Saturday, October 24, 2009

Mike Dougherty Interview

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 received my first, formal design and illustration training in 2003 at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA. There, I took a series of extremely helpful life drawing classes from animation artist Mike Mattesi (now an art director at Leap Frog). Two years into my education at Art Center, I took a semester off to take a shot at a professional design career in the animation industry. In January 2006, I landed my first professional character design gig on Nickelodeon's Tak and the Power of Juju. I worked alongside the ever-so-talented Jennifer Wood designing character assets for what would become Nick's first in-house (thought short-lived) CG cartoon show. Since then, I have enjoyed nearly-steady work at Nick. In July 2007, Butch Hartman hired me to team up with fellow character designers Gordon Hammond and Ernie Gilbert on season 6 of The Fairly OddParents. We are currently working on season 7 of OddParents. I have also contributed designs for The Penguins of Madagascar and the forthcoming Kung Fu Panda animated series.

How do you go about designing, and what goes through your mind, from start to end?

Everything, of course, starts with an idea. On a TV show, some of the ideas have already been set up for you before you even put pencil to paper. The script writers conceive the character, then the storyboard artist, the board revisionist and sometimes the show creator all contribute to a character's model for use in the storyboard. Sometimes, the storyboard artists provide strong enough character drawings for me to tweak into finished designs, while other storyboard artists offer more generic characters which allow the designer more wiggle room to be creative. That's when my own ideas, opinions, and individuality as an artist come in handy.

I'm fairly slow and methodical when it comes to drawing. I think I'm a better graphic designer than I am a draftsman. What I mean is that I'm more methodical and pensive when it comes to designing. I'll put down a few lines, edit, then put down a few more lines, edit again, flip the drawing around, do an overlay, and so on. I'm not your fast and furious draftsman, I don't do heavy-handed blue pencil sketches in 15 seconds and I hardly possess the confidence to think I've scored a finished drawing on a first pass. Sometimes, a lot of overlays have to get thrown in the trash before you hit the right note. For me, design is problem solving, like assembling a puzzle or figuring out the next chess move. I edit my designs as much as I draw them.

I design very graphically and I think in terms of 2-dimensional shapes. I start off drawing a strong, interesting silhouette in a clear, legible pose. I try to vary the shapes and pump as much contrast into a design as possible without making it unbalanced and “wonky.” I vary the volumes so that no design is either to round and bubbly or too hard and pointy. Contrast creates interest. For me, I've reached a point where I'm no longer thinking about the technical rules of art – my reactions are intuitive and emotional. If the character's pose, proportions, silhouette, expression and personality "look" appealing and well-balanced, then I'm happy with the result and I call it a day.

What is a typical day for you, and who are the people you work with?

I'm an early bird. I usually arrive at Nick by 7am, have my coffee and cereal, check the news, then get the pencil (or stylus) moving. I seem to do my best work in the morning when my mind is fresh and the environment is quiet and peaceful. On a show like OddParents in which the storyboard demands anywhere between 90 to 150 designs, there is no time to be indecisive and overly-analytical about each design. One has to work fast and efficiently in animation. There are three design teams on The Fairly OddParents and each team consists of one character designer, one prop designer and one background designer. Every three weeks, each team is assigned one 11-minute episode to design based off the storyboard. For the most part, I've worked on the design team with Joel Fajnor (background designs) and Marty Warner (prop designs), though recently we've been working with the legendary background designer, Jim Worthy. Every once in a while, I'll have a technical question about a character, so I'll seek the sage advice of our awesome art director, George Goodchild. Working on OddParents is a joy: the production staff give us three weeks to deliver a show, while Butch and George give us the freedom and the leeway to be creative, work at our own paces and contribute our own styles to the characters. It really is a dream job and nice work if you can get it.

What are some of the things that you have worked on?

I'm currently working on The Fairly OddParents and previously worked on Tak and the Power of Juju. I have also contributed character designs on a freelance basis for The Penguins of Madagascar and the forthcoming Kung Fu Panda animated series. Beyond Nick, I freelanced for a short time on My Gym Partner's a Monkey at Cartoon Network, and I've also done freelance character design for the Mattel Corp. and Ka-Chew!. I have also contributed character designs for the personal short film projects of a few friends in the Nickelodeon CG department. Personally, I am collaborating with my older brother and children's book author, Thomas Dougherty, on a new book which I should finish illustrating later this summer. I also enjoy updating my website and blog with my own personal artwork.

Is there a design you have done that you are most proud of?

I'm really proud of the design I did for Keeko on Tak and the Power of Juju. That character went through months of visual development and several artists took a stab at pinning down a good design. There were beautiful paintings, pencil sketches, post-it notes Eventually, I did a drawing on paper of Keeko to which the writers, producer and art director responded enthusiastically and said, 'that's the one!' My version of Keeko seemed to have all the earmarks of an unappealing character who should not have been approved for modeling, but he somehow had “it.” Even though my Keeko had two buck teeth, a pig snout of a nose, a unibrow, a mullet and a pot belly, the Tak crew loved him. I applaud the show's writers for sticking up for my design in the face of the network's dubious response to a seemingly repulsive and non-kid-friendly character. Keeko's dischevled, “Pig Pen” looks certainly fit his mischeivious yet mellow personality.

Who do you think are the top artists out there?

I'd be a fool to not mention my colleagues Ernie Gilbert and Gordon Hammond (long-time design staples on OddParents), who've helped tremendously in getting me up-to-speed with the show's unique and well-established style. We also have a prop designer on OddParents who can draw circles around anything, and he is the multi-talented and quick-drawing Eirik Paye. Alex Deligiannis is a color designer on our show and his work is just brilliant. Beyond my friends and colleagues in the OddParents crew, I think Carter Goodrich and Peter De Seve have very illustrative styles that take character design to the level of a fine art. John Nevarez, Ovi Nedelcu and Ben Balistreri are all master draftsmen and designers to whom I defer the maximum humility. Recently, I've also found a few artists online who's work I never saw before but now love: Brigette Barrager, Brittney Lee, Miah Alcorn and Lorelay Bove.

Could you talk about your process in coloring your art, as well as the types of tools or media that you use?

I consider myself stronger at drawing than designing color palettes and painting. I think I have the coloring book line drawings down pat, but lately I've been working on some digital paintings in Photoshop which can be found on my site and blogs. I always start a painting with a drawing layer, which I reduce to a minimal opacity so that I can focus on blocking in basic shapes of color. Once I block in a color design which I think is harmonious and easy on the eyes, I'll think back to my rendering class at Art Center and start modeling the character with light and shadow. Core shadows, rim lights, temperature variations and several hours later, I have a finished painting. As I confessed earlier, I'm not the best painter, but I'm learning and having a lot of fun doing it. Lately, I've started using different-colored sheets of paper, cutting them into pieces and collaging them into a finished character design. It eliminates the need for rendering, it looks cool, and it's always nice to end up with an actual piece of frame-able art.

What part of designing is most fun and easy, and what is most hard?

Front, three-quarter standing poses are always fun and easy while extreme action poses are a little more challenging. Sometimes, the three-quarter pose is the most practical means of showing a character's proportions, posture, shapes and overall design.

What are some of the things that you do to keep yourself creative?

I browse other artists' blogs and websites all the time. I think it's a necessary part of finding inspiration for subject matter and technique and it's vital to progressing one's own abilities. For me, browsing other's online art galleries is both a sweet and sour experience. On the one hand, seeing these amazing illustrations inspires me to be more prolific and hard-working, or to make my own attempt at that artist's particular method and style. On the other hand, I feel humbled by the incredible level of talent out there and I kick myself for not working as hard at my craft. Definitely, if you want to move forward, improve and tread into new territory, you have to expose yourself to other artists' work and see a unique and fresh perspective on the world. Watching all-star players certainly forces you to “up” your game.

What are some of your favorite designs which you have seen?

I have an original page of Glen Keane's rough drawings of the Beast from Beauty and the Beast, framed and hanging on my office wall. Talk about a perfect design! Keane had to balance a lot of spinning plates with that design and find just the right harmony of man and monster, aggressiveness and vulnerability. The Beast had to be an intimidating and ferocious character, a potential threat to Belle while also being a sympathetic and likeable character, subject to Belle's charm and affection. Keane used the Beast's eyes so brilliantly to express that character's humanity and emotion underneath all the fur and fangs. The Beast's design is pure genius.

What is your most favorite subject to draw? And why?

Fantasy characters are always fun to put on a blank canvas. Whenever I'm having writer's block and can't muster a single inspired idea, I revert to drawing the classic characters of myth and folklore. People will never get tired of looking at mermaids, pirates, cowboys, knights, sasquatches, aliens and leprechauns. They are classic characters that are open to endless interpretations. It's also a nice cheat because, while your audience will always be very critical of mistakes made in drawings of naturalistic, human characters, they will be more willing to accept a fantasy character. No one will ever say that your dragon has too many spikes on its tail, your superhero's costume is too flamboyant or your alien's eyes are too big. It's animation, so you can do anything!

What inspired you to become an artist?

I've been drawing cartoons since I was about ten years old when I bought my first issue of Mad Magazine. I was already familiar with the Mad artists from my older brother's stack of circa 1980s back issues. I loved the drawings of Mort Drucker, Jack Davis, Al Jaffe, Antonio Prohias and Paul Coker. My first education in art consisted of copying their drawing styles and using their influence to create my own comics while listening to movie scores in the seclusion of my bedroom. I also loved the art of Drew Struzan, who painted movie posters for many of my favorite movies when I was a kid. I either wanted to be the next Struzan, the next Drucker or work in the special effects industry. Around that age, I watched a show about special effects called “Movie Magic,” which inspired me to someday work in film or television. I was a true cartoon and film geek in my youth, which kept me from pursuing sports, the sciences and other subjects in which I expressed little interest. Art was the one subject in which I excelled, so I stuck to it.

What are some of your favorite websites that you go to?

Of course, I frequent The character design blog always introduces me to animation artists with whom I'm not familiar but whose work I invariable end up admiring and following. I check my Flickr home page and my blogspot dashboard every day to see what new material my artist contacts are posting.

What wisdom could you give us, about being an artist? Do you have any tips you could give?

First of all, I think it's essential to geographically live in or near an animation capitol, because you get the benefits of networking, having one-on-one meetings with potential employers, shaking hands, personally distributing art material and basically knowing someone in the industry who can help you get your foot in the door. My dad always says, “It's not always WHAT you know, it's WHO you know.” I think that's very true. Even though we live in an age of transferring digital files, online networking and web conferencing, I doubt that technology will ever replace personal, one-on-one relationships with other artists. If you're seriously considering getting a job in character design, then you have to be willing to move where the jobs are: Los Angeles, the Bay area, New York, Vancouver or whichever city has an animation community.

Nine out of ten times, character designers will be required to draw organic, carbon-based lifeforms, be it an animal, a human, an alien or some other creature. So, figure drawing and animal drawing classes are invaluable in understanding how to create either realistic or naturalistic characters. Even though you may be working in a cartoony style, you still have to understand anatomy, movement, balance, energy and force. I strongly recommend looking up a drawing instructor and animation artist named Mike Mattesi. He's authored several amazing books on life drawing, character design and observational sketching. Steve Silver, Tom Bancroft and Dave Colman all have extremely helpful how-to books for character designers, and I would suggest referencing those artists.

Humility and deference is important, but never sacrifice the confidence that you are a strong, capable artist with a unique vision to contribute to a creative team. Never doubt, devalue or discredit your own abilities, talents and skills. Patience and persistence is key. Go out there, do it and have some fun. If you're not having fun drawing cartoon characters, whether you're getting paid or not, then you've gotten off on the wrong floor. It's animation! It's supposed to make you laugh.

If people would like to contact you, how would you like to be contacted?

People can e-mail me at, or just find the link to my mail at my main internet site, I also have a blog at and a Flickr page at

Finally, do you have any of your art work for sale (sketchbook, prints, or anything) for people that like your work can know where and when to buy it?

I'm on the threshold of staring an Etsy store and linking it up on my web page, so please stay tuned to!

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