Marlet's early work for traditional animation didn't include his now trademark textures and patterns, but his keen design sense with strong shapes, charming expressions, rock solid anatomy and winning poses clearly shows in this design for an unproduced adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Cats":
"He was so unique in his solutions that I had a hard time finding other people to emulate it," Dreamworks production designer Raymond Zibach says of Marlet in this Variety Interview "The way Nico designs, he looks at the actual animal and tries to distill down what's there into something that works for the film," Zibach says. "Some of the rules we followed were actually his, like we don't stick necks straight up out of torsos and then put animal heads on the top or it just looks like a guy in a costume. Instead, we have the neck coming forward, so the head and neck and body are really one unit."
Marlet's early designs explored the panda's basic shape -- round curves, stooped neck, heavy belly. "They're very appealing already," Marlet says of the animal. Then he tested the balance of black and white in the bear's face: "Jeffrey didn't want to have too much black." His breakthrough was the bear's brows, which were big and flexible enough to accommodate the full range of Jack Black's expressions -- even though the actor had yet to be cast when Katzenberg signed off on Marlet's approach.
(All Ku Fu Panda images from "The Art of Kung Fu Panda" )
Po shape and pose experimental sketches:
For the supporting cast, Marlet had to juggle multiple considerations. In addition to representing the animals' true natures, the designs had to be flexible enough to reflect their respective fighting styles and distinguish the characters not only from one another but also from animated films that had come before. Tigress reflects a particularly striking solution -- and one of Marlet's favorites.
"I love cats," he says. "They are perfect for kung fu. The way they fight is very elegant and at the same time very powerful, almost like a dance. If you look at different styles of tai chi, they do the same movement very slow and hold the pose." Marlet based Tigress' proportions on actual cats, emphasizing the short hind legs and elongated torso, which posed a challenge for the modelers and riggers accustomed to animating human-shaped characters.
How to Train Your Dragon character designs from "The Art of How to Train Your Dragon."
More of Marlet's designs, along with those of several other artists, from the "How to Train Your Dragon" book: