We’ll admit that here at It’s Nice That, we don’t know a huge amount about the American city of Ann Arbor. It’s in Michigan, Iggy Pop lived there and…well, that’s about it, really. Until now. Now we know that should we ever find ourselves in Ann Arbor with a craving for a 16” Muhammad Ali Meatfest pizza, it’s Hello Faz that should be getting our custom, and we have local creative James Noellert to thank for that tasty morsel of information.
It isn’t just his pizza recommendations that have warmed us to this illustrator and animator, either. We’ve been eyeing up his work for the likes of VICE, Ghostly International, and Carhartt for quite some time now, but it was his recent animated project The Space Explorers that had us furiously clacking at our keyboard in an attempt to speak to James.
A collaboration with Detroit studio, Gunner, the short is a gloriously retro-futuristic look at female-focused space-base infiltration, and it is as charming an animation as you’re likely to see.
“I had been doing storyboard and style frame stuff for Gunner; they introduced me to the world of motion, it’s very addictive,” James says. “_The Space Explorers_ was a side project I used to practice all the things I was excited to try out, like figuring out how light would work, having some complex camera moves, and very polished character work. When I had confidence that I was on to something I pitched it to Gunner and asked them to help me make it as cool as possible.”
The Space Explorers is brief, clocking in at just shy of 90 seconds. This is, James explains, a reflection of his belief that less really is more, and that when it comes to animation he’d rather see, “10 seconds of something totally engaging,” than an episode stuffed series filled with “shortcuts and compromises.”
Working within the context of a broader creative team on the film was, in James’ words, “wild.” He pours praise on collaborators Rachel Reid (“she took the character animation to the next level”), Nick Forshee (“Nick can turn a napkin sketch into a 3D model blindfolded”) and sound designer, David Kamp (“when he came on board, that was when it started to feel like a real thing”) and lets us know that The Space Explorers won’t be his sole foray into animation, with more motion work on the horizon.
He contrasts this digital work to the scratchy sketches he regularly posts to his website. These greyscale, miniatures might be work in process, but they’re still full of character, detail, and vigour. “Because so much of my process is digital, I wanted to share the stuff that happens away from the computer to balance that out,” he tells us.
James goes on to say that some of the images are about solving specific problems with process and composition, most of the time they act as “shorthand symbols to help me remember what I was thinking about at that time, like if I just write “diorama” and look at it five years later it takes me right back to that thing I saw at a natural history museum that made me want to do more sculpture and photography.”