Episode 239 — Szymon Biernacki


Episode 239 — Szymon Biernacki

Szymon Biernacki is a Freelance Visual Development and Concept Artist based in Poland. He is currently an Art Director at Spa Studios. His credits include being a Production Designer on the movie Klaus.

In this Podcast, Szymon shares his insight on becoming a full-time artist, switching careers; the challenges of being a freelancer and working remotely; the hard and soft skills of being a Production Manager; as well as his experience of working on Oscar-nominated animated feature Klaus.

Szymon Biernacki on IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm9493240/
Szymon Biernacki on ArtStation: https://www.artstation.com/biernac
Szymon Biernacki at IAMAG Master Class: https://www.iamag.co/the-art-of-szymon-biernacki/
Szymon Biernacki on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/szymon_biernacki/ / @szymon_biernacki


[02:50] Szymon Biernacki Talks About His Beginnings as an Artist
[09:31] Allan and Szymon Talk About Changing Careers
[14:05] Szymon Talks About Overcoming His Doubts About Being an Artist
[18:45] Allan and Szymon Talk About the Smarter Way to Switch Careers
[24:54] Szymon Recalls the First Projects in His Career
[31:00] Allan and Szymon Share Insight on Working Remotely
[32:46] Allan and Szymon List the Pros and Cons of Being a Freelancer
[39:40] Szymon Talks About the Timeline of Developing the Animated Feature Klaus
[51:52] Szymon Discusses the Challenges of Working on Klaus
[58:48] Szymon Shares the Subject of His Talk at the IAMAG Master Class



Welcome to Episode 239! This is Allan McKay. I’m speaking with Szymon Biernacki, Art Director for films like Klaus and other amazing films. I’m excited about this Episode! Szymon and I talk about a lot of cool stuff!

Please share this Episode or write a review for it on iTunes. I will appreciate that and buy you a beer!

Let’s dive in!


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[02:50] Allan: Thanks for taking the time to chat! Do you want to quickly introducer yourself?

Szymon: Sure! My name is Szymon Biernacki and I work at the Spa Studios as an Art Director. Most recently, I was the Production Designer on the Christmas movie Klaus, for Netflix.

[03:10] Allan: In your early career, did you always want to be an artist growing up or is that something you fell into later on?

Szymon: Like most people who do this, I’ve been drawing since I was a little kid. I know my mother always kept a piece of paper and a pencil in her purse; so whenever she needed to keep me occupied (like at the post-office), she would just give me paper and pencils and I would disappear for as long as she needed me to. So I’ve been drawing since forever. At some point, I stopped drawing actually (when I was around 12 or 13) because I started showing some potential in that. There were some requests coming from the family and I started to feel pressure. Somehow, that pressure took me out of it. So I stopped doing it.

I went back to it at 18 because I had to choose where to college. At the time, in Poland, you had to pass each faculty’s exam. My parents started putting pressure on me. My brother didn’t end up studying what he wanted to, so my parents wanted to prevent me from doing the same thing. For whatever reason, I [chose] architecture. But then it turned out to enroll in it, you had to pass an exam in drawing from your imagination. You had to go through preparatory courses and the first lesson blew my mind. I rediscovered how much I loved to draw. After a month of studying architecture, I realized it wasn’t for me but I didn’t know [else] what to do with myself. I discovered an art book for one of the Star Wars movies at the time, and that there was something like digital painting. It blew my mind! But I realized there were people doing that for a living. But still, there were no schools in Poland teaching that. It took me 6 years to just learn on my own, through internet, how to paint digitally. I started getting some small jobs and dropped out of architecture. And I started working as an artist.

[06:04] Allan: It’s interesting that you say that! Do you think having pressure early in your career is common?

Szymon: Yeah, I think it depends on your character. For some people, that may be cool because they like the attention. But for me, it was a turn-off. It was turning from something I loved doing to other people interfering with my internal life.

[08:11] Allan: To get back to finding the passion, was it something that happened naturally?

Szymon: I think in a sense, drawing was somehow present in my life. It’s just that when I was a teenager, I wasn’t drawing as much as I used to. But I recently discovered a video of people asking us, in high school, about what kind of job we wanted to do. Apparently, I said I wanted to draw comic books, even though I wasn’t drawing much at that time. For me, it was just about that push of the preparatory course. I re-discovered how much pleasure it brings me to do it. But I needed to be pushed. I guess that was the push I needed to get back into it.

[09:31] Allan: The one thing I find when people are, say, changing careers later on: They feel they would be doing from scratch. Even though you’ve been learning concepts for architecture for a year, do you think you were able to apply what you’d learned to your career?

Szymon: Oh, yes, definitely! I mean I actually studied architecture for 6 years. I took two breaks in between, to put myself back together. I was actually quite depressed at the time because I wasn’t enjoying what I was studying but I couldn’t see how I could get out of it. There were no schools in Poland to study what I wanted. After 4 years, I took another little break because I was already drawing and getting commissions and I wanted to find out if I could work as a freelance artist and get enough jobs. I definitely feel that a lot of the things I learned when studying architecture are so similar, [in terms of] designing and building. Working as an architect is similar to being an Art Director. You have the same rules, you have deadlines, you have a budget, you have a team; you have to show your work to your client or director and to be flexible to apply their notes, but to also apply your creative vision. In that sense, architecture and animated movie production are similar. You’re working with and for people. You need to know how to deal with that.

[12:52] Allan: I love that! It’s client work and you’re dealing with projects and budget. I think a lot of people don’t look at what they can salvage when they switch disciplines.

Szymon: I could switch from architecture to fine arts but I felt they were so detached from reality. And I felt I could learn more if I stayed and studied architecture, rather than switching into fine arts.

[14:05] Allan: In the early years, it’s carved out where [an artist is] headed. You have to prove you can make a career out of it. Before you took a year off, did you have any doubts?

Szymon: It’s a personal question. Going back, when I realized I didn’t want to be an architect, I also knew I had a deal with my parents at that time. As long as I’m a student, they would support me. If I dropped out, they would kick me out of the house and be on my own. My father was really pushing me. He was supportive when it came to my drawing; but he was the kind of guy who always needed a Plan B. He wanted me to get a degree in architecture. He was supportive of my art endeavors though. It became really obvious to me that if I pursued that Plan B strategy, I was putting so much effort into it — I was screwing up Plan A. I wouldn’t have enough time to devote to my art. So it was a self fulfilling prophesy. I decided to study as little as possible to not get kicked out of school but to spend a lot of time on painting and drawing. By the time I would finish, my portfolio would be strong enough to get jobs. So that was my plan. I went along with it. During that time, my father passed away and that was an important event in my life. At that time, I didn’t know how to stand up for myself and tell him I wanted to do things my way. When he passed away, I was free to make my choices. This may not paint the picture of me.

[17:56] Allan: Not at all!

Szymon: Obviously, it’s always complicated with family. My mother was completely okay with my taking a year off from college. I felt I was artistically ready. I was getting some commissions, I started posting my work on the internet.

[18:45] Allan: I appreciate your sharing that. The reason I brought this up is because I’ve had so many people on the Podcast who experienced similar choices early in their careers. My wife is a designer and her father always told her to “get a real job” (www.allanmckay.com/99). She joined the Air Force, then studied architecture, just to make him happy. It wasn’t until she embraced art and ignore what he’d been telling her, she went down the path of pursuing her creative career. The reason I talk about this is for others to hear they aren’t alone; and that if they continue on their creative path, they’re on the right path.

Szymon: Yes, but also, I get a lot of questions from younger people in similar situations and they don’t know what they should do. On the one hand, it’s easy to say, “Go do what you want to do!” But on the other hand, I’m trying to be really cautious with giving out advice. I just tell them when my specific situation was. It really depends on someone’s circumstances. Instead of going in head first and try to be an artist, I recommend being clever about it. I had a plan which I didn’t know if it’s going to work out. I tried to balance out the architecture studies with painting at the same time. If I dropped out, I wonder if I would struggle much more with making a living. Be patient and try to make the most out of your circumstances.

[22:00] Allan: You’re 100% right! It’s valuable to talk about this. You took a year off to test whether or not you’re going to have a successful career. That says so much about how real you are about it.

Szymon: Or, maybe I didn’t have the courage to go for it.

[22:49] Allan: I have a lot of people coming to me from architecture and watching to switch to VFX. But they have families and bills to pay. I think it’s about testing that second career. You don’t just stop one thing and start another. If you were to change careers, save up your vacation time and go work somewhere else for a month. It’s about testing and getting the data back.

Szymon: It is. I also understand how difficult it is to change your career path, especially when you have family. I know it’s incredibly hard. I know there are people who are struggling right now, having bills to pay. And you don’t have the strength to pursue that other thing anymore. I consider myself really lucky that I made some smart decisions early on.

[24:54] Allan: What were some of the early projects you did in your career?

Szymon: I didn’t start with feature animation. My very first job was designing little figures for a board game, for some ridiculous money. But I was still a student and whatever came my way, I took it. Then, there was [some work] for ad agencies: illustration work or animation work for 3D animated commercials. Then I worked for the one VFX studio in Poland called Platige Image. It’s a company that everyone in Poland wants to work for. I got some commission from them. My first break was from Axis [Studios] in Scotland, to be an Art Director. There was a 3D project with 2D painted backgrounds. That was my first bigger break. I’ve never art directed anything. But I was open with them and I told them I had no experience. I made the decision to go and it opened my mind to possibilities: of leaving Poland and working for an international company. I worked for them for 2 years. I worked for them from Poland remotely1

[27:55] Allan: Going back to Platige, what short films did you work on there?

Szymon: There was an animated history of Poland. That’s the one that I worked on that got completed. I also worked on some pitches for them. Anyway, it was an 8-minute animated short for the international expo.

[28:47] Allan: Going to Axis to work, what was the experience like?

Szymon: For me, it was mind blowing. From the first day that I stepped into the building, I felt so in the right place for the first time in my life. I belong in this kind of experience. I was super scared and didn’t know if I’d pull it off. In Europe, a lot people do student exchanges, for a semester or a year. And it’s a big eye opener for them. For me, Axis was the equivalent of that. There were so many people from different countries. When I was working from home in Poland, I didn’t have an art community around me. At Axis, I had the first community I belonged to. I loved the experience of living abroad. I loved the job and it turned out I did an okay job. I pulled it off! On every level, it was an amazing experience and it changed how I view the world.

[31:00] Allan: Do you think going back to Poland and working remotely, and having built that relationship with them before, did that help?

Szymon: For sure! You already know the people you’re working with and they know you and they can rely on you. I showed them them what I was capable of. That changed a lot. The biggest downside of being a freelancer is that you don’t feel like you’re part of a project. You’re doing something alone, you don’t know what the vibe in the studio is, where the project really is. You’re this lonely island somewhere. But when you know how to the studio works, it is easy to feel like you’re a part of that studio. And they already have the trust in you. I think having that experience in house was a huge, huge help.

[32:46] Allan: I find that when you’re not in-house, you don’t get pulled into unnecessary meetings. But the downside is that you don’t know what is really going on.

Szymon: Absolutely! I really loved working as a freelancer and being in charge of my schedule. My schedule was more flexible. When I joined at a studio, it was annoying that someone was telling me what time to show up at work. But then I learned that as a freelancer, I had to organize myself and separate my work from my life. If you work from home, the difference of doing commissioned work from your own — is that you’re just switching files. You’re stuck in the same environment for days. I felt like I couldn’t see the boundaries. I need to work in-house to have structure in my life.

[35:09] Allan: I think there are certain people working remotely who don’t have the discipline to work. But the flip side is that there is no off switch. When you’re at work, when you see others go home, you can go home. I’ve experienced this in my career, I would work until [7:00] in the morning to make sure I delivered. There is no one telling you to step away from my computer.

Szymon: I agree. If I worked 8 hours a day, I felt the pen had to be touching the screen for those 8 hours. Whereas if you’re at a studio, you can step away for lunch or talk to someone at their desk. You end up painting for 6 hours. Someone tells you, “Great job!” at the end of the day.

[36:52] Allan: Do you get into a flow state? It’s that different work mode where you zone out from everything else. At a studio, you have to chat to other people. It’s usually when everyone goes home, you get a lot more done. It’s about that flow state.

Szymon: I’m not familiar with the term. To me, I had no problem achieving that state in the afternoon or evening. I’m someone who definitely gets a lot done at night. In a studio environment, it’s a bit harder to get into that zone. I don’t remember what it’s like. Since working on Klaus, I don’t get to sit at my desk for longer than 2 hours and actually produce something. There are so many people wanting something. There was no time to do anything. That’s the biggest challenge. You get these 15 minutes slots in between meetings, and you have to almost get into that state for just that window.

[39:40] Allan: The more senior you get, the less you get to do what you love. Let’s talk Klaus! Congratulations, it looks amazing!

Szymon: Thank you!

[39:54] Allan: How did that project happen in the first place? Was there a lot of years leading up to it? Or did it happen quite quickly?

Szymon: Oh, no! It was not quick at all! [The Writer and Director] Sergio Pablos started working on the idea 10 years ago. At first he worked with Pascal Campion who will also be at the IAMAG Master Class in Paris. Pascal worked on the very first pitch book. Then, my co-production designer started working remotely with Sergio. That book had 120 illustrations! It was like a novel. It was a heavy book! When I was joined, it was 7 years ago. At that time, Warner Bros picked up his other film Smallfoot. At first, we did some preproduction on that for almost 2 years. That project slipped out of our hands. And completely accidentally, a tv network from Spain got in touch with Sergio. They wanted to invest in a 90-minute film. They came to him asking if he had any ideas in development. They pretty much gave us money for a year of development.

We released the proof of concept 5 years ago. It was a 2.5 minute short. We spent a year working on that teaser, developing techniques on lighting the characters and character design. Sergio felt it was the best pitch he’s ever had for a project. He felt it would be easy to find someone to invest in Christmas movie. He spent a year and a half going around and pitching it to studios. No one was interested. The fact that it was a Christmas movie, it was turning the executives off because they felt that Christmas was owned by Disney. They would be releasing Frozen and Star Wars every year. No one wanted to pick it up until Netflix. It took Sergio three pitches at Netflix. They weren’t looking for an animated movie, but they were looking for a Christmas movie.

[44:47] Allan: The fact that the executives thought Christmas was owned by Disney, it was enough to fight back.

Szymon: They were looking for a Christmas movie. But they didn’t even have an animation division. From the beginning of the original idea to the point of production, it was 6-7 years.

[45:37] Allan: How do you approach a project like this? Obviously, it’s not a small project, so how do you get the ball rolling?

Szymon: In our case, we were fortunate. It started as a small project, as a teaser / animated short. There was no pressure of a whole feature. It was just me and Martin figuring out how it all should look. It started as a small project with 25 people. I was working remotely from Poland. There wasn’t so much pressure. Because we had that year, Klaus was constantly in our minds. I had a year of development and 2 years of digesting it. Then we moved into pre-production. Because I asked myself that question now: If I don’t have that much to digest, how do you get from point A to point Z? How do you come up with the ideas that fast? We were lucky to have that time in the beginning. For me, it was my first real production, at least for a feature film. [I was] switching from working in my pj’s at home — to leading a team of 270 people. In a sense, ignorance is a blessing. I didn’t know what I was signing up for. It feels like every few months, we switched to a higher gear.

[49:23] Allan: Was the teaser just for internal use for Netflix? Or was it used to announce the film publicly?

Szymon: Netflix was not involved at that time at all. We knew we wanted to do something with traditional animation. We wanted to figure out the lighting system for the characters: Finding out how we wanted to do it and if the solutions would be applicable. It was a testing ground for us, as well as part of the pitch later. No one is investing money in traditional animation anymore. We needed a proof of concept for where we wanted to take it. The moment you say you want to make a traditional animation movie, most investors just shut the door at that moment. As far as I know, Sergio didn’t say in any of his pitches that it was a traditional animation film. He said it was a hybrid. Most people who are executives couldn’t tell what they were looking at. Sergio was trying to trick them by falling in love with the story.

[51:52] Allan: What where some of the biggest challenges on the project?

Szymon: I think there were two. One of them was artistic. The lighting system for the characters was a challenge. We did the teaser using Nuke to achieve that affect on the characters. But it’s not the tool that’s designed for it. We knew we had to develop a specific software for the movie. And to be honest, we already were in preproduction and the attempts to script that software failed. Salvation came from a studio called Les Films Du Poisson Rouge, in Angoulême, France. We were already using their software to track texture on the characters. They had this super cool software that interprets the lines, and it feels like you’re traveling through space. Their chief engineer said he could create the software we needed, using the algorithms we already had. In a couple of months, he developed a software that was super easy to use. That was one challenge we thought would be super painful. But the software exceeded our expectation.

The other challenge was to make sure the entire team understood the look of the movie and why we were doing things a certain way. We wanted to make sure everyone was going in the same direction. We got a really young team that was eager to learn. For me, the management part of production was my challenge. That human aspect is so crucial, to make sure they want to do the work and that we bring the best out of them. I used to have 1-2 Skype calls per week as a freelancer. I was self-efficient. We found out that you need to hold some people’s hands. You have to take care of them and create a comfortable environment for them. The human aspect can make or break a movie. That was the biggest challenge for me to learn.

[57:28] Allan: Some people need to be told what to do. Other people need to be inspired. Different people operate differently. It’s definitely the hardest thing to figure out. At least you had a few years to figure that out.

Szymon: Definitely! We started with a small team. We learned, sometimes the hard way. I never thought I’d be using so many non-art related skills.

[58:48] Allan: You’re going to be speaking at the IAMAG Master Class. What’s your talk going to be on?

Szymon: I am going to be there with Martin. I think we’ll be talking about the style of the movie, show some behind-the-scenes for the lighting of the movie and how it’s done; and how we arrived at the final look.

[59:32] Allan: Where can people go to find out more about you?

Szymon: My domain expired while I was working on Klaus. You can find me on Instagram. But for the last two years, I was completely consumed by the film.

[1:00:25] Allan: Thank you for taking the time to chat! You shared a lot of value.

Szymon: Thanks for having me!

I hope you enjoyed this Episode. I want to thank Szymon for joining my Podcast.

I will back next week with Christian Alzmann, the guy responsible for Baby Yoda from The Mandalorian. I can’t wait to share this Episode with you.

Speaking of sharing, please share this Episode with others. It would mean the world to me!

Until then —

Rock on!


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