Throughout his career, Austrian artist Florian Satzinger has drawn such iconic animated characters as Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, Tweety, Daffy Duck, and Bugs Bunny. He contributed to Pinky and the Brain and created his own characters: Toby Skybuckle, John Starduck the space exploring duck, and Duck Awesome. Now Florian is commissioned by directors for the beginning stages of projects to develop visual solutions and ideas.
The quality of Florian’s sketches reminds me of the Golden Age mid-century Disney and Warner Bros animation where every line had a lively motion and projected a three-dimensional sense of volume of the character.
As a fellow Austrian native, when I think about the impressive career Florian has had in the Los Angeles-based animation world I can’t help but recall Disney’s live-action film Cool Running where Jamaica’s first bobsled team competes in the winter Olympics.
During our conversation, I asked him about his journey as an artist. Although he humbly owes his success to great mentorship and fortunate events it became evident during our conversation that his achievements are based on dedication to drawing and love for the creative process.
From a young age, Florian didn’t just draw his favorite cartoon characters but integrated them into whole worlds. His architect father taught him perspective and so he was able to create characters and their environments down to the smallest detail.
“It is exactly what I am doing now,” he said laughing. Later he studied art history, German philology, and worked creatively in advertising. But his career as a professional character designer and animator took shape when he decided to attend the Vancouver Institute of Media Arts, where Veteran Disney Studios artist Ken Southworth took him under his wing.
“In retrospect, it wasn’t so much the drawing skills and animation techniques that made the biggest impact on me but learning to observe my own characters, bringing them to life, and developing a good taste and feel for an original design,” he shared.
I asked him what method he uses for developing a design and the nature of a character.
“I like to start by envisioning a private situation with my character, like having a cup of coffee together on my balcony. I imagine how my character moves as he engages in a conversation. This visualization helps me to make my character believable and I can enrich him with all details needed. The heroic, more staged moments come after and will therefore be more convincing. Another aspect is the world in which my character lives. I need to know more about that world than will ever be communicated.
“When Tom chases Jerry into the kitchen, a whole adventure is told with just a kitchen table and simple utilities. What makes the story enticing is that the world they live in is very much thought through. The creator might know what is behind the pantry door of the kitchen even if that door is never opened.”
Florian’s characters are very convincing in their many facets and expressions but what struck me the most in all of his drawings is a solid sense of three-dimensional form. This traditional cartooning approach seems rare in contemporary times, so I asked him if he thinks that the emphasis on volume in character design is trending more towards a more graphic look in animation and cartooning.
“Although flat styles are more popular now, the first sketches of a character should be like architectural drawings. Emphasizing the three-dimensional form in a character is needed to be able to show it from all angles. A comic character doesn’t appear once but many times and it moves, so I need to learn about it in all its poses. I always think about the volume with every line I am drawing. Even if the character will be later used in a more graphic 2-D style, I like to understand first what it looks like in every angle possible. A three-dimensional construction is also important to judge if the character can later be animated.”
Florian taught these concepts to students of Multimedia Art at the University of Applied Sciences in Salzburg, Austria. One of his many exercises was to analyze the compositions of Old Master paintings. He had his students draw their own characters into these compositions. The learning effect was to understand the dynamics between characters and experiment with the power of visual language.
I asked him if he believes the creative process of character design for animation is similar to traditional fine art commissions.
“The difference between an artist in a traditional sense and someone who works creatively in the entertainment industry is smaller than many people think. To make a living for yourself, you have to master your craft first and then learn to work within the given requirements and deadlines. Having to work in a routine and learning to create a professional workflow brings artists to new creative heights and helps to get work finished. The difference from art commissions in a traditional sense is that your work has a function and therefore becomes a product, but the creative process is the same. With every project I want to improve my work, I always have to use my imagination and I always aim to make my character more believable. In a way, the process never gets easier, except with more experience. I don’t shy away from a blank sheet of paper anymore.”
I asked him what advice he would give to a young artist who wants to become a cartoonist or animator and whether there are still opportunities in cartooning.
“I think there is a place in the market for cartooning. In countries like France and Belgium comic books are still serious business. When it comes to animation, even when the production is done digitally in 3D the draftsmen are always needed. The concepts are always drawn by hand.
“The question is how to get a footing in the market. To stand out with your craft you need to constantly be willing to improve and take constructive criticism. Drawings that look very dynamic are never rushed. Precision is important.
“I always recommend to students not just focus on the thing they are interested in. It doesn’t stop with character design but the artist has to engage with perspective drawing, environment design, vehicle design, and storytelling.
“Sometimes it’s good to even look at completely different art fields to gain inspiration, like acting and stage design. Learning about the history of your field creates awareness of your taste.
“In my case, even as a working professional cartoonist, I kept being persistent with the drawings on my blog until about 17 years ago I received a phone call from Leonora Hume, Vice President at Disney worldwide at the time. She told me she came across my work on the internet and would love to discuss a collaboration. This was for sure a breakthrough moment in my career that led to many other opportunities.”
Florian’s creations are brimming with life, wit, and a seemingly endless variation of funny ideas. But above all, he likes ducks. His first book release was in New York in 2010 called Duck: The Magic of the Birds, and endless variations of beaked creatures in many publications followed.
Now Florian shares a large bright studio with three architects near Graz in South Austria where he keeps inventing new characters and worlds.