When did you realize you could get paid to draw and how did you pursue it?
I always knew I wanted to do animation. Like a lot of artists I was always drawing growing up. I grew up in Detroit so there wasn’t a lot of what you might call animation schools, at least that I knew of around there at the time. When I got out of high school there was a lot of commercial art and trade schools in Detroit, the whole area was very heavy into advertising and design for the auto industry, that was kind of what was available. I ended up going to the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and it was all commercial art and fine art and I knew I wanted to get into animation but they weren’t teaching much of that at all. I figured I’d have to figure that out later and meanwhile I guess I’d learn how to do advertising and get paid for doing art one way or another. I set my sights on the industry and most of that was in California so before graduation I sent out a bunch of letters to studios out there asking what they look for, what they need, that sort of thing. Turns out a friend of mine had graduated a few quarters before I did and wrote me back and said, “hey I just got hired at one of the studios” and he gave me a lot of insight into what to expect. Basically filling up your portfolio with a lot of life drawing, luckily we had a lot of that at the commercial art school, which surprised a lot of people out in LA because they figured commercial art all you’d have was posters and billboards and things like that. So I came prepared for that. I had met my wife at school and once we graduated we just kind of took 50 bucks on a one way Greyhound bus to LA.
I made the rounds of the studios showing my portfolio, Disney and all these places were always open to look at things and that felt like a good start. When I got to Disney they were kind of surprised that I had life drawing in my portfolio, there was a bit of an attitude at the time that anyone coming from a back east school or commercial school can’t be that good or can’t be what they’re looking for, it took them back a bit I guess. They almost didn’t want to believe I did it so they took my portfolio and disappeared for a bit and when the guy came back he said it’s really great but could you come back in two weeks with a whole new one (laughs) just to show us that you’re actually doing it. I was a little deflated but I thought what the heck. At the same time Hanna Barbera, known for The Flintstones and all those shows, had a night class going on and that was perfect because that was a great intro into what you actually need to do for animation. I got into their night class and before I ever got back to Disney they hired me out of the class to start doing animation. That was pretty much the start of it, of course that was pretty much the end of Hanna Barbera too, they only lasted a few more years before they got bought out.
That was after I was at Hanna Barbera doing assistant animation. I left Hanna Barbera and went over to Filmation because I heard they were hiring and Hanna Barbera had just finished up a bunch of stuff and were planning a layoff so it seemed like a good time to go check something else out. They hired me over there for assistant animator. That’s doing the in-between drawings and cleaning up the animators routes and all that. They had several things going on at the time when I got there, they had Flash Gordon, Fat Albert was a big thing back then, all of those were going on before the He-Man stuff kicked in. They were working on He-Man and the industry was actually going through a slump, as it often does (laughs). That was a major one and it was kind of saved by the toy industry at the time, which was Mattel who sponsored the whole He-Man thing. I started doing some animation on that and kind of quickly about that time was offered to either do story boards or character design. I chose character design because it was a bit more fun and I figured I’d learn storyboarding later. I moved over into character design and have been doing that ever since.
What are the roles and responsibilities of a character designer?
Basically you get a script and you go through the script and depending on how large the department is or how much help there is you’re either handed a list or you make your own list of what’s in the script and what needs to be designed. It can be anything from a new main character that they’re fighting or the shopkeeper down the street that you’re just passing by, all of that has to be designed. You could have 5,10, or 15 new background characters for every show that people don’t even think about but they’re there and have to be designed, plus the main character that’s new for that episode. You read the script and you get a description on He-Man and She-Ra: Princess of Power after that, I was given most of the female characters which I didn’t complain about, that was cool (laughs). You have to design them within the style of the show, every show has it’s own style, back then there wasn’t as strong a style as happened later in the industry, it was kind of a cross between a cleaned up comic book drawing and somewhat simplified for animation purposes but still had sort of a basic realistic feel to it, at least on the super hero stuff. Basically you do a three-quarter front view of the character as a sketch and show it to your supervisor, get approvals on that, then they’d run it through whoever else needed to look at it in the studio, usually head of the studio, in this case Lou Scheimer, get his approval on it and the development people. You have to do what we call a turnaround where you do kind of like an architectural drawing for a house, you have to have all the different sides because the animator needs to know what each view looks like. You do a turnaround model sheet where you do a front view, side view, 3/4 front view, back view, sometimes a 3/4 back view, that would be the general turnaround model sheet but you might do some poses or expressions and all that was included in the model sheet for that character. It was a lot of work for each one.
Who does the character designer work closest with?
Mostly the job hasn’t changed as far as you’re getting a script and you go through it and you check out which characters are needed to be designed. It does vary from studio to studio, at The Simpsons now they have a lot of people that help break down the script, we’re basically handed a list by a design supervisor who has pretty much gone through and broken down the script between new backgrounds that need to be designed, which will go to a background designer, prop design, which is anything that is picked up, carried around, or moved, like a vehicle, a book, a cup, any inanimate thing, signs or posters, that goes to a prop design person. It’s broken up that way because a lot of people tend to specialize in these certain areas and are just better at it so they naturally get through it quicker.
I’ll get a list of characters for a particular script, usually we’re working on 2 or 3 shows at the same time and there will be about 20 to 30 new characters per show, some that are just a passing crowd scene character, characters on a bus, or walking by. The way it works now compared to back in the day when everything was Xerox machines and you’d size things up and down and lay things out real cut and paste, now it’s all photoshop but I still start a lot of my sketches traditionally just because I like the feel of it. Once I get a new character to a rough state that I kind of like I’ll scan it in and work with it digitally from there in Photoshop.
Once I get what I call a clean rough I’ll present that to the design supervisor and on the show currently we have 7 or 8 directors and each director has their own show and they’ll take a look at the design and once they approve it, it will get sent over to Fox and Matt Groening and some of the other producers will sign off on it or they make changes (laughs) which is a bit more common. So we’ll get back a list showing their comments and changes that they want so we’ll make their changes and turn it in again and hopefully it gets through this time (laughs). We have a department that handles creating a whole model pack where they take our designs and do the technical aspects of building a model sheet out of it, size comparisons, in most cases on the model sheet you’ll have Homer as the standard size character and you’ll show all the characters you’re designing compared to that.
What are some of the challenges or benefits of coming up with a completely new character that no one has even seen or thought of before?
When you’re starting something from scratch it’s a real different process. When I started on The Simpsons that was a new show and the only characters that had been designed were the main family and when I was on the superhero shows they already had He-Man. Those were already done so when they would launch into the series they would always have at least a handful of characters that had already been created. We kind of knew where we were going from the get-go, we kind of had a style to match but at the same time all the characters we came up with had to be new and out of our head but they had to match the style.
You used a lot of reference, you’d look at stuff, obviously you’d use things for inspiration but it had to be as unique as it could be. It has to be trimmed down so you were always conscious of at least attempting not to put to many details or lines on the thing because some animator is going to have to draw all those lines so stuff would get simplified as much as possible. You’re always collecting reference and using things for inspiration. Sometimes the description would be do a character similar to something that’s out there already but it’s gotta be far enough away that you’re not infringing on copyright and it still looks original. Back then you didn’t have the internet so the studio would provide all kinds of things from comics and print media to give you an idea, if they had an idea, sometimes they didn’t, and it was just up to you to get your own reference or inspiration if you needed it.
Where did you get your reference material and inspiration?
When you’re in the studio and you’re trying to do a specific character if it’s say an evil character like an evil female witch type character I was pulling everything from Disney’s villains to comic book villains and try to compare how those worked. There was nothing specific that I went to all the time because it always depended on what the character requirements were in the script. There was one character I did called Scorpia and don’t think I ever found any reference that matched what I wanted to do for that so I just kind of came up with something that I really liked and I think that’s still a pretty original design I did for that (laughs). Would have made an interesting comic book character. Back then there wasn’t a specific thing I would go to, I’d pull as much and as much variety so it wasn’t like I’d hammer on anything or any one style too much, it could be comic books, movies, film, anything that could kind of kick your brain into thinking outside the box as much as you could to come up with something original for the particular show. Today of course we have the internet and it’s such a difference because you don’t have to have a pile of what they’d call swipes you’d build a file of clippings, newspapers, comics, magazines, everything you could find. Today you just hit Google (laughs).
How do you go about working within a show like The Simpsons but still differentiating between each character to create a wide variety of looks?
There’s definitely specifics on every show of what makes each character fit into a show and I think that’s a critical thing for a designer to understand; what the design parameter is and be able to match it. The more variety and the more styles you can match the better you are at being employed. The Simpsons had some very specific rules, everyone has an overbite, no chins, usually fairly large eyes, then there’s a handful of nose shapes. Those are some of the basic rules but with that you go ahead and you start drawing like you normally would while keeping those things in mind. Of course once you have those rules there’s always exceptions to them as far as maybe the eye size and shape. One thing that never changes on The Simpsons of course is the overbite, they aren’t the only show that has characters with overbites, these days there’s a few shows out there, but I think we started a trend with that.
It’s surprising how you can start drawing different people, we do a lot of celebrities, I’ve done Aerosmith and The Beatles and when you’re trying to do known characters but in a specific style it’s fun but it’s also quite a challenge because you’ve really gotta figure out not only how to caricature someone but fit it within the parameters set down by The Simpsons rules and it’s quite a puzzle sometimes. It doesn’t always work exactly the way you want but you do the best you can. There’s plenty of variety to work with you just keep those things in mind and push the design into those parameters. Over the years the style has changed a bit, back when it first started it was a much looser scribbly kind of style the way Matt Groening would draw very loose and what I call punk cartooning, all his Life In Hell stuff he had before The Simpsons he’d always drawn that way so that was kind of the basis they started. It wasn’t long before some of the animation professionals and directors started massaging the design into something more structured and it’s definitely changed over the years from being a bit looser to having a lot more structure and even sometimes showing musculatures now and then if the character calls for it, but that would have been a big no-no back in the day (laughs).
I’ve sure you’ve been asked this a million times but I have to ask about the character development process on The Simpsons, what characters did you help develop? Are there any you’re really proud of from that time?
Probably less known would be Kent Brockman. He was inspired by a few news personalities out here, a flamboyant news guy with a particular curious wavy white hair. That was one I enjoyed doing a lot and the way they wrote him and voiced him he became a regular because he was just written in as small character when I first did it. It was very memorable back in the day, Brad Bird was a director on the show, he did a lot of work in the early days of The Simpsons. He was responsible for I would say the Sideshow Bob character, I was asked to design that character and I started out with a design that was kind of in that loopier early design style but Brad had a definitely more structured sensibility about things and he had put a Post-It on my desk with kind of this long pointy nose and I thought it was really different for a Simpsons character but thought okay let’s do that. Although I was responsible for doing some of the finals and the initial roughs I have to say Brad did the main design for Sideshow Bob. Having the opportunity to work with somebody like Brad was really an amazing experience because you could really tell that he knew what he was doing and he was such a brilliant artist and obviously he’s gone on to prove that (laughs).
You left The Simpsons for awhile and went to work helping design CGI and 3D animation.
I was on The Simpsons for 7 years and I ended up leaving to go do other things and ended up at Saban Entertainment and that’s where I built their CGI department. When I get there there wasn’t any CGI department and there was a project where they were trying to play around with it. I pulled in a couple people who knew more about it than I did on the IT side of it and I handled the art department side of it and that was pretty much the start of their CGI department. We developed The Silver Surfer for Marvel and that was a great project I really loved that, it was awesome. We had a great time with that. I was the art director so we focused on the style of Jack Kirby’s Silver Surfer. I wanted to have something with a very strong graphic line we could imitate and also I thought would make a great blending mode for going into CG with where we would use the textures and texture maps. You use traditional art and then you pretty much wrap that onto your 3D or computer model so it still has a hand drawn feel to it in some capacity.
You then went on to help form S4 Studios. What was the motivation behind that and what were some of your projects?
Once I left Saban Entertainment it seemed like something I had wanted to do and it seemed like I had a few people, client wise, that were interested in working with me. So I put together a couple of people and we opened S4 studios to do visual effects and those kinds of things but I was primarily interested in creating and developing shows and trying to sell some shows and have our own projects. In the time we had the studio we did that, we didn’t quite get our show off the ground, we did the first pilot episode for something called The Zula Patrol that ended up being done all over the place (laughs) except at our studio, so there were some lessons learnt there about contracts. We did the first two episodes of that. One thing I thought we did that was really fun was a half hour show for Cartoon Network based on the artwork and styling of an artist known as Kenny Scharf and back in the day it was Keith Haring and these guys out of New York and he had done a lot of B52 album covers and he had a very funky fun style and I guess he knew some people at Cartoon Network and we knew some people there and it came together where we ended up doing this half hour special. He was great to work with he was just an amazing artist in his own right and unfortunately the show didn’t get picked up for a series. But it was quite an interesting experiment.
Was that The Groovenians?
Yah! Uh Huh!
I found a clip of that on YouTube.
How was the transition from working 2D to doing full blown 3D on that show?
I’d been working at Saban Entertainment and had been dabbling in keeping my hands in the computer department so a lot of times I’d find myself being the person in the middle of the 2D guys and the 3D guys and interpreting both sides. It’s kind of refreshing in a way to do 2D stuff for awhile and still dabble in the computer stuff and stay on top of it a little bit. I don’t know if it’s been mentioned but I actually had pulled in some computers into The Simpsons in the first few years, I don’t think anyone really knew about it except us, we used Amiga’s and I think we did some of the first computer animation that nobody knew about (laughs). I was always kind of experimenting with techniques. We did a couple episodes of The Simpsons like where Homer goes to space (Deep Space Homer, Season 5 Episode 15) and we had modelled that in the computer and I had that printed out each frame in a line drawing because at the time the software I had, LightWave, was able to do that. We printed out every frame and sent that overseas to do the Xerox, or the final cells, they were very grateful because they had every drawing in perfect perspective, it actually worked out and we used the same technique on a couple of episodes. I had always kind of had my hand in both worlds as it were. It’s how I like to work whenever I can.
What were some of the benefits of switching to working on 3D and computers?
One of the things I like about the pipeline of 3D is that there are certain steps you don’t necessarily need to go through that you would for traditional animation. Obviously, painting and clean line drawings and all that is gone, you’re going pretty much right from storyboards to posing, modelling and acting in the computer and just hitting render. There’s so many steps of traditional animation that you don’t have to do. There are things in the timing and directing side that get streamlined with 3D. There’s elements about it I really really like because digital tools have come a long way. They’re very efficient in the way you can take the soundtrack and have it ready, all your beats and your speech already figured out on a timeline and you can just animate directly to that in 3D versus having to go off a record or digital voice and then you need to create a mouth chart, an exposure sheet as we call it, although that may still be done in 3D. There are streamlining aspects of 3D that help that process go so much faster. The other thing about 3D is that you can use the camera itself more as a storyteller. You can go down the street and around the corner and down the stairs following your character and you’d never want to try to do that in traditional animation cause that would be a nightmare. In traditional animation you can pan right, pan left, and zoom in and out but that’s about it. When you get into more complex camera moves it’s extremely expensive and difficult to do, not that it’s not done, it just takes a heavy toll on your budget.
You some of that work on Barnyard, how did that job come about?
My work on Barnyard was a great experience, Not even sure how we hooked up initially but Steve Oedekerk invited me down to his place in San Juan Capistrano. He has a studio there as well as an amazing studio at his house that is more like a great clubhouse. An inspiring combination of art, trains across the ceiling, wet bar, computers etc. The ultimate clubhouse!
Had you done any sculpture work before that?
I started doing sculpts for merchandising while on the The Simpsons first season. I was approached to draw the top of Bart’s head so merchandisers would know how to sculpt it for toys etc. I said I would probably have to sculpt it myself to figure it out, so they said ok, and launched my sculpture business. With a small team of sculptors,we did the Simpson chess set, Homer cookie jar and many others. we did the main Characters at about 8 inches each and those went to the merchandisers as guides to follow for all future merchandising. I went on to do work for Disney, WB, Fox and many more.
What are some of the most challenging things for a character designer?
Probably the pace, it’s pretty quick and you don’t have a lot of time to doodle and play with things as much as you’d like. You always want to massage things more than you have the time to. Just being fresh with it, you’re doing it everyday trying to come up with something different than the last 20 or 30 ones you’ve done (laughs) it can be challenging but again you’re always getting inspired by reference and real life and people that are out there. There’s always an interesting character around to inspire you, I always make digital notes and design in my head in regular life. That’s a big challenge, trying to keep it fresh and at the pace that you have to move for these shows.
You mentioned it before when you were talking about getting hired but how important is a character designers portfolio and what makes a good one?
Portfolio is everything. It’s more important I think in this field than degrees or anything else. The bottom line is if you want to be an artist or an animator or designer of any kind your portfolio is everything. Presentation is important, having a nice presentation rather than a bunch of loose drawings falling out of a book is probably a good idea. Now everything is digital but a lot of places still like to have a hardcopy as well as a digital copy. Each studio has it’s own requirements for that so a perspective designer would have to check in with that studio and look up what their requirements are. For the studios I’ve been involved with almost always a good grasp of life drawing is still an important key no matter what the project or style. After that having a good sense of your own style is good. Show that you understand perspective and have a good feeling for volume and shape. A good sense of originality because once you get on a show you won’t be doing your style you’ll be doing their style so you want to show a good variety of art ability. Have as good a presentation as you can get, keep it professional don’t bring a bunch of scraps, make it nice (laughs).
Animators rarely get the credit they deserve. What’s one of the most satisfying parts of your job?
That is one of the more troubling things as we design a lot for the show and the things we design end up as toys and everything else and we don’t get royalties or anything like that. On the other hand I can’t complain, I get to draw characters all day for a living and I like to think you can’t beat that. It beats an office job I think, I’m sitting in a cubicle of sorts but I’m surrounded by a drawing board and a computer and I have to draw. It’s definitely an enjoyable thing, if you have to have a job it’s great to be doing something you enjoy.
He-Man and She-Ra have experienced a resurgence in recent years. How does it feel to see that your work still holds up and new people are getting to experience it?
(laughs) Actually I thought that was really funny because in the day we really got slammed from every corner that we were just doing half hour commercials. On one hand they were right but at the same time that’s how it’s always been done, with Disney all of their shows are advertisements for their products, but that just goes with the process. It’s funny to see that stuff come back around and have a new resurgence. You kind of get a view of how things go in cycles, for awhile it’s superheroes and then it goes away and it’s something else but then comes back to that. I’d say stylistically things have probably been pushed a little more, for the better, Bruce Timm came on the scene and really brought a dramatic very definite style to things, then Klasky Csupo back in the day had their style with Rugrats and of course they were the studio who originally launched The Simpsons. It all got very interesting in that period I think a lot of things took off from there, you had Beavis and Butthead and all these sort of punk styles I call it, kind of crude but fun, South Park really took it another step further with where you can go with a crude look and content, it’s all fun and I think it really pushes the art form.
It’s crazy to think that South Park can produce their shows in a week now.
I’ve heard that. I don’t know what the actual turnaround is but I know it’s pretty quick. It’s funny too because they use a really high end computer animation software program, Maya, to do something that looks like it’s cut out paper. Again I think that’s the advantage of digital tools these days, you can do so many things with them, it doesn’t have to look like rendered spaceships it can look like flat cutout things. It helps you with the pipeline to get the project through and I think they’ve really maximized it with that show. It’s pretty spectacular the turnaround they have.
You worked mostly in television but I was wondering if you knew any other industries that require character designers?
The game industry is huge and it probably has as high a demand for character design as anything else. Game design is huge and the E3 convention for gaming is huge here in Los Angeles. It feels like it’s not slowing down so that’s a huge area for character design.
How has it been since you went back to working on The Simpsons?
I went back to The Simpsons two and a half years ago and have been there ever since. It’s been great, it’s been really good. It’s been great to come back to it. I know it had some bumpy moments during the feature, I wasn’t on it during the feature but coming back to it it seems like things are even smoother than it used to be. I’m loving it.
So you’ve been able to see the full transition from 1989 till now.
Yah it’s funny because when I was on it originally there was the old techniques of Xeroxing and model packs and I come back now and I’ve got a computer under my desk, I didn’t have that back in the day that’s for sure. It’s been an interesting transition.
You also worked a little bit on Futureama, what was that like?
I worked with Matt on the original development of that show, there was about 4 or 5 of us in a small office he had in the Santa Monica area. We’d meet and just sketch out different ideas for the characters, we were just working on developing it. I worked on Lela and Fry and all of them got massaged and reworked, it was a real group effort. I worked on a lot of those characters but I wouldn’t claim anyone in particular for myself since they really all went through the Matt Groening mix there. They’ve teased me from the crew that the one thing that stuck that I’d done was Fry’s hair flip (laughs) that point hair thing that sticks up with Fry.
What other jobs in the animation industry are important or in demand?
On the art side it’s usually broken down into character design, background design, and prop design. Then you have colour and colour is a big one that might get overlooked by people on the outside but every studio has a colour department. When we design characters we don’t pay any attention to what colours they are, we might make them graphically light and dark to help say differentiate the belt from the body or something, so I might indicate a tone but then it goes to the colour department. They figure out actual colour because they’re matching it up with the background colour and the character colour and that’s always been done in every aspect of animation. People who are good with colour, I’m not sure what the requirements are in terms of drawing for the colour department but you certainly have to have a good design sense and art sense and colour sense. That’s the one that’s always there but maybe doesn’t get the glamour they deserve.
Do you have any final advice for someone looking to get into character design?
Be as diverse as you can. A lot of people want to have a style, up to this day I don’t think I personally have a style because I’m so used to drawing things that are required for other styles, although there are certain ways I like to draw for my own stuff. When you’re presenting your drawings try to be as diverse as you can and deliberately try to do other styles. Look at different things and try to imitate them, imitation is the best way to learn. Be drawing all the time. When you’re at coffee shops just sketch the people that are there, always have an ongoing sketchbook of characters. Keep doing it everyday. But also have a good foundation in basic drawing because if you want to get into superheroes you need good anatomy, if you want Simpsons style stuff you don’t need anatomy so much but you still need form and volume. Concentrate on all the fundamentals, too many people ignore the fundamentals and get caught up in style and they end up not coming up to a very professional standard, that’s often because they’ve focused on the wrong things. Focus on the fundamentals and solid drawing and the style will come. If you’re looking to get into studios be prepared to be able to understand and know what makes their style.
(Main Image Credit: Fox)