Interview by Karyn Keene
Sabrina Cotugno is a storyboard artist at Disney and also creates her own animated shorts and comics. In part 1, we discussed her journey as an animator and her work at Disney. Below, we move on to her own work and the inspirations and processes that drive her.
What first ignited your love of storytelling?
Well, I always read as a kid. I loved Harry Potter, that was my first big thing where I really got into the story. It started off with my mom reading the first book to me and then they got to the chamber with the Sorcerer’s stone and realized it wasn’t Voldemort and it wasn’t Snape and then the chapter ends! My mom told me to wait until tomorrow, but I just read it. She wasn’t too happy, but that was the spark that got me into reading.
The first thing I noticed about your art is the tendency toward Japanese and Victorian works. How would you describe some of your inspiration, especially in those areas?
I’ve always been into Japanese culture because my mom was Japanese. Because I’m half, I don’t really belong in the Japanese culture as someone who is full or is actually from Japan. When I hear Japanese language spoken I feel really comfortable and at home. At the same time, because I don’t actually speak the language or have relatives back in Japan anymore, it still feels like this mystical, foreign, magical place. My Japanese-American grandma died when I was one year old, so I never got to meet her. She still has this presence in my family, you can feel her and her influence. I was fascinated to know what her life was like and to know what culture she came from. It’s been this mystery that stays with me.
Later, I started to really get into Victorian novels and Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. In that era, we were on the cusp of so many modern things but they were just back in time enough for them to feel somewhat foreign. I love medical history – they have almost discovered that disease is caused by cells not bad air or God. It makes us reconsider what we’ve always taken for granted, even our knowledge of bacteria and biology.
And working with that stereo-typical, hoity-toity, moralistic society that’s about rules and social niceties is an interesting subject to me because social niceties terrify me. The Victorian era is a magnification of all the social anxieties that I feel just naturally being in the modern world. So in a way, it’s a dramatized version of how I feel in real life. It lets me explore those themes of anxiety and not fitting in.
So is that why the Jekyll and Hyde and Frankenstein stories appeal to you, because it’s that feeling of not fitting into that society?
Oh yeah, definitely. Especially Jekyll and Hyde, that’s been the story that has stuck with me since High School. It’s about that dichotomy of feeling like you’re not quite fitting in, and then deciding that you can use science to make yourself fit in. You can separate out all the parts of you that you don’t like, that are scary to you, that feel monstrous. It’s a poignant feeling that I can relate to. I think that’s why duality appeals to me.
What is your storytelling process?
My initial spark or process for coming up with the story is really nebulous. Usually I’ll wake up one day feeling this image that usually has a very strong emotional content or feeling. I’ll follow those emotions and slowly pick at them and see if I can turn them into a rough story blob. I then write it all down in what I call a “vomit pass” – so it’s like blech all the feelings. I think I learned that from Mark Andrews or some Pixar dude. Everything comes out and it’s gross and all over the place and smelly but it’s got that raw emotional content.
Then, I’ll try to do a first draft where I pick out what works and form a structure around it. I love doing structure, thinking about emotional beats and making things work. But sometimes when you get over-structured you lose the heart of a story. So, I always try to keep that initial vomit pass in mind, to make sure I still have all the emotional punches and that I still feel the story the same way I felt it on the first day. So you know, I barf out stories – that’s what happens.How then does your animation process work? It has a very hand-drawn feel to it, is it actually hand-drawn?
I have not drawn by hand for about 4 years. Animation is such a labor intensive process that any amount of time you can cut down to get faster is going to be so worth it. So, I’ve always done digital, but I like going for a hand-drawn feel. It gives off a nice warmth. One way I do that is with a program called TV Paint. It’s fairly similar to Photoshop, except it’s for animation and it’s French. They have a number of customizable brushes, one that has a pencil-like feeling to it, so that gives it a bit of a hand drawn feel.
Before I start my films, I do a few tests to find a workflow for my backgrounds. For Kagemono I figured out this watercolor technique which is really simple. You paint and then add a few filters and a watercolor texture over it. It’s nice and really quick which is important because there’s so much work to do.
After I do my vomit pass and first draft, I do a quick first pass of storyboards and then lay them aside for a bit and start design work. After about a month, I then go back to the boards and think about what feels like it’s missing.
Meanwhile, I start taking the sequences that feel solid and I test them out for animation. I check how comfortable I am with the animation, what my workflow is, and how fast I can actually animate. Usually, I’ll finish the test and lock the boards at about the same time.
Then I make a schedule, which is my favorite part of everything. I make my weekly schedules, my daily schedules, set a deadline. Then I go all out into production mode and just work for however many months until it’s done. It works really well for me.
So it seems like you have to be good at a number of different things: writing, animation, drawing, character art, backgrounds, etc. How do you continue to grow in all these different areas?
Story is always my grounding point. You’d think story is about writing, but it’s really about all different forms. There is no native form of story. I try to hone my skills in several different areas in places where I feel I have competence to do justice to my stories and characters.
The best way for me to improve is to get a story idea and then try to execute it. Nothing will tell me where my weak points are more than trying to do something, having the idea so clear in my head, and then not being able to do it. You run against these walls and you have no doubt about where you need to improve – it tells you “right there”. Like when I couldn’t draw a man pulling a tourniquet around his arm while trying to stick a needle into himself. That was hard.
So what do you do when you run up against those walls?
Cry. I feel bad for a while. I have to take a little bit of a break from it, then I’ll go into research mode. I find some artist I admire, do some studies, look at films. I like to see how people are handling structure or format, and try to get the gears running by thinking outside of me. I have to keep from getting caught up in my own brain.
To read about Sabrina’s work at Disney and how she started her career as an artist, be sure to read Part 1 of the interview! You can find Sabrina’s work on her website, Tumblr and Online Store. Contact her through Twitter or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org