About Innovation and Creativity – Interview with Nikolai Troshinsky

Nikolai is an illustrator, animation filmmaker and an experimental video game designer. He has studied illustration and animation in Spain, Italy and France. His most recent work is the video game 'Card Shark' released in collaboration with Nerial Studio.

You have described yourself on your website as not an illustrator, not an animation filmmaker and not a videogame designer. Can you please elaborate on this description?

I guess the idea behind that is I've been jumping through different creative processes and attracted to different things. I started as an illustrator, then I studied animation filmmaking, did animation shorts and then some commissioned animations. And then I jumped into video games. I think I keep going into things that I don't really know how to do in the beginning because it's exciting and it feeds into all things that I've been doing before. Moreover, I don't abandon the previous "professions". I also think maybe I will do something in the future that is not yet defined. While it's useful to say what you are one specific thing, it's also maybe restrictive in a way. Some people know me more for my illustration work, some for my animation work. It feels funnier to say I'm none of those things because I hope I will keep adding stuff over the years.

Nikolai Troshinsky and Thomas Renoldner on the 10th Primanima ceremony award

I guess most art mediums nowadays are so interdisciplinary that it kind of feels like you're limiting yourself to a box if you're saying you're this one specific thing.

Yes, I agree. I've been finding that it's kind of risky to overspecialize. There was a time where it was really smart, but with how much technology and trends and work opportunities change in just a few years, now it's not such a smart choice. I think you can give yourself a bigger range of opportunities when you are involved in many different areas. Everything becomes more interconnected, like illustrators are increasingly required to animate or to illustrate for interactive media such as video games or other new technologies. So the more you know about those things, the easier it is to make the switch if an opportunity comes along. And it's also a good way to feed your work with interesting input and ideas. I think there is a risk of repeating yourself too much, copying too much of the same things. I find that the majority of artists in video games are overspecialised and that's one of the reasons why we don't see much variety in visual and animation styles. That's something I was able to take advantage of, my work has been perceived as new because it's new in the scene. Not because I think it's all that new, if you take into account the history of illustration and the history of animation.

You are known for your experimental approach and you always mix different techniques. In your graduation work, you tried out dynamic illustration and merged mocumentary with animation. Do you have any advice for novice directors or animators who also wish to think more outside of the box?

If you want to make something that is perceived as new or unique, you should focus on the process of how you make a film, not so much on the result. In animation, you have massive control over every single frame but still there is a limit to the time you have or the technical things that you have access to. A lot can go out of your control and limit what you can do. I don't think there's a single film director who can know for sure their film will be good when it's done. You always take that risk that maybe the film doesn't work, or maybe not many people will like it. But there is one thing you can control: the filmmaking process. So you can decide how you approach writing, animating and conceptualising everything. You have a better chance to create a result that looks unique, new or original if your process is original. So you shouldn’t work the way everybody else works, and especially the way the big industry works.  

I would advise young filmmakers who don't have access to a lot of resources to not try imitating the way industrial production works, because there's a reason why it works that way. The way they work is meant for big productions for working with lots of people in an efficient way, in a way that a factory works.

So if you're alone or a tiny team, you don't need to do that. And it's probably better you don't because the result will be a worse version of what a massive studio can do. Instead, what you can do is to find the process that makes sense to you. One that has some meaning to you, not just something different for the sake of being different, but how do you want to work? You cannot guarantee that your film will be great, but the time you spend making that movie you can guarantee is a good time and an interesting experience. You have control over that. You have learned, you have challenged yourself, you have grown. You should work with people you like, who you want to learn from, like approach subjects or style or technical challenges that are interesting to you, not just because you think they will make a great result. And then you have a chance to have a good experience making this film, and also a chance to make something that is perceived as new.

Speaking of unique approaches to working, I read that when you made your animation film 'Astigmatisma' you were working in kind of a creative isolation from your team. Would you ever work like that on a project again?

That's a creative process that made sense for that project, it wouldn’t fit for every project. The idea behind ‘Astigmatisma’ and that strange process was that I was thinking about what I would like this film to feel like. I've been to a lot of film festivals, so I know the experience of watching a bunch of films in a row. I wanted to make something short and refreshing in this context. I wasn't focusing on people liking it but on people being attracted to it. So I deliberately did a lot of things to make it look different so that people are immediately drawn to it. That's what I was hoping people would feel at the starting seconds of the film and so then they can enjoy the rest. The movie is about the feeling of being lost, not being able to see clearly because everything is blurred out. So I thought it would be logical to work from that feeling. Everybody working on the film should feel like everything is blurred out, like they cannot see. So I restricted the information from the team, they didn't know how their work is going to interact with everybody else's work. And I could not anticipate how things will branch together.

Looking back, it really worked because it was all a game and you need some degree of enjoyment. We'll know that the work process of making a film is very long and obviously a lot of it is not fun. You kind of want to maximize the opportunities to have fun and the enjoyment of that process. And that was one of them: that challenge of how you put this thing together is exciting. It's risky, but it's exciting. And it gives you an opportunity to come up with ideas that are impossible to come up with if you were working in the traditional way. If it was not for the work process, I could not have come up with specific moments in the film and how they work. And I like them so much. I think that also creates an opportunity to surprise yourself. Because it's partly out of your control and not entirely out of your mind, you can see the interest of those things for a longer period of time rather than when you create everything yourself: you write and structure it because you get bored of your own ideas. And you lose track of the work when everything is out of your hands. When you're taking pieces from different places and trying to make sense out of them, it's kind of easier to have clarity. However, for my next film I would choose a different process. Because the only way to choose that process again, is to make another film about the feeling of being lost, but that doesn't make any sense for me.

You often draw references from other sources of media for your works. For example, the visual style for Willian Onyeabor's music video ‘Atomic Bomb’ was a homage to the classic Soviet animation ‘Ograblenie Po’, and the video game, ‘Card Shark’ was inspired by Stanley Kubrick's film ‘Barry Lindon’. For the same video game you also mentioned being inspired by baroque paintings. What is your method for drawing inspiration from other media, but still keeping a contemporary look?

It's not really a method, but it's basically what ends up happening a lot. And I guess I never question it because it works for me. So in the start of a project I will look at anything that is related. I like to try to find something that is not from the same medium. So if I'm doing a film, I like to look at something like books, theater or anything else. And then if I do a book, I try to look at films and so forth. First I think it's easy to find stronger ideas somewhere else, because you might find something that nobody has tried to put in this context. Secondly, you don't have the temptation to see something you like a lot and want to copy it. I think in the first stage I'm not ashamed of copying because I'm not intending that to be the final result. I'm just exploring things. But then gradually the work continues, and I stop looking at references. So, in the beginning, I look at a lot of stuff. I start working, doing sketches, tests and whatnot. Still looking at a lot of stuff, but then gradually stop looking at them. And this transformation happens where usually I have to come back and correct some early things. I cannot start forcing myself into drawing in a different way that I'm not used to and that is exciting for me.

At the beginning, I think I always fool myself into thinking I'm able to do that, that I'm really able to join this style.I end up doing the same thing again, like your style drifts to what is natural for you, no matter what. You can take a huge effort to keep it contained. But that doesn't make sense to me.

I think it's good to do what comes naturally and easy. Because what comes easy to you is not necessarily easy for somebody else. And if it's easy for you, it means you can push it forward and develop it a lot. You can get really, really good at it. Whereas with something you're not that good at and you're fighting with, you can get okay at it with all the work. I guess when I start copying stuff, I'm kind of fighting. If I'm looking at stuff that I really like that I'm not that good at, I try to learn from it. And then what happens is whatever I was able to learn gets integrated into the work. Cause sometimes there are things I really would like to be able to make and it just doesn't happen. As I said, it's not really a method. I don't put that much thought into it.

For the artwork you made in the recently released video game ‘Card Shark’ you decided on the traditional approach of hand painting every scene, instead of working digitally. For me that seems like a much more difficult method.

This is an interesting thing to think about: is it really more difficult? I understand how it seems more difficult, but it depends on what you want to achieve. So I see this traditional technique as a trade off, you lose somewhere and you gain elsewhere. And so is this trade off worth it? In my opinion it is, at least in this game. I think it helped me achieve things that I don't have an efficient way to do otherwise, even digitally. There are things that the physical medium gives you for free that the digital medium doesn't and this might be a longer thing to explain. Basically it's this fight between organic and artificial. If the game is set in the 18th century, in the baroque period, it's very hard to justify a very artificial look. How do you achieve that fantasy of immersing the player or the spectator in a world with a very artificial, technical look? So you need something that looks painterly, that reminds of that time period and the paintings of that time period. If you want to fake it digitally, that's also a lot of work because it means you have to do a lot of unnecessary things on top of your drawing or your designs. You add that texture, that feeling and style to it. So that's where I think you lose in the digital sense. The digital aspect is very useful for flexibility and for precision. You can fix things a lot and you can be very precise. But it doesn't lend itself to organic looks easily. You have to do several tricks and extra work. The computer is great at calculating exact colors, shapes and positions. But when you want to do something that looks uneven and irregular, you have to do that irregularity yourself. So you start doing lots of tricks and it feels like a waste of time. Why would I do all this work to make all these irregularities with a lot of consciousness about them when you can stamp some paint on a paper and those irregularities happen on their own? The paper and the paint make those things happen in seconds. It has the trade off. So you get all the desired effects in seconds. Now to get this effect into the computer and work with it, you have to scan it, process it, edit it, et cetera. So you have lots of extra steps on a different part of the work. The drawing itself happens very fast. It's the putting together the drawing part that is very slow, but in my opinion for this game, it was worth it because what I was able to achieve with this technique is irreplaceable. I can not find a way to effectively reproduce that any other way. So there's really no substitute for it. Basically if you try to do it by computer you will lose quality, I believe. I've seen amazing illustrators work with digital painting and I have not seen anybody achieve that. So for artistic purposes it was worth it, however it's a ton of work, so you just have to accept that trade off. For me it was a lot more work than I anticipated. 

You were born in Moscow, you studied illustration in Madrid, you furthered your education in Italy and then graduated from an animation filmmaking school in France. How would you compare these experiences in different countries and cultures?

Experiences in different countries are always stimulating. You have a chance to be in contact with different histories, cultures, and people. If you're a creative person, then you should be interested in people, history, cultures and places. So starting by that, it's probably always a good idea for an artist. Maybe I wouldn't go to a school in a different country just for the sake of going to a different country. If you find a combination then you have to think: okay, what school, why you, why there? In my case, across Italy were intensive courses, short ones, but I went several times and these were really unique things. Some illustrator friends told me about some workshops north of Italy with amazing illustrators where you work intensively for a week, and it's a very special place. There's nothing else like it. It was a chance to learn from masters and to spend time in a special place that gathers people who come to study a very specific thing. That's the other thing, if you go to a school or to some workshops, not only the teachers in the school but also people who go there are probably interesting because they're seeking for very specific things. Animation school in France "La Poudriere" was because it's the only school I knew that focuses on filmmaking and not animation itself, as in the technique, which I was not interested in because I was never expecting to work as an animator in a studio. That was not something that was attractive to me and honestly if it was not for the existence of that school, I would not have studied animation. But when I discovered there was a filmmaking school, I was like: Oh, this is super interesting. And this is something I want to learn. So it just happens that they were all in different countries. I think if those things were in the same country, I would have done them anyway. But if there's a great opportunity in your country then that's amazing, take it. If there's a great opportunity somewhere else where it's accessible for you, take it. If you're learning and you are hungry to learn and to expand, you have to take opportunities because you never know which one will work. So you're just making your chances bigger if that one of them puts you in contact with interesting people, you learn something really valuable.

In the end, the more opportunities you give yourself, the bigger the chance that something of what you do will work or that you make the right alliances. I think a lot in terms of alliances that people do not succeed on their own. So you need to seek people to build together, learn together, get stronger, smarter, more resourceful, whatever.

So where are these people? Where can you form good alliances with people? The more places you try, the more options and chances you have. That also goes with trying different aspects of things, the way I went to animation and then to video games, you build alliances in more places. Sometimes connections also happen between those places. So it's interesting.

No items found.