Justin Chan is a Toronto based artist and animator who keeps plenty busy: in college, he designed characters for Nickelodeon and Mattel, and as a post-grad, he still takes freelance animation jobs while working full time as a concept artist on major video game titles. Somehow he still finds time to work on his own IPs, including “Veggiemancer,” created as his senior year thesis at Sheridan College and a proof of concept for a larger idea. It’s a lovely minute of animation, and I – along with the many fans who give TLC to the project as he develops it over Twitch livestreams – can’t wait to watch the idea grow.
When did you decide you wanted to work in art or animation?
I’ve been drawing since I was young. I grew up really into cartoons and video games. So art was a hobby for a really long time. Then in my later years of high school I decided I wanted to go to college for it and do it professionally.
Where did you go to school?
I went to Sheridan College for their Animation program. “Veggiemancer” was actually my thesis project that I made in the final year. We spent 2 semesters working on them: the first was all the planning and storyboarding, and the second was executing the idea. Rough animation, clean-up, compositing.
What inspired “Veggiemancer”?
I was looking for a simple story idea that I could build a portfolio around. It’s definitely Ghibli-influenced. I wanted to build a world with characters that have magical powers, and that’s what led to these funky vegetable creatures. So I built the idea out of those characters. I had more story planned for the film – the final version is only a minute long – but I had to cut things to finish it in time.
Makes sense – it look beautiful! Are you still developing the idea?
I am: I try to sit down and work on it at least once a month. Add new pieces, redesign characters. I play around with different settings or ages for the characters. And some totally out there ideas: like one where she pilots a mecha robot. So I’m experimenting with a bunch of different ideas right now.
Are there more details about the world and characters in “Veggiemancer”?
The girl is Paprika, and her little radish companion I haven’t finalized a name for yet. I call him Radish Boy for now. I’m still figuring out the world – it changes constantly. But for the short, I imagined there are many kinds of Veggiemancers. Paprika specializes in radish-type vegetables, but there are mancers that favor other kinds of vegetables and fruit, like carrots or tomatoes. There’s magic and bewitchment: Gordon, Paprika’s older brother, she accidentally turned into a radish type, and isn’t yet advanced enough to change him back.
Do you plan to pitch it as a TV series eventually?
Maybe one day! But I think a more realistic goal would be to make it into a short comic first. Or potentially a pilot, if the right opportunity came up.
Are you working on other ideas outside of work?
Definitely. “Veggiemancer” is one of my larger projects, but I have a bunch of different characters I’m starting to build stories around. I also do Game Jams: the one in Toronto gets about 400 participants annually. I work with a game design friend of mine; he codes and I make the art, and together we plan an original concept in 3 days. It’s a lot of fun, and often people will keep working on their ideas after the festival ends. Some have even become indie games.
That’s awesome. Did your path as an artist always skew toward games?
I was fortunate enough to do freelance work during school, and back then my work was more aligned with TV animation. While at Sheridan I worked as a flash animator, and eventually began doing character design for a few clients: Nickelodeon, Nick Jr., Mattel. But along the way my interests started leaning toward games more. So after I finished “Veggiemancer,” I was hired at Ubisoft Toronto to do concept art for games.
How did you enjoy that?
It was a great learning experience. My style is definitely more stylized and cartoony than most of the projects done at Ubisoft. So I learned a lot about using more realistic and grounded lighting and colors, and taking advantage of texture more. The year I was there helped my art develop a lot. The game I worked on was recently announced: Starlink: Battle for Atlas. It’s a toys-to-life game kind of like Skylanders, but the setting is in space.
What’d you do after Ubisoft?
I work at a visual development company, Crush Visual, still doing concept art for games. I also still do freelance work for TV, and I teach on the side too.
How do you like teaching?
I’m still pretty new to it! I’ll start my 3rd semester in June. But so far it’s been really rewarding. The students are all really talented, and it’s nice to kind of give back to the art community in Toronto. It’s fun to watch them progress through the course – it sounds cheesy, but I learn a lot from them too.
What is your biggest career aspiration or goal?
I’d like to have my own game one day. To do the art direction on a game – or to have my own show. I’d like to be able to develop my own IPs; whatever form that might take. Maybe it’s a comic. Just to be able to develop my own ideas and build worlds around my characters.
What sort of things do you do outside of work, to develop your IPs?
Lately I’ve been doing more art live-streams on Twitch. I work on “Veggiemancer” on some of them. People tune in and I’ll ask them questions, and they’ll make suggestions for what I’m working on. It’s a really fun back-and-forth, and it’s nice to have a bunch of people there to help me out.
That’s so cool to have that kind of community.
Yeah, I think stuff like that is gonna be the future of online cartoons and comics. People building a community on platforms like Twitch. And with Patreon and Kickstarter, it’s so cool that a community can directly support a creator to work on their own projects. It’s also great to make drawing interactive; I’ll have a mic on and a webcam on, so people can kind of put a face to the art. It makes it more personal, and I think more relatable.
What are your favorite cartoons?
If I had to pick one as an all-time favorite, I’d have to say Avatar: The Last Airbender. I love that it has this huge story arc and that the characters develop as the seasons progress. Even just how they change in appearance—it spends time on every character, giving them all their own subplots and growth. And it has fantastic humor as well. To me, it’s just the perfect show.
Have to agree on that! What are your other hobbies, outside of art?
Aquascaping is one of my big hobbies: arranging live plants in a fish tank. It’s creating a totally natural environment for the fish – so no plastic decorations. Only aquatic plants and materials like driftwood. It’s a really nice way to bring nature into the home, and it’s definitely a side passion of mine. Even while I’m working and drawing, I’ll constantly be researching it and trying to learn more.
Thank you for the interview Justin! I’m excited to keep track of your many awesome projects.