Julia Woolf interviewed by Madelyn Travis

Julia Woolf is a children’s book illustrator, whose debut picture book, 'Giraffe on a Bicycle' is published this month. Julia has worked in  London and Los Angeles as a key animator working for companies such as Dreamworks and PDI on films such as Shrek, Prince of Egypt and Madagascar about her career in animation and the transition to children's book illustration.

In this interview Julia talks to Madelyn Travis

How did you get into animation?

I took a graphic design course at Canterbury Art College. When I was doing that course I made an animated film and as a result my tutor suggested that I try to get a job in animation. I left art college in 1984, put my portfolio together and went up to London. I’d researched all the addresses of the animation studios and simply went and knocked on the door. I didn’t even ring up beforehand! I spent two day cold calling, and three weeks later I got a call offering me work. And then I worked solidly for the next 20 years! The first thing I did was mix paint, and then I was a cel [celluloid] painter, because that was the technique back then. After that I went into colour and background design. I earnt a good reputation as an assistant animator, which involved working with  the animator’s key drawings and putting them on a model and filling in the other drawings in the sequence.

Before you started working in illustration, you worked for Dreamworks. Tell me about that.

I was employed by Amblimation, Steven Spielberg’s studio in west London. They were relocating everybody because he was going to produce an animated Cats. They started taking people over to the States and that’s when they formed Dreamworks. I remember there were around 30 of us in this room and Speilberg was explaining  why the Cats project wasn't going to work and that we were going to relocate and work at Dreamworks in LA.

Which films did you work on?

My first film was The Prince of Egypt. At that point I was a character lead with a team of people. We were given the rough drawings and the key positions of the movements, and we had to complete the sequence. I had to make sure that all of the people working on that character made it look the same. During the time that I worked on that movie I moved into the layout department, which was basically the cinematographers, lighting, staging and camera. I worked on the sequence the Hieroglyphic Nightmare.

Which was your favourite Dreamworks film?

I suppose it would have to be Shrek. My husband was the editor on Shrek and they decided they were going to do it up at PDI, which was the studio in Palo Alto, near San Francisco, so we moved there. I was in the art department. I illustrated the books at the beginning of the first two films.

It sounds like an amazing life. What on earth made you come back?

We moved back to LA because my husband returned to work at Dreamworks. I joined Shrek 2, and in 2003 I had my daughter and that’s where I made the change. They gave me six months leave. A lot of people in America just have six weeks maternity leave.  I didn’t think I could do that. They kept ringing me and asking if I was coming back and one time I said, ‘Actually, no, we’re in England, so I can’t.’ At that point I asked if I could work from home. They weren’t keen on that idea so I said, I’m just going to leave. I can remember the head of animation asking if I was sure that’s what I wanted to do and I said ‘No, but that’s what I am going to do.’

People kept telling me I should do children’s books illustration. Just before I had my daughter, I entered a competition with SCBWI for the winter conference in NY and I was a top 10 finalist. And then I went to their summer conference in LA and got second place in the portfolio. So I put an ad in an illustration directory and I started to get illustration work from that advert. It was all educational material, which I was happy with at that point.

When they filmed the second Narnia in Prague, we came back to England. My daughter reached school age so it was nice to be near my family.

So what encouraged you to apply for the MA at Anglia Ruskin?

I started the MA in children’s book illustration in 2012 because I felt stuck in a rut with the illustration work I was getting. My agent in NY put me in touch with people and I’d meet people at the London Book Fair but the work wasn't coming in. I did some nice little board books with Caterpilla which I enjoyed  but I wanted to change the way I worked. Everybody talked about the Anglia Ruskin MA and I’d been eyeing it up for a while.

Did you do drawing as part of any of your courses?

I did life drawing at art college and at one studio in Soho we used to have life drawing sessions one day a week, and also at Dreamworks. It’s really important for animation. You need people who can draw, and that’s the best way to learn to draw. It teaches you about structure, which is essential even if it’s just layout and construction of the page. Everything needs a bit of structure: if you don't get the bones right, your figure could look like a lump of jelly .  

What kind of additional training did the MA provide?

It gave me the confidence to experiment. I was so locked in to working with the computer, it felt as though I couldn’t work outside those parameters. I listened to advice from the tutors and I'm still experimenting with ideas that I picked up from the course.  I combine the feeling of working with my hands with working on the computer.

For the artwork in my book, the giraffe is created in different layers. It was done in black ink, with mono-printing and painting and then scanned in to the computer. Then I re-built with the computer and coloured it in Photoshop.  So it’s all black and then converted to colour. When I was trying to mix the paints, I could never the exact colour that was in my head. In Photoshop, if you do everything in black and scan it, you have more control over the colour.

The animal characters have to have the same look throughout the book, but the plants don’t have to be so accurate. I’d paint them on acetate and press it down and burnish it.

So what's the process?

I start with a pencil sketch and get the layout right. I draw it, put the sheet of acetate over the top, paint the shape with the black in and then burnish it with a darning mushroom, because I haven’t got a printing press. I love that homemade feel, using found objects, and then I peel it off. I have a collection of  little bits of paper and I write on them so I don’t forget what they are. Then I scan them into the computer and then composite it. Finally, I work on the colour.

The image is on different layers. The giraffe on the cover would have had its body shape, First a yellow shape and then the orange. The leg would have been created separately. I look at each character and write a list for each illustration of all the elements that need to be done. As I print I cross it off so that I know I haven’t missed anything.

As a cel painter you don't really paint, you push. You produce something similar to the texture of double cream. It's very important to get the texture right.  With my illustration, it is almost the same feeling as painting on a cel; when I paint on the acetate it’s as though I have come full circle.  

There are several picture books about jungle animals – Jungle Party, Rumble in the Jungle, Giraffes Can’t Dance, for example. What made you set your story in the jungle?

For one of the educational jobs that I worked on, they wanted  me to picture different animals in different situations:  a monkey and a flamingo riding on a tandem. They were little spot illustrations.  I made the illustration and it was very digital looking. I showed it to my course tutor, Martin Salisbury, and he said it looked as though it was made out of biscuits. I kept it in my portfolio for a while. I  could tell that people liked the idea, but it wasn't quite right.

 One day I saw a photo of a bicycle that had grown up a tree. Someone had left it by the tree and it just got stuck and it had grown up the tree over the years. I thought, 'wouldn't that be great in a story?' The idea came to me so quickly. I did the entire rough in about two weeks. The text had only the first sentence in the beginning, but it hasn’t changed that much.


That was in the original as well. I remember Martin said, 'But how did the bicycle get up the tree?' And I said,' It’s all here in the endpapers.' In fact there were lots more illustrations there.

I love that you have made the endpapers part of the story.

A lot of people don’t look at the endpapers. 

We’ll see if anybody does!

I love the use of white space, and the colour palette.

Initially I had all white backgrounds. It was the designer’s idea to have some tinted pages to break it up, and it was her idea for the little shiny bits on the front. I love that.

The look on the tiger’s face – he’s so worried the whole way through.

Yes, he is! The lemurs are the only ones that invite themselves onto the bicycle. All the others get dragged on reluctantly. The lemurs are the ones who first see the bicycle. I like the idea that they’re in competition with the spider monkeys. The lemurs are the really naughty ones.

Are you a planner or do you play around with things as you go along?

I do very rough drawings, like stick figures, and I review them and maybe do another pass at it. Then I might scan the images bring them up to the size that I want. Then I draw again and refine. I run a lot, so a lot of the things I think about on a long run.

Do you have a lot of ideas on the go at the same time?

I have lots of ideas, but some of them sit in the background for a long time. People say you should have a notebook by your bed, but someone said it if it’s a good enough idea it will stick. I like that it should stay with you.

How do you imagine Giraffe on a Bicycle might be used in the classroom?

I’ve just been making  masks for the different characters. I thought we could perform it like a play. I am making  sheets so the children can colour in their own .I’d just like the kids to get involved, so a bit of acting out could be fun. Someone can be the tourist. I’m going to make a little camera out of cardboard. I thought I might make a bike that can break into pieces, but I don’t know how it will work out in the classroom. I might be making several of those!

I saw the trailer on your website and wondered if you’d like to see the book as an app.

I’d definitely be up for doing something like that, but it hasn’t been suggested yet.I do have an idea for an app, but I have to work on it a bit more. I can’t leave the animation side alone! When I start the process of an idea, I always think of it as scenes. Working in a layout department, you’re taught to construct scenes to draw the audience’s eye, whether it’s through lighting or staging. That’s how I think with the picture book. It’s like a series of scenes, each spread, and there has to be a cliffhanger to get them to want to turn the page. I think of it working like a silent movie. 

Thank you Julia for talking to Just Imagine

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