Creative Lives — Character designer Dan Kelby on mastering time management and avoiding burn-out

Posted 10 July 2018 Interview by Marianne Hanoun

“Time just disappears once I start drawing,” says character designer Dan Kelby. Based in Norwich, Dan works from a home studio to provide everything from initial sketches to technical drawings and expression sheets for characters. Alongside recent work for Cartoon Network Studio’s TV series Apple and Onion, he has also helped bring to life characters for Signal Zero Games and is currently working with Pilot Studio in Boston. But despite his love for the job, he is quick to warn against the dangers of burning out: “Working yourself to death is a badge of honour. Knowing when to stop is crucial.” He talks through early experiences of working in call centres and coffee shops, to freelance learnings and dreams of working for Disney.

Dan Kelby

Job Title

Freelance Character Designer

Based

Norwich, UK

Clients

Cartoon Network, Pilot Studio, Prime Focus World, Signal Zero Games, ‘A’ Productions

Previous Employment

Coffee shop worker, movie theatre worker, movie extra, frustrated graphic designer

Education

BA Graphic Design (Animation), Norwich University of the Arts (1999–2002)

Website
Social Media

Dan (and his dog)

Day-to-Day

How would you describe what you do?
I’m a freelance character designer for the entertainment industry, working in animation, video games, publishing and TV. It’s my job to help bring characters to life at any point in a project, whether that be at the start or during production, when more technical drawings are required. I might be commissioned to provide simple character sketches for a project, to do a more finished painting of a character, or some turnarounds and expression sheets for the modelling department in an animation studio. Sometimes I’m asked to do all of these by one client, too!

What does a typical working day look like and where does it happen?
I’m up at 6am with my partner to walk the dog, feed the cats, let out the chickens (we have a lot of pets), and get the kettle on. I begin my work day around 8.30am answering emails, getting up to speed on social media and setting out my stall for the day. I’d rather get the admin side of the job out of the way early, as I find that time just disappears once I start drawing.

After that it’s down to the business of creating. Depending on what I’m doing for the day, it tends to vary a lot. If I’m continuing a job from the previous day I’ll just carry on with that, whereas if I’m starting something new I’ll probably be diving into research. If there’s feedback from an AD [art director] to action, that gets done too and sent back for approval or further amends. 

Dan's desk

How collaborative is your role?
It’s a cliché, but the life of the freelancer really is akin to a lone wolf: emails mean I can see a job from inception through completion without physically speaking to anyone. I collaborate with art directors and production designers, but when it comes down to the work, the onus is on me to get it done. That can be daunting, but I’m used to it, plus I like having complete control over the outcome. I don’t know if I would enjoy delegating! I like to know what stage a project is at and how many balls are up in the air at any given moment. 

Working with the same art directors and production designers means you get to know what they like, enabling you to get more things right the first time. There is more back and forth when working with a new client, as you get to know each other and how you all work together.

“It’s a cliché, but the life of the freelancer is akin to a lone wolf: I can see a job from inception through completion without speaking physically to anyone.”

What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job? 
The most enjoyable is when I know that my AD or production designer has gotten what they require out of me for their project. My job is to create solutions, not problems! I also love getting an email out of the blue from a new client asking me to be part of an exciting project, especially if it’s for a studio or IP I’ve been wanting to work for.

The least enjoyable are that it can be very lonely, it’s unpredictable in terms of workload, it’s very much a 24/7 existence with a tricky work-life balance. There’s no holiday pay, no sick pay, and if the phone stops ringing for even a short period of time, it can start to make you question your worth. The financial instability is not for everyone, but you get to be your own boss and can wear pyjamas to work, so there’s that!

Dan's shelves

Dan's shelves

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What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months? 
I was lucky enough to work for Cartoon Network Studios on a new TV show that aired back at the start of 2018, called Apple and Onion. I applied to the studio on a whim after noticing that they took spec submissions from freelancers on their website. I filled in the form and attached my resumé, then a couple of days later was contacted by the show’s production co-ordinator asking if I’d do a test. A few weeks later I was doing model pack designs for the series (model packs are everything from character turnarounds to keyframe drawings for the animators to work from, as well as props and special FX design.) It was nice to have that much variety in a single job.

It’s quite surreal to see my work on screen. One of my friends messaged me the other day asking if I’d ‘seen my IMDB page’: my credit had gone up on there for the first time and someone had set a page up for me. That was definitely a highlight of my career so far!

Work for Cartoon Network Studios’ Apple and Onion (2018)

Work for Cartoon Network Studios’ Apple and Onion (2018)

Work for Cartoon Network Studios’ Apple and Onion (2018)

Work for Cartoon Network Studios’ Apple and Onion (2018)

What skills would you say are essential to your job?
Aside from the technical aspects of drawing and design, time management and self-discipline. Juggling the demands of international clients, time zones and work whilst promoting yourself and sharpening your skill set is an all-consuming job.

The internet has opened up the playing field to the entire world, but also sped that world up to an almost unhealthy degree: you can end up working all hours if you’re not careful. Knowing when to stop or slow down is crucial for longevity. Being a freelancer and having a life outside of work is a very difficult balance to achieve, especially if you work from home. It’s all too easy to just hop on the computer at midnight and answer that email, then before you know it it’s 3am and you know you’ll be no good to anyone the next day!

“I burned out last year. I felt like I’d failed, when in reality it was the company I was working for who failed me.”

I burned out last year. It taught me the value of saying ‘no’ – it’s a skill not often discussed, but one that’s essential to your long-term survival. I landed a job that required me to work from 6am until 2am every day just to hit my deadlines, and despite constantly asking for help from my production manager, none ever arrived. I didn’t see my partner for weeks, I became horrible to live with, and in the end, I just snapped. I couldn’t physically sustain that rate of work any longer and just creatively shut down. After I got out of that job, I stopped working for a few months so I could mentally regroup. I felt like I’d failed, when in reality it was the company I was working for who failed me.

I resent the working ideology of ‘You have to be busy all the time or there’s something wrong.’ It sends a dangerous message to other folks, as if working yourself to death is somehow a badge of honour to be lauded over others. Mindfulness is something I’m always sure to practice now, as I’m no good to anyone if I’m too stressed to function.

Sketches for Goldilocks

Work for Goldilocks

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What do you like about working in Norwich?
Norwich is a lovely city to work in as it has it all: a thriving independent art and music scene, lovely scenery, great nightlife and a nice mix of culture and commerce. London is only a couple of hours away too, and the people are all lovely here. 

Are you currently working on any personal projects?
I’m currently adapting the Roald Dahl book, Matilda into a personal project for my 2018 character design portfolio. Roald’s books hold a dear place in my heart, as I remember reading them all as a child. I loved the Disney movie, Zootropolis, and thought it would be fun to reimagine the characters from Matilda as animals. I think it’s important to have a personal project; you need something that’s just yours and not beholden to a higher power making all the creative decisions.

“It’s important to have a personal project; you need something that’s not beholden to a higher power making all the creative decisions.”

What tools do you use most for your work? 
Software-wise, I use Photoshop CC on my PC and Procreate on my iPad Pro. For hardware, aside from the iPad, I draw and colour everything on a Wacom Cintiq 22HD straight into the computer. The iPad is mainly used for sketches and ideas whilst I’m in front of the TV, and from here I can export these as layered PSD files from Procreate into my Google Drive folder for downloading and refining on the PC. I love the flexibility of working like this and not having to scan things into the computer.

Personal work based on the Roald Dahl book, Matilda

Personal work based on the Roald Dahl book, Matilda

Personal work based on the Roald Dahl book, Matilda

How I Got Here

What did you want to be growing up?
The first thing I remember wanting to be was an animator at Disney, then a cartoonist, then a rock star. You know what they say: you always come back to your first love (although I suck at animation, hence going into the design side).

How do you think your upbringing influenced your choice of career?
I was very fortunate in that I had very supportive parents. My dad is an artist and was also a freelancer, so that helped them understand my decision to give up full-time work and follow my dreams! I was always encouraged to draw, and was always watching cartoons, Disney movies, reading comics and books.

To anyone out there reading this who stopped drawing because their parents told them to – go out right now and buy a sketchbook and pencils and make some art! You’ll feel much better.

How useful have your studies been in your career?
Art school was no use whatsoever. We got a project brief at the beginning of the week and it was a case of ‘Okay, see you in two weeks for critique. Any problems, ask.’ There was no formal instruction, no life drawing. They didn’t even show us how to use Photoshop! I suspect it’s different these days, and I guess it taught me to think on my feet and find out the answers for myself. 

“Art school was no use whatsoever. You don’t have to go to art school to be an artist.”

You don’t have to go to art school to be an artist. No employer ever asks to see your diploma; it’s all down to the quality of your work and what kind of person you are. I wish art schools taught the other side of being an artist as well as practical skills: self-promotion, dealing with clients, networking, dealing with critique and time management.

On the flip-side, my studies online have helped me immensely. There is an infinite amount of resources out there, and it’s mostly free – or a lot cheaper than an art school. I’ve taken classes from the Oatley Academy, Schoolism and Skillshare. I learned more with these than during art school. We are truly blessed to be living in an age where we have close access to our peers and idols. If you’re lucky enough, you can even make friends with them and ask them for critique! 

What were your first jobs?
After graduation is when the real work begins. I worked the usual dead-end jobs: shop work, call centres. It took me a couple of years to land an art-based job, doing graphic design for an events company. That lasted nine years and I’ve only been freelancing for five years since then.

Work for Signal Zero Games

Work for Signal Zero Games

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Has there been a project that particularly helped your development?
I’d consider my Cartoon Network job a lucky break, solely because I never expected to hear back from them when I applied It also gave me a confidence boost, as I was just coming out of my period of burnout at that time. 

Another job that I consider a lucky break was when I was contacted by the creative director of Pilot Studio, Chris Ford, to do some work for them. The company are based out in Boston, and do some incredible work on huge global brands. 

What’s been your biggest challenge along the way?
I’d say my dark time last year. It took me quite a while to want to get back on the horse after that. However, it taught me what my limits are and that I’m not some infallible art machine who can survive on coffee and three hours of sleep. We all have our limits and we need to stay mindful of them if we want to make a career out of this. 

Banner for videogame Oops You Died

Thinking Ahead

What would you like to do next?
The big, ridiculous dream is working at Disney, as they are the very best at what they do and hold a dear place in my heart. I’d love the opportunity to work or train there and learn from the greats. 

Freelance is a fine existence, but I miss the collaboration and energy of a studio environment. I bounce off other people, and that is one thing you don’t get when you’re alone. I’d love to have that instant feedback and critique system, too. I’m trying to make it happen and will be going out to LA again in November for CTN Animation Expo in Burbank. It’s a silly dream really, but where would we be without those?

Could you do this job forever?
As long as people want to hire me, of course! I just couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

Girl Gang

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give to an emerging creative wanting to become a character designer?
Flexibility is the key to success as a character designer. It’s important to remember that the things you’re asked to draw don’t belong to you. That’s not to say that you can’t fall in love with your designs and enjoy the process, but you don’t get to decide which ones live and die!

Being courteous and open to critique or changes is part of the job, and you will seldom see your favourite design get picked. There is sometimes room for pushback, and occasionally I’ve sent a design back with a little ‘I’ve done this…but how about this?!’ caveat. It’s one way of offering your client something on top of what they expect. And who knows, they might actually go with your suggestion!

Never be afraid to put yourself out there. And above all, as a wise man once said to me, “Do great work and be great to work with.” 

Posted 10 July 2018 Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Illustration, Animation
Mentions: Dan Kelby, Cartoon Network
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