CTNX 2011: Inside the Imagination of Carlos Grangel, Part 2

Carlos Grangel

Carlos Grangel at CTNX 2011 reveals insights into his character design process for films such as Corpse Bride, Shark Tale, Kung-Fu Panda, How To Train Your Dragon and more.

In Part 1 we looked at Grangel’s design process, his thoughts on artistic development, as well as his insight on running a niche market creative studio. Here in Part 2 we’ll take a look at some key features he worked on and highlight some interesting facts and quotes from his discussion with animation industry veteran and workshop moderator Jill Culton.

(From CTNx’s Website)
Carlos Grangel, character designer and studio owner
Carlos Grangel (IMDB) is a Spanish-born character designer for animated films. Carlos started as a character designer at Amblimation-Universal Pictures in London, and worked on “We’re Back: A Dinosaur’s Story” and “Balto”.In 1995 he started designing characters for DreamWorks movies “The Prince of Egypt”, “The Road to El Dorado”, “Spirit”, “Sinbad”, “Shark Tale”, “Madagascar”, “Flushed Away”, “Bee Movie”, “Kung Fu Panda” and “How to Train Your dragon”. He owns Grangel Studios along with his brother Jordi.

Original creator with Tim Burton for the characters on “Corpse Bride”, also worked on “Pirates” and “Hotel Transylvania” for Sony/Aardman Pictures and “Why I did (not) Eat my Father” for Pathé/Boreales, he contributed designing characters for various shortfilms like “Alma”, “Passage”, “The ClockWork Clone” and “The Periwig Maker” that was nominated for the Academy Awards Best Animated Short.

Moderator Jill Culton, writer and director
Originally from Ventura, California, Jill Culton (IMDB) is a graduate from the California Institute of the Arts where she was one of only five women in the character animation class of 1990. Now, twenty years later, Culton has a thriving career in the field of computer feature animation. Having worked as an animator, character designer, concept artist, storyboard artist, Director and Executive Producer, Culton is one of the foremost talents in her industry today. She has worked for ILM, Pixar, and Dreamworks where she is currently.

Corpse Bride:
In their discussion on features they talked out of chronology beginning with Corpse Bride (IMDB) because of Grangel’s early collaboration with Burton on the designs for the film. Burton called Carlos on Spain asking him about designing the characters for his new film. Carlos thought it was a joke. They arranged a meeting in London and met for 3 hours. Burton had worked on some preliminary designs using a thin pen and watercolor. Carlos thought they were beautiful and asked why Burton wanted his help. Burton insisted that he wanted to collaborate.

During trip to NY to pitch our IP’s in February of 2011 I had a chance to visit Tim Burton’s exhibit at MoMA and one of the things that I’ll never forget (aside from the amazing variety of mediums he has worked in) was the Tim Burton Chronology wall. It showed all of his key projects, MOST of which never saw the light of day. I wrote a post on it (http://timbuktoons.com/2010/03/fail-often/) and was reminded again during Carlos’ talk that artists need to continually produce and hone their craft regardless of whether the concept ever gets “green-lit” or not. Perseverance is key!

Carlos pointed out that good directors will trust the designer. He said that Tim Burton was very laid back and trusted his approach. For Corpse Bride (and most of his projects) Carlos also custom designs a type face for each character to help sell the idea on the character presentation boards. This helps further convey personality of the character and the tone of the story. Carlos also sketched on the insides of cereal boxes to get some of the petina and texture. He said, “I’m Uncle Scrooge so I’m trying to reuse everything.” Burton liked the idea and said to keep doing it. Tongue-in-cheek, Grangel pointed out that Burton added, “Then we can sell them later.”

Prince of Egypt:
For Prince of Egypt (IMDB) (and a few subsequent Dreamworks assigments) Grangel lived in the US for 2.5 years while his brother kept things running at the studio in Spain. This was Grangel’s real breakout film in terms of recognition and the other opportunities it led to.

Moderator Jill Culton pointed out how different Corpse Bride and Prince of Egypt were. Grangel said, “Being a designer you have to adapt and you have to bring the very best for that movie. “You have to be a chameleon to find the tone.” Continuing, he said, “For POE we broke rules of proportion. It wasn’t too cartoony or realistic. It was very subtle. If you miss on small thing, it’s not the right style.”

He said it was different working for a big studio. Katzenberg wanted to see lots of things including many takes on all of the characters from several different designers.

The Road to El Dorado:
Using a character line up from The Road to El Dorado (IMDB), Culton noted how every character sketch Grangel designed told a story. That’s what I love about character design. A character designer IS a visual story teller.

Culton commented on how beautiful Grangel’s horse studies and designs were for Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (IMDB). He pointed out that these sketches Culton was showing were after 3 months of studying horses. Grangel said, “Two things I had to learn how to draw were bikes and horses. If one thing is wrong on a horse you notice it.” During this discussion Grangel mentioned that he turned down a couple of sci-fi movies because he doesn’t do well with robots, vehicles, and aliens.

Shark Tale:
It was obvious that Grangel was least proud of Shark Tale (IMDB). What I admired was that he could have blamed others but he took ownership of it along with the rest of his collaborators on the film. He said, “When you make mistakes early, you pay for them later.”

Grangel’s early sketches looked more like fish instead of human faces stuck on fish. “I was not happy with the results.” (Probably a nice way of saying management made them do it that way for non-artistic reasons.) He continued, “We have gotten better at doing movies, but this one? We didn’t crack that thing.”

Grangel was on Madagascar (IMDB) early while waiting to work on Corpse Bride and he designed the four main characters. He made sure his contacts at Dreamworks were aware of his opportunity with Corpse Bride so that when Warner Bros was ready for him to come, Dreamworks would be okay with it. Paraphrasing Grangel’s comments, he pointed out that It’s always good to be up front with studios and tell them before it happens so it does not negatively impact the studio. The fact that Grangel has not burned any bridges is a testament to his customer service and business savvy.

Other Films:
Grangel was also the lead character designer early on in Kung Fu Panda (IMDB) for three months and worked on Bee Movie (IMDB) as well. Half-joking with Culton, Grangel said, “The reason I have so many movie credits is because I never finish one thing” He usually works 3-6 months on a project, then moves on to another project.

Culton shared some concept art for a cave man movie Grangel was currently designing characters for. Grangel pointed out that there are three cave man movies in development, including one at Dreamworks. Carlos had to turn down the Dreamworks film because he’s working on a French film that is about cave men called “Tribes”.

In addition to features, Grangel has also worked on a ton of shorts, which he said he really enjoys. Keep an eye on this designer. I’m sure there will be more great designs in key feature films from Carlos and his company!


  1. Pingback: CTNX 2011: Inside the Imagination of Carlos Grangel, Part 1 | Timbuktoons Studio

  2. Tina Price

    Hey Todd – Great write up! Thanks… ~Tina Price CTN

  3. Todd Hampson

    Thanks Tina! Loved the session!