Hello Whitney, thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to answer some questions from us here at Toy-Lines.
TL – How did you get involved with toy design?
WP- Toy design was a bit of a happy accident really. I went to school for animation and was offered an internship at Disney Consumer Products in their Character Art department upon graduation. I thought, It’s not exactly what I had in mind, but it’s a foot in the Disney door so I’ll go for it!
Turns out, character art was insanely creative and I learned a ton from the other artists and my amazing mentor, Dorota Kotarba Mendez. (Hi Dorota!)
Once I was there, I was tasked to design new fashions and poses for the Disney Fairies and Princesses. Other teams like publishing and Interactive started to take notice in my new interpretations of the classic characters and it was really encouraging. Of course, these stylings were totally off-model so the toy team thought that I’d be a better fit for them since they do a lot of new stylings for classic brands like Minnie, Princess and Tinkerbell.
I didn’t really know about toys at the time, other than I loved to collect and play with them, so I once again kept an open mind and figured that there was a lot I could learn from this new experience. Toys turned out to be another incredibly awesome yet unexpected opportunity. I stayed with Disney for about 6 years from intern to senior designer until I moved on to freelance and then Nickelodeon Consumer Products which is where I am today! From Snow White to Sponge Bob! Title of my auto biography? Possibly yes!!
TL – What did you study in college to help you with this field?
WP – I studied Digital Media with a focus on character design and concept art for animation at OTIS College of Art + Design. There, we learned about character development, the importance of props, environments, fashions and overall tone for a visual story. When I got into toys, I found that my skill set lent itself really well to the new medium. Environments turn into playsets, characters turn into dolls, fashions turn into costumes, accessories turn into role play items, and color keys turn into Pantone chips! Costing and manufacturing is easy to learn. It takes a lifetime to be a good artist. If you can draw, you can make toys.
At its core, the end goal is always the same: To tell a story and entertain an audience.
TL – I see on your resume you’ve done freelance design for many toy companies like Marvel. Can you tell us what you did for Marvel?
WP – I wish I could, but the concept is still in development. When it comes out though, I’ll let you know. Hehe, sorry!
TL – What is it like being a freelance designer? What’s a day in the life like?
WP- Freelance is a bit of a roller coaster and that’s if you’re good. I was lucky enough to have so many projects and friends in the industry so I was always busy but that didn’t mean it was easy, that just meant that I had the ability to support myself with my art which is really only the first step.
Step two: Being organized and time oriented. Step 3: Becoming your own lawyer. Step 4: Creating great work and fast, and finally, Step 5: Becoming a bounty hunter/Rihanna aka “Getting Paid”. There are a ton of growing pains but once you figure it all out, you’re officially an entrepreneur. High five!! :Smack::
A day in the life is like this: Wake up, check email. Respond to email and go back to bed for another hour. Drink coffee, get pumped, get creative, rest and repeat.
You’ll get a lot of last minute projects that are typically asked for on a Thursday or Friday with a very short deadline, Monday most likely. I would get emails like “hey, we need a whole doll line designed with multiple fashions for five new characters and we need it by Monday. Send an estimate. Bye!!”
I loved it though because I hardly ever had any good weekend plans anyway! Haha!!
TL – What’s the less obvious differences between a freelance designer & one who works for a company? What is a day in the life like for a toy designer?
WP- Sleep. Freelancers never sleep. They tend to spend their mornings brainstorming for their project and then it’s pen to paper (Cintiq) around 3pm which bleeds into the wee hours of the morning! It’s really fun and freeing but if you value your sleep, then maybe freelance isn’t for you. Freelancers also get to work in what they’ve slept in for like 3 days straight and it’s pretty amazing. Haha Pro tip: Make plans with friends to give yourself a reason to shower and interact with other humans. Lol.
All jokes aside, having the freedom to work with everyone on all of these brand new ideas is so energizing, you don’t even really miss sleep. I’d recommend it but it’s best to make contacts in the industry before you jump into the freelance life. You can be the best designer, but if no one knows you or your work ethic, it’s tough to break in. BONUS Step 6: Network. Stalk people on LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram and send them links to your work with nice notes and loose coffee invitations. 😉
Working with a big company is great too! They have the capital to develop something from concept to franchise in about a 2 year time frame. There’s nothing more satisfying than collaborating with a team of brilliant minds to create something that’s going to inspire millions of happy little kids all over the world.
The downside to freelancing is that you’re not with the team, growing the idea over the course of its lifespan.
Someone once said to me “freelancing is like birthing a child and never seeing it grow up” and it’s kind of true. You come up with an idea that you (usually) think is pretty genius and then you just give it away, never really knowing what’s happened to it. It’s a bit of a bummer but eventually when it does surface somewhere you can say, “Hey! I worked on that”!!
TL – How involved are you in your toy designs? Do you get to sculpt?
WP – I have sculpted in the past but nowadays I usually draw up the designs with turns, reference and details for a sculptor to follow and add to. Collaborating with sculptors is usually my favorite part of the toy design process.
TL – What’s it like to see one of your designs go from concept sketch to finished toy?
WP – It’s unreal! There’s literally no better feeling than going somewhere like Toys ‘R’ Us or Target and seeing a bunch of kids running over to your toys and shrieking with delight! I’ve seen it and it fills my heart! I want to jump up and down with them and then ask a million questions like “what’s your favorite part about this toy?” “Who’s your favorite character and why”? Then I realize that that’s super weird and parents usually frown upon strangers berating their kids with questions so I resist haha. In summary: It’s such a cool feeling.
TL – Have any of your designs not made it to completion?
WP – Tons! Like 9 out of 10 designs are scrapped or transform into something new. One of the hardest truths in the toy industry is that you can never fall in love with your ideas. Share them with gusto and trust your gut but at the end of the day, things change and you have to learn how to let go or else you’ll never make it very far. It’s a good practice in life too. Modesty is good. Teamwork is good. Pride is bad. Tacos are great!
TL – Have a lot of your designs made it to completion?
WP – Oh yeah, a bunch! I can’t ever say that any designs are truly “mine” because it takes a village, so to speak, to develop a toy for mass market but many toys on shelves today I’ve worked on from inception and it’s pretty exciting! When I see them out there, I feel like I know all of these behind-the-scenes secrets that no one else knows and I love it. For example, when you work with Disney, they’re really good about involving everyone from the beginning so when Frozen was in development, we (the toy team) were invited to the production milestone meetings to give suggestions on how certain elements could be more “toyetic”.
We never messed with the story, but we would say things like “OOoooh man, an ice castle would make an amazing playset”. Or short black hair might not be great for a doll. How about long light hair to match the snowy color pallet of the film”? The next thing we knew, we got invited back to meet with the directors and see Elsa with that amazing white braid and an insanely gorgeous ice castle. Then, as a gift to the creators and their vision, we gave them gorgeous singing dolls and playsets that look exactly like their designs. Those toys are now in the hands of every little girl, annoying the crap out of all their parents, hahaha. ::Let it gooooo, let it GOOOO!!!!:: I’ll NEVER let go! Haha Sorry (not sorry)!
TL – Can you tell us what a character artist does?
WP – A character artist usually meets with the creator and learns about the character. They read scripts and envision what that character could look like based on just words on paper and their own life experiences. The character artist then starts drawing what he or she has in mind and shares that with the creator again. Next steps are mood boards, character explorations, proportions, fashion iterations, revisions, and color. Some projects are really involved and have a ton of rounds where others are pretty quick and straight forward. It really depends on the creator and what they’re looking for.
TL – You mentioned being a fan of Disney animator Glen Keane. Is there any favorite character’s he’s animated?
WP – ALL!!! Ariel of course is my #1 favorite. Next would be the Beast from Beauty and the Beast. ::spoiler alert:: That final transformation at the end?? HOOoooo man!! Drool worthy. His new animation called “Duet” is really gorgeous and moving on an emotional level. If you haven’t seen it, check it out! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O9CG_PoEWCg
TL – How did you get involved with Disney art? I was in Disney World this summer & saw your items for sale.
WP- Coming from the Disney Character Art team, I had a lot of experience drawing the classic characters so my style was already pretty Disney-ish. I later met someone at Comiccon who asked me if I’d be interested in showing in the Disney Wonderground Gallery. To which I replied “Heck YES!” I’ve been working with them ever since and it’s been great! I’ll be flying back to Disney World and signing at the Downtown Disney Co-Op on December 11-13th. Come back and say hello!
TL – You mention on your site you’ve done background acting for TV shows. Can you tell us which ones?
WP – HAhaha oh yeaaah. Well, I was a hand double on Bones. I fake made-out with a vampire on The Vampire Diaries and I played about 100 games of poker while sipping a colorful mocktail in the show Las Vegas! There were a few others too but those were my favorites.
TL – Your site has designs of what looks like a Maleficent Disney Animator Doll & a Tiki Lounge that fits in well with the Tiki Room theme. Can you tell us about these?
WP – Oooooh your assumptions are incorrect but would be SO AMAZING!!!! I really hope someone reads this and makes both of those things. So the Mal doll was for Jakks and I can’t really say any more about that and the Tiki Lounge was for Disney Fairies. You were really close!
TL – What is the one item you’ve made you’re most proud of?
WP – Hmmmm…. There have been so many wonderful lines I’ve been fortunate enough to work on, but the one that holds a special place in my heart is Disney Fairies. I’m a big fan of pretty floating ladies so Fairies was just SO so much fun for me. Coming up as a close second and possible tie for first would be Shimmer and Shine. Toys hit shelves in just a few months so keep an eye out! They’re going to be sooooo cute!! Fluid lines and pretty little details galore.
TL – What medium do you prefer for design: computers or the more traditional pencil & paints? How does each help & differ when designing toys?
WP – You’re asking a lot of really good questions! Okay so I prefer digital for its convenience and forgiveness but nothing beats traditional pencil to paper. Painting and sculpting too is just so liberating. I love the challenge of filling a page with something beautiful without making any mistakes as if I’m playing some kind of high stakes game, but traditional is more for my own personal enjoyment. Digital is better for professional projects since there are usually a lot of minor tweaks and changes along the way.
TL – If someone wanted to get involved in toy design for a career what advice would you recommend?
WP – Love toys. Love making people happy, Love coming up with creative solutions. If you have a passion for all three, the rest is easy.
Whitney thank you for taking the time out to talk with us. We wish you the best with all that you do.
WP – Thank you so much!
If you’d like to check out Whitney’s website to see some of her designs & artwork follow the link over to her site – http://www.wpollett.com/
The Toy-Lines Crew