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Veteran Animator creates Surreal 2D animations and Music Videos with Cartoon Animator

Matt Bissett-Johnson

Matt Bissett-Johnson

From traditional animation drawing methods like hand-drawn cell animation to stop motion photography, Matt Bissett-Johnson has done it all.

But he has finally settled on 2D animation drawing and Cartoon Animator (CTA), producing award-winning music videos and animation shorts that have been recognized around the world.

In this interview, Matt tells his personal journey in art and animation from before he even owned a computer, to today, where he finds himself being able to work fast and efficiently thanks to Cartoon Animator.

“I like Reallusion products because they are fairly easy to use, stable, and had direct compatibility with Photoshop, which I use all the time.”

Matt Bissett-Johnson

Q: Greetings Matt! It’s good to have you in our Reallusion Feature stories. Please, tell us a bit about your history with animation?

Hello, thanks for having me.

When I was a teenager in the late 80’s I used to make Super 8 movies. The camera had a frame by frame attachment and I made plasticine movies, space movies with wooden spaceships and things with puppets. I also did paper cut out animation. I used to scratch the film with a razor blade to get electricity and laser effects. You’d send off your film cartridge off to Kodak and wait 2 or 3 weeks before you could see anything. It was hugely exciting.

Later on however, I didn’t think I would be an animator. I thought it would be too time consuming and didn’t think I had the patience. That changed however when I saw an ad, in about 95, looking for cartoonists. It was an animation studio, making a kid’s series called Li’l Elvis and the Truckstoppers, employing a couple of hundred people, most of who were trained on the job. We got an animation degree of some kind on the job, and got experience in our different roles.

I wanted to learn to be an animator, and ended up in the inbetweener section. For those who don’t know, an inbetweener drew with a pencil, all the inbetween drawings, based on what an animator had drawn as keyframes (also in pencil). We had nifty light boxes you could rotate to draw easier and electric pencil sharpeners. Many had little notes about the timing. Not only that, we drew all the mouth shapes and had to keep the characters ‘on model’, meaning they had to look like the character no matter what they looked like moving. If we got it wrong, there was a checking department, and they’d send it back. We all dreaded head turns and the like. Every day we’d be given a huge pile of keyframed drawings, and we’d draw the six or seven drawings between all the keyframes. It was just the start of the computer revolution of animating, they coloured the characters with a computer (drop and fill), and there was no inking, and the compositing of the finely painted backgrounds was also done with a computer. It wasn’t a bad job, nearly everyone was a cartoonist, but after the shear tedium of doing that for a year or so. I felt this sort of thing was better left to a computer. I didn’t even have a computer, it was verging on wishful thinking. But that was my plan.

A year or so later I got hold of a computer, after working as an animator for an advertising company, making a film I wrote which they decided they hated. I sent it to the Australian Broadcasting Commission(or ABC as it’s known) to a music show called Recovery, and eventually landed a gig, writing, animating and doing my own voices and music for my own segments and breakers. It was morning television, when I started they had a lot of live bands on the show and it was very popular. At the time I was animating on Windows 95, with Premiere and Photoshop clones and bending stuff around with something called Power Goo. It was reasonably time consuming, as it took my computer an hour to render a 1 and a half minute film in order to preview it. But it was a walk in the park compared to inbetweening. I also used to morph things a lot, applying little points with a program I got from the Reject Shop. Later in the shows history, they lost their live stage and tried to support the show with animated segments. There were four animators by then, and we could do whatever we liked, but it had to work together somehow. We were assigned to create characters in different departments of an imaginary TV show. I got the editing room. It was a bit of a nightmare (this was 1999), and we had to somehow produce 4 minutes of animation a week each to make it work. With a bit of ingenuity we pulled it off in various ways, but the show wasn’t very popular, and ended up being cancelled two seasons later. I later worked on something called Backberner (also for the ABC), but only lasted one season.

My story has a lull for a few years (I was working as a telemarketer), before I finally managed a modest career as a cartoonist and live caricature artist. I returned to animating here and there, and the rest is the happy story you hear today. This is why I love Reallusion and Cartoon Animator, as it’s basically what I’ve always dreamed of.

Q: Share with us about the work that you are currently Cartoon Animator 4.

Sure. One thing I do is make short animations which I send to festivals. I’ve had a surprising amount of success with my last animated short film, By Rocket to Oblivion, winning 10 Best Animation Awards from festivals around the world. There’s also been 1 special mention and 2 finalist awards. It’s a short comedy featuring a spaceman in a rocket, and I used a few features that are very particular to CTA, such as the 3D morph head and some of the prop distorting tools in conjunction with the curve keyframes.

I draw all my own characters and backgrounds. I work as a Political and Gag Cartoonist (I’m regularly published in Australia), as well as a Caricature Artist, so I like to draw. I create all my own music which I find is an important part of the film making process. I’ve played in bands and have been recording for many years as well as being a busker. I play guitar, harmonica and do electronic production with keyboards and other MIDI devices.

The other thing I do is to make animated video clips, either for my own electronic music, which I release under the name Happyslug, or for clients. The videos I make for myself are generally fairly quickly done, but it allows me to try out different techniques which I can use later.

One of my animations received a Special Mention from Reallusion’s Animation at Work competition for this Happyslug track, Quest for Fire.

Here’s a video I did for another Happyslug tune, featuring characters created and looped in CTA. The backgrounds were created quickly in iClone:

The last music video I did for a client was for a Welsh musician who goes by the name Only Rainday Rainbow. He had a lot of crazy ideas which I was able to create and elaborate on. We decided a hand drawn 2D approach was the way to go, due to the detail and number of characters, which would have been difficult and beyond his budget to do in iClone (which I use a lot too). He was very happy with the result.

 I also make animated videos for other bands, electronic musicians and record companies over the last few years. Here’s a video I made for Zombie Androids, for some musicians I have collaborated with in the past.

Q: After decades of being an animation veteran, why did you choose Reallusion software as the platform to create your content?

Well I suppose it started in 2015, when I realized I couldn’t afford pricey 3D programs, and struggled with Blender, so I got hold of iClone as a cheaper and faster option for 3D. I have the Pipeline version and like it a lot, so I have been using it ever since. In the first year I had it, I won the Animator Cartoonist Stanley Award from the Australian Cartoonists Association (which I have won twice since, including last year for an iClone film, Dog’s Breakfast).

Then I realized a 2D animation option was something I needed.

“I had an animation gig for a record company, which forced me to learn the ins and outs of Cartoon Animator, and I loved it. I can whip up something quickly, and the interface is pretty simple once you get to know it.”

Matt Bissett-Johnson

Q: You obviously have your own creative style , what’s your favorite genre or theme to work with?

I think my favorited genre is Science Fiction. I grew up on Doctor Who and Star Wars, and have read heaps. Particularly comedic science fiction, I have a sense of humour which needs to be engaged, which is why I love cartoons, where anything can happen. Impossible or surreal things appeal to me a lot.

I love the way, as an animator, I can manipulate a natural phenomenon. I can influence water to get up and walk, or force the magic particles on the shabby dress of a princess to transform into the most beautiful ball gown.

“It’s what I love to do – I love making the ordinary, magical.”

Matt Bissett-Johnson

Q: Do you find the process of creating characters and content for Cartoon Animator easy and enjoyable?

Yeah it’s good. I like creating backgrounds and drawing up characters to animate. I’m still learning how to create complex characters, and use a lot of workarounds. If there’s an alternative way of doing things, I tend to find it. You have a lot of options. There’s no wrong way of doing things. As long as its animated, I’m happy. There’s a world of things to explore in there.

Q: For aspiring developers that are looking to create content for the Reallusion Marketplace, what advice would you have for them?

My advice would be to pick something you would find handy yourself, in the hope somebody with less skill or time might like to use. Make it look good. Or make a striking film and submit it to Reallusion, showing off your work.

Do you have plans for future content in the works?

I have a history of hand animation, so I think some traditional effects might be in the works. Either that or robots. I like robots.

What advantages do you find Cartoon Animator gives you? 

I love the speed, and the bones in characters dynamics. It’s usually pretty intuitive, and if you get stuck, you can usually find a forum post or video about how to do it. I’ve just started messing about with importing things to Adobe After Effects, learning a few tricks to use on my CTA works. Still early days, but promising. The integration with other software is fantastic.

I love how quickly you can loop a simple character if that’s all you’re after, and the iClone to CTA pipeline is showing a lot of promise. I was lucky enough to be involved in the test group for the motion link and I made this as a test.

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