Lisa Hanawalt Riding High With Netflix's Animated 'BoJack Horseman'

“Back in the ‘90s I was in a very famous TV show ...”

If those words have been running through your head after binge-watching BoJack Horseman on Netflix, you aren’t alone. Created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg and featuring the voices of Will Arnett, Amy Sedaris, Paul F. Tompkins and Alison Brie, the animated series has been a hit for the streaming service and was quickly renewed for a second season. One reason is its unique combination of absurd humor, gross-out gags, celebrity satire and visual humor in a story that’s ultimately a dark character study. It’s able to combine those elements so well in part because of production designer Lisa Hanawalt.

Long a favorite for her work in publications like Vice and Lucky Peach and in her debut collection My Dirty Dumb Eyes, Hanawalt hasn’t given up comics for Hollywood. In addition to BoJack, the cartoonist is slowly assembling a new book from Drawn and Quarterly, Hot Dog Taste Test, and on her blog has been posting pages of a long-form graphic novel Coyote Doggirl.

If that weren’t enough, Hanawalt also co-hosts the podcast “Baby Geniuses,” which is part of the Maximum Fun Network. She spoke recently with SPINOFF about the show, and explains what a production designer does.

Spinoff: How did you get involved with BoJack Horseman?

Lisa Hanawalt: When he first pitched BoJack, my good friend Raphael included some of my drawings with his treatment. Then the Tornante Company decided to develop it and they were kind enough to offer me a position as a designer/concept artist (long before I thought I could handle doing a job like this). I designed 10 original characters to start, then a year later I worked with animators at Shadowmachine and art directed the backgrounds/created additional characters for our pilot presentation, a ten-minute short.

I remember when it was announced that you were working on this show, my first thought was, well that’s perfect. As anyone who has seen your work or has read My Dirty Dumb Eyes knows, you like horses. Also you’re very good at drawing weird hybrid animals creatures. It seemed like a perfect fit.

Thank you! I think Raphael wanted to do a project featuring my animal hybrids for a long time, so I’m glad this finally came together!

I’m sure you’ve likely been asked this previously – or possibly often – but what exactly does the production designer do?

Here's what I spend my time doing:

  • Sketch out what all the characters look like and design their outfits, usually only drawing one pose to start. I show these to Raphael and the executive producers, then I change my designs in response to their notes until all of us are happy. Occasionally I have to incorporate additional notes from Netflix but that’s pretty rare!
  • Our character designers flesh out all the necessary poses, draw mouths, add textures, make the characters functional for animation, and bring their own flair and talent to the drawings. I oversee and make little notes on these.
  • Art direct the backgrounds and pick out furniture, colors, etc., and pretend to be an interior decorator.
  • Make up a lot of paintings and billboards and generally whenever there’s time I add in details that I think will make things more funny/interesting/pretty.
  • Do a bunch of other little things related to visuals: I designed the title/logo, I have a hand in approving/improving our marketing images, sometimes I help figure out how to make the office look exciting before actors come in for a table read.

Talk about the process of working on an episode. How do things work, and where are you in the process?

Right now I’m working on character designs for episodes 1, 2, 3 and moving into 4, all concurrently, and art directing/adding detail to backgrounds for episodes 1 and 2. I read the scripts first, then discuss with Raphael and usually start working on the characters that excite me the most (animals and weird-looking people are my favorites). Today I designed a bunch of paintings to jazz up some interiors. One background wasn’t quite working so I went back and forth with the designer until we spruced up a chandelier, which weirdly made a huge difference.

Had you worked in animation before this or is this your first time working on a show?

This is my first time. I learned a ton while working on the pilot and I’m still learning. Just today I was informed that certain colors won’t really work on broadcast television, and I had to tone some neons down. I really owe the supervising director Mike Hollingsworth for not only being a walking animation encyclopedia but very patiently imparting tidbits of knowledge to me.

The show is a weird cartoon about animal hybrids (or whatever you want to call them), but it’s also a dark character study. To what degree does that aspect, and the way the tone shifts, affect what you do?

I spend a lot of time with these characters in my head and I care about them; I really think about their motivations for dressing in certain ways. I think about when BoJack is trying hard versus when he doesn’t give a shit, and that mood has a huge impact on his outfit and even the way he decorates his home.

This is definitely a universe where everyone has an unnaturally strong interest in fashion and fine art, just because that’s more fun for me.

Do you have a favorite character or design?

I like the grosser characters who end up being kind of cute. The frogs (Charley and his father, Mr. Witherspoon), Bob Maggot, Quentin Tarantulino, Virgil Van Cleef, I’m really proud of Sextina Aquafina. Anything that makes people scream and laugh when they come into my office to approve designs. Even the “attractive” characters should be a little weird or gross, I think.

Episode 11 was a really interesting episode, and there were a lot of really interesting artistic and design choices involved in assembling it. I don’t know how much you can say or want to say, but I’m curious to what degree those choices were in the script or how much was left you to you and the designers.

I wish I had a more interesting answer, but it's tricky to pluck apart how much of the episode was script, storyboards and design. Maybe equal amounts of all three? It was a complicated episode and we saved up a bunch of extra time and effort to tackle it. I was focused on certain things, like making sure Charlotte and Harper were heartbreakingly cute designs, and making that cabin in Maine look extra cozy by using textiles and details from my own family's cabin.

My way of making the show as good as possible is thinking about everything a lot and finding ways to make it feel more personal, whether that's through humor or just color choice.

Is there a small detail that no one seems to have noticed or commented on that you’re really proud of?

I'm astonished at how much people have noticed. They really picked out everything! I'm proud of lots of the paintings (and parodies of famous art). That Hockney painting in BoJack's office was one of the first things I sketched out.

I wanted to ask some non-animated questions. You’ve been posting pages for more than a year of Coyote Doggirl. I’m not sure how to describe other than to say it’s Lisa Hanawalt doing a Western, but could you talk a little about what it is and where you’re going with it.

Coyote Doggirl is my most personal project, and that’s likely why it’s going so slowly, I’m being way too precious with it! I intend for it to go to some dark, emotional places and I have a whole long arc written out.

It feels good to work on something that isn’t overtly comedic, but ends up having a funny tone to it. I also like working on a thing intended for a small, indie comics-loving audience, just as a contrast to BoJack.

You also drew the cover to Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals by Patricia Lockwood. You’ve drawn the covers for both of her books, and I’m just curious what you like about her work because it feels as though you two have similar sensibilities.

I laugh every time I read a Patricia Lockwood tweet, and her poems make me cry. Her emails are just as impeccable. I feel as close to her as I can possibly be to a person I’ve never met face to face. I’m just in love with how her brain works.

You’re busy with the show, but are you still working on Hot Dog Taste Test?

I’m slowly but surely working on Hot Dog Taste Test! It’s my second book for D&Q, it’s loosely food-themed, and it will collect the work I’ve been doing for Lucky Peach magazine (in addition to other comics and things). It’s a great excuse for me to go out and do interesting things like swim with otters and hang out with Wylie Dufresne. I don’t think there will be any recipes – and if there are, they definitely won’t taste good.

I don’t want you to spoil anything – and I’m sure you aren’t allowed to – but is there anything you’ve been working on in the new season of BoJack that you’re really excited about?

I can't say much, but people who loved BoJack for the darkness and sadness won't be disappointed! And people who loved BoJack for the super-silly humor also won't be disappointed!

Bloodborne #15

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