Interview with Illustrator Shaun Tan
October 2008: Shaun Tan is the illustrator and author of award winning children’s books such as The Red Tree and The Lost Thing. Born in Fremantle, Western Australia, and currently living in Melbourne, we caught up with Shaun to see what he’s been up to.
What projects are you currently working on? I see you have a Short Animated Film currently in production with Passion Pictures based on your book “The Lost Thing”, how did this come about and when can we see the finished piece?
Yes, this short film is my main project at the moment. The original book was published in 2000, and was one of a handful of books to receive an Honorable Mention at the Bologna Book Fair (the largest international event for young people’s literature). Here it was noticed by a UK director from Passion Pictures, and film company specialising in animation, and I was thereafter approached by a producer, Sophie Byrne, particularly looking to involve me as a storyboard artist, designer and director. At that point I had very little experience with film or animation, and have since spent a great deal of time learning about it, mainly while working with the more experienced members of our small team, based in Melbourne. The film is 15 minutes long and due to be completed in 2009; so far, it’s looking very good.
How would you describe your own work?
I guess I’d divide it into two strands. One has more to do with sketching and painting from life, trying to represent things that I see around me. The other is a kind of playful exploration of imaginary worlds – places I don’t see in front of me, but which have strong emotional or conceptual parallels to lived experience, much like dreams. The latter forms the basis of my illustrated books, which are probably best described as speculative fiction. I am a little wary of labels, because they don’t adequately explain what I do, or my motivation (true for most artists I think). I’m often tagged as a children’s author and illustrator, though I’ve never produced a book particularly aimed at a young readers; my interest is simply in universal stories that can be understood by anyone, regardless of age or background.
What picture books influenced you the most as a child?
Anything with dinosaurs in it, or monsters, or robots: deep down, that hasn’t really changed! I loved ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ (Maurice Sendak), and an illustrated book of macabre poetry called ‘The Headless Horseman Rides Tonight’ (Jack Prelutsky and Arnold Lobel). However, I was actually more affected by books without illustrations, and sometimes found illustration an unwelcome distraction, as in ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘Narnia’ books, I just disagreed with the representation!
My brother and I had ‘Animal Farm’ read to use when we were quite young, my Mum unaware that it was a dark political satire, though we all enjoyed it, and it might have lodged something in my brain because I still often think of it as a benchmark ‘good story’. Later I came across the short stories of Ray Bradbury, which really got me interested in writing ‘seriously’ at about the age of 11 or 12.
When did you first realise that you wanted to be a commercial artist and illustrator?
When I graduated from uni and needed to make some money! I realised that an honours degree in Fine Arts theory and Literary Criticism didn’t really qualify me for immediate employment, plus I still didn’t know what I wanted to do with myself. But I had been working on occasional illustration jobs as a student, mainly science fiction book and magazine illustration, since the age of about 18. So this was something I knew a little bit about, and thought it could a way to make a living, and buy time to work on some personal, non-profit painting projects in my garage.
What have been the highlights in your art related career to-date?
‘The Arrival’, a wordless graphic novel that I spent five years working on, was published in the US and became a New York Times bestseller (in the top 10 illustrated books), and won a major comics prize in France. Those are a couple of ‘formal’ highlights, which are great, but on a more personal note, I think completing a much smaller picture book, ‘The Rabbits’ ten years previously, was a big step for me. It was the first time I felt I’d produced an entirely original, sustained and coherent visual object, and I think that’s an important turning point for any artist (like the original meaning of ‘masterpiece’, a work that signals the graduation of an apprentice). I remember looking at it and feeling I’d stumbled across a window to another world, rather than just a collection of cleverly painted images.
Do you have a favourite artist, or artists?
Not really, and even if I did I would probably change my mind from week to week. There are just so many good painters, film makers, sculptors, designers etc. I usually have a favourite ‘aspect’ of each that inevitably influences my own thinking, rather than having favourite artists.
How was it contributing concept Artwork to Pixars latest film; Wall-E, how did this come about?
This was an very enjoyable assignment, beginning with a phone call from the Art Director, Ralph Eggleston, explaining a very peculiar concept of a robot working on a planet covered in trash, who falls in love. My picture books have some distribution in the US, and staff at Pixar were familiar with them, and recognised my interest in post-industrial landscapes and machines. So I was asked to draw anything that came to mind, based on vague descriptions of particular locations; mainly an abandoned Earth and an enormous spaceship. There was no ‘right or wrong’ because at that stage, in 2005, nobody really knew what any of the film would look like, they were just fishing for random ideas. That’s an ideal job, because it’s your thought process that is valued, rather than your ability to create nice-looking art.
That said, it’s hard to know what influence my work may have had on the final imagery of the film. I can see a slight resemblance in various aspects, but ultimately I was a supplier of raw material, and the work of the art department at Pixar is what really builds the world on screen.
What advice would you give to an aspiring illustrator?
Probably three key tips: (1) Work hard, (2) Finish what you start, and (3) be articulate about your ideas. The third is often very important for an illustrator, because you have to deal with many different clients, some more visually literate than others.