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Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Aaron Becker takes children on an illustrated Journey

Posted by on Wed, Jan 1, 2014 at 10:36 AM

Journey Cover
  • Aaron Becker
  • Journey Cover
Aaron Becker has worked on such big-budget CGI-animated films as The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol. But for his first picture book, Journey (Candlewick Press, $15.99), he turned to a simpler, old-school format. Although he uses computer models of his landscapes to help figure out the look and lighting cues for his dream-like landscapes, the final results are less digital than manual.

"The computer tends to be the beginning of the process, when I'm figuring out compositions, laying out scenes and stuff," says Becker on the phone from a visit to his family in Chapel Hill. "It sounds a lot more complicated than it actually is." The end result of his process are simple pen-and-ink drawings painted over in watercolor—though the world he creates is as deep and vivid as anything seen on screen.

From Journey
  • Aaron Becker
  • From Journey
Journey is a wordless update on such classic picture books as Harold and the Purple Crayon. It's a simple story about a lonely little girl in the big city who finds a magical red marker that lets her draw a doorway to a magical world full of castles, airships and lantern-filled forests, and create objects to carry her through this fantastic landscape (an animated trailer created by Becker is available on YouTube).

Since its release in August 2013, it's been selected as one of the best books of the year by the likes of Amazon, Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, which commissioned Becker to do a special cover for its Book Review, something Becker calls "a highlight" of his experience with the book, along with President Barack Obama buying it on a recent Small Business Sunday shopping trip.

Journey is a departure from Becker's work in film, where he worked doing digital concept design for large-scale motion-capture films, including the widely derided Mars Needs Moms, one of the biggest flops in film history.

"When I went to do the book, I very much purposefully wanted to leave all that behind," says Becker, who cites such classic illustrators as Mercer Mayer and Maurice Sendak as influences.. "I taught myself watercolor and pen-and-ink just to do the book over the course of the summer—I practiced until I felt I was ready to go.

New York Times Book Review Cover
  • Aaron Becker
  • New York Times Book Review Cover
"When I talk with other illustrators about using the computer, the first thing I tell them is that you shouldn't try to do something that you couldn't do with physical materials. Let's say you're trying to put a shadow under something. You should just paint it like you're painting a shadow on paper, but on a computer, you'll find there's a feature that lets you create a shadow under an object, and it looks fake! There's no shortcuts, really. The computer's good at certain things, but as soon as you skip around the fundamentals of good image-making, it fails for sure. For Journey, I wanted to leverage the skills I'd learned from my computer work, but keep the final book hand-made. "

From Journey
  • Aaron Becker
  • From Journey
Becker drew from his own travels to create Journey's fantasy world, from Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy and the canals of Venice inspiring the canal-filled castle the girl visits. "I just wanted to have this hodgepodge of European architecture for the locations," he says. "I also used Japanese influences for the pagoda and classic samurai costumes—I lived in Japan in a while, so that was something I wanted to draw from. Stylistically, I drew a lot from Hayao Miyazaki's film, and how he uses color to simplify the world."

Though he was doing contract work for such studios as Lucasfilm while working on Journey, the book's success has allowed Becker to dedicate himself to picture books full time, with two sequels to Journey and other projects on the way. "It's like, thank god!" Becker syas with a laugh. This is the best thing ever! I can do this all day!"

Aaron Becker appears at Flyleaf Books for story time at 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, Jan. 2 to read from and sign copies of
Journey. For more information, visit www.flyleafbooks.com.

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