Dan Quarnstrom

Dan Quarnstrom

If you don’t mind, would it be possible to give me a brief bio, a little who you are and where you’ve been?

I graduated from Art Center as an illustrator. My goal at the time was to do basically anything that had to do with combining music and visuals, album covers, working for Rolling Stone Magazine, anything that had to do with rock and roll and visuals whether that was moving or not. Immediately after I graduated from Art Center, I put together my portfolio. The first job that I got was working for Rolling Stone Magazine, just a little spot illustration, but it did really help me get my work out in front of the public because you get one little spot in Rolling Stone Magazine, it’s like having a portfolio in the hands of 300,000 people. I got $100 for it and anyhow that got me going into exactly what I wanted to do which was visuals for music oriented design.

Robert Able & Assoc. Original Work

So I did that on and off for a number of years while I freelanced hauling my portfolio all over LA just working in editorial illustration, advertising illustration, a tiny little bit of storyboarding which I didn’t really know a lot about at the time, and in the mid ‘70’s I ended up going to Robert Able and Associates and this was probably around 1977 or so and they were doing what in those days was called kind of a candy apple technique where they were computer graphics weren’t really even a part of animation but they were doing this fantastic work that in its day just

looked like stuff that no one else was doing.
And it kind of had that
sensibility of the 60’s where light shows and actually it had a lot of the influences from music that I was
interested in combined with the techniques of what looked like airbrush but was actually light being blown through different gels and that sort of things, so
I guess to put it mildly it had a kind of psychedelic quality to it and it just
looked great. And so I wanted to work there just because it looked so cool.
The thing about the work that I was doing at the time is that when I did my editorial work for Rolling Stone I would get these jobs to do something about, sometimes for a column about maybe a book, a restaurant, an album, something like that, and I found myself in the position of wanting to design

Robert Able & Assoc. Hawaiian Punch Commercial

everything in the illustration. If it had furniture in it I wanted to design the furniture, if it had a radio in it I wanted to design the radio, if it had a car I wanted to design the car. And so I wasn’t content to just draw a picture illustration a concept, I wanted to design the world that that idea lived in. And not only that I wanted to really play with composition and perspective and all those kinds of things. I was so kind of hopped up on the creative potential of doing illustrations like that, that I was just having a blast.
And then it was about that time that I sort of chanced upon or I can’t even remember how, how Robert Able and Associates came to my attention, but I ended up working there and of course the possibility of taking what I was doing into 3D was really just a complete turn-on. You know, the idea that you could actually take these ideas and bring them into the 3D realm was really only beginning to happen. It wasn’t like I walked through the door thinking that. It was
an idea that was sort of growing, I mean my interests were in animation and in Warner Brothers cartoons and all the usual stuff. So those kind of bringing those ideas and then seeing the potential in a place like Robert Able was just really, really exciting. I worked there for a couple of years, went back out into freelancing, doing a few record album covers, music industry oriented work. The record industry at that time was very different than it is now. There was basically a chance to do visuals for almost any aspect of the record industry. People were doing calendars and sweaters and ashtrays and slot machines and billboards and it was just great. And, so anyhow, that was kind of an early manifestation in my career. Then I kind of found myself in the early 80’s getting into a little bit of a rut in that you
kind of get typecast, people want you to do the same things over and over again. You’re starting to have less fun.
I actually went back and worked at Able’s a while with Randy Roberts. We did the Hawaiian Punch commercial together, you know did the storyboards for that and did the designs of the characters, those kinds of things and so again it just sort of reinforced this idea of how cool 3D was. Worked on some other spots there but in those days I was a freelancer so I worked off and on there for a couple of years. Again, kind of went out and really was kind, the music

industry was dying down in terms of they were shifting toward photography and going in a lot of different directions, wasn’t quite as much fun as it had been.

Alf Cartoon

A friend of mine asked me if I wanted to work in Saturday morning animation and I was just bored enough to do it. And I kind of looked upon it with a fair amount of apprehension because in those days it was Saturday morning animation and of course most of what was on the TV in those days, Muppet Babies and all this kind of stuff just wasn’t stuff that I was crazy about. It wasn’t, it was just a design style that I was not interested in. But I did it and I worked at Dic. The first thing I worked on was a thing called Star Com then we did Alf and a thing called Cops. It was funny, I worked there for about a year and a half and I really look upon it as one the best experiences that I
ever had. The thing that I learned from Saturday morning animation was the how quickly people worked and how much actual work they could actually produce that it was an extraordinarily high quality, which really surprised me and what I learned was that what you saw at the end of 13 weeks on television wasn’t necessarily what was on peoples’ desks 13 weeks before.
There was a tremendous, the quality of the work that people were doing, like I said, extraordinarily high, character design, drop design, background, you know this whole vernacular of architecture, costume, characters was really, really, I was amazed. In my training as an illustrator at Art

Center the idea was that you created the perfect object. You know, you created an illustration that, when the flap came up,
you know silence filled the room and your heart beat faster
because it was so amazing so you tried to create the perfect object.
In Saturday morning animation it was so different because these guys were cranking out these amazing backgrounds in two days or half a day or three backgrounds in a day and they were all pretty amazing. And I met people that I’m a still friend with today and I have such a different attitude toward that type of production you know creation really drawing, designing on the fly and so it was really a pretty amazing experience.
I worked there for a year and a half, went back to freelancing for a bit and then I came to work at Rhythm & Hues in 1987. And Rhythm & Hues there were people that I had known from my Robert Able days and now computer animation was coming into

Flight of the Navigator

its own. When I joined the company I think I was like the 27th employee, you know, a little building in Hollywood and you know they had started by doing motion graphics, television ID’s, you know that type of work for some of the local
TV stations and that sort of thing. Then they started moving into CG commercials, taking their first baby steps into
visual effects with films like Flight of the Navigator, which was one of the first films that had CG elements in it. There were missiles and rockets actually a full CG plane couple of shots. And then we were also doing ride films. This was really an exciting time because the work that was being done, we did things like the Jetsons' which was a full on 3D Jetsons' world, I mean what could be more fun than that! That was like it’s actually stuff that I would like to go back and revisit with modeling and lighting techniques we have now I’d like to do it right, update that whole look. So it’s been, the technology has always expanded to accept new ideas and so here we are 13 years later at Rhythm & Hues and still looking for what’s around the next corner.

Do you have any funny stories or anecdotes about the days at Robert Able, or your old days working on Saturday morning TV?

For me personally, the things I remember were when I worked in Saturday morning cartoons it was, I was in my mid to late 30’s and going to work for an animation studio were the median age is about 22 or 23 and I always liken it to
being, there was just a high level of, a very spirited group of people who were always doing crazy stuff, you know,
sticking pencils in the ceiling, and so I always felt like, I always, I really to be honest with you, I look upon it as being a second education and the energy was high and the people were funny and really creative and I always thought it was
like being locked in the monkey cage. It was just, it was actually a very pleasant experience.

Could you give some details behind the history of the Coca-Cola bear commercials?

Well, the Coca-Cola Polar bear campaign was, it was kind of interesting because it was, as I understand it the CAA
which was a huge creative agency in LA at the time. They represented some of the biggest directors, the biggest stars in
Hollywood. It was Michael Ovitz’s company, and his thought was that representing all this talent and these directors and these creative people, why couldn’t they just put together teams or packages of directors, studios, directorial talent,
creative people and just go out a make commercials. And I guess in some way to by pass the agencies or whatever, I

don’t know, but as it happened we got picked by his agency to be one of the studios to do a commercial.
And a man named Ken Stewart was the person who came to us with the idea for the Coca-Cola polar bear and he just had this, to be honest with you, I don’t know where he got the idea, it just seemed appropriate for us to do this polar bear with a bottle of Coke. And, as it turned out, it was a group
of polar bears watching the Aurora Borealis and just enjoying a quiet moment with a Coke. So Ken brought the
job to us and of course at the time it was a huge stretch

because it’s a big fat furry creature that we had never really done before and having to create surfaces that emulated furry softness and moved well it was something that we hadn’t really tackled before so it was a huge technical problem.

The "Coca-Cola Bear"

Coke Bear

So the job was produced by Burt Terarri and the animation director was Henry Anderson and I was the designer of the polar bear and so just working with all of those people came up with a suitable design, you know, sort of a not
realistic but not totally cartoony look, kind of a friendly, benign just a very pleasant character. The technical problems on the job were just tremendous, it
was a really tough job. But, it was totally memorable. Out of all the Coca-
Cola spots that were done, I think there were 25/27 jobs for Coke, I’d put my money on it being the most memorable because in the intervening years we’ve done, I think we’ve done 9 of them.
And I think the thing that was cool about it was that there was no voiceover, there was just a very limited soundtrack, there was, so if you were in another room suddenly your television went silent, you probably came out to see what was going on and you realized it was just this 30 seconds of kind of peaceful wonderment with these characters out in the idyllic frozen tundra having a good time drinking Coke and it really went over huge.
It created a line of merchandise, and became one of the most successful, recognizable characters internationally. It was universally liked character which is pretty cool when you think of it. And we did subsequent characters and some more or less successful. We had some pretty wild commercials where they were doing luge and ski jumping. All of that kind of stuff and that stuff has sort of since been tamed back to little more realistic polar bear. We’re on our 9th one, and we’re applying all the really great new technology that we have for doing fur and more realistic motion. You put the present day polar bear next to the old one, the old one looks like it’s made out of stucco or cement but in its day it still had this charm. So, it’s certainly been great for the studio and it’s a great commercial, and a great character to be associated with.

You are a strong proponent of design influence in production, if you could run your own project from start to finish, say you’re the director, what steps would you take in getting the project done and why?

It’s funny, I think before design I think story is the most important thing. I think the story if you have a good story, you can probably get away with more design wise. If you’re characters are nuanced and rich, if your story line is
provocative and credible or fantastic but yet and well told, then I think you can be much more experimental in design and I think one of the things, I guess my favorite term right now is that it’s “Computer graphics has become a slave to
Everybody’s trying to make things that look real, real fur, real water, real wind, real trees, real cloth, and all that stuff is really wonderful and amazing. But we have these amazing tools at our disposal and that can create things that are
utterly fantastic and the opportunities to do that are probably not as numerous as I would certainly like them to be. I
think that when you see what’s happening and you just look around you in graphics and street graphics in Anime, in fashion, in architecture, in photography, there’s so much in individual portfolios, graphics production design,
illustrative graphic, whatever, there’s so much inspiring work out there. I just don’t see us taking advantage of that with
the muscle that the computer industry has. We’re just making film after film that are photo real and I don’t see design leading the way in a way that certainly I would like to see it.
I see it CG in many ways as just kind of being a reactionary art form that, especially where commercials are involved where agencies kind of see the latest movies that are out there and decide what to do. After Terminator2, we did 3 or 4 liquid characters, and after Tornado, we did 2 or 3 jobs with CG tornadoes and then it was after, there were 2 volcano movies that came out, then we’re doing volcano effects. Somebody’s sitting around a desk thinking that they’re having an original thought, and all they’re doing is responding to what’s been presented
There’s just a world of possibility in this CG world that we’re working in and I just think design is such an integral part of making that come alive. I just think that if I had if I could advocate a way of working, I’d probably work smaller maybe with more dedicated teams. I would not take such an ambitious path that everything had to look real. I would begin with a good short story, create a design motif that made it doable, cartoon shaders, simple shapes, design sensibility that supported kind of down and dirty production system.

When I see what people are doing, what young people are doing with flash, and with their own modeling and animation systems at home, it’s all perfectly valid. A lot of times it’s undisciplined and it may have certain problems, but I just think you just see these windows into unexplored territory and I think that’s where the fun is. It’s not that every pixel and every hair on a cat’s face has to look great, it’s more about that this real impression that it leaves with you and how do these things support, again, a good story.

You were the creative force behind a game Eggs of Steel, which was produced at Rhythm & Hues, could you describe the production process and how the preliminary design work was used to help in production as well as create the look of the finished game?

Well, the story of Eggs of Steel is, it’s kind of a, it’s sort long and involved, but actually the original idea was from myself and Henry Anderson who directed the first polar bear spot. The idea originally came out of a job that we had been working on at Rhythm & Hues, but didn’t really go anywhere. Henry and I just sat around and threw

Eggs of Steel Character

ideas around about this egg character. And just everything that we did we just came up with some really funny ideas and it was so fun that we just kept talking about it and we’d come get back together day after day and sort of talk about this character and what we might do with it.
We would talk about who he was and make funny drawings and stuff. It sort of just took on a life of its own. The idea was that we were going to do a couple of little shorts or something like that. After Henry left the company and went on to other things and it kind of sat around a while and, at the time Rhythm & Hues had it’s business divided between commercials, film effects and ride films.
Games were a very interesting opportunity that was sort of out there on the horizon, we thought, well why not we’ve done these other things so why not do a game? So, we’re sitting around one day with Larry Weinberg who was not quite a founding member of Rhythm & Hues but might as well have been. I’d done some drawings of this egg character who we called Charlie.
He had a big wrench he could bang on things with or fights enemies, and he had a hard hat with a light on it. He had working boots and Levis and gloves and he looked pretty cool. So I’d done some drawings of him swinging on a chain and then did a drawing of him on some gears and kind of came up with this idea of an egg in a steel mill and it just seemed like a marriage made in heaven, an egg in a steel mill and so we just started doing more drawings about what
he might do and you know how we could build a game out of that environment. A steel mill is a perfect environment for a game, you’ve got hammers to pound steel, you’ve got ovens that melt, buckets that pour molten steel into ingots that go on to conveyors that go into furnaces that get pounded with hammers. The ingots get punched into shapes that get holes drilled in them or have ladders going to different levels that have steampipes and boilers and propane tanks, and you know it’s just full of danger and full of you know all kind of great environmental stuff.
Adam Spindel who was the producer was also a writer so he started concocting more and more characters and basically came up with a scenario of a boss who was basically Charlie’s former foreman who he had actually killed on the first day of work in a, shall we say an industrial accident. In the game this character comes back to sort of haunt you as a ghost and part of what he does is create a whole cast of evil henchmen that you would encounter through the game.

We created around 13 characters good guys, bad guys, intermediate guys that had a cartoon industrial look. Because we used real textures rusty scraped painted nuts and bolts textures that really felt real, it had a terrific look to it. It wasn’t real but it wasn’t cartoony either. I should say it actually was kind of cartoony but with the real textures it brought it into a world that was pretty unique. I had to design these characters so that they could perform
a lot of functions, mechanical characters that looked like they had weight, and they could actually expand and contract, squash and stretch sort of way without actually squashing and stretching. In a machine you accomplish that by putting in hydraulics and making them real animated mechanical beings so that was really fun.
We used sort of what I called a kind of an erector set mentality where because we had to create a lot of set pieces very quickly, we created grids and elements that we could use and reuse, combine and recombine and out of the same pieces we could make an

Charlie the Egg

endless number of recombinations. Like an erector set with a whole series of pipes, you have straights, you have
corners you have Y’s, you have curves, you could make a literal maze of unique elements just by recombining the same basic elements over and over again. We did that with all of our elements and of course they were all pre-established
lengths and widths, we knew how everything would fit together. We did this using platforms and stairwells and girders
and pipes and valves and all this other stuff. We just created this huge elaborate playground that functioned like a real set and we could build out a set in literally a day. We could throw up a background behind it, and if you knew how you were going to use the camera in that set, you could just shoot it.
So, and by creating elements that were unique that when you turned off the lights and put them against black, they had really great looking silhouettes. You could move quickly and so people began to get familiar with the pieces in the erector set box. They could build these sets out rather quickly, we would use, do these I’d say simple clear sort of ¾ view layout drawings that showed the path of action, the location of the cameras, and the basic build out of the set. We would then reflect that action in the storyboards and we had a kind of a production sensibility that was pretty clear and thorough. You could give people kind of an overview of the situation, build it out, position your cameras and kind of do rough, do your build out in rough animation fairly simply.
By taking your time with your people to go through these steps and kind of learn this methodology, then you can entrust people with more responsibility thinking of the animators not just as somebody who is executing storyboards, but actors, you know, talking about scenes and then getting some feedback and some help on the best way to do them. So, it was certainly a lesson in teambuilding and kind of down and dirty production that was really a ball because what we got done certainly it’s not perfect and we always wish that we had more time, but man did we crunch through a lot of stuff quickly.

What did you take away from the experience on Eggs of Steel which was the most important thing to remember when working on a large complex project?

I didn’t know what I was getting in to getting into a game and I don’t think any of us did. We were over ambitious for what we could realistically accomplish and of course never having done one, I wondered why everybody would have
the wry smile when you would make these proposals to game companies. Because they had all been through it and knew how brutal it was and it was every bit as brutal as they said it was.

Gameplay Screenshot from "Eggs of Steel"

That said, I’ve never worked as hard on anything as that and had a more satisfactory experience in spite of how tough it was because it really showed the potential of a project where a story and a world and a methodology and a production ideology could really work and come up with something that was very unique. I learned a lot about games, large projects, but I also learned, one of the coolest things is the value of using your people properly. We got performance out of some of the people that worked on the job that just by virtue of showing
confidence in them, we got back tenfold. You find what people can accomplish and then you give them things that are just a little bit beyond their reach so the next rung is always within their grasp if they want it and by those little victories you just get great stuff out of
people because they can accomplish everything that you give them with a little bit of effort. It’s not so far out of their reach that they just sit there in frustration so you help your people help themselves and you build a team that looks out for one another in that way. That’s, I think that is as important as having all these other things, a good story
and everything is how do you use your people properly.

Can you describe the biggest production disaster you’ve been involved with in your career and what would you have done differently if you could have gone back and done something about it?

Well, Eggs of Steel was not a successful game and from a production standpoint that’s a failure, to work so hard and so long on something and have it not go anywhere. On the other hand, it was an absolutely invaluable experience and had we capitalized on other aspects of that so it’s funny, it’s like describing car wrecks that you’ve survived. It’s just like, okay, well some are fender benders and some are just full on, head on disasters, you know, and it’s funny because the money didn’t come out of my pocket I don’t see Eggs of Steel as a disaster, but everybody who looks at it, from the point of view that they look at it will have a different opinion.
I think in some ways it’s kind of extraordinary and so but one of my goals in doing it in the first place was thinking that if we could make a good game we could actually create a revenue stream for the company. Had we created that revenue stream, we’d be doing
more of the kind of work that I’d like to do. So in that respect it’s a huge disappointment because here we are 4 or 5 years later and
again, I’m lamenting that we’re not doing more of that other type of
work that just has a certainly, my creative interests are a much, my heart’s there. The other stuff’s fun, but the stuff that really turns you on is just over the horizon.

Dan Quarnstrom Poster

What would you consider to be your dream project that you’d like to be working on in the future? If you had to have your own pet project, what would it be?

You know it’s funny because the things that excited me when I was
16, 18, 22 are still the things that I like now and I would love to do something with music and visuals, not so much a rock video but a
story supported by music. I mean my roots are sort of in the
graphics and design of, not to date myself, but the 60’s and there’s just certain elements of design that I’ve kind of always held near and dear, and then of course coming to Los Angeles and just sort of
discovering the world of film and architecture and all this kind of stuff, I have more ideas that I have time to do, to complete them all.

Where do you see the future of computer graphics going?

It’s funny because the realistic stuff will get more realistic. Somebody will plant their flag on top of the Everest of computer animation and do a fully CG 3D absolutely believable human being, you know, a man and a woman. That’ll be a watershed moment for some reason. Hopefully the technology

will become more portable, less expensive, more sophisticated as it becomes cheaper and get into the hands of more and more people because I think that there are so many people who want to create. Every huge spray painted mural you see on the side of the freeway or on a railway overpass is somebody who’s spending an awful lot of time creating in the only way that they know how. I think that the level of “Flash” and all these 2D software packages, I think they’re going to become more pervasive and that’s good because that’s
where the ideas are going to come from as our industry becomes more solidified into the minutia of absolutely photo real special effects.
The real excitement is happening with people who just want to create and watching them develop their skills with sort of wild abandon and maybe a lot of discipline or no discipline at all, that’s kind of where excitement lives. I just think maybe demystifying this stuff so more people can do it. If it helps people learn and draw and create that’s the good stuff.
I was in Japan a year ago and they asked me the same question, you know, it was a group of these young Japanese people and stuff and they said, “What do you think the future of computer graphics is?” And I looked at them and I said you’re the future, you’re the future it isn’t these machines. The machines are just very sophisticated wonderful amazing things but they don’t have ideas, you have ideas, you’re the future. It’s kind of a, it’s a little bit of a disconnect because maybe over there they don’t think of themselves quite that way, but that’s what really makes it exciting. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Dan Quarnstrom Poster

(Notes: Dan is a hero of mine, and one of my inspirations since I originally saw his art in Rolling Stone. Dan is the co- founder of http://www.eevolver.com/ and the author and illustrator of “Joyride Flatout” which you HAVE to buy in your bookstore in October, 2012. (http://www.amazon.com/JOYRIDE-FLATOUT-Rods-Dream- Machines/dp/193349297X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1340588756&sr=1-1))