Andy Harkness is an insanely talented artist at the Walt Disney Animation Studios. He also really, really loves bugs. So when the opportunity arose to create a children’s book as part of the Walt Disney Animation Artists Showcase line of Disney Publishing, Harkness knew exactly what he wanted the focus of the book to be: bugs. Thus, Bug Zoo was born.
Bug Zoo tells the story of Ben, a little boy who loves and collects bugs, eventually amassing a six-legged menagerie, collected in various jars. Of course, Ben soon realizes that there’s something more fulfilling than having his favorite insects locked away in jars, and sets them free. The book is heartfelt and touching; beautifully illustrated using clay models of the bugs and characters. It’s a children’s book unlike anything we’ve ever seen, like an uncanny mixture of Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar and “Wallace and Gromit.”
We sat down with Harkness to talk about how the book got the go-ahead, how he settled on the sculptural look of the illustrations, and what it was like juggling his day job with creating this delightful children’s book.
Can you talk about the presentation you had to give to get the book green lit?
I submitted three illustrations, along with a really short premise. The first time I did this was 8 or 9 years ago. And there was a group of people–the story guys, and some directors. And they took all of these submissions, maybe 100 submissions, and they slowly whittled them down to a select few. They got it down to three stories and I had no idea what was going on until I found out that I was one of the three. And then it goes to John Lasseter and John was the one who picked it to be made. In general, the idea of a lot of people in animation loving kids books too, it felt like a related thing. And knowing that Disney would do it and it would be done well, and have access to all of these fantastic story people to bounce ideas off of. When I was told I got it, I think I cried a little bit. It was an absolute dream.
You’d wanted to do a children’s book for a long time?
Yes. In second grade my friends and I used to fight over a children’s book. And it was a good weekend if I could get it and it was a bad weekend if I couldn’t get it. So it was always my goal to write a book that kids felt that excited about. Like the movies, it could take you somewhere special. So to get to finally make this thing was a huge dream come true.
Where did this story come from?
I come from a long line of bug hunters. My mom has this story about my dad where they were on their honeymoon and him getting so mad that he missed a butterfly that he threw the net and went crazy. I remember seeing these beautiful mounted butterflies and so I got into butterflies too. When I was 12-years-old I was on this trip and there was this blue butterfly that I really wanted to catch. They never come down, they always stay above the trees, and I had this tiny little net. But we came around this clearing and this butterfly had come down. It was an absolute dream–I caught this butterfly and it was the greatest day of my life. And I kept it for my collection and the next day we were camping and I had it in a bag and ants had gotten in there and eaten that butterfly and all the other butterflies I had caught. I had this sick feeling. I thought it was so beautiful and I had destroyed it. It always stuck with me–wanting to keep this thing that’s so beautiful, but is it really yours to keep?
Where did this kind of sculptural style for the book come from?
It came from my deep, deep love of bugs. The original artwork that I pitched to Disney was all watercolor. But it didn’t feel like it was real enough. It needed to be tangible, something that you could pick up. And I had been working with clay a lot and you can light them, do a lot with natural lighting, and change them in Photoshop. So that idea kept percolating in my head. But it took forever; it was an incredibly tedious process. After the book was initially picked, I couldn’t do it. I just had too much work to do. I thought I had lost the chance. But they called me back and said, “Do you still want to do this book?” So that’s when it started. The first illustrations took a long, long time and then it got faster. It was something of a production line where I would do a little bit of sculpting, and do all of the wings, and then the heads, etc. I’m my own worst critic so a lot of clay got destroyed and mashed up. It was also a little bit of a risk because they had signed off on the idea with the watercolors. But this was in my heart, I couldn’t do it any other way. Luckily, when they saw the final illustrations, they loved it.
And all of the bugs in the book are real. Why was that so important to you?
I’m such a bug nerd, especially butterflies, that I just wanted to be true to that world. I could have done fantasy bugs but there’s such an amazing array of insects and bugs out there already. And I couldn’t make up the kind of bugs that actually exist. I wanted to show off what you can see in nature if you go out there. If kids are interested in a particular bug, they can research it and find it. It was a labor of love in that way, to be true to it.
What was it like switching between your day job at Walt Disney Animation Studios and working on the book?
One fed the other, in a weird way. They were definitely different aesthetics, but some of the sets in Moana I started to do in clay. So I’d get better at clay on the movie, and bring that expertise into the book after hours. I was covered in clay all the time.
Bug Zoo is out on February 16.