Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Character Design Part 1: Story and Realism

Story is all about characters. With storytelling, a tree falling alone in the forest does make a sound, because the storyteller told us about it. The third-person omniscient narrator is the main character here, but the tree also plays a leading role. After all, whatever is at the center of action becomes the subject of our empathy. So the tree gets anthropomorphized to become us; it becomes a metaphoric emblem for the rise-and-fall nature of this transient existence, the human condition. We can't help it. Try to tell a story without characters, and they show up in there anyway. As long as we can be cognizant of this fact, we can take charge, as storytellers, and mold our characters to tell the right story; the one we wish to convey. Mold the character, mold the story. Save the cheerleader, save the ... nevermind. Point is, character design. Super important. Concentrate on this one thing, if nothing else, and you will eventually master story.
When you speak of Character Design with a capital CD, you may be referring to the art of designing physical characteristics (root word: character - I'll shut up). But as we’ll see, the physical is wrapped up in the psychological; so much character design can be done with words alone. Take my aforementioned example of the Hobbit (last post). There is perhaps no book in recent history quite so visual, yet there isn’t a picture within! (Okay, a crudely drawn map in the appendix.) It is therefore good practice to write your initial character design – a list of adjectives, perhaps, that describe the physical and cerebral faculties of your character. Often, this exercise will dictate the drawn sketch to follow. A backstory is also a lovely way to kick off the process. Write the character’s hidden shady past, the part that isn’t even going to be in the story, or will be revealed slowly, for this “secret diary’ of the character will color their creation and role in the story, lending much depth to what may otherwise be a rather flat “generic” role. It’s good to do this for every character in the story, even the bit parts, so that it prescribes their motivation. Acting books are good research in preparation for the character development task, as actors are all about motivation. some of the better ones are Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares, Michael Shurtleff’s Audition, and Acting for Animators by Ed Hooks.

After your initial research into character craft from a psychological standpoint, it’s time to get specific. The medium and the message will dictate what TYPE of character is appropriate for your story.

Character Types: The Hierarchy of Realism

Types of character design run from iconic to hyperreal, with full animated cartoons falling about halfway along the scale. Some forms of limited animation from Powerpuff Girls to Ward Kimball/UPA design skew more toward the iconic. The nature of the project will dictate what is appropriate on this scale. Obviously, a thriller would be best served by relatively realistic characters, while a slapstick comedy could benefit from the exaggeration afforded by less realistic, more “toony” styles.
In his seminal effort on the subject, Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud points out the universal appeal of the icon vs. the specificity of hyperreal. The reason the Sunday funnies work so well for such a broad audience is their “everyman” nature - their designs are generic enough to become iconic, symbolic stand-ins for the viewer. We feel connected to the iconic character because we aren’t just a passive audience, but a participant in the action. When Lucy pulls the football away, it is we who fall on our collective back. Charlie Brown is the ultimate everyman. No coincidence that his character design is so elegantly … generic. He’s practically a walking smiley-face, except he’s always frowning.

One last thought on the hierarchy of realism, concerning design for 3D animation in particular. Always avoid the “uncanny valley’, or the area in which an animated character starts to get so realistic it’s unintentionally creepy (here’s lookin’ at you, Polar Express kids!) The concept was introduced by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori in 1970 and has been internalized by the computer gaming industry as an area to avoid. The better CG animation also skillfully avoids the valley – check Brad Bird’s approved designs in the “Incredibles” or “Ratatouille” and you see they intentionally stop short of realism in character design, even though in CG much of the lighting and surface textures tend to be hyperreal. It is possible to carefully land on the other side of the valley, too – look at Gollum or Davey Jones for incredibly realistic CG characters with appeal. Creepy, yes, but an intentional creepiness. Character appeal is the key, and it’s one of Frank and Ollie’s Twelve Principles. Get this right before the animation begins.

Next time: the character design process …

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