An Interview With Disney Character Designer John Jagusak
Narrative Designer & All Ages of Geek writer-producer Rohil Aniruth got in touch with the accomplished and highly versatile Character Designer John Jagusak for a quick interview about his work in the world of animation, encompassing both 2D and 3D design, illustration, and modeling. Jagusak provides several gems of helpful industry insight for upcoming artists and discusses his process.
Jagusak worked as the lead character designer on Disney’s T.O.T.S, earning him an Annie Nomination for Best Character Design for TV/Media. He’s also worked on Disney’s Goldie and Bear, and the iconic Betty Boop.
Rohil: Could you share a bit of your personal journey from realizing your passion for illustration to honing in/focusing on character design?
Jagusak: Art was always my favorite subject growing up, so I knew I wanted to pursue some form of art as a career. I majored in cartooning at the School of Visual Arts in New York, but it wasn’t until years later that I decided to focus on character design. I worked many jobs in the art field prior to that, including graphic design, illustration, and tattooing.
Rohil: What are your core design values when it comes to character design OR what, to you, makes a successful character design — what are you trying to achieve with each work?
Jagusak: I believe the most successful character designs provide the viewer with an understanding of the character’s personality solely through the design. Aside from that, it should be appealing.
Rohil: What tips do you have on letting go when working on an IP you don’t own? What good-mind practices do you implement to find peace amidst design changes you disagree with or potential project cancellations?
Jagusak: Whenever I work on a project I have an understanding that I am being contracted by the client to help them realise their vision. If you feel strongly about a design choice, there’s nothing wrong with pushing back at times, but ultimately the final decision lies with the client. I think it’s important to understand this. It will save you from coming off as difficult to work with. It’s always possible a project will be cancelled at any time for a multitude of reasons. You just need to focus on what you’re doing at the moment.
Rohil: What are your methods for fictional world management? For example, how do you juggle multiple projects with different aesthetic guidelines OR transition from months/years illustrating one world into illustrating the next?
I ask this question because I primarily work in narrative design, and I’ve caught myself bringing the tone of one IP into another. A sort of, “Wait, this character is starting to speak like my protagonist in the other project…” realization. Curious if you’ve experienced this on the illustration end?
Jagusak: Sometimes, transitioning from one style of working to another can take time, especially if it’s a new project that’s in development. The client does not always understand this, so I just try to do my best and follow style guides where applicable.
Rohil: Could you speak on projects like Disney’s Mira Royal Detective within the context of responsible character design — what steps do you take to ensure authentic representation and a dismantling of stereotypes?
Jagusak: I worked on very early development on Mira. When I was doing concepts, I was provided with a lot of references to help with authenticity. It’s important to be aware of stereotypes when designing, and by default, that will help avoid them.
Rohil: Building off the previous, what are some character design tropes or ideas around character design you find especially mind-numbing and exhausting?
Jagusak: I think the idea that style somehow dictates good design is particularly mind-numbing.
Rohil: How often does a submitted character design end up changing the original personality or intent of the written character? For example, the studio has a particular idea of a character, sees their design, and is inspired to take a new direction with the character — rewriting the character to fit the illustration, instead of having the illustration reworked?
Jagusak: It’s possible the design could affect the personality of the character early on in production. Specifically when working on poses or expression sheets. At that time, the designer is essentially acting through the character and trying to pull the personality out through the illustrations prior to a voice actor stepping in. In many ways helping to create the personality.
Rohil: What are some essential things to keep in mind when concepting a character whose final form will be 3D — moving in a 3D space?
Jagusak: This is something that I seem to have a very progressive opinion on. I would say it doesn’t matter whether the character is designed for 2d or 3d. Anything can be translated into 3D. I would be hard-pressed to find a design that cannot be translated from 2D to 3D. I’ve seen it done with even the flattest-looking designs. To illustrate my opinion, just go to any toy store and find the toys for your favorite 2D show.
Rohil: What do you consider the most important things to keep in mind when stepping into an already established, beloved franchise like Betty Boop?
Jagusak: When working on a pre-established project, it’s important to stay true to the style, follow the shape language, and have a good understanding of the character’s personality.
Rohil: What new character design trends have you started to notice, and what sorts of characters/illustration styles will dominate the industry in the next few years?
Jagusak: The design trends tend to differ between studios. I’ve noticed Disney has been leaning towards a manga-influenced style for a little while now, and I don’t see that changing in the immediate future.
Pixar tends to push the shape language, but it’s rooted in realism or heavily influenced by the character’s personality. Dreamworks and Sony take the biggest risks as far as design goes, in my opinion. Their designs are very shape-heavy and interesting. For example, Dracula’s head in Hotel Transylvania is literally a coffin. It’s difficult to say where things are headed from here.