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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