Animation and Children’s Books

Animators can make great children’s book illustrators.

Why shouldn’t they? They can draw. They can paint. They understand character development and consistency. They know how to show form through gesture. They employ color theory to convey emotion. They’ve studied the great image-makers of the past—and not just from animation, but Impressionist, Renaissance, Post-modern, Ashcan, Baroque, Victorian, and Surrealist artists as well. They’ve gone to the zoo to draw real animals—and not just researched them online (if at all).

In this post, I’ll aim to shed a little light on being an animator* in the children’s book world. I don’t know everything there is to know about the subject. So I ask Cale Atkinson, Brett Bean, Liz Climo, Chris Houghton, Ward Jenkins, Claire Keane, Tina Kugler, Sarah Marino, Ovi Nedelcu, Pete Oswald, Kenard Pak, and Charles Santoso to speak to their experiences in “crossing over” to children’s books.

* For the sake of brevity, I’m going to use the term “animators” to include anyone working in the animation industry: character designers, visual developers, storyboard artists, etc. 

ANIMATE. ILLUSTRATE.

In 2009, when I was at Simon and Schuster, we partnered with Sony to publish books based on the Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs movie. We decided to illustrate them—instead of using screen grabs from the movie. We hired Brigette Barrager and Pete Oswald—both were working in animation. Even though they were new to children’s books, they worked as if they had been in the book industry for years. The books looked great; and our colleagues in the licensing division of Sony were pleased. 

The following year, we partnered with Dreamworks to publish Puss-in-Boots books. Brigette was hired again, and I found and hired Ovi Nedelcu. He had been working at Laika, and had never illustrated a picture book. I’ve been in publishing since 1999, and in all that time, I still think Ovi’s work is some of the best I’ve ever seen. It was clearly better than half of the work at that year’s original art show at the Society of Illustrators. Unfortunately, since Puss-In-Boots: The Cat, The Boots, The Legend, was a media tie-in book, his art did not qualify for the show (In an upcoming blog post, I’ll expand on the ridiculous biases of tie-in publishing.)

Pete, Brigette, and Ovi have since moved on from media tie-in to do original content picture books with Random House, Simon and Schuster, Scholastic, and others.

Here’s an interior spread from Ovi’s, The Cat, The Boots, The Legend, from Simon and Schuster.

Here’s an interior spread from Ovi’s, The Cat, The Boots, The Legend, from Simon and Schuster.

In recent years, I’ve hired Pascal Campion, Tim Heitz, Brett Bean, Francesca Gambatesa, Stephen Simpson, and Ben Balistreri (to name a very few)—all of whom started (and some continue to be) in animation. The point is, children’s book art directors (especially recently) have widened their gaze to include Pixar, Blue Sky, Laika, Disney, Dreamworks, Blizzard, and other movie, television, and video game studios in their search for illustrators. 

Q&A WITH THE CROSSOVERS

I asked 12 highly-respected artists to speak to the relationship between animation and children’s book illustration; and to share a bit of advice. Here’s what they had to say:

CALE ATKINSON

Freelance Illustrator, Animator and Writer

What key skills have you learned in animation that have helped you illustrate children’s books? 

I’m sure there are many different aspects that feed into each other! In animation you really focus on ensuring things are reading clear, is everything working towards the point or mood you are trying to get at. Is the character’s pose working? Does the character’s personality get across? Does the angle of the shot fit the type of feeling that is needed for the scene? I think all of these same questions transition to children’s books or really any form of visual story telling. 

I would also say that animation really pushed the importance of pre-planning. When jumping in an animation, that may take a year or more to finish you don’t want to get 3/4 complete and realize it’s a jumbled mess of terrible! So pre-planning really helps you feel more confident in moving forward. I am all over sketching lots of thumbnails, scribbling out notes, making tests and creating colour thumbnails for both my animations and books. I find when the pre-planning is going good it also really gets me excited to get going on the project! When the pre-planning goes bad, it’s usually a sign something has got to change before moving forward! 

What would you say to animators today who are looking to expand into other markets, like books?

I feel first off you should just start drawing and making art towards that other market. If it’s children’s books, then I would start illustrating small or big scenes that show personality and a story. Play around and draw as if it’s for your own children’s book, how would you illustrate it? Go do some IllustrationFriday.com topics if you can’t think of ideas. Can always be good and inspiring to head to your local bookstore and take in a bunch of children’s books too. There are so many resources online now and people who are happy to answer questions. I’d say it’s all about making art and then finding all the ways you can to get it out in the world! 


BRETT BEAN

Owner of Drawn To It Studios, LLC specializing in character design & visual development for films, games, books, and TV

What key skills have you learned in animation that have helped you illustrate children’s books? 

I would say that the key skills I learned in the animation business is consistency, hitting deadlines, addressing AND accepting feedback, draftsmanship, storytelling, and composition. Everyone I know in the industry is a straight up hard worker as well as being their own art director and critic, trying to fix whatever is wrong. But those would be the key skills I think of first. Lot’s of ancillary skills learned as well like the ability to play well with others, task list prioritization, and being able to have time to both play/create and knowing when to finish. 

What would you say to animators today who are looking to expand into other markets, like books?

I have to say, it feels awesome to physically hold something you’ve been a part of so just never be afraid to try something new. Always look for opportunities and not base all your decisions on monetary gain. I feel that it will both strengthen your skill and self, good things will come for it. Opportunities become bigger and better opportunities. Money just stays what it is. Just don’t be afraid, jump in and try. Worst case scenario is: it doesn’t work out or it’s not your best work and in the world we live in, that is so not a bad deal. Other than that, try to know your strengths and play them up while working on your weaknesses as you expand your horizons. Think about your audience first and you last. Give yourself time to find a style and design you like and want to continue through a series. Loosen up, kids can tell when you’re too uptight. And make sure that if you want to branch out, make sure people know how to find you and why they should. Make yourself known.


LIZ CLIMO

Character Artist/Storyboard Revisionist on The Simpsons and a Children’s Book Author-Illustrator 

What key skills have you learned in animation that have helped you illustrate children’s books? 

I’m in a unique situation as an animator since I’ve only worked on animated sitcoms, where the main objective is to make the audience laugh. Because of that, I’ve learned the importance of subtlety in acting, and how important it is to “sell” the joke in the most efficient way possible. Also, working with storyboards has really helped me learn how to pace and stage a story. I wouldn’t be able to do that half as well if it wasn’t for my experience in animation. 

What would you say to animators today who are looking to expand into other markets, like books?

Don’t be afraid of your own style. In animation, we tend to compare our drawings with each other. If you draw in your own, unique style it’s more likely to get noticed. If you’re hoping to be published, get a great agent! Your agent really helps you harness your talent and helps you discover what it is you want from your own work, and they already have relationships with publishers and know what’s wanted in the industry, which can make the process far less overwhelming. 


CHRIS HOUGHTON

Storyboard Artist on Disney’s Gravity Falls and a Children’s Book Illustrator

What key skills have you learned in animation that have helped you illustrate children’s books? 

Working in animation has really pushed me to adapt to different styles, work quickly, and focus on clear visual storytelling. But it’s difficult to stay a well-rounded artist in animation because the industry is so specialized. Each step of the process is broken down into niche jobs. For instance, board artists don’t get to ink or “finish” their drawings. Or often times designers will draw something which then gets inked by a clean-up artist and then colored by a color stylist.

What would you say to animators today who are looking to expand into other markets, like books?

If you’re working in the animation industry and want to expand to doing print work, focus on doing finished colored pieces that tell a story.


WARD JENKINS

Animator and a Children’s Book Illustrator

What key skills have you learned in animation that have helped you illustrate children’s books? 

The main common ground with both fields is that you’re telling a story. And with that, how can you tell the best story with visuals? For me, it’s all about characters - I love creating and developing new characters. In animation, I would create pages of poses and expressions for a character, to get the best possible feel of what this character is thinking or doing. And doing this with easy-to-read poses (one method I use is “silhouetting” - turning each pose into a silhouette to see if you can still read what the character is doing). In animation (especially the hand drawn kind), after sketching and drawing and re-drawing all the poses and expressions, we would create model sheets of each character, so that everyone working on that one particular character would draw it the same way. For me, when I got to that point, I REALLY knew this character inside and out, and if there was a particular scene that required an unusual pose, it wouldn’t be too hard for me to work it out since I had gone through the process of developing this character from the get go and seeing the evolution it took to get to that point. Transferring this process from animation to children’s books was a no brainer for me. With certain book characters, I went through a long arduous process to get to the final version - and it definitely paid off. 

Another aspect of animation that benefited me was the use of layout - or, designing the overall background environment for each scene or spread. As an animation director, I would create entire worlds for each scene. I had to be a draftsman and know what would be the best way to convey the story being told. In children’s books, there was much that transferred over from animation, but I felt that I had to cut back for fear of going overboard with overly dynamic shots. If this was the case, I basically flattened the perspective to create a quirky, yet more interesting scene. With children’s books, I was worried of going too far into the “cartoony” look. 

What would you say to animators today who are looking to expand into other markets, like books?

It’s a great experience to expand and go into different fields. Just don’t think that children’s books will be the same as animation when it comes to process and turnaround times. Books require more time and finesse. Animation, in my personal experience (mostly broadcast and TV, not features) requires quicker turnaround times. In fact, this week I’m working on animation keys for a spot and there’s a week turnaround time - that’s three scenes with two characters. That’s typical for what I’m used to. 

Also: teamwork. There’s a different feel of “teamwork” between the two fields. In animation, it’s almost always a collaborative effort - that goes across the board from TV to features to short films - you’re all part of a team that are aiming for the same goal: to produce something that’s clear, concise, and, well . . . something you hope the client is happy with. For children’s books, the “team” consists of a few: you (artist), your editor, your art director, and sometimes the author. (Actually, the author is rarely involved - but it depends on each book.) That’s it. And even from there it’s only between two: you and your AD. But the goal is still the same as it is in animation: we’re all in this together to create the best product possible, and yes . . . to make the client (in this case, the reader) happy.


CLAIRE KEANE

Visual Development Artist at Walt Disney Animation Studios (Tangled, Frozen) and a Children’s Book Author/Illustrator

What key skills have you learned in animation that have helped you illustrate children’s books? 

In animation, there is great importance placed on the clarity of the idea or emotion being conveyed in a sequence. Since these are images passing so quickly (24 or 30 frames a second), the idea needs to be communicated instantaneously through clear posing and expression of the character, staging (composition), color, lighting and movement. Walt Disney himself and his legendary animators (called the Nine Old Men) have passed down this principal and it has become critical for each step of the process: animation, storyboards, character design, visual development, environment design, lighting, texture mapping, etc . . . 

This goal of visual clarity has greatly informed how I illustrate a book where I have only 32 pages to tell the story with very few words. In those 32 pages, I not only want to illustrate what has been written, but I also want to be able to show the reader who the character is and let them get a sense of the world that lives in between the words of the story. 

What would you say to animators today who are looking to expand into other markets, like books?

The principals that are taught in animation are principals that can apply to all visual storytelling. As someone working in animation (or studying animation) you have a unique understanding of these principals that can help you tell all kinds of stories beyond just animated movies.


TINA KUGLER

Former Storyboard Artist for Walt Disney Television Animation, Nickelodeon, and Warner Bros. Television and a Children’s Book Author/Illustrator

What key skills have you learned in animation that have helped you illustrate children’s books? 

The most important skill I learned in storyboarding for animation is visual storytelling. Your characters are your actors, and in animation you learn how to use them to convey emotions. Creating mood through color, lighting, and camera angles is equally important to your characters, and directly applies to making a picture book.

When storyboarding, a helpful study technique is to watch good cartoons silently, and watch the cuts, the camera angles, the staging, to see how they tell the story visually. You can even dissect it by drawing thumbnails from it. Try doing that with a good picture book, dissect it by not reading the words but studying the illustrations: isolating the color, the composition, the page turns. Then draw thumbnails from it, make a storyboard of the book. A good picture book flows like a film, the page turns are your cuts. Where does the reader’s eye go from one spread to another?

What would you say to animators today who are looking to expand into other markets, like books?

In film school, I studied the 5 C’ of Cinematography: Camera Angles, Continuity, Cutting, Close-ups, Composition. Every single one of those applies to picture books. Too often, I see animator’s illustration portfolios with a well-designed, solidly-constructed character that is just standing there, static. Make them act! Or there are characters, but no background. In animation, you may have a specific task (character designer, colorist, background designer), but as an illustrator, you need to wear all of those hats. Go to the library and check out a dozen picture books, study them, check out a dozen more. By doing this, you will learn the visual language of picture books, which is similar to film, but special and magical in its own way.


SARAH MARINO

Visual Development Artist and a Children’s Book Illustrator

What key skills have you learned in animation that have helped you illustrate children’s books? 

Animation isn’t just about the visuals – it’s about storytelling through the media of film. Illustration doesn’t have the luxury of relying on movement, but from working in animation, I’ve learned how valuable it is to communicate a story moment in a single image and really dive into the psyche of the characters and story I’m having to illustrate. What are the characters doing before the moment you choose to illustrate? What are they doing after? Why are they reacting that way? Thinking about your characters in relation to the story is an exceptionally important step that I believe a lot of artists sometimes forget (myself included)!

Another skill I’ve learned is how important the environment is. It’s easy to overlook the setting when you’re so focused on the characters, but the environment can be its own character, too! Production designers pour their heart and souls into making a living, breathing world come to life on the screen, and as illustrators, we have the daunting task of trying to convey scale and environment for the viewer just once! It’s no easy feat, but I’m certainly more conscientious about my design choices because of working and collaborating with amazing artists on different animation productions.

What would you say to animators today who are looking to expand into other markets, like books?

Artists in animation have a wealth of knowledge and skills that would translate perfectly into children’s books and other venues. While it’s wonderful working in a team to create a product you’re so proud to have contributed on, there’s quite a different feeling of satisfaction that comes from working on a cover or a children’s book. The final product is something that you own entirely - something that you saw from start to finish, which in animation, is extremely rare! Usually we’re just working in a specific department and handing off our work to the next part of the production pipeline. In books, the image is yours to see through from beginning to end, and while a terrifying challenge on its own, it’s so rewarding to see the finished piece, especially on a shelf at your local bookstore!

Good luck and keep drawing!


OVI NEDELCU

Picture book Author/Illustrator, Visual Development, Character Design & Story Artist for Laika, Sony, Disney, and Cartoon Network

What key skills have you learned in animation that have helped you illustrate children’s books? 

I think the one thing that I learned in animation (from doing storyboards particularly) is to not be too precious about my drawings initially. I draw probably thousands of storyboards on any given film and you have to be willing to throw away something you just drew in order to draw a better idea.

The whole point is to get the film up in storyboards as fast as you can so you can get it wrong as fast you can and change/fix it. If we spent all our time rendering our storyboards so that they look pretty but don’t really tell the best story in the animation reel (rough cut of the film in storyboards) then we just wasted all that time polishing storyboards we now have to throw out and redraw.

So to apply that to book making is great because I can rough out a book in a day or less and then take a look at it and fix the story structure before I even worry about tones or useless details that will change as the story evolves and gets better.

If you spend a lot of time on rendering your sketches or drawings then you start to become attached to them and it will be harder to toss them out and start over to get a better idea and story across. remember, STORY is KING. Focus on the story, not the rendering. If the story doesn’t work, the rendering won’t make it better.

So my advice to anyone would be to focus on the visual story structure, character development, staging, compositions, pacing and word play and THEN you can add the details and rendering later.

If it doesn’t work in a sketch, it won’t work in an illustration. It might look pretty, but there will always be something “wrong” with it. I see this a lot in books, where illustrators try to disguise a bad under drawing with rendering. If you strip all that away, all you are left with is a bad under drawing.

“you can’t polish a turd” as the saying goes.

What would you say to animators today who are looking to expand into other markets, like books?

I would say go for it, but learn the craft. Do your homework and study the market like anything else you would want to venture into. But don’t quit your day job, just yet. It’s definitely not a “get rich quick” industry.

Do it because you love it, not because you saw Jon Klassen win 3 Caldecott awards in the past 5 years. That is an anomaly and will never happen again, ever (I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure I’m right).

I see too many artists from animation jumping on the bandwagon.

I’ll be honest and say that it has been inspiring to see friends like Klassen and others do well for themselves by leaving animation and doing books and has nudged me to head back into it, but I have been doing books and comics long before I got into animation so I don’t feel at all that I’m expanding into other markets, just revisiting one.

I feel like getting back into books is like finally coming home from a long vacation(animation). I’ll still get in some vacation time when I get the itch, but for now, there is no place like home(books).


PETE OSWALD

Production Designer of the Angry Birds movie and a Children’s Book Illustrator

What key skills have you learned in animation that have helped you illustrate children’s books? 

My animation experience has helped me tremendously with my picture book illustration. In animation, we are taught to clearly pose each action so the viewer can capture every little subtly. What I love about book illustration is boiling the concept down to the simplest form and allowing the reader to fill in the blanks.

What would you say to animators today who are looking to expand into other markets, like books?

Our imaginations our much more powerful than pictures on a page. Whether you are animating or illustrating, creating an emotional experience is the most important thing.


KENARD PAK

Former Visual Development Artist at Dreamworks, Walt Disney Feature Animation, and PDI Dreamworks; and a Children’s Book Author/Illustrator

What key skills have you learned in animation that have helped you illustrate children’s books? 

The most important key skill I’ve learned from animation that I carry over to picture books is communicating with the audience. This said, I’ve also learned what the audience isn’t necessarily ready for, and I actively think about what the picture book reader is not used to.

What would you say to animators today who are looking to expand into other markets, like books?

My advice to animation artists who are interested in picture books is to walk away from film grammar. Picture books offer a freedom with design, time, and space not available in cinema. Remember that the reader can spend as much glorious time as wanted on a single picture and can put down, pick up the book at whichever page, at whatever time in their lives.

CHARLES SANTOSO

Concept artist at Animal Logic (Legend of the Guardians, The Lego Movie) and a Children’s Book Illustrator.

What key skills have you learned in animation that have helped you illustrate children’s books? 

Some important skills that I’ve learned from the animation industry are the ability for me to draw characters in different angles, emotions and also placing them in various environment and story situations. Creating picture book do require extra skill sets and knowledge in place as it has a different format to films, eg. the pacing, composition, etc. However, I feel having those skills that I get from the animation industry does help . . . a lot.


When I reached out to the above artists, their responses were immediate and excited. Their eagerness to help is a testament to the kindness of the fine folks in animation and publishing. As you can see, the connection between animation and book publishing is strong.

END CREDITS

To children’s book illustrators with no animation training: I am not saying that you are at a disadvantage if you don’t study animation. There are plenty of fantastic illustrators who didn’t.

To animators: You are just too talented to not be in children’s books. Whichever way the animation market goes, just know that the children’s book market is alive and well, and we’d be lucky to have you.

I have a feeling I'm going to be updating this post (I already updated it once).  Feel free to expand on the points made in this post, or add your own in the comments below.