The Illustration Man

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"The Green Shore," a rarefied, oddly antiquarian desert tone poem rife with ear trumpets and lorgnettes, is possibly the artsiest of the three triumphantly artsy Bombay Sapphire gin spots in the current "Sapphire Inspired" campaign, from Margeotes Fertitta & Partners. Few would be surprised if this visually accomplished jewel was the work of, say, a veteran French auteur type; in fact, it belongs to Victor Robert, a 25-year-old recent Art Center College of Design grad with no commercials reel to speak of. His surname, however, is pronounced in the French style, though he was born in Puerto Rico and moved to Dallas at the age of 10.

Moreover, Robert is first and foremost an illustrator - or at least he was. "You know what?" he says at least half-jokingly. "Anyone can be a director. It's a big farce." The fact is, Robert, who's directing out of Slograffiti, Palomar Pictures' fine-art division, has but three things on his reel: the Bombay spot, a Burger King spot and the 2001 Student Academy Award-winning animated short, The Yellow Umbrella. The latter, his Art Center honors project, was his ticket to a directing career, of course, but the film itself was a happy accident. Robert was a skilled draftsman in his youth, but hardly the kind of kid who was making movies, animated or otherwise, in junior high. He got into Art Center as an illustration major on the strength of his portfolio. "At Art Center I was thinking of going into a visual development field, editorial illustration or children's books," he explains. Which is actually how The Yellow Umbrella came about. His Art Center friend Rodney Hom, who is writer/producer on the film, "wrote a children's story, and I really liked it," Robert recounts. "We began development on it as a book, and halfway through I realized it was turning into an animated short."

But not just any animated short. The all-CG, eight-minute movie, which took about eight months to make, is one of those timeless parables of good vs. evil, light vs. dark, or more particularly in this case, sun vs. rain. The mini-sun that is the yellow umbrella is the one ray of hope in a miserable kingdom in which an endless downpour reigns as a damp, depressing metaphor for conformity, greed and selfishness. But the rich night-gloom of the animation, featuring strangely curved and wide-eyed faces, is stunningly beautiful, not quite like anything else seen in CG. "There's a lot of photography and illustration in there; I wanted to create something on the computer that would showcase my illustration skills," says Robert. "A lot of the characters' faces and the backgrounds are painted. I'd scan them in and apply them to these 3-D figures, so a cylindrical shape now has a map of a face on it - and suddenly you've got your character. I really wanted to keep that illustrative integrity. You look at Pixar, for instance, and they certainly have mastered their own style, but there are really so many other ways of using computer animation."

As demonstrated again in the Bombay spot - "This is where my head goes when I'm presented with moving media," he says. "This spot looks exactly like my paintings. I don't really know what strings were pulled behind the scenes to get me this job, but I'm so thankful that they were willing to take a chance on me." What exactly is going on in "The Green Shore"? "I was creating a glimpse into a world of the Siren," Robert offers. "But it's not like the story from The Odyssey. It's an elitist concert. There comes a point with a soft crescendo in the music and everyone's in an ecstatic state. The man outside the tent floats off into the sky." Well, whatever is happening, it looks marvelous. Robert acknowledges his "great" DP, Matt Siegel, but "as far as the compositions go, they were all achieved on the computer. There's a ton of CG in there, including all the backgrounds. The only live action is the people. The Siren's hair is CG. Each frame needed to feel like its own painting. I'm really happy with the way it all turned out."

While he was in production on Bombay, a Burger King spot, of all things, came his way via L.A. agency Amoeba. While oceans away from "Green Shore," it's a fairly inventive little number in which a giant Whopper emerges from the screen during a 3-D movie and the awed audience reaches up to touch it as it passes overhead like a meaty mothership. "The Whopper is a flat element," notes Robert. "It's highly composited." The people, however, are not flat elements; this was his first experience directing live action ever. "I was confident I could do it, and it went very smoothly. I knew what I needed to get, and I got it."

So far, so good. Asked for some of his inspirations, Robert shows off his keen eye: "The artwork of Mark Ryden; the paintings of James Whistler, especially his 'Nocturne Series'; the animation of Igor Kovalyov; and the illustrations of Lane Smith." Not the stuff of the typical spots shooter, surely, but Robert clearly doesn't intend to be a particularly commercial commercials director. He's been at Slograffiti a year now, and in the meantime he has other things going on. "I still do illustration, I still do freelance. I'm working on a Burger King logo right now."

Robert took time off during Art Center to be technical director on the South Park movie, and he's storyboarded for Paramount and Klasky-Csupo. He'd love to do music videos, and Palomar conveniently has a music video division, but nothing's come of that yet. He admires the work of Tim Burton, and one could see him eventually making a dazzlingly dark animated feature of his own, but right now, "If somebody wants to sponsor another beautiful commercial, I'm all for that," he says.

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