Unsung Heroes

Jean-Paul Vermeulen

Jean-Paul Vermeulen is currently the Storyboard Supervisor for Platinum films and is a key member of the team producing the Bear Grylls Young Adventurer Trilogy. Originally from Ghent in Belgium, he has made his home in London and the South East since 1995, moving here to be part of the film industry. He has been in the animation film industry for 27 years as both an animator, storyboard artist, storyboard supervisor and director. He has witnessed huge advancement in this area, both in technology and in the ever changing, ever evolving world of film and fulfilment of audience needs.

Jean-Paul's work has taken him to various different countries and to work in diverse cultures with some amazingly talented people. He is very grateful for the opportunities life has afforded him and values people and their differences immensely. He has undertaken a charity run to raise fund for a school in Africa and supports those in the community who are less fortunate.

What was the path that led you to today?

I grew up in Ghent in Belgium as the eldest child of two. For as long as I can remember I have loved to draw. My earliest memory of where it all began is when my Mum took me to see Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, I was 6 years old. This was absolutely mind blowing for me. I felt as if I had seen magic exploding on the screen. From there on, my mind was made up. I wanted to be an animator. My parents had a brasserie and I would cover each and every beer mat in that place with a cartoon.

I also had a love of football and played in the Belgian Youth League from the age of 8, and then in the Adult League up to the age of 21. Although football could have been an option for me, drawing was still my passion and I decided to make the choice to give up the football and follow my dreams at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Ghent to study animation film. National Service was still around in those days and I served my time in the Belgian Army after I graduated.

My first job took me across the border to Luxemburg in a clapped-out old Golf, shortly followed by the brave move to leave my family and home behind to work in London. The movie I left for was Space Jam. This was such an opportunity for me because, not only did it star Michael Jordan and all the fabulous Looney Tunes characters, but it was the first movie to mix the mediums of live action and animation. This was where it all began.

Who inspired you to do what you do?

Many people have inspired me, but I guess initially, it was Disney and they still hold a special magic for me, particularly The Sword in the Stone. I would have to say that Milt Kahl, one of Disney's Nine Old Men really influenced my work. Uli Meyer, master animator, master draftsman and a man who ate, lived, slept and breathed animation. He gave me my first break on Space Jam is still a huge inspiration to me today. He offered me opportunities in his studio I could only have dreamed of and it was under his wings where I really flourished.

What have been the biggest obstacles you have encountered?

I was in my early twenties when I lost both my parents. I was alone, living abroad and suddenly felt like I had no-one around to truly love me. Unfortunately, this led me to make some questionable choices in future relationships. My fear of being alone meant I married very quickly and unsurprisingly to the wrong person. Although the marriage ended, it was not without a great deal of struggle and pain. My mental health took a bit of a pounding during that time and the challenges at home meant that my work was my relief. My work became my sanctuary. What I produced was mine and no one could destroy it or take it away. This has made me realise that although there may not always be a silver lining, there is always a positive to be found somewhere in everything.

Biggest Triumphs?

Of course, for anyone who has children, it will always be the children who are the greatest triumph and blessing and I am thankful to have had two sons. Then it would have to be the move to London. I was so blessed to have been able to work in such a vibrant, diverse City on some amazing projects. The third would be climbing the highest peak in Morocco, the Toubkal. Reaching the peak made me feel euphoric. Like the world was mine!

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?

As my parents passed away so early in my life, it meant they did not see the growth of my career or witness my successes. They were a huge support to me, financially and emotionally through my education and I would have loved for them to have the chance to feel proud of me. It would have meant the world to me for them to have been part of my children's lives. These things have taught me the lesson that I should never take things for granted and always appreciate what I have.

Why is getting outdoors so important in modern life?

Being outside is great for the soul and to be able to be at one with your inner self. To feel the connection with nature and to recharge. To feel the elements, the icy bite of the air or the warmth of the sun. Being outside and away from all the daily stresses of life is vital for our mental wellbeing. When we live in a 24/7 available world and consistently have the pressures life brings, it feels good to be recharged in the outdoors.

Amongst all the endeavours you have been involved with, which is the most unforgettable and why?

For me, this has to be the journey I have been on since I left Belgium. It has been a challenge to leave my home with only a small amount of English. I had to take myself way out of my comfort zone and immerse myself in an entirely new culture and lifestyle. I had the experience of meeting and working with some of the most talented people the industry has. Although this has not all been positive and my personal life has at times been almost more of a challenge than I could face, I am proud of where I have ended up. I now feel settled and happy and part of something fantastic.

Why is this particular project so important to you?

I have had the amazing chance to work as a Storyboard Supervisor on the Bear Grylls Young Adventurer Trilogy. It has been so very different to work on an animation based around a real character. The challenge with it has always been that when the lead character is fictional, you can allow your imagination to take the story wherever it ends. When it is about a real character, the story has to be told as it is and the character and his personality must be transformed accurately and truthfully into animation as much as possible – of course allowing for some artistic licence!

I am really enjoying seeing the whole story evolve from the origins of a boy with a compass through his journey learning life skills, survival techniques and a sense of belonging. I feel I am so very privileged to have a view into the life of a child who is alone and his journey to become a member of a team which can make a difference in the world.

Through this project, I am taking time for self-reflection. So much time spent studying someone so inspirational makes me want to emulate these behaviours and beliefs. As a storyteller, I can feel myself growing as an adult and certain aspects and emotions of the character remind me of my youth. For me, this is not just about transforming a story into animated feature trilogy, this is about working as a small cog in a huge machine. That machine has come to feel a little like family to me. I feel truly blessed to work as part of such a phenomenal group of people on such an inspirational project. This is paralleled in the story of the movie from the start where everyone is getting to know each other, learning about each other and then as they work together, they become a strong unit able to be successful and rejoice in each other's triumphs.

Who has been an unsung hero in your life?

My partner Sue has been an unsung hero. She is an amazing person. Not only is she a hugely supportive partner, but she is my best friend, my confident and the kindest person I know. She never says 'no' to anyone who needs her help. She will do anything for those she loves and always puts herself out for those who are struggling in society. She is a truly altruistic humanitarian and has taught me a lot about myself and other people.

Do you have a motto you live by?

I have two mottos I live by, depending on the situation. My first is 'Finish what you've started.' And the second is that 'Kindness costs nothing.'

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