Jim Van Der Keyl is a caricaturist and animator who has worked on many of the biggest animated hits from DreamWorks in recent years, including Kung Fu Panda, Kung Fu Panda2, Flushed Away, and Over the Hedge. In 1999 he was nominated for an Annie award for his animation on Brad Bird's masterpiece The Iron Giant. He also writes books and DVDs on the art of caricature - truly a renaissance animator. We asked him to reveal the secrets of the craft - how does an animator become a great caricaturist?
You have recently published a book and DVD series on drawing caricatures. How did the project come about?
Jim: Actually the DVDs have been selling for almost 20 years now. I made those back in the 1990’s when my animation career was just starting. I was a caricature artist at Universal Studios in Hollywood and that is how I made my living. So I came up with a how-to video that sold initially on VHS, then moved to DVD - and is now available at Amazon for digital download. I tried to keep up with the times - I guess I was one of the first to start marketing this kind of stuff, but nowadays it seems like everyone is doing it since the advent of widely available technology such as the internet, blogs and so on. Back in the day I had to lick stamps and send them out after I received a check in the mail.
How did the caricature training business get started?
Jim: I started the business initially because I read somewhere that a person should have at least three streams of income. Also, I was mostly self-taught as an artist, although I always had a natural “teaching voice”. To explain that -- my father and brother and nephews are all engineers. I grew up with the notion that artists are not always practical creatures and cannot always be trusted to provide for families and so forth. So I always battled that inner voice and to some extent I had to compartmentalize the desire to be an artist. So I taught myself -- literally. Whenever I learned something I would then pull back and ask “what did I just learn and how can I repeat that success”. I was always making mental notes. So in a way, I had this teacher within me breaking down concepts in art so that anyone could learn it. I took that voice and externalized it in the videos that I made about caricaturing.
After 15 or more years I went to the Comic Con and tried to sell my videos. What I discovered was that the books and prints were selling way more than videos - I was astonished! So that is when I got the idea --- I have to write a book. And, before I started writing the book, I realized I had to get actual teaching experience. So in 2009 I volunteered to teach a caricature class at DreamWorks, and I figured out what worked and what did not. In 2010 I made the book. It took me almost a whole year getting all the illustrations and text and examples ready. I worked just about every weekend to get it finished - I was very motivated and excited to complete it. So my book, The Caricaturist’s Handbook, was really born out of 25 years and more of experience drawing caricatures.
However, I cannot claim that I am the consummate professional.. There are so many artists that are so creative and innovative and skilled, many much more than me, but I thought I had something to offer. I thought I had the ability to break down the process of caricaturing in a simple way that the novice could get a firm grasp and get a good head start.
Whose caricature work do you most admire and why?
You also work at DreamWorks doing character animation. How do you find the time to balance it all?
Jim: Once I was committed to doing the book - it was easy. You just find the time to do it. It is amazing how much time we waste if we are not motivated. Also, doing the book gave me an incentive to come up with more studies of faces. But yes - animation is my career. So, after coming home, one does not always want to go to work after spending 8 to 10 hours at the studio. But I did in this case because I was so highly motivated. I am also inspired by the pin up artists, so I have been trying my hand recently at capturing the beauty of the female form. So my caricaturing has subsided a bit lately while I obsess over this new art form. Animation has been very good to me for the past 20+ years so I have been getting more into teaching and applying the same teaching voice I had with caricatures into trying to communicate what I learned to animation. I currently teach with the online school www.iAnimate.net - created by Jason Ryan..
What advice would you give to anyone who wants to learn to do caricatures?
Jim: Well, for one thing - buy my book and DVD’s! There are of course other materials out there, but I feel that mine are some of the best. And, judging by the feedback I get from customers, they also agree. I will also give a shout out to Tom Richmond - the Mad Magazine Mort Drucker-ish caricaturist. Tom came out with a book that is really good too, and I think it is always good to get more than one point of view.
And, of course, there is the classic Len Redmann book on caricaturing. I am hoping that my book will become a classic like Len’s... and keep selling way after I am long gone from this planet! So, like everything else, it is practice. Musicians have to practice, actors need to practice and athletes need to practice. So, draw a lot, and feel comfortable with a pencil. Copy other artists that you like, then find your own style or voice. Keep gravitating to a graphic shape language that speaks to you.
What is your next project?
Jim: What I plan for the future is to keep up with the pin-up art. Also, I am always looking for new, beautiful faces to draw and also to keep caricaturing when the mood strikes me, or when I see an interesting face. And also - to keep animating and teaching.
---and grow rich and retire in Aruba... or Costa Rica!
You can see more of Jim's work at his website, and of course buy his books at amazon. To sign up for our March classroom at Animation Apprentice, follow this link. For more information on finding work and surviving in the animation and visual effects business, read our post on how to find a job in the animation industry, and check out our post about what not to do at a job interview. Also see our post on starting your own small animation business, learn how to create an invoice, and see how we are helping our students find work through our film co-operative Nano Films. Download the free Escape Studios Careers in VFX Handbook. Take a look at how awn.com can help you find a job, and read our piece abouthow to survive as a freelance animator. Also, find out what Cinesite look for in a student's demo reel, and read our post on setting up your own animation business. Also see our post about freelancers and taxes.