In the early 2000s, Pat Giles worked on MTV’s Daria. Then he redesigned Count Chocula.
These days, the 52-year-old animation vet works at a New York City start-up that creates animated emoji stickers.
On a Friday afternoon, Giles gathered seven millennial animators in a conference room tucked behind a ping-pong table. He presented sketches of small mice playing with food — something he had drawn up earlier in the day for one of his latest projects as head of studio at Holler, which creates animated emoji for iMessage, Android, Viber, LinkedIn, and other apps.
Pat Giles (right) discusses sticker sketches with his millennial coworkers during a writers’ room session.
Image: haidee chu/mashable
While the room debated whether the mice would come across as “cute,” like Ratatouille, or “disgusting,” like the city’s , Giles joked that “Stuart Little learned to drive” after seeing that researchers .
Giles’ friends say he looks like a sticker he designed — a blue blob who drops his jaw to the ground when in shock. His face is as animated as you’d expect from someone who leads an emoji studio. He offers Capri-Suns from the office fridge to visitors, and adds “🤓” at the end of his name in his email signature.
Proto Type was the first character Pat Giles, head of studio, created for Holler. His friends say it’s that’s what Giles would look like if he were an animated emoji.
After a little more banter and chit chat, Giles and his team moved on to brainstorming a yeti sticker pack with the start-up’s Japanese audience in mind.
“Have you thought of what kind of personality you want with the yeti yet? What if he’s from a cold area but he’s always cold, like he hates the cold?” asked Richard Munaba, the the team’s editorial researcher.
“That’s actually very relatable, because I also hate the cold,” said Chelsea Saunders, the 24-year-old animator who created the yeti.
A well of ideas for stickers burst from the team. What if the yeti is eating a bowl of ramen but the hard-boiled egg is actually a character and it turns over? (“Awwww,” the room responded in unison.) Would sitting on the cold floor and sipping on green tea make it look content? What if it laughs as it knocks over a snowman’s head?
“A yeti that hates the cold is kind of cute,” Giles chimed in. “It’s got a nice internal conflict to it.”
To Giles, creating a good character is more than about finding the magical combination of colors, shapes, silhouettes, and details. A good character, Giles said, has one of two narrative s: It’s either elatable haracter, or it has elatable onflict. The yeti embodies a relatable conflict.
Wanwan — a man in a dog costume with dramatic, manga-like expressions — is, on the other hand, a reliable companion that reflects the team’s obsession with their 6-year-old office dog Brody. (“He’s like our mascot,” Saunders, who also created Wanwan, told me.)
Wanwan is what Pat Giles call “a reliable companion.” Animator Chelsea Saunders designed it with the Holler’s six-year-old office dog, Brody, in mind.
These “ARCs” are the secret behind many iconic characters. “Spider man has a reliable conflict — he’s a teenager who suddenly has power, he could have saved his uncle but he doesn’t. Batman: ‘You killed my parents!’ Superman: ‘My planet has been destroyed!’” Giles explained to me, doing a different voice for each character. “A really good character has something an audience sees in themselves, a flaw that they too feel, and a conflict that they can relate to.”
From cereal to emoji
When in 1981, Giles, 14, was a fan of all things Hanna-Barbera: Tom and Jerry, The Yogi Bear Show, The Flintstones, Scooby-Doo, etc.
He also loved cereal. Count Chocula — the friendly vampire who represented what was at the time America’s — quickly became Giles’ favorite animated character. Today, Giles can still point to photos of him eating cereal at his childhood home in Flatbush, Brooklyn.
Giles has been illustrating characters since he studied visual arts in college.
“I’m one of the luckiest people ever. Since I had hair on my head I’ve wanted to draw,” Giles told me. He reminisced on his early career as an animator for hit cartoon series that defined the ’90s and 2000s: MTV’s Daria, Cartoon Network’s Kids Next Door, Disney Channel’s Stanley, and more.
“I got lucky early on that people kept paying me for it, so I kept doing it. I never wanted to do anything else.”
Giles said his “dreams kept coming true.” Around 15 years ago, an encounter with the creator of the Honey Nut Cheerios bee offered him the chance to combine his passions for both animation and cereal.
“I remember being in the room and seeing [all the General Mill cereal box characters] lined up on the window sill in Beanie Babies form. And the guy who hired me was like, ‘That’s your job now.’ And I remember — I’m gonna cry now — I remember being like ‘Are you kidding?’” His voice trembled and shrieked with excitement as his told me this.
For about 10 years on and off since 2004, Giles worked for General Mills brands, creating animations for iconic cereal-box characters like Lucky the Leprechaun, the Trix Bunny, and the Honey Nut Cheerios bee.
“When I got to direct Tennessee Tuxedo and Chumley shorts — which were ’60s cartoons produced by General Mills — I was in heaven,” Giles said.
Pat Giles redesigned Count Chocula — his childhood favorite character.
But his redesign of Count Chocula — his childhood favorite — remains his proudest accomplishment to this day. It made him good friends with Frank Zappa’s son, a fellow Count Chocula fan who asked him to help put on a for his father 25 years after he died.
During rehearsals, Gile’s business partner and wife called to tell him she had came across a job listing from Holler. “They are describing you,” Giles recalled her saying. “And as usual, she was completely right.”
Branded animated emoji
Giles joined Holler because he believed the company wanted to “[bring] characters and brands together as pop culture icons, versus standard advertising.”
So far, Giles and his studio have created almost 100 sticker characters — several of which were created for content sponsors such as Snickers, Ikea, Mucinex, and Keurig.
Users have seen Holler’s branded content for Snickers more than 40 million times and have shared them 81,000 times.
A big part of combining brands with pop culture entails creating a character that aligns a brand’s identity with a user’s emotions, Giles said.
Saunders, the animator who created the yeti, also pointed to the idea that Holler’s stickers help express inexplicable emotions and aspirations hidden deep in our psyche.
Her first creation, Simone, represents her alter-ego: a nonchalant woman who speaks and acts with conviction.
“She pretty much embodies everything about how I want to be in social situations,” Saunders said. “I don’t want to be afraid to say no, and so initially I made three different ways for her to say, ‘No.'”
Simone, Chelsea Saunders’ first character for Holler, is an embodiment of her alter-ego.
At their core, Holler’s stickers allow users to represent their emotional self through a fictional character. At their best, they are are unfiltered representations of the people we aspire to be.
But the ability to create characters that embody our vulnerabilities and aspirations should come with social responsibilities — especially when they’re leveraged for commercial purposes as branded content.
After all, advertisers have tapped into consumers’ aspirations and desire for upward mobility for years.
“It’s such a privilege space for a brand to be a part of that intimate space, and we have to be so good at it,” Giles said. “Authenticity is so important. You can spot a mile away somebody who is trying to manipulate your emotions. There’s an emotional component to every brand, and if they’re doing their job right as marketers and they identify that emotion, then in our playground we can do magic with what they got.”
In that sense, Holler’s stickers are much like the cereal box characters Giles revered growing up in the ’70s and ’80s. Count Chocula’s personality was brought to life when the three major networks adopted color TV the year Giles was born. Now, the internet allows brands to communicate through emoji characters, with an added dimension: people can use them share their vulnerabilities and aspirations in text messages. It’s a relationship that, good or bad, will change as technology evolves.