Neel Gurung: ‘The comics industry gives me creative freedom’

Based in Dharamshala, Neel Gurung is a freelance artist and illustrator who also moonlights as a part-time mountain guide. A man of many talents, Neel works on comics, children’s books, video games and animated videos. We caught up with him for a quick chat about his work, the state of things in the world of comics and games, and the books that he would recommend to budding animators and illustrators.  

Tell us about your background in art and illustration. What was it that inspired you to study animation, graphics and special effects?

I have done my animation filmmaking studies from Arena Academy of Pune. I started as a storyboard artist in 2011 and later worked in gaming and animation studios as a pre-production artist. I worked with StudioM in Pune, Rocksalt Interactive in Hyderabad, Pranaya Studios in Mumbai and Crayonlabs in Chandigarh before turning into a full-time freelancer in 2015. As a freelancer, I work with various national and international clients and have done some work for Prime Video, Zoom and Nickelodeon among others. I have been drawing since childhood and have always loved cartoons and comics. I used to love this medium of storytelling. While growing up, I used to read Champak, Chandamama, Amar Chitra Katha and other comics, especially during long train journeys. I had a large collection of comics, which were the inspiration for my drawings. Back then, however, I never thought I’d make a career out of this.

Then, one day, I read about this animation course and its impact on the entertainment industry, which brought me to the Arena Academy of Pune, from where I decided to study 2D and 3D animation filmmaking. For the first time, I felt I truly belonged there, and my family always supported my art; there is nothing better than earning a living from something that you love.

As a visual development artist for games, animation and comics, what does your work primarily entail? How is illustration work for video games, animated clips and comics different from each other?

‘Visual development’ wasn’t even a term when I got started. We used to call ourselves pre-production artists, sometimes known as front-line artists in any production pipeline. I played different roles in my early years; character designer, storyboard artist, concept artist, 2D asset designer and art director. But I started my freelance journey as a concept artist and later became interested in comics. For a few years now, I have been doing illustration work for children’s books. The markets for gaming, animation and comics are similar in many ways, yet different in output. They all demand visual development in similar ways; for example, storyboards, layouts, backgrounds, characters etc., and some of the software, like Maya and ZBrush, is used in both animation and gaming. Even for comics, artists use 3D software these days to reduce workload and to maintain consistency in design.

It’s the production and post-production where the work really differs from each other. The gaming industry is more technical when it goes into production, while the animation industry remains more focused towards storytelling, with smaller technical inputs as compared to gaming, whereas comics are more about dynamic and detailed visual storytelling, with great expertise in organic and non-organic anatomies. Being an artist, I find the gaming industry a little challenging due to the constant technical updates required. The comics industry seems more satisfying, where I find most creative freedom. Animation is a middle ground because of the similarity between storyboarding in comics and animation.

For the illustration work that you do for comics and children’s books, do you do all your work by hand (pen, pencil, paintbrush etc.), or do you use computer software and specialised hardware?

I remember when digital tablets were introduced to our course batch for the first time. It took us a while to learn to draw on those tablets, which were really low-level hardware when compared with my first Wacom Bamboo tablet. I love the texture of paper and scrubbing the pencil over it, but when it comes to delivering professional work, I prefer to work on my tablet, which produces results quickly and allows for easier corrections when required. But it doesn’t change the fact that you still need to draw and paint, just maybe not on paper. I won’t deny the fact that things have changed a lot in the last 10 years in terms of hardware and software. The introduction of display tablets like Wacom Cintiq to portable Surface Pro and iPad Pro was a major change, which has made it easier for the designer to create art and animation instantly, from anywhere in the world. You can even draw on sketching apps on your phone nowadays.

Personally, I use a 2018 Surface laptop along with a Wacom tablet and Surface pen. Besides that, I use a desktop computer as a stable workstation. The software which I use are Photoshop, Adobe Animate CC, Clip Studio, Illustrator, Premier, After Effects and ZBrush. The 2D work can be done with light configuration machines but 3D demands strong hardware because of the heavy renderings etc.

Some samples of Neel’s artwork

Of all the comics and children’s books you’ve worked on, which are some of your own personal favourites? What trends would you say define comics these days?

My personal favourite was Imperium, which was a fantasy graphic novel written by American author Jon Smith. It was also one of my first published projects in the US. The other one was Mountain Connection, which was a collaboration with Adam Eisenhauer and Daria Marinelli. I loved working on this piece because of my personal inputs in the story development. The most appealing thing about working on comics and children’s books is bringing visual ideas on to the canvas, the most precious thing for any illustrator. I’m happy that children are showing more interest in reading comics, but it’s generally Japanese manga or Korean manhwa which are trending these days.

I’ve only been working on children’s books for about a year, but have noticed that the requirements for these are pretty similar to animation films, where we mostly try to interpret stories through simple and vibrant images and shapes, sometimes by giving a human role to an animal so that it can become more attractive to smaller children, allowing them to let their imagination run free.

Do you think children these days are more inclined towards playing video games and watching videos on YouTube etc., and that reading books and comics is no longer as popular as it used to be?

Technology has its own merits and demerits. Yes, phones have brought many applications to the market (gaming, video, social media etc.), which have diverted children’s attention from books to virtual worlds. But that doesn’t mean the culture of reading comics and books is dead. It’s just that the content has evolved and become more creative. There are eBooks and then there are YouTube channels that show poems and stories through animation, which are aimed at children. There are also motion comics, which move along with audio narration and background music. India is a huge market and children – including teenagers – are showing interest in reading webtoons and manga because of the growing anime culture, smartphone accessibility and easily available Internet connectivity. E-formats are definitely playing a major role in boosting the popularity of books and comics.

Do you read books on art, illustration and animation? Which are some of your favourite books in that space, which you would recommend to artists looking to build a career as a professional illustrator? 

I would like to recommend The Animator’s Survival Kit by Richard Williams and The Illusion of Life by Frank Thomas, to people who are about to begin with animation. Framed Ink by Marcos Mateu-Mestre is another favourite book for storyboarding, and if you want to develop your anatomy skills for illustration, go for George Bridgman’s Complete Guide To Drawing from Life and Constructive Anatomy, or Andrew Loomis’s Figure Drawing For All It’s Worth. These are old books which are still considered good for initial studies. Besides that, I love studying artbooks of Katsuya Terada and the late Kim Jung Gi, who are my favourite illustrators.

Apart from these books, I develop my skills through movies and photography. I love watching movies of Hayao Miyazaki, Katsuhiro Otomo and Akira Kurosawa and study the cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki and Jarin Blaschke whenever I can, and will recommend doing this to anyone who is in the visual development business. It enhances your composition, sense of colour values and staging, and helps you produce better results in your visual art.

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