Sunday, June 22, 2008

Character Design Pt. III: The Message is the Medium

When designing a character, it’s good to have a couple of things in mind. The medium is one of the most obvious: 2D animation? CG? Children’s book illustration? The medium dictates, to some extent, the limitations of what you can get away with (Charlie Brown: the quintessential 2D design. In CG he would appear as a balloon-headed ogre).

It's a well-known fact in the industry that the old Disney designs don't hold up too well in cg, and neither do the old Fleischers.

However, here's an old Disney 'type" that seems well-suited for today's bone-and-skin driven CG characters:

So there’s truth to the idea that not all designs work for all media. It’s good not to overthink this point, though, since it can be a bit restrictive in the first phase of character design. I like to keep the early phase “blue sky,” that is, anything goes, so put the pencil to the paper and don’t mind the media. Adapting to the medium can come at the finesse stage, for the most part.

Sometimes it’s even wise design against the medium. Playing up spiky, sharp lines within the usually soft and curvy CG medium can give your design distinction. This was done to some success in the designs for Open Season and Madagascar, who took the pencil line of 2D into the round for an unusual look.

The other biggy to keep in mind when beginning the process is the degree of realism your message demands. Is your story a slapstick comedy? Maybe something inspired by the “screwball” designs of the forties might be your jumping-off point. Need to evoke pathos? Dig up some scribbly-line Euro-arthouse shorts for a dose of inspiration.

There’s a pretty good breakdown of the major types in Tom Bancroft’s "Creating Characters with Personality."

where he lists the following scale of realism in animated characters:

    • Iconic (UPA to powerpuff girls)
    • Simple(TV/web anim)
    • Broad (Tex Avery)
    • Comedy relief (Disney sidekicks)
    • Lead Character (Aladdin, Ariel)
    • Realistic (Beowulf)

Here are some other random notes about the character design process based on a class I taught at Disney:

Character Design Process

two phases to character design:

  • blue sky development
    • create tons of looses sketches, explore variations on themes, experimentation (trying out different shapes and sizes, substitution of different costumes or physical features)
    • lots of R&D work – literature, studying nature, observing people, surfing the web – pull information from many different sources
  • polishing
    • take an inspired design and refine through a number of the following stages:
    1. “ink” the loose sketch to give it a finished quality
    2. paint the inked sketch to develop one or more color/texture schemes
    3. do pose and expression sheets
    4. do “model sheets" that may include turnarounds, anatomical breakdowns, orthographic views, etc.

Conceptualization and Development

  • 2 Ways to concoct a character:
    • Derived from a plot (normal for film)
    • Whole cloth (no connection to narrative) - good for practice; often leads to story ideas
  • Characters have a reciprocal relationship with story (story drives character design which drives story)

  • methods of development
    • - driven by story
    • - driven by archetype or genre, playing toward or against type
    • - driven by character’s backstory or personality
    • - driven by design factors (color, shape and size)
    • - driven by serendipity (stream of consciousness methods) – good for “whole cloth” designing

  • When designing for a story, ask the big three questions first:
  1. What is the character’s place in the film? (hero, villain, comic foil, etc)
  2. What is the character’s personality?
  3. Are there plot points within the storyline that affect the design? (Dumbo’s ears)

  • Character qualities
    • Type (animal, humanoid, mutant)
    • Scale or relative size
    • Costume/props
    • Color/texture
    • Gender
    • Level of realism
    • Role in story
    • Locomotion

  • Character design can drive overall art design for a work - good to tackle first!


  • Try to build your characters out of a few main basic shapes. This applies to clothing and accessories too. Think about how much you can get across with the least amount of detail.
  • Characters that have been condensed into their essence show up better on the screen anyway, so no matter what medium, traditional or computer animation, simplify your characters to what they really need to express themselves
  • Circles
    • Likable/cute
    • Soft, rounded shapes

  • Triangles
    • Villains
    • angular, sharp angles

  • Squares
    • Solid/Dependable/Wise characters
  • Combine shapes for more complex characters
  • Should be able to break down even the most complex characters to simple shapes – helps to visualize character from any angle (not to mention overall appeal)

Size and Contrast

  • Character’s role will often dictate size

- should the villain be taller than the hero, for more menace?

- should the sidekick be an extreme contrast to the hero (very small like Timothy or very large like Baloo?)

  • Contrast is one of the most important things to consider when designing characters. Often a good idea is to contrast a large bulky character with a small thin one. Or a very young character with a very old one.
  • May help to do a preliminary character lineup (just silhouettes/basic shapes) of entire cast before you begin designing.

Shapes and Proportions

  • It’s all about shapes: only think about cool shapes
  • Balance straights against curves
  • Variety of big/med/small shapes
  • Put down free flowing intuitive strokes (Long strokes important for 2D)
  • Rhythm: create a visual theme with recurring shapes
  • Create a harmony of positive/negative shapes
  • Avoid symmetry
  • PUSH the character - never stop with your first success: take all the same elements and apply variations
Further Reading

For starters, check out Kricfalusi's take on the subject.

Here's the hub of a lot of the cutting-edge character design on the web:

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