Mike Dietz is an impressive and versatile artist. His work is technically beautiful and always fun to look at. He has worked in a wide variety of media from stop-motion animation to flash cartoons, from book illustration to video games. His work is prominently seen in great video game hits such as Earthworm Jim, The Neverhood, and Skullmonkeys (one of my personal favorites). As if that weren't enough, he has created his own animation production company called Slappy Pictures through which he creates many tasty animated goodies. I recently had the honor of corresponding with Mr. Dietz. The following words I have found to be both informative and insightful. Enjoy.
Tommy: What was your childhood like?
Mike: Pretty normal suburban America stuff. A lot of cartoons. Lots of drawing. Lots of sugar. Mostly Quisp, Pop Tarts and Blow-Pops. A great family that has been there and supported everything I've ever done in life.
Tommy: Why cartoons of all things?
Mike: Most of my earliest memories involve cartoons, either watching them or drawing them -- both actually. I don't really remember a time when drawing wasn't a big part of my life, so becoming an artist of some sort was inevitable. Cartoons and humor were what I responded to early, when I was developing my love of drawing, so that's what I drew. I first copied my favorite cartoon characters, but quickly moved on to inventing my own stuff as well. Later in life, when I was studying the Disney stuff, I realized the value of life drawing and traditional artistic training. Although I enjoy that as well, I still see it as a means to improve my cartooning.
Tommy: What kind of training did you receive?
Mike: I went to college and studied advertising design and illustration, but it wasn't until after college that I took up animation. I learned to animate from three guys -- first Shawn McLean, and then Ed Schofield and Doug TenNapel. Those guys didn't teach me outright, but instead we all learned together by developing an atmosphere of experimentation, honest critiques, and hard work. Shawn and I went in together on an old vcr based pencil test machine, and we'd sit around animating tests and looking at each other's work, trying to get better. Eventually we got a laser disc player, which was great because it allowed us to easily study animation frame by frame at a true 24fps, instead of getting that blurry interlacing when you frame by frame on a vcr. We spent hours and hours watching animation frame by frame like that, sketching from the screen. It's like taking a class with Milt Kahl, or Ken Harris, or Irv Spence.
Tommy: What influences your work?
I'm influenced by life all around us. The way people move, the way they behave, the way they treat each other, the way they think. There's so much to observe, everywhere, if you just look. From the mechanical, as in the way someone walks, to the emotional, like the way a child looks at you when they're lying, you just store this all away and hope you're able to pull it back up when you need it in your work. Our lives are full of all sorts of media as well, we're bombarded from all sides, and I think we all respond and attempt to emulate things that strike a chord with us. I know as a kid I saw Jungle Book and I fell in love with the way they drew hair. I immediately tried to draw hair the same way, and I found myself looking at people's hair, trying to see if I could find shapes similar to those I saw in Mowgli's hair.
Tommy: Tell me a real life story that's somehow related to making you into the man you are today.
Mike: Well, it's not art related, but one time I went to the supermarket
with my dad. I was probably about 7 or 8 years old. My dad was at the
checkout, paying for the couple items he picked up while I waited over
by the gumball machines, wishing I had a quarter to get a superball or
something cool like that. There was a cigarette machine there, so I
casually hit the coin return button, fantasizing I might score a few
coins from some smoker who was in a hurry to light up and forgot their
change. Well, I hit that button, and every coin in that machine came
pouring out into the tray at the bottom, spilling over onto the floor
-- it was like I hit the jackpot at Vegas. As you can imagine, my third
grade brain exploded with joy. And to top it off, as I looked around, I
saw that no one had noticed the coins pouring out -- I could just fill
my pockets and no one would ever know. I couldn't believe my good
Well, my dad came over and saw the coins. He calmly told me to collect them all up, had me bring them over to the cashier, explain what happened and hand over the money. I was crushed. I fell silent as we walked to the car, stunned by the sudden rise and fall of my fortunes, when my dad glanced over and said, "Jeez, you'd think that guy would have at least let you keep a couple quarters, just to reward your honesty. He's probably gonna just pocket it all himself."
Well, it may sound hokey, but my dad gave me a great lesson about right and wrong that day. Doing the right thing is usually much harder than doing the wrong thing, you rarely get any reward beyond the satisfaction of knowing you made the honest choice, and more often than not, you'll be surrounded by people who profit from making the dishonest choice. But my dad was proud of me, and that's worth more than a pocket full of quarters any day.
Tommy: How did you get involved with the Neverhood and Skullmonkeys?
Mike: Doug, Ed and I met at Virgin Games, and after that we worked on the Earthworm Jim games at Shiny. By that point, as I mentioned above, we'd developed a strong working relationship, as well as a friendship, so when Doug set out to start his own company, it was a no brainer that Ed and I would join him in the venture. I got a taste of starting up a studio when we set up Shiny, but the Neverhood was even more exciting, because none of us had ever done any real stop motion before, nor had we ever done a PC game.
Tommy: What is your favorite medium to work in?
Mike: Give me pencil and paper and I'm happy. I enjoy sculpting characters in clay as well. I love all forms of animation -- traditional, stop motion, CG -- as they all have their unique challenges, but I'm happiest when I get to draw. I love that process.
Tommy: What was your experience like working on Earthworm Jim?
Mike: It was fantastic. Imagine yourself as someone just discovering the joys of animation. Then imagine being given a budget to create an animation department however you'd like, and you hire people like Ed Schofield and Doug TenNapel. Then you hire hungry, talented assistants like Eric Ciccone and Mike Pilotti. Then you all get to sit around all day, learning from one another, improving your skills, all while producing a funny, cartoony, character based platform game at a time when those were the darlings of the industry. Pretty sweet.
Tommy: What led you to create Slappy Pictures?
Mike: It was just a natural extension of my career path. I had been freelancing, starting up companies and collaborating with great artists and animators. Slappy Pictures allows me to continue that course, retaining a reasonable amount of control over what I work on and who I work with.
Tommy: What would you like to see happen in your future?
Mike: I want to continue to learn and grow. There's always room to learn, room to improve. To that end I hope I can continue to work on fun projects with talented people who inspire me to be a better artist. It's been a while since Doug, Ed and I have all worked on a project together. We're always on the lookout for the right opportunity to make that happen again, and sooner or later we'll find something that makes sense. Hopefully sooner.
Tommy: This was great! Thank you so much, Mr. Dietz, for sharing your time and thoughts.
Hey, if you all want to see some of Mike Dietz's art you should surf on down to www.mikedietz.com, www.slappypictures.com, and http://slappypictures.blogspot.com/ you'll be glad you did.