Ryan interviews artist, Dale Hendrickson. We talk about Dale's extensive career, his work as a character designer for The Simpsons and Futurama, and what's next in his artistic endeavors.
Where are you originally from, Dale?
I grew up in Taylor, Michigan in the Detroit suburbs. Motown and muscle cars.
Did you study art in college or institution?
After graduating high school, I knew I wanted to do art for a living. My math grades kind of shut the door on being an astronaut, or veterinarian, so I took the first grant I received which was for the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. I was interested in animation, but also enjoyed architecture and graphic design. But at the time, I didn’t seem to hear much about animation schools. Everything in the Detroit area was heavily geared to drafting and industrial design and commercials. Mostly for the auto industry. So I left Detroit for Pittsburgh. They didn’t have an animation program, so I signed up for the commercial art program. It was a well-rounded curriculum taught by working professionals in the field.
What made you want to move to Hollywood?
Insanity I guess! No really, though. After graduation, Pam (Dale's wife) and and I talked about where to go from here. I met Pam in Art School. She was majoring in Fashion design. I wanted animation. She wanted Fashion design and layout, which was probably equally available in New York or Los Angeles. Since we both had enough of cold winters, it became a no-brainer. LA!! Also, one of my friends at school graduated a few quarters ahead of me and kind of blazed a trail in to animation out there, and told me to come out. Hannah and Barbara was running a night class, and I might be able to get in that way. So we threw everything we had under the bus and took a one way ticket to Hollywood. I enrolled in the night class with a portfolio review, and began learning inbetweening. This is the process in which hand drawn animation was done back in the day. The inbetweener did all the drawings in between the main animation drawings. An animator would rough out 5 or 6 drawings of a 24 drawing scene or about one second of film time. So , I learned to clean up the animators rough drawings and then do all the in between drawings. And in a month, I got hired at Hannah and Barbara, famous for Yogi Bear, Flintstones, Scooby Doo, and my personal favorite... Johnny Quest!
When did you first get involved with The Simpsons and how did that opportunity come about?
I was working at a studio called DIC, working on some forgettable animated shows that wrapped up sooner than expected. A colleague told me about a little studio doing some kind of shorts for the Tracey Ullman Show. I was sure my career was probably over, so I went down and showed my portfolio. I got hired, with help I think, from a friend, Phil Ortiz, who I knew from my Hannah and Barbara days. Phil is an incredible artist and one of the friendliest people in the business. It turned out that I could draw this new funky style, even though I had a portfolio of almost all super heroes. The rest is sorta history!
I was at The Simpsons for the first 7 years. I left to art direct an animated show called The Mouse and the Monster at Saban Entertainment. One of my best friends, Jerry Leibowitz, created the show and it was a blast to finally work with him. I then co-produced Silver Surfer and built out the cg department to make one of the first combination traditional animation and CGI shows for Saturday morning line up.
After Saban, I started a studio with Jeffery Kater called S4 studios which reflected my interest in UFOs and Area 51. We also worked frequently with a studio called Area 51 who did a lot of breakthrough cgi work on Sea Quest, and the new Star Trek Tv shows. After having a few good years and some not so good years, we parted ways in 2006. I began working again freelance for the animation studios.
In 2011, I returned to The Simpsons full time. It actually felt good to come back to it. Meeting artists I hadn’t seen in some 14 years. But wow, how interesting to leave it in the pencil and Xerox machine area, and return in the full digital age!
What exactly is your job with The Simpsons?
My title is Character Design. Many people don’t realize that there are about 20 to 30 new characters in every show, or massive costume changes for all the characters known and unknown.
What is your process for creating these characters?
We get scripts. The scripts always describe what the character is and what he, she, it, is wearing, doing etc. We follow the writers descriptions. We rarely see or meet with writers. This process has changed over the years, however. Now, due to expediency, they are on the Fox lot in LA and we are in Burbank at Film Roman and don’t actually meet that often. We do appreciate it when we do meet up. I will rough out characters, discuss it with the director of that particular episode, get their feedback, then it goes for approval over at Fox Studios. Matt Groening, and select key producers give notes such as: "Nice", "Great!", or "This looks like its from another show!" Or, my favorite... "Try to make it funnier!"
What characters have you specifically created for the show?
My best known characters would be Kent Brockman, Cletus , Rod Flanders, Mayor Quimby, Fat Tony and the gang to a certain degree. I also created the Spinal Tap characters. There was alot of collaboration with the directors back then. They were all very talented artists and always had ideas about their particular episode.
Who are some of your favorite characters you've created and why?
As mentioned, Kent Brockman, one of my first characters that stuck as a main or regular character. And most recently, I was the lucky winner to do Elon Musk, a personal hero of mine!
You have also worked for several other animated tv shows. Could you tell us about these, and what you did for them?
There was development for Futurama, concentrating on Fry, Lela. Im told I get credit for Fry’s hair flip! Again, this was really collaborative with Matt and several others in a small office throwing sketches around. We'd get feedback from everyone, work at home, and then come into the office every couple days. I believe I was still on The Simpsons, or had just left, to work at Saban, so this was a bit on my own time. Probably most people know Barn Yard, the CGI animated series out of Nickelodeon. This was created by Steve Odekirk, writer of the early Jim Carry movies, and creator of Jimmy Neutron. Here, I worked with Steve to flesh out the characters for Barn Yard and do final character model sheets. I also worked in development with Steve Odekirk on several feature projects he was working on. He has an amazing creative space in San Juan, Capistrano. I would work at home and come down every couple of weeks. Steve was hilarious in person and working with him was a blast. He did Thumb Wars for God sake! Google it if you’ve never seen these mini movies!
You also worked with Bruce Timm on the Green Lantern animated series?
I worked on the beginning of the show, working out model sheets for CG animation and modeling. It was a short, but interesting project before going back to The Simpsons. I thought it was a great looking show!
Do you have a favorite comic book super hero? Villain?
I think my work on Silver Surfer opened my eyes to the amazing work of Jack Kirby more so than ever. The Silver Surfer character in particular. Although I bought my share of comics as a kid, I wasn’t an avid collector. So, I guess I was sort of a Jack Kirby late-bloomer. It was his graphic pencils that turned the human figure into a powerful abstract design. I loved the inking and used this very graphic style to help us marry the CGI to traditional animation. You could say that Silver Surfer and Galactus are two of my favorite comic characters. Their dynamic is so awesome. Such a bizarre relationship where morality gets very dubious and not black and white. I love that.
You also own your own studio specializing in animation and special effects. Can you tell us more about this, and what projects you have worked on.
After I left Saban, I opened a studio called S4 Studios. My partner, Jeffery Kater, also a Silver Surfer alum, was great with CGI and flash, and I worked to develop new properties and story board commercials and specials with him. One of our series was in association with Sun Woo Animation out of Korea. It was called Wild Animal Baby. It almost went to series with PBS. We also did this weird special for Cartoon Network called The Groovinians.
An odd but interesting project.
Odder still were the effects we did for a John Waters film starring Tracy Ullman! It was called A Dirty Shame. What goes around comes around, I guess!
We also did animation of squirrels having sex! Lots of reference required. Not sure I wanted to learn the details all that much, but hey, it’s a job right? I did art direction and scene planning and animation. Lots of fun, strange, and very educational!
One of my favorite projects we created was Rocketron, where the characters were all... you guess it. Rockets! We had many a great pitch and went up the chain at Disney a few times but in the end... no cigar. Such is the biz.
You also have some really interesting digital art on your website that you've created with various space and interplanetary themes. Do you have a keen interest in science fiction and/or space?
Yes, this is one of my ongoing personal projects. Development of sci-fi and fantasy and paranormal illustration and concept design. It’s the other side of my brain kicking in. I have always been a sci-fi geek. I would read everything and watch anything sci-fi and UFO-related. I sold my first painting at a Star Trek convention in Detroit to David Gerald. He of course is known for the tribble episode on Star Trek, among many others.
Where does your inspiration for these sci-fi art pieces stem from?
Not a simple answer, but sometimes I know what I’m trying for. Other times, it flows out of happy accidents. In the case of much of the work from this past year, It stems from sketches done for Facebook groups, like spit paint or speed paint. Subjects are listed each week, and you choose a topic and see what you can do in an hour or less. That was a great exercise because it really got me out of my comfort zone and made me think fast. Many of my current paintings are inspired from those exercises. It's also been exciting to capture the feel of sci-fi artists from the past that I was inspired by. Everyone from Foss to Kelly Freas, Frazetta to Gieger, and John Berky to Roger Dean.
One of your most intriguing pieces, to me personally, is that of Hybrid Child on a Hill. Can you explain the process of creating this piece, and what this specific piece means to you?
This one was interesting. I had no idea about it as I started. I was warming up with random digital brushes and the composition just kind of grew. Starting with the rock wall, or what began to look like a rock wall. After putting a top of grass, I began sketching a figure.The more I worked with it, the more it looked like a child figure, so I pushed further in that direction until I had this somewhat innocent child looking out at me. But not entirely innocent. I felt her pose demanded she is holding something and felt the composition needed a round shape, so a balloon seemed right. At this point, I began to get a feel that this character is playing with danger, but innocent and self-assured at the same time. The clouds seemed mysterious and dreamlike, and I wanted to see something in them. So the idea came to add the UFO in there, just barely visible. Playful like a child’s toy spinning top. Then it seemed to be a complete idea. Hybrid child, playful but with a self-assured agenda. The child knew her true identity is hidden in the clouds.
You've mentioned in the past that you have an interest in the UFO phenomenon. How did this come about and how are you implementing this into your art?
I have always been interested in UFOs. I think it was my dad that brought the story of Betty and Barney Hill to the attention of my brother and I. When I was maybe 10, my cousin who was a school principle at the time, suddenly began telling all the relatives gathered there, about a sighting he had with his eight year old daughter. Standing on his front porch, he witnessed a 30 foot (in diameter) disc hovering over the road. The bottom was so shiny it reflected the road on its surface. It hovered silently for a few minutes, then moved off over the trees and disappeared. I was stunned by his candor and seriousness.
In the late 80’s I made a silly documentary with a friend of mine called, What to See and Do Out in Area 51! . We actually went out to Rachel, Nevada on several occasions. I brought my Cannon High 8 video camera, and we got a great pan of the base. That was the highlight of our film. On one occasion, there was a mini UFO conference there and I had the opportunity to get a beer and a talk with Bob Lazar at the bar. Everyone wanted to talk with him as his story was fairly new. He was just beginning to get the harassment from the UFO community, which I never understood. I have always felt that he was the real deal.
I have recently began getting my development work and illustration out in a public way. Not sure what took so long, but from my perspective, it seems like the right time. I have graphic novel concepts for several ideas that I also want to turn into film, animation, live action, and basically, exploring all mediums including music. My passions now involve animal and human welfare and saving the planet through vegan advocacy and exposing the UFO phenomenon. All of which I consider critical to the survival of all earthlings. Animal and human. These will be major themes in much of my upcoming work.
Where can we find out more about the work you do?
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