Spring 2017 Semester Overview: Part 1

As we recover from our Winter break  it would seem to be a good time to provide an overview of what we have planned in Cartooning & Animation for the Spring semester. Keep in mind, those of you that still need to finish or shoot  your animation project will have plenty of time in January and February to work on that during sketch journal time.

However,  the bulk of class project time will now be given over to new work. Check below the fold for more on that.

An Introduction to Visual Development and Production Design

The image at the top of this post was created by the French artist Fabien Mense. In addition to being a comic book artist/creator (Agito Cosmos), Mense also works in the animation industry as a visual development artist.

What is visual development?

Chegg internships describes the work of a visual development artist:

A Visual Development Artist is an essential part of an animated movie’s creative team, designing and developing the “look” of a film. It’s up to the Visual Development Artist to explore the possibilities of the animated world, and to come up with something that’s appropriate for the storyline, and the intended audience. Once you come up with a defined vision for the film, it falls to you, as the Visual Development Artist, to generate and maintain that vision – with characters, backgrounds, environments, colors, lighting, and even props. You have to be an idea machine, contributing suggestions for an entire world that may not even exist. But that’s the fun of it – you are literally creating a world for the animated action to play out in. You can also pitch story ideas, if something works really well with a particular animation. You work with a variety of departments – Production Design, Art Direction, and the rest of Visual Development – to take the ideas you have from pre-development to full-blown production ready pieces. Also, be ready to assist with troubleshooting, and to work in either 2D or 3D – know how to do both if you really want to dominate in this field.

Visual development deals with Production Design. In this interview at AWN, production designer Michael Kurinsky walks us through his duties and processes as related to his work on Hotel Transylvania 2:

Michael Kurinsky: As the film’s production designer, initially, I oversee all the pre-production visual development 2D art. First off, I read and break down the script, figuring out what we need…what’s new that we need to design and what designs we can use that already exist – I break that down in my head. In my script copy, on the sides in the borders, I’ll write down color ideas, little doodles and things like that.

The next step is to hire a team. Because I’ve already broken down the script, I can focus on types of people I want to hire. “I need a person who does this, I need a person who does that. I need a good colorist to help me with color script.” I really tried to hire people with different strengths so I could say, “You’re going to be my person that really takes care of this.”

I even had a person who did anything in the movie with a graphic. I didn’t have to go to somebody and say, “Have you ever done this before?” I knew I had someone…”You’re going to do these graphics.” I had another person who was a straightforward designer, because when we got to designing the human world I needed someone who could emulate the drawings of Marcelo Vignali [Sony Pictures Animation production designer / art director]…I was very calculated with the people brought in to make sure that all my bases were covered, based on the script breakdown.

Overall it was my job to oversee that team, hand out assignments to the appropriate artist and help them with any suggestions. Sometimes I’d take their painting, work over it a little bit, that kind of thing.

Once we’d get the images right, the designs, paintings, textures and colors, obviously we’d show those to Genndy [Tartakovsky, the film’s director]. Once he approved, it would go over to Imageworks [Sony Pictures Imageworks]. Now they have all of our 2D art for one section – we’d try to hand it over in a packet – for let’s say the camp area that we have in our movie. We hand over all the things that have to do with the camp: the environment and any new characters. Now I watch them build it. I have to watch them building and modeling characters, helping to make sure they’re hitting all the marks our character designer hit. There’s the building of the camp, making sure scale is correct, which is really important. 2D drawings can lie a little bit sometimes…

Examples of Visual Development 

Coming back to Fabien Mense, let’s take a look at some examples of visual development work he’s created.

Let’s start with some very recent work Mense did on the Cartoon Network show Victor and Valentino:

Fabian Mense: “Victor and Valentino”, a pilot created and directed by Diego Molano, has been released on Cartoon Network few weeks ago. I had the chance to do some research on the characters, here they are !


In the case of Victor and Valentino, Mense mainly appears to have worked on character development and design. This would include creating the look and design for the protagonists, antagonists, and secondary characters.

Visual development plays an important role in more than animation. Here are some examples of work Mense did for Plants vs. Zombies Heroes game:

Fabian Mense: Who cares about Hearthstone now that Plants vs Zombies Heroes is out ? I had the chance to design the mushroom Hero “Nightcap” for this game.


In addition to creating the look of characters, the environmental design is an important part of visual development. Here are several examples of environments Mense created for Gabe Swarr’s Meatpie for Nickelodeon:


On his website, Mense answered a question from a fan about working as a visual development artist:

Dear Mr. Mense,

I’d like to ask you about what it is like to work in the animation industry. I’m interested in getting into this branch myself yet unfortunately I don’t now anyone I can ask about this since I don’t have any connections to people working there. Might you give me a little insight in what it is like to work as a visual development artist and whether it is a stressful job to do?

Fabien Mense:


First I can only speak for me, and as I’m working as a freelance artist, I can only talk about this kind of experience. Working in the animation industry as concept artist  is great. It demands a lot of work and exigency.

Working in the animation means working with a team, you have to learn to question yourself, accept corrections, defend your ideas and communicate.Visual development isn’t just creating nice characters and images, it’s about understanding a story, the characters specificities and  to translate it as well as you can, and as interestingly as possible. You have got to be able to explore different paths, you have got to be able to restart your work from scratch. Visual development needs solid technique skills for sure but what really matters is the ideas you’ll bring and the life and energy you’ll be able to insuflate to the project.

Freelance work can be quite hard, You’re working on your own and you’re briefed via mails or conferences. Sometimes you can go toward a wrong direction without be aware of it. On the other hand you are quite free to work as you want and as comfortably as you need.

You have to communicate as much as you can with your clients. Don’t hesitate to ask for precisions, to tell them you’re a bit late … (it’s not that easy!)

When you are freelance, you don’t have any employment security, so you’re always searching for new opportunities. That can be stressfull too.That’s why you have to be visible and share your work consistantly, the animation studios are on internet and they are searching for new artists A LOT.

It’s important to show your art and to “promote” yourself as genuinly as possible. I often can’t show what I’m working on for a long time, so I have to keep on creating my own projects and researchs. it’s important because you’re showing who you are and what you do.

Before searching for talented drawers, studios are searching for strong universes and originality.

Finaly you have to know your value and to negociate your daily rates. If you can have an agent, it should be better (I don’t have one yet).

It’s a lot of tasks, and it’s sometimes hard to manage, but it’s a terrific job and we can live quite well from it ( much more than comics sadly).I hope this could help and it was not too pontificating !


In his response, Mense mentions that he does visual development on his own personal projects as well.

Examples of Personal Project work by Fabien Mense:



That’s it for Part 1 of our Introduction to Visual Development. In this section we used the French artist Fabien Mense as a most excellent example of what a visual development artist creates. In Part 2 we will take a look at a wide assortment of work from a variety of artists that work in this field, while in Part 3 we will begin to formulate our visual development goals for the spring semester.

Spring 2017 Semester Overview