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How did you get started in animation? I’ve always loved animated movies and TV shows. I collected racks of VHS tapes as a kid—Japanese films like Akira and stop-motion pieces like Wallace and Gromit. A true child of the 1980s, I filled my head with superheroes and Saturday cartoons, Batman and Dragon Ball Z. I remember a moment from sixth or seventh grade: I told myself, “I’m going to be an animator in Japan.”

I was a flighty kid, though, so I ended up playing competitive tennis and pretending to be a writer until falling headfirst into oil painting. Painting served as my primary medium until about two years ago, when it clicked that my works in paper and my drawings could be manipulated for video. I still feel like a novice, but some of these pieces have resonated with people, and I’m continuing to learn.

How did soccer become the theme of your animations? I’m a victim of my own nostalgia. As I get older, childhood influences surface in my artwork, and I can’t ignore them.

I played soccer as a kid, but slowly lost interest. Then, in 2006, I spent a summer with an Italian host family and studied art history in Florence. I had placed Italy on a pedestal for years, but nothing could prepare me for the impact of being there: Donatello sculptures casually draped across facades. Frescoes and oil paintings. The luminous ochres and reds of the architecture. The room at the Uffizi Gallery which held Leonardo da Vinci’s Annunciation and the double portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino by Piero della Francesca. Magical.

I met some great people and watched the drama of the 2006 FIFA World Cup unfold in the heart of Italy as well as in the host country, Germany. A small group of us ventured to the fan mile for the quarterfinal between Germany and Argentina. When Germany won, Berlin erupted. A man fell through a glass window, shots fired out over the crowd, riot police bashed in the heads of a mass of brawlers and a fine mist of lager descended over us. It was energizing and frightening. I had never seen such fervor, and it rekindled my interest in the game and its culture.
I’m a victim of my own nostalgia.

What is it about soccer that inspires your imagination as an artist? Soccer is linked to emotion and place and superstition. One of the original versions of “soccer” in the Middle Ages involved carrying a ball by any means necessary through a warren of medieval streets. There were an infinite number of participants and a no-holds-barred strategy, which resulted in broken bones and concussions.

As the game became more sophisticated and bounded by rules, clubs formed with highly specific identities, colors and histories. I love that the Italian soccer club Juventus F.C.’s black-and-white stripes were inspired by an English soccer club—Notts County F.C.—in the early 1900s. I love that the number ten, made famous by the players Diego Maradona, Pelé and so many others, is held up reverentially as a symbol. I love every strategy, tactic, formation and intricacy of the game and consider myself a student of its history.

Your animations observe soccer’s iconic moments. Which moments stand out for you, and how do you capture the emotions of these moments in your animations? In 1986, Diego Maradona dragged Argentina to the FIFA World Cup Trophy by sheer force of will. In Argentina’s match against England, he scored the slaloming drive that many call the “Goal of the Century,” as well as his infamous handball. I’ve made multiple versions, and in the most recent, Diego is propelled through a channel of lights, up towards a collaged figure of Christ holding out an outstretched palm. Maradona’s face is plastered across Argentina and parts of Naples, where he also played, as a form of deity, so when I draw him, I look for links to the cosmos, religious icons and Renaissance painting.

I also frequently revisit French player Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt against Italian player Marco Materazzi in the 2006 FIFA World Cup, for which Zidane was expelled from the match. The madness of that moment, watched by millions around the globe, sticks with me. I’m attracted to moments that leave a trail of consequences—little wrinkles in sports history.

Are there any clichés you try to avoid in your animation work? I try not to get too sucked in to what’s popular about soccer. If I try to work topically, the results are generally blasé. If soccer player Neymar gets a new haircut, I might find a way into that because I’ve always loved sports haircuts, from tennis player Andre Agassi’s to soccer player Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima’s half moon forehead stubble. But if a new wunderkind comes along and scores three goals in his first match, I can’t just leap in there and try to immortalize it. I have to find a connection with the action, the player or my own memories to be able to go deeper with the imagery. It all comes back to being a kid, looking at posters of tennis player Pete Sampras or soccer player Alexi Lalas on my wall, spending long afternoons watching sports or playing street hockey in the cul-de-sac. If I can tap into that reservoir of memory, then I typically know that what I’m making will be strong.

How does your animation work for clients like the Guardian differ from your fine art? When I was a younger artist, I struggled mightily to “find my way” into commissions. I would lose interest and see commissions as a slog. I only wanted to work on my own ideas. Now, when offered the opportunity to make commissioned work—be it for the Guardian, Nike, or a limited-run book or magazine—I search with more purpose for my way into that work. If I don’t see a pathway in, I don’t take the job. Those pathways present themselves in the subject matter, the composition or the general approach to the project. I’ve been very lucky that Make Savvy, the small studio I created with producer, recording engineer and drummer Josh Giunta, has been given a great deal of creative freedom by our clients.

For example, we crafted an animation about American football for Nike. I don’t know anything about football, so I spent time watching plays, looking at equipment and asking: Which stitches does a quarterback’s hand rest on? Do players call out “hut” or “hike,” like in middle school football? How many face bars rest on the front of a football helmet? I enjoy the research and learning gained from commissions.

Your style utilizes a range of media, including collage, ink drawings and paper cutouts. How has your style evolved, and how do you adapt it to different projects? I seek fluency in different media. My brain switches back and forth between multiple ways of working. Some days are for ink, others are for collage, and others still are for writing, animation, painting or building. I’m trying to tie those days together more cohesively.

I remember studying artist R.B. Kitaj’s work in school. I was impressed by his confidence to jumble visual languages. He placed light, loose drawing lines next to densely painted figures and backspaces. He made images illustrative and painterly at the same time. I also poured over artist Willem de Kooning’s work. His massive shifts in approach, scale and surface still resonate with me.

I force myself to use different means and tools to make artwork. If I can make the movement or drawing with great ease, then I’ll switch which hand I’m using or invert colors in order to see things differently. I’ll pick imagery at random or from my sketchbook and work in an imposed context—anything to trick my brain into a problem solving mode that isn’t over reliant on facility with the hand or tool. I tell clients upfront that I work in multiple ways, and they seem to be cool with that. But occasionally, folks come along and want styles or images based on a small subsection of my art, which I’ll accommodate if it feels right.

What inspires you lately? I’m a sucker for old illustrated children’s books. I recently bought a copy of my favorite from elementary school that is now out of print, Peter Dallas-Smith’s Trouble for Trumpets. It’s a densely layered book illustrated by an Englishman named Peter Cross. Little animals and figures hide under each meticulously painted leaf.

I’ve been reading a great deal of Kazuo Ishiguro and Italo Calvino. Those guys use language in such a wonderfully direct way, but they leave space for the reader’s mind to wander, make assumptions and feel lost. Invisible Cities by Calvino is probably my favorite book. When I’m feeling uninspired or tired, I’ll flip to a random minichapter to admire his poetics.

I also have an old Nintendo and Super Nintendo. I get absorbed in the dense, artificial pixel colors of those games, and my wife and I take frequent trips to the local vintage arcade hangout as well. We’ll buy handfuls of tokens and play Ms. Pac-Man. I love my neighborhood at the intersection of the Brooklyn neighborhoods East Williamsburg and Greenpoint. I play soccer, eat and hang out here. It’s a traditionally Italian neighborhood, but it’s sprinkled with all of the funky bars, cheese shops and restaurants that always find their way into the corners of New York.

What advice do you have for people just entering the field of animation? Learn as much as you can from the people you admire, both living and historical. Then, spend a few years stomping around in the mire, trying to sort out your teachers’ thoughts, your own expectations, your low self esteem, your jealousy, your parents—whatever it is—in your head. Just keep making. The struggle for fluency, like any language, takes time. Don’t get a full-time desk job, whatever you do. Then, when you see that glimmer of light that feels like something akin to a voice, grab onto it. And don’t stop.
Case Jernigan grew up in Charleston, South Carolina. He studied painting and art history at the College of William & Mary and the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture. After a brief teaching stint in Connecticut, Jernigan moved to New York to focus on art. He has shown paintings and drawings in galleries in South Carolina, Virginia and Brooklyn, and has made illustrations and drawings for clients like the New York Times, Kate Spade New York and music magazine The FADER. In 2016, he and his soccer teammate Josh Giunta formed Make Savvy studio—they’ve created dynamic video animation and sound pieces for Nike, the Guardian and soccer club Juventus F.C. Jernigan lives in Brooklyn with his wife, a handbag designer, and coaches high school soccer/tennis players and draws Batman almost every day.
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