Rudi Stussi’s background artistry

If you were a young art student scoping out a career that would offer lots of opportunity to pack a toothbrush and work around the world, animation might not spring to mind. Yet this is the reality for Canada's elite corps...

If you were a young art student scoping out a career that would offer lots of opportunity to pack a toothbrush and work around the world, animation might not spring to mind. Yet this is the reality for Canada’s elite corps of animators.

For Swiss-born Rudi Stussi, curiously enough, it was a desire to plant roots that launched him into a career as a background artist and led to his globetrotting animation supervision.

Stussi, an internationally established and already well-traveled fine artist, wanted to buy a house and settle in Toronto, his home off and on for about 20 years. The bank, leery as all Canadian institutions seem to be of art as a profession, required Stussi to attach himself to a regular paycheck before he could become a mortgage-holder.

Some of his Ontario College of Art friends were working at Nelvana at the time, and there was an opening for a background artist. Stussi and his portfolio showed up and got the job. That was in 1987.

His initiation at Nelvana was, to say the least, rocky. ‘My first project was bizarre. It was about the cia and very realistic and we spent four months working on it. Then the backer went bankruptÉit was right before Christmas so they put us on Care Bears.’

Since then, Stussi has done backgrounds for a number of Nelvana series including Beetlejuice and Babar. Most recently, he developed the look for its new series Little Bear.

The fact that the liquid imagery and vibrant palette of Stussi’s fine art is often more animated than the end product of many studios no doubt played a part in the right place/right time scenario that landed him in a career that is a perfect fit with his existence as a painter.

He took a hiatus from Canada and tv work a few years ago when he deemed the political climate under Brian Mulroney ‘disastrous’ and series work had largely dried up.

‘Leaving at that time I had no regrets,’ says Stussi. He had three solid job offers that could take him to either Berlin, England or the Orient.

He chose Berlin and spent two-and-a-half years painting backgrounds for Asterix in America, his first work on a feature. While he says doing a feature film was good experience – ‘you have to be much more careful, it’s very painstaking, actually’ – he longed to move on to another project before the lengthy contract ended.

Berlin was by no means his first sojourn overseas as an animator. He had worked in the Philippines, Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

In his professional travels around the world, Stussi says he constantly encounters Canadian animators, usually in high-ranking positions.

‘My understanding is that Canadian animators are some of the most sought-after, especially by American companies,’ he says. ‘For one reason, they are well trained in terms of traditional animation and computer animation. Also, they’re very versatile and they can adjust to different cultures much more easily than Americans can.’

Compared to Canada and some of the Asian locales he has worked in, Stussi found the animation business in Berlin primitive. ‘The animation company I was working for is the largest (there), and when I started it was tiny. It was a constant struggle to make sure standards were maintained.’

Stussi says the company eventually acquired good equipment and built up a ‘wonderful’ studio but the animators lacked the experience to use it properly.

Fractured backdrops

Even though the Berlin job dragged on and Stussi has seen more than a few catastrophes during his career – he says Manila was one disaster after another, with an earthquake that registered eight on the Richter scale thrown into the mix – he definitely likes his day job.

Since Stussi has been painting on canvas much longer than for film, there is no egg-and-chicken dilemma for him, although he does find that one art form feeds into the other. His animated style of painting – which he describes as ‘fractured’ and which vitalizes autumn colors and lends a quirky personality to row houses – came first. It’s because his paintings look like cartoons that he got started in the business.

‘One of the reasons I got hired in the first place was that sort of distortion I do, which I did before I started working in animation. Some of the techniques I’ve learned in animation I use in my own work,’ he says, ‘but the one thing I like about doing animation is, yeah, it’s a job, but you’re always painting and you’re constantly using your ability as a painter.’

Of the major changes that are well underway in the animation business – primarily born of the development of digital technologies – Stussi says the work is different but not necessarily any easier.

Also, with such digital wonders as Nelvana’s recently installed Animo, there are some wrinkles to iron out. Stussi says the biggest problems he has encountered with the Animo are related to memory capacity and the hurdles that come with training people to manipulate a new machine. Stussi remembers one incident where two weeks worth of work on Little Bear, stored in a communal computer, was accidentally erased by a colleague.

The greatest advantage he sees in the new technologies is more control from home base: ‘You’re really putting it together on the computer and that’s at this end.’ The Animo also allows for adjustments to be made beyond post-production if, for example, the palette isn’t right.

Overall, Stussi estimates the biggest change in the animation business goes beyond new technologies to pure demand. The animation boom of the last few years means the supply of animators worldwide is limited. He gives an educated guess that there are 10 top animators in Canada.

While Stussi will continue his work in animation, he never loses sight of his real calling – his work on canvas.

Juggling act

It’s a bit of a juggling act for the angular-featured artist with the goatee and cigarette holder. But he is nothing less than prodigious. He has been an artist-in-residence at the McMichael Canadian Collection and in the Dominican Republic, is a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts and has shown his work extensively in Europe, the u.s. and in Canada.

Over the course of the summer, Stussi will oversee two European exhibits, and when he comes home to Toronto in the fall, he has a third exhibit to see through.

On top of all that, he will be keeping watch over the development of Little Bear from Europe. ‘If I continue to do my own work, it also helps the animation,’ he says. ‘It’s a very good symbiosis.’

(with files from mary maddever.)