How To Create Animation
Interviews by John Cawley

Character Design


JULY 26, 1990

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Mitch Schauer is one of those artists who can drive even other artists crazy. He can do everything from broad caricature to exacting recreation, do it in the wink of an eye and do it astoundingly well. He's frequently called upon to help design characters, create logos, do storyboards, draw comics and more. We talked with Mitch in his office at Film Roman where he is their key development person, often doing the creating, writing and designing of new shows. He is currently producing BOBBY'S WORLD for the Fox Network.

Q: Please give a brief description of your career, including the studios you've worked for and specific productions you've worked on.
MS: Actually my schooling and my career kind of overlapped on each other. I started right out of high school actually in a graphics arts studio in Tulsa and designed cartoons and labels and all that kind of crap you do. They saw that I had a knack for cartooning so I did a lot of that and was involved in a lot of print art, print work, that kind of thing. While I was there I found out about Cal-Arts so I sent my portfolio there and they asked me to come out. So, I started at Cal-Arts and went there for almost a year and realized I didn't want to just know cartooning so I left there. I then went down to Art Center and got my degree in advertising administration.
While I was at Art Center during summer school, a girl told me about a job opening at Filmation so I went over and applied. I interviewed with Don Christianson and Herb Hazleton and they were asking me all kinds of questions like, "you know all about bike pans and about field guides?" And I said, "oh, yeah!" I had a buddy down in the lobby and they gave us a break, they wanted me to go draw a Flash Gordon scene for the feature and see if I could do it or not. So, I ran down to the lobby and asked my buddy to go to the ink and paint department and ask what a bike pan was and about field guides.
So, by the time I got my job I had the field guides and I knew what a bike pan was. I started out in layout with Filmation. After about a year of that they moved me up to storyboard just because they couldn't find someone. They were looking for a support artist and I said I can do it so they put me there. From Filmation, they laid me off and I finished Art Center and went to Disney and worked in Publicity under Bill Moore for about a year and worked on FOX AND THE HOUND and that kind of thing doing posters and mark-ups for posters and storyboards for trailers and that kind of thing.
I left Disney after a year because there was too much politics. it was under that Ron Miller regime and I wasn't happy there. So I packed up the family and went back to Tulsa and went to work for an ad agency. I worked in the ad agency for two years. They made me head of their multi-image department and we made big slide shows for all kinds of things. Again, I worked in print, designing ads, specking type, all the kind of things that go along with advertising, which was good for me. I think advertising teaches you how to be versatile because you'll do an ad for an oil company and the next ad you do is for a pizza company and I felt that that was a big help to me.
After two years of that and still freelancing back here for Hanna-Barbera doing storyboards, I decided that if I didn't get back out here and get back into business, that I was doomed. So, I packed up the family after two years and came back and went to work for Hanna-Barbera as associate producer under Kay Wright and was associate producer on PINK PANTHER AND SONS and the GOBOT series. Then Jean MacCurdy asked me if I wanted to produce Scooby Doo so I took that and I produced a season of that and the STAR FAIRIES special and the POUND PUPPIES special.
I then got a job offer from Marvel to come over and do INHUMANOIDS and the G.I. JOE feature. But I just stayed for the INHUMANOIDS and part of the BLONDIE special. I got frustrated with that. At that time the fellow who brought the Smurfs over here from Belgium was starting up a company and asked me if I'd like to come over and be Director of Creative Development for it. So, I went over there for almost two years and we developed shows and all kinds of characters. I think the first year I was there we developed twenty seven shows, all kinds, action adventure and all that kind of thing. At the end of that, they were kind of slowing down so I left there and got a call from Scott Jeralds saying that George Singer needed someone at Film Roman to take Brett Koth's place so I came over here and I've been here; it will be two and a half years this September. That's where I be.

Q: What does a character designer do?
MS: What you hope you do is you get a feel for the show and you get a feel for the client, what they're trying to convey, the feeling of the show and the type of humor or the type of action. Then you try to design a character that fits into their mind set. You try different types of characters, different styles and the client or the studio picks the one that they like the best and you're on your way.

Q: Can you give me at least one good and one bad example of what you consider in the area of character design?
MS: I think a good example would be Jay Ward and the Bullwinkle characters and Dudley Do-Right characters because they were designed for a budget and simplicity. They looked funny and I think that's a key to a funny show is that the character should look funny even if their not moving or they're not saying anything. A good example for a live action adventure type of show obviously to me is JONNY QUEST. Doug Wildey, being so involved in that, and them bringing out all the comic book artists to work along behind the animators and the designers, because those characters were designed very simply for animation. That's tough to do: action adventure and keep them simple. And Alex Toth was a good example of how to do it on a budget. So, a lot of times I think that the money determines what the characters look like, how involved they are. But, those are good examples.
Bad example, I think that a bad character is one that when it's designed doesn't have a construction sense to it and you can't turn it around. A lot of the toy shows that I've worked on are bad examples of having to take a toy and redesign it for animation when they're not made for it. There are a lot of those, take your pick.

Q: When do you get involved in a show?
MS: That's a tough question. Well, for instance on the Bobby show we designed those characters before we even pitched the show. Then we got together with the writers and Howie [Mandell] and they liked the designs and we just followed through with those. When you get into a show, once it's in series, usually the designer gets the script, right after it's been approved obviously. Then they go through and they make a whole list of the characters and the props and that kind of thing and they start designing hopefully before the board artist starts, so the board artist has reference. Sometimes I've seen boards done, especially here at the studio, before we've had the models done, and did the models based on the storyboard. So, it kind of depends on the schedule.

Q: How do you go about designing an original character for animation?
MS: To me, I think if you're going to do a funny character it helps to go down and talk to the guys [at the studio] a lot, and get a feel. Just hear something funny or talk about something funny. That will kick me off a lot of times. Sometimes I will look at a storyboard from another show and see a doodle in there that looks pretty funny and that will get me going. Sometimes it's just the attitude of the character. If it's an angry character you try to accent the eyebrows and the mouth to make him look angry. So, you just try to push it and all the facial features, you try to push them in areas to accent a particular personality or attitude. That's where I usually start.

Q: How different is that from adapting a character from another medium?
MS: Obviously you have to retain the integrity and the look of that character, so that's a little more limited. As an example, working on the Pound Puppies, we had these ugly dolls and we had to do ugly drawings. But, you had to put as much personality into those clumps of whatever those things were. You had to put personality into those so we tried to do as much as we could, and it's usually in the eyes and the mouth and the body posing. So, you try to pick up on the most unique aspects of the character and see if you can push those along further and keep them in character but still try to get them more into an animated arena.

Q: In your current position, where you both design characters and oversee those who design characters, what is an average daily routine?
MS: If you're going to design characters, I like to start off with a script. I spend a lot of time, not so much reading the script, I read the script very quickly and then I spend a lot of time just thinking about it and, again, talking to people and walking around, that kind of thing. You try to get as many ideas into your head as you can and then sit down. For me it works. I sit down at the last minute and I can do them as fast as I possibly can because all the ideas are in my head, I've been thinking about them so long. So, it's not a normal routine for you to sit down and you start drawing in the morning. It's not regimented as much as I guess some artists are.

Q: How much freedom are you given on an average production?
MS: As far as character design, once you've established the main cast, you don't have much freedom as far as what you can do with those characters. On Garfield you had a specific look to a character, so the only creative freedom you really had might be in costuming or in an extreme action when we had Garfield in the G force as in "Invasion of the Giant Robots" where he was pressed in a chair and we had him spread over the edge of the chair. Sometimes you can do that. I think a lot more of the creativity comes out of the incidental characters. As long as they retain the style, as in Garfield. One of the key things to Garfield are the big eyes. So, if you retain the look of the show so people say that the character belongs in a Garfield show, then you can do just about anything you want. That's why I enjoy the secondary characters a lot.

Q: What project or production have you done that has given you the most professional enjoyment, and why?
MS: Probably BOBBY'S WORLD because not only being the designer of the character's initially, but also being the producer on it. BOBBY'S WORLD is the first time that I've had control with regards to working with the writers and the story editor to where the designs, as far as I felt, made a difference that I wanted to do. So, that's been the joy of BOBBY'S WORLD is making it look the way I want it to look, whereas in the past, producing shows for other studios, you were handed a show and that's what it was.

Q: What, in your opinion, on the opposite spectrum, would be a failed project that you personally felt disappointed with, or with the final outcome?
MS: I'd have to say THE GOBOTS because when I designed the characters for the Gobots, obviously there were toys first. But, what I tried to do is take those little toys, those little figures and make them more of an animated character in difference to transformers, which were very blocky and very mechanical looking. I tried to give the Gobots more personality and simplify them and I think that it was the initial show, the five part miniseries, it was just hurt because of the time crunch. We went into production on that in June and had to deliver I believe it was September. It wasn't overseas very long. So, I think that was the biggest disappointment because we had high hopes for that being a fun action adventure type show.

Q: Finally, if you were to start in the business today, or if you were to give someone advice to get into the business, what would it be?
MS: I'm glad I went to Art Center and got a degree in something other than cartooning because I think versatility is the key thing to being in the cartoon business. And, if you are versatile, you can go to work in the studio and they don't pigeon hole you. One day you can be drawing cartoon characters and the next day they can put you on a Jonny Quest type show and you can do it. So, if anybody's getting into the business, I would advise them to learn to draw. That's one thing I learned in Art Center is having instructors saying the kids that come to the school today, they don't know how to draw. A lot of the art schools don't teach drawing as strongly as they used to. I think that's the key to anything, any aspect of animation is you've got to know how to draw.

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