At an early age Lee Daniels was confident of the artistic path he needed to take. Bypassing the art school route, he opted instead for the tried-and-true apprentice path, dedicating himself to the diligent and careful study of the masters. However, Lee’s masters weren’t the usual round-up of Michelangelo, Rembrandt, or even Picasso. Instead Lee focused his attention on learning as much as he could from the studios of Warner Brothers, Hanna Barbera, and Disney. While his constant doodling may have frustrated his art teachers, it turns out that this was an early expression of his true calling: “Drawing cartoons instead of still-life paintings was viewed more as ‘messing about’, which I always found a little odd and out of touch. In retrospect I’m pleased they had this attitude, as it made me work harder to prove myself outside of the education system.”
This concentrated study of classic “Saturday morning cartoons” necessitated that he develop beyond simply mastering the drafting skills of an animator. In order to fully realize his vision, Lee Daniels needed to also master the crafts of storytelling, timing, directing, editing, and producing.
And so, without the grand budgets, or leagues of collaborative talent that form most animation studios, Lee has devised ways to create memorably wonderful animations. He’s worked with many different software solutions, but these days he’s most likely to be working entirely within the Adobe Creative Suite.
His mastery of software tools is completely self-taught, much like his self-directed artistic training. This is why he hasn’t developed the niche styles and approaches common to many animators, and instead each successive animation increases in complexity. Lee uses each animation as a challenge to learn something new: “I create little 1 min to 1.30 min shorts that take me a couple of weeks and each time I try to include a new element that I will have to learn on the fly if I am to complete it.”
One of his early shorts was “Clearance,” (below) which he describes as “a story about inept Secret Service Agents.” Following enthusiastic responses from online viewers, and then a couple of animation festivals, he says “I decided to push the boat out a little further.”
Lee continues to challenge himself by constantly increasing the amount of detail he puts into his animations. With his latest pet project, “Jungle BrawI,” Lee has just completed episode two of this animated web series. He says of the series: “I set myself a challenge to create a series of 4 minute episodes, using two main characters and a range of secondary characters and a fairly detailed 2D/3D environment.” But most amazingly, over his decade of working solo, despite the increasing complexity of his animations, he has decreased the length of his production schedule: “‘Clearance’ took me 7 months, ‘Jungle Brawl – Episode 1′ took around 3.5 months. ‘Episode 2′ is just over 2.5months. So I’m getting quicker! ”
And the cornerstone application for most of his projects? Adobe Illustrator: “Between my jobs in illustration, retouch and design, I’ve used pretty much all major creative software over the years, but my go-to product is Adobe Creative Suite. Aside from the occasional painted style illustration (The Light/Hell’s Angel), most of my standard style cartoons are created in Illustrator.” You can see how Lee enlists Illustrator layers to organize his project workflow in a companion post at CreativePro.com
So far he’s been able to support his “time-based” animation work with professional illustration and print cartooning gigs. Working full-time as a freelance illustrator in London, as of now he has to squeeze in the time to complete his animations between illustration projects, such as Scootering Magazine.
Lee works pretty much non-stop, saying “my only real problem is finding time in a full client schedule to make them and promote them. So sleep is usually the victim.”
But the days of Lee having to work his own animation time around his sleep and commercial client schedule are clearly numbered. His heartfelt personal work is about to find a wider audience; London-based musician Mike Marlin is licensing Lee’s first piece, “Clearance,” for the official music video for one of his upcoming singles.
Meanwhile, I’m quite certain Lee Daniels’s animations are already closely studied and much revered by legions of young animators hoping that someday, they, too, can create such masterful animations.
About the author
Sharon Steuer has been creating, writing about, and teaching workshops on digital art since the early 1980s. The current edition of her Illustrator WOW! book, The Adobe Illustrator CS6 WOW! Book, is the twelfth book in the series. Sharon is also the author of Creative Thinking in Photoshop: A New Approach to Digital Art, and is a regular contributor to CreativePro.com and Untapped Cities. Her digital paintings and illustrations have appeared in numerous books and magazines and have been exhibited nationally, and her
“Artistic Painting with Illustrator: Natural Media Brushes” is available on lynda.com