Andy Harkness has had an enviable career in animation: hired by Disney fresh out of art school, credits on many of the studio’s big-name animated features, an Emmy for Individual Achievement in Animation, and now, art director on Sony Pictures Animation’s buzzy Vivo (due out this June), which will feature music by Lin-Manuel Miranda. And yet he’d always yearned to create the kind of books that had captured his imagination as a child. As his second book, Wolf Boy, goes on sale, we spoke with him about the clay sculpted illustrations that have become his signature, his influences and sources of inspiration, and achieving his big dream.
You’ve worked on some well-known and beloved animated features, but you’ve said making books has always been your first love, creatively speaking. Why is that?
I think back to second grade and reading Where the Wild Things Are—I used to drool over that book. I’d check it out every week. I think I always wanted to make books, and in some ways I got sidetracked into a whole different career. When I was in college, Disney came and presented early tests of The Lion King and Pocahontas, and everyone wanted a job there—I just hopped on the bandwagon. It turned into a wonderful career of 25 years and I’ve loved every minute of it. But writing and illustrating children’s books has always been in the back of my head. And it’s finally started to happen. Right now, it’s kind of like having two jobs at once. In my dream of dreams, I’d shift away from animation and do children’s books full-time.
How did clay become your medium, and how did the process for Wolf Boy differ from your first book, Bug Zoo?
The idea for the clay came about when I was working on the sets for Moana. Learning the 3D technology was just beyond me. I got my first cellphone at 25 and there’s just so much I’m willing to learn—a lot of the 3D programs take years of training. I could just dive in with clay.
So I started to sculpt sets out of clay and I was having so much fun with it. I tried a couple of illustrations with it—relief sculptures, not a whole lot of depth, maybe a quarter-inch deep and enough to give form and shape to the illustration. Being involved in every mark in that clay was really satisfying.
I did my best on Bug Zoo, but I was still very much between the worlds of animation and illustration, and I never quite let the clay be the star. For Wolf Boy, I simplified the color palette to really bring out the clay sculpture and I pushed the texture so it could be the star of the illustration.
Rendering shadows and textures [by hand] is incredibly time-consuming, and I’m not a very patient artist. When I sculpt clay, I’m just thinking of shape and form. Then if I put in a light just north of it [the clay sculpture] and the light cast shadows, that detail is “free” and there are happy accidents. I love that.
What are your storytelling influences and heroes?
The House in the Night by Susan Marie Swanson, illustrated by Beth Krommes. Wanda Gág’s Millions of Cats is just wonderful. My dad gave it to my son Benjamin—he was a veterinarian and he liked cats in particular. And the Madeline series. I’m drawn to artists who hover between illustrator and folk art. I try to do that—to get back into my mind and unlearn all the stuff I learned in school.
There’s Charles Burchfield—he was a writer and a watercolorist and he could never decide which he loved more. He tried to create rhythm in his paintings so people could feel how the wind blows through the leaves. And A.J. Casson, and the rest of the Canadian Group of Seven, for their interpretation of nature. Roald Dahl, Robert Frost—I love to read poetry, too— and I loved The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe growing up.
I read a lot of Stephen King’s books as a kid. That’s my dad’s fault—he loved horror movies.
What are you working on next?
I’m art-directing Vivo for Sony Animation, and I’ve been working with Roger Deakins, who won the Academy Award for cinematography for 1917. He has such a unique approach to lighting and storytelling, and I’ve been learning a ton. I think it influenced the lighting on Wolf Boy: Roger’s work is very theatrically staged, and that was in my brain when I was working on the book’s illustrations.
I have several different ideas for Wolf Boy brewing. He’s very much a little kid in the story and the rabbits are steady, more parental, more the teacher. They don’t ride the emotional roller coaster with Wolf Boy, and there are so many stories to tell with him. Another passion is catching and releasing butterflies—I’m working on something involving butterfly and moth collecting.
There are things that I think I’ll never be good enough to do and then they just begin to happen regardless. I never thought I’d write a book book, and I’m beginning to write a three-part young adult series. It doesn’t mean it’s good—it means I’m just giving it a shot.
Wolf Boy by Andy Harkness. Bloomsbury, $17.99 Feb. 2 ISBN 978-1-5476-0442-5