Every year, in the countdown to the Lakes International Comic Art Festival in October, this year running as the virtual LICAF LIVE, we bring you a series of interviews with both guests and participants in the Comics Clock Tower (This year, also virtual).
Today, we’re talking to Glen Southern, who runs SouthernGFX, a small Cheshire based studio specialising in character and creature design. Clients include SKY, Roald Dahl, Mackinnon and Saunders, Nike, Sainsbury’s, Adidas, Netflix, Screen Scene, Disney, Lego, Pixologic, Wacom.
He’s been using and training ZBrush (The leading digital sculpting program) in the UK for over 15 years and is a Wacom Ambassador for the UK and Ireland. More recently, he’s been creating in the VR space, working with companies like Oculus Medium and now Gravity Sketch in the UK.
Glen and his team spilt their time between client projects, training for both corporate clients and in college and universities around the UK and presenting cutting edge digital tools at events.
What are you working on right now, and when will it be published?
Glen Southern: On the comic front we are just starting to work on a 3D Comic about a lonely Robot trying to get off an Asteroid and failing badly. We are going to work with Bay Raitt (who we have interviewed for the Festival), which is developing a tool to help artists get their comics into 3D using Blender.
Most of my work now is either TV, Film or VR (Virtual Reality Related content) which has become a large part of what we do as a company.
We are working on a couple of exciting stop motion projects which we can’t talk about yet but they are all supported by a mountain of illustration and concept work which keeps me and my team busy. Recently, we worked on Roald Dahl concepts and helped them prepare a development pitch which was picked up by Netflix. Everyone knows that IP so you will have a good idea of the sort of character work we were doing.
A lot of what we do now is work with reactive companies with cutting edge hardware and software and help them reach a wider audience. We have just completed a huge campaign with Logitech using their new VR Pen called VRInk. We were showing and promoting the new hardware and along the way making super cool concept bikes, large Robots and modern training shoes. Very diverse stuff and all very experimental.
What’s been your favourite project recently?
Glen: Penny Dreadful was probably my favourite TV show to work on and I loved working on the opening titles of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom as it’s the closest I ever got to doing anything Jurassic Park related. In Broadcast TV, I’m proud of how long the Barclays Premiership Golden Lion lasted (about five years in all) which is a long time for that kind of asset to still be in use.
How do you plan your day as a creator? (Do you plan your day?)
Glen: It really depends on what we have got going on at the time. I travel for events for about two months of the year. I run training courses for another two months and the rest is split between client work on site and client work at the studio.
If I’m on a client job I generally try to keep office hours. I’m up and walking Dennis (my Miniature Schnauzer) first job. Maybe do some quick emails from my home studio and check out the plan for the day. I usually get in at about 9 – and then dive into the biggest jobs of the day.
I try to avoid social media in office hours as much as possible and if we are on crunch time I put everything on airplane mode. I grab a bite to eat and take a quick walk with Dennis around 1pm and then knuckle down to more grind or depending on the day maybe paperwork. I like to be home around 6 to spend time with the family but from about 8 I’m to be found reading, modeling, painting or sketching every minute I can.
If I watch TV, I’m drawing. I have a paint studio setup at home for clay modelling and airbrushing. I often sneak in there and lose myself for hours. During the last hour of the day, I spend reading comics and chilling my brain down planning the morning in my head.
What’s the best thing about being an artist and designer?
Glen: For me it’s a dream job. I basically get paid to do what I did most of my life for fun. I draw, model, paint, 3DPrint, sketch, teach it all and talk about it and people pay me and my staff. I will never retire as I simply would do what I’m doing now, until I shuffle off this mortal coil.
Setting up my own studio gave me freedom to live my life how I wanted to and after years in corporate drudgery it was like a new lease of life.
And the worst?
Glen: Clients! That’s not true. “Bad Clients” is the correct answer because I love most of my clients and a lot of them become friends. I struggle with unrealistic timings by people who don’t really understand how long things take. It’s not a huge issue but it still happens on certain jobs.
What most distracts you from getting your work done?
Glen: Everything. I am the world’s worst at getting distracted and the worst thing is I am surrounded by cool imagery, tech and media all day long. I did a Neil Gaiman course recently and it helped me in one big way. He has a routine where he sits at a certain desk and the rule is he can write or do nothing. That’s it. No distractions. No internet. No phone, No pets. Just the writing or nothing. I set that up in one of my studios and it really helped.
How has the Pandemic affected you, work wise – good or bad?
Glen: I say it quietly – but we have coped really well. We are very diverse in our skill set at SouthernGFX so if one type of work dies down, we can ramp up another. We lost a lot of jobs when things like the Olympics went away, but then there was a glut of TV and Illustration work needed to fill some of the gaps. We are main suppliers for SKY Creative and they kept us busy all summer. Plus we have a few grants to work with certain companies and that really helped in the lean times. I didn’t furlough anyone, so that felt good.
We shut down our face to face training studio for obvious reasons and we started a youtube channel to help us build an audience that would allow us to sell courses. That is going really well and will be a big part of our strategy in 2021.
What do you think might be its most significant impact on the gaming industry in general, long term?
Glen: VR AR and MR, which are all collectively called XR. What, I hear some of you asking? OK, Virtual Reality is the one with a headset. Augmented reality is the one with your Phone and Mixed reality is the one with Glasses that isn’t very good yet but will be the only one left in the future.
I think when we can leap off the computer screen and take gaming into the 4th dimension then it’s the future of all media from comics to game and film. We are seeing it happen now and not really acknowledging it.
Which one comic creator would you most like to meet, and why?
Glen:There’s a few, but right now I’d say Jeff Smith as I’m just reading Bone, and Bill Waterson, as he never talks to anyone about Calvin and Hobbes, which is my favourite strip of all time.
What one piece of advice do you offer people looking to work in the illustration field?
Glen: I mentor about three or four people at a time and I do as much business coaching as I do advising on how to get into the industry. Getting into the business is one thing, trying to then move into freelancing or running your own business is another.
Some general advice I always give is don’t be an idiot. If you aren’t a nice person to the people who you work with both above and below your level then you won’t last long. Either people won’t want to work for you or with you or you will be fired. Not often straight away but trust me, over time it will bite you.
Learn to take criticism. Being art directed can be hard. You may have poured your soul into a piece of work but if it doesn’t work for the Art Director or the Creative Director then it has to change or be removed. Get used to it. Learn to grow from the critique.
Share your talent and skills whenever you can. Don’t hide your secrets from the world because you are afraid someone will copy your or do better with it. Share your knowledge freely and the rewards are huge. Find a speciality and be good at and learn all the skills that surround it. There is always a big debate about specializing or being a generalist. I always like to see people who are very good at something and can start work with that skill the right way but also know alot about the supporting jobs.
And don’t forget, build an amazing portfolio but don’t cram it with substandard things.
Glen, thank you for your time. We’re looking forward to seeing those interviews over the LICAF LIVE weekend. The best of luck with all your projects!
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• The Virtual Comics Clock Tower is online at licafclocktower.com