What led you to become a character designer? I was studying illustration in Brussels, and in our main class, we had to write and illustrate stories. My modus operandi was to spend most of the allotted time on designing the characters for my story—I would research their wardrobe, draw them in different postures and have a lot of fun with it... until the week before the project was due. I would then spend sleepless nights drawing the actual illustrations because I thought the story needed “real,” complete images with backgrounds.
During my last year of art school, I met two brothers from my hometown in Switzerland who were directing an animation project and needed someone to imagine the characters for their story. That’s when I realized that what I was doing had value, and there was a job title for it: character designer. It seemed too good to be true!
You’ve worked on the Wes Anderson films Fantastic Mr. Fox and Isle of Dogs. What were those two experiences like? They were amazing! I feel very lucky being part of Wes’s movies because you get to work with the nicest and most talented people. I could design a great character, but if it gets built and animated poorly, the value of my work doesn’t really show. It’s a group effort.
On Fantastic Mr. Fox, I was working with the art department in London. It was Wes’s first time directing animation and our first time working with him, so it was a bit of a guessing game in the beginning. In the first few weeks, I drew all kinds of foxes. I didn’t know where it was going, but then he liked one of my designs—one of Mrs. Fox in a cool bohemian dress that I liked too. We were getting somewhere! I really liked working on that film. Anthropomorphized animals are my favorite thing to draw as it’s a lot of fun to mix animal rawness and human attitudes.
On Isle of Dogs, I was working remotely, emailing my daily designs directly to Wes. I would send him a few options for each character, and he usually picked one, or sometimes he mixed designs to make it look like what he had in mind. Then there was a lot of back and forth about watches, shoes, hairstyles, pins—all of the little details that make it a Wes Anderson film. I’m detail oriented, so it was a very rewarding process for me.
For Isle of Dogs, Andy Gent and his team of elves also built the most amazing puppets—they’re works of art! There is a long waiting period for me between the design phase and when the film is released, and I don’t really follow the animation process, so discovering the film is an amazing moment.
What goes on in your head when you’re developing a new character? I am very curious about people and do a lot of staring on public transportation. Designing a character is the reverse activity—I can make up someone and reveal the personality through little details. I can imagine a full backstory: Where did he get this scar? Does she need a handbag, and what’s in it?
What do you see or listen to that inspires your work as a character designer? Each project I work on widens my horizons. For Isle of Dogs, for example, the art department shared a huge trove of movies and references that we could dig into, and I watched a lot of Japanese films from the ’50s. A new project can be a good excuse to study weird plants and tropical birds or spend an afternoon looking at tribal masks at the museum. Usually, the director has a visual cloud of influences for the movie, and my job is to absorb these references and materialize characters who can exist in this space. But it’s also fun to mix it up and try to introduce something unexpected.
I try to be inspired by things outside my field because quite often, looking at the work of other illustrators only leads to self-deprecation and terrible doubts about my own legitimacy! Instead, I look at things in art or nature, which fill me with ideas and excitement.
What excites you about stop-motion animated films right now? Animation is not a genre; it is a technique you can use to tell any story. And directors such as Wes Anderson, Michel Gondry, Charlie Kaufman and others have opened a path. It’s more common now for a live-action director to think, “I would like to do this with puppets!” That is a great thing for the world of animation—to have people with fresh ideas come in and stretch it a bit.
On Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes dared people to think differently. For example, the fact that he wanted to have real fur on the puppets made the producers and animation director very nervous. When I first arrived in the studios, we watched The Tale of the Fox, a stop-motion puppet film from the 1930s made by Ladislas Starevich, a pioneer of animation. It’s incredibly beautiful, and you really see the craft. All the special effects are so creative and poetic, all done in-camera. Later, when the animators for Fantastic Mr. Fox animated the furry puppets, their fingers impacted the fur every time they touched them. It made the fur vibrate, and in a way, you see the animators at work. Wes loves the handmade quality of animation, and I think that he wants the audience to be aware that they’re looking at puppets in small-scale sets. To me, that makes it even more magical.
I don’t come from an animation background, and I’m not trying to work for a big animation studio. I’d rather work with live-action directors who have great stories to tell and are excited about venturing into animation. If they don’t already have an established aesthetic, then it’s all the more fun for me because I get to provide them with options. It’s a blank page, and we can build that universe together!
What’s the biggest difference between designing a character for a feature-length film and for a short commercial? Commercial jobs have a fast turnaround, and the client is usually looking for something that appeals to a wide audience. So, practically, this means less quirky, detailed stuff. It’s not what I like the most, but it’s fun because I can work on three different projects in a week, each in a different visual style. It gets me to try new things, and it pays for my cat’s paleo, grain-free treats.
I prefer the pace of feature films. You can dive deeper, really develop a consistent look for a cast of characters and hopefully come up with something that hasn’t been seen before. I just worked on a project with animal creatures that have symbiotic plants and fungi growing on them, so we spent time with the directors to think through questions like: How does this work? How far are we going with this? And what are the rules of this world?
How do you know when you’re in the hands of a good director? I don’t think there are any “bad” directors—probably just people who are a good fit for each other or not. I walked in the director’s shoes when I was directing a short film, and I realized that it’s not easy to give good feedback and get the designer to draw exactly what you need, but still keep an open mind for their suggestions. You are trying to get someone else to materialize what’s in your brain. There’s magic in that.