Interview: Jan Pinkava

Jan_PinkavaAmy Cowlard talked with fellow Jan Pinkava about his animation career and nostalgia for Aberystwyth’s student life.

AC: How often do you come back to Aber?
JP: Never! I’m very happy to be here because I can’t remember when I was last here. It must be over ten years ago. I left in ’89. It’s lovely to come back to a place where everything’s familiar; it’s like a dream, it’s beautiful.

AC: What have the University asked you to do during Grad week?
JP: I had to give a speech and I was invited by the Computer Science department to talk at a conference – God help them! Everyone has just been very nice and looked after me. This is the easiest thing in the world, trust me! To go to somewhere, where people remember you with fondness and are willing to say nice things to you and give you awards – how bad is that?!

AC: When you were a student here what were the best and worst bits of studying in Aber?
JP: Now you’re asking! Well, I was always terrible with the deadlines; I would do everything last minute. I pulled a lot of all nighters – some bad ones, I tell you. It’s a terrible habit that I didn’t shake for a long time. But we nerds; I was a geek, I still am I suppose. We’d be there in the middle of the night tapping away at the keyboards. That was exciting. You felt you were doing something kind of groovy.
I had fun doing extracurricular activities. I used to hang-glide and I was in the fencing team. I organised the national UAU (University Athletic Union) so that was fun. We actually brought the best university fencers from around the country to Aberystwyth; it was quite a feat to drag them all out here and we had a nice fencing competition, that was great.
I really enjoyed some of the things I did in my first year as an undergraduate. I took a year of philosophy, which was great fun. I also did my PhD in Theoretical Robotics. I don’t know what a ‘theoretical robotist’ is, but apparently I’m one of them!
So I was applauding especially the two who graduated with a PHD in computer science. I know how hard it can be sometimes to get that thesis written and to get that work finished.
Sorry, I shall be wiping away sentimental tears soon! It’s your childhood really, I’m nearly 50 now and looking back, it’s a time when you’re somebody else. You’re still learning about the world, and you’ve got lots to learn ahead of you.

AC:What advice would you give to graduates looking to get into your industry?
JP: Well, the film business is big. I was in Anaheim, southern L.A., recently, where there was a conference called Vidcon, which is a big convention for Youtube kids. They were trying to figure out how to make a living with video blogging and Youtube.
People are making imagery, animated small films or live action films, all the time, everywhere these days. So within that, the really talented people are going to shine. Any art form, when there’s a lot of it going on, it’s like the compost where the great stuff grows.
So it means we are now in an age, because of this easy access to image making, where to distinguish yourself from everyone else, you have to be bloody good, because there are a lot of people who are doing it. Don’t let that stop you, give it a go, that’s my advice – but don’t sweat it if you’re not the greatest thing since sliced bread!
If you’re serious about the industry and want to go into feature animation, all those people you knew when you were an undergraduate, they’re going to be your colleagues. It’s the network, the people you were close to. It’s true of every subject.
Primarily what you have to do is do! Make films, keep doing it and getting better.

AC:You’ve worked on animation films like Ratatouille but which has been your favourite?
JP: Oddly enough, my favourite things I’ve done have been things I did as a kid, that were amateur, terribly broken things, that I did with a super 8 camera. They were expressions of what I thought was good at the time.
I also really did enjoy making that short film, called Geri’s Game, because I was in an environment full of brilliant people, both artists and scientists, and immense resources. I was almost being given a free hand to develop, write, storyboard and direct. All I was told to do was to make it good. That’s a rare thing!

AC: So which do you prefer: animating, directing or writing?
JP: Animating is a craft that’s really like slow motion acting. It’s very satisfying when you do it well and you find you’ve created a performance that you like. Sometimes it can be very frustrating and difficult, especially working to tight deadlines.
Directing is fraught with compromises and it’s a leadership role which is unenviable for some. You have to figure out how best to make a film which is right, in ever-changing circumstances. It’s tough and not for the faint of heart.
Writing is great! Loads of fun, everything’s possible. It can be a drag, though. They say ‘Hollywood writing is rewriting’, you need to hone it, to get it right and to get criticism. But the beginning of it, the coming up with the idea or the characters or a concept for a short film, that’s great fun!
I’ve been very lucky in my career to have had the opportunity to just make stuff up! How great is that?