Talking to us from Moonbow’s studio in the heart of sunny Lisbon, London-born animator Tommy Levi Morenos enlightens us on breathing life into characters, the relationship between design and Japanese culture and the newly founded Moonbow Studio.
Wishu: When did you first realise that you were a creative?
Tommy: It’s always been there. My mother always encouraged me to draw and creativity has since become a huge part of who I am. I have wanted to make animation since the age of 4 or 5 and remember wanting to be a “cartoonist”. I can’t tell you a specific reference, I think I just loved whatever I saw in an array of cartoons.
Wishu: The beauty of animation lies in its unlikely tangibility. How do you manage to create characters that seem to be so human and therefore so relatable and familiar?
Tommy: My bread and butter is character animation; most of what I’ve done in my professional life is breathing life into characters. There are animators who specialise in effects and action, but it’s always been the acting and theatrical element that I personally really enjoy. I’d relate it to puppeteering or acting in that there’s a theatrical or performative element to it. Despite animation not being a particularly spontaneous craft you definitely want the final product to come across as such. I think character animators should be amateur actors themselves, reading your characters’ lines in a mirror, filming yourself and noting all the tiny little details, and from a simple initial idea and statement you build the details into it and you only stop when you feel the character has come alive. Every truly living piece of character animation should have an element of the artist within it.
Wishu: How do you strike a balance between the childlike spontaneity and adult movement and interaction in your characters?
Tommy: There’s always a balance to be found between realism and heightened realism. Animation is not live action and so should be used to accomplish things that live action can’t — with character animation you’re generally trying to maintain a realism that adheres to familiar principles and looks alive and organic while also bumping it up to deliver that thing that live action can’t. Disney and any golden age animation demonstrate the discovery and refinement of these principles.
Wishu: You have such an impressive roster of clients – how important was going out, being active and developing relationships within the creative field when it came to gaining work for major clients?
Tommy: Relationships are everything. Through the animation community online and through other aficionados you learn through each other and improve your craft. I got my first job with a major studio through a childhood friend I’d made online.
Wishu: You just founded your own studio, Moonbow, with your co-founder Lorenzo. Were you thinking about setting up a studio before you met?
Tommy: I met Lorenzo here in Lisbon two years ago and we had the idea to start a studio. We were both working our jobs in our individual fields and we discovered we had similar ambitions and ended up making a great team. He handles the stuff I’m not strong with and vice versa. Moonbow has now grown into a small team and a wider circle of freelancers. Things are going pretty smoothly!
Wishu: Can you tell us a bit about your freelancing journey?
Tommy: I started freelancing in my early 20s on odd jobs. I then worked in-house for a major American studio for a couple of years, going on to freelance with them for a while. My philosophy was always to try to go above and beyond what was expected and to make the most of the great opportunities I was given by them to express myself creatively. I think gratitude and enthusiasm are a good general principle to live by, and someday it’ll come back around!
Wishu: Do you have any advice to young freelancers who maybe want to start a studio?
Tommy: I think it’s really important to have a network of contacts and a reputation. Let’s face it — the basis of a studio is teamwork, and it’s teamwork which facilitates the really big, great stuff getting done. You can’t do it alone! There’s a real strategy in intelligently delegating tasks to the right people and finding that synergistic flow. You have to be in a place where you are ready to dedicate and challenge yourself, and there’s something to be said for always taking on just a little bit more than you think you can handle. There’s always an anxiety to do as much as the next person, but try to just challenge yourself from where you are right now. Try a new software, a new palette that you’ve not used before. It’s about self-improvement and finding inspiration in the work of others, not directly comparing your creative journey to someone else’s.
Wishu: Your studio website references the Japanese term Sakuga when it comes to your approach to animation. How influential is Japanese culture on your work? What about it inspires you?
Tommy: The term “sakuga” refers to the highest-quality animation where you’re trying to really emphasise a story beat, a character moment and so on. One of my favourite living animators is Masaaki Yuasa, whose chameleon-like approach to the craft I admire very much. He’s not afraid to explore and push himself, to tap more into the general principles than getting too fixated on certain visual details, and as a result, many of his projects end up looking and feeling quite different. When it comes to Japan in general I admire the Buddhist ethic of traditional Japanese culture and the economy of linework and detail in its traditional artwork. Oscar Wilde said about art that it’s the “perfect use of an imperfect medium”, and I think the closest we can come to perfecting our art is in arranging its elements in such a way that no one piece can be taken out or is superfluous to the structure as a whole. It’s incredibly hard to refine something that much, it requires a lot of discipline and the flexibility to keep making adjustments right up until the final moment. That said, perfection is a very tricky and treacherous creature as a kind of tunnel-vision and obsessiveness can creep up on us insidiously. It’s important to balance high expectations by remembering the truism that no art is ever truly finished, only abandoned. In this spirit, we can find deliverance from neurotic perfectionism in the Japanese principle of ‘wabi-sabi’, which is concerned with the aesthetic of impermanence and incompleteness, the beauty of the cracked, asymmetrical pottery, the rough paint strokes or the moss-covered brickwork. Learning to balance on that knife-edge is an intensely personal journey entirely your own — it’s the journey of your life!