Meet Rodrigo Gomez Claros, Assistant Professor of Animation at Middle Tennessee State University, and author of a delightful new book, Milly & Roots: The Headscarf, aimed at helping children understand and accept cultural differences. A storyteller at heart, Professor Gomez moved to the US from his home in Bogotá, Colombia to pursue his interest in animation.
With a master's degree in animation and years spent as a producer and director of animated content for Mattel/Fisher-Price, he currently shares his passion and expertise with his students, while also dedicating time to experiment and tell his stories. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Professor Gomez about his book and he was also gracious enough to share some great insights on a career in animation.
Tell us a bit about yourself, and what sparked your interest in the digital arts and storytelling.
I am originally from Bogotá Colombia with a career in Graphic Design. I obtained my master’s degree in animation from Rochester Institute of Technology in NY State and worked for over 14 years for Mattel/Fisher-Price as a producer and director of animated content for children.
As an artist, I have been telling visual stories all my life, and being a child of the seventies and eighties; TV cartoons always had an impact on me. As an adult, social issues affect me, maybe because I come from a place where we have seen a lot of suffering and injustice, and I am inspired to tell stories about kindness, happiness, and acceptance of others.
What made you write Milly & Roots, and how long have you had the idea for it?
Milly & Roots is a project that took two years in the making and it is not finished yet. I wrote the beginning story for the whole property as a series and the character personalities in the Spring of 2018. The concept connects with my own experience as an immigrant. I want to introduce things that can be foreign and confusing to young children. It is also inspired by my daughter Lina, when she was little she used to panic every time she saw people and things that were not familiar to her.
The Headscarf is the first story in the series. I wanted to teach children that we do not want to be afraid of those things that we do not understand; on the contrary, we want to open up and look at the person who is wearing it, then we can smile back at them. In a time of divisiveness, massive migration around the world, and messages of prejudice, I wanted to create a story to plant in the hearts of children the seeds of acceptance and respect for others, especially those who are different from them. If you are like me, or if you are not, look at it at millyandroots.com
The book trailer is fantastic! Do you have plans to animate the full story?
Yes, I have a 5 minute episode very close to being finished. I am working on the final animation touches and audio tracks. I will start submitting it to animation festivals worldwide pretty soon.
Do you have any plans to continue adventures for Milly & Roots?
Yes, I have more stories with topics related to things and people that can be foreign and confusing to young children. Some of them are about people, food, language, music, customs, traditions and more. If you think about it, pretty much everything outside of their home can be foreign to a preschooler.
Tell us a bit about the software used in creating Milly & Roots.
I used mainly Autodesk Maya, Adobe Photoshop, AfterEffects, and Premiere. The book layout was put together using Adobe Indesign. I also need to mention the key element that helped me create the look of the project, which is good old color pencils. I created most of the texturing by printing out UV maps and painting surfaces on paper, and then we scanned them in, edited them in Photoshop and back to Maya.
Most of the characters had two color pencil texturing layers, one for the diffuse and one for the self-shadowing. For the final rendering, I used Arnold with no lights, only ambient occlusion to generate ground shadows. It is important to mention that I had the amazing support of a small group of my students who helped me with the CG production of some parts of the project.
When did you get started in animation, and what is your favorite aspect of the process?
I graduated from the National University of Colombia as a Graphic Designer. I was very fortunate of having a successful design studio back in Colombia in the 90s, serving multiple important clients including Unicef, the Colombian government, Bayern Colombia, Lilly, 3M, the Colombian central bank, etc. When I saw the first Toy Story movie, I knew I had to do that. I put a plan together, including learning a new language, applied for a scholarship, sold all my possessions, left my business, and moved to the US to study animation. Before graduating from RIT, I was already working as an intern with Fisher-Price Inc. in Buffalo, NY.
What inspires me are good stories and non-traditional visual styles. I like experimenting and trying to find new ways of creating animated content.
As an Assistant Professor of Animation at MTSU, what is your particular focus?
Although I love 2D and I enjoy the preproduction process a lot, most of the classes I teach relate to 3D animation. I currently have two courses: Texturing, Lighting and Rendering, and Animation and Rigging.
What do you feel is the most important thing to grasp to excel in animation?
To me, the most important thing to grasp as an animator is that your work keeps evolving - it is a never-ending process, and you are only competing with yourself, your mind puts the limit to what you can do. Every day is a new opportunity to learn and grow. In the end, you want to excel at your trade while you are telling stories that are meaningful to an audience.
Is there anything specifically that you know now that you wished you knew sooner? Any hard lessons learned?
I wish I had focused on my art earlier. The desire to get a job in the industry sometimes makes you forget about your stories. Now that I am teaching, I have the opportunity to create my stories and dedicate time to what I like doing. A hard lesson is that, it is not about climbing up the ladder to higher management positions. At least for me, it is about enjoying yourself, it is about sharing with others your passion, and having fun doing it.
As an artist and storyteller, who or what inspires you? Is there anyone's work out there you really admire?
Inspiration comes from different places. My children inspire me, my students inspire me, many times. I like looking at art from different periods and places around the world, and many indigenous art expressions, pre-Columbian, Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Some of the artist that I find inspiring are Alphonse Mucha, Gustav Klimpt, Antonio Gaudi. In the field of animation, I love the work of the people from Cartoon Saloon. I also find Latin American writers such as Gabriel García Márquez and Jorge Luis Borges very inspiring.
What would be a dream project for you?
A dream project is one that inspires people with a good message, hopefully one that unites everybody and makes an impact. One that allows for artistic experimentation. A project with no budget restrictions that lets your try multiple times until it looks right. I am very intrigued by new technologies and I hope to combine and explore some of the old things into the new.
Can you tell us a little bit more about the story and characters?
Milly lives with Grandma Cleme in a tiny apartment of a big city. She loves the idea of going to kindergarten, but in the first few days, she discovers that things and people are not what she expected them to be. Many of those things are so different and even scary. Luckily, she meets a crazy potato in Grandma’s tiny garden on the rooftop of their apartment building. Roots the potato takes Milly through the roots in the ground to other places around the world where she meets other vegetable friends and she finds the answer to her concerns.
Milly’s personality comes from the values of Joy, Kindness, and Love, which are natural to all young children. Those values are shadowed when Milly finds something that she has never seen before. Confusion and the lack of understanding could make a child fearful and force her to reject any situation. The Milly and Roots story explains that all foreign things and all unknown things have a reason to be, and that our perception changes entirely when we discover their origin.
Play, humor, and fun are the vehicle that takes Milly through her journey. Roots’ uninhibited personality and her other vegetable friends guide Milly to connect with the foreign culture where they are visiting, and at the same time, they make the adventure fun and engaging for Milly and the viewers so they find together the answer to Milly’s fears.
The other character that has an important role in the story is Grandma Cleme. She is the voice of wisdom, always giving advice and always making the message clear for Milly and the audience to understand what she needs to learn.
Was it always your vision for a little girl and root vegetable friends?
At first, I knew I wanted to create a little girl as a character, and the vegetables were the result of playing with words. I quickly realized that the roots of culture connect to food and the earth. Additionally, most of the cultures around the world celebrate and share their love around food, and this made the story more cohesive. She would meet friends from all around the world guided by the South American girl Potato who likes to wear a pretend mustache just for fun.
What would you tell someone who is interested in a career in animation?
In my role as a college professor, I talk to many prospective animation students. The main message I give them is that liking movies, TV shows, or playing video games is not enough to become an animator. You need to have a passion that is larger than that. It really does not matter if it is 2D, 3D, Stop motion, or any other animated technique. What matters is the focus you can dedicate to build up your skills. The best way to know if animation is for you, you need to ask yourself the following:
- Do I have the artistic skill and the desire to expand on it constantly to produce the highest quality of work?
- Do I have the patience and perseverance to expand my technical skills to deal with computers and software that I will have to interact with?
- Am I creative, do I think outside the box, am I willing to think outside the box, to explore and research so that I can come up with original ideas and stories to engage audiences around the world? Keep in mind people confuse artistic with creative. They are two different things.
- Am I so determined that nothing and nobody, not even myself, will stop me from reaching this dream?
If the answer to all of these questions is an absolute YES, then you are in the right field.
For more information about Rodrigo Gomez Claros and his book Milly & Roots, please visit: www.millyandroots.com