The Animated GIF Series That Is Changing The Way The World Views Its Architecture

Character building is one way you could describe freelance animator, Michael Lester’s, career: from swapping his Fine Art’s degree for one in Illustration, landing an internship in Paris at Ogilvy & Mather where he was then offered a full time job, and moving to London to set up his own freelance business. However, Character Building, is also the name of his latest project: a quirky and colourful take on landmarks around the world which have created a real buzz all over the internet.

Burj Al Ara


Eureka Tower

As humans we are often guilty of attributing personality to inanimate objects: as children, we treasure our teddy’s and dolls like a mother does her new born, and as adults we may treat our cars’ as if they are part of the family. Michael’s playful GIFS do the same for famous structures: using the architectural structure to shape individual personalities. “For example,” he explains, “Eureka tower’s strange iconic red strip became its tongue as it teased about being the tallest building in Melbourne.”

The results are both endearing and captivatingly human: the great bitexco financial tower in Ho Chi Minh City seems perplexed as he bats away the irritating buzz of a helicopter and the lethargic Leadenhall building in London takes an afternoon nap against the lifts.

Marina Bay Sands

Petronas Towers

People all over social media have delighted in seeing their cities favourite landmarks brought to life and the series has ignited excitement in those about to travel to a featured destination. Michael’s clever use of bold colours to create simple yet detailed animated GIFS has even caught the attention of tourist boards. It is hard not to fall in love with the innocence of the series, it’s inventiveness and it’s ability to irreversibly transform our perspectives on architecture.

Brasilia Airport

Kingdom Centre

We caught up with the animator to talk colour, character and career.

The Plus: What was the inspiration behind the series?
Michael Lester:
Back during my last year of university I made a piece of work for a competition with HTC. It was to advertise their new feature ‘HTC Zoe’ which brings your phone’s gallery to life. I struggled for a few weeks before ditching everything I did about a week before the deadline and instead drew a tiny sketch of the Tate Modern as a little character with the tag line ‘A Gallery That’s Alive’. I won the competition and had my work on double decker sized billboards in East London. About a year later I kept coming back to it and thinking how great it would be to do a series and started brainstorming ideas on how this could be taken to the next level.

Michael Lester1
Michael Lester2

TP: What is the creative process for each image?
From the start I wanted it to be more than just adding eyes and hands to famous buildings. You’ll notice the list of 20 isn’t the ‘world’s most famous buildings’ list, the idea was to choose buildings that had these strange or iconic forms and for the character designs to shed some light in a witty way as to why they looked the way they did.
The project started with a massive Google search of famous, weird, iconic buildings and structures, spending a few minutes sketching out ones that caught my eye to see if they could work. I started out with around 50 tiny sketches, most of which would never make the final cut. The next stage was to write the stories and this could go either way – The story might have written itself from the sketch, or I might have had to think of a story which in turn sparked an idea of how to approach the character.

Michael Lester

Once I had all the sketches I started illustrating them. I actually made all of the 20 illustrations in a completely different style to how they ended up! I had almost finished everything and had this niggling feeling that by making them overly detailed they weren’t simple enough. The initial idea was simple – buildings brought to life – so I wanted that idea to shine through and somehow I was making it more complicated so I completely axed everything! All 20 designs were thrown away and I started again. That’s the great thing about personal projects there’s no deadline or anyone telling you which direction to go so if you have the patience don’t be afraid to start over. For me, it turned out to be the right decision!

Camp Nou

TP: Ships are often referred to as ‘she’, did you naturally see the characters in buildings?
In terms of gender I wanted to keep it neutral and let the characters just be themselves. In terms of their personas, some of the buildings were very obvious (Tomorrow Square) and didn’t need much work on my part and others I had to have a think about and once it clicked I couldn’t unsee it (Portland Building). This is the great thing about a project like this you can actually change people’s perceptions, I read a Facebook comment from someone who said she’ll never see the Portland Building without a book from now on. That’s the power of visual communication!

One Central Park

TP: The collection is very playful and colourful, how does it compare to your other work?
Ay university, I had a problem with colour, I just couldn’t use it – so most of my work for the first 2 years of my degree was very monochromatic. It was strange to me because I loved colourful things, my biggest obsession is Brazilian culture so I knew I wanted to introduce colour. It took a few years to find my own way of using colour but I’m really happy with colour in my work now. This project is my most playful and the interaction with it has been brilliant: people are sharing the buildings from their own cities, tagging friends and even tourism boards have been getting involved.

Bitexco Financial Tower

TP: What’s next for you?
I have opened a shop to coincide with the project which stocks A3 Posters of all 20 designs from Character Building. The plan is to expand on this when I return. I also have this idea for an animated short that I’ve been sitting on for a good few years. I want to get the ball rolling with the production of that too. So yes, I’m a bit all over the place still with direction but I wouldn’t want it any other way. I am also going travelling for three and a half months around the world and am going to focus on doing some writing on my travels. I have an Evernote account full of unpublished ideas, blog posts, articles, advice etc so the idea is to set some sort of outlet for all these and keep it going while travelling. When I return I will be rebranding my website into more of a ‘studio.

Coltejer Building

TP: What is your artistic background and how did you build your freelance business?
I drew from a really young age, as a kid my Dad would draw me Looney Tunes and Disney characters over night while I was sleeping and I’d wake up to find these amazing drawings on the kitchen table, it was like magic and it got me hooked. I spent most of junior and high school drawing caricatures of famous people (not very successfully) and went on to college to study art and design. I made the decision to study Illustration instead of Fine Art and it’s the best decision I ever made, I spent the 3 years at university transitioning from my fine art days and hand drawing to an approach more aligned with graphic design.

When setting up my own freelance business, I found growing my online presence was vital as so much work has come in from clients seeing my work on Twitter, Behance and through big blogs featuring my work like Adweek, Design Taxi and Fast Company. Persistence and quality of work are the two main factors, make great work and keep it up.

Portland Building

Scandic Seilet

High Cliff

Ryugyong Hotel

Lokhandwala Minerva

Wembley Stadium


Tomorrow Square

The Leadenhall Building