Christophe Vacher, Mystery and Imagination are what propels the world forward

Will and desire combined together create magnificent things. If you add luck, talent and hunger for knowledge to them you get an artist such as Christophe Vacher. His monumental works and imagination leave you breathless. Dive into his world.

Can you tell us something about your home town, growing up, studies, difference between living in a France and America?

CV: I grew up in Issoire in the middle of the deep French countryside.
At the age of 4, I was trying to draw before I learned how to write. The artistic seed was already deeply engrained. Fascinated by Tintin, I was trying to copy vignettes from the books, and eventually got a fascination for all comic books as well as illustration, and later animation and cinema. I wanted to be a comic book artist. At that time, there was nothing around Issoire to help guiding my art career. No internet, no one really knowing about the path to follow, and the Art community there was more interested in modern Art than comic books.
After my High school degree, I went to the local Fine Art school. There was no comic book department, but I wanted to learn at least the basics in classical figurative training. I quickly realized that classical figurative art was the black sheep of Fine Art schools in those days, and I felt out of place. One year later, I quit. I tested to get into the main comic book school in France in the city of Angoulême. The test was successful, but the cost of just living there would have been too much, my parents couldn’t really help me much, and grants from the government were very scarce for Fine Art schools.
So, I decided to get into the University of Letters and Human Sciences, in the History of Arts Department. There, I was able to get a government grant, and work on my own artistic skills on the side. I learned a lot, about antique, medieval History and architecture.
I failed at getting the diploma, but what I got was in essence way more valuable: It opened my eyes on how I could use this for my own creativity; and I still do to this day.
Nonetheless, my parents were getting really worried about my failures, especially in the field of The Arts, a field I had chosen.
Eventually, and incredibly, I met the right people at the right time, switching from a starting comic book career to an animation and movie career. After starting working for a studio Angoulême (yes, curiously, that same city where I couldn’t live as a student because of the living costs became the city where I first lived as a starting animation professional), then moving to Blois and Paris, I finally got hired by the Disney studios that existed at that time in Montreuil.
At that time, the movie Lion King had just been released and was making a fortune at the box-office. Soon, all the major studios were opening animation departments. It was the second Golden Age of animation. For artists, it became very easy to negotiate at that time. I almost left Disney, but they made me a good offer and I asked to move to their studios in Burbank, California.
When I look at the big picture, it is still incredible to see how the timing of things happened perfectly. The Disney studios in Paris opened right at the time I moved there, and gave me the opportunity to come to the US. They have shut down since and it will probably never happen again. Everything worked out flawlessly.
There is no way I could have planned things like this on my own. Whatever you try to plan in your life, some events are meant to happen.
Now, about the difference of life between France and the US, there would be a lot to say. To summarize, I would probably say that French people emphasize a quality of life defined by free time, quality of food, and a type of entertainment that is often driven by cultural and intellectual activities. Americans tend to emphasize ease of living, effectiveness in all areas of life and often tend to replace quality with quantity - which can lead to a somewhat controversial way of looking at life, where “bigger is always better”.
That being said, each point of view has its pros and cons. As long as you understand exactly the difference, you’re fine.
Nonetheless, the first thing I truly enjoy finding again every time I go back to France: Food.

You are primarily background artist. You've painted backgrounds for animated films such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Runaway Brain, Dinosaur, Hercules, Tarzan, Fantasia 2000, Treasure Planet... Why? What is so interesting about background?

CV: When I was a teenager, beyond comic books, I started to get a deep interest for painting. After entering animation, and being a character designer, then a background designer for a while, I wanted to get into working with paint and color.
I got my chance to do so, and I staid on that path. Eventually, this led me to Art direction.

You have provided Visual Development and Art Direction for Disney, Dreamworks and Universal Studios since 1989. Can you tell us something about your work?

CV: It’s a long learning process. You never really stop learning. Form pencil work to painting, to digital media, to 3D animation, the tools keep evolving, and with the tools, of course, the techniques and possibilities. What I like about working on movies is that every movie is different, each of them has its own identity. And as an art director, you are partly responsible for helping the director find the movie’s style, its visual identity.
You get hints from the director about what he is looking for. Sometimes, he doesn’t really know, he awaits for you to give him ideas, options, visual possibilities.
So, you have to do some research. Everywhere. In history books, art books, architecture books, anything that has been done before that could give the director a possible sense of direction. Then, you develop a style based on your findings, until the director is happy with what he sees.

How does it feel to be working for the best?

CV: I don’t really think of it that way. It’s gratifying, of course, but the main thing is to keep focusing on always giving the best of yourself, to keep improving, to always be your own fiercest critic. That is the only way to evolve. I see so many artists around me who get lazy as they grow older and rest on their past achievements. Then, their technique never evolves, and the studios don’t really care anymore. They kind of stay behind and are eventually forgotten. You have to stay on top of your game. Always.

In 2004 you became Art Director on a CG animated short movie for Studio Arts in Los Angeles, then for the animated segment of Disney’s live action movie “Enchanted” and for the CG feature film “9”. Was it hard working on these movies?

CV: I didn’t really want to become an Art Director. I thought it was so much work that it would kill me, I would have no life left.
When it happened, I then understood that not only it was not as hard as I thought, but it was also a lot of fun. You could bring your own vision to the film and after learning to delegate work to the right people, you could really get a lot done without killing yourself.
These 3 projects were very different from each others. I enjoyed working on all of them, but my favorite remains “9”. It was such a different type of animated movie, both edgy, dark and beautiful, but also involving attaching characters.

You’ve got a 2010 Annie Awards Nomination in the category “Best Production Design for a feature Production” for film “9”. Did it effect you work?

CV: Not really. The Annie Awards is not a very well known Award among the general public. It is more like the Academy Awards of animation, but outside the animation community, no one really knows about it. So, the best part was that it was an amazing recognition from my artist peers in animation. To an extent, this is probably even more important to an artist, because the judges were people who do the same thing I do, and therefore are harder to impress than the general public.
So, although it didn’t affect my work, and because the movie was so visually different than anything animated out there at that time, it definitely started to put my name for good on the animation map.

You’ve worked as production designer on the “Heroes and Monsters” and a visual development artist on “Despicable me” as well. Was it fun?

CV: My work on “Despicable Me” was not very long (about 2 months). I was originally offered the Art Director position on the movie, not only because of my previous experience but also because I was French, and the American studio (Illumination Entertainment) had picked a production facility in France (Mac Guff studios). They thought I would automatically accept to go back to France to supervise the movie. But I had been back from Europe just a few months earlier (working on “9”), and I wasn’t really interested in the idea of going back again.
So, I only got involved with the very early development of the visuals on “Despicable Me”, and that was it. Still an enjoyable experience, though.
As for my work as a Production Designer on “Heroes and Monsters”, I have to say I had a blast. I was supervising everything from design to color and art direction. It was really cool to do all the extensive research and design, and slowly build up the whole universe of the movie. Unfortunately, the production ran into financial problems and was postponed indefinitely.

How does it feel to win an Emmy Award (in 2011 for CG animated TV series “Transformers Prime”)?

CV: Well, you try to do what you do best, and when a recognition like an Emmy happens, it’s an amazing feeling of course. It puts your name out there for people to see, which can possibly bring future opportunities, and it is a mark of prestige that follows you everywhere you go from that point on, because almost everyone knows what an Emmy is.
But it doesn’t really change the way you are or how you do your work.

You paint your own paintings. Can you tell us something about them? Do they sell?

CV: Yes, I have been trying to maintain my own work in parallel to the work I do for the movie industry. I think it is very important for an artist, just to keep your own identity as an artist going. I like to paint different subject matters but all of them having a common spiritual thread, to an extent. I enjoy painting both human figures and huge landscapes. I believe that the spiritual thread I am trying to put in my images can be found and depicted both at a small scale (in the human figure) or a very large one (in huge landscapes).
Pretty much all my paintings have sold to this day, as well as many sketches. I slowed down on my personal production for a while, because I was too invested in movie work. But that is changing, I am back into it. And galleries are asking new work, so I’d better get moving! :)

All that you paint is fantasy. Why?

CV: I wouldn’t necessarily qualify it as fantasy, not in the pure sense of the term, like dungeons and dragons, unicorns and fairies. There are a couple of terms that emerged this past decade that I much prefer, like “Imaginary Realism” or “Contemporary Imaginary Realism”.  It is geared toward a type of things you can’t see in everyday life, but grounded in imagination, mystery and mysticism. Mystery and Imagination are what propels the world forward.

Can you describe us your ordinary day?

CV: I guess it depends on whether I am working for a studio on location, or at home. But pretty much, if I’m working at home, after getting up and having my breakfast, I usually take care of everything related to internet: correspondence with colleagues or fans, potential contracts or new contacts, posting new works or activities online, interviews and press, promotion, etc... All this is necessary to keep being visible to the outside world.
Then in the afternoon, I try to keep working on the artwork itself, whatever it is (painting, designing, sketching, illustration, etc...). I always reserve a moment to go to the gym. Then, I come back, and the evening can be open to different options: watching a movie, keep working, meeting with friends, etc...
It’s a routine, but a fairly varied routine, which I like.

When you do not work – what do you do?

CV: Most likely sports, or watching a movie, reading or traveling.
You like to travel. Why?

CV: Travel opens up your mind, the full scope of your imagination. The further you explore, the more you can imagine new possibilities for your personal work evolution.
Music often does that for me as well. Certain musics give me specific feelings that translate into some kind of visions.

What do you take home from travels?

CV: Pictures, mostly, lots of them for reference. But also you bring back that renewed spirit of imagination I was talking about in the previous question, that broader sense of inspiration. Because as you travel, you don’t just travel through space. Through all the things you see that are related to a country’s Culture and History, you really travel through time as well. I think this has never been so true as when I travelled to China for the first time in 2008. The richness of the historical landscape there just blew my mind.

Where do you find inspiration for your work?

CV: Everywhere. But as I mentioned before, in great part in music and travel. Also, I find looking at other artists’ high quality works in any field really gives me a tremendous amount of motivation and inspiration.

Why do you think martial art is important for one’s body and soul?

CV: There would be a lot to say about martial arts, and everyone entering them gets their own experience from it, whatever they are looking for. Personally, for me it’s been a changing and evolving journey in parallel to my Art journey.
I started it as a young teenager impressed by Bruce Lee and the movies, but also by the traditional Asian philosophy of martial arts. In that regard, I could say it was a bit tinted with fantasy. Then it evolved into something where effectiveness to defend oneself on the street mostly took over, leaving out as much as possible anything that could be identified as unrealistic and useless. It also gave me a sense of discipline, self-control and determination, and a balance to the not very physical artistic life. Eventually, I think I am now entering a phase where, after years of intense physical practice (and injuries of all sorts), growing older makes you look at it a different way, where health and deeper mind work associated with experience become more important.
Just like the artist’s journey, it follows a path of its own.

Interview by
Tamara Lujak