Interview Transcript – Episode 3: Zac Retz

Not able to listen to the full episode? Don’t worry! You can still read the full transcript of the interview with Zac Retz below. Or click here to listen to the podcast episode.

If you want to follow Zac, you can find him on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or ArtStation. He has a bunch more SCOOB paintings posted on those channels, so make sure to check them out! Click here to see his SCOOB specific gallery on ArtStation.

Photo courtesy Zac Retz.

AL: What’s your relationship to Scooby Doo, did you grow up watching?
ZR: Yeah, a little bit. I actually didn’t watch too many cartoons growing up. But once I got this job then I really dove into it and started watching all the old Scooby Doos.

AL: How did you come to work in animation?

ZR: Right after school I did a kids book and then I got into a game studio and I did that for about a year and a half. Then I realized I really wanted to get into animation after that, so I just quit my job at the game studio, took some classes, just worked on getting better at painting and built a portfolio. I put it online and then it was like a week later, a couple studios had jobs for me. Reel FX is the studio that was making Scooby Doo at the time. They had a partnership with Warner Bros. They offered me a job, that movie looked fun, so I moved out to California from New York. That was how it happened.

AL: How did you come to realize that you wanted to work in animation?

ZR: I always had an interest in it like in college and everything. But I think what drew me to it the most was the artists who are working in animation, like seeing their paintings and seeing how they’re telling a story with colour and mood and characters. Just looking at all these beautiful paintings that artists were doing, I think that’s what drew me to it the most, because I wanted to do stuff like that.

AL: For those that don’t know, can you describe what a visual development artist is and what they do on animated movies?

ZR: Visual development, it’s called vis dev for short, but. Usually, you’re either a character designer or an environment artist. So you’re split into two groups. My focus is environment design and what we do is day one when you start, the movie is really early, sometimes they just have an outline to the movie, it could be a couple pages long, or they might have a script. We read that, and then we’ll talk to the director or production designer and they’ll launch us on some location or some part of the movie to focus on. And then we just start drawing and painting and trying to visualize what the movie can look like through paintings. Those are usually pretty fast, quick, loose paintings to get the feel for things. And then as the movie goes and there’s storyboards and the script gets more finalized and we know what exact locations there are, then we’ll go in and really design those different locations. For example in Scooby Doo, there’s a haunted mansion. So I would do some sketches and then the guy next to me would start building it in 3D and then I would draw over it and paint over it, and we’d work together. And we’d design the whole location. And then later on in the process, we do what’s called color keys. Those are like painting the exact shots in the movie with colour and light and we figure out what those movie moments should feel like. So, is the sky like red in this scene or is it gray, how does that relate to mood, how can we light the characters so the storytelling and mood comes across. Yeah, that’s what we do.

AL: What were you specifically responsible for on SCOOB?

ZR: I did a lot of pitch paintings. It was pretty early on when I was on the movie so I think we had like a partial script. The director was getting feedback from Warner Bros. on changes and stuff so sometimes the director would just be like “Hey we need more fun exciting moments,” or “We need some epic crazy fight scenes,” or “We need some spooky stuff.” So I would brainstorm some ideas with the other artists and then we’d just paint those and we’d send them to Warner Bros. and they’d be like “Yeah, let’s put that in,” or “Let’s use this.” So I did that a lot. It’s hard because they went through so many different versions of the script and I was on one of the first versions. So, a lot of what I worked on did not end up in the movie. But one thing that ended up in the movie was the amusement park. It was on a pier when I was on the movie, they changed location, but I designed a lot of the amusement park rides and stuff like that.

AL: How long were you involved with the movie?

ZR: I think about 10 months.

AL: You mentioned that you were often working with the person beside you, how does that team dynamic work?

ZR: Each studio is different, but in the case of Scooby Doo, it was very collaborative which was fun. Like there were just five artists who were all sitting close to each other, so it was easy, someone could do a sketch and be like “Hey Zac, can you try some colour ideas on this?” and then I would try some colours and maybe there was a 3D artist and then he would start building it and then he’d pass it back to me and then I would design on it. So we would do stuff like that a lot. Or other times we would just totally do everything start to finish on our own and see what each of us would come up with. We were always talking about things and coming up with new ideas that we could show.

AL: In the early days of development, how many pieces would you typically work on for a full length movie?

ZR: For this movie I probably had like a few hundred paintings. A lot of them are like versions. So I’ll do a painting, then they’ll give me feedback, and then I’ll try another version. And sometimes it will be like, I’ll do a painting and then I just change the colours, I try a bunch of different colour options. I think in like 10 months — I wonder how many paintings that is a day… I think on average I would do, some of the more detailed ones would take a couple days. The quicker ones would be like half a day or a day long. But I try to be pretty efficient so I’m pumping out a lot of ideas because when you’re early on, you want to explore a lot, you don’t want to spend like a week doing one painting, usually.

AL: For each specific setting or scene, do you need to do multiple different angles or do you just do one painting to get the idea of what it might look like?

ZR: Everyone works differently, but the way I do it is, if they’re like “Hey, design this house.” Then I’ll start with like, kind of the hero shot of the house. Like what does it look like when the characters drive up to the house. So I’ll do that painting. And then if that gets approved, if everyone likes it, then I’ll do more of the production-y stuff, more of the detail and all the information so people know how to build it and turn it into like a 3D set. So that could mean painting each side of the house flat with no perspective so they know exactly what to build. I’ll figure out the textures, like all the little details like are there plants going up the side of the house, is there weathering, is this part of the house discolored a little bit because of the water that ran down it. You’ve got to think about all those little things. So after it gets approved then I go into detail and I figure out all the tiny little pieces. So, it could mean like a bunch of little paintings to describe all that stuff.

AL: What has to happen before your role comes in?
ZR: A lot of the times it’s just, if the director has an idea he’ll just come over and tell us, and then we just go from there. Sometimes, an art director, production designer will just give us an idea of what they’re thinking for something and then we just start sketching from there. But sometimes very informal, they just ask if you can try some stuff out and they rely on us to give creative solutions to these things.

AL: Can you elaborate a little bit more on your specific process?

ZR: Totally depends on the kind of assignment and how epic it is or how detailed it is, if it’s a major location or a smaller, less important location in the movie. But usually I’ll spend, if it’s a more important location, then I’ll spend like a day doing research, gathering references, just figuring out as much information as I can about this location or these buildings I’m designing. That might include like watching some YouTube videos of people exploring something like a documentary, or just seeing what I can come up with on Google, going into Pinterest, looking up images. Gathering like colour ideas, design ideas, texture, all this stuff. I’m dragging all these images into a big Photoshop document so I can refer back to them and look at them. So I do that for like a day. Usually I’ll start sketching like little thumbnail ideas as I’m doing that. Say I’m given like a week to do this, then I’ll spend the rest of the week just doing paintings. I’ll try to do a painting every day or I’ll try to get a couple quick paintings done in a day to just explore and try lots of different ideas. And these paintings are like inspirational. The goal of these are to get the directors and producers excited about it. Then if these get approved, then we’ll get into like how are we going to build this and how are we going to make this like a tangible thing. I treat them like I would kind of like a traditional painting. I just do a little sketch, I figure out the values, like where I want my lighting to be and stuff, just all in black and white. Then I just put in colour and put in a little bit of detail where it’s needed. And then if it’s feeling right then I just move on and do another one.

AL: What is it like when you’re adding colours to someone else’s drawing?
ZR: If I’m painting on top of someone else’s drawing, if they give me a sketch or maybe I take like a storyboard panel or something, I’ll look at what’s most important in their drawing, because everyone draws a different way, everyone has their shorthand for things. I try to pick up on those things and what do I want to preserve in their drawing versus what do I want to paint over and change in the painting. But I try to be faithful and respectful of their drawing because usually it’s a drawing that’s been approved so I want to keep as much of that as I can. And then my process is pretty much the same, I’ll figure out the value structure and how I want my lighting to be, and then I just drop in colour and go from there.

AL: For animation specifically, do you take a lot of inspiration from real life images or do you look at a lot of other animation for inspiration as well?

ZR: I don’t really look at animation. For inspiration, I look at photos I take, photos I find online, I look at live action, and I look at old master paintings, like paintings that artists have gone outside and painted and observed from real life, because you’ll pick up things about colour and lighting from those people. I try to stay away from animated movies because I want whatever I’m doing to feel unique and different, because a lot of animation, it tends to look the same, like you can’t really tell what studio has done what a lot of the time. So I try to come up with something new.

AL: In terms of colour, did you look back at older Scooby Doo movies for the feel and the mood for the colour palette that you might want to go for?

ZR: Yeah, that was something we tried to stay true to when we were doing art. And one thing, like when I started the job I was watching a lot of the old Scooby Doos, and one thing I noticed that was kind of a style choice in those cartoons was they would have a background sky or something that was really crazy saturated colour like bright purple or something. Then in the foreground things would be more de-saturated and dark. It gave an interesting feel. It’s like it’s scary, but it’s still a cartoon and it’s funny, like those saturated pops of colour reminded you that it’s still like a cartoon and funny, but then the dark shadows and more spooky lighting reflected it’s a spooky mystery. So those were things I tried to do in my paintings. When we were on it, that’s something we really wanted to make the final movie look like.

Photo courtesy Zac Retz.

AL: Did that take a couple tries to get true to that, or was it pretty much right off the bat you knew what you were doing?

ZR: Yeah, it took a little bit. Any time, for me, any time I try to try something new, or try to incorporate someone else’s artistic ideas into my own stuff it takes a little bit of time because it pushes you out of your comfort zone a little bit. I think my tendencies go more towards reality and pushing reality a little bit, but then something like Scooby Doo is really cartoony colours at times. So I had to try to figure out how to make that work in a painting with realistic lighting and value structure.

AL: Backtracking a bit here, once you have a sketch done, when are you feeling ready to add colour to it?

ZR: The way I sketch is, it might start out with like a tiny little line drawing, like really quick, just to figure out the general shapes. Then I’ll block in the values and sometimes my line drawing, I do that along with blocking in my values. So it’s not really a drawing, I’m kind of just like “Oh, big black shape here, characters here,” and it’s like a blob. And then they’re silhouetted by a big white shape. I think about it kind of abstractly, but that gives me the impact, like the staging and the feeling of the painting. And once I feel that is feeling right, I can read it at that stage, then I start painting, I start putting in the colour because I don’t sit there and try to refine a person and every little finger or everything like that in a drawing because I know that I’ll just figure that out when I paint.

AL: Once you get to the painting stage, are you typically [looking at it like] “This is the final product” or do you a couple drafts?

ZR: Depends. Sometimes I have a very clear vision for something and that’s usually best. But if I don’t know exactly what I’m doing, or if I can’t really picture it too well in my head, like maybe I’m asked to do something that feels strange to me, then I’ll try a bunch of different colour and lighting options. So after that drawing stage, I might try like five different colour options or something and see what’s feeling the best for me and then I’ll pick my favourite, or I’ll show my art director and see what they like, I’ll get some feedback, and then I’ll pick one and turn that into the final painting.

AL: Once a piece is completed, is it often that it’ll be approved right away, or is there always a bit of feedback?
ZR: There’s pretty much always feedback. It depends though, but usually you’re given a launch and a lot of the times it’s pretty vague. So you’re doing what you think is best, and then the director, once he sees that, he’ll get an idea, so then you’ll incorporate their idea, or you’ll try some new paintings with that new idea. But usually there’s many rounds. Like for example, right now I’m designing this girl’s dress in this movie, and it’s a very unique kind of dress. I’ve probably done like 20 different options and I keep showing new things and my director will be like “Oh, that’s cool but why don’t you try some of these things?” Then I’ll try to incorporate that. So some things just take longer than others.

AL: Is there an average of how many versions you might do?

ZR: Not really. It varies so much. Like one of my friends was telling me, they’re a character designer, they were saying they’ve done, like hundreds of different versions of this one character for this movie, which is just insane. That’s spanning over years and years of time. Usually environments aren’t that crazy. Usually it’s like you try a few things, and then they’ll pick one and we’ll move on.

AL: So when it comes to work in the visual department, when does that end — does it go through right up until the final cut of the movie?

ZR: Yeah, so some artists are a bit more specialized, like maybe we hire someone because they’re really good at this specific thing. Then they might just be on the movie for a few months and then we don’t need them anymore. But if you’re more general, you can do like colour, lighting, design, you can kind of do everything, then you’ll be on from very beginning until the very end. Like for example, like Spiderman, when that came out, my art director was saying the night before the movie went into theatres, he was doing colour adjusting things like matching the colour and stuff, knowing the next day people were going to be watching this movie.

AL: Do you have a favourite piece that you developed for SCOOB specifically?

ZR: It’s hard to pick a favourite. It’s weird, when I was working on the movie, it was my first movie that I worked on and it was like five years ago. I didn’t know what level I was at, it was hard for me to judge my own artwork, you know. And I remember thinking, I was like “Ugh, I’m not good at this, I suck, I shouldn’t have this job.” And then looking back at some of those paintings I did five years later I was like “Oh, I like some of these. I wasn’t as bad as I thought.” It’s kind of like imposter syndrome, you know. I like this Wacky Races one I did, it’s an old Hanna Barbera cartoon, with all these crazy vehicles racing along the desert cliffs. And then I also like this one with Scoob and Shaggy, they’re on a stretcher and they’re flying down the stairs in the asylum, and all these little Rottens with their glowing eyes, the little robots, they’re chasing them down the stairs, I kind of like that one. I could picture that being like a funny kind of creepy story moment in the movie. 

AL: What was it like to venture into Scooby Doo for your first experience with full length animation?
ZR: It was like a dream project because these characters are so established and developed already, so I felt like so much of the work was already done. Like we already have a great cast of characters, they each have amazing personalities, so doing artwork that just puts them into new locations and new situations, like there’s challenges but it almost felt easy. It was like, “Oh, these characters are so great, I can just put them into this moment and it’ll feel good.” So that was a lot of fun. And thinking about it in a more cinematic way, like a big budget animated movie was really exciting because you can tell a Scooby Doo story in a more epic way, it’s not like a 2D show. It’s CG, it opens up so many more possibilities.

AL: When you were working on the movie it was in fairly early stages, and obviously there were a lot of concepts and Hanna Barbera characters that ultimately didn’t end up making the final cut. Is there something that you maybe would have liked to have seen left in the movie?

ZR: Yeah, a couple things. Jabberjaw, like this shark, which was always like a really strange concept, this shark that can walk around on land. I wish, I forget, it was either a boy or a girl I don’t remember what we were going to do, I think in the end it was going to be a she. And she was like a funny, goofy, interesting character that the early version of the movie I thought the way she was introduced, and the way she became part of the Scooby Doo team, I thought that was pretty cool. Oh and then there’s Grape Ape, the giant purple ape, he was pretty cool. I think something I really missed was, as the movie evolved, it turned into more of a superhero movie instead of a classic, scary mystery. And I fell in love with Scooby Doo as a kid because it was like a mystery. And it had this kind of storyline that you could kind of count on, like the Scoob gang goes out and tries to solve a mystery and then they pull the mask off the guy. I feel like Warner Bros. really wanted to make like a big epic superhero movie, but I wish it was more of the classic Scooby Doo movie, but.

AL: How do you feel about the final product of the movie?

ZR: I mean, the first time I watched it I was a little disappointed because I was expecting something like I mentioned, more of a spooky Scooby Doo story. But then I watched it again with a bunch of my friends, and they were all laughing the whole time and they were like “Wow, this movie is so silly,” and I was like “Okay, yeah, you’re right. It’s a silly movie.” So I appreciate it now. It’s difficult with movies because you can have the greatest team of artists and directors and everything, but it’s really, the final outcome, it’s all based on the executives way up who are like trying to see what things will make money, what things are in right now, so they’re really the ones telling us what to do.

AL: What is it like to watch the final product of a movie five years after you finished working on it?

ZR: I was just so happy that they made the movie because it kept getting put on pause and I was like “Are they ever going to make this?” Like this was my first movie, I want to show this art that I did. So when they said it was coming out I was really excited. It’s always a great feeling when you see all this hard work that you’ve done, you see parts of it end up on screen. And I really like being part of something bigger like that. Like working with your friends and you’re creating something together. I watched it with two of my friends who I worked on it with and it was really cool to sit there and pick out what parts we got to work on and stuff like that.

AL: What do you think it is about a cartoon dog solving mysteries that has been able to hold up for 50 years, and having all these incarnations?

ZR: I think, well, so many people just love dogs. I love animals. And each character in that cast, Shaggy, Velma, all of them. They all have very unique, different personalities. And I think anyone can relate a little bit to each of those characters. Whether you’re a bit of a nerd or maybe a little bit more of a jock or whatever, you can relate or you’ve been in situations where you have a group of friends that have similar personalities. So I think it’s that you can relate to those characters that make this thing just last for so long.

AL: Is there anything else that you wanted to add at all?

ZR: I had a lot of fun working on the movie, and I thank everyone who gave me a shot on my first animated movie, I really appreciate that because it was like, the launching point in my career. After that first job you get then as long as you don’t mess up too bad — because there’s so much demand for artists now that as long as you’re halfway decent and you’re nice then you’ll just get job after job, so I was lucky I was given an opportunity. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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