Meet Julia Blattman, Artist On 'Sonder'

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As we get ready for this weekend’s L.A. gallery show of artwork from Sonder, we take a moment to chat with Julia Blattman, an original member of the film’s art department. Julia tells us about her tools and techniques, the visual inspiration for Sonder's worlds and characters, and the advice she has for artists just entering the industry.

Q: First, can you tell us a little a­bout yourself? Where you’re from, what you’ve been working on, etc?

Julia: I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area my whole life until recently, when I moved to LA in 2016. I graduated from Academy of Art majoring in Illustration, and then shortly after graduating moved out to Burbank to work as a concept artist for Disney’s mobile games. Earlier this year I started working at Paramount as a visual development artist for an animated feature and couldn’t be happier with what I do!

Outside of work I’ve been working with a publisher on a children’s book that is about all the plastic in the ocean. I’m really excited to be working on a project like this to help spread awareness about a very real problem in the world. Creating artwork that has a deep meaning behind it really inspires me. I’m also working on two Dreamworks shows and creating book cover illustrations.

Q: Wow, sounds like you’re very busy these days! But let’s rewind a bit. How did you first get involved with Sonder?

J: I worked on a VR game project called “Lily Pad” with [Sonder director] Neth Nom and some other Sonder crew members. Everyone on the team worked so well together, and the game turned out great! Working on that game let me experience things I’ve never tried before, such as making textures to put in Maya, and even voice acting (never expected doing that!).

After wrapping up on the game, Neth started pitching ideas for a short film with a small team, and I immediately knew I wanted to be on board for the long run. I remember sitting in Union Square very early on in the project and having Neth bounce off ideas with the small art team he was rounding up. It’s amazing how far his idea has come and how his intentions for the film that he was telling us that one day have succeeded.

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Q: What were your main responsibilities working on Sonder, and how did you divide tasks with the other artists on the show?

J: I worked on visual development for Sonder. Early on when we were exploring the characters and story, I did character exploration sketches and mood pieces. Later on in production I started to do other design and lighting keys.  Once we all locked down a style for the film, we would watch the rough model animatic and create lighting keys for each scene.

Q: So how long did you end up working on Sonder overall? And how many pieces of artwork did you create for the film?

J: I was on Sonder since the beginning of the film in 2015! There was a lot of artwork that I put into it as well as all the other artists on the team. Every weekly meeting had its own art folder for each artist, and on that page you could scroll down for a long time to view all the weeks of work. I probably did around 80-100 sketches/paintings total for the short.

Q: Let’s talk about your process. What tools did you use in creating artwork for Sonder?

J: I used Photoshop for creating all of the artwork for Sonder! We had a specific way of painting digitally for the style of the film that all of the artists followed. One of the artists, Kal Athannassov, recorded his process of painting a lighting key that I would refer back to. 

Q: And where do you do most of your work? At home, in a studio, outside, etc?

J: When the film was in its early stages, I remember going to Golden Gate Park to sketch ideas for Sonder. Being surrounded by all of the beautiful trees there was inspiring since so much of the film takes place in a forest. I would usually work inside at my desk at home after school and work and listen to music that would inspire me for Sonder while painting.

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Q: I’m glad you mentioned Golden Gate Park, because Sonder has so many different environments, from cityscapes to forests. Where did you find inspiration and references for creating the look of these worlds? 

J: For the cityscapes in Sonder, we were mostly inspired by Tokyo and wanted to capture the look of that city with a slightly different feel to it. We wanted the forests to be very moody and atmospheric for the film, almost as if you were seeing it through the lens of a dream. The sunny moments in the forest were filled with glimmering light, lush foliage and trees. We contrasted this with the dark moments in the forest with very vertical stark trees, which bring a feeling of being trapped or lost. 

Before we explored creating these environments we put together mood boards of various photography and movie stills that would instill a certain mood in you when you saw them. A lot of the imagery we collected had lots of bokeh for the aesthetic quality of the blur produced in the out-of-focus parts of an image produced by a lens. We incorporated this into the film for a dreamy effect. For the high-tension scenes with Finn in the forest we played around with chromatic aberration (a color distortion) in the lighting keys.

Q: How about for the 2 main characters, Finn and Natalie—what inspired you in creating their looks?

J: When we were first exploring the main characters, we knew we wanted them to feel relatable and in their mid-to-late twenties, a time when a lot of people are still trying to figure out their lives. We wanted Finn to look put-together in the urban scenes to contrast his scruffiness in the forest scenes when he's lost. We knew from the start we wanted Natalie to dress and look comfy-casual, with a low-effort haircut. The features of the characters really came together when artist Harim Oh joined the team and gave them pleasantly rounded features. I was always so excited seeing her sketches—they were always so fluid in their poses and seemed so full of life. The style of the characters became really unique.

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Q: Are there any pieces of art that you created that you are particularly proud of?

J: I really loved working on the whole film. I particularly loved working on the darker scenes, since my personal artwork is typically bright and full of colors. Working with a very limited color palette and bold lighting really helped me grow as an artist. 

Q: How did the final look of the film compare to the artwork you originally created for it?

J: The lighting artists were absolutely amazing and nailed the look we did for the lighting keys. If you compared them side by side, they would almost be identical! The original artwork I did for the film in the beginning looks quite different from what it ended up looking like, since we were still deciding on a style at the time. 

Q: A couple more questions — you’ve probably heard this one before, but are there any artists past or present that you really admire?

J: There's way too many to list! For this film in particular I would look at Eyvind Earle's work for his beautiful simplification of nature in his paintings. These past few years I've been admiring artists that master lighting and strong brushwork like Robert Kondo, Dice Tsutsumi, Zac Retz, Nathan Fowkes, the list goes on. 

Q: And finally, what advice would you have for artists just trying to break into the animation industry?

J: My advice for artists trying to break into the animation industry is to keep an open mind about opportunities that may come up for you and try new things even if that may not be your dream studio or workplace—you never know the skills you can learn and the great connections you make. Be persistent and don't stop learning and developing your skills even after school has ended. Your portfolio reflects what you want to do and what makes you happy.

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Thanks to Julia for chatting with us! To see more artwork by Julia and the other talented artists behind Sonder, join us on Saturday, October 6th in Los Angeles at Gallery Nucleus for a special one-night-only event. More details and tickets available at sondershort.eventbrite.com.


Julia Blattman’s website : juliablattman.com