An Interview with Dale Hendrickson
Dale Hendrickson is a character designer and visual effects artist known for his work on The Simpsons, Rugrats, Silver Surfer and He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. I spoke with Dale about studying at art school, working on The Simpsons, and the character design he is most proud of.
Did you receive any formal training?
Not for animation. I grew up in the Detroit, Michigan area. It’s such a heavy car and industrial area, they didn’t really have a lot going on in animation when I was going to school or looking for a school. I ended up just finding an art school. They were going to send me some money to go, so I ended up going to The Art Institute of Pittsburgh. It was mostly a commercial art school so I was learning advertising, type design and stuff like that. They had a lot of good art skills as well, they had the full program of life drawing and painting so that was actually quite good.
When I came out to Los Angeles I realised all the great animation schools are out here. I wish I’d known about it when I was looking for schools.
How did you break into the industry?
I guess I’ll have to give credit to a friend of mine that was graduating a quarter ahead of me from the art school. He was interested in animation and he went out and laid a bit of a trail for me. He found out that there was a school happening by Hannah-Barbera. They were offering a school to kind of teach basic animation skills because they were hiring. He got into the night class school and said if you come out now you can probably get into this night class. So I did. I met my wife in art school and we both moved out to California on a Greyhound bus, one way. Make it or break it, just to get out here and see what happens.
I got into the school and got hired out of that within about a month. That’s my road to getting into the actual industry. Hannah-Barbera didn’t last very long, which was odd as they were in the middle of hiring, but they only were around another couple of years before they were bought out by Cartoon Network. I’m not even sure how their assets got dissolved. It’s a shame because they were all the cartoons I grew up on, Yogi Bear and all those things.
How much room is there for creative freedom when it comes to character design?
It varies. When you are on a particular show like The Simpsons, the scripts are written and especially for important characters they might have an actor in mind, or they might be asking somebody that’s going to be the voice. Design parameters in that case would be designed around caricatures, Simpsons style. Sometimes if we are not using the voice we would get a person that resembles a person. It’s then leaned towards a caricature of that person but you can change it up a bit. Other times when they write more generically, I’ll do additional pencil usually just sketching and run those past the director. The way our show breaks down we have a director for an episode, but all the episodes we have are about seven or eight directors each handling a couple of episodes per season. They are usually very involved with in all aspects. Some of them are sketching out their ideas of what the design should be and they feed it to me and I use it to go off to design things. In that case, it’s a little more specific as to what they want to do. Other times I just get a note. Then you just go with the flow.
So The Simpsons is more of a close collaboration?
Most production studios it is a very collaborative process, even in the beginning stages. Other studios I’ve been at sometimes a storyboard will have a quick sketch in it that they’ve done ahead of time before the design process even starts. The directors may or may not like the little doodle of the storyboard. If they like that then you go off that. If there’s really nothing to go off yet, you are kind of a little more freed up to do what you want. In our case you have an immediate director on the show handling our production side and then it goes over to Gracie Films, it’s kind of the overview studio that owns the whole property and Matt Groening is involved with that and several of the main writers and directors. They will put their feedback into the design and hopefully it goes through and they like what you did and they have their notes as well. You take their notes and incorporate it into your design.
When you are working on an episode what is your day to day schedule like? Is there quite a quick turnover?
It can be. We are working on finishing up last year’s season and are just starting on the new season. Usually we start a little sooner in the year than where we are now, but we’ve had a big transition going from Fox owned to Disney having bought everything. I still don’t know all the ins and outs of what is involved with this changeover and process. The only way it has affected us is we’ve got a bit of a late start into the new season, but otherwise I haven’t really noticed any big difference in the process, so that’s good. Usually I’ll get a list every couple of days filled up with different things. I’ll have things like Workman with tool belt. It’s pretty non-specific so it doesn’t have to look like somebody or anything like that and I’ll get a whole list like that. A lot of times for example it can be: The Simpsons are going off to the artic. In this case we have got to re-costume them into artic clothing or something. We actually do a lot of specific research because Matt is a stickler for caricaturing everything, but to caricature it you’ve got to know the real thing to caricature it correctly.
When it’s something like that and they want the right kind of gear and things, I’ll go through all this reference and learning about climbing mountains and everything else. After I get the complex version of what it is, noodling it all down into a graphic shape, so it comes from something legitimate but when it gets into the show it fits into the universe. It’s like a puzzle, it’s always a process of figuring out and simplifying down to its basic component.
You’ve been on The Simpsons since the first season...
Yes, I was on it for the first seven years. I designed Kent Brockman and a number of the early characters. In a collaborative way I worked on a lot of them like Chief Wiggum and Spinal Tap. Some of them ended up being classics and lived throughout the series. I left to produce some other projects. I was offered an art director position on a show by a good friend of mine that I always wanted to work with. It felt like a step up actually as we’d almost be co-producing this project. That was with with Saban Entertainment. Unfortunately that series didn’t last, but I was at Saban for a few more years. Then I left and had my own studio for another six years. All in all I was out doing different things for about fourteen years and I came back to The Simpsons in 2010 and have been with it since then.
Have you noticed any big changes coming back to the series?
Oh, yes, extreme. When I left the show we were still doing paper, pencil and Xerox. When I came back everything was digital. The good thing is that they honour the old school because we still have traditional storyboards in the studio. A lot of us still like to sketch out traditionally and then we scan things in and work on them on the computer and everything becomes digital.
As a character designer back then you Xerox things and put them on a sheet and Xerox them in and now that whole process went away when scanning digital work became the norm. It is quite interesting to see the difference that way.
I’ve recently revisited the first season and watched the latest season and especially noticed how the show has developed…
The characters were a lot looser and scrappier back in the early days. Things got a lot more defined and I’d say tightened up. It’s good in the one sense that you want good, solid drawing, but I quite like the loose style.
It’s interesting learning the process and collaboration behind animation, as a lot of focus goes toward live-action filmmaking.
It’s interesting when you compare it to live-action filmmaking. There’s a lot of things that are similar, or the same as far as what you want on the screen and what your composition looks like and things like that. In animation you do have the freedom of pretty much putting out any kind of environment you want out in front of the audience. You still have to create and draw, or if you are doing computer animation you are animating every frame and movement and animating the drawing or character. It’s an interesting way to see it. I always look at the parallels between the two forms of filmmaking.
Are you currently working on any projects?
Not right now. I have done a few projects. I worked on a documentary for UFOs actually called The Phenomenon which was out last year. I did some computer animation work for that project. I haven’t done a lot of side work for a while, I’ve been focused on a lot of other things. For a while back in the day I was doing a lot of sculpture work for merchandise alongside the show I was working on. I did a lot of sculpture merchandise for The Simpsons, Disney and a lot of other companies too.
Is there a character you've designed that you are most proud of?
Kent Brockman is probably the most fun I’ve had in seeing what happened with him when I first designed him. I was basing him off of a few local Los Angeles TV personalities on various news channels. There seemed to be a whole bunch of guys with fluffy white hair back then so I compressed them into this design. I’m happy to see what happened with that character, he seemed to become such a regular character. He’s this focus of The Simpsons news and the world flows through him.
Do you have any advice for anyone wanting to pursue a career as a character designer?
The main thing is really try to be as diverse as possible in your portfolio as you can and try to have a variety of styles. If you are going for a studio job you have to master their style. They don’t care about your own style they want you to be able to do theirs. You want to show your ability to be diverse. Hopefully you can steer your style to whatever particular type of project you are working on. That’s been key throughout my career from everything to Superheroes to The Simpsons, you name it.