Who is Jonathan Djob Nkondo?

Editor’s note: With our ever-expanding editorial team, we’re thrilled to bring you the first article by our new contributor Bee Grandinetti.

On my list of animators I admire the most, there’s a fair number of them that seem to be hidden from the spotlight.

Sometimes, I see someone’s work, my mind gets blown, but when I dig for more information, there’s just too little to feed my curiosity. No articles, interviews, pictures or even scraps of information on their about page. Nothing.

There are too many people not getting the attention they deserve — and there are also people just not actively seeking for it. Not everyone is into posting and promoting their work on social media, and some professionals are so good that… well, they just don’t need it. Work will come anyway.

Jonathan Djob Nkondo is one of those heroes who’s been a question mark for me for a while. You’ve probably seen a lot of his work — but not enough of his name around. (That’s about to change!)

I was lucky that he was back in London for a couple of days, so I could grab him for a bit of wine over a chat. It was the sweetest “meet your heroes” experience, and I’m happy to share some bits of it here.

Q&A with Jonathan Djob Nkondo

Ok, so let’s start from the beginning! Tell us about yourself and how you grew up.

I was born in Paris in 1987 and grew up in the suburbs, drawing loads since I was a kid. I was really inspired by cartoons like Dragon Ball Z, Mighty Max, Patlabor, Inspector Gadget, Ulysses 31, the Warner Bros ones and video games like Zelda, TMNT and Mario Bros.

But at some point, my parents decided they wanted me and my siblings to watch less TV, so they got rid of it. There was not much to do and entertain myself with, which led me to start reading a lot of books and comics.

I used to go to the library a lot and copy/draw over those drawings, trying to understand the techniques behind them. I was more curious about characters in general, and one day I just decided to create my own, along with my own stories for them.

But yeah, I read a lot of comics — and very diverse ones. Loads of Belgian ones: the famous ones like TinTin, Spirou, Les 4 As (The 4 Aces), Bone… A lot of mangas as well and, later on, during college, I found out about the American comics like Spider Man, Xmen, Gen 13, Witchblade, Spawn, etc.

I was gonna ask you about the mangas actually, because I get a lot of Akira vibes from your work. It tends to gravitate towards an alien, sci-fi, organic world. A bit of a dreamy quality to it as well.

Oh yes, definitely! I’m a big fan of Katsuhiro Otomo, he’s a proper genius!

Actually, Akira is the first manga I read when I was a kid. I was too young at the time to fully understand the story behind it, but his style blew my mind. I just recently bought the 6 volume set (like 2 years ago) and I’m still impressed by the drawings.

But the story and message have now became more important to me. I think the three most impactful mangas I read when I was kid were Akira, Gunnm from Yukito Kishiro and Gon from Masashi Tanaka.

Akira, Gunnm and Gon.

On the “dreamy” comment: well, a lot of my ideas are actually coming from dreams I have.

It’s definitely happened that I dreamt about something and then illustrated it afterwards. I tend to be very conscious when I’m dreaming (sort of lucid dreaming), and I think it’s a good source of inspiration. Often times I feel stuck with an idea or get a hint of a path that could be interesting to develop, so I usually keep that in mind and I kind of unlock those during my sleep.

How did you end up at Gobelins, and how was your experience there?

When it was time to apply for a university, I knew I wanted to draw, but I didn’t know where to go to and what I wanted to do exactly.

So I ended up going through two different quicker programs, one more focused on art disciplines (it’s called “prepa” in French, and it’s supposed to prepare you for art schools during a year with a little bit of painting, screen printing, life drawing, etc) and the second one more focused on graphic design, also for one year.

But I didn’t really like the second one because I didn’t feel it was creative enough. I decided to quit it and get a job, so I could move from my parents’ house, saving money for a future school and being closer to Paris.

I ended up working at Disneyland for a year. It was weird to be in that park with constant music, seeing the behind-the-scenes and at the same time watching people enjoying all that fake universe. But after those 2 years in ‘’art’’ school, it was an interesting experience to be surrounded by people who had absolutely nothing to do with art, coming from all sorts of backgrounds, from different cities with different goals, a very diverse group.

I really loved that part although the work by itself was fairly rubbish. After one year, I felt I needed to come back to school and get a proper foundation. I applied for a couple of schools, Gobelins included.

Back then, I knew nothing about animation except for how to watch it, so the test was quite challenging. There were a couple of drawing exercises, storyboarding, perspective, decomposing a movement. And I was not at all familiar with the animation language too. But I ended up getting accepted.

It was a three-year program and I must say that it was a little bit frightening at the beginning. On a social level and during the apprenticeship — I was coming from a different background with a different mindset and different priorities. I needed to find jobs on the side so I could pay my rent.

Also, I was very used to working on my own, so having to work with other people and defend your ideas in a group was something new. And everyone was really into animation and had a completely different relationship with it.

I’ve never been that crazy about animation. I mean…. I’ve never contemplated that as a career option before Gobelins. People talked to me about it before, I watched a couple of films or series, but that was it.

So the first two years were a bit bumpy. I’m kind of slow to get things, so it was hard for me to understand that it wasn’t just about well-crafted drawings, haha. But my third year was really fun. We got to know each other more, and I started doing a lot of cool projects with my friends from CRCR during our internships (who were in my class).

An opening for the Annecy animation festival of 2010, done while studying at Gobelins with the people from CRCR.

And what happened after Gobelins and the collaboration with CRCR?

Well, we worked together on a couple of projects, we pitched on some jobs with a company called Wizz.

It was really fun, but for me, it was also a bit of a struggle to work as a team of directors, like I said. You can learn and achieve a lot by working as a group, but I was maybe a little bit exhausted from fighting for ideas, adapting and compromising. It was frustrating. So at one point I just felt an urge to go back to my own stuff and develop my personal style.

TODOR & PETRU: one of the pieces made with CRCR during that time.

A few months after the graduation film, I went to London. I was curious about the city and wanted to learn English.

My friend Jeremy Pires (from CRCR) moved there before me and pushed me to follow and see what was going on over there. So I went and started freelancing. But back, then I wasn’t actually looking for animation jobs because I was maybe one of the worst in my class.

I really have a hard time believing that.

It’s true, though.

Honestly, during those 3 years at Gobelins, I had no clue what I was doing. All my animation was maybe really well drawn, but the movement was offset and I couldn’t get good timing (I still have problems with that).

It was hard to convey the intentions behind my animations and, well… let’s just not talk about my 3D skills. I was really bad at it.

So I moved to London and sent a couple of emails, trying to get freelance work as a designer. But I ended up not finding anything and the only jobs people would offer would be within animation. And one job lead to another and I ended up stuck doing animation for a couple of different studios: Nexus, Passion, The Line, The Mill, Golden Wolf.

And I feel this is the moment I really started to learn it, by being forced to do it (while keeping up with my personal experiments at the same time).

Well, you definitely seemed to have figured it out! And you seem pretty comfortable experimenting with it, too. I love how you explore different transitions, shifting the perspective on the scenes. Where does that come from?

That came from the time I used to make GIF’s for my Tumblr. I used to do backgrounds in school for our films.

A couple of backgrounds done while at Gobelins.

But I’m REALLY lazy, honestly, and I like simple aesthetics too, fewer colors, simpler shapes. And my work is more focused on characters and concept, I guess.

I’ve started experimenting with how I could tell stories with minimal backgrounds in a very simple and easy way. It was just a little challenge for myself in the beginning.

A few years afterwards, I had the chance to take the concept further for an animation I made for Superdeluxe.

I am a big fan of guys like Patrick Smith or Magritte, the simplicity and the surreal aspect of their work. It’s about seeing how that could be visually and conceptually interesting, even without any animation.

How do you see the difference between making animation and illustration projects?

It’s complicated. I feel like animation is what pays the bills, at the moment.

Don’t get me wrong, I like animating. But I feel like I could stop doing it for one year or two, and I would be fine with that. I don’t see myself doing it forever.

While with drawing… I’ll never stop drawing. I’ve spent too much time doing it and developed a special relationship with the medium.

The way I start thinking about an animation project is different from how I start with an illustration project, for sure. The limitations are different. I don’t dream about working with a specific studio or artist. I just want to do my thing, really. And it happens that I’m doing animation now.

And again: it’s not that I don’t like animation, it’s just that I don’t feel that I come from that world, you know? I feel I’m very connected to my friends that do animation, I love the work of a lot of people, but it doesn’t really go beyond that.

I found myself recently talking about it with a friend of mine (who’s an animator as well), and I realized how clueless I am about what’s going on, about who did what, the basic things to know or to do in animation, haha. It might be bad or selfish to be like that, I don’t know.

But you still produce an insane amount of personal work, so it’s not like you do it just to get paid, right?

Well, I think I can get a bit compulsive, to be honest. When I start something, I think about all the different ways I can shift it, break it, play with it. I start to develop a bit of an obsessive relationship with it. It is fun.

Futur Sauvage: an animated comic Jonathan released originally as shorter loops on Instagram.

And do you get any funding for your personal projects?

No, nothing. I just try to do everything on the side of all the commercial work, really. It’s easier for me. If I get an idea, I’ll just do it. The projects are small enough to allow me to do so.

Fair enough. On that note though, I don’t understand how you manage to produce so much solid personal work. Seriously, how do you find time to do anything else except work?

Well, some of the films I’ve released recently were maybe done two years ago, just like personal exercises (with some shots missing, maybe).

I didn’t know exactly what to do with them: while one was almost done, I started another, and went back and forth when I was fed up with one of them. The guys from The Line kept pushing me about those. Like I should contact sound designers and put them online. It took me a while to do it, but I finally set them out, one after the other.

There is another point to it, too: After some time, it becomes hard to look at some of your work (and I think that happens to a lot of people). You just see the mistakes, you feel like it doesn’t represent exactly who you are anymore. And that’s something that slowed me down a bit as well.

But I had the chance to work with really talented guys that made me rediscover those films. It was surprising to hear the take from the musicians, voice actors and sound designers on those films. They brought a lot to them (many thanks to those guys, by the way: Skillbard, Box of Toys Audio, Paws Menu, Thomas Williams and Mike Jansson). So yeah, I definitely didn’t make them that quickly!

Also, I don’t go out that much. I travel a little bit, but I’m pretty reclusive overall. I love to be home, making stuff, and I don’t consider my personal work as actual work.

Fiente

Last, but definitely not least, you’re one of the very few black animators I know and the lack of diversity in this industry is something that really bugs me. Do you have any thoughts or experiences to share on the topic?

At school, there weren’t a lot of black guys. So I feel it’s an issue, definitely.

You can feel like you don’t recognize yourself and find yourself missing having more people to connect with. And you can feel that some places or some jobs just aren’t for you. It’s a bummer.

Nowadays, I feel it less because I’m mostly working from home, in my own bubble. I’m in that weird position where I’m in that industry without really being in it. But I’m trying to bring more diversity into my work. It’s important.

As a kid, most of the characters in the comics I read or cartoons I watched were always white. So I feel that now I have the responsibility to create characters that cover more than that, not only with color, but also gender and sexuality.

It’s happened on a couple of illustration jobs that I tried to push for more black characters, but then I had to change them. The feedback wasn’t explicit, more like: “Can you make his nose thinner and smaller?” Funny business!

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About the author

Bee Grandinetti

/ www.beegrandinetti.com

Bee is a designer and animator who has recently joined the team of Motionographer contributors as an UK correspondent. Born and raised in Brazil, she’s is currently based in London and giving the freelance life a quick break to spend a year working at Google’s Creative Lab, in the Google 5 program. She’s one of the co-founders of Punanimation (an online community for the ladies in the industry) and has also been helping Hyper Island reshape their Motion program as an educational consultant.

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  • Thank you for sharing.
    i love the work of Jonathan Djob Nkondo.

  • Anne Macmillan

    Thank you so much for this article! This work is amazing, he is so humble yet crazy talented. I love seeing more diverse voices represented in this field.

  • Justin Fines

    Jonathan is the best, without a doubt

  • dude is a beast

  • hs9

    Wow, the choice of shapes, colours and shift in perspective – his work is amazing! Feel so mindblown while watching Jonathan’s animations. He’s truly impressive!

  • Adam Black

    Phwooaaar! Jonathan the post-human