Christopher Oakley is a quiet, thoughtful man who had quiet, thoughtful goals when he moved from Los Angeles to Fairview two years ago, intent on leaving behind the high-pressure world of professional animation.
In his new mountain home, he planned to volunteer for political candidates he liked, do some work for his church and paint portraits. Happily, he went about setting up a studio.
Then, one day, the phone rang—and everything changed.
It was L.A. art director John Narum, looking for an artist who could do some Flash animation for a special project.
Oakley wasn’t particularly interested—until the voice on the line said the name “Keith Haring.” The job involved animating drawings by the ‘80s graffiti-art superstar; the Haring estate, the director explained, had given permission for the late artist’s work to be used as video backup for Madonna’s current Sticky & Sweet world tour.
Oakley had extensive experience in various branches of animation. He began his career creating the sets and characters for the California Raisins ad campaign back in 1986. He then worked for CBS to make the popular Penny cartoons for Pee-wee’s Playhouse while continuing to animate commercials—including the Pillsbury Doughboy and images in Bud Bowl I and II. Walt Disney Studios hired Oakley in 1996, and in 2000 he created the lemurs in Dinosaur. He also did exciting work on the groundbreaking 3-D genie for the Aladdin attraction at Disneyland Tokyo.
In 2001, he animated the horses and the cavalry in the DreamWorks movie Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron; the next year, he did Scooby Doo, Stuart Little 2 and Men in Black II.
Despite his long résumé, though, Oakley had just begun to experiment with Flash—a Web-born animation format that gained new life through YouTube—when he was approached about the Madonna project. But he decided he had to give new life to Haring’s iconic figures.
The first images sent to Oakley were from Haring’s early career. He preferred later selections, however, and to his delight, Narum told him: “You have complete freedom—just come up with some cool stuff.”
Oakley says he’d always been impressed with Haring’s human figures and their interactions, and thus the artist’s well-known “Radiant Baby” was a favorite image. Under his animating hand, the figures leapt from the heads of other figures, and the cavorting baby appeared wherever Oakley could put him. Haring’s tug-of-war figures became figures jumping rope, and his dog image now stands and dances on two legs.
After the first couple of 16-hour, seven-day work weeks, Madonna saw Oakley’s cartoons for the first time. She reportedly loved the newly kinetic figures, and even asked if they could be made to mimic her own moves on stage. Oakley happily complied.
He says he’s only seen his work on YouTube up till now, but he plans to be at Madonna’s upcoming Atlanta concert. “It’s amazing,” remarks the artist, “to think that an image created on such a small scale can be enlarged to be viewed on these 10-, 15- and 20-foot screens.”
Oakley doesn’t know whether he’ll be invited backstage, but he’s glad to have given fresh life to some of the most memorable drawings of the 20th century.
More recently, though, he’s gone back to a project even closer to his heart—a portrait series memorializing those who have made contributions to the lives of gays and lesbians, famous and otherwise. He is also working on a children’s TV series with Blue Ridge Motion Pictures.
Joe Hoffman, Oakley’s pastor at the First Congregational Church of Asheville, is impressed with his willingness to share his talent: “Christopher is a real asset to our program here. He has a wonderful understanding and vision of where art fits—and the ways in which it can enrich all our lives.”
[Connie Bostic is an Asheville-based painter and writer.]
Christopher Oakley’s animations of Keith Haring’s drawings can be seen as part of Madonna’s Sticky & Sweet Tour (which comes to Atlanta’s Phillips Arena on Monday, Nov. 24) or on YouTube.