Welcome to another Dimension
Joining the studio as a full time employee in May 2016, Isam Prado, a 2008 graduate of Pratt Institute, now resides as Head of Animation here at Mike Perry Studio. Displaying an acute adaptability, Prado has expanded the creative capacities of the studio with expansive storytelling projects (Broad City “Mushrooms,” Season 4, Episode 4) and new initiatives (Dolby Laboratories Gallery installation “Conversations From Far-off Places,” 2017). As we move forward, he will be exploring the deeper rabbit holes of 3D sculpting & Virtual Reality development, along with whatever new & exciting challenges arising that stand no chance up against his intuitive prowess.
INTERVIEW WITH JEREMY LERHER
1. The first project you worked on with the Studio was the live-action and animation combo for Koodo, the Canadian cellphone company. What was your impression of working with Mike and J?
It was some of the most fun I’ve had brainstorming ideas for a project. Usually you come into a studio and you have ideas for what you think would be really funny, but you know they wouldn’t be viable because there are all these barriers to new ideas. Everything has been figured out…sometimes when I join a project, the files are even already made for me, and I just need to open them just do the animation.
This project didn’t have any of that. I was there from the beginning helping to decide what things were going to look like, before any visuals were even discussed. The format of the commercial was like someone took a bunch of clips from the Internet and arranged them into a commercial. The agency didn’t want to take material that was already out there - they wanted to make stuff that was like that. So we did things in different styles and mediums, experimenting with the different things that we all wanted to do. Mike had a whole team of people making a variety of clips just to help see what was possible. I feel like that project opened up a world of possibilities of what we could do with animation.
2. What were some of the other projects that you’ve done so far? Leading up to that.
We did a small video for Herman Miller about the principles of comfortable design. It was a whole video about chairs in which we weren’t allowed to use any chairs—because it was for WHY magazine, not Herman Miller directly, so it wasn’t supposed to be an advertisement. We showed people sitting in space, illustrating the principles of comfortable chair design.
3. And there was a project for Coca-Cola, right?
Yes. We did a sports jingle for Coca-Cola for the Blue Jays during the World Series. That one was really fun. It was very similar to the Kudo project because the organizing principle was to make all these different things and then just collage everything together. The collaborative process felt a lot more equal in that one. Mike was doing all the actual animation. I was compositing everything together in ways that were relevant or fun. It was almost like taking all of Mike’s stuff and remixing it.
4. What are you working on now?
Currently, I’m working on the pitch for Mike and Jim Stoten’s animated show. I took the script and redid the original animatic, where I’m drawing all the main actions and putting that into a composition. I created all the visual gags for what is hopefully going to become the final thing. Mike and Jim wanted to have someone to take everything and visually transpose it into a whole, but also add to it, come up with visual gags to complement all the humor that’s in the writing. That’s an ongoing process, even now. There are visual gags I didn’t think about earlier, and now I can put more things in. It’s a very procedural way of creating humor.
5. How do you decide what gags to add, or if it’s okay to do so?
The first day I began working on the show, I started adding visual gags. And I thought to myself, “I don’t know if I’m overstepping my bounds.” For a couple days, I was adding things without knowing whether Mike would approve them. I thought, “Well, I’m just going to keep adding these gags and see what flies and what doesn’t.” Surprisingly most of the things that I added in there, Mike said, “Yeah, that’s great, let’s keep that.” Or he would tell me, “Let’s push it forward.”
6. Can you tell me a specific gag you created?
In general, I’m adding things that change the dynamic of the shot somewhat to provide a counterpoint to what the people are saying. So there’s a scene where the character Mike opens the fridge and there’s a “fruit horse” inside - it’s literally a horse made out of cut fruit. I made a decision to cut close to the fruit horse. One of the eyes falls off and Mike puts it back together really quickly. Little things like that add to the humor. It provides an extra layer to that joke, which is that this fruit horse - in addition to being a weird concept - is also not very practical. It’s not the easiest thing to keep together. Time will tell whether that actually works out to be funny or not.
7. Watching it is pretty hilarious. The cutaway shots are sometimes the most charming.
There’s a scene when Mike decides to make a very strong cocktail that will defeat this character called The Coffee Monster. At that moment, I created the visual gag of Mike opening his coat and having an array of cocktail supplies inside, including a shaker and all these Martini glasses. I like the idea that no matter what, he’s always ready to make a cocktail. It’s almost like his emergency kit. It provides a unique side story, that at any given point, he is able to make a cocktail.
8. You’re translating Mike’s visual style into animation, and you capture it so well. How do you render that so accurately?
Sometimes I literally take one frame of his drawing and base everything on that. Ultimately, for a lot of these projects, I have that complete visual reference of what a frame looks like and then I can go from there. A lot of other times - for example, for the animatic - there’s so many things that need to be designed and need to be drawn. I have a good idea of not only Mike’s style but what Jim’s style is like, so I can put something in there, and that can be the final version or a placeholder.
There’s one background where I decided to put in a character Mike had created for another project. I had to redraw the character, but I redrew it in a way that made sense for the series.
Also, a coatrack that J made is in the animatic now. Because I decided that it should be next to the door. Being here in the studio is giving me all these opportunities to glean from everything around me and create this world. There’s certain ways that Mike draws eyes, so I will sometimes draw a side character with eyes like that. I really like Jim’s line quality - it’s very precise and it has a certain weight and volume to it. I try to incorporate that whenever I can into aspects of the animation. For that particular case, I think it’s fun to glean from these two and see what works. At some point, they’ll want to take over and design. But there is so many things in that world that a part of it will be my own.
9. How does this way of creating translate more generally to your work here?
Even in the Koodo project, there were so many things that we had to figure out. For example, what does 3D look like in Mike’s style? I get an idea from all the sculptures here in the studio, but I have some freedom to decide how things translate in 3D and how things are shaded and rendered. Because that’s also an aspect of the style. One of the things I like about 3D is that you create a lighting setup that’s very analogous to real life, and you can put a bounce light in somewhere, and other things like that. You can decide how stark or how soft all the light is. I always try to find a good narrative reason to do things like that.
That’s something that I’m also looking forward to. That’s something I will have more control over, if we do decide to go more into the 3D stuff. Which for the Kudo stuff has already happened. Some stuff I made is in the final version. At no point did Mike tell me, “You should change this to that.” It just made sense. I took all the color palettes and all that, and I made it make sense. That’s something I have the freedom to do more often than not. I can take the style of everything else into account but then go in my own direction.
10. In that sense, what other new directions are you bringing to the Studio?
From a personal growth standpoint, I’ve wanted to learn as many things as possible. Sometimes, it’s like I’m finding a problem for a solution. I see all these technologies or software programs that seem really interesting, and I start coming up with scenarios in which they could be useful. It’s not like anyone comes up to me and says, “Hey, do you think we can do this?”
That’s the thing that I can see myself providing more and more of - figuring out ways to expand what we can do visually into other areas, in ways that are not necessarily obvious. One thing I’ve been thinking about is the idea of taking one of Mike’s sculptures and putting it into a virtual space, where anyone can go and look at it.
11. You did a demo for me where you showed how you could make a setting with virtual reality software, and it was amazing how quickly you made it.
I’m seeing all the potential to take that technology and do something interesting with it. A big part of my drive to do new things is my frustration with the state of the industry. There are all these amazing tools that can do things that defy limits, but people keep using them for the same five things, which is, “We want to reproduce reality, or we want to create another sci-fi or fantasy reality.” It’s not that I don’t see people using these tools in the fine arts or in a more creative, nonsensical way. I love that idea of making settings that don’t necessarily make sense or aren’t necessarily functional. With VR, I don’t know why you would need to walk around a space that looks like anything in reality, when you can create something that’s completely evocative. Like a space for meditation, or a space for putting yourself in a weird setting – it is an imaginary space, it doesn’t have to be even symbolic of anything. It can just be an idea that you can walk through.
12. Which of these ideas you’re contemplating will be part of the studio’s work? I think everyone at the studio is interested in sci-fi. Is that something you’d like to do?
I’ve definitely talked about getting into VR, and there are other things I’m researching when I’m not at the studio because I see the potential for them here.
I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of sci-fi but never felt like I was committed enough to any particular story. At the same time, I want to find the bridge between that and things that don’t make sense - and things that don’t need to make sense.
I think that’s why I’ve gotten deep into computer graphics, because I see the bridge of being able to do things that are evocative of sci-fi but are their own thing, that are just spaces. I’m slowly bridging those two. My ambition is to be someone who tells stories, but do it in a way that I’m not limited or bored. I don’t want to create a world where the limitations are set by things in reality.
13. In your personal projects, how have you worked with some of these ideas you’re thinking about?
The idea for “Apex of You,” an Instagram project I started, was to tell the narrative of corporate imagery and corporate outreach but try to do it in a way that was more about evoking the alienation of not knowing what the future is going to look like.
If I could look into the future, the thing that I would be the most excited about is not seeing how much better or how much more advanced things are, but rather how much more alienating they are, because they would be so different. I don’t think it is alienating in a negative sense, but I want to try to think past the function of things, and think about all the useless things that we’re going to be able to see.
14. I’m intrigued by the concept of useless things - useless things like what?
If you tried to explain Internet videos to someone in the 1800s, they would be completely mystified. I don’t think that internet videos represent a great advancement of humanity - it’s not something that you would put up there as a great discovery - but it is something that makes our lives a lot more bearable. I want to find what the equivalent of something like that would be for the future. In reality, there’s no way of knowing.
So that uncertainty creates this rich possibility of being able to create really insane visual objects and then try to figure out what they could possibly mean, try to find a function for them. That function could be really trivial. But also would follow from what’s going on with technology. The possibilities of the kinds of materials and substances that we’ll be able to engineer in the future - not only through industrial means but also through agricultural means - is going to be really fascinating, and that’s the direction where I want to go with that particular project - to find out how crazy the future will look. So far, I feel like there’s a lot more I can do with that. I’ve been keeping it really safe.
15. So even in your own work, you feel this tug between the “standard” and the more unusual.
A while ago, I was working on a sci-fi action comic for the web, and my biggest problem was that it wasn’t pushing far enough. One of the things that I’ve come to realize being here is that there are places where I’m shortchanging myself by trying to keep things consistent and normal, and I need to break loose from that. I see Mike’s paintings and sculptures, and I want things like this to be part of a sci-fi action comic, and there’s no reason they shouldn’t be.