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Tell me a little bit about yourself, about your life? Where did you go to school, and what classes did you study? What helped prepare you to become the artist that you are today?
I was born in Racine, Wisconsin. All through childhood I was obsessed with dinosaurs and drawing them. Any movie or TV show with dinosaurs in it had to be seen. My dad took me to a screening of the original 1933 King Kong and it had such a profound effect on me. Whenever the topic of “atmospheric perspective” comes up now the first things that come to mind are the deep jungle shots in that film. Star Wars also came out when I was six and it hit me like a freight train. In my college years I hit figure drawing as hard as I could on the advice of just about everyone in the animation industry that I talked to. I studied industrial design at the University of Wisconsin - Stout and animation at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario. The industrial design training shaped the method and approach I take toward my character design work and Sheridan College was where I was exposed to so many great teachers like Charlie Bonifacio, Zack Schwartz and Kai Pindal. Many of my Sheridan classmates have also become my closest friends and I still see them frequently since the animation industry is such a small incestuous group.
How do you go about designing, and what goes through your mind, from start to end?
There are so many different ways to “skin the cat.” This is just my approach to the design process:
Step 1: Usually my director gives me a “kick-off” where I get a solid description of the visual and personality traits of the character. Then I do research and pound out a ton of thumbnails trying to capture the character in silhouette (with black fine and ultra fine point Sharpie markers).
I work this small because at this size the tip of my pencil is like a big, fat paintbrush and I find it easier to make bold strokes with it than if I were drawing at a larger size. It also forces me to focus on the most basic shapes of the character. In the silhouette I strive to create distinct large, medium and small shapes. I stress “distinct” here because I find I can very easily descend into creating “mushy” shapes that don’t vary much in their relative proportion. I have to consciously remind myself to really push the proportions and get as much contrast and interest in them as I can. Drawing small helps me so much with this too. This phase to me is the most critical of all because I am making decisions on the most important elements of the design. Only when I’ve designed everything that I can that this size will I proceed to step 2.
Step 2: The design is enlarged 200% and traced it off onto a clean sheet of paper. At this size I use a Col-erase pencil and start designing the secondary elements (lesser, finer shapes and interior details) that I wasn’t able to draw in step 1. Only when I’ve designed everything that I can at this size will I proceed to step 3.
Step 3: The design is enlarged 200% once more. At this point I can now focus on whatever fine details remain that I wasn’t able to draw in steps 1 and 2. Working this way forces me to focus on the most crucial elements (the basic shapes and silhouette of the character) first.
Step 4: Once my art director decides my concepts are ready, I present my designs and thumbnails showing my thought process to the director. If it gets approved then I spend a day or two finalizing the design by creating orthographics. Even though it looks very tedious I absolutely love preparing orthographics. A lot of design decisions on form are made during this stage because I really have to make the character as appealing as I can from every angle, not just ¾ front. Doing very tight orthographics also makes your modeler’s life a lot easier AND ensures that your intent with the design stands a better chance of making it into the final product. Things are much less open to interpretation.
That’s my process. I admit it’s somewhat mechanical but I’ve found over the years that it helps me arrive at a solid design faster than any other method I’ve tried. One of my major weaknesses is that if I’m allowed I will most likely focus on the finer details from the start, which is essentially “putting the cart before the horse.” By starting out super small I force myself to design the most important and fundamental shapes first and can’t even be tempted to work on finer details because my pencil tip can’t physically draw them. I took a Richard Williams workshop a while back and on the topic of thumbnails I remember he once said, “the mind composes at this size.” I couldn't agree more. There's an appeal in the thumbnail shapes that I can't seem to produce at any other size.
What is a typical day for you, and who are the people you work with?
On a typical day, I spend 4 to 5 hours at the drawing table and about an hour presenting concepts to my art director or the director of the film. Blue Sky enables its designers to shepherd their designs through the entire production pipeline as opposed to having us let them go after they are approved in the design phase. I’m thankful the company allows us to do this and that’s why the remaining 2 to 3 hours of my day are spent meeting with people in the modeling, sculpting, rigging, materials and fur departments as the characters are built.
What are some of the things that you have worked on?
My professional career began in 1994, designing for and animating Broderbund Software's Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? In 2000 I joined the animation team at Mondo Media where I designed and directed the award winning Heavy Metal Guy series. I was the designer and director of the Happy Tree Friends special short “Protecting the Slopes” and an animator on many of the regular episodes. Since 2005 I have been designing characters and environments in the visual development department at Blue Sky Studios.
My feature credits there include Horton Hears a Who (the daughter, Dr Mary Lou Larue, Morton the mouse and many of the other jungle animals) and Rio (Linda, Tulio, the monkeys, the Carnival costumes and many of the secondary birds). I have also worked on various educational toys for Leapfrog Enterprises, contributed artwork to the national trust Totoro Forest Foundation and illustrated a story for Random House’s Out of Picture book series which was exhibited in the 2009 sequential art exhibition, Society of Illustrators’, New York and Galerie Arludik, Paris.
Is there a design you have done that you are most happy with?
The Mayor’s daughters in Horton Hears a Who. That assignment was just so fun and no degree of exaggeration was considered too ridiculous.
What projects are you working on now? (if you can tell us)
I’m currently designing characters for projects in development at Blue Sky Studios.
Who are some of your favorite artists out there?
Nico Marlet, Sergio Pablos, Robin Joseph, Kevin Dart, Chris Sasaki, Scott C. and Guillermo Real.
Could you talk about your process in coloring your art, as well as the types of tools or media that you use?
I work out my designs with Col-erase pencils on paper then scan them in and finalize things in Photoshop. As far as my approach to color design, I don’t think I have any incredibly enlightening methods to discuss though.
What part of designing is most fun and easy, and what is most difficult?
The most enjoyable parts for me are roughing out silhouette studies at the very beginning and also doing the fine detail work in the orthographics at the end.
The most difficult part for me is maintaining the aesthetic of a character when it’s being modeled in 3D. At this point the design can only be evaluated in that very neutral default pose that the character must be put in. Being able to see past that expressionless, lifeless pose and giving the modeler clear direction as they build the character can really be a challenge at times.
What are some of the things that you do to keep yourself creative?
I love seeing what other people in the field are up to and I always have a personal film or illustration in the works that I chip away at after hours. Even though they may take a long time to finish, the personal projects are what keep my “inspiration tanks” topped off.
What are some of your favorite designs which you have seen?
Milt Kahl’s Shere Khan and Madam Mim, Tom Oreb’s designs for Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom and just about everything Maurice Noble and Ronald Searle did.
What is your most favorite subject to draw? And why?
Female characters…and dinosaurs. Nothing to me is more aesthetic than the female form…and dinosaurs. Maybe I should just say female dinosaurs…ok, maybe not.
What inspired you to become an Artist?
-Disney and Warner Brothers animation in general.
-The illustrations in my first dinosaur books.
- The Rankin/Bass production of The Hobbit.
-The Art of Star Wars, Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi books. They were chocked full of gorgeous industrial design renderings of characters, vehicles and props for the films. The quality of those designs inspired me to study what it was that made them appealing. Those books and films set inspiring examples for me of solid composition, proportion and perspective before I knew what those words even meant.
What are some of the neat things you have learned from other artists that you have worked with or seen?
I was lucky enough to hear Maurice Noble speak in Oakland about a year before he died. Here are two of his quotes that I jotted down:
“When designing, take forms and have as much satirical fun as you can with them.”
“Give every element of your design, down to the smallest detail, a sense of beauty.”
I was also asked recently to write down my favorite design principles in a friend's sketchbook. This is what I put down. It's an amalgamation of tools and advice I received over the years from people I admire and it's gotten me through a lot of those rough days when I can't seem to make a decent drawing:
What wisdom could you give us, about being an Artist? Do you have any tips you could give?
1. Fill sketchbooks. You will always be improving your draftsmanship throughout your career. It’s an endless journey. Putting in “flight time” with sketchbooks is a great habit.
2. “Under-promise and over-deliver.” Do this and strive as hard as you can not to do the opposite. It will be the difference between you being viewed as a reliable asset or just a plain liar. I guess this principle can apply to just about any job where you have to deliver a product by a deadline.
3. When your work is rejected, it’s painful but do your best to work past it and accept any constructive criticism with an open mind. Also be persistent. The quality of your work is a huge ingredient but it’s not the only ingredient. Timing plays a large part too.
4. Surround yourself with people that are better than you. You will be learning and growing all the faster. I am surrounded by giants at Blue Sky and to their credit they are exceedingly generous with their knowledge and time.
If people would like to contact you, how would you like to be contacted?
My website is:
and I can be reached at:
Finally, do you have any of your artwork for sale (sketchbook, prints, or anything) for people that like your work can know where and when to buy it?
Out of Picture 2 with my illustrated story “Sub Plotter” is available on Amazon and I’ve contributed pieces to Nucleus exhibits (www.gallerynucleus.com) from time to time.