How To Break Into Character Design

Designs for Boxtrolls by Luis Grane

Character design is one of the most creative jobs on an animated film, allowing the artist to give free rein to their imagination, come up with great ideas and - best of all - get paid to do it. 

But how do you break into this most competitive of fields?  We asked Luis Grane, an animator and character designer whose work can be seen on dozens of animated films including Prince of Eqypt,  Hotel Transylvania, Ratatouille, and Open Season, to talk about this work and how he broke into the industry.  

Tell us about your work on Boxtrolls 

Luis: Yes, I did character design on Boxtrolls. Working with Tony Stacchi and the amazing animator and designer Mike Smith was an extraordinary experience. While at Laika, I remember sneaking out during lunch time to walk around the [stop motion] sets, admiring the craft and love that everybody put into their work… from the puppets, sets, detailed costumes to the little hand-made leaves in every tree. 

How did you become a character designer - the job that every animation student wants? 

Luis:  I began doing graphic humor in Argentina, where I’m originally from - but soon after I moved to London to work in advertising. After that I went to Mexico for a while, then to Sheridan College in Canada and from there I got hired by DreamWorks.

After working as an animator there for six years I began to focus on doing character design and worked in various projects in studios like Pixar, Sony, Laika, Digital Domain, Warners, Disney and Aardman. 

Graphic humor requires the ability to summarize and express complex ideas in a simple way. I guess being able to do that plus knowing how to communicate liveliness, sense of volume, and the acting required in animation, helped me later in my work as a character designer. 

What are the skills involved, and how does one acquire them? 

Luis: Character design has two crucial aspects: from the pure formal side, one has to effectively combine and organize shapes – on paper, in a computer or in clay, it doesn’t matter what medium you are using – the result is a design and it can be elegant, chaotic, simple or intricate. That first aspect is fundamental to get an appealing design.

The other aspect is personality, where you put your own experiences, observational abilities and the capacity to transmit emotions and life through a design. If you combine successfully these two items, you’ll have an effective design. I think the main skill required is to have a “sense of design” that you have to apply to your work no matter what you are designing, from a tree, a car or a robot to the main character in a feature film. 

I will not deny that strong drawing skills will help in this process, but throughout my career I’ve seen many artists that are technically outstanding but their designs lack appeal and charm. On the other hand, many artists with limited skills have a powerful sense of design so they are able to produce characters that immediately connect with the audience.

What is the project you are most proud of and why? 

Luis: There are a number of projects that I’m proud of having been part of, for different reasons. 

The Prince of Egypt, because it was the first feature film by DreamWorks and my first experience in America. Ratatouille, because I loved the look of the film as well as the story. SpiderMan 2 was a challenge for me, working for the first time as a CG animator on a live action film.

I am also very proud of the characters I designed for AstroBoy given all the limitations we had to work with. And most recently, The Boxtrolls has a particular charm and I felt a great affinity with the visual style of the film. Most of the projects I’ve worked in have had something I can feel proud about, though I must confess there are a few that I wish I never had laid my hands on. 

I’ve been very lucky to work with amazingly talented people and to be able to always learn something from them. 

What advice would you give to a student who wants to make a career as a character designer? 

Luis:  It is very difficult to give any advice without falling in the clichés and common places that we’ve all heard already. However, I will quote two of my teachers that I respect a lot. This might sound like two contradictory pieces of advice but I’ll expand on them.

One teacher told me that he always drew three kilos of paper per day. The other teacher said: “Draw less, think more.” Perhaps there is a fine combination between these two ideas, at the beginning of your career you have to draw as much as you can, all the time, study different styles, follow the artists that inspire you and the ones you feel closer to. Then, once you start to build a personal, unique graphic vocabulary, draw less and spend more time thinking and planning what you are designing.

Don’t follow the trendy style of the moment like many artists do because they all end up looking the same. They are revolving around a single light, like moths. 

I often get more inspiration from music and literature when trying to come up with ideas. Every time I get involved in a new project, I read as much as I can of everything possible that is relevant for the time period, customs, and the theme of the film. Oh! And don’t be disappointed if they don’t end up using your designs because it happens like 80% of the time – now you know this from a guy who draws 3 kilos of paper per day though only one gram of it probably goes into a movie.

To see more of Luis's character design work, visit his website.