by Christine Griswold
“Draw all the time. Draw constantly.” Craig Kellman
If you’ve been watching animated movies, TV shows or music videos over the past 25 years, chances are pretty high that you’ve seen some of Craig Kellman’s work. He doesn’t have a blog or a website (although his work can be found on others’); much of his work never makes it to a screen near you (it’s stuck in development in various places across town and beyond); and yet he’s been nominated for multiple Emmys and Annies (the American animation award presented by the Los Angeles branch of the International Animated Film Association which is equivalent to the Oscars and Emmys combined), and has been able to carve out a nice career in animation (and feed his family as a result).
A CalArts alum, Craig started working professionally in animation on Bobby’s World at age 18, lucked into a TV producing / directing gig (The Twisted Tales of Felix the Cat) at age 23, has worked in about every studio in town (and some throughout the country and internationally as well), has held many positions in both TV and feature animation (producer, director, storyboard artist, art director, character designer, layout artist, voice actor), and has taught character animation and design.
Artzray sat down with Craig Kellman to pick his brain about animation, his influences, and his character design process. We found out it’s a lot about observation, detail, and growth.
Tell us a little about yourself. How did you get into animation & why?
I’ve been interested in animation ever since I knew what animation was–I think I was interested in it before I knew what it was. I’ve been drawing cartoon characters since I was 3 years old. I loved watching cartoons! But I didn’t know what animation was then, or that you could do it as a job. I didn’t realize that until high school, I think, that you could actually train to become an animator. I just thought it was made by little elves at the Walt Disney factory [he laughs].
When I found out that you could do this, it kind of coincided with finding out that I had a relative of a relative, named Dan Jeup, who was working as an animator at Disney at the time, and who had gone to school to learn animation. So I contacted Dan through the mail (yes, pre-internet days). 8 months later, I finally heard back–at the time it felt like an eternity. I received a collection of drawings and a long letter, guiding me to all of this cool information on animation—so funny though, you know, cuz it’s pre-internet. Now there’s a bazillion times more information at your fingertips. But it wasn’t like that back then, and it was SO SPECIAL to get these few important pieces of information at the time. It felt like so much. He recommended “The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation” by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, and the Preston Blair animation books…anyway, it was huge! Dan also sent his drawings over some of the drawings in the books–going over them and simplifying them, breaking them down into simple shapes and line of action and all of these very basic animation concepts, which just simply blew my mind!
Then what? Did you go to art school?
Yes. Like I was saying, Dan guided me to these new sources, and critiqued my work (which was SO valuable—I was very much open to the idea of growing as an artist, at the time, but had no idea how), and then he also included a pamphlet for CalArts—California Institute of the Arts—and their character animation program. I was so impressed and it was so exciting! So I thought,
“Okay, I’m just gonna focus on getting into that school.”
I had some back-up schools, but that was my goal—to get into the CalArts character animation program. Luckily, I got in. Looking back, I don’t know why they accepted me. I think about those drawings, and they’re terrible, but somehow they saw a potential–which was amazing.
So you’ve been a producer, a director, a designer, a writer, a storyboard and layout artist—you’ve even done a few voices—which is the most fun?
The most fun. That’s kinda hard. They’re actually all fun. I think story boarding is the most excruciating for me. It’s the most painful. It’s the hardest and the most challenging and you have to use all of your facilities, all the disciplines at once, basically, and it’s tough—mentally exhausting. Just crazy. It’s incredibly satisfying when you get a storyboard done. If you like it, you know, when it’s completed it’s really satisfying, but it is not the most fun. For me.
Character design is the most comfortable for me. And so it’s most fun in its purest form when you are embracing a character and you are inhabiting it, and then you are just going for it and it’s pure. I think when it gets compromised, or when it goes to committee, I think a lot of the fun gets taken out of it, but when you have the freedom to just create these characters, it’s still fun for me—its’ never gotten old, and you can keep surprising yourself.
But right now I think the voice thing is probably the most fun because it’s new and it’s all mistakes and there is just so much to learn—the growth each time I do it is exponential because I am so green. So, it’s a little scary, but it’s just super fun. I’m not doing so much of it where there’s the pressure of like, this is my real job yet, which makes it a little breezier I guess, too.
But even with the character designs, do you feel that you are still growing with that?
Oh yeah! Everyday. You’re always striving to surprise yourself and do something that feels really unique or iconic or just true and truthful. And a lot of times you have people who are responding to that in a negative way, and they want to take some of that out of it and make something more generic…and so part of the personal growth is dealing with that challenge—the challenge of working around your intentions and being able to compromise while still keeping a level of quality and integrity, so that you don’t have to be completely ashamed of it, where even though it’s been diluted, you know you’ve kept something of you in it. I think you have to be able to then tell yourself that you need to keep growing in your own way as well. So I’m gonna keep throwing my best at everybody–even if it gets sent back to me.
“What’s nice is when you push yourself in that way, and you do your best stuff, and it gets an emotional reaction.”
Even if it gets a negative one, it’s important that it gets a reaction. I’d much rather get a negative response, have someone react on an emotional level to something I’ve done, than to not have them react at all.
A comment that I know you get a lot is that your characters really look alive. What do you think it is about your work and your drawings that elicit that kind of response?
I’d love every one of my designs to be a great design—they’re not—but one thing I think they have, or that I believe they have the most of, is personality. For me, that is key. The best character design lesson I ever got was that it’s character before design; it’s not design before character. So it’s substance before surface, you know, and before style; and I think that style is great, and surface is great, and we’re all reacting to that…but, what’s underneath, you know? If your drawing has a strong personality, I think that it’s going to connect with people more that the really well designed cipher that isn’t a character.
How do you get that?
That’s pretty illusive, and I wish I knew. It’s really about observation, I think. And it’s that cliché: animators are really actors with pencils. As I’m drawing these characters I want to inhabit them. I’m utilizing the basic principles I’ve learned, like caricature and animation and such; but I’m always thinking about what they’re thinking, and trying to draw that from the inside out. Then adding my design and stylistic elements. I have to kind of cull all that stuff together in the end–take my really rough, raw, emotional sketches; and then add my intellectual design over that. Or sometimes I’ve done this intellectual design that’s much more cold and cerebral and it doesn’t have all the life I want, and so what I need to do is imbue that with life.
What kind of things do you take into consideration when designing a character?
I don’t know how important story is to every character designer, but I know to me it is huge. It’s that “character before design” thing, and to know who that character is, you need to know their story. The more I know about the character (through what’s already been written on the page, or that I create about that character’s backstory), the easier it is for me to visually represent that, and the easier it is for me to find interesting clues to tell you about that character. Be it a scarf or a hat or a cigar or a monocle or whatever it is, some kind of costuming, or it’s their weight, their height, the way they carry themselves—all of these elements aid in creating a believable individual.
For example, perhaps this person has the “weight of the world” on their shoulders. So their shoulders slump, and they slump, and maybe they carry more weight, or their shape gets broader as it reaches the ground so there’s like this gravitational pull. Their eyes sag, everything sags because of the way that they feel, and you carry it all of the way through. Even their clothes are droopy. A character’s economic status, how are they brought up–all of these things make a difference, and you can show all of these things through body language and their expressions, but also through their costuming. Do you want to make that character feel like they seem small, or do you want them to seem like they are bursting out of these small clothes as if they are out-growing their world and they’re literally “too big for their britches?” You think about these things that make up a personality, and you try to show who they are with these visual clues–you try to represent it all visually.
It’s complex, and it’s why I spend a good 75 % of my work time thinking. Drawing as well, but most of those drawings are just like notations—that’s all they are–and they have to come together at the end. And usually, and this is where the growth comes in, it’s never 100% of all of those things–design and character–when I turn it in. It’s just like a fraction of both of those things. But I’m hinting at what could be, and hopefully there’s time to continue to develop that to 100%. At least that’s the goal. I always think, “next time I’ll hit that 100%.” But I don’t think I ever have, and I’m not sure I ever will. And that makes me happy, because I feel like there’s still a lot to do; there’s a lot to learn.
Tell us a little bit about working on the Madagascar movies.
I thought our designs could have been better, but I was really proud of how far we pushed stuff at Dreamworks at the time–when Shrek was the look of the day–how different Madagascar was, how lucky we were to push that vision through. It wasn’t anything mind-blowing for me or my peers—we knew that that could work, we’d seen it work, but in that climate it was a bit more radical at the time.
Well, it was very different because they were flat designs that you interpreted into a 3D / CG kind of space, which was new.
In the beginning there were a lot of fights—good fights. Everybody learned a lot. It was new for me because I didn’t know anything about CG, but I knew you could sculpt this stuff, so I thought we could do it. All of the influences on that movie were incredibly flat 2D stuff. We never got as pure as I wanted to (and things before and since have gotten closer), but it was such a departure from what they were doing. And I thought the characters needed to move a certain way too. But I got a lot of push back at first—was told it was impossible.
It was very exciting to have those discussions, and to really believe that this could work, and then (in the end) to see them push the animation forward (after fighting back for so long)– to finally have enough support behind me to be able to push, and then for everyone to be happy with the results, surprising themselves.
Knowing nothing about the technology, but knowing that these people were so much smarter than me, and that they could make the technology happen if they cared—they just needed to care and they didn’t (at first). But when we made them care, they pushed. And then they were like, “oh yeah I could do that. Oh, and it’s awesome, by the way.” And then I’m like, “why did we fight?!?” [he laughs]. But it was great, because then there was more camaraderie, and more support behind it, and everybody grew.
Who are your biggest influences?
My biggest influence (and what should be everybody’s biggest influence for character design) is just observing people—real people. Not looking at other art at all. That’s the well you have to keep going back to.
But as far as animation artists are concerned, people who have taken that observation and synthesized and broken it down basically for me, I feel like my biggest influences were my earliest. Even though I love lots of work created today, the best stuff for me is still animation that I loved watching on TV as a kid. The work of artists such as Ed Benedict (who designed all of the early Hanna–Barbera characters, and a lot of stuff for the MGM shorts prior to that) and Roy Morita and Al Shean (the designers responsible for most of Jay Ward’s cartoons) probably impressed me the most—their designs are so simple and direct;
Tom Oreb (who was a character designer and story guy at Disney in the 50s and 60s; he helped design characters for Sleeping Beauty and 101 Dalmatians, but he also designed some of the brilliant Ward Kimball shorts in the 50s like Toot Whistle Plunk and Boom) and Ward Kimball (a legendary Disney animator and director and a great fine artist and designer in his own right) were a huge influence on me as well. And really all the Warner Bros cartoons, especially the ones Bob Clampett directed, were so expressive, and had a big effect on me. Early Hanna-Barbera, Warner Bros., and Tex Avery’s cartoons are still huge—they don’t get better than that.
Harvey Kurtzman and MAD Magazine in general made a giant impact on me, too. And the caricature savvy of Ronald Searle, Arnold Roth and Al Hirschfeld—those artists are great observers and are also very great synthesizers, I mean, being able to take what they see and then condense it down and push it and pull it until it’s got more essence than the thing they’re looking at…they’ve boiled it down, reducing it to its essence, and then they just spit it back out at you, and it feels more real than real—it’s incredible.
Also, the UPA shorts of John Hubley and Bobe Cannon, which are so well designed and animated; the color styling of Jules Engel and Mary Blair; the Golden Book illustrations of Alice and Martin Provensen and Mel Crawford—they’re all highly influential on any painting or illustration work I may do. Their work was so full of life.
And that’s animation. It’s all about imbuing inanimate objects with life, making things that aren’t alive feel alive or seem alive. Or come to life. So, that for me is the big thing.
Being an illustrator or designer in some other field, or a graphic designer, it’s different–the priority is not on personality or this illusion of life. But that’s what we do, so that’s my top priority. I respond most to the stuff that has that quality to it. I’m not as impressed with coldly slick designs that don’t have it. Though I’m impressed enough, they’re not as exciting to me as drawings that feel alive.
How are the drawings of say Hirschfeld, or Mary Blair, or the Provensens different from a lot of what’s out there today?
These people are still tops for me, even though there are so many great people working in the industry right now. People have blogs, and young kids, everybody is doing this amazing work, but what I think a lot of it is missing is that real observation. I think that everyone is looking at everyone else’s work so much that they’re not looking at life as much anymore. They’re looking at screens. And I know it sounds so dinosaur-grandpa of me, but you get more good craftsman out there than you ever have, because everyone is able to see so much so easily that they can grow exponentially…but you don’t have as much experience happening–so there’s this component that’s missing from all this great stuff.
It doesn’t have the same level of point of view or direct observation, because you have people looking at other people’s observations of other people’s observations of other people’s observations –so it dilutes their essential truth. When I went to CalArts, none of us could draw like these 15 year-old kids that are growing up now learning how to draw from the internet. Maybe I’m not looking hard enough, but I’m not really seeing anybody telling people to put the computers down and go outside and draw real people. Observe them. And not just sketch them as a requirement, but to really think about what makes those people you’re looking at tick, and to caricature them. And this takes real world observation, and experience with people, places and things out in the world. Taking all of that from life, and putting that back into your cartoon dog–not just drawing a cartoon dog from a thousand other cartoon dogs—gets you a better character.
You’re not going to create anything original if you don’t look at the source, and I think that’s something I strive for.
What practical advice would you give to someone just starting their career?
Number one, just be lucky [he laughs]. Luck is a huge part of it, but the advice I’d give (and I know it sounds trite), but keep drawing. Draw all the time. Draw constantly. And learn to draw in many different styles, push yourself to be versatile. This business is very competitive.
I had gotten some really good advice, and I don’t take it as much as I should, but it was read everything, look at everything, observe everything. And I don’t nearly have enough time to do that, but I think it’s important. Take in as much life as you can, because you are a reflection of life. The more you observe life, the more truthful and unique your work will be. It’s just like writing a great song, and the more specific you are the more universal that song is. It’s not about writing more generally to connect with people; it’s about writing a very specific point of view, and that will become the universal because people will connect with that truth. Many people have felt those things that you felt. You think it’s specific to you, but the specificity is a unique gateway to larger human truths.
Point of view is everything. So if you can find your point of view, I think that will help solidify a position for you in the industry. I think that’s the way to carve something out–to not copy, but to have a unique perspective. That’s important, and that’s hard to develop, and not necessarily something everyone’s born with—but that’s the thing to develop. What’s going to make you stand out in this competitive arena? It’s really going to be what you have to say. It’s digging deep within…it’s taking outside stuff, but then applying your own personal point of view to that, even when you are drawing for others’ projects with many different styles. It’s easier said than done, but I think that’s the thing to strive for, and I think that’s the thing that will help you survive.
You have a particular style that you are known for, but you can draw in any style, right?
I can draw in many different styles, but no, I don’t think I have my own personal style yet. I wish I was like Ronald Searle or Al Hirschfeld or something, but I’m not that iconic. I think my through line is the personality and the acting–I don’t think it’s the style, like it’s an angular style or a round style or it’s more detail-oriented and more complicated or simplified. I think it’s still all about the personality. I am definitely flexible in terms of style. No matter what the assignment is, no matter what the collaboration, you need to be able to take in what they’re saying, and what they’re asking you to do, and what the style is, and deliver, yes, within that style; but within that style, you need to bring your point of view to the individual characters. And yes, it’s other people’s points of view too, but like I said, it’s what you’re going to add to that that’s going make it special–so that they pick yours over somebody else’s. Or that at least they want more of your work for the next one.
There’s something valid to finding out what your point of view is, and applying it to what you’re doing, but it’s a collaborative medium. It’s not just go in there, and “every snowflake is special,” and that you have an idea so automatically it’s the very best one. No. It’s having a point of view, but understanding when there’s a better idea than yours, and being able to change course or be flexible enough to incorporate that into what you’re doing.
“Ultimately, I want the work to smack of truth as much as possible.”
Craig Kellman Biography
Some of Craig’s professional work includes: illustrating a Flintstones Golden Book; art directing the original series of the Power Puff Girls; producing / directing HBO’s The Ricky Gervais Show and Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends; designing the Madagascar characters, and the “Foodimals” for Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 (he also did voices, as well as designed and directed this movie’s end title sequence for this movie as well); designing and directing the “Rap Battle” sequence in the latest SpongeBob movie (and other work over the years for SpongeBob as well); designing characters for Batman: the Animated Series, Samurai Jack, and the charming new holiday special Elf: Buddy’s Musical Christmas; storyboarding on The Ren and Stimpy Show; voicing and designing characters in Hotel Transylvania; and much, much more!