How to introduce Peter de Sève? As an illustrator who does animation or as a character designer who does illustration?
Well, the truth does lie in the middle and we’ll easily admit that he’s certainly as talented in both mediums!
Peter was born in Queens, New York in 1958. He began drawing as a child, inspired by the comic books he collected, as well as science fiction and fantasy illustration. At Parsons School of Design he was introduced to contemporary and nineteenth century American and European illustration, all of which continue to inform his style.
In his twenty+ year career, de Sève has been published by nearly all major American magazines, including Time, Newsweek, Atlantic Monthly, Smithsonian, Premiere, and Entertainment Weekly. He also frequently contributes covers to The New Yorker. In 2002, he illustrated Mark Twain’s A Murder, a Mystery and a Marriage, published for the first time by W.W. Norton.
De Sève has designed posters for Broadway shows, as well as characters for numerous animated feature films, produced by Disney, DreamWorks, Pixar, and Twentieth Century Fox’s Blue Sky Studios. His credits include The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Prince of Egypt, Mulan, A Bug’s Life, Tarzan, and Ice Age, for which he created all of the characters.
In addition to his extensive work in animated feature film, de Sève has provided designs for television commercials, including a Nike spot, titled Destination Moon, which won a silver Clio award. In 2002, he received the distinguished Hamilton King Award from the Society of Illustrators. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife, Randall and their daughter, Paulina.
Now, with the release of A Bug’s Life on Blu-ray Disc, let’s hop back to the time of the creation of Pixar’s big CG movie about the infinitely small!
Animated Views: You’re well-know first as an illustrator. How did you come to work in the field of animation?
Peter de Sève: I had for a long time been an illustrator for prints, magazine and books and I did a project called Finn McCoul, an Irish folk tale. It was a kind of children’s fable that was done for what was essentially kind of a film project. It wasn’t quite animation but it was sequential drawings like an animatic. This was over 20 years ago. Based on that, there was a producer at Disney who noticed the work and invited me to contribute designs for The Hunchback of Notre Dame. And ever since then, I found myself juggling at least these one or two animation jobs along with my print work.
For a long time, I would have usually more print work than animation, but more and more, the scales changed and I found the situation reversed, with more character design on my plate than magazine work. Especially in the beginning, when studios suddenly realized that there might be talent, artists or styles to pursue outside of their own pool of artists. So, I came at the very beginning of that and saw myself very busy from Hunchback of Notre Dame to Prince of Egypt for DreamWorks and then back to Disney for Tarzan and Treasure Planet and then Bug’s Life for Pixar and Finding Nemo, and then of course Ice Age (there were a couple of other things along the way, as well).
But all the while, I was able to maintain my independence and remain a freelancer. So, I was able to move from one studio to the next, as I am now. I have a strong relationship with Blue Sky Studios and designed all the characters for the Ice Age movies, but essentially I still remain independent, and it’s understood that I can work for other studios if my schedule allows.
AV: So, you’ve worked with the biggest studios on some of the most prominent animated films of the decade. How does that feel?
PDS:All of these places are amazing in that they are all filled to the rafters with creative geniuses. Everybody that works in these places is amazingly talented! (I’m not talking about myself; that’s not what I’m saying!!). Every production I’ve worked on has been with people who, whether they love the production or not, are absolutely dedicated to making the best they can make. And it’s really something to be a part of that. One feels privileged to be able to make a mark on, really, a piece of art that’s going to last forever.
And when I think that I may have had some influence on any of these films, it’s an honor, and I’m really delighted that it’s something that will remain and that I can share with my kids and they with their kids! You know, I feel very fortunate to have started my career just before the digital boom because I was able to experience being a character designer in 2D. And then, in 3D it was the perfect segue. Treasure Planet was pretty much the swan song for 2D animation at Disney. And to be able to have worked on projects on both sides of that spectrum makes me feel fortunate to not have missed it.
AV: What is the work of a character designer like?
PDS:What frequently happens is that the character designer is invited to start submitting ideas fairly early on in the process. The story is very much under way but perhaps not completely finished and sometimes the character designs can help shape where the story goes – and it’s not the story certainly the way the characters are portrayed and written. So, they would contact me and give me a general outline. Not the manuscript, not the screenplay, but the outline of the story with some character breakdowns.
For instance, this character, Flick, is not particularly heroic, but he’s extremely inventive and he’s considered kind of a nuisance among the other ants. So, I might have had that much to go on. In fact, originally, his name was Red. He was going to be a red ant among all these other blue, black ants. Somewhere along the way between contacting me and my submitting my first designs, they decided that that was perhaps causing a problem they didn’t need and so they chose to make all of the ants the same color. So, they would give me that information and I would also ask that they’d not send any work that they’ve done on the character.
I much prefer to work at first, uninfluenced by what they have done. And usually, this is so early on in the process that I think they welcome that because why should I just do work that looks like what they’re doing? They’re looking for new ideas. So, that’s what I did and the work I did for them was without knowing what they had done before. They seemed to like what I did and it’s easy to see what influence I may have had on the ant characters and certainly they’ve acknowledged my help in creating the grasshoppers. If you look at my drawings, perhaps you’ll see that as well.
AV: How do you conceive a design out of a story or notes? How do you translate a written personality into shapes?
PDS:I think it’s the same process that any character designer goes through. I consider everything about the character, but mostly his spirit, his personality. Is this a character who is optimistic, agile, or awkward; is he clumsy, is he shy, is he cruel, etc? All these things are things that you build into the body language of the character. I believe you should sort of know something about the character just by looking at him, without even hearing him speak. But sometimes, that can be reversed. You can look at a character and you think you know exactly what the character would be. Then, he opens his mouth and it’s the opposite. But it’s essentially the same ingredients that I would bring to any illustration. I want to be able to get a sense that you know that character’s personality just by the way he’s standing, by his proportions and mostly by his attitude.
AV: As far as A Bug’s Life is about ants, did you research insect anatomy?
PDS:Absolutely. What always happens is: you’re taking on all this information – too much information – and at the beginning, you might include it in all your drawings. For instance, I played for a while with trying to make mandibles work, because that’s a very “ant” feature. But it was too “insect-like” and not appealing at all and probably impossible to animate. I had done the mandibles with a mouth between them. But in the end, we decided it was just too much and too off-putting. So, I tried to keep as much of the ant information there and still make it something the audience can relate to and enjoy looking at. So, in the end, you take this information and then you throw most of it out. You keep those little things that are going to get the information across about what this creature is. What I tried to keep in mind was: they have to be flexible, yes, but they also are made of sort of lobster parts. So, their shapes reflect this shell-like material.
AV: How did you approach the grasshoppers?
PDS:Somewhere along the line, somebody – I don’t know whether it was me or them – mentioned the idea that the grasshoppers could be based on a motorcycle gang. I guess it was them because their lead character was named Hopper after Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider); so they were already on that path. Based on that, I naturally tried to think of the characters in terms of a motorcycle gang and tried to figure out how I could, by use of their body parts, mimic what a motorcycle gang member might wear – leather jackets, boots, dark sunglasses, etc. I also played around with markings on the shells. I drew markings on the back of the shoulder that would look like a skull or maybe like flames on the leg that might be the kind of detailing you would see on a Harley Davidson. I thought it was a pretty good idea. They didn’t agree for one reason or another so it didn’t make it into the finished design. But you can see that in some of my sketches.
AV: Apart from Flick and Hopper, did you design any secondary characters?
PDS:I was eager to design other insects for them, but they mostly asked me to stick to ants. I know they did ask me to try a female ant because they wanted me do a specific pass on Princess Atta. Which I did and, as I drew her, I had Michelle Pfeiffer in mind. I don’t know, there is something about the shape of her mouth and about the shape of her head and eyes that I kept thinking of, even if they hadn’t cast her for the role. That’s usually the way I work anyway: I don’t usually design characters based on the potential talent that might be portraying them.
AV: How do you know your design is chosen for a film?
PDS:This is one of the downsides of working outside of the studio and not being part of the development process after the drawings are done. For the Ice Age movies, I kept the drawings all the way through and make sure that whatever I have on paper survives into the sculpt. Pixar has their own design team and I think are quite content to just take the designs and move them through the pipeline. They certainly never told me what bits and pieces they used and, like so many other films I worked on, I just sort of had to go to the premiere and kind of guess what was mine and what was somebody else’s.
AV: A Bug’s Life was Pixar’s second feature, which means that it was a time of great improvements in the CG medium. How was the ambiance like back then at the studio?
PDS:I only visited there inbetween passes, just to get a sense of what they were up to. At that time, CG films were still a very novel thing. I will tell you one funny story of my visit out there. I was being given a tour, probably by Bob Pauley, the in-house character designer, through the studio and I found myself in a small room with three or four people and they were looking at a test. That first animation test was on a monitor – it wasn’t even on a big screen. It was the ants marching in silhouette over a branch, each holding a big translucent leaf over their shoulders. It was just a loop of 5 or 6 seconds and it was remarkable. I don’t remember exactly what was said but it was like “whoa, that’s really cool!”. And I realized, as I was leaving, that the guy standing next to me was Steve Jobs! A pretty good moment, and a fun coincidence!
AV: What can you tell us about your present work?
PDS: I finished Ice Age 3 which is coming out in July. I think it’s maybe the best-looking of the films yet. I’m delighted with the way the characters look. That said, there’s always something I want to change. In every film I work on, I sit in the theater and I grit my teeth because I think: “why didn’t they just give me another few days on that character?” But they always have to drag it away from a model because I’m never done tweaking it! I’m looking forward to that film coming out. I really think it’s going to do well. The story is fun and they brought even more to it artistically than before. Blue Sky is really raising the bar with each new film they make.
So, that’s coming and I’ve just finished a children’s book that my wife, Randall, wrote. It’s coming out in the Fall. It’s called The Duchess of Whimsy. It’s being published by Penguin/Philomel in the States. In October, I will have a one man show at Galerie Arludik in Paris and will promote it there. I am also very excited to be able to finally say that a collection of my work will be published in time for the show. It will be published jointly by Akileos and Galerie Arludik. It’s being designed by Lori Barra, who did such a beautiful job on the sketchbook I published several years ago and will be called will be called A Sketchy Past, The Art of Peter de Sève.
All artwork by Peter de Sève ©Disney/Pixar.
With our sincerest gratitude to Peter de Sève.