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Toon Zone Interviews "Tinker Bell & the Lost Treasure" Art Director Ellen Jin Over

by on October 27, 2009

Art director Ellen Jin Over has managed to make quite a name for herself in a rather short span of time. Over was one of the first digital background painters in the United States, and shortly after her graduation from the Otis College of Art and Design, she was receiving recruitment offers from overseas animation studios like Hong Ying (Sonic the Hedgehog) in China and S.O.B. Animation Group in New Zealand. She returned to the United States to work on Clifford the Big Red Dog, and then on the 2002 revival of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Her work as art director on the series Jakers! The Adventures of Piggley Winks won her a Emmy award in 2004, leading to further credits on the Marvel/Lionsgate direct-to-video movies The Invincible Iron Man and Doctor Strange

Her latest credit is as the art director for Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure, the latest direct-to-video CGI animated movie in the Disney Fairies line, chronicling the continuing adventures of the plucky tinker fairy who will eventually become Peter Pan’s sidekick. Toon Zone News was able to speak with Over over the phone about her work on the new Tinker Bell movie.

TOON ZONE NEWS: Is Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure the first movie you’ve been the full art director for?

ELLEN JIN OVER: Yeah. In feature-length, DVD-side, this is the first project that I’m the full art director for. I’ve been an art director on the TV side, but this is my first time for a feature.

TZN: How did you get the job as the art director for the movie?

ELLEN JIN OVER: I was very lucky. I had a portfolio that I was taking around, and a friend of mine who was working at Disney at the time said, “Oh, there’s an opening for an art director. Do you want to apply?” (laughs) So, I took in my portfolio, the producer and director looked at it, and they interviewed me. I didn’t think I was going to get it, but I got a phone call later on that they wanted to go with me. So it was via an introduction from another friend who knew that there was going to be a job opening. Otherwise, I would have never known (laughs).

TZN: Can you walk us through what a typical day looks like for you?

ELLEN JIN OVER: A typical day is that I walk into the office and there’s 1000 emails that I have to check. After that, I make a round with my assistant, because I lead a team of artists – character designers, layout artists, environmental designers, 3-D artists, background painters, and character painters. We go around and check how everybody’s doing and give them some comments, walk them through different designs and give them new assignments. Part of the day consists of talking with my director, talking about the environment, and the next project, and getting involved in creating new ideas for the story.

TZN: The Tinker Bell movies are based on seasons, and the new movie is supposed to be set in the fall. How did you work with that theme, or how did you express it in the movie?

ELLEN JIN OVER: As far as the design goes, autumn stays pretty much the same in Pixie Hollow. It’s static…we’ll be featuring some areas in Pixie Hollow that have a fall feel to them, so we created an area where it’s populated with red and yellow, maple and birch trees, and long yellow grass. We made the lighting a little bit warmer, so that’s part of the fall feeling.

Not quite as much fun as they look.TZN: Were there any special challenges that doing things in autumn presented for you?

ELLEN JIN OVER: Well, it wasn’t really about the autumn. The challenges came when I had to create some other locations outside of Pixie Hollow and Neverland. Nobody has ever gone there before, so coming up with the design of the new island that Tinker Bell travels to, a far distance away…that was challenging. Within Pixie Hollow, it wasn’t really that challenging because Pixie Hollow does resemble a little bit of the real world, except it’s got a Pixie Hollow flair to it. Autumn tends to have a bit more of a saturated palette because of clear air and blue sky, so we made it as colorful as we can.

TZN: On the commentary track to The Incredibles, Brad Bird commented that he felt that computer graphics wanted to make everything shiny, smooth, and clean. How do you feel about that, or do you think that the technology has advanced to the point where that’s not really true any more?

ELLEN JIN OVER: Good question. You know, CG technology has come a long way, but to get the look that you want or to make it as natural as it should look, it takes a final human touch in every corner. Unless you tell the computer to do things in a certain way, it won’t do it. You have to go extra lengths to drop the leaves everywhere. They create really generic grasses, so you have to bend the grasses a certain way, turn the trees a certain way, mess up the bushes a little bit to make it more natural. So, even though we do CG animation, and we’ve been developing it for years, it still requires a human touch to make it look natural. And then, for the shininess that he commented on, we need a special rendering process to make it more natural than a glossy, generic 3-D surface.

TZN: Did you think that there was any really hard technical problem that you had to solve or get around in making this movie?

ELLEN JIN OVER: Yeah, when we created a large environment, we did have some technical difficulties because the set is so huge, and when you come to the rendering process, it takes a long time. Ground textures are always challenging because when characters are on the ground, you need to make it look like they’re standing on a real surface, not a 3-D hard rock glossy surface, so texturing is another challenge. Lighting is the most difficult part, becuase that’s where you can tell how realistic the CG characters and environment look like. You need a lot of extra layers and techniques to make it look like a real environment. Atmosphere and shadows and stuff like that. Other than that, we didn’t run into any particularly difficult problems I can recall.

TZN: You had also mentioned that you had been the art director for the Jakers! series, which was also CGI.

ELLEN JIN OVER: Yes! That was my first CGI production experience.

TZN: What’s the difference between being the art director for a TV series vs. a film?

ELLEN JIN OVER: The huge difference is schedule. We are in production for 2 years to make this 70 minute film, and for TV, the schedule is very, very short. We were shipping out 20 minute episodes every week, so the amount of work is really different. What’s great about this feature film is that you can fully explore the quality of the work instead of producing a massive amount of work that is not as good. You can really get into designing things specifically or making things feel a certain way. The quality of that is definitely different, and the amount of techniques you can use. There’s a big difference.

Honeycomb's big. Yeah yeah yeah.TZN: Is there something specific in the movie that you want to make sure that audiences notice?

ELLEN JIN OVER: Oh, yeah. I love to get feedback on the new land that we designed, and how they feel about it. We designed a lot of beautiful locations, like the distribution depot that’s made from natural stuff like a honeycomb. I’d love the audience to notice that, and since it’s set in fall, I’d like the audience to feel that they’re really in a fall setting and get a full impact of beautiful colors.

TZN: What’s next for you?

ELLEN JIN OVER: I’m currently moving over to the winter movie, which is the fourth installment of Tinker Bell. It’s got a different look and different feel. It’s winter. It’s exciting. It’s exciting to be working on the winter movie.

TZN: So you’re skipping over the summer one, then?

ELLEN JIN OVER: Yeah, we have another art director who worked on the first movie. He’s taking on the third movie at the moment, so I’m taking the fourth.

Toon Zone News would like to thank Ellen Jin Over for taking the time to chat with us, and to Dre Birskovich of Click Communications and Mindy Johnson of WDSHE Global Publicity for arranging the interview. Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure is available now on DVD and Blu-ray; check out our review of the title here.

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