For fans of animated series, there are no characters more instantly recognizable than the Looney Tunes gang. The iconic characters like Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Road-Runner have recently been reimagined by HBO Max for a new series called Looney Tunes Cartoons, and we had the opportunity to speak with animator Narina Sokolova about her work on this series and her other projects. This isn’t Sokolova’s first time reinterpreting an iconic character in animation: she won an Emmy Award in 2014 for her work on Disney’s retro Mickey Mouse series. She is also known for her work on Rugrats, Johnny Bravo, Scooby-Doo, My Gym Partner’s a Monkey, and many more! Read on to hear about how she got her start, her advice to young artists and animators, and how she prepared to put her individual stamp on such recognizable characters.
Nerds and Beyond: How and when did you know you wanted to be an artist? Did you always want to work in animation?
Narina Sokolova: I decided to be an artist in early childhood. At some point, I wanted to be a marine biologist and space engineer but I always went back to art, I guess it was easier for me. I started my first full-time art school at age 11 in Russia. My major in college was Fine Art. It was pretty traditional painting and drawing training that I completed in Russia.
Nerds and Beyond: How did you get started as a professional artist?
Narina Sokolova: I always loved film, storytelling, and art. So animation was a perfect field for all of that. I started working in animation studios when I moved to the US. I just put a portfolio with my artwork together and started sending it to the studios.
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Nerds and Beyond: Because you’ve worked on shows with such varied visual styles, you’ve had to be able to work in a variety of mediums from traditional painting to watercolor and many more. Do you have a favorite?
Narina Sokolova: I started my work in animation right before the digital era, where we were drawing and painting traditionally. Those shows had a very special tangible quality to them. The magic of imperfection and accidental effects. But with software improvement for the past few years, I am able to create painterly effects I like, from gouache to watercolor. I love to work digitally on production. The possibilities are endless. And an undo button makes it so much easier to correct artwork and make the show coherent.
Nerds and Beyond: You’ve worked on some iconic series that have influenced animation as a whole. How does it feel to work on shows that either became iconic while you were working on them, like Rugrats, or are such a beloved part of the culture already like Mickey Mouse?
Narina Sokolova: Thank you! I guess it’s just working together with the team and doing the best we can to make the show outstanding. I was lucky to be on some great shows. With heritage characters like Mickey and Bugs [Bunny], it’s a wonderful challenge to keep the original artistic standard of the classic cartoons and add an interesting contemporary perspective to them. Definitely some of my most favorite projects that I worked on.
Nerds and Beyond: When reinterpreting Mickey Mouse or the Looney Tunes characters for a new era, what was the process like keeping the retro feel while modernizing the art for the audience? Did you feel any pressure working on characters who are so well known?
Narina Sokolova: When watching all the golden animation cartoons by Chuck Jones, Bob Clempet, and Tex Avery, I am always trying to think of what inspired them. And where some of my most favorite animation production artists such as Mary Blair, Maurice Noble, and Invan Earl found their inspiration. Looking at the great fine artwork and films from that era. Processing it and trying to capture the light and recreate the painterly quality with digital tools.
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Nerds and Beyond: Is there an episode or show as a whole that you’ve worked on that you are most proud of?
Narina Sokolova: Each show has a favorite episode, and it’s always the one that was hardest to do. Most recently I was working on Looney Tunes cartoons for HBO Max, which just started to air. The show was developed by Peter Browngardt, under the creative leadership of Alex Kirwin. It also had great art detection by Aaron Spurgeon. My role in that was as a background painter, I did production backgrounds and color scripts for shorts. We tried to recreate the look of the original beloved Looney Tunes. And I think we got pretty close. Such a fun experience and a fantastic crew.
Another memorable project was the Mickey Mouse shorts created by Paul Rudish — an amazing show with the highest artistic standards. It was one of the best 2D animated series I have worked on. I was fortunate to get on it as a background painter from the very beginning of the first season. And we really pushed the envelope creating iconic and beautiful retro looks, with watercolor and vintage poster style painting using photoshop.
Nerds and Beyond: What is a behind the scenes tidbit about working in animation that a fan of cartoon series may not realize from the outside?
Narina Sokolova: The amount of work that goes into it! To get art and animation on the show right is very hard work [and] takes a lot of team effort and time.
Nerds and Beyond: Aside from working as an animator, you are also a traditional painter as well. What draws you to oil and charcoal painting alongside your animation work?
Narina Sokolova: When I have time, I am trying to keep practicing my art independently from production, just because I am always learning from that and it’s fun. I find it nice to switch to traditional drawing and painting. It helps me with production work as well.
Nerds and Beyond: Do you have any advice for aspiring artists and animators?
Narina Sokolova: Don’t get discouraged if things don’t work out in some situations. Adversity is great for creativity. I learned so much from the more challenging situations in production. And each project I start is like the first one. It’s difficult but also very rewarding.
Our thanks to Narina for speaking with us! To learn more about her work, head to her official website. Looney Tunes Cartoons is available now on HBO Max.