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Principles of Film Design with Pixar Expert Dan Holland
Updated 2020-09-20

In an effort to connect eager learners with industry professionals through its “Masters Train Masters” philosophy, The One Academy had invited six renowned creative experts from corners of the world to share their knowledge, insight and inspiration through the Live International Masterclass: Creativity & Design Online Series.

One of the invited presenter was Dan Holland, who has been with Pixar Animation Studios for 17 years as an animator, character designer, production artist, set art director and art director. His extensive experience has led him to conduct teachings and lectures for more than 10 years. With a background in art and film studies, he holds a BFA in Character Animation from the prestigious California Institute of Arts (CalArts). Dan is a seasoned expert in the animation industry, and some of his notable works include The Incredibles, Wall-E, Toy Story 3 & 4, Inside Out, Cars 2 and Up.

In his session titled ‘Principles of Film Design’, he shared with the audience some of the things that he has learned in the many years of working at Pixar as a designer for characters and sets, and as an overall film designer. He explained on the overall principles of film design, specifically character design and set design, as well as his thinking and working processes. According to him, “designing characters is about solving problems in the most entertaining way possible.”

“It’s important to have interests and passions outside of animation and art. If all you use to inspire your animation design is other animation design, your work starts to lose its freshness. Having interests outside of your bubble will help supply you with a constant stream of ideas. It’s actually pretty essential to have interests unrelated to your craft. Find things on the outside of your interests and bring that into your work to keep it fresh,” advised Holland to the students.

He also shared with the audience his ‘Five Principles for Better Design’ – make it personal, always do research, seek artistic honesty, trust your instincts and lastly, it’s not always about the drawing, but rather the idea. By making it personal, an artist lets their own personal experiences and things they personally care about ‘flavour’ their design work.

He learned quickly at Pixar that one cannot do too much research. No matter how much one thinks they already know about something, it’s never enough. “Not doing your research is cheating the audience out of how great your art can be,” he iterated. Seeking artistic honesty is about getting to the heart of what really matters and portraying in in their work. Drawing or designing the way something feels is more important than capturing the way it looks.

By trusting one’s instincts, they let their instincts become the guide as to what feels important to communicate. Self-doubt is a healthy part to wanting to learn more – doubt yourself while knowing you can and will seek to improve. Rather than a nice drawing, design is about the cleverness, entertainment value and finding the thing that matters. He advised students to prioritise not only their best works in their portfolios, but also include the ability to show the way they think.


[The One Academy of Communication Design was established in 1991 with the aim of promoting the region as the world’s center of creative reference. Strategically located in the thriving creative hub of Bandar Sunway, Selangor, with a branch in Georgetown, Penang, The One Academy is today a top notch leading international institute in art, design and creative multimedia, renowned with graduates who steer successful careers in creative capitals worldwide. The courses offered are Digital Media Design, Digital Animation with Game Development, Film Visual Effects, Illustration, Movie & Game Art, Advertising & Graphic Design, Interior Design, Paris Fashion Design & Pattern Making and Fine Arts.]