chomet and “Despereaux” parted ways.”

    When Chomet left “Despereaux,” Tomov had to choose which path to follow. “I was also working with Sylvain on ‘The Illusionist,’ but it had pretty much the [hand-drawn] look of ‘Triplettes.’ So, for creative reasons, I decided that working on something new and different was more important. I didn’t want to be branded.”
     
    Barbacoa (c) Django Film
    And that’s how Tomov immersed himself fully into the world of 3D animation.

    Although Tomov didn’t revise the aesthetic, the design process restarted in mid-2006, when the production moved from Edinburgh to London. At that point, Tomov took on character design, which Chomet had directed, as well as the environments.

    “‘Despereaux turned out to be a wild ride, but I’m absolutely glad I made this choice,” he says. “I was told many times that if Pixar is not doing something, they’re not doing it because there is a reason. But, my belief is not to try to do as they do. So, we tried to do something a little different.”

    Did they succeed? The Annie awards nominating committee thinks so.

    “I’m a bit of a perfectionist” Tomov says, “so I’m never completely pleased. But, every now and then I’m blown away. We had great CG artists, the top world talent from all over the world. They did a great job and produced great art. And, I think they enjoyed working on the movie. I kept getting feedback that it was challenging, but they were happy to do it.”

    Now that “Despereaux” is finished, Tomov is casting around for the next chapter of his personal tale. In June, he married his long-time partner, an animator for “Triplettes,” who also worked as a prop designer for “Despereaux.”

    He hopes that after living in Montreal, Berlin, Edinburgh and London, they can settle somewhere, ideally in California. “I’m tired of cold, gloomy countries,” Tomov says. “I like the climate in California, and the industry is vibrant.”

    Chances are this fairy tale will have a happy ending: Two California-based studios have already approached him for possible jobs as production designer. And that would mean we can look forward to more of Tomov’s unique designs.

    “We have to broaden the genre,” he says.
     
    Related links:
    Evgeni Tomov
    The Tale of Despereaux
    ASIFA-Hollywood
    Framestore
    Les Triplettes de Belleville
    interview with Sylvain Degrotte, cloth supervisor on "The Tale of Despereaux"

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