Kvalheim’s World of Animated Characters
As we’ve written about in previous Tangents posts, Trig Innovation added animation services to its product design and marketing repertoire last year. Our team of industrial designers has quickly picked up strong skills in creating animated videos that tell the story of a product's beauty and benefits to the customer. We have found enormous value in these product animations as a way to tell their story more effectively than our traditional tools of sketching, Photoshop renderings, and even 3D CAD-driven photorealistic renderings.
Recently, a client came to us with an expanded set of needs in the animation space. We were asked to create human characters to help tell the product's story. Our client has grown through committing to building a premium brand and product line that delivers on that promise. These characters would need to enhance an already phenomenal brand and required an outstanding character designer to bring them to life.
Cue Lauren Kvalheim.
We reached out to Lauren, a talented young animator in San Francisco, to guide us through the world of characters, and we couldn’t have made a better choice. We recently sat down with Lauren for a short interview, to capture what makes her approach to this work so special, in addition to the fact that she’s watched Toy Story possibly over a hundred times and had a collection of stuffed animals who were all afraid of the dark.
Tangents: When did you first find your interest in animation and characters?
Lauren Kvalheim: “I’ve always been drawn to characters, since I was a very small child. It always seemed quite natural for me to personify objects. For instance, where others see a trashcan, I can see that individual trashcan’s personality and character—all trashcans, like people, have different personalities! And I was drawn to animation very early on in my life—animation is simply the format that I think best conveys the characters that I see in almost everything.
“I’ve always been very close with my sister and brother, and we did our first animation work together when I was in early grade school. We spent many rainy afternoons arranging things like stuffed animals and Play-Doh into various positions, shooting them with our video camera, moving them into different positions, and then shooting them again. Basically, we were doing stop-motion animation together, and it was thrilling.”
Tangents: So when did you push this rainy-day pastime into a more serious priority?
Lauren Kvalheim: “In high school, I continued to explore animation and art, and I became quite torn over my passion for characters and storytelling and also my love for animals. I remember telling my dad that I was having a hard time choosing between two very different worlds—the creative world and the world of veterinary medicine. At the time, I was leaning towards animation and his response was, half pleading, ‘Can you be an artistic veterinarian?’ Obviously, I pursued the animation route, but I realize that without the support and encouragement of my parents and family, I would have been a very different person than I am today. Interestingly enough, creatures and animals are still my favorite type of character to animate.”
Tangents: Tell us about your technical training in animation.
Lauren Kvalheim: “I chose Smith College, an East Coast liberal arts school for women, because I was drawn to the idea of a well-rounded art-based education as well as the facilities that enabled the individual to actively do great work as opposed to simply theorizing about it. In that way, Smith was a great fit.
“Both Smith and the school where I did my graduate work, San Francisco’s Academy of Art University, are places for motivated individuals—people who are self-starters to the highest degree. They’re the kinds of places where, if you know what you want to do, you don’t wait for somebody else to give you permission or motivation. Smith is a self-selecting student body and, frequently, when a large number of driven people come together, the educational environment challenges itself to be better.
“I chose to major in studio art and computer science, since so much of the work in animation had been migrating to computer-generated pieces. Forcing myself to learn computer scripting really helped me to think in a more linear fashion, so that I could really maintain a sharp creative focus with the end product in mind.
“My time at the Academy of Art University was equally thrilling, since I was able to focus on 3D character animation for my master’s degree in fine arts. The great thing about this school is that everybody learns from industry professionals from the iconic studios like Industrial Light and Magic and Pixar. The teachers all have a different style, and the coursework, as well as their expectations of the students, really changed like the wind according to each professor’s style and professional experience.”
Tangents: What kinds of work have you found most interesting in your professional career?
Lauren Kvalheim: “Really, it boils down to the fact that my real passion is for creative problem-solving, which manifests itself as a driver for many types of work that I find engaging. And I don’t have a real preference for medium, as long as the demand for my services involves a story, characters, and some kind of visual element. I’ll give you some examples.
“Recently, I’ve been doing some very cool work with a company here in the Bay Area, Visualink Creative. They help companies visualize corporate strategies across the board, and I’ve been working with them on using basic animation and motion graphics as a neat way to showcase new strategic initiatives for Visualink’s client companies. It’s great to see them taking people way beyond the old PowerPoint/Excel framework—when people can properly visualize what a company is articulating as its strategic vision, after all, great things can happen.
“I also recently spearheaded the publishing of a graphic novel anthology that features not only my work, but also some incredible pieces by 17 Bay Area artists, and I’ve also been working on an app for mobile devices in my spare time with a close friend of mine, just for the fun of exploring that medium, really.”
Tangents: What do you see as the ultimate direction for your animation work?
Laurent Kvalheim: “Ultimately, I think that I would get the greatest fulfillment from working at an independent or major studio, such as Dreamworks, Disney, Weta, Laika, and many, many others. These studios are the R&D labs for the animation space because they draw some of the most talented and creative individuals in the world, and I would love to work beside them.
This type of work appeals to my problem-solving skills on a much higher level too. For a feature-length film, for instance, story artists typically work two to three years just storyboarding. That’s an incredible mountain to climb, even before you think about things like all of the environments, character designs, voice-casting, and whatnot. It’s really incredible to think about the complexity of it all which I’ve really started to appreciate while working on animated shorts in graduate school.”
Tangents: Thanks for your time, Lauren.
Lauren Kvalheim: “I appreciate everybody at Trig, especially Ty Hagler and Patrick Murphy, for choosing to collaborate with me on this project. We’ve had a lot of fun, and they are both really great communicators of what the client needs and what we aspire to deliver together. I feel very grateful to be a part of it.”