We’re back with more Nicholas Kole! In last week’s interview segment, we talked about Nicholas’ background and how he got started working with Wingfeather. This week, the next ten minutes!
Madame Sidler: So talk about working with the Wingfeather project.
Nicholas Kole: Yeah! So, the very first thing that I did was go and hunt down the books. Because I wanted to know, very quickly—they’re dropping names, and they’re setting this up, and there are dragons, I know, and they’re invoking Chesterton, so I know something good’s going on but I’m not really sure what it is. And that first chapter really just grabbed me, and I was in. That setup, the language, the kind of playful narrative: “Everyone was happy except for the horrible giant Fangs…”
MS: Yes. Yes, I love those introductions.
NK: So good! And it just set such a great tone, something you really rarely encounter. And I’ve been doing work for toy companies like Hasbro, and movies, and games, and things of that nature, and nothing I’ve done has ever had quite that type of charm, and especially right off the bat. And working from source material that strong, and that heartfelt, and that good—just that good-hearted sense of worldbuilding and character—and that warm pull-a-chair-up-to-the-fire-and-let-me-tell-you-a-story feeling was a very immediate draw to the project. And so I dug into the books and started to get really into it, and did a couple of early passes on the character designs.
Some of the visual development had already been started; Tom Owens had done a bunch of loose character designs to kick his boards off, and there was a little bit of early painting that I think was part of the Kickstarter, too. So it wasn’t like entering completely from scratch. I was stepping into a project already in motion, but definitely trying to find its voice and trying to find its visual style and find its feet there. And so, I didn’t know it at the time, I thought I was good to go, but apparently I was being sort of tested out by Andrew and Chris and all in the first couple of stages of the design process. They would know better where the turning point was, but I think they saw that I was falling very quickly and very seriously in love with the world and the story, and that that was coming through in the designs.
MS: Yeah. Definitely.
NK: And so it was really, just throughout the process of designing the cast especially, just all of it, a really fun experience to be close enough to the author, and people involved in and invested in the project, to know that I was getting it right when I was. Definitely when I was, those were really rewarding experiences, because to hear from Andrew, like, “That’s Nia!” was just so rewarding, and as a freelancer that’s so rare to get that kind of direct confirmation from somebody who really does know. [pause to ponder] Were there other areas you wanted me to speak to?
MS: Well, we have a question from Inara, who’s 11, who’s wondering who was your favorite Wingfeather character to illustrate.
NK: Ooh! Oh. Hm. [laughs] Hm. There’s a difference between my favorite Wingfeather character, and my favorite Wingfeather character to illustrate.
MS: Oh, talk about that.
NK: I think I’m a Podo fan. Big time. He’s probably the perfect midpoint. I like Podo, and I like Kal, just in terms of their arcs and stuff like that. I like the little bits of the pasts they both have and the turns their stories take. Podo, especially, though, I just love—his warm grandfatherly character, with this very dramatic backstory that I really enjoyed discovering. I remember, every chapter of the book I was waiting to see if there was any sort of addendum: “And? What happened with Podo? What? Are we going to see the backstory yet?” And when it finally paid off I was really excited about that. But in terms of illustration, I liked Commander Gnorm. [laughter] He was a struggle, actually, to find.
NK: We had different ideas about the kind of character he would be. As written, he’s kind of a selfish, covetous bully. But that can be interpreted a bunch of ways; that doesn’t have to be— What we decided to go with, and it didn’t really come through—we didn’t really have the time to fully flesh out his character in the short—but we had a couple scenes where we definitely [portrayed] him at the end as a sort of runty, sort of Napoleonesque in stature, little thing who would go around escorted by a bigger, more thuggish Fang who originally was the design I was going to put forward for Commander Gnorm. So the Fang at the depot, who checks out their papers, that was the original Gnorm design.
MS: Oh, interesting.
NK: He was going to be a bigger, kind of more grr, menacing, physical presence. But we decided that the sort of petty obsession with collecting would play more amusingly on someone who was overcompensating for something, so we wanted to make him more mean, et cetera. But I just love—I mean, lizard Fangs! What are you going to do? I loved drawing them.
MS: Oh, yeah. Those are really interesting things to think about!
So Maya wonders how you kept the characters recognizable and realistic while fitting them into a fantasy world, and it seems like we’re already sort of touching on that, but can you talk a little bit more about that?
NK: Well, realism only gets you so far. I think that the core of character design is deciding on priorities. And when you start to look at all the different possible styles you could work in, the possibilities are endless. Like, you could make it extremely realistic and textured, you could make them very close to human anatomy, or you could slide it further toward fantasy in stylization. Sort of a sliding scale between, like, Brave on one end of the realism spectrum, and like Secret of Kells on the other end.
MS: Oh, yeah, good examples.
NK: Yeah, you can slide between those two things, and I know that’s kind of generally the ballpark, world-wise, that we were playing in. We just knew, ultimately, that no matter what the styling was—which is something I just kind of naturally bring to the table; it’s not something I think a ton about; it’s how I draw. And we were pulling some references from like Secret of Kells and some of those more boldly stylized animated features. And at the core of it is really a question of, what’re your priorities? Is your priority that it looks cool? No. The priority is absolutely that these are the characters, that fans who’ve read and loved the books will look at the screen and recognize, that’s Podo. That’s Nia, that’s Kal—you know. And that’s a hard, that’s a tough order, you know? Because everybody has such a different idea, based on what they’ve read, of what these characters are going to look like. And I know we didn’t please everybody, for sure. That would be impossible.
But when you abstract things a little bit more, when things get a little more cartoony, that is a visual way of keeping things closer to the experience of reading a book. I don’t want to get too highly theoretically here, but, like, your mind is still filling in the gaps, you know? It’s not so realistic that I’m saying, this is exactly what Kal looks like. I think if I were to cast a live action actor in that role, people would have more disagreements about it and with me. But since it’s a cartoon, you’re looking at that character and the simplicity allows you to fill in the gaps with your own imagination a little bit, if that makes sense.
MS: Yeah, I think that does.
MS: So you’re almost suggesting more than showing. I mean, showing; it’s a visual medium, you’re showing.
NK: Showing, absolutely. And the showing has to do with storytelling, too, you know, the idea of what’s important to get across about Podo, for instance. That he is a farmer now, a retired older man, so you want to play that body type up. He’s got broad shoulders to show that he was a more strapping kind of presence in his youth; his peg leg is a canonical important thing, right. So the overall [appearance], that says farmer. The shoulders and build say “once was a pirate.” The tattoo was a key thing that I brought in and the little stripy sock hidden under his cuff were little hints that I wanted to add in, and the earring as well, that sort of suggest pirate. But they’re all covered up; they’re covered by his farmer outfit, you know?
MS: And they’re subtle, too. Like the striped sock could just be a sock, but like you’re saying, it does also suggest something, when taken together with the other things.
MS: What was your favorite scene to design?
NK: Hm. Hm. I think we all felt very particularly about the encounter with Yurgen, with the dragon, at the cliff.
MS: Yes. Yes.
NK: Honestly, everybody wanted that to be good, so much, and we all had different ideas of what would make that work. So it was actually one of the harder ones to land on and come to a point where we all came away feeling like we’d nailed it.
MS: I think you really did.
NK: I think in the end we did. And I’m really glad. I think one of the late stage things was we were feeling like it needed something, but we couldn’t really define precisely what. For me, the idea that it was just Leeli’s small form juxtaposed against this giant dragon, that seemed like enough. You know? We also wanted to show the magic, that there was something sort of otherworldly going on with her song, and with Yurgen, and the connection. And so we had a couple versions where he was glowing, or she was, or there was glowing underneath his scales… and there was a couple different looks, but it all felt like overkill. And right in the eleventh hour as we were trying to figure out those shots, I suggested that we do the fireflies, as a sort of subtle way of including kind of a visual magic without it being too on the nose. And I feel like everybody—we talked it back and forth and looked at it, looked at a couple versions of it, and finally landed on what you see. And I think that was a good last-minute solve for that. That was really fun.
MS: You know, that was amazing. That might’ve been my favorite part. Well, that and Nugget scorning the Fangs. That was great. [laughter]
NK: Nugget’s design is actually based on a puppy I saw out on the street outside a coffee shop one day, and I took a photo of it—somebody else’s dog, and I was like “That is the cutest dog I’ve ever seen in my life,” and just kept it for a year because I thought it was a cute dog. And they were like, “What does Nugget look like?” and I said, “Maybe… he looks like… my favorite puppy of all time.”
MS: Oh, that’s great!
MS: So as you’re designing these things, and thinking about how to represent different characters, and how to show without telling even in a visual medium, were there any conflicts in the way you were thinking about stuff? any conflicts of vision, or just how your imaginations were going different directions? And how did you work that out?
NK: Yeah, definitely. I think that’s just part of the artistic process on anything, is that it’s a team effort, so there’re a lot of different opinions. And with artists, and people with a strong sense of their own vision, sometimes those opinions can get very strong, and the conversations can be very intense, even among people who are pulling for the project and like each other. It’s just the nature of the beast that there’re going to be points where not everybody sees eye to eye. And sometimes, you know, you pick your battles. You pick where you’re going to plant your feet. And ultimately, you always return to the fact that that no matter who it is on the team, that we’re all really trying to make this thing awesome. You know?
And that might mean different things to us at different times. But I don’t think I ever lost the sense that we were all pulling for something that felt right, that felt great. And I think at times maybe I or Tom wanted to pull in a new direction that wasn’t necessarily backed by the books, and Chris might pull a little bit back to “Well, we really want to be faithful to the source material.” And then sometimes that was reversed, and I would be the one being like “I don’t know; I really remember the scene from the books being important in a particular way…” and so that was a big source of… well, not even arguing, just conversations, you know, we would just go back and forth on, like, that dragon sequence. How fantastical; are we adding too much to this moment or this character; or is it just right?
Things like Commander Gnorm. I mentioned that he was a favorite design, but figuring out his stature and what he would look like, and the particular tone of his character, was really tricky. And I’m not—I think there are probably eighteen different Commander Gnorms, that most people watching it would be delighted to see, and it’s just a matter of arriving at a point where Tom and Chris and Andrew and I all agree, that’s the one we’re going to go with. He could be skinny and paunchy, or he could be enormously fat, and he could be little and grumpy, and a hundred variations between all of those.
MS: You’ve worked at like a billion different projects at different places, and how does that work out in other projects? Are there patterns that you see in reconciling creative visions or in working together? You used the word “teamwork,” which is a great way of thinking of it, that you’re all working on one thing rather than all working on separate things.
NK: Yeah. It’s interesting. I’ve worked in-house with places before, which is usually the best way, to get with the people and encourage that sense of teamwork, but most of my work is remote. So I work from home, or whatever remote location, and so often I don’t get to interface with the team directly. With Wingfeather it was great because I got to come to Nashville for a kickoff meeting at Hutchmoot—two years ago, I think? and then came back again for the premiere, and the was really great, just to meet everybody face to face and put a name to the emails.
MS: That makes a big difference, doesn’t it?
NK: Definitely. And I don’t know, there’s a skit by Key and Peele, it’s a comedy duo, and it’s a bit lewd, but it’s about two friends, and they’re texting each other and one of them’s just chilled out at home and the other’s like getting ready for his work day, and he keeps getting these texts from his chilled-out friend, and they’re very brief, and he’s reading them and he’s interpreting them and he’s like “what do you mean, fine?!” You know, like getting all worked up, because the one-word answers, he’s reading them as though they were really negative and angry. And that’s really easy to do—
MS: It’s so easy to do.
NK: —when you’re not in the same room. So it’s very easy to imagine, when Chris says, like, [upbeat] “Yeah, that’s fine!” that he’s like [glum] “Well, that’s fine.” “That’s fine.” You can read that so many ways. So that definitely happens on this or on other projects, where wires get crossed and everybody’s interpreting what the others are saying or meaning. So that’s always something you’re going to navigate. I think I need to know my role on a project, and either I’m a co-contributor on a conceptual level, or I’m just there to provide the service of drawing. And those are two pretty different tasks. And it’s easier to do your job well if you know which one of those two things you are.
MS: Mhm. How far does your responsibility go, and where’s your authority.
NK: Yeah. Yeah. And it’s not about authority so much as how can I be serving? Am I better serving the project and these people by trying to make decisions about the nature of the story and all this sort of stuff, or is it better for me to just keep my mouth shut and draw, you know?
NK: With Wingfeather I felt a lot of ownership, and I think that was reflected in the actual product, too. Like I think we all split the decisions, and everybody had a say and were listened to. So that was a cool experience.
MS: Good. I’m really glad.
Thanks again to Nicholas for this fine interview! Be sure to check out his work (links here). You can catch up with last week’s interview segment here. There’s a lot more of that interview to come, too!
This week, Madame Sidler will be reading the end of North! Or Be Eaten! To read along, start with chapter 59 and then just read until there isn’t any more book. What? No more book?! Don’t worry; we’ll start The Monster in the Hollows next week. 🙂
ps. Andrew’s birthday is next Monday! You know what that means… 😉