Karim Charlebois-Zariffa: The Invisible Artist


Sara Veal

Karim Charlebois-Zariffa creates the kind of magic you see all the time but never really thought about.

Commercials where buildings explode with paint, music videos where rock stars appear to be floating in thin air or film title sequences where plasticine figures morph into live action people and back again.

This is motion design, sometimes known as “the invisible art” – on average, twelve minutes of every hour of broadcast television is the work of a motion designer, taking the form of commercials, title sequences, trailers and special effects.

“Often people think motion design is a new field of graphic design but in fact it has been around for many years, in different forms,” Charlebois-Zariffa said, citing the 1950s and 1960s work of Scottish experimental filmmaker Norman Maclaren, Czech surrealist artist Jan Svankmajer and American graphic designer Saul Bass, who created the film title sequences to several Alfred Hitchcock films.

“For me, motion design is a mix of everything. It’s mainly graphic design and movement. It’s using a variety of techniques to get to what you want to say. What I find most interesting is finding a new technique of animation every time. it’s always a challenge.”

Recently, Charlebois-Zariffa came to Jakarta to present a talk, “International Motion Graphic”, one of the highlights of the “Plaza Desain 2009: *Kinesis'” graphic design event organized by Bina Nusantara University, which took place between July 7-12.

The 25-year-old was born in Quebec City, and is currently based in nearby Montreal, which he says is “a great city to be a designer”.

Artistic from an early age, Charlebois-Zariffa joined the local graffiti scene, and from there learned about graphic design, which he studied at CEGEP level, a Quebecois qualification between high school and university.

His first professional foray was as a fashion designer, starting a company, Colourblind, which offered shoes, hats, t-shirts and skirts. However, he eventually decided he needed to find something that offered more opportunity for innovation.

He soon found what he was looking for after doing Photoshop work for an animator who was making a music video clip involving motion design.

“I had no idea at that time about motion design. So I saw him work and I was curious and interested. I asked him to show me what motion design was and how it worked. I became hooked.”

As there were no specific motion design courses on offer, Charlebois-Zariffa largely taught himself, and soon received many assignments, which kick-started his career.

Most of his jobs have been making title sequences for soap operas and documentary series. These include title sequences for science show Le Code Chasteney and Montreal in 12 Places, which highlighted spots around the city such as a street market and horse race track. The latter, which required a year of intensive work to create a minute of animation for each of the twelve places, netted his team “pretty much every motion design award there was to win in Montreal”.

He also aligns 3D objects, such as pills and colouring pencils, for magazine spreads. At one point these were so in demand he began to feel typecast and so ended his run with a print book, which showcased on everything he owned, all aligned in his apartment.

“Nothing was hidden. Everything I owned was shown, without any shame or whatever. If I had something I wanted to hide, my rules were that I had to show that.”

Most recently he has been making title sequences for feature films, like French-Canadian De pere en flic (2009), which he prefers, as they can be longer and have a larger budget and more time.

Charlebois-Zariffa always strives to “do what a camera couldn’t do”, which involves combining a range of techniques from stop-motion, live-action and 3D animation. The end result appears effortless, but requires endless hours of meticulous work and planning, from methodically positioning glass strings to creating 24 frames of stop-motion animation for one second of animation. He says he is driven not by patience, but by passion.

“If I’m doing a stop motion that takes me months, it’s because I love it.”

Charlebois-Zariffa says what made him fall in love with graphic design was the work of “rockstar” graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister, who has designed album covers for the Rolling Stones and Aerosmith.

Last year, he did a week-long workshop with Sagmeister, and eventually plucked up the courage to offer himself as an intern. A few months later, Sagmeister invited him to join him during his sabbatical year, which he takes every seven years.

So for the past five months, Charlebois-Zariffa has been in Bali with Sagmeister, who asked him to extend his stay, as an employee.

Along with a small team of graphic designers from all over the world, as well as Balinese artisans, Sagmeister and Charlebois-Zariffa are working on a top-secret, experimental project.

Charlebois-Zariffa says Bali feels like home right now, remarking on its natural beauty and inspiring craft culture.

Although he looks forward to returning to Montreal within a month, he knows he will come back to Bali, particularly because of his ongoing collaboration with Sagmeister and the facility of working with Balinese artists.

“We could never find these kinds of talents in New York and if we could, they’d be too expensive. Balinese are very happy people and very willing to try out new stuff.”

Although he is still passionate about motion design and the constant, creative challenges it offers, Charlebois-Zariffa does not see himself focusing on it indefinitely.

“I really like sculpting right now, and art in general. I love everything about designing art, so I hope I can move on. Right now I’m moving more into video clip direction.”

“I’m never going to be a lawyer or accountant, but for sure, in the same field or tree, I like to touch all the branches.”

Visit www.karimzariffa.com for more information.


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