Rocco Fazzari

A word with … Rocco Fazzari

In Interviews by Peter Gearin

The former newspaper artist is a leader in video and digital illustration.

Rocco Fazzari is one of Sydney’s best known and most loved illustrators. The multimedia artist and video animator’s work appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald for 28 years before he started doing projects for government and corporate clients. He is a pioneer of drawing on an iPad Pro and his storytelling reveals an eye for the simple pleasures that many of us miss.

Brand Tales: Why should brand marketers choose drawings in preference to photos?

Rocco Fazzari: Well, taking a photograph has its limitations. You’re constricted by the technology of the camera and lighting and the subject matter. Drawing spans the horizon. There’s no limit to the human imagination, it can just go on forever. You knock down a lot of boundaries and walls and you can extend beyond the beyond.

BT: There’s something really artisan about illustration, isn’t there?

Fazzari: That’s right. And if you look at a screen, as most people do nowadays, your eye is always drawn to hand-drawn stuff more than a photograph. Your eye just zeroes in on it. It’s very seductive in the digital world.

BT: Illustrations draw you in the same way picture books did when you were a child …

Fazzari: They bring out the child in you; they uninhibit you. One of the things I still love is when I see people’s handwriting. It tells you a lot about the person: how big they are, how well educated they are, whatever. An email tells you nothing other than the words that are there, but handwriting does, in the same way a drawing does.

BT: Why should a business enlist an illustrator to visualise their content?

Fazzari: When I was hired to do what I did in newspapers for so long, what I did was the original “clickbait”. It was to drag the reader in – to arrest the eye and introduce them to a story. That’s what I do – cerebral clickbait. For the marketer, it’s the welcome mat. It’s saying: “Hey, look at me. I’m here, I’m original, I’m different – come in and see what I’ve got to offer you.” Companies spend a fortune getting the right staff, decking out their business and then they go and market themselves with Clip Art. They might as well just say: “Hey, we’re the new McDonald’s.”

BT: How often would you actually use a pen or pencil these days?

Fazzari: Well, I draw traditionally every morning, but I also draw on the iPad Pro. I’ve just completed two big projects for the ABC – close to 100 drawings – and it was all done on the iPad. The beauty of the iPad is that it cuts out the middle process of having to scan drawings in, bring them into PhotoShop and then send them through. With the iPad you just draw and email it out. Once you get the hang of it, it really is a beautiful device. People say, “It’s a machine”. It’s not the machine: it’s the person that uses it.

BT: Do you feel you’ve mastered the iPad process the same way you excelled with pencil and crayon?

Fazzari: I started drawing on my smartphone: I used to draw people on the train and buses (and I still do). But the mistake I made was trying to draw the same way I drew with pencil and paper. The best way of describing the difference is like in the movies, when you see a woman go to a prison to see her husband and you see her put her hands against the glass to touch her husband – they can’t actually touch each other. It’s a bit like that. There’s a piece of glass between you and what you’re producing. When you draw traditionally, the paper bites back at the pencil – you can feel the pencil dig in. On glass, the stylus or your finger floats across the glass. It’s totally different. And once you accept that and you acknowledge it, that’s when you can really get going on it.

BT: What attracts you to a story?

Fazzari: When I first drew people on trains and buses, I just thought they were interesting. It’s great to draw people and it’s really hard to get people to sit for you, but on the train almost everybody on a train or bus are on their smartphone, so they’re sitting unnaturally still to begin with. It was my curiosity of these people and them sitting so still and wondering what they were looking at. Posting to Facebook and Instagram led to quite a few inquiries from people for me to do work for them. The Art Gallery of NSW ran my drawings in their publication. I ended up running workshops for them on how to draw on digital devices.

BT: You have done quite a bit of animated video for editorial and commercial clients. What is it about that medium that interests you?

Fazzari: I like developing characters and exploring storylines. If someone says, “I went down to the shop to buy a bottle of milk,” that can be pretty boring but I like to turn it into an adventure. Along the way there’ll be butterflies flying and you might bend over to pick up some piece of scrap metal, or a funny looking car will drive by. I like all those incidental things that happen in our lives that we never pay attention to. The way light falls across a building or a leaf floats across you, walking across a spider web … I see my job as trying to turn a trip to the shops into the marvel that it is.

“I’m not producing Shrek – I’m producing work in the spirit of YouTube.”Rocco Fazzari

BT: Have you come to terms with giving up editorial’s creative freedom and allowing clients to have exactly what they want?

Fazzari: I have clients who say to me, “We want blues, greens and a person who has red pants on, blue glasses, blah blah.” And then I have clients who say, “Rocco, we just want you to do your thing and we’re happy to pay you for it”, and there’s people in between. With the first kind of client, I’ll do what they want and then say, “Look, you know, we could actually go one step beyond and turn this into something really magical.” I enjoy the discipline of working to a client’s brief. It forces you to do things you normally wouldn’t do, and explore things and learn new ways of doing things. The discipline, I think, is very good.

BT: How much preparation do you typically need once you’ve been given a brief?

Fazzari: I have a vision of the end product and work back from that. I do some research, I go for a walk, I have a coffee, and then I take it from there. While I’m talking to my client, I take lots and lots of notes. I work fast. It’s my temperament. It’s the way I work; how I’ve always worked. It keeps the costs down, which is good for the client and it’s good for me.

BT: How do you cope with having to make constant client changes?

Fazzari: I try to stipulate three or four changes but I normally end up doing more. But when you’re drawing on the iPad it’s really easy because I draw in layers. That makes changes really easy; the same as when I’m making a video. It’s all in bits and pieces – you can take one piece out and put one in and it won’t be a problem.

BT: Are you seeing any particular trends in the way you’re being asked to work?

Fazzari: There’s a bigger call out for video and stronger visuals. I think people are always surprised that there are people actually making these things. I don’t know if people know where they come from or they just appear out of nowhere! One of the problems of animation is that it can be horrendously expensive, which turns people off. But there are people like me who are in the middle ground, where we work really, really fast. I’m not producing Shrek – I’m producing work in the spirit of YouTube where people go, “Look at this – I feel like I’m part of it, I don’t feel alienated by it”.

BT: Did you have any major influences as a young illustrator?

Fazzari: I used to really like stuff people like Ralph Steadman were doing, as well as David Levine in the US, but that was really heavy political stuff. I’m more into social awareness and being part of the community. The whole world for people now is 10 centimetres from their face, in their hand. They’re looking down at it and everything has to be fed through that. It’s no longer TV, it’s not the radio, it’s not a newspaper – it’s that damn thing [smartphone]. I purposely produce art that looks perfect on those devices.

[Music producer] Phil Spector had a studio that cost millions of dollars to produce that sound he wanted. At that time, the studio was the best money could buy. He had cables and cords that came out of everything into one big cable and then the cable would plug into – you know what? – a transistor radio. He played back everything he produced through that thing. He said, “This is how everyone hears it so why would I produce high-end stuff that no-one’s ever going to hear, when everyone hears it through the transistor radio?” I’m the same way. Whatever I produce, the first thing I do is throw it onto my phone, open it up and see what it looks like. Fonts, typefaces … everything. Whether it’s an illustration or a GIF or a video, I play it on my phone. I’ll say to a client: “It looks fantastic on your screen, it looks great on your printout but, hey, check it out on your phone.”

Links & references

Fazzari’s recent storytelling project for the ABC on surviving domestic violence in the church

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