- by Andreas von Buddenbrock
Richard Borge has been working as a professional illustrator for over two decades, creating illustrations and videos with the help of drawings, handmade sculptures and found objects. He has a BA in Art & Communications from Concordia College in Minnesota, and an MFA in Visual Communications from University of Arizona in Tucson. In 1994, after having taught full-time at Western Carolina University for three years, Richard decided it was time to pack up his things and move to New York. His first 10 years in The Big Apple was spent living and working in Manhattan, primarily on editorial and corporate/advertising commissions, until it was once again time to move home and studio – this time to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Here, Richard continues his illustration making, with the added use of live-action video and stop motion animations. Lately, he’s also been involved in making music videos; he’s currently working on a video for Honey Claws and their song “Digital Animal”.
I was fortunate enough one day to come over and visit Richard at his studio (and home) in Williamsburg, where I got to ask him about his interests, his career and his current projects – giving me an idea of what the world of a professional illustrator with years of experience is all about.
Where were you born originally?
Madagascar. My father was a doctor over there for 10 years – 2 five-year stints – and I was born at the tail end of their second trip over there.
And then you moved to the US.
Yes, I was about a year old. I’m the youngest of six kids, so most of my siblings have memories of Madagascar.
You’ve said that you were drawing your whole childhood, and then at some point you realized that you could earn money from it?
Yeah. I was pre-med for a while, in college, because my father was a doctor. I didn’t really know what to do, but a couple of days before my junior year of undergrad, something snapped and I just switched all my classes from biology/chemistry/physics over to art, art history and such – I just switched it all. And one of my older brothers, John Borge, who is a photographer, was one of the people who really encouraged me, saying: “You can do this if you want”. I had never really considered doing art as a profession before.
You’re first assignment was to design a t-shirt for a football game. Could you tell us what that was about?
That was one of my first assignments. I was an undergraduate at Concordia College, in Moorhead Minnesota, and they needed some kind of design to be used on a t-shirt for a big football game. They needed to show how they were going to crush their rivals or something like that. I didn’t even know it was an illustration gig at the time…I was kind of just making a picture.
What was the motif?
I seem to remember something about football cleats coming down on their mascot, which I can’t really remember what it was. Maybe it was a dragon. I didn’t even remember it until you mentioned it. And then when I was in grad school in Arizona I did some illustrations for freelance work.
As an artist with many years of experience, do you have any tips you would like to share for other aspiring illustrators, something that you wish you had heard when first starting out?
I would say that it’s important to follow your instincts, and to find out what it is that you really like to do – and then just do it. I think, for a lot of people, it’s not going to be illustration. Maybe it ends up being something else. But if you can find what it is that keeps you up all night – because you just want to stay up the whole night and just do that – then that’s GOLD. And then the key is just to find out how to make money doing it.
Promotion has changed so much from when I started, because back then there was no social media or anything like that, and so there were way fewer avenues and ways to promote yourself. You could send out postcards and buy ads in books like the Alternative Pick (it was a book before) and Workbook. But now, I guess my tip would be to embrace social media, and to do as much as you can with that.
Another tip, when you’re doing promotions, would be to try to think of it as a series, rather than as a single piece. Again, back to the older days of mailing postcards, a lot of times I would have students who were graduating that would do one kind of promo and send it out. Then nothing would happen and they would get discouraged and quit – that’s kind of a small tragedy. So I always say it would be better to do maybe three things, and send it out over a few months and kind of think of it more like a campaign, instead of that one thing that’s going to change the world.
It’s probably good for people to hear that everyone has to deal with rejection. A lot of people may think it’s just them.
It can be very discouraging when you send out promos and no one replies. It happens to me still; I email people and a lot of the times you don’t hear anything. However, sometimes you’ll hear from someone a year later and they’ll say: “We’ve had this promo sitting on our desk and we’ve been waiting for the right project.” I remember someone back in school saying: “As an artist, you’re expected to be really sensitive, but you also have to have the skin of a rhinoceros.” You can’t get too hung up on rejections.
I would say: promote as much as you can. And always put out work that you really like, more so than things that you think is going to get you work. Put work out there that feels good and is true to your heart. My experience has been that when you put work out there that’s for you, the ones that you really like, a lot of the times those are the things that people would see and say, “We want something like that”. It wasn’t really for a client in the first place; you just made this weird thing for you.
Is that how you got into your current style?
Well, when I was first promoting myself as an illustrator, I just made these really experimental 3D things and shot them with a 4 x 5. I also made a series of postcards with these totally self-generated pieces that were, for me, strange and kind of weird. That’s what I was putting out there, and that’s how I started to work.
So where do you find inspiration for these kind of “quirky” things that you do?
People always ask me this question, and I don’t really know. I find it from film, and somewhere deep in my mind. Sometimes from museums and galleries and whatnot. I think that if I see people’s work that I like, I find great inspiration in that.
What is usually your thought/working process from receiving an assignment to telling yourself “This piece is done!”
Well, when I first receive an assignment I like to hear from the person that is giving me it what his or her reason was for contacting me, because if we get that out-of-the-way I’ll know what direction to push it. For me, it’s always best if I’m given some kind of general art-direction, or if they say “We want to emphasize this aspect of the story”. That’s really helpful. What’s usually not as helpful is when they say: “We want you to do this and this and this, and then this” – that kind of takes the fun out of it. I get the assignment, I read the article, I highlight words and things that are visual to me in the article, and then I try to really understand what they’re saying and what it’s all about.
A lot of times I’ll have to take what is more of an abstract concept and turn it into a picture; this is especially common with the Wall Street Journal and a lot of other financial papers. And that can be with symbolism or by finding parallels between things. A lot of times when I read the article, I’m just completely stumped for a minute. I’m thinking “Oh no”. And then I start highlighting words and make these little drawings, where I’m trying to find relationships between the drawings and the words. An example I’ve given in the past is if you’re doing something about gambling and something about race cars (I don’t know why), immediately I would be thinking about the “circular wheel” and how you’ve got the roulette wheel, and maybe you start to find a connection between those things. So it’s not like I just sit down and close my eyes and hope that something will come to me. It’s more about doing these little doodles and drawings and then eventually something happens.
You’ve been working a lot on creating music videos lately; Are you self-taught when it comes to this, or did you learn it from somewhere?
I took an Aftereffects class at School of Visual Arts with Adam Meyers, and that was enough to get me up and running with animation. When I work on music videos in After Effects, (after listening to the song several times) I usually make a basic time line and print it out, which is the first step in making the song into something visual. I then make notes and drawings on the print, and try to figure out how to proceed. When I’m asked to write a pitch (treatment) for a full music video, I try to get a feel for what the song is about. Often times videos are more about the emotional sound of the song rather than a literal interpretation of the lyrics. Whenever possible it’s nice to talk to the band and get a feel from them as to what inspired the song. This treatment is then written out and accompanied by screen grabs of other pieces or a “mood board” of images as to what I’m thinking it would feel like, then it’s sent off the band / label.
Do you usually have the music in mind before creating the imagery?
Music is such an integral and important component of animation and film. A moving picture changes so much when music is added to it. When I’m making the 15 second Instagram videos, I usually make the animation first then find a portion of a track that I think works well with it. Instagram is limited to 15 seconds, so often times it is an intro to a song. When posting, I always credit and hashtag the musician and do an “@“ to them on Instagram. I do this mostly because I want to share it with them, but also because I want them to see that I’ve used it, as a sort of “full disclosure”. The Instagram videos are done in the spirit of a “fan video” and celebrating the music. I’m hoping no one asks me to take it down, although they have every right to and I would immediately comply if they did.
Maxwell Vann is a musician in LA who has been generous in letting me add some of his existing music to my animation. We are in discussion on more of a collaborative approach, perhaps where I make the visuals then send them to him for him to create the music for it, which would be a nice switch.
You’re currently working on a video for Honey Claws; can you tell us a little bit about how that started?
I was poking around with Aftereffects one night, making a stop-motion video of this little guy climbing out of a brain. We had just been to the beach earlier, listening to this Jesse Pinkman playlist (from the TV-show “Breaking Bad”) in the car, and there’s a part in Honey Claw’s song “Digital Animal” that goes “Di-di-di-di-di-digital animal”; when the guy was climbing it made me think of that song. So I just went ahead and dropped the track into place. Then, after I posted it, I found Honey Claws on Instagram, and I linked it back to him. He commented on the clip, saying: “Dayaam that’s ill!! Wanna do a full video?”, and so we exchanged emails and took it from there. After that I kind of just got moving with making the music video. He’s been really open to it and I’m now tinkering with it whenever I have any kind of free time. It’s like a little side-project; when the jobs come in, I need to prioritize them, but a lot of the time I’m doing client work in the daytime and then I dive into that music video stuff later at night.
What’s your favorite music that you like to listen to?
I have to get back to you on that. I’m sort of all over the place. I like that Jesse Pinkman playlist because it’s got a huge variety of songs. I don’t listen to much hit-radio, but I always want to be inspired by new music, and I definitely fall into my old habits of listening to the same old stuff. Lately, I’ve really been into Knife Party; I follow them on Spotify, and I like their stuff quite a bit. And to me, when it comes to inspiration, that “Di-di-di-di-digital animal”-part, that inspires me. Or the song “Bonfire” by Knife Party, that one totally inspires me too. And it’s because it’s visual to me; they’re playing with time by kind of compressing it and slowing it down.
Lastly, do you have any “dream assignments” that you would like to be working on in the future?
I’d say things like titles and opening sequences for film, because you get to play with typography and things like that. Or possibly to be hired as the director on a big project and then work with a team of people who are manufacturing the whole thing, shooting it, etc. Like Patrick Claire who made the intro sequence to “True Detective” and “Daredevil” – though most likely he’s not doing as much hands-on on the latter; he’s probably just directing his vision. I also think it could be fun to tell a longer story while visually making it feel like an opening sequence with type and music. But I don’t know… It might be too much frosting on the cake.
After the interview, Richard gave me a tour around his studio, showing me samples of both former and current projects (some that for obvious reasons can’t be described in detail at this time). While displaying old sketches, green-screens and handmade sculptures that had been used for various illustrations and videos, he also emphasized how happy he was with his current working relationship to art director April Montgomery, who’s given him a lot of artistic freedom on his most recent project for Computer World. Richard feels fortunate to work with so many talented art directors, who he views more as collaborators.
I also got to meet Stela Woo, who used to be a student of Richard’s during his teaching at Parsons. Stela is currently interning at the studio, helping Richard out on projects by taking stills, shooting videos, etc.
To see more of Richard’s work and find updates on his current projects, be sure to check out the links for his official webpage, Vimeo page and Altpick profile. Also, be sure to follow Richard on his Instagram-profile, which is constantly being updated with new and interesting images and videos. There you can find his unique visual interpretations on songs by legendary artists such as: Neil Young, Queens of the Stone Age, The Pixies, Knife Party, Butthole Surfers, Deer Hunter,Reverend Horton Heat, as well as the original Honey Claws animation.
Partial list of Richard’s clients: AVID, Sony Music, MTV, IFC, Novartis, Atlantic Records, ESPN, Fast Company, Time, Newsweek, Wall St Journal, NY Times, Washington Post, Forbes, Fortune, Bloomberg, Epson, AT&T, HP, Amex, Deutcshe Bank, Verizon, Reebok, IBM, Coca-Cola and Callaway Golf.
Interview By Andreas von Buddenbrock
Andreas is currently working as an intern at Altpick.com, making interviews and writing articles. When he’s not working as an intern, he’s finishing up his Bachelor degree in illustration at the various campuses of Savannah College of Art and Design (Hong Kong, Savannah and Atlanta) while freelancing as an illustrator.