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Character designer Jose Lopez sat down with The World’s Finest to answer questions about his work on direct to video feature The Batman Versus Dracula, the The Batman animated series, and his own experiences and comments on working in the animation industry.

The World’s Finest (WF): First off, how did you come to work on The Batman?

Jose Lopez (JL): In September of 2003 I was working at Sony Animation on the fourth season of The Jackie Chan Adventures, and had been with the company for four years doing character designs with Jeff Matsuda. We were wrapping the season and the rumors around the studio were that we did not have a pick up for another season, and we were going to get the boot.

So, the first thing you do is to start looking for the next gig. Jeff and I were having a conversation about the situation, when he mentioned that he was negotiating getting into a really big show, The Batman. If everything worked out, he wanted me to jump on the show with him to do character designs. I was completely blown away! Come on! This is Batman!

I started praying that everything would turn out ok, and thankfully it did! I got a call from WB, we negotiated a deal, I was part of the team.

We started the show on late September. The design team consisted of Jeff as the Art Director/Producer, Nollan Obena in backgrounds, Dave McCaig in color, Jeff Wong in props and me to tackle characters. The first thing we had to do was to find our Batman and the first villain, Joker. After Jeff had done some design work, it was our job to fine-tune them.

Batman was quite easy to pull off. You don’t want to mess with the costume too much, and it wasn’t difficult to make him work and become appealing. With the crazy design we had for Joker it took several stages of tweaking to make him work right. So, the beginning of production consisted of many late nights and being completely humbled by the opportunity to work on a character we had loved since we were kids.

Now, stepping back for a moment, how does one fall into the job of “character designer,” and what does that job encompass on any animated series.

 When becoming a part of an animated show, you have to decide what exactly it is that you want to do. Productions are broken in different departments, each consisting of a team that tackles different aspects of the show, characters, backgrounds, props, story boards, color, etc. It’s preferable that you’re skilled to fill any position, so when you go in you can simply pick between them. For character designs, you have to present a portfolio that shows strong fundamental drawing skills, which I think is very important.

Everyday duties can consist of preparing the model sheets, based on the script, turnarounds, expression sheets, and any required special shots. You try to provide as much material possible for the animators.

Also you have to show that you can draw characters in a variety of styles, and have samples of work that caters to the style of the show you are trying to get in. Batman is drawn in Jeff’s style, so when I design a character I have to keep in mind that all the design rules apply. But, the most important thing is good draftsmanship. You simply have to draw well. Unfortunately, nowadays production schedules are very short and there is little time for the proper training. You have to pick up the ball and run with it.

Most importantly, you need to have a passion for drawing and designing. You must be able to show everybody what you’re all about, and what contributions you can bring from a creative side (and not just with the pencil). That goes for your own personal and professional work. You have to feel it and believe in the characters.

As a character designer, what is your primary goal when designing a character?

You want to be true to the essence of the character. Basically, you want to communicate to the viewer who this character is with one drawing. We don’t animate them so we can’t do it through acting. The shapes, postures, expressions, clothes, etc. have to convey the character’s personality.

With Batman, it can be both easy and difficult.

The good thing is that we’ve lived with these characters all my life. We love them and we know who they are. The hard part is giving them a make over that will stay true to their character, their soul. In “The Batman” we tried to push the limit, but make sure to show off appealing versions of the characters (and maybe surprise the fans). I truly believe that the new representations of these characters are fresh additions to their history, and hopefully the fans will feel the same way.

How does the tone of a show, or any project you’re working on, influence the final product of your design work?

It definitely gives you a starting point, but it doesn’t necessarily dictate the final look on the show. The final designs are more affected by the personal choice of producers and how they want to market their product.

Now, let’s get back to your work on The Batman. First we’ll tackle the The Batman vs. Dracula. You said that you worked on the vampire/zombie designs for The Joker and some of Gotham’s citizens. What kind of inspiration did you look into, and use, when coming up with those looks? How?

 In the movie we followed the theory that all the citizens of Gotham that become Dracula’s minions would be infected by a disease rather than being dead, however, we still wanted a physical transformation once they were bitten. We wanted it to resemble how it was done in movies and shows like Buffy, Van Helsing, Underworld and Nosferatu (our biggest influence). We made them completely albino, made the mouth and eyes bigger. No eye brows, pointy ears and really pushed the cheekbones to frame the eyes.

The great thing about our Joker is that he has a huge mouth and this helped to emphasize the fangs. On my first drawing, I gave him huge gums, big fangs and tiny teeth, I made the hair a little bit sharper and I also hunched him a bit. On the final design we kept everything except the gums. Joker works perfectly as a vampire.

With The Batman vs. Dracula, and the lighter limitations that come with a DTV, did this allow you to experiment more with your work? How?

The lighter limitations were more reflected on the story and the directing. The approach to design the characters was no different form the episodic work we had done. The cool part was that we did get a little more time to develop the new characters. I spent most of it designing Vicky Vale.

Continuing with The Batman, you said you worked on designs for Batgirl and Poison Ivy for the new season. What kind of attributes did you bring to these designs, and what did you want to convey in each one?

The first thing I did was to try to find the characters behind Barbara Gordon and Pam Isley, then the transformation to Batgirl and Ivy.

I tried to gather as much reference as possible, photos from magazines and drawings of them from comics and Batman: The Animated Series. I wanted to see what had been done before and how we could give it a little twist. That into several drawings that tried fit the characteristics of the two reds until they worked.

Barbara is a 16-year-old gymnast; she’s not too tall and has straight red hair. We would put drawings next to Gordon and see which would work as his daughter. With this in mind you just let go, do a bunch of sketches and sooner or later you will hit the right one.

For Batgirl I took a sketch that Jeff had done and put the costume on the Barbara model. We also created a homespun costume that she was to wear on her first night as a super hero, but it was taken out later on. One of the main things to keep in mind with her and Batman is the powerful silhouette. Batgirl had to be appealing at full detail and in shadow.

 Same thing with Pam, but in her case we had a 19-year-old rebel that loves plants. In the first designs for her she was a bit of a hippie, but later on I made her more grunge style, with baggie, torn pants and a ragged sweater. She doesn’t really care about her looks.

With Ivy, we weren’t sure what direction we wanted. I had the idea to curl her hair up and form the shapes of flowers with the curls. I did some sketches with this in mind and everybody seemed pleased with it. The hair was the part that made the design unique, and it also created a nice silhouette. Her outfit is just a nice leafy dress. From that point we went back and forth until we got the designs you see on the show.

Going through your blog (found online here), we can see a lot of your design work for The Batman, and your own work. Do you approach your own design work like you would a character on The Batman?

The approach is the same. I try to search for the same things, good drawing and appealing design. I always draw with a blue Col_erase pencil on smooth Xerox paper and I turn my characters on Ingram animation paper. I do it like animating with one drawing on top of another.
My process is quite standard; I start with a very rough drawing and then I work out the construction and finer details. Doing character designs is very satisfying and frustrating at the same time. One of the best things of doing it at a studio is the interaction with other artists and being able to get feedback from them. When you work on heavy productions, it’s hard to keep up with your personal work. That’s why I started the Blog. It’s pushing me to post on a regular basis, and for that I have to create new art. And thanks to it, I’ve come across many incredible artists so please make sure to check out some of the links.

And now one last The Batman query, what are your favorites designs that you’ve worked on for the series? Why?

That would have to be Man_Bat. It was the first character that I designed completely on my own, and was even made into an action figure sculpted by the Four Horsemen. So, I’m very proud of this guy, and the toy looks perfect. Other one would have to be Poison Ivy. It was a lot of fun designing her. Gordon and Mini Joker (sorry but the little guy cracks me up). Gearhead was a total joy to design, I hope people like him.

Finally, outside of The Batman, what projects do you have coming up? What can fans expect in the future from your work, and where might we be seeing it in the future?

Currently, I’m designing for the upcoming Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. This is going to be a great film, and it should be out in 2007. I also just recently finished doing some designs for Teen Titans. I love this show! Glenn Murakami and his crew are totally producing some of the best animation on television. Soon I’ll be starting to do development work for another film that has a lot of fans out there. I can’t say the name, but when word comes out many people are going to be very happy.

Thanks to Jose Lopez for this interview and images! More images are available in the Jose Lopez Gallery.

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