From 'Toy Story 4' to 'Klaus': 5 Animation Directors Break Down Creating Their Main Characters

11:10 AM 1/29/2020

by Carolyn Giardina

The directors of these Oscar-nominated features describe how they used details to capture their protagonists — be they a dragon, toy, yeti, Santa or even a severed hand.

Animated feature - Toy Story 4 and Klaus -Split- Publicity -H 2020
Courtesy of Disney/Pixar; Courtesy of Netflix

  • Bo Peep

    For director Josh Cooley, Bo was critically important because she is the catalyst for Woody's change. "Her re-introduction into the Toy Story world had to be just right," he says. "We wanted to show that even though she is the same Bo Peep from years earlier, she has adapted and is thriving as a lost toy. Her fractured and bandaged porcelain reveals that she has repaired herself, her dress is altered so that it can also become a cape that allows her to move quickly and undetected, and she's built a remote-control skunk that allows her to go anywhere with complete freedom." "Clever" and "resourceful" are two of the words that Cooley uses to underscore her design. "She took control of her own destiny." he notes. "Bo embraced the idea of being a lost toy — the very thing that terrified Woody for the previous three films."

  • Light Fury

    Toothless' love interest, the Light Fury, was conceived to be the "engine of change" in the story, explains writer-director Dean DeBlois. "She provides a new life direction for Toothless — a call of the wild — and a potential future that deviates from his loyal bond with his human companion, Hiccup," he says. "It was important to present her as charming, mature and wild — uncorrupted by contact with humans. We didn't want our audience to resent her for disrupting the partnership between Hiccup and Toothless, so the courtship had to be playful and sweet."

    Toothless gave the filmmakers a starting point for the look of the female dragon. "She excels at stealth, so we smoothed out her features," DeBlois says. "We made her skin and scales iridescent, with a mother-of-pearl finish. And we gave her the ability to disappear by flying through her own fire blasts, heating up her skin and scales to become mirrorlike and virtually vanish into her environment. Our animators channeled the movements and mannerisms of large cats, studying snow leopards and lionesses. As such, the Light Fury is the only other dragon in our universe to exhibit mammalian qualities." DeBlois adds that she also was given a wide range of movement and expressions to enable nuanced pantomime interactions.

  • Mr. Link

    The yeti Mr. Link — or Susan, as he prefers to be called — is "in many ways the heart of the movie," says writer-director Chris Butler. "In a world full of humans, he's actually the most humane, and he earns the most sympathy from the audience. For that reason, he needed to be lovable. And I don't mean mawkish. He earns the audience's support by being a genuinely warm, down-to-earth guy."

    The filmmakers shied away from a design that was too cute for the 8-foot-tall character, instead leaning toward a "slightly awkward and goofy" look. "There's a softness to him," Butler explains. "He spends roughly half of the movie in his naked state, so a big part of his design became about how to realize all that hair and have it move realistically in such a stylized world." His clothing has bold patterns and textures, but it also was about how the clothes fit. Says Butler, "I think the first brief I gave our costume designer was, 'He should look like a gorilla squeezed into a three-piece suit.' "

  • The Hand

    How do you create empathy for a severed hand in search of its body? "She discovers the world through the tip of her fingers. When you think of it, from early childhood, it is through the hand and the sense of touch that we experience the world that surrounds us," relates director and co-writer Jérémy Clapin of the approach to "Rosalie" (the name the filmmakers gave the hand during production).

    "I wanted audiences to feel that this hand had had a life," Clapin says. "Its nails are a little too short, a sign of anxiety from the human it belongs to. She has no eyes, no mouth, so we had to leverage this lack of facial expression to reinforce the sensorial aspect of this central character." She also received a beauty mark, to "help identify Rosalie when she is connected to [the hand's owner] Naoufel. Its role is critical to bridge the two parallel stories of the movie."

    The hand's body language also was key to the character, "very primal in crisis moments (for instance, a subway scene with rats) and very delicate in calmer and more emotional scenes (the reunion with Naoufel)."

  • Klaus

    As a Santa Claus origin story, it's no surprise that the title character was the trickiest to design. "We're talking about one of the most beloved, well-known figures in popular culture, and creating a whole new iteration of Santa was no small task," says writer-director Sergio Pablos.

    When audiences first meet Klaus, he's a reclusive toymaker who lives in a remote northern village. "We knew that Klaus —like every other character in a story about transformation such as this one — had to undergo a lot of changes until he came close to the Santa that people would expect to see on the screen," Pablos says, adding that the animators started with the opposite of what one might imagine: "A taciturn, axe-wielding, scary-looking lumberjack. … His hair looks wild; he has a tool belt that would be the envy of any slasher-film villain; he has dark, thick eyebrows framing icy blue eyes; and hooded to boot."

    As the story unfolds, the filmmakers gradually softened his look. "His frown would give way to reveal a pair of eyes full of gentleness and sorrow … and eventually, we would re-encounter Santa."

    This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.