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Meet Your Makers: Joe Bluhm


Tonic DNA’s designer, storyteller, and director talks LBB through his passion for storytelling, what sparked his lightbulb moment, and why he’ll never stop creating...

Meet Your Makers: Joe Bluhm

Joe Bluhm doesn’t tend to do things by half measures. Not content with starting up a new full-time role with the iconic animation studio Tonic DNA, he’s also set to once again become a dad. That will all need to be juggled with an upcoming fine art show later in the year, plus a picture book, currently underway. Oh, and he’s in the middle of building his own house.

The obvious conclusion to draw from all that is that Joe is the kind of creative who likes to keep his mind occupied. That consistent eagerness to jump into new ideas with both feet can be traced through his career to date. Whether it be Academy-and-Emmy-Award-winning animation projects, New York Times bestselling picture books, character design, writing, or directing, the Louisiana-based artist simply loves to create. 

To catch up with his latest work and find out what makes him tick, LBB caught up with Joe Bluhm… 

LBB> Hi, Joe! First things first, congratulations on the new role with Tonic DNA. What’s exciting you about the position? 

Joe> Thanks! The most exciting thing for me is the team that we have here. I’ve been working on and off with Tonic DNA for four and a half years. The trust that underpins the whole company is a really rare and precious thing - I trust them and I feel that trust coming back the other way. It’s truly an open collaboration. 

And then the second thing is that this is a company who lets you see your vision through. So often you meet people who seem to specialise in telling you what can’t be done - Tonic DNA is the antithesis of that. So the stars have really kind of aligned here, we share a common goal to experiment with new ideas, come up with something bigger than ourselves, and work on stories made for television and film. It’s perfect really - so yeah, I’m feeling pretty pumped. 

LBB> That’s fantastic to hear. We also heard you’re already working on some exciting projects that are underway right now - what are you allowed to tell us about those?

Joe> So there’s a piece I’m working on right now which is more on the advertising side, but it’s interesting because it’s very much not a ‘product’ ad in that sense. It’s a kind of emotional advocacy piece, and we’re all very excited about it because it’s always rewarding to be an advocate for a cause you really believe in. So that’s one thing which it’s been fantastic to jump right on.

On top of that, we’ve been developing some ideas with a lot of our team members over the past year or so. It started as an organic thing set up by one of the partners, and now we’re coming to a point where the ideas have been coalescing into something really solid. I probably can’t mention any specifics, but there are a lot of series which are being developed, a couple of films that people have been writing and working on. I’d definitely get in trouble if I mentioned the names, but it’s gonna be big. I think I’m allowed to say that! 

LBB> Awesome - is working on those long-form projects something that really appealed to you?

Joe> Yeah, for sure. It’s funny, I’ve always been into feature films and limited series, stuff that has maybe more of a significant story arc. And yet, it seems like for the last 15 years I’ve been primarily doing short form projects. Even when I’m doing that stuff, though, I’m always pulling from feature films and stories that I love. 

It’s so freeing and inspiring to be fully committed to these longer-form ideas now, though. For example, my wife was just driving one day and she came up with this idea on the spot. She immediately pulled over to write it down, and now for the last year we’ve been working on turning it into a series. Ultimately that’s why I love long-form. I like the medium of storytelling - I always look at movies, and films, almost like a painting. There's a beginning and there's an end, there's a place you see it, there's an intention from the artist, but people can digest and interpret it however they want. It’s one of the ways my passions for film and for art bleed into one another. 

LBB> Yeah, it’s clear to see your passion for storytelling shining through your work. So when did it first dawn on you that art and animation was the right medium to express that passion?

Joe> Well I always knew I wanted to be an artist. Ever since I was able to hold a crayon I’ve been drawing, painting, whatever. So I went to art school not quite knowing where that passion would take me, but knowing for sure it was right there in the fabric of who I am. In fact I dropped out of school so that I could take a job drawing caricatures for a theme park. I just wanted to be drawing, designing.

Even in high school, I’d find myself sitting down and writing these kind of fan-fiction episodes of my favourite sitcoms! Thinking about how I would write an episode of Seinfeld. So from that I also learned I loved writing. I started playing around with this idea of marrying those two things together, writing and illustrating. But it wasn’t until I took a job working for an animation studio in New York that those things really clicked. Like, oh, I can work in animation and be part of crafting this linear narrative. That was like a lightbulb switching on in my head.

I’d say it all kind of crescendoed at a moment not long after that. I was sitting in my apartment, doing these YouTube videos where I would just talk about a band I liked and illustrate a scene that came to my head. So the film Ratatouille was playing in the background, and it just hit me that I was doing something that really spoke to my soul. Bringing music to life with my voice and my art. So I called up a friend and said, “I just need to say this out loud, I am going to work in original storytelling within 6 months.” That was a huge catalyst moment, and it’s what’s taken me to where I am now. 

Above: Joe combines his passions for music and illustration on his YouTube channel. 

LBB> And one of your other talents is designing characters. How do you hone that craft, and how do you know you’re finished when you’re working on an animated character?

Joe> That’s a good question - and I guess the answer is that it depends on the project. So one project that immediately comes to mind is the work we did with Campbell’s last year. It was a fully CG world, and the task for us was to create a character who was a little firefly. So right from the start we were asking ourselves - how much detail do we want? How anatomical should it be? Is there anything we should steer clear of? 

Once you have those questions answered you have a basis to work off of. Then it came to drafting ideas - and I have to say, for insects the line between creepy and cute can be very thin! You need to find that balance and keep experimenting until you hit on something that you can instinctively feel is going to work within the boundaries of the project. 

Above: To create the firefly from last year’s Campbell’s campaign, Joe started by defining the rules of the world he needed to create within. 

LBB> Looking back through your career to date, can you tell us about a project you really had to dig deep or that was especially significant in your professional development?

Joe> Ha, I think I’m just about to hit one of those! One that does leap to my mind, though, was from when I was working in New York… 

I’d been asked to create a character that someone else would take through the pipeline, which I did. Later on, I saw how that character had developed as other artists had adapted him. It didn’t feel like my character anymore. So that was a very foundational moment, because it was at that point I told myself ‘okay, I need to learn what they do’. Because I figured if I could speak their language a bit better, I could communicate my ideas more effectively. And so it was after that I really threw myself into storyboarding, learning different modelling softwares, just throwing myself into every part of the process. 

I’m grateful that I did that, because without doubt it’s made me into a more rounded artist. Plus, it helps you bond with other people on your team and get a shared appreciation for what they do. 

LBB> And how do you switch off from all of this? Your mind must be constantly whirring with ideas at work, so how do you draw that line in the sand at the end of a day? 

Joe> In all honesty, I find that very hard to do. I was saying to my wife the other day, if I go more than a couple of days without creating anything it feels a little bit wrong, you know. I can start to feel like an empty shell, or a carbon copy of myself. It’s important for me to find that space in which to create and express what’s going on in my head. 

But there are some things I can do to recharge that are fulfilling. I love painting, making portraits of abstract stuff. I enjoy cooking for my family. I also love to make music and play with my guitar. I had to have a difficult conversation with myself when I was around 25, deciding that I was not going to be a rock star. But that’s still a place I like to go and unwind, for sure. Those are pretty much the things I like to do outside of work or creating! 

LBB> But those things are also creating… 

Joe> Ha, that’s true! Okay, fair point. But you know, there’s no deadline. It is a different experience when you can approach a page or an instrument with no expectations and no brief - but most importantly no deadline! It’s much more freeing, just expressing whatever is in your heart at that given moment. 

And you know, it’s important to love what you do. I think if the day ever came where I sat in front of an empty page on my desk and didn’t want to draw or write anything, that would be a cause for concern. But yeah, creating is my job and my hobby, I suppose. And I truly love it.

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TONIC DNA, Mon, 01 Mar 2021 11:57:23 GMT