Interview : Zach Cohen

Introduction



I spoke with Zach Cohen – an ani­ma­tion pro­fes­sion­al, liv­ing in Tel Aviv, Israel. A friend of EDAP Tools, he is a uni­ver­si­ty lec­tur­er, an illus­tra­tor and ani­ma­tor with a unique and dis­tinct art style.

Zach was very kind to agree to speak with me, so that we can learn more about his work and reflec­tions upon the world of animation.



Interview with Zach Cohen



What were your favorite car­toons when you were a boy, and which is the first one that you remem­ber see­ing? At the time did you also have gen­er­al inter­est in oth­er forms of visu­al arts?

When I was about three and a half years old, my fam­i­ly moved from Israel to Cal­i­for­nia for a year, because of my father’s job. One of the most vivid mem­o­ries I have from our time there is watch­ing a bunch of ani­mat­ed shows that were aired sequen­tial­ly and includ­ed GIJoe, Thun­der­cats and Sil­ver­hawks among oth­ers. As much as I recall, that was my first fall-in with ani­ma­tion and I was cap­ti­vat­ed by it.
I was always draw­ing with pen­cils and pens since I can remem­ber myself (not paint­ing though, I only did lin­eart until years and years lat­er), and I was also very much into com­put­ers and video games from a very young age.

As you grew up did your taste change? Do you have favorite ani­mat­ed shows, fea­ture films, ani­ma­tors and directors? 

Yeah, as I men­tioned before, as a young kid I was real­ly into action ani­mat­ed shows (Trans­form­ers, Robo­cop, Bat­man, etc.) until The Simp­sons became my major ani­mat­ed influ­ence, lat­er replaced by The Ren & Stimpy Show which is one of my all time favorites to this date.
In the field of fea­ture films, I watched all of the Dis­ney clas­sics, but wasn’t over­ly invest­ed in them. My favorites were the anthro­po­mor­phic ones such as The Jun­gle Book and Robin-Hood. I also had some Don Bluth and Ralph Bak­shi favorites such as The Land Before Time, Wiz­ards, and Fire & Ice.
I think it was only in my teens that I became more aware of spe­cif­ic cre­ators and direc­tors, and didn’t just watch any piece of ani­mat­ed sequence that I could get my hands on. I was born in the ear­ly 80’s, and since I grew up in a small sub­urb in Israel I didn’t have a very steady sup­ply of ani­mat­ed con­tent. We had only two TV chan­nels through most of my child­hood, no satel­lite/­ca­ble-TV until late in the nineties, so my grand­moth­er who lived in the city was record­ing what­ev­er was on the chil­dren chan­nels on VCR tapes and send­ing it over to us, and I would watch and rewatch those tapes, and lat­er exchange them with the oth­er kids in the neighborhood.

From my con­ver­sa­tions with col­leagues over the years it seems that there are gen­er­al­ly two groups: Some aspired to be fine artists and illus­tra­tors, but found out that ani­ma­tion can lead to fair­ly steady employ­ment and became ani­ma­tors; the oth­ers have always been film and sto­ry ori­en­tat­ed, want­ed to become ani­ma­tors, and see illus­tra­tion and fine art as a sec­ondary skill that they can prac­tice from time to time.
Do you fit into one of these groups? What was the path that led you to even­tu­al­ly becom­ing an ani­ma­tion professional?

That’s an inter­est­ing split you’re talk­ing about, and I think I’m right in the mid­dle between those two groups. I have been watch­ing and lik­ing car­toons and ani­mat­ed films since a very ear­ly age, and as a kid grew up draw­ing a lot, most­ly char­ac­ters. So for me, the obvi­ous next step was learn­ing to ani­mate those characters.
I end­ed up study­ing Visu­al Com­mu­ni­ca­tion in col­lege, where I majored in Illus­tra­tion and sub-majored in Ani­ma­tion. I had a cou­ple of good ani­ma­tion cours­es, but since it wasn’t a degree that ful­ly focused on ani­ma­tion, I had to pick up and study lots of the skills on my own, which I was hap­py to do. To this day I do both ani­ma­tion and illus­tra­tion pro­fes­sion­al­ly, though I do tend to focus on small­er-scale projects, where I have the abil­i­ty to influ­ence both the art and design as well as the ani­ma­tion side of things, instead of big­ger projects where you’re usu­al­ly forced to focus on spe­cif­ic roles.

How did you get into Flash?

I had a group of friends that were all invest­ed in art, com­ic books, ani­ma­tion etc., and one of them got a copy of Macro­me­dia Flash, not sure if it was ver­sion 3 or 4, and I imme­di­ate­ly fell in love with it. Flash was actu­al­ly my sec­ond expe­ri­ence with ani­ma­tion, the first being stop-motion clay­ma­tion shorts, but it was great and I nev­er real­ly left it, just moved on from ver­sion to ver­sion and from Macro­me­dia to Adobe.
The late nineties and ear­ly 2000 were very spe­cial regard­ing the abil­i­ty to cre­ate and pub­lish inde­pen­dent ani­mat­ed con­tent, and Flash was the fron­trun­ner of that wave, with cre­ators like Joe Car­toon, Camp Chaos, Home­s­tar Run­ner and sites like New­grounds. It was a great time to begin a jour­ney of becom­ing an animator.

Your work is marked by a very dis­tinct per­son­al style. Vlad and I have been extreme­ly impressed by your abil­i­ty to port this unique style even to dig­i­tal cutouts and make them look indis­tin­guish­able from hand drawn ani­ma­tion with boil­ing lines and won­der­ful­ly flu­id movements.
How long did it take you to arrive at this form of styl­is­tic expression? 

Thanks!
I know that Flash became known most­ly due to its cutout tools and abil­i­ties, but for me its biggest strength is the fact that it’s a com­plete pack­age. It lets you go from doo­dling and sketch­ing, line art and col­or­ing, sto­ry­board­ing and even­tu­al­ly a com­plete ani­mat­ed prod­uct. Hav­ing a strong set of cutout tools is just anoth­er ben­e­fit, since I like to mix ani­ma­tion tech­niques and switch between them in my projects based on my needs. I think that except for Flash and Toon­Boom (and Blender of course), oth­er ani­ma­tion soft­wares usu­al­ly only focus on one path of ani­ma­tion (clas­sic frame by frame vs. cutout), and in most cutout soft­ware you can’t even cre­ate the art and need to import it from some­where else, which is a big turnoff to the illus­tra­tor in me.
In big projects, where there are dif­fer­ent depart­ments doing art and ani­ma­tion, it makes sense for each depart­ment to work with a dif­fer­ent tool since they pass pieces of the projects between them, but when you want to do every­thing (or most­ly every­thing) your­self, import­ing and export­ing between dif­fer­ent soft­wares is quite annoying.
So since I like to mix tech­niques, I had to come up with a style that makes them work organ­i­cal­ly with each-oth­er, and thus the hand drawn feel and things like the use of line boil in my work.

Do your cur­rent designs have much in com­mon with your own draw­ings from the time when you were in your late teens and ear­ly twenties?

I think that my art style has evolved and changed quite a bit through the years, but in a way it was a nat­ur­al evo­lu­tion, so there are recur­ring themes in my designs and ideas. 

Would you share with the audi­ence some of your work and say a few words about the var­i­ous inter­est­ing projects you have been part of?

The biggest project I’ve been a part of is the game Earth­Night. It’s an Indie game devel­oped by a small stu­dio from Philadel­phia called Cleaver­soft, in which the earth has been tak­en over by drag­ons and the play­er takes the role of the last human resis­tance. I’ve been work­ing on it for about 7 years (from 2012–2019), and did almost all of the ani­ma­tion in the game, and a cou­ple of char­ac­ter designs.

Anoth­er cool indie game I worked on is She Remem­bered Cater­pil­lars, togeth­er with Ger­man stu­dio Jump­suit Enter­tain­ments. It’s a puz­zle game focused on solv­ing col­or-based rid­dles by com­bin­ing and split­ting lit­tle col­or­ful crea­tures. I did all the ani­ma­tion work for the game.


And the last exam­ple is a project I real­ly enjoyed work­ing on, togeth­er with Wolf&Crow stu­dio, is this Spe­cial Edi­tion Beats com­mer­cial, in which I did most of the char­ac­ter ani­ma­tion and some addi­tion­al animation.

Almost all of the work I did for those projects was done in Adobe Animate/Flash BTW.

Some addi­tion­al works:

Can you give us a brief overview of the ani­ma­tion scene in Israel? 

There’s an ever grow­ing ani­ma­tion scene in Israel. It isn’t as well estab­lished as it is in some oth­er countries.
Usu­al­ly the local projects are small to medi­um in scale, but there are a bunch of very tal­ent­ed and cre­ative artists in the field of ani­ma­tion that cre­ate mag­nif­i­cent per­son­al projects as well as com­mer­cial ones. It’s a young, small coun­try, so usu­al­ly full fea­ture films are out of the ques­tion, but in recent years there have been a few notable excep­tions, Where Is Anne Frank by Israeli direc­tor Ari Fol­man is a recent exam­ple, and I hope to see more of that in the future.
I do think that nowa­days ani­ma­tion pro­fes­sion­als should strive to reach inter­na­tion­al projects and col­lab­o­ra­tions and shouldn’t be lim­it­ed to what­ev­er the local indus­try has to offer. The biggest and most inter­est­ing projects I had the plea­sure of work­ing on were all done remote­ly with groups from all around the world. It’s one of the biggest ben­e­fits of our cur­rent time, that wasn’t avail­able in the pre-Inter­net era.

You also teach. Tell us more about your cours­es. What are the big and small chal­lenges in regards to this? Do the tastes of stu­dents today dif­fer much from yours?

I teach stu­dents who study Visu­al Com­mu­ni­ca­tions, so it’s not a degree focus­ing exclu­sive­ly on ani­ma­tion. My class­es are intro­duc­tion to ani­ma­tion which is actu­al­ly the first course in the pro­gram, where the stu­dents learn and gain expe­ri­ence with ani­ma­tion, and ‘Ani­mat­ed-Gif Lab’ which is a more advanced course that focus­es on cre­at­ing loops, and under­stand­ing a for­mat that is a hybrid between illus­tra­tion and ani­ma­tion. I’m also guid­ing grad­u­a­tion projects in illus­tra­tion and animation.
Since the pro­gram I’m a part of is for dif­fer­ent aspects of visu­al com­mu­ni­ca­tion and not just ani­ma­tion, I need to deal with the gap between peo­ple who are real­ly into ani­ma­tion and oth­ers who come from dif­fer­ent focus­es such as graph­ic design, for which ani­ma­tion may only be a sec­ondary tool in their pro­fes­sion­al toolbox.
Regard­ing tastes, I try to keep up to date with new cre­ators in the field, whether they are small indie cre­ators or major stu­dios. So I’m most­ly famil­iar, at least to some extent, with the major influ­en­tial sources that stu­dents have nowa­days, but there’s always a bunch of new ones I’ve nev­er seen before, so I get to learn from my own stu­dents, which is great.
It’s also nice to see that thanks to the rapid growth of social net­works stu­dents are much more exposed to small indie cre­ators in com­par­i­son to my time as a student.

What are the per­son­al qual­i­ties and skills that young peo­ple should strive to devel­op in order to have suc­cess­ful careers in animation?

I think that the most impor­tant thing for peo­ple in the cre­ative fields in gen­er­al is always to be study­ing new things, and exper­i­ment­ing with new tech­niques. Col­lege shouldn’t be where one’s per­son­al devel­op­ment begins, or ends.
Oth­er than that, it may dif­fer based on where peo­ple want to be, whether they want to work in a major company/studio and focus on and mas­ter a spe­cif­ic skill, or if they pre­fer to be more of an inde­pen­dent artist/creator, and being able to use a vari­ety of skills on their own.

Do you remem­ber how and when you first dis­cov­ered EDAP Tools? What were your ini­tial impressions?

Yeah — I was fol­low­ing the devel­op­ment of the built-in par­ent­ing tools with­in Ani­mate, and I was repeat­ed­ly annoyed and dis­ap­point­ed by their per­for­mance. So when­ev­er a new ver­sion of Ani­mate was released I used to search the web for doc­u­men­ta­tion and exam­ples of its imple­men­ta­tion and uses by ani­ma­tors. In one of the videos I’ve seen on YouTube the guy was talk­ing about the par­ent­ing sys­tem and then he men­tioned some­thing about a “mag­net rig tool” I wasn’t famil­iar with, so I start­ed sniff­ing around, and even­tu­al­ly found about EDAP Tools. It was short­ly after ver­sion 5 was released, I think, so not that long ago.
It was a real­ly pleas­ant sur­prise, since Animate/Flash is still my major work­ing tool, and I nev­er came upon such a major exten­sion for it before, or since!
My impres­sions were great. It was like the whole pro­gram got revamped, and a lot of things final­ly made sense.

You took part in our beta pro­gram in 2021. Since then v.6 has had a few fea­ture updates. Do you have favorite tools, and what are the areas that you think Ani­mate is still lack­ing and would be good for us to try and improve?

The whole idea behind the smart mag­net tool allow­ing for flex­i­bil­i­ty and being both par­ent­ed and free is fan­tas­tic! That and the ease of use of the Kine­flex tool was the biggest ben­e­fit in my eyes. Ver­sion 6 made it much more pow­er­ful with the addi­tion of sol­id IK (unlike the hor­rors of Adobe’s skele­ton). One of my favorite aspects of it is the ease of use, and how intu­itive and quick it is to rig com­plex char­ac­ters. Usu­al­ly the rig­ging process in ani­ma­tion is either very lim­it­ed or very com­plex, and you, guys, man­aged to get the best of both worlds.

There are three main things I’d be super excit­ed to have in Animate:

1. Improve­ment of effi­cien­cy and lag­ging in the new­er ver­sions of Ani­mate. It real­ly is frus­trat­ing that the build of Flash CS6 allows for quick­er and smoother use of the Kine­flex tool than that of the recent ver­sions of Animate.
Since the brush­es are bet­ter and more advanced in Ani­mate, you need to switch between ver­sions to enjoy both ben­e­fits, and that’s a shame on Adobe’s end of things.

2. I would love to have a more sta­ble sys­tem of deform­ers (the Asset Warp tool is very nice, but still some­what messy and has some bugs), and would be real­ly excit­ed if it would’ve been pos­si­ble for it to work along­side the SMR and Kine­flex tools. At the moment you still need to nest the deformed mesh with­in an Edapt­able sym­bol, which requires going in and out of the sym­bol to deform the mesh. It would’ve been great if it was all acces­si­ble and con­trol­lable from the main timeline.

3. Not sure if that one is even pos­si­ble, but if there was an effi­cient way to imple­ment mov­ing along arcs with­out the use of the cleanup tools (that adds a lot of addi­tion­al keyframes), for both FK and IK, that would’ve been great.

Besides the long-term pro­fes­sion­al inter­est in ani­ma­tion, do you have any hob­bies or side projects?

In the fields of ani­ma­tion and illus­tra­tion, I think artists should always keep per­son­al side projects along with the com­mer­cial projects. I have a lit­tle some­thing in the works, and also focus on learn­ing Blender for both 2D and 3D uses.
On a broad­er per­spec­tive, I’m real­ly into oth­er fields of cul­tur­al knowl­edge as well, I’m study­ing his­to­ry, phi­los­o­phy, mythol­o­gy, cin­e­matog­ra­phy and lit­er­a­ture. My wife is work­ing on her PhD in Lit­er­a­ture at the moment, so it’s a great oppor­tu­ni­ty for me to dis­cuss her stud­ies and pick up what­ev­er I can from her knowl­edge. I’m also inter­est­ed in game devel­op­ment, so I’m spend­ing some time study­ing a lit­tle bit of cod­ing and the use of game dev engines.
I think that the wider the knowl­edge one has in gen­er­al – and as a cre­ative per­son in par­tic­u­lar – the bet­ter. It allows for a wider per­spec­tive and a more thor­ough under­stand­ing of soci­ety and cul­ture in gen­er­al – you start see­ing pat­terns, and how things relate and con­nect with each oth­er across seem­ing­ly dif­fer­ent fields. 

What are you look­ing for­ward to in the next 6 to 12 months?

As I men­tioned ear­li­er, I have a lit­tle per­son­al project I’d be hap­py to fin­ish and release in the upcom­ing months.
I’m also con­sid­er­ing start­ing a mas­ters degree, and have a cou­ple of inter­est­ing options for it.
Things should be interesting.

Real­ly look for­ward to see­ing your mys­tery project when it becomes public.
Thank you very much for your time and thoughts, Zach!

Thanks, Nick and Vlad, and keep up the great work!

Nick­o­lay Tilch­eff
June 2022



Follow Zach’s work


You can fol­low Zach on Behance, Insta­gram, YouTube, Vimeo, Face­book and, of course, it is always worth check­ing out his web­site: https://www.cohzach.com.


 
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