We caught up with Axis founder and director Dana Dorian to talk about his journey into the animation industry, his influences growing up, and his advice for aspiring animators.
What attracted you to working in the animation industry?
I graduated with a masters degree in Fine Art from Duncan of Jordanstone in Dundee, then took a four month road trip across America with my girlfriend (now wife) and during that time I saw Toy Story and decided then and there that computer animation was what I wanted to do despite knowing very little about computers. I heard at the time there weren't a lot of people in the computer animation industry and it looked like a lot of fun. For me it was certainly a better way to make a living than going to the starving fine artist route.
What media influenced you the most growing up?
I used to read comic books, watched a lot of films and played video games. I would ride my dirt bike to go to the video store everyday during the summer and watch movies on the family VHS player. I wasn’t allowed to watch R-rated movies at the time although I did manage to sneak a few past my parents like Predator. I especially loved Sci-fi movies. In terms of traditional artists I was influenced by Patrick Nagal, he’s famous for designing the cover for Duran Duran’s ‘Rio’, it was very 80s. I made a little money on the side painting copies of his images on the back of jean jackets. In college I liked Philip Pearlstein, Chuck Close, Egon Schiele, and Lucian Freud who is still my favourite portrait artist.
What’s been the highlight of your journey with Axis over its 20 years?
There’s been a steady progression over the years, you can see the quality and profile of our projects growing and becoming more and more about story, which is great. The most interesting projects for me are the ones where we have creative input into the story.
One of the most creatively rewarding projects I worked on came about when LEGO approached Axis to create a concept for an animated series based on their City theme line. It was great because it meant that I was able to build everything from the ground up and it didn’t hurt that I was already a LEGO fan.
I spent the next two years working with a very talented team of individuals to create the show's characters, comic tone, pace, and world. I was involved in all the casting, directed all of the scripts, the 2D animatics, editing, and attended all the voice recordings in LA. I also input into all the animation, sound, music, design, and rendering. It was a lot of hard work and at the same time it was a lot of fun. I’m proud to say that the forty, eleven minute episodes of LEGO City Adventures are very much a reflection of my sense of humor and the series has become one of Nickelodeon’s top rated shows in the world.
On the gaming side, Horizon: Zero Dawn and Alien: Isolation were up there as some of my favorite jobs, because I got to direct a lot of mocap and spend a lot of time working with the mocap actors to develop the characters. Working with actors in realtime has an immediate satisfaction that you don’t get with keyframe animation. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that mocap is better, it’s just different.
Overall I gravitate toward the long form projects because they tend to allow more opportunity to explore and develop characters which has to be one of my favorite aspects of directing.
What advice would you give to someone looking to enter the industry for the first time?
There are a lot of different jobs in the industry - try a bit of everything if you’re not sure what you want to focus on - that’s what school can be good for. Then get a work placement as fast as you can to get your foot in the door. When I graduated I could draw, but I had no computer experience so I worked for free for my first month and in return they started to train me how to use computers. After the first month they realised I wasn’t a completely insane person so they started paying my expenses, then shortly after I moved into a junior position. I firmly believe that anyone can learn anything they want if they have enough desire to do it and are willing to put the time in. I do appreciate that it can be harder for some with natural ability but desire can make up for that.
What about Axis’ future are you most excited about?
Feature films! It’s something I’ve wanted the company to do since we started twenty years ago. We have done two direct to DVD features for Mattel and are currently working on our first full blown feature which everyone in the studio is very excited about. We have also optioned a few books that are in different stages of development. Soon we will be taking those features and mini-series IPs to market - so watch this space.
It’s a very exciting time for long form animation, because streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon are creating a demand for high quality animation that is willing to go beyond the traditional style of content that is currently in cinemas. That kind of ground breaking mentality in animation would have been unimaginable ten years ago.
I’m happy to say that Axis is perfectly placed to work with those streaming services to create some truly original content that most animation companies around the world could not. Needless to say we can’t wait for what the future holds.