FableFriday: Keith (Zoo) Zulawnik, Lead Artist


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As one of FableVision’s insanely talented Lead Artists, Keith is always doing research.

“[When starting a project] there are a lot of things to digest, but if you start with the individual pieces first, you can take it bite by bite,” he explains.

From developing monsters for a middle school math game to uncovering the Mayan civilization, Keith is always learning new things and discovering new worlds. 

“I'm always getting inspired,” he said. “Those memories and feelings get logged into a cabinet up in my head that I use to pull from later. I know that my childhood was pretty heavy on cartoons, video games, action movies, and comics, so you'll see those in my work.”

For November’s FableFriday we chatted with Keith about what inspires him both in and out of the studio.

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What’s your “journey to FableVision” story?
I had been freelancing the year after graduating, and had recently heard about a company called FableVision and went to one of their open houses. There I met Bob Flynn, John Lechner, Peter and Paul Reynolds, and a bunch of the team. I showed them my portfolio, which consisted of all sorts of monsters, characters, and all sorts of funny things. My skill set didn't quite match up with what they needed though, I worked exclusively in Photoshop and they needed a Flash artist.

A few months passed and I needed to get work, so I took a job at a game studio in Waltham, that again need a Flash artist, so I quickly brushed up on my Flash skills. Siggraph was in town that year, and the company sent a bunch of us to go check it out. I saw some insane new technology (like a touch screen that you could pinch to zoom, and use your fingers to navigate, what a crazy idea!). I left feeling inspired and ready to get to work. Unfortunately, the next day I walked into work to see a room full of somber faces and a box on my desk. There was a bit of restructuring happening and a lot of the workforce had to go.

As I was sitting at home, furiously thinking of what to do, FableVision popped into my mind. I opened my laptop and sent off an email to Bob, who to my surprise instantly wrote me back. They had this new project in the pipeline, a game with monsters, Lure of the Labyrinth, that taught math and literacy, and they thought my style was the perfect fit. It was a very strange and sudden pivot in my life, but it just felt like everything had to happen that way. Eight and a half years later, here I am! Still here, still making monsters. 

Lure of the Labyrinth was the first FableVision project you worked on, can you take us back to the early days? What was the process of creating the Lure world and its inhabitants
When this project came out, I wasn't really all that great at penciling and inking on the computer. I would often be sitting with a light box and a stack of printer paper, noodling up weird characters with Bob (Flynn), then scanning them in and touching them up. The game’s story was based around all sorts of mythology (Egyptian, Norse, Chinese, etc.). It was a really fun exercise to imagine what these creatures would look like in my style. It's still one of my favorite projects to date.

What does your role as Lead Artist entail?
My role as Lead Artist is to establish the look and feel for any of our given projects. That's a very broad definition because we generally have a huge range of projects coming into the studio so my responsibilities can shift from day to day.

Character design to background illustrations, graphic design, and user interface are just a few things I'm tasked with. More importantly, we have to make sure the bar is always high, so my role will often double as project Art Director, where I oversee the art being created for the duration of the project. This could include working with on-site and off-site freelancers, coordinating with the client and the producer, and making sure the art we’re creating for the product is cohesive.

What’s your favorite medium to draw in? 
I've been wanting to pull my watercolors out for a while now, but my current tool of the trade is 100% Photoshop.

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What’s your favorite aspect about your job? What’s one of the biggest challenges?
I think the fact that we get to work on so many projects here is pretty great. We have a very hands-on approach, you see your artwork in everything you work on. We don't have teams of people handing things off, getting changed through the pipeline like in most big studios. What you make is generally what the audience will see. 

What's one FableVision project you worked on that sticks out in your mind and why?
Unfortunately one of my favorite things I've worked on is locked away under a confidentiality agreement and we can't talk about it. [Editorial note: trust us, it’s awesome, and hopefully we’ll get to share it with you soon.]

I really loved working on Mayan Mysteries. At the time, I had only heard a few things about the Maya; that they had temples, that they were in Central America, and apparently they were predicting some pretty weird stuff about the year 2012.

After a few months, we all knew how the Maya calendar and glyph system worked, their resources in the area, and their cultural hierarchies. The other great aspect of the project was that we got to create illustrations of what we imagined these famous sites looked like. We contracted a fantastic illustrator named Chris Beatrice, who helped visualize what these shots would look like, both past and present.

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How do you approach a project? Walk us through the steps.
The first thing you have to do in a case like this project, as I mentioned before, is do your research. In Mayan Mysteries, we knew that one of the first locations we would be looking at was Tikal, so we started weeding through books on temple structure, the artifacts that would have been found there, and all sorts of good stuff. In this case, I would then review the functional spec on whatever puzzle we were making.

At this point, we would have already sent off mood boards (which to those unfamiliar with the term, just means a series of gathered images assembled together that help the client understand the visual flavor we are going to be shooting for), so I would start making sketches. At a certain point, those sketches get sent off for approval, around the same time the developer gets ramped up on how the functionality works. In a perfect world, artwork then gets created and finalized the same time the developer needs to start plugging it in. We then do a set number of revisions, and move on to the next section of the game. 

Where do you draw your inspiration?
Light is a huge inspiration. It sounds weird, but seeing dappled light while walking through a forest during the golden hour, is probably one of the best experiences in life. Some inspirations just can't be explained, they're just there. So in context of what I do here, I'll use these inspirations while thinking up mood boards, during sketches, and also painting the final illustrations. The challenging thing about being inspired, in terms of art making, is understanding the balance of copying the thing you have in your head, and creating a new vision.

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Let’s talk about life outside FableVision. Can you share a bit about your Jam Sammich collaborative?
Sure! Last year, I decided I wanted to fine-tune my skills, and I took Chris Oatley's online class "Painting Drama." The class was great, it forced me recalibrate my brain into thinking about the fundamentals again and what makes a compelling image. Ultimately, we can become successful storytellers by using very specific elements of structure in our artwork. In the class, I ended up spending a lot of time on Google Hangouts with two other artists, Shaun Bryant and Jessie Kate Patterson. We clicked, and had a great time talking about art, critiquing each other’s work, and chatting about things that inspire us.

Last year, we officially put a name on our group and call ourselves Jam Sammich. The name comes directly from "jamming" out ideas. We'd play all sorts of art games like this one, which is a modified version of the game "exquisite corpse" to help stir up ideas. During this process, we came up with the idea of all making art books, with a very specific theme. 

We ended up on "The Fantastic Photobot Intergalactic Ad Agency," a group of three robots (the three of us) and the different jobs that they have in the company. The Fantastic Photobots triggered some cool ideas, and it ended up targeting what each of us is interested in with our own personal work.

I'm interested in travel posters, characters, and graphic design – so my robot is the marketing end of the group. Shaun is amazing at character design – his robot is a field artist drawing the life forms he sees on the planet, and Jessie is fantastic at costume and props – her robot is the fashion designer, naturally.

Hey everyone, here's a full sneak peak of my book that I'll be selling at #ctnx

A video posted by keithzoo (@keithzoo) on

In the end, we decided to come together and split a table as Jam Sammich at CTNx, an animation expo in Burbank. We've all been working the past six months to collect all these designs into our own books, which we'll be selling at the event! If you're in Burbank from Nov. 21-23, buy tickets and stop by! 

Other artistic pursuits? 

I've been doing book covers for a new book series called Monster Juice written by M.D Payne, published by Grossett & Dunlap (Penguin Group).


Keith with his wife, Renee, at a FableVision open house earlier this year.

Keith with his wife, Renee, at a FableVision open house earlier this year.

More about Keith:

Fun fact: I've been last in every line growing up, it's fun to have the letter Z in your last name.

In your opinion, what is the worst thing to eat with popcorn? Oh man, I really don't like kettle corn, I mean I'll eat it but I really feel like popcorn needs to be eaten with only butter – nothing else.

If you could travel to a different time period, what would be your mode of transportation? I know I would be really bad at it, but the hover board that Marty McFly rides in Back to the Future would be pretty killer.

Favorite Disney movie: The Sword in the Stone

Favorite graphic novel: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by Enrique Fernandez 

Favorite place to vacation: Cape Cod, but I recently went to Santa Monica and loved it.

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