Shaun Tan is a painter and illustrator know for his beautifully rendered picture books. His most recent picture book, ‘Tales from Outer Suburbia’ has won numerous awards, both in Australia and internationally, and he will be a Guest of Honour at Aussiecon 4. His website is: http://www.shauntan.net/
1. Your most recent picture book, ‘Tales from Outer Suburbia’ is a collection of 15 illustrated stories – an anthology of sorts. I understand that all of the stories in ‘Suburbia’ are the products of ‘homeless’ sketchbook doodles and ideas that you found intriguing but didn’t develop further. Did the overarching theme for the book influence which sketchbook ideas you did eventually include as stories, or did the theme fall out naturally from the ideas you wanted to use?
The theme just seemed to naturally emerge from the ideas I wanted to use – they all seemed to be set in a familiar suburban landscape, which was fortunate when trying to figure out how all these disparate ideas related to each other. Actually, a lot of my initial ideas are set in the place I happen to be living, which has always been suburban, a setting that I may later change. ‘The Lost Thing’ is a good example: originally it was set in Hillarys (where I grew up in Perth), but later transformed into a much stranger, post-ecological world. So if I ever do another anthology of ‘orphan ideas’, it may well be called ‘More Tales from Outer Suburbia’!
Given your busy schedule, do you have to plan time to doodle in your sketchbook, or is it an ingrained habit?
Well no, I don’t have as much time as I would like to doodle, which is a shame because that’s really my R&D department, the creative engine room. It’s not really an ingrained habit, because I need to set aside a good slab of time to come up with any half-decent sketches, and have to be quite focused. I’m not a compulsive drawer the way some artists are, I have to schedule it as ‘work’ in a disciplined way. I do however carry a small sketchbook with me most of the time – in case I get stuck somewhere with nothing to do. I tend to come up with a lot of good ideas on long plane trips.
2. In your speech for ther 2009 Colin Simpson Lecture, you talk about how writing and painting are two different, but often complementary communication tools. Are you conscious of developing your writing skills as well as your illustration/painting skills? I assume different sorts of projects require different combinations of the two?
Yes, I’m conscious of developing my writing skills as a separate discipline, but I’ve devoted far less time to this and so don’t have the same level of confidence or experience that I do as a painter. That said, I’m often asked ‘when did you decide to start writing?’, and the truth is that it was long before I started illustrating: and I have more formal training as a writer than an artist. I turned to illustration after I lost confidence with writing (both as a skill and career choice) in my late teens, which may have been a little premature in hindsight.
These days I enjoy switching between the two modes, and yes, different projects require different combinations. My key question with any project is ‘does it need pictures’ or ‘does it need words’, because I’m always trying to keep things very minimal, and I try to avoid arbitrary decorative illustration or unnecessary words. My narratives are rarely longer than a couple of pages.
3. You’ve been involved in the production of a short animated film adaptation of THE LOST THING, which is due to be released this year. Given the animation will be CGI, how involved have you been in producing the artwork for the film? Does it feel peculiar to see your artwork drawn by other artists?
Well, it would feel peculiar to see my artwork drawn by other artists, but in this case I’ve drawn everything myself, at least from concept art and storyboard to refined designs, which are then translated into animation by a CG modeller and animator under my direction. I’ve also handpainted a library of textures for every object, from a hand to a pipe, shirt or piece of concrete, and colloborated closely with all visual aspects: compositing, lighting, smoke effects and so on. The result is a combination of everybody’s creative input – because I’m very open to that – but is essentially the way I imagined it would look. Of all my books, I have an extremely clear idea of how the Lost Thing universe looks and operates, so that’s quite easy to see if something is not working properly, and know how to fix it (what most of animation seems to be about!)
4. Which Australian writers or work would you like to see on the Hugo shortlists this year? Who have you enjoyed reading?
Gosh, my range of reading has been a bit limited of late, and then mostly foreign, so I can’t say what Australian writer’s I’d nominate. My main interest in the Hugos is the professional artist category, but it bothers me a lot that no particular works are nominated, and there are so many brilliant artists in all fields (film, book, games, fine art) that are not nominated, partly because it’s vaguely defined. I would like to see that category changed, so that there is one particular image or series of images that are nominated, that people can see online and then vote for. That is, voting for a work rather than a person. I think that would also raise the profile of genre artists, especially lesser known ones who are creating excellent original work.
5. You will be Guest of Honour at Aussiecon 4! What are you most looking forward to?
Just meeting friends from around Australia and overseas – it’s such a rare chance for so many like-minded and often very busy folk to get together, and find out what’s going on. Also nice to be able to just catch my local tram down to the venue for once!