September 17, 2015
Jeff Harter reflects on industry work, student success
By Cindi Deutschman-Ruiz
We all have that kid inside us, the one who wants to eat ice cream for dinner, hang out for hours at the playground, and then come home to draw silly faces on the walls.
For some, like CIA’s new Illustration Chair Jeff Harter, that kid lives pretty close to the surface. As a youngster, Harter was the comic book collector, the kid who watched cartoons as often as possible, and who—along with probably millions of others—felt his whole world tilt on its axis after a single trip to the movie theater in 1977.
“I saw George Lucas’s film Star Wars as a 10 year old, and I was absolutely blown away. I knew I wanted to invent characters and tell inspirational, emotional and funny stories, so illustration was the obvious route for me,” Harter says.
Well before he went through the rigorous training of an art school education, Harter was creating characters and designing his own comic books. One early comic book creation was called Stellar, which featured a character who traveled space with a cyborg side kick, in a ship resembling a Star Wars Star Destroyer.
Harter’s interest in illustration never wavered, through undergraduate and graduate school, where he earned his BFA and MFA in illustration from the University of Buffalo and Syracuse University respectively, until he began teaching at CIA in 2014.
Of course, most of Harter’s adult life has not been spent in college settings, but in some of the world’s most recognizable and respected arts and entertainment companies: Disney and American Greetings.
During your time at Disney, you worked on some pretty big animated films, like Mulan, Hercules and Tarzan. What was your role, and what was the work like?
I started out as a clean-up in-betweener, who essentially takes the rough animation drawings and puts them on model to ‘clean them up,’ and who also fills in the drawings between breakdown drawings. I was then promoted to clean-up break down animator, who does the same thing, but on the drawings between the Key drawings.
The work itself was very labor intensive. You had to make sure the animation flowed perfectly, especially since the characters that I worked on were lead characters (Mulan and Jane), and these were the drawings that audiences around the world would eventually see on the big screen. You didn’t want to see the character shifting from the model, or a close-up of an eye wobbling. I worked long hours, but everyone did. There was a sense of camaraderie at the studio.
You also worked on Winnie the Pooh, which has very established characters. What was it like to illustrate characters in that context?
Illustrating Pooh was something that I was excited about, because I loved the original Winnie the Pooh movies. I didn’t invent Winnie the Pooh characters, but they were brilliantly designed for feature film by Disney character designers, based on A. A. Milne’s original characters.
I felt a great responsibility to do these characters justice. I learned how to draw the characters on model from a master Disney draftsman named John T. Quinn. I developed the ability to see these characters from any angle in my head, and put them down on paper.
Drawing the characters on model eventually became second nature, so the next challenge was to be able to crawl inside Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, Eeyore or Piglet’s head and understand that character from an emotional standpoint. How would that character act or react in any given situation? I essentially became an actor with a pencil.
You’ve described your decision to leave Disney and move to American Greetings as “difficult,” but it did allow you to start working on your own characters, first as illustrator for alternative humor, which runs the gamut from goofy to edgy. What was that like?
Some of the cards really push the envelope to the point of cringe inducing. My favorites were the more clever and silly characters and situations found in humorous panel cartoons. Think of Gary Larson and The Far Side.
The most fun and probably the most challenging were the cards that told the entire story visually, without any word balloons or captions.
More recently, you’ve actually become involved with show creation. How did Packages from Planet X happen?
Packages from Planet X came about as a result of crawling back into my ten-year-old brain and rediscovering all the things that I thought were fascinating to me back then.
I made a list everything I could think of: robots, monsters, outer space, shooting stars, aliens, super heroes, sports, etc. I wanted a story that combined mystery and sci-fi with a sense of humor, so I did a lot of initial research that revolved around outer space, since there is so much that we don’t know that could be lurking somewhere out there.
I found the mystery of Planet X, with the mythology of ancient aliens inhabiting a planet that roamed the solar system, intriguing, but I didn’t have any specific angle yet, so I put it aside. One day, while flipping through my comic book collection, I came across the page with all of those mail order items: 10-foot monsters, x-ray vision goggles, and the mysterious package. These were cheap items that no doubt were junk, but that didn’t matter, because it was about the anticipation of potentially getting really cool little surprises in the mail.
Then I started asking What if? questions. What if these things were real? What if they came from outer space, some place really mysterious like… Planet X?
I wrote the initial pitch as a feature film, and pitched it to American Greetings. We retooled it as a concept for an animated TV series, then pitched at Kidscreen to Jetix Europe, which became Disney XD in 2009.
The cast of characters changed throughout development, but the concept remained the same throughout. It finally aired in 2013 for one year.
You’ve done a very wide variety of work as an illustrator and animator. What ties it all together for you, and what’s the latest?
The work that I enjoy most, and the common thread that ties everything together, is having the opportunity to create engaging and identifiable characters and stories that entertain and inspire.
My latest challenge is to write and illustrate picture books. It’s an exciting opportunity to tell a complete story from a creator-driven point of view.
CIA is also a fairly recent addition to your life story. You’ve been teaching here since 2014, and just took on the role of Chair of Illustration. Why CIA?
We have great instructors at CIA, who are passionate about their work and who care about the institute. They genuinely want to share their knowledge and experience with the students in order to help them grow in their artistic development.
CIA has a 9 to 1 student ratio, so students get more individual instruction, and in some cases they can get the perspective of two instructors in one class. Bringing the students together into one remodeled facility enhances the sense of community. The vibrant area of University Circle, with Case Western and the surrounding museums within walking distance, is an ideal environment for faculty and students.
What do you particularly hope to impart to CIA students in your new role? What do you hope they take from you into their own future careers?
The short answer is that I hope to impart a sense of unstoppability in students—so that, no matter what happens to them while they are a student or a professional, they will get back up and try again.
I hope they take away a combination of unending curiosity, self-motivation, determination, persistence and passion for their chosen endeavor. Obstacles should not be seen as roadblocks, but viewed as challenges to be solved and overcome. In fact, students should be driven and excited, even inspired, to take on any given challenge, and to find their own unique solutions to any given problem.
It’s my hope that they will always be eager to question, to look at problems from a variety of angles, to develop and sharpen their skills as well as their own unique point of view, and to continue to learn and grow long after they leave CIA.
Deutschman-Ruiz is a freelance writer editor and instructor of journalism and mass communication. She lives on the West Side of Cleveland.
For more information about this or other CIA news, contact us here.