Sunday, May 18, 2014


“We’re aliens from many galaxies on Planet Kindergarten.” This was author Sue Ganz Schmitt's inspiring, but only description of a large portion of the characters in her book, PLANET KINDERGARTEN (Available now!). As explained in my first PK post, the book equates a child’s first day of Kindergarten to an astronaut visiting an alien planet. The idea was not to be overtly literal with the space visuals, but to make things in our world feel symbolic, or representative of space. Chronicle Books decided that I would be the person to explore the possibilities, and as the illustrator of the book the first thing I did was play with the characters. No visual description of any character was given in the book, so they left that to me.
Lets start with the main character of our story (above)…. a nervous but determined little boy who approaches life with the focus of a NASA Astronaut. In order to hone in on what he might look like, I started to research everything NASA. In doing so I was obviously inspired by the astronaut’s uniforms, suits and gear, but I also pulled inspiration from NASA spacecraft and symbols as well. For example, the overall body shape of the main character was inspired by a specific NASA space capsule. I even designed his eyebrows to reflect the red, jet stream swish in NASA’s emblem.
I also gave the characters broad graphic shadows inspired by images of planets (and our own moon)lit on one side by the sun. These are not things that I expect the viewer to see blatantly. These are just elements that inspired me to design a character that was hopefully more specific, unique and relevant to THIS particular story. A viewer might “feel” these elements subliminally. Creating a visual “feel” inspired by things relevant to the subject matter and tone of the story is important to me. I don’t just design something to “look cool”, I want to design something that is relevant to, and inspired by the story….and hopefully that is what’s cool.
Next I started exploring the classmates that our “astronaut” would encounter in our story. Inspired by the text, I thought about how I might portray these kids as “aliens”. Here are a few of my solutions, along with their inspiration. I gave them names for my own benefit (and for fun).
EEDIE: A wide-eyed, awkward, nose picker, Eedie was inspired by one of the most loveable and unusual aliens of all time. I imagined that Eedie picks her nose as a way of coping with events such as this first day of kindergarten. In the book I had her keep the booger throughout the day, as a kind of comfort… a small, reassuring companion of sorts (like Wilson is to Tom Hanks in Castaway).
GREYG: I definitely wanted a classmate to represent a classic Grey Alien. Another kid trying to cope with his first day of Kindergarten, Greyg hides under the tightly drawn hood of his grey sweater hoping that, if he can’t see you, maybe you can’t see him. I geared his overall silhouette to feel like the large headed, thin-bodied aliens we have all seen represented and described for years.
BUCKEY: A highly imaginative but shy kid, his first day of Kindergarten begins with finding the class crayon bucket and creating a new persona. Buckey was loosely inspired by several of my favorite classic green “monster” alien types from science fiction lore.
ANNE and DORIAN: These petite, white haired twin sisters were inspired loosely by the Andorian aliens from Star Trek. They are lucky to have each other on their first day of Kindergarten, but potty breaks and recess activities pull them apart from time to time.
ROB: Not able to wait until lunchtime, Rob messily eats his mustard, catsup and pickle sandwich. The ingredients now dot the front of his shirt (and face) like the small buttons and lights of a classic sci fi robot.

Those are some of the kids you’ll encounter on PLANET KINDERGARTEN. I’ll share a bit about the thinking, and inspiration for the environments and world of the story in my next PK post. I look forward to sharing.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

the LEGO MOVIE_part 02 (Vitruvius)

Continuing the LEGO movie posts…. After joining the design mix for the character of “Wildstyle” (Lucy Lego), I was asked to contribute to the design exploration of Vitruvius. the ancient and heroic, blind wizard (A small sample shown above). There was already quite a bit of really great design work done on him, but I was asked to shake him up a bit. They wanted me to explore more specifics and humor within his design. To do so, I asked lots of questions about the characters history and role in the story. I learned that Vitruvius was going to be living in an old west Lego set (part timing as a saloon pianist)in order to hide out while he lead the rebellion. This inspired me to play with some old west influence in his overall design.

Another major aspect of Vitruvius was the fact that he was blind, and I was inspired to search for a more specific visual solution to communicate this. I remembered that when I was a kid, after having played with my LEGO figures for a while, some of the figure’s facial detailing would rub, or scratch off. Hey, maybe that's how or why a LEGO figure would become blind.

I also played with the idea that Vitruvius' head might just be turned backwards, so we would see no eyes or face whatsoever. Just a couple solutions I presented to keep things more “LEGO centric”. The rubbed off face concept was realized (by people who are much smarter than I) in the infamous Nail Polish remover sequence that exists in the final film.

I played with various real world found objects such as rubber bands, twist ties, and toothpicks, that Vitruvius might use as a staff, or head band…etc. The lollipop stick was established before I came on board, but I thought it was brilliant. I played with making Vitruvius feel a little more tribal, and mystic at times. Maybe a little more of a crazy aspect to him, playing with strange mixes of Lego parts. Maybe a Chewbacca torso with Native American legs and classic yellow hands…etc.
In the end, a couple aspects of my explorations squeezed their way into the final design. There were several hands and hundreds of versions in the development of this guy, and he was a lot of fun to have been involved with.
In my next LEGO Movie post, I’ll share a bit about my involvement with the look of Lord Business.

Monday, May 05, 2014


Not to long ago, I received a call out of the blue from Chronicle Books. They told me about a new picture book project by author Sue Ganz Schmitt that they were interested in having me illustrate. The book was titled PLANET KINDERGARTEN ,and it equated a child’s first day of kindergarten to an astronaut preparing for, and visiting, an alien world. I loved the concept as soon as I heard it, and when I read the manuscript I knew I wanted to be involved. I related directly to a character being anxious about his first day of anything, and I instantly had a slew of visual ideas inspired by the story as well. I quickly pitched my concepts to Chronicle and they liked my thinking on it all, so my mission to PLANET KINDERGARTEN was launched.

Inspired by Sue's story, and working with my incredible team at Chronicle, I started researching, exploring, and planning my visual concepts VERY quickly. As I did, I made it clear to everyone involved that I do not design or create anything without first considering the story. I never have a set “style” for illustrating or designing a thing. Instead, I believe very strongly that the story should inspire, define, and drive the look of whatever I am designing. As every story should have its own identity, so should that story’s visuals.

What is the tone of the story you are designing? Where does it take place? When does it take place? Is it a frenetic/abstract concept, or is it a more naturalistic, grounded thing? Comedy? Drama? Horror? Dramedy?….etc. All of these questions, and much more, should be taken into consideration when creating the look of anything. (I'll share more on this soon).

From development to final illustrations, the entire visual process for PLANET KINDERGARTEN was quick, but a lot of fun. How do you tell a visual story about an astronaut visiting an alien planet, without literally showing an astronaut visiting an alien planet? That was both the challenge and the fun of PLANET KINDERGARTEN. To elude or make reference to themes of space travel and science fiction while still being grounded in the world we all know.

Over the next several weeks I'll share a bit about my process and experience on PLANET KINDERGARTEN while also sharing images and accounts from the many exciting events surrounding the book…such as PLANET KINDERGARTEN being chosen as the featured book (and myself the featured illustrator) of the 2014 San Francisco Public Library's Summer Read event. Lots going on, and lots more to share.

PLANET KINDERGARTEN is now available for pre-order, and will be released May 20th 2014.