Interview with Character Designer Dan Haskett

Dan Haskett is an animation veteran and one of the top character designers in the business. He’s contributed to classic feature films including The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, The Prince of Egypt, Mulan, and Toy Story. Dan helped translate Matt Groening’s early sketches for The Simpsons into the look we know today and was rewarded with an Emmy for his work.  He’s also worked on numerous commercials and created animated bits for Sesame Street.

I first met Dan Haskett at the Motion ’08 animation conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he gave a fascinating presentation on designing ethnic characters (read my blog post about it here). After his presentation he was kind enough to review my portfolio. The following year I was invited back to the Motion conference as a speaker where I again had the chance to visit with Dan. He’s a brilliant and versatile artist, a likable guy with strong opinions that he shares in a soft-spoken and thoughtful manner.

In January 2010 Dan was kind enough to give me a phone interview from his desk at Warner Brothers where he is currently designing characters for two Scooby Doo projects. He shared some observations on the industry, offered some advice, and gave his thoughts on The Princess and the Frog from his perspective as an African American in the animation industry.

(Full interview after the break.)

(The above artwork is copyright © Dan Haskett. All rights reserved.)

Give us a little background about your career.

I always say that animation found me, I didn’t find it. I grew up in New York and I’ve been drawing cartoons since I was three years old. Professionally I started working out of high school doing commercials in ’69, the year Sesame Street debuted. Back then all the New York animators did commercials, and I worked on several.

One of my earliest jobs was doing ink and paint on a Sesame Street project for another studio. Years later I did five of my own cartoons for Sesame Street. Back then their approval process couldn’t have been simpler. You’d come in with a script or storyboard, they’d say yes or no, then they’d let you run off and do it.

In 1975 I landed a job with Richard Williams working on the animated feature Raggedy Ann and Andy. That’s how I got started working for Hollywood. It was my first feature, and also Dick’s first feature.

When designing a character, do you do a lot of research first?

It depends. Let’s say I’m designing an animal character. If I’m not familiar with the breed/species then I’ll do some research. Period pieces also require a lot of research (fashion, hair, etc.). But I try to pull as much as I can from memory. I hate doing research and I only do it if absolutely necessary. It’s the one thing I do digitally.

Do you keep a sketchbook to help you in designing appealing characters?

I used to fill a lot of sketchbooks but I haven’t done it in years. If I’m creating a new character I think of old friends or people I’ve known, or sometimes co-workers.

Inspiration can come from everywhere. For Mulan I was watching chinese TV to study faces. I also have photo books I’ve bought over the years.

One recent project that I found difficult involved fish characters. I had to make each species recognizable but also give it enough personality to be animated. Audiences warm up to certain types of animal characters more easily than others. It’s rare that audiences will really warm up to fish, insects, even some birds–anything that doesn’t have fur on it. I think that’s why in Finding Nemo they had to get the fish out of the water eventually. It’s hard to get a sympathetic character out of a fish.

Do you approach designs for 3D characters differently than 2D?

For me there’s no difference. I had an in-between phase working for Disney Consumer Products where I did many, many drawings for sculptors so its not a problem for me to think in 3D. But in either medium the personality of the character comes first.

Is it hard to get out of your own personality and into the head of the character?

It can be since subconsciously we all draw ourselves.

You really have to be an actor when you are designing because you are the first one to get a hold of the personality of the character before it goes to the animators. The more you can pull out from inside yourself the better.

But use whatever works. The personality can come from inside of you or from outside. For instance, last night I was having a talk with a fellow artist about businessman-type characters he was designing for his own picture. The way he described them, it reminded me of two salesman I knew from Disney Consumer Products almost thirty years ago.

Is 2D animation “dead” in Hollywood?

I mainly do 2D projects. The first 3D thing I did was Toy Story. I just finished up storyboards for Angelina Ballerina for PBS, which is also a 3D property. But most of the work I do is for 2D. As for the current state of 2D, I wish there was a hell of a lot more of it.

I also wish people weren’t afraid of drawing. There seems to be an actual fear of drawing in 3D. The financial people are afraid that 2D is passe, and so the artists have let themselves be afraid of it too. They’ve forgotten that the most important thing is the story and the characters, not the format.

3D is a new thing and people are in love with it. At the same time, a lot of people are wondering, “What happened to the old stuff?” Not just in terms of hand drawn vs CGI but also from a content standpoint. People miss the brio, the “life spirit” of the old stuff. Even at its best 3D hasn’t captured that. There’s a special charm in knowing its a drawing or a puppet that doesn’t have a life of its own.

Hand-drawn animation makes for a warmth that I just don’t think 3D has. 3D is beautiful eye candy but it doesn’t work as well on the heart level. As a viewer you are more agog at it than actually involved in it.

The closest I’ve seen to a CGI character that pulls it off is the character Dobby from the Harry Potter films. That was the first CGI thing I’ve seen that made me sit up and take notice because it was such a nice piece of character animation.

In Bolt the pigeons were really fun. Whoever did that used the pigeon’s movements to give character with these nervous twitchy little things. I wouldn’t mind seeing more stuff like that in 3D but for some reason it doesn’t seem to happen very often.

Any thoughts on following your own natural style vs. adapting to “hot” styles and trends in character design?

It depends on the project. Sometimes if I’m doing a commercial and they want a different look I can throw in something of my own.

There’s an interesting situation right now on [the projects I’m doing for] Scooby Doo. We’re working on the TV series and the DVD series and each one is being done in a different style. I’m doing the original 1969 look AND a newer trendy look.

Being a chameleon can be fairly easy if you observe a lot of things. I’ve always loved cartooning. I’ve looked at a whole lot of stuff and remembered a whole lot of stuff. It keeps me current. Even if its a style I haven’t done before I have enough background now that I can do it without a whole lot of trouble.

My advice is to keep a sketchbook and use it to challenge yourself. I used to love to give myself drawing problems to solve. For instance, I would study Wally Wood. He was a great chameleon. MAD Magazine would assign him a whole bunch of different drawing styles to spoof. He could spoof anything from Charles Schulz to Superman. I loved that and wanted to be able to do that too.

As a kid I did a lot of copying. I’d look at something I liked and copy it just to see if I could do it. It has served me well as a studio animator where you routinely create characters based on someone else’s style.

One of the biggest challenges in my career was preparing Matt Groening’s original character designs for The Simpsons TV series. I think Matt was once quoted as saying he draws the same now as he did in 8th grade. So I had to work backwards and forget nearly everything I’d learned to get to that level, but still be able to put it in three dimensions. It was a real challenge. It’s ironic that that’s the one thing I earned an Emmy for, and its also the one project that drove me crazy.

Do you work primarily in-house or in your own studio (freelance)? Which do you prefer?

Most of my career I’ve freelanced from home. Now I’m much better at working in-house. One of my problems with in-house is I’m the kind of person who soaks in the feelings of the people around me. That kind of sensitivity helps me do what I do, but in cartoon studios a lot of people were upset and angry and sad and I didn’t want to soak that in. So I haven’t stayed long at studios. This [working in-house at Warner Brothers] is the best studio gig I’ve had a in a while. It’s the first one in five years.

As a character designer, generally you are only brought in for a few months and then let go, depending on what the project is. On a feature like Disney where they are spending top dollar you might stay there longer, or on a TV series you’ll be there for a while. But generally speaking you aren’t there too long, maybe a month or two, sometimes not even that. So you are always looking for new work. Even on a feature work goes through a lot of starts and stops. You can be on something for a while and then nothing happens for several weeks, and then you are called back to revise something because the story has changed or they need brand new characters or they’ve changed the original designs. It’s a lot of back and forth.

Do you do much work outside of Hollywood? (i.e. advertising, internet, etc.)

The most that I’ve done outside of Hollywood lately has been commercials for France and Mexico.

What makes a really good character design?

The old Frank & Ollie term “sincerity” comes to mind. You have to believe in the character you are designing, that it’s a real living thing that thinks and feels on its own. If you come at it from that angle you have a much better chance of coming up with something that really hits people.

There’s a school of thought now where people are looking at shapes first and putting them together to make an interesting design. They are thinking of design first instead of character. That’s backwards. Character has to influence the shapes you use, not the other way around. A lot of people are hung up on the idea of doing funny drawings rather than what will really relate to an audience.

I might be teaching a character design class here at Warner. One of the titles I came up with for a session is called “Would you take this character home with you?” I believe very strongly that if you want something that really relates to people it has to be a personality they wouldn’t mind having in their house. One reason the Disney characters sell so well is that Disney knows what makes their characters tick, and they set things up accordingly. The best of the Disney stuff drew you in. Unfortunately most people just throw things at the audience’s head rather than trying to charm them in.

Another good example is Spongebob Squarepants. He’s the goofiest thing you’ve ever seen as a design, even downright ugly, but the difference is that he has a personality that people love. Kids love him not because of how he looks but because of who he is. He’s an innocent like them. Dora was a hit like that too. She’s very different from Spongebob but it works because cute sells. It just does.

If you want to do something snarky and trendy, you’d better back it up with something else. In America you love cartoons as a little kid, then you grow out of them, then you become a parent and go back to them again. You go back to them for a reason, partly for nostalgia but also because there was something about that character that grabbed you. Family Guy-style snarkiness just doesn’t last. Maybe it can be funny, but it doesn’t stay with you.

You gave a fascinating presentation at Motion ’08 on designing ethnic characters. Care to share any thoughts on the topic?

The basic rule is to just see people as people. Don’t fall back on stereotypes. Really observe the wide variety that exists within an ethnic group. Then get back to personalities. Treat them as individuals, not as stereotypes or a collection of parts but as a cohesive whole. Have the sensitivity to pay attention to what people actually look like.

Also, learn things about what people of other cultures might find insulting. You have to open up and be aware of where folks’ minds are. When Aladdin came out I was talking to an Iranian friend of ours. He was upset because for him these were stories his grandmother had told him. They were cultural touchstones and icons, and he didn’t like how Disney messed with it. I sympathized with him because it could have been a much better movie if they hadn’t tried to shoehorn it into a formula.

Have things improved in recent years?

No, there’s still a very long way to go. Cartoonists in general are not the most sensitive folks when it comes to ethnic issues. Over the last 25 years they’ve been forced to do it but they rebel. (Laughs).

Cartoonists really like to hold on to old cliches. I wish more artists would take time to get out from behind their desks and go into the world and meet people and talk to them.

Have you seen The Princess And The Frog? Any thoughts about the movie that you’d like to share?

Technically it was OK. Story-wise it was one of the weakest things Disney has done in a while. They stuck way too closely to the formula. I also think racially they were absolutely terrified and so they made some serious mistakes. But they had something that a lot of people wanted them to make and that they could sell a lot of merchandise from, and that seemed to be the main objective.

This was the first big hand-drawn feature film to be released in several years, and some in the industry viewed this as the last chance to prove that 2D is still a viable medium. Do you think that extra pressure caused the studio to take less risks?

No, not really. This was a lower-budget endeavor from the beginning with a lot of work being sent overseas.

If you had been asked to work on The Princess and the Frog would you have done so?

Only if I could have had creative power.

Disney has such a stranglehold on people’s imaginations. If you have strong feelings about things like I do its very difficult to work with Disney because people see Disney as something way beyond itself. It’s the great nursery of the world, the repository of the imaginations of children. More children know the Disney version of stories than the originals. Take The Little Mermaid. I met an animation student who was shocked once she actually read the real story. Kids don’t know the real stories anymore, so it makes working on one of their pictures very aggravating.

Nowadays you probably couldn’t even make Snow White because it would be thought too scary or affecting. Although they did let the bug die in Princess. But parents are very touchy about what you can put in a kids’ picture these days so Disney is walking on eggshells. When I worked on Mermaid, [Jeffrey] Katzenberg’s process was to go as light as possible, keep everything light and fluffy, no affecting moments in it. Sort of like a ride in an amusement park. It’s sensational, but you know all along that you’re going to come out all right in the end. That makes it hard for something to really grab you emotionally.

Are you talking only about Disney or is the problem Hollywood-wide?

As far as animation goes, people still follow Disney so they still want to make things as frothy as they can. Disney couldn’t do Pinocchio today, its too dark. It’s a shame that Disney has painted themselves into a corner. They make a lot of money and sell a lot of products but in my opinion they haven’t made a good movie in a long time.

I’m sure enough people have enjoyed The Princess and the Frog, but for me its not anywhere near as good or as rich as it might have been.

Was The Princess and the Frog 2D’s last chance?

That’s a topic that bugs me too. Animators shouldn’t put all their hopes on any one place to save traditional hand-drawn animation. They should just make really good movies. If you want to save it that badly, go out and make a really good movie and encourage other people to make other good movies. Don’t just sit back helpless and say “we need Disney to save the day for us”.

This picture brought up a whole bunch of stuff for me. One thing was that some of the best black artists Disney had were not asked to be on it.

Why do you think that was?

I really don’t know. The only thing I can imagine is that at Disney, when its all said and done, there are things they want to do with stories and characters regardless. They make a big show of saying that they do a lot of research and bring in the best advisers but then they do what they want to do anyway. They know what their audience likes and money talks.

If you had directed The Princess and the Frog what would you have done differently?

I wouldn’t have been afraid to make the thing black (laughs). To me there’s nothing wrong with the peculiarities of people. You often get much more interesting stories by incorporating those things. Instead, the rule of thumb in Hollywood is to get rid of those things—and not just in animation.

Have you ever heard of a picture called Rover Dangerfield? Rodney Dangerfield wanted to do a cartoon with himself as the lead. Harold Ramis was writing it. The fun thing at the time was that Rodney was hot and a cartoon version of him would have been hilarious. But Rodney being who he was meant it wouldn’t have been a kiddie movie. When it got to an animation house I got a call from the director and he told me, “We’ll have to change certain things because they are not really ‘animation’” (meaning they weren’t kid friendly). My heart sank. I thought, “Uh oh. They’ve had something handed to them on a silver platter and they’re going to screw it up. They got an opportunity to get a more mature audience and they’re throwing it out the window without thinking about it.” I declined to work on it and I’m glad I did because it didn’t go anywhere.

It’s that attitude Hollywood animators have about keeping things they way they are. You can’t just blame the executives, its the artists as well. People in the cartoon business are afraid of doing something that’s got a different slant to it. When it comes to ethnic things they want to change it to something “everybody” will understand. They don’t get that everybody isn’t stupid. They can’t imagine that people might be open to something completely different. With ethnic issues they are afraid of the very things that would really make it interesting.

If I was going to do a movie about black people in New Orleans in the 1920’s I would look at what was going on then and see if there were things from that time and place that I could use to flavor the characters. I’d hire people who knew the city and could clue me in.

I still wonder what people thought of Prince Naveen. My wife and a couple of female friends of ours couldn’t stand him. They thought he was a jerk and wondered, “Why does she want this guy?” A friend of mine who worked on this picture told me that the prince was originally going to be white. I thought, “Oh, they’re asking for it now”. I was imagining people getting very upset that the first black princess doesn’t have a black prince. So they compromised by making him neutral. You don’t really know what he is. He looks like Prince Eric [from The Little Mermaid] with dark skin and wavy hair. He doesn’t look especially African American. So, if I were directing the film I would have tried to make Prince Naveen a more interesting character.

It just comes down to really looking at people as people. Make their human personality traits the main thing. If you use ethnic peculiarities to season that, without being insulting, so much the better.

Are you working on any personal projects?

I’m finally finishing the illustrations for a children’s book my wife, Karen, wrote years ago.  (It might make an intriguing film someday, too, if I do say so.)  I’m also speaking on animation at colleges and animator conferences.  Some years back, I was an ANNIE Awards judge, and recently I co-judged the Animation Block Party film festival in New York.

As time has gone on I’m realizing I may never see the kind of pictures I really want to see. Originally I just wanted to be a really fine animator. I just wasn’t seeing good movies. My wife, growing up with cartoons, always assumed that cartoons would grow up with her. But it didn’t happen. I’ve decided that if I don’t do something it just isn’t going to happen.

I’ve also run into some young adults who think the same way, who have some wonderful ideas. They’ve got some independent shorts that have some interesting things going on. I’m really glad they’ve got the internet as a method of distribution that doesn’t cost anything. I just hope that its used wisely and well so you can get some new stuff out there.

What do you think about the work being done at Pixar?

When I started at Disney the Cal Arts character animation class was starting to feel their oats. That’s where the Pixar leaders came from. But even then Cal Arts animation was starting to coagulate into a style of its own based on a Disney/Warner Brothers sensibility. The problem was that what they were doing was not as rich as what Frank and Ollie and the rest had done at Disney. The Nine Old Men were doing things at Disney that got cut short by circumstances like the strike, the war, etc. but you still see little glimmers of what Walt was after in what those guys did. There was a lot more potentially there than what the Cal Arts guys took from it.

So many people came out of Cal Arts who became the bright lights of the industry that they took that style with them and it just took over. Pixar is a fine example of the top echelon of that style, but for me there’s something missing in it. I’m seeing the same moves out of characters from film to film to film (and not just at Pixar). Pixar seems very homogenized and their animators take the same approach to everything. The characters do things the same way, over and over and over.

One animator, who is one of the brightest lights of his generation, made the transition from hand drawn to digital. He really didn’t like it and eventually went back to traditional. He felt like he couldn’t put his own individual stamp on a performance. There’s something about the digital process that makes that hard. Animators in the digital studio were referred to as “movers”, which says a lot. If thats true, I wonder if that’s why Pixar animators seem to be a homogenous bunch . To me they don’t really push what they are doing. There’s another direction for Pixar to go in that Pixar hasn’t really taken advantage of.

Finally, what advice do you have for aspiring character designers?

Make yourself well-acquainted with people and the world. Don’t just draw from other artists. Get out and try not to be an introvert. You have to be alive. Put the comic books away for a good while, get out there and have some fun. Find out what people are about. If you are an internet or gaming junkie get out to the theater or play sports or chat with folks face to face. Try something different. You become a full person by being a full person, being a human being.