Picture fashion godhead Anna Wintour riding confidently astride an ostrich's bare back. If it's difficult to imagine, there's a workaround: Lisa Hanawalt has already drawn this very idea in her unhinged book, My Dumb Dirty Eyes. Many aspects of the artist's singular style can be summarized in this one image—a preoccupation with wildlife, the subversion of celebrity, and bizarre visual combinations with their own internal logic. It's no coincidence that these themes also describe Netflix's first animated series, BoJack Horseman, since Hanawalt designed its characters as well.
Premiering all at once on August 22, as is Netflix's custom, BoJack takes place in a world where humans co-habit with anthropomorphized animals. (Perusing Hanawalt's portfolio, one can't help sense it's the world she herself would ideally choose to live in.) Will Arnett voices the titular horseman, a sitcom has-been who's had a tough time reconciling that he's no longer kind of a big deal. Aaron Paul, Alison Brie, and Amy Sedaris round out the cast. It's a strange, silly cartoon cocktail, absolutely brimming with interspecies intercourse. Not only is BoJack Netflix's first animated show, though, it's also Hanawalt's first foray out of flat artwork and comics. As everyone involved in the series endeavored to find its tone, the artist also had to figure out how to create with movement in mind, and maybe even sound like she knew what she was talking about.
"I can’t imagine what it was like to have a person with no animation background come in and tell these designers how to draw trees that look more like my goofy way of drawing trees," Hanawalt says. Of course, her goofy trees helped inspire the show in the first place.
BoJack Horseman is a product of the symbiotic mindmeld between the artist and the show's creator, Raphael Bob-Waksberg, a member of the loose comedy collective, Olde English. The two have been friends since high school theater class, where they spent a lot of time imagining ideas for TV shows and riffing on the doodles in Hanawalt's sketchbook. They first worked together on the 2006 webcomic Tip Me Over, Pour Me Out, while he was at Bard and she at UCLA. Years later, it was with Hanawalt’s animal drawings in mind that Bob-Waksberg conceived his original treatment for BoJack.
In 2011, he emailed to let her know that he'd merged her illustrations with his idea for the show, and asked her to be a part of it. She soon found herself working with supervising director Mike Hollingsworth and the animators at production house ShadowMachine to flesh out the looks, backgrounds, and personalities of the characters she'd designed for what would become the pilot episode. In late 2013, the creator sold his show to Netflix and Hanawalt relocated from New York to Los Angeles, and some wildly unfamiliar career territory.
Animating for TV, or in this case, streaming video, involved artistic work on a whole different level. The higher stakes and potentially wider audience cast an ominous shadow over the process of developing characters, but the instincts Hanawalt honed in print served her well.
"I got a few of the characters right on the first try," she says. "Actually, BoJack himself was an effortless design. I just knew immediately what his face looked like, what kind of clothes he wore."
Animals are a Hanawalt specialty. Dogs, horses, and birds abound in her book—often escaping the bounds of their designated kingdom by embodying the traits of people. It’s no wonder that the characters the artist found most difficult were people themselves.
"Humans are generally much trickier to draw because we’re so used to looking at and analyzing human faces," the artist says. "The slightest tweak makes a huge difference in how we perceive that character. Todd [BoJack's roommate, voiced by Aaron Paul] went through dozens of variations before we got him right, and then we changed him even more."
Even after settling on each character's look, though, some unexpected considerations ended up influencing their ultimate design. When the actors were cast, their natural timbres affected the visuals that would go along with them. If an actor had a deep, earthy baritone, for instance, Hanawalt would make the character more cute and cartoony, to counteract it. The opposite happened, as well. She tweaked Stanley Tucci’s character to look slightly more intelligent, so that he’d fit that refined intonation better.
As production continued, Hanawalt became more confident about working with so many moving parts and so many people involved. She got comfortable with making the animators re-draw phone cords 15 times until they lined up with her vision. She also made sure she was able to add eccentric details bearing her specific sense of humor wherever possible, like pictures of random dog butts hanging on the wall of a golden retriever’s house, or a lemur lady with butt cheeks hanging out of her romper.
"I definitely had to adjust to the whole design-by-committee aspect of working on a giant project like this," Hanawalt says, "but I think I have it pretty easy. Netflix didn’t give many design notes and the few things they focused on made perfect sense." She adds, "I don’t feel like I’m compromising my personality or my buttock-based aesthetic."
Making a show for Netflix meant that all episodes had to be ready to deliver at once, so the artist is currently enjoying a reprieve from a punishing production schedule. She hopes to keep working in TV, though, and possibly try her hand at fashion prints and video game design. Nothing is set in stone about what's next. She leaves room for the possibility that she will one day create the destiny hinted at in her art.
"Maybe in 15 years I’ll move to the desert to make ugly pottery and train horses," she says.
Have a look in the slides above to see more images of the characters on BoJack Horseman, including two early sketches.