Animator Erik Winkowski Walks Us Through His Unique Video Collages

Posted inDesigner Interviews

If you’re a design head, chances are the almighty algorithm serves you a never-ending cavalcade of posts from all manner of artists. Every so often, one of these posts will break through the noise and stop me in my scroll. This was the case with animator Erik Winkowski.

Calling Winkowski an animator doesn’t do his interdisciplinary work justice. He’s more of a video collage artist, known for adding colorful paint strokes to black-and-white footage, or cutting out subjects from one source and placing them somewhere completely unexpected. Through each bite-sized video, this media-molding craftsman shares a playful world view with his avid Instagram following of over 150K fans.

At New York’s Cooper Union, Winkowski studied animation and graphic design, in addition to mediums like sculpture and printmaking. He went on to work for his professor, John Vondracek, at The String Theory studio before moving to New Orleans. There, Winkowski landed at small boutique agency Tom Varisco Designs, where he dabbled in experimental filmmaking. In 2018, he launched his Video Sketchbook project, in which he shared a video experiment on his Instagram every day.

Since then, Winkowski has created a prolific freelance career for himself. His impressive clientele includes the likes of Prada, Gucci, Hermès, and The New York Times.

My fascination with Winkowski’s unique style made me eager to chat with him directly. Below, we discuss his artistic journey, his influences, and why he’s so obsessed with hands.

(This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.)

What’s it like being an artist in New Orleans? I would imagine that living in a city with such distinct and beautiful aesthetics is invigorating as an artist.

I had a real misconception about New Orleans before I actually came down to live here. I thought it was like Las Vegas— just getting wasted all the time. That’s not at all the case. There’s just so much city-wide creativity going on. One of the first things I noticed was all of the hand-painted signs. They’re all over the place, and that became a big inspiration, and has informed some of my work. Also, the sense of color. It’s almost Caribbean vibes here. It’s not at all out of the ordinary to see houses painted turquoise or pink, and that exuberance and color was something that definitely inspired me.

Your interdisciplinary art background seems to have influenced your work a lot as well, in terms of developing your unique video collage style. 

Certain influences affect the work in ways you wouldn’t have expected. Doing printmaking and silkscreen totally changed how I thought about layering color, for instance. Those are still things I do in animation. I’m always thinking about four-color separation. 

“Scary Prairie” music video with art & animation by Erik Winkowski, and music by Billy Lilly

Are there any animators or filmmakers who have been particularly influential for you?

People like Norman McLaren are a big influence on me. [I love] his wonderfully playful, experimental approach to animation, and [how he mixes] live action with animation. It’s funny though— as much as I work almost entirely in video, I get most of my inspiration from painting and graphic design. Like, almost entirely painting. I’m obsessed with painters.

Whenever I’m feeling stuck, I turn to a book on painting. The question I’m always asking whenever I’m at a museum or going through these books is, how might this thing move? There’s always some sort of hint in whatever you’re looking at, whether it’s in the color or the line. You can always kind of imagine how it might start to move. As much as there’s a personality in how something looks, there’s also a huge amount of personality in how something moves.

You’ve mentioned elsewhere that Michael Jackson’s “Leave Me Alone” video captivated you at a young age and pulled you toward a certain animation style. What about that video made such an impact on you?

I remember literally weeping as a child when I saw it. It was just so incredible— I couldn’t explain it to my parents. I was like, “You don’t get it! This is amazing!” I wanted to like, eat it or something? And I realize, now that I’m old, I just wanted it to be a part of me. I wanted to somehow do something like that. I had no language for understanding how anything like that was done. It seemed to me like imagination brought to life. Maybe that’s corny.

I don’t even know if I knew at the time that I wanted to do anything like that, but I do think it has been a touchpoint for me since then. I absolutely still love it. I think it’s gorgeous. [With all the] vintage footage brought together with live action and 3D stuff going on, it’s such a visual feast.

The other big one for me was Who Framed Roger Rabbit. There’s this moment in the film when they drive into Toontown, and that was another mind-blowing thing for me. I think the connection between those two things is these photographic worlds— the world that we’re used to, the live-action world— meeting art that’s come to life somehow. It’s this really exciting intersection between the real world and the imaginary world.

What’s your typical process for creating a video collage? Are you using found footage or capturing all of the video yourself?

It really depends. I started this Video Sketchbook project in 2018 when I was still working a day job. I realized that job really wasn’t what I was trying to get out of my life, or my career— I wanted to be making the type of art that I had in mind full time. So I started going out on my lunch break and taking the full hour to just video, recording things in the neighborhood. It was often not terribly interesting things— traffic cones, or a crow on a wire, or the shadow of a leaf. Then when I’d come home, I’d try to figure out how to use all of that.

So earlier on, almost all of the things that I was using in the videos were things that I had shot and then [manipulated] somehow. But then there’s also a fair amount of vintage footage. If you see someone in one of my videos in a bowler hat that’s black and white footage, that’s probably someone that I found on Prelinger Archives.

I’ve noticed a recurring motif of human hands in your work. What is it about hands that you find so visually interesting? 

I’ve always drawn my hands. When you lack a model, they’re always there. They’re complex, and can almost be a stand-in for a person in a way. When I was a kid, we had one of these lamps that was a very polished, chrome, upright cylinder…I remember you could put your hand in front of it, and the reflection was super distorted, so the fingers would look like they were super long and skinny, or like sausage fingers. I could do that for hours. I was just fascinated by the shapes.

I was using hands because they were there, and because I didn’t have somebody else to use in the videos. But they started to have their own feeling that I liked. It’s interesting looking back at the earliest cave paintings— you’ll see that the motif of hands is all over the place. I got the chance to go to the Lascaux caves in France when I was pretty young, and I remember this incredible experience of walking through the caves with these hands waving back to me through tens of thousands of years. There’s something so universal about the hand. It’s like, “I am here.” It’s almost like a pre-verbal signature.

I did a video recently for Hermès with hands for their nail polish, and one of the things I realized on that project is that hands are so incredibly flexible, and they can make so many different shapes. You can make squares, and circles, and triangles…They’re these great acrobats or dancers to be able to work with.

Plus, most art is literally made by hands. So maybe there’s this subconscious pull toward them thematically.

Yeah, like the handmade piece of work. That’s something that I want in my work—it should feel like a hand worked on it. 

It’s clear that you’ve embraced social media platforms as an artist, and the launch of your Video Sketchbook project seems to have been a pivotal moment in your career. What is it like to evolve with the times through your art?

Some of it is purely from a practical point of view. Almost everything is shot on my iPhone, and as they say: the best camera is the one you carry with you. I think a lot of people, in the beginning especially, thought social media is for cat videos and memes, but not for serious art. Maybe that was true at a time, but in a way I think that’s the brilliance of social media— putting something out there that maybe people don’t totally expect to see.

I’m of the feeling that the more art that can be in the world, the better. It really doesn’t matter too much what the medium is that people are seeing it. Most people’s experience with art pre-social media was in a museum or a gallery, which is great and still totally unbeatable. But if you can bring in some art while waiting at a bus stop, or in between meetings or something like that, fantastic!

I realized that social media is where people spend time. And why wouldn’t you want to put your work in a place where people are spending time? Ultimately, what matters is having a connection with somebody, making work that people seize. That’s the really important thing; it doesn’t quite matter so much where that is.