Featured Artist

How we Impact Our Planet – Animated Short Films: Interview with Steve Cutts

Steve Cutts is an illustrator and animator currently living and working in London. His work is fascinating, thought-provoking and usually lends an important message.  His messages range from environmental awareness and how we pollute and destroy the earth ( film “Man”), animal rights (film “What a Hunt”) to the humorous and educational (film “How Will You Die”).   His art and film is mixed in humor and sometimes a more serious spin of man’s interaction with our environment and how it impacts the world we live in.

Steve was recently contacted by NPR for a story animation in NPR’s health section written by John Poole. This was right up Steve’s alley. The story entitled “How Will You Die” needed an animation to go along with the main story line.

NPR initially got in touch with me a few months back to commission an animation about the various ways people die around the globe. The film highlights the differences between the leading causes of death in the western world and the way people die in the third world. Given the morbid subject matter we were dealing with I approached it with a light colorful style to counter that, not to try to make the subject of death fun of course, but just to make it more palatable. I designed the main character as the same throughout, almost a generic character who could be anybody, drawn in a particular style which doesn’t give too much away, so he could depict various people from different parts of the world.

“I like to make animations
about life and society in general,
so there tends to be a message
in most of them.
The general insanity of mankind
is an almost endless pot of inspiration! “

Back in 2012, before the NPR story and other projects, Steve uploaded his most popular film “Man” and it seems to have resonated with many viewers.  In an animated frenzy of man’s societal pitfalls and which I prefer to call animated “Steve-isms”, it seems the earth may have been just fine around 500,000 years ago – before we came along.

With over 11 million hits on YouTube since it was uploaded in 2012, this film will touch the raw nerve of any conventional environmentalist or animal rights activist. It is wittingly animated to show the “After Effects looking at mans relationship with the natural world.”  The film generates a sort of progressive tension as you listen to “In the Hall of the Mountain King” by Edvard Grieg. Yes, deforestation, gluttony, consumerism, pollution, overfishing, the dissipation of natural resources, urban sprawl, industrialization, anti-veganism, the anti-green, it is all there.  Nothing is off-limits.  Consumerism has an ugly face, and Steve painfully brings his message home in this animated short film.

“A lot of my work
focuses on the detritus
of our society.
How we interact
with our environment
has a lot to do with
the consumerism bubble
we currently live in.

My work derives from
some of these key themes.
I also draw on the ironic humor
of the dire situations that
we as a species face everyday –
the idea would be laughable
if it wasn’t actually already
happening to us. “

In one of his latest animations entitled “Where Are They Now?”, Steve explores the roles of cartoon characters and what happens to them if they would have continued living on with our societies standards.

“I wanted to look at how these characters from our past would be doing today if they had continued to progress beyond the shows they were in. Kids shows don’t often show the reality of life and instead present these fantastical, ageless indestructible characters – I wanted to explore what would happen if the realities of life were to actually had an impact on them. Cartoons are kind of static, they’re frozen in time and they never age or change in any way. Bart Simpson will never grow up and Popeye will never get old and weak. There aren’t any consequences in cartoons – an orange cat can consume his weight in pasta dishes and never put on a pound. So it was nice to explore what would probably be the natural conclusions to these characters lives.

Stylistically, my approach was to largely keep the animated look of the characters intact and not to deviate too much from the original style, but to apply a semi realistic look to the backdrops, to reinforce the fact it’s the same characters in a new setting. The fun part what deciding what each character would be doing now. I wrote up a cross range of jobs from street cleaners to office workers and matched up the characters to that. Realistically most of the characters would have had a pretty limited skill set in the real world so some of them would have had to go for low paid, manual work. It was interesting to have a mix of bad guys with good guys working together, like Lion-O and Mumm-Ra from Thundercats who in the past had these epic battles but who are now reduced to having petty, trivial rivalries.

When not making film, Steve is busy as an illustrative artist and sculptor.  He has spent several years working as an illustrator at the London creative agency Glueisobar. He has worked on such digital projects that include some pretty famous companies such as Coca-cola, Google, Reebok, Magners, Kellogg’s, Virgin, 3, Nokia, Sony, Bacardi and Toyota.

In 2012, Steve left Glueisobar to venture into the world of freelance. He has worked with various production houses and agencies such as Analog Folk, Lean Mean Fighting Machine, Stink Digital, The Gaia Foundation, Athlon and Bite Global just to name a few. His work has also been featured on various television channels throughout the world, including the Adult Swim network.

We wanted to find out what Steve has been up to since putting out the animated film “Man”.

Steve, tell us something about your typical day and life in London.

It usually depends what I’m working on, but invariably it involves lots of concepting, sketching and editing. I stop for lunch sometimes.

What got you interested in art and illustration and how did you start? 

I’ve been interested in art from as far back as I can remember so it’s something that’s always been there. At school it was the only subject I was actually interested in, so naturally I progressed to study Fine arts at the University. It was between that or serving fries at McDonald’s, so it wasn’t a tough choice. Before long I found myself working as an illustrator for a media agency in London where I developed my skills in software like Photoshop, Flash and After Effects, so it went from there really.

Your art includes animations, illustrations and even sculptures! What media do you like best and how do you decide which media to use when expressing your art?

Illustration is far more immediate obviously and some things just work better as a one-off image. With illustration it’s like a snapshot, whereas with animation you’re creating that entire world around that snapshot, so obviously it’s a lot more work but ultimately it can be more rewarding sometimes. It depends how the story is told best really. Sculpture I still work on from time to time and I’d like to integrate that into my video making at some point soon. All the mediums kind of feed into each other really.

Your creations display a wide variety of art and idea.  What typically happens in the creative process that ultimately produces a work of art?

In terms of process every piece for me is different.   I don’t have a standard way of doing things. At any one time I’m usually juggling a few projects – I tend to work intermittently, working on one piece, then doing something else for a bit before coming back a few days later to the first piece with a fresh perspective. That always helps me to focus on the bigger picture. If I’m still not happy with it I’ll leave it another few days or even weeks – there’s some animations / illustrations I’ve started work on that will probably never see the light of day because of this! A big part of the process is being completely brutal with your own work and and trimming the excess, especially in animation. It’s definitely hard to ditch segments you’ve worked long and hard on, but ultimately it’s probably going to be a better film for it. Less is more as they say.

Your animated film “Man” presented a strong message about man’s mortality. Do you try to portray a message in every film you make.

I like to make animations about life and society in general, so there tends to be a message in most of them. The general insanity of mankind is an almost endless pot of inspiration! With ‘Man’ it’s more of a reflection on life, the film is observational and the message is inadvertently produced from that. But not everything has to be message heavy, sometimes it’s weighty, sometimes funny. With something like ‘Anytime is Ice Cream Time’ for instance, it’s more about the story than any kind of message. But if you do a few films with a message in them people tend to pigeon-hole you and look for messages in everything you do when sometimes there just isn’t one. It’s nice if people take something away with them though.

For those who don’t know the process of creating animated film, can you tell us what goes into these creations?

Animation is definitely a labour of love and takes a lot of patience. When I first come up with a concept, I can experience it and react to it the same way the audience would on watching it for the first time and that’s when usually when I’ll know whether its got potential or not. Then after that brief half hour of excitement the Logistics of actually making it take over.

First I’ll draw up the storyboards, sketching how characters and scenes might potentially look and I’ll develop more ideas from that, and those brainstorming sketches often drive the story down different routes. Based on the sketches I’ll create assets in Photoshop which I then take into After Effects and start to mess around with, separating them into backgrounds and character layers etc. It’s usually a back and forth process between the different software I use, constantly exporting and importing to different applications. If I need a bit of 3D its over to Cinema 4D, I sometimes use Crazy Talk for lip sync and Audacity and FL Studio for the audio editing. Generally it’s a long, often laborious process – it can take a few weeks to a couple of months to create each animation. It’s probably longer for me as I do a lot of my own audio effects at the moment. A tricky bit is maintaining perspective. When creating a film I have to view each of the scenes hundreds of times – after the first few times it gets less funny/emotional with each watch, so it’s important to maintain focus.

The big changes usually happen at the very end of the project when I’m splicing all the final bits together and can see it in its entirety for the first time – that’s the time I will know if it truly works together and what to keep and what to lose. I’ll always be tweaking bits, even right up to the day I release it.

How has your blog and other social media outlets impacted your work?

Hugely. Social media is massively important for artists out there. Facebook,YouTube and other platforms make it possible to interact with an audience that would have been difficult if not impossible to reach otherwise. Without it I’d probably be trying to sell my work out of a suitcase on Brick Lane or something.

When you were working for Glueisobar, what did you do there?

I was part of a team of in-house illustrators and I was the main storyboard concept artist so I was creating illustrations and boards for various projects and pitches. It was my first foray into creating stuff digitally – it had been all physical pens and paper before that so it was a steep learning curve at the beginning. It’s also where I first began tinkering with animation.

When you transitioned to a ‘freelance’ artist, was that a difficult transition to make?

It was a risk and I was prepared for the possibility I might be homeless and living underneath a bridge within six months. But it wasn’t as hard as I thought it might be. I still had a lot of contacts in the industry from my days at Glue, so there was a good flow of work coming in. Naturally it was slightly daunting at first with all the new responsibilities, but that was quickly outweighed by the freedom I suddenly had. I settled in pretty quickly.

I have a few music videos for bands in the US I’m working on at the moment. In terms of personal work, I have two short films I’ve almost finished, and am thinking of making a possible sequel to ‘Where are they now?’ Beyond that… a web series maybe…?

Do you have an interest in displaying your work in galleries and shows?

My work was recently featured on billboards at this year’s Shangri La at Glastonbury. I plan to start showing my work at a few more galleries in the next year or so hopefully, so watch this space. I’m really bad at entering my films in festivals, I’m not sure why that is exactly. But people do email me asking to show my films at various events around the world, so they do get screened regularly.

For a young artist, do you have any advice you can give them?

Stick with it, grow a thick skin, follow your gut instinct and don’t undersell yourself. And use auto-save at all times!

Steve Cutts

Steve Cutts is on the cutting edge of illustration and film. His observations of the way in which we interact with the environment around us is an “endless pot” of inspiration for his work.  Steve has spent several years as an illustrator at London creative agency Glueisobar working on digital projects for a wide range of clients including Coca-cola, Google, Reebok, Magners, Kellogg’s, Virgin, 3, Nokia, Sony, Bacardi and Toyota.  He continues to work on a number of animated short films. 

Links and Resources

Steve Cutts Official Website
Steve Cutts Blog
Steve Cutts Facebook Page

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