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Matt Reynolds: Inside his unique world

Thursday, May 2nd 2024

by raxo

Since we did our first piece on Matt Reynolds’ work, we knew that wasn’t enough. His pieces are not only eye-catching, they’re colorful, powerful, trippy, fun and one of a kind. We wanted a personalized tour through Matt’s creative world, so we reached out to Matt and had a 1on1 chat with him where we talked about his creative process, his sources of inspiration, life as a working & teaching artist, AI and of course, his favorite anime. 

People respond to the hand-made, it's very primordial, there's something special about it

"People respond to the hand-made, it's very primordial, there's something special about it"

L: What’s your first memory regarding animation and saying “this is amazing, I want to do this”?

Matt: There was a series of books for kids called ‘The Klutz’ and there was one about how to draw superheroes and at that time I was a huge Spider-Man fan, this was before any Spider-Man movies or anything like that. I teach now, and so I’m always aware that the things that are gonna inspire like, my students who are like high school age, are gonna be like, a video game or an album cover or something like that, cause that’s the entry point for a lot of us. It’s like, it’s the pretty thing on top of what we’re already interested in or invested in. But then, how I really got into animation, how I was like “ok, this is actually something that I wanna do as a career”… I went abroad to Prague while I was an undergrad, and I was doing a little bit of research on what’s the deal with the Czech Republic, their filmmakers… Cause I was more interested in film and art, separately. And then I found this animator, Jan Švankmajer, who is a very famous stop-motion animator. I started watching his work and it was surreal, and rich with psycho-sexual, weird vulgarity, but also very insightful… I just fell in love with it. And that whole time that I was in Prague I was just learning about Estonian animation as well, or animation from Russia, from all over Eastern Europe and that’s when I was like “ok, let’s look into animation as a scene that’s been treated as a serious art form”. That was one of the things that eventually got me to apply for a MFA program at Cal-Arts and the Experimental Animation program. I would say that was like a big generative force.

L: How long has it been since that happened? How long would you say you’ve been working professionally in this business?

M: I went to Cal-Art from 2013 to 2016, so when I graduated in 2016 I had my thesis film, ‘Hot-Dog Hands’, which went around to different festivals. I already had a film called ‘Bottom Feeders’ do pretty well, going around to different festivals, introduced me to a lot of people at South by Southwest in 2015. So even while I was at Cal-Art, I was starting to do work here and there for, you know, either working developing an animatic that then became a show for Warner Brothers… Working on more independent stuff, freelance projects for like Fox Sports, but it wasn’t until I graduated that really I had work that was out there, that people were seeing, that was then getting me being asked to do music videos or titles for the film ‘Villains’ by Bron Studios… It really took off after 2016.

L: From 2016 to now, what would you say are the biggest challenges that you’ve encountered professionally working in this business as an animator, graphic artist, sculptor…?

M: Maintaining a presence in a pretty saturated market with lots of very talented people is very dificult… And you’re working with creative directors who have very little time for turnaround, and so a lot of times they’re just looking to the first person who pops up on their Instagram feed. I’m not great at Instagram, I actually really despise that that’s a big part of the job, of continuing to be like “I’m still here, I’m still making work and I make the work that you wanna see”… You gotta just keep putting yourself in front of these people. Some people have lists of artist whose work they really appreciate and of course, building relationships to work on multiple projects over and over again but for the most time they’re looking for more and more new stuff or artists they haven’t worked with. So that is incredibly hard, which is why over a year ago I took a full time job where I’m a teaching artist. And I work with a non-profit, I’m teaching media arts, so I’m teaching graphic design, I’m teaching animation, photography, and filmmaking at different schools in South Los Angeles. And then I have this time outside of that to do my own practice, I don’t have to take all the jobs that come my way, where someone’s like “hey, I’m making this short film and it’s about…”, I don’t know, whatever, something really stupid and I don’t wanna do it. So I can say “nope, I’m good, I’m working on my own thing” or “I’m doing my own practice”, and I’m paying my bills cause I have a full time job. So I recognize that that’s not the avenue that everyone goes for, because it’s really what you’re interested in is creating, you know, applied arts. If you’re creating, you wanna create graphic designs for a brand or animations for a client. Being a teaching artist isn’t exactly for that. And it’s also, not a field that there’s a lot of people in support for, but I’ve really found it to be a nice model and every now and then I have time to do something but haven’t been all that often, to be honest.

L: Awesome! Yeah, when you say you teach, after you step out of the classroom and you start working in the work you do as an artist, where do you take inspiration from? What inspires you when it’s time to do a sculpture or create an illustration? What do you see, where do you take inspiration from? How does your process work?

M: Oddly, where I ended up now, a lot of the work that I do for my own portfolio of work is sculpture work. And drawing inspiration, the forms that I work with, they come from all over the place. From architecture, they come from science-fiction, they come from biology, they come from cartoons. I work a lot with cartoons and cartoon vernacular as a place of, creating a placeful arena but it’s also still kind of threatening or weird, or horrifying and humorous, I like those two things together. I guess looking at old educational materials, like I love Ernst Haeckel as an illustrator of bizarre sea creatures and stuff like that. I’m a big fan of the ‘Alien’ movies, I love those H.R. Giger forms that he created that kinda created it’s his own typology of, his own morphology of these things. If an object was to expand, it has certain moves that happen at the ends of that object… And all seems very much part of our world, but then also a totally alien world, so a lot of concept artists like that seed me… Moebius, the canon of science-fiction visualizers, I love drawing from that kind of world. 

L: Yeah, I see the sci-fi inspiration in your work definitely. You know, when we were talking about doing this interview, you asked us if we’re gonna be focused on sculpture, or illustration, because you do a lot of things as an artist. I would have to ask you: which one do you enjoy the most out of everything that you do?

M: They all serve different mediums, different itches that I need to have satisfied. Like the sculpture is very immediate, is tactile, I can be listening to something… My hands are doing the analytical work, in a way, of synthesizing that I don’t even know why, what their association is, it’s compelling to me and then realizing “oh, it looks kinda like, you know, biological or architectural, I’ve seen this somewhere”. Or it’s creating some sense of narrative, but really animation is when you’re really learning how things move, and animation is what taught me how to draw. I feel like I was drawing all my life, but to really draw, animation is what will make you draw something a gazillion times, really like close your eyes, conceptualize something, rotating tridimensionally in your mind and then trying to imitate that in two dimensions is difficult, and you have to do it over and over and over again. So I find animation really gratifying. Particularly, hand drawn animation when I’m really trying to work on that muscle that’s like: how do I take something that’s in here and execute it? Or like, have it manifest that side of myself. Because I think drawing is really important, specifically for that kind of communication and it’s animation that gets you to draw something over and over again, so you keep that muscle nice and sharp. And then, working with illustration and static, two-dimensional artwork is really great. I haven’t been in that mood recently, so I kinda move around and right now I’m definitely in sculpture mode with little animation projects here and there.

L: I have to ask, you know, as an illustrator, it’s a controversial subject for some people but what’s your stand on AI, for example? Some use it as a tool, some think it kills the industry, what would you say about it?

M: I feel we’re all very quickly as a visual culture, finding ways to spot when something is AI and when something is not AI. We have very strong visual literacy as a species so, that it’s just gonna keep catching up. And I just noticed now that I see an AI image and I immediately just kinda move past it very quickly. I don’t digest it and I think we do like knowing that a human took time with something, and really imagining them spending the time making something. So when it is just a prompt that you put in there, I don’t think we value it as much, or at least we’re able to just be like “oh, ok”. I mean, I remember when AI stuff started coming out, it was so fun and novel to just write like “Duke Nukem on trial for murder” and then see what that image was. That was fun for honestly maybe 3 days, it’s such a small window of time. We’re just gonna realize that, ok, the computer can do the thing but it’s way more special when you have someone as a superhuman freak brain and this whole thing is generated and they just express it out of themselve. I guess I’m not a huge fan. I’d love for it to write my artist statements for me but don’t worry, machines. I got the visual part, I think I’ve been doing an ok job. 

L: I agree with you, especially because I think there was like a hype and I started to see a lot of memes made by AI, but now I value more the meme that someone made with their phone instead of something a machine made in 10 seconds.

M: Yes, totally, I know! People respond to the hand-made, it’s very like primordial, there’s something about it. 

What was the last animated movie or show that you watched?

M: I saw the new Miyazaki movie, ‘The Boy and The Heron’. I really loved that, I thought that was wild and totally out there. That was fantastic, I really liked that. I’ll be honest tho, I don’t watch a whole lot of animation, it’s kinda one of those things where if you know too much about it, It’s kinda like watching a math problem happen. I mean there’s certain really additionally satisfying things that you appreciate once you had that education and have worked on it, on a film… What else tho? I rewatched an anime called ‘Wicked City’ the other day, by the same director that did ‘Vampire Hunter D’, which is an insane movie and I always get inspiration from that. Cause there’s like crazy grotesque stuff, hyper weird sexual stuff, but also crazy stuff in there, so any anime from that era, like 80s-90s anime, OVAs anime are huge inspirations so I love going back and watching that stuff.

L: Do you watch a lot of anime in general?

M: I realized during the pandemic, anime was a real blind spot in my diet of animation material. I watched ‘Evangelion’, I started watching more of these 80s-90s, OVAs animations, going through Satoshi Kon’s filmography, all that stuff. But I cannot compete with what the kids are consuming in terms of how these series are multi-season, these kids are watching everything. But I was also really surprised. I also teach at a community college and these kids all love anime and I was like “you guys have all seen ‘Akira’, right?” and they were like “I’ve heard of it”, and I was like “WHAT? You’re not even watching the good anime”. So I think there’s just a divide, universally from Millennial to younger, there’s a real appreciation and love for anime but come on, we gotta get on the same page. There’s this generational breach of what is good anime and I’m sure a lot of the new stuff is good, I am also admitting that I have not fully embraced all of that as well.

L: Coming back to this inspiration from anime, what do you think about these new techniques that they’re using now like in ‘Spider-Man: into the Spider-verse’ or the last one from the Ninja Turtles.

M: I liked that ‘Ninja Turtles’ movie, I thought that was really good. And there were a lot of amazing artists that worked on it. I thought if what they were trying to do in terms of marketing and creating an audience for that Ninja Turtles movie, just the artists that they hired for, were all essentially people that I follow on Instagram already and I was like oh my God, that’s such a boutique animation shop of the best illustrators online. I love it, I think it’s so much more interesting. I had to watch a film that’s coming out, it’s more regular CG, after watching the ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ movie and it was so dull and boring. There’s no expressive quality added in there and that kinda goes back to the AI conversation a little bit but just the fact that Ninja Turtles movie, they would do the kind of highlights with a pen tool or something imitating mark making tools in 2D on top of 3D geometry, it was so much better and more expressive. And yes, ‘Spider-verse’ opened that up and also not having motion blur. You’re watching it as if it’s like: object here, object here, object here. Looks kind of more stop-motion, there’s something really satisfying about that to me. Also using like smear frames where the geometry actually expands to make it look like the character’s hand is motion-blurred rather than just putting an automated motion blur in there, it just adds so much more, it puts it in the realm of cartoons and ultimately you’re watching a cartoon. And there’s something intelligent about that decision and self-aware and also I think more aesthetically interesting.

 L: You yourself would like to be part of a project like that?

M: Yes! Absolutely! I did art direction on a project that was one of the Meow Wolf’s installation sites, this one was in Denver and I loved that kind of pre-production work, doing different character designs, doing concept art, doing front design, figuring out an unified world, that work is so fun. Even the stuff that doesn’t get chosen, it’s fun to share with a team of artists, within an art direction team. So I love doing that kind of work. And even if you’re not the art director but if you’re part of the team doing concept art, backgrounds, whatever. Working with a team with a bunch of visual parameters it’s like being in school again, right? You’re offered this problem of “ok, we need to use this way of rendering this world”, either you’re making the Ninja Turtles, this expresives lines where it makes sense, of these different ways of doing highlighting and shading on the geometry, how are you going to render this thing. You’re like “ok, alright, alright gang, let’s see what I can do with that”. I think there’s a really fun, playful way that in some ways matches what being in an art school was like, except you’re all kinda moving in the same direction so that you create this coherent project. I would love to do stuff like that. In general I’ve avoided studios because that is a hard job and the people that I know that work in studio positions, they really don’t have a lot of time for their personal work and that’s been a priority of mine, to work on my own personal work. So I get that, but that’s a trade off, working in a team like that would be a dream. 

L: The last question I have prepared is if you have any upcoming projects in 2024 that you wanted to talk about and maybe give a heads up to everyone, or anything that you wanted to talk about for the upcoming year.

M: I’m pretty sure I’m gonna have some sculpture work up at a show in Los Angeles at the Spring Break Art Fair in February. I am writing grants to make a new animation that is gonna be a culmination of the sculpture work and the animation work that I do. It’s gonna be a short film with replacement animation of kind of the forms that I create with sculpture work, as well as some hand drawn animation. I have a comic that I’ve been working on for many many years that I would love to finish and get printed and published independently. But you know, always open to clients reaching out, would love to do more music videos, would love to do more opening credit sequences, like title sequences. I was working on one last year and then the project got dropped or at least the title credits got dropped, got axed. Very excited directors, and then producers that were like “you wanna add how much to our post-production budget?”, so I get it if you’re a small production. Getting animated title sequences is really really cool from the creative side but once you start getting into the practicality of animation, it costs money. So I get it, it is not so great. But hey, I think animated title sequences are gonna come back in a big way and I’m your guy, if you’re reading this and you’re a potential client. 

We are more than excited to see what new pieces and collabs from Matt appear on our feeds this year. In the meantime, you can check out his personal site for more scoop on his portfolio and upcoming projects: 

Matt Reynolds 

Matt Reynolds (@reyno_volcano) • Instagram photos and videos