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May 23, 2002 Animation teacher wins a Daytime Emmy



by James Martin

Valery Mihalkov’s brand-new Daytime Emmy award occupies a special place in his home. “My shelves are already full of books,” says the Concordia animation instructor, “so right now it’s just sitting on the floor.”

Mihalkov, who has taught analytical drawing part-time in the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema for the past five years, picked up the “Outstanding Individual Achievement In Animation” Emmy for his work as art director on Sagwa, The Chinese Siamese Cat.

The popular series, co-produced by CinéGroupe and PBS, and based on a children’s book by Joy Luck Club author Amy Tan, concerns an adventurous kitten living in China during the early 1900s. To accurately capture the setting’s ambiance and look, Mihalkov immersed himself in “a pile of books on Chinese history, Chinese architecture, Chinese prints — pretty much anything concerning life in China 100 years ago.”

“Amy Tan’s idea was to introduce traditional Chinese philosophies of living and thinking to a North American audience, so my challenge as art director was to create a style that looks Chinese but was still understandable by North American kids.”

A serendipitous start in animation

An artist who has worked in everything from illustration to painting to graphic design, Mihalkov began his animation career “almost by accident” nine years ago, when a friend mentioned that Cinar (the Quebec animation studio recently embroiled in controversy) was looking for new people. “I was very lucky,” he says of his “right there on the spot” education.

Starting with basic layouts, Mihalkov soon worked his way up to character design and series development, working on such popular shows as Mega Babies. He strives to share lessons from this baptism-by-fire with his students.

“I try to prepare students for the industry,” which entails going beyond the artistic nuts-and-bolts of animation and covering topics such as creating a series “bible” (a guidebook covering characters, plots, style, etc.) and crafting designs that can be easily reproduced en masse by overseas animation studios. Mihalkov also takes his students on tours of Montreal animation studios.

“I not only show them the technical side, but also how to deal with a lot of problems in the process of making animation. Doing a long series with a lot of episodes isn’t like doing ‘artsy’ animation where a bunch of guys get together in a studio to make a minute-long animated short.

“On a series, you’re dealing with a lot of producers, and it’s really tough to please everybody. There are a lot of compromises, and as an artist, you put in a lot of long hours and people may not even know what you do.”

The Daytime Emmys may be a step toward remedying the unsung status of animators, writers, editors, cinematographers and other behind-the-scenes talents. Even though the technical awards were tellingly handed out independent of the red-carpet glitz (“Nobody wants to see unfamiliar faces on TV,” the animator says good-naturedly), the black-tie ceremony at the New York Marriott Marquis Hotel in Times Square left Mihalkov overwhelmed nevertheless: “I met so many people that my head was spinning!

“But I didn’t know who any of them were, because I don’t watch TV during the day.”