Cartoon Brew spoke to Lobato about the influences behind Wendell & Wild’s characters, his first time designing for animation, and whether he would ever want to work in the medium again. We also have a ton of great exclusive artwork to share.
Cartoon Brew: You are known for your caricatures and illustrations, but did you have any experience working in animation before starting this film?
Pablo Lobato. Photo courtesy of Netflix.
Pablo Lobato: No, this was my first time working in animation. And actually it was a surprise to me, because I mainly work for newspapers and magazines and things like that. My illustrations are always silent. When Henry called me, I was absolutely surprised and concerned about how my illustrations would translate into something 3D. When I got started on this, I thought back to my influences and what their work looked like when it was done in 3d. So I thought about cubists like Picasso and how he was very influenced by African masks and sculptures and decided to start there. I found many beautiful and stylish geometric inspirations in those African masks, and that’s where the main characters started. I have tried to translate these African masks to teenage girls. I showed those sketches to Henry and he said, “Okay, this is him.”
While your work has been solely as an illustrator, were you involved in adapting those illustrations as 3D models, or was that something you thought about while drawing?
At one point I caught myself thinking in 3D and what my work would look like in 3D, but eventually I realized that was holding me back. In my traditional work I play with shapes and geometrics [ideas], and by thinking in 3D, I avoided certain things I’m good at. In the end I had to say to myself, ‘Okay, that’s not my problem. I’ll do my thing then [the 3d artists] will do their thing. They can figure out how to make my work 3D.” Of course, after they 3d the characters I had room to voice my opinion on things that came up, but in the end I gave very little input because I always loved what they were doing.
When creating these characters in 2D, did you think about what they would look like while moving?
That was something that got special attention. Henry is the expert, of course, and he would tell me about that sort of thing, reminding me that eventually we need to make dolls out of them that can move. But even then it was just a few tips. It was all about making sure the characters looked like the same person from the front, back, and sides… I always had to be careful with that.
There is a clear stylistic difference between the characters from the underworld and the human characters from our world. Can you talk about that difference and the rules you had when designing the characters?
As you said, there are two worlds in the movie: the real world and the underworld. The idea of the underworld, the world of demons, is more symmetrical and geometric, so more like my typical work. The real world is then more traditional and with textures from our world. So in my designs for the real world characters I used textures and patterns that already exist in our world. For Wendell and Wild, when they were in the underworld, they had to match the underworld and look like they belonged there, so they were very geometric and had little texture. But then those same two guys had to have a neat and classic, very tight and sharp view of the real world.
Wendell and Wild seem to have a simpler design than many of the other characters. Was that a conscious choice on your part, or is there a more practical explanation?
Wendell and Wild were the first two characters we designed. I spent months with those two guys and that was a period where I tried new things and tried to learn the trade while unlearning my trade. I’m a cubist, but to create these characters I had to think more like an animator and learn how things like geometry work in animation and how to simplify some of the things I normally do. But I think it was good we did them first, because they have a rougher feel, while the human characters are more real and refined.
And those characters look like their voice actors, but I wonder how you got the look of the characters for whom you had no existing influence.
Henry had a special way of coming up with the inspirations for characters. He’d come up to me and say, “I want a mix of this person and this person,” and then I’d have to create something that works with those resources. One that kept coming up was Sonny Rollins, the musician, and while he never made it into the movie, there’s something of him in almost every character because I kept using him as an influence for so many characters. And of course some of the others are based on their voice actors, like the priest [James Hong]Wendell and Wild.
So now that your first animated project is done and ready to stream to the world, how do you look back on the experience? Do you think you would ever want to work in animation again?
I would like to do more with animation. I knew this would be a lot of work, but I loved it. One thing I’ve learned is how much teamwork there is in animation and how cool it is to work with so many other people. As an illustrator I’m used to working with my pencil alone at home and not used to getting feedback and interaction from other people. But I found that that can be a lot of fun and it makes your job better. I loved working with a team. Another big change for me is that I’m used to getting an assignment and completing it in a few days. A magazine gives you a commission for a portrait and you send it to them in two days. This film was four years of work. It was a long time.