Thursday, August 30, 2007

Character Design 2: Primer

What makes good character designs for animation? This is a difficult subject. The real answer is a talented character designer who understands character. No amount of abstract ingredients can make an artist into a designer if he doesn't have the gift. You can learn technical skills in art, but some talents are so rare that you just either have them or you don't.

Not every great animator is a good designer. In fact, hardly any are. Many cartoon characters just evolved into designs from generic beginnings.If, however you do have the rare gift of design, and you are an animator who understands character then you might be aided in having a discussion started. I say a discussion, because this is such an abstract concept and I've never read anything myself on the subject, so I'm trying to figure it out as we go.

Design itself - in any medium requires purely an aesthetic sense of balance of pleasing shapes or forms. But there are many different occupations that require design and each has its own special requirements. It is a common belief that design must follow function and I'm a believer in this axiom.

An architect doesn't set out to make a building that has a distinct funny personality. He makes a building that first will stand up, and second have a look that matches what the building is to be used for. If he has taste, he will add that on top of the functional aspects of making buildings.

1 Functional
Form - construction:
An animated cartoon character benefits the animator greatly if it has an understandable, mostly logical form.This giant is not really a design. It is a bunch of stock animation forms put together in proportions that suggest a large character. It is strictly functional for animation.

We have to be able to move the forms around in space and if the forms don't work from different angles, are sloppily constructed, the animation is wobbly and unstable - unless we use cheats to get from one disconnected mess of details to the next.

There is a reason that classic animation evolved into simple sensible forms. To make something move you have to draw lots and lots of drawings, so you have less time to spend on details.

Also, the more details you have, the harder it is to control them as they turn around in space.
The more corners and planes you have in your design, the harder it will be to control them in motion.

When a complicated head turns, all the planes and details will shift positions on the head and make the character seem like he is melting.

Can Be Moved Easily
If your characters are designed for function, then your animators will have an easier time doing their jobs.

But being merely functional is not enough to me, to be a character design.
Animation design, because of its need to be functional and easy to move, has a long history of being generic and repetitive in design.
Character design can benefit from some other ingredients.

2 Aesthetic
Pleasing Balance Of Shapes
Some artists, like Craig Kellman have a natural affinity for styles and shapes. They have pure design eyes.
Gene Hazelton took a generic cartoon Baby structure and used his good eye for balance to compose the features in a pleasing way. He also drew the details with a nice combination of curves and corners. Pebbles is not really a design. She's too generic, but Gene applied a lot of style to these drawings to make it look more like it has a design. Gene has designed some very distinct characters though. Here he is pleasing Joe Barbera, who liked conservative shapes.

A talented stylist can make a generic design look much more pleasing. Style is different than design.Chuck Jones has a natural eye for pleasing shapes and forms. He understands construction and in some of his designs, used strong contrasts of forms, shapes and proportions to create animatable, yet distinct and beaitifully balanced and designed characters.
Irv Spence too.
Tom Oreb

Note that these designs are more designs than they are characters. They look good, but don't say a lot about the personalities of the characters-with the exception of Wile E. Coyote.

The more graphic a character is, generally the less it is a character and the more it is a symbol. That's why I think designy characters work best in commercials and ultra short cartoons, where the emphasis is not on story or personality. There are exceptions of course.Ed Benedict

Character designs that are true characters and not just good looking objects with faces, need other traits.

3 Distinct From Other Characters - Recognizable
As I said, many cartoons are designed generically-that is using either non-distinct shapes like circles and ovals, or taking one type of design that might have had some specificity at one time, but after being copied and re-used over and over again has become generic - like the hook nosed mustachioed villain.

Here are a couple model sheets where the characters are still based on classic animation construction, but either the shapes themselves or the details of the features have enough variations to make the characters not look perfectly generic.

If you want your character to have distinct traits, he or she will have to contrast against the other characters. Your characters should be made out of different combinations of shapes, proportions and details.

4 Personality
This is probably the hardest and most important element to get into a graphic design for animation. Personality is contributed by so many creative people on the team-the voice actors, the storyboard artists, the animators, the director...but the designer can suggest personality just by how the character looks, before you know anything else about him.

Here is a generic character being frightened by a specific character.

This is the kind of design I gravitate most towards, and it's why I prefer Ed Benedict over say, Tom Oreb. Ed's characters suggest living beings. You know something about them right away just by how they look. Some designers create purely for aesthetic pleasure, and that has its place too - but not in character-driven cartoons.

A lot of times, my own characters come out of random doodles I scribbled out on a bus or at dinner on a napkin. If I find a scribble that makes me think of a personality. Then I develop it further.

5 Originality

It's hard to think of many animated characters that are super original. Most evolve from previous characters. The more distinct they look, the more "original" they are. If they are generic, or they look just like another character you've seen before then they are not very original.

Here are two very distinct characters. I'll try to think of more.

Madame Medusa is pretty distinct, but only one human in history could have animated her! Lots of people have imitated bits of what she looks like and how she moves since.

Here are some characters that have none of the 5 properties above that I think make up good character design.1 Not Functional
2 Not Aesthetic
3 Not Distinct
4 No Personality
5 Not Original

There is lots more to say about character design. I'll go into more detail about each of the ingredients I've listed here in further posts.


Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Fascinating! Good character design is more than just good design. It's good, animatable, actable design combined with charisma and an interesting point of view.

It also has to enthuse everybody who works on the character. It has to inspire them to do their best work.

Ryan G. said...

Great post John! I agree that its hard to teach character design. I had a character design class at AI in Chicago. One of the methods they taught us was to:
1. Pick an animal
2. Pick an occupation
3. Pick an adjective/descriptive word or emotion.

So you could have a gullible rabbit doctor or a fat rapper squirrel.
It may be alright for brainstorming quick ideas for characters but it dosent really teach anything about conveying these traits to a physical form..

Zam3d said...

Hey, the Male indian from the Pocahontas pic is in fact original! He has cubic nipples!

Anonymous said...

is probably the one area that I struggle the most, Mr. Kricfalusi.

I usually try to AVOID getting my ideas for personalities, design, and the like, from pre existing characters from cartoons & TV shows, and go towards getting them from my own observations and surroundings; one such example, was a fat, obnoxious Asian-Indian woman I posted in the comments a few discussions ago.

But somehow, I'm still struggling to make an even mildly interesting character. If you can, please help me chief. HEEELLLLPPPP!

(P.S., I tried that recipe for the Cartoonist burger that Eddie posted not too long ago, and it was, pardon my language, fucking delicious.)

toon_monkey said...

goddamn with the Shrek character...i just tossed my cookies. in one interview john, you talked about ugly characters in disney hunchback, disney wouldn't possibly allow the ugly character to get the girl---because he's ugly. the shrek girl reminded me that the only way shrek could get the girl was if the girl was ugly, too. isn't that weird??? to correct this trend, sodie and jimmy should have children...that's a series.... some of the kids are like jimmy and others are like sodie....

Kali Fontecchio said...

Thanks!!! This is an invaluable post!!

Rob said...

Awesome post John! I love the spumco splash page.

I'm going to animate Ralph. I cracked up when I saw him. Do you have any more drawings of him?

Joe Henderson said...

WOW!!! Great post John. Thanks

Paul said...

Mr. Kricfalusi,
I hope I'm not too off topic, but I've been thinking about character design from a voice artist's perspective. When I listen to distinct characters that aren't mere copies of previous cartoon cliches, I get inspired. For example - Popeye, Stimpy, Porky Pig, Felix the Cat (from The Twisted Tales of Felix, specifically the Thom Adcox-Hernandez voiced Felix).

The problem is, the old cliches start coming back into my head when I want to develop a specific character of my own. For example - Lon Chaney Jr. in Of Mice and Men, the thousands of second rate copies of Daws Butler's Elroy Jetson, celebrities who read lines for Disney.

I've started watching movies of distinct personalities to try to "reset" my brain, movies like The Maltese Falcon, the old James Bond movies (which are basically live action cartoons featuring diverse weirdies. I love Donald Pleasance!), and even silent films like Metropolis and The Unholy Three to get my body freed up to make my dialogue more alive.

Is there anything you can suggest I do? How to scrutinize other actors, but still develop my own voice?

harpo said...

Best post ever!

Callum said...

This has to be one of the most useful and interesting posts you've ever done-Perhaps I'm just saying that as it's timed to perfection with what I've decided to do (See my blog, basically I'm re-learning everything I know.)
Have you ever written any of this down? You should try to get some of this in print, I'm sure many people would buy it, and it'd be more mainstream than a blog, so more people could be influenced by it. Having said that, it also costs a lot more than a blog... anyhoo, keep up the fascinating work!

Dagan Moriarty said...

That 'Oreb' fox is an absolute work

That 'Spumco' character page is also lovely! Some real greats on there!

Mellanumi said...


A little confused here to some extent ... I think I know what you're saying if it's something I think I've said ...

The subject taps into the idea of new: A character can break the traditions of animation, and incorporate the latest, most transgressive principles that disregard the status quo. However, that doesn't guarantee that the character will have "character" or personality.

In the same way, that Ikea furniture is minimalistic, functional, and trendy, but it lacks character -- like the kind you can find in an old beat up wooden toilet seat.

In most instances, character supercedes know-how. Think of comic timing like Flip Wilson or Moms Mably, funny just by personality alone, with or without jokes.

Then their character becomes closely associate with a style in so much as it differs from the norm.

Marty said...

Hey John. Any tips on how we can use the real people that we know to influence our characters? I always come across such bizzare and unique people in everyday life (I work in the wonderful world of retail, its a zoo out there!) but i'm not always sure where to start when it comes to translate these complex personalities into a character. I would love to turn on the TV one day and see some characters that are even half as interesting as some of the people I have met in my life.

pappy d said...


I have one petty quibble with this excellent post. A complex character design can turn in space if it's designed volumetrically. This is one thing that pisses me off about the term, 2D for traditional animation. Since the advent of CG movies, hand-drawn productions have been making a fetish of 2-dimensionality, still expecting to move in perspective & do slow head turns.

Granted, nobody wants a complicated character. However complex the design, it needs to be as simple as possible.

Anything that doesn't add will tend to detract.

Fred Flintstone is a graphically simple character, but he can't turn his head slower than 8 frames. The middle key is typically a squashed blink. His forelock drags & then snaps over to the other side of his head so that he's always presenting the part in his hair towards camera.

Your point about distinct & recognisable characters brings to mind the over-arching principle of contrast. Bill Tytla used to say: "Animation is about stretch & squash, everything else is implied". I'd go as far as to say that contrast is the 1st principle because it implies even stretch & squash as well as anticipation, action & reaction.

ryan g.:

Your instructor left out the most important part: VERBS

This is animation design we're talking about here. They have to DO stuff; move & express emotion, hopefully in a unique way.

In a big studio, the character leads get to work out the ruff designs in animation to test their functionality. This is an ideal way to work. A character evolves like animals in nature (pace, creationists, it's an analogy).

Form & function are like the chicken & the egg. Form follows function follows form follows function over & over until they work together. Animals who might look good but move ineffectively will die off. They'll be eaten or they won't eat. Animals who "work well" integrate form & function. You can tell if it's a cat or a dog running past from the corner of your eye because the movement is unique to the species & dictated by their construction.

Bobby Pontillas said...

Great insightful post!

I never noticed the pot leaf on Popeyes hat before!

angello ///// said...

Este post si que sirve!!!


John said...

Tony Millionaire has some really interesting characters he designed for his comics but you can’t really tell their personalities just by looking at them. After all His main character is Drinky Crow an adorable little crow who looks innocent at first glance but is actually a violent drunk. I see what your saying but I do think you need more than just the design of the character alone to get their personality across.

Aar!! said...

what a convenient post, thanks! also, i had to go back and have another look at the "dad" drawing; he was hilarious in the show but i never noticed it was because of good character design until now. before, i was just crediting the voice acting and sound effects!

Brian B said...

This is one of your best posts ever. Very nice.

Rob said...

Hey John-

I animated your character "Ralph." Check it out here:

andrewdmortlock said...

nose-hat!? hahahaha is he in any cartoons?

Dan! said...

Popeye and Betty Boop are so original looking, but dang! Those Pocahontas and Scooby-Doo characters are bland as hell, especially after seeing those other good examples above. I don't get why kids like Scooby-Doo. I worked at a summer camp and it wasn't uncommon for me to hear kids say Scooby-Doo is their favorite cartoon and for me to see kids with Scooby-Doo backpacks and lunchboxes.

A thing that seems to happen often with character design is only one character will be created and is used as the template for the rest of the cast of characters. Simpsons has a huge cast of characters but they're not all too different from eachother- they all have the same buggy eyes, nose, and upper lip for the most part. Anime is a much bigger culprit though. I always thought it'd be an interesting challenge to have someone create a cast of anime style characters who are all bald, wear the same thing, and not colored. It'd probably have to be a show about clones.

What was the Madagascar image there for, by the way? Was that a bad example? I remember you talking about generic lion designs in a previous post.

XKIRA said...

Destinct designers you don't mention much from the comic-book dungeon:

Richard Corben
Steve Ditko
R Crumb
Bill Waterson
Enki Bilal

Now I'm not sure if you could employ similar concepts in animation, because there is either too much design or too much detail, or these artists make you wince who knows.

XKIRA said...

Arr I missed the comix post before that don martin post. But what about the other 4 (other than ditko)?

Raff said...

My favorite subject! (Which I keep flunking!)

To me it's all about the elusive life quality.

The best characters on this post, including a handful of your contributions, are are practically alive. They could just pop off the page and you'd love to meet them personally.

In "A Visit To Anthony", I remember that scene in which Ren and Stimpy are in Anthony's bed and he says "You guys are are my best friends" or something. And I realised, it's true - when I was a kid, I wished my favorite cartoon characters were real and I could have them as friends.

That's probably a good start, this notion that the characters are or will actually exist, superstar quality and all. You'll notice that the crappy character designs sit outside of that notion. All it takes is a wrong detail or two to put up a distancing wall.

I read that Chuck Jones looked at it that way too; that he took the stance that there is such a thing as Bugs Bunny, dammit, and you simply take it from there.

It takes a well-tuned mind to put a whole character together - the visual design, the voice, the mannerisms, the moods, the pursuits...I've been told reading more fiction helps; it puts you in the habit of creating faces and voices in your mind as you read.

Mr. Semaj said...

That picture of Fiona is UUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUGLY! >_<

I see a whole bunch of weird people at the university, some I try incorporating into my own characters. I'm still trying to reach some additional reading material that might be useful for character development.

Rodrigo said...

Wow, this post is exactly what I needed for this weekend. I'm in the process of designing a character to be developed in 3D. I will consider what you've said and sleep on it.

Originality, I find, is so hard to do as I get older. I used to play a game as a kid, where I'd quickly scribble some random looping lines. From those, I'd try to form a face. It was a real blast because I'd end up with all sorts of interesting types of faces, and I'd like to imagine what each of these would act like.

So what about Mike Judge? His lack of technical expertise gave him 2 happy accidents.

Kris said...

Re: Drinky Crow and the Maakies characters (mentioned above):

I think those characters do portray some of their personality in their appearance, Uncle Gabby especially. He LOOKS like someone's creepy old uncle.

Ben Forbes said...

A lot of pretty then you scare us with the ugly at the end.

I hate seeing faces melt. Treasure Planet has a lot of melting faces.
Character design is interesting.I like seeing evolution of a character. Betty Boop changed a little, got rid of the ears and became "sexier".

Do you prefer the more current look of Betty or Grim Natwick's puppy ear version.

I personally thought the puppy ear one was more fun than the current look.

Wicks for Candlesticks said...

WOW! There's so much that goes into good character design. Makes me appreciate great designers more and pity the poor saps who think they got this art down, but have no clue into what it actually takes to be good.

-David O.

Chris said...

Dan! - "What was the Madagascar image there for, by the way? Was that a bad example?"

I'd say that is probably a good example of balancing shapes to be aesthetically pleasing. If you forget about the animation and lame jokes and just look at the characters from Madagascar, they're pleasing to look at (at least to me), especially for being so stylized. The sharp edges and angles don't get in the way of the designs and work well with the curves. The designs really mesh together well.

And I'm pretty sure Craig Kellman worked on Madagascar too, so that's probably a hint it's a good example. So even though the lion might be based on that generic Disney Sullivant-esque lion, a good designer like Kellman can infuse it with his own sense of style and design to make it seem less generic and generally just more pleasing on the eyes.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your great insight, John!

I think its also important to recognize the bad habit of formula drawing in character design. By "formula", I mean that every character is drawn basically the same. Beetle Baily and Garfield are drawn in formulas. All the eyes are the same, all the noses and mouths are the same. The only things that differentiate the characters are weight, hair and clothes. Other than those things, everyone is interchangable.

Formula is different than consistency of style. Consistency of style is good because we desire all the characters to look like they belong in the same world but we shouldn't use formulas to achieve that.

Tibby said...

John - this may be unrelated but I think you should read this.

The animated world lost a very great person recently. Not in a good or peaceful way. :(

Ed,Edd,Eddy Director Deceased

"Boyd was a gifted animator who worked in Vancouver's animation industry for 15 years, including directing the highly successful Ed, Edd N Eddy series on the Cartoon Network."

Uhm ... I was stunned when I found out about it on an Ed fansite. I love that cartoon. Not happy at all. The series of the Eds future is uncertain as they will not be having anymore seasons - and their big feature TV movie may be the last of the production of the Eds.

I am sad today.

Pete Emslie said...

Zam3d said: "Hey, the Male indian from the Pocahontas pic is in fact original! He has cubic nipples!"

And judging from the tormented expression on his face, I'd wager that he's also suffering from a nasty case of cubic lice too...

Thunderrobot(aka Chet) said...

- John please show me how to construct my character RHS, i have tried so many times, and i just cant figure out how to do it.

Skun said...

Hmm, this is an amazing post. Never heard anyone attempt this at all. You are right about the melting thing. My animation of the face I was trying, in all 4 clips I put up, His face looked like a melting amoeba. Of course I had no idea about construction, line of action or any other animation fundamental. As I read your blog I realize more and more how little I know. Ironically, Thank you so much!

kate yarberry said...

thanks john, you rock my socks.

chrisallison said...

Screw the Madagascar stuff, I'm not seeing where Winky Dink fits into this.

Okapi Figment William said...

Fump is great!

Marius de Moraes said...

I think that the Madagascar character design was made by a Spanish studio called 'Grangel Studio'.

Chris Rank said...

Unrelated, or is it?


Colter said...

[Insert great post comment here]

Character design is just that.. design. I think that the people that have trouble designing characters are just lacking imagination.

They can go through the steps to copy, and animate a character properly but if you asked them to draw a fox with a case of intestinal worms they would aim low and give you something moderately interesting.

Although a fox with intestinal worms is sort colorful in itself. Maybe that wasn't such a good example!

Rich said...

Hi John, what did you think of I Robot from an animation perspective? IMO it was subtle, realistic animation that propelled the story without drawing attention to itself. The story and the animation meshed; one wasn't given primacy over the other. I think that movie illustrates a compelling use of animation that didn't make use of traditional gags, or stereotypes, to propel a story, which is what all of this animation business is all about anyway, right? What do you think?

Marlo Meekins said...

john i always die laughing at that character splash page- miserable the disagreeable moose is the funniest character name... and that one thing is named after vincent??? hHAaaah

Claire said...

Love the Winky Dinks.

David Germain said...

Hey, Rich, one of the animators on I Robot came from the same animation school as me. I'm sure he'd be pleased by your assessment of his work.

As for John's character design post, most of it should be a no-brainer for people. Everything he's said here should be done on a constant basis automatically.

I certainly have done this with all my Censor Monkeys. They each have similar but not exactly the same design structure. They each have their own distinct silohuette. You'd never confuse one for another. I made sure of that. And it's all thnks to many of the design principles I learned at animation school which John has to actually spell out for people on this blog in order for them to get it.

Ash Collins said...

i thought this was a very good post - accurate and concise, and an excellent way to teach people about character design. i think most universities could benefit from teaching something like this.

Jim Rockford said...

"Form ever follows fucntion"-Louis Henri Sullivan

Jim Rockford said...

Your Spumco model sheet is fantastic.
Casper the unfriendly bear and crapface duck?!
what no "Vulgar Vulture"?
Any plans for He Hog the Atomic Pig?

larica said...

I just want to say how much important "Ren & Stimpy show" was important for me, specially in my early days. I must thank you for all of your fantastic work i appreciate so much and still do. To show you how important it is, i really don't know what would've been of me without this insane cartoon! Since Ren & Stimpy, everybody copied your awesome style of controversy and originality, anything you see on Cartoon Network is a cheap and not funny rip-off of your work. Hail to John K. !!!! By the way, nice post!

conchbeard said...

I am currently scrounging around for a character style for an upcoming project. This is great stuff to be reminded of. It is really easy to respond to the highly graphic characters(the web is packed with), but I know that they will not carry the emotional load of a film.Anyway, it was great to read this and clear my head! Thanks for taking the time!

Garnabiel said...


rigodiaz said...

Hello Mr. Stuff
I really like your style and what you have done in the animation industry. It's sad to see how these modern cartoons just don't have the same stuff they once did. Ren and Stimpy is and forever will ever be the best animated cartoon in history. It has some thing different and full of funny gags.
With all this anime crap cartoons it is hard to see something new and exciting. Ren and Stimpy pushed the limit and became everything but ordinary. In my opinion you are better than Walt Disney. He didn't even know how to draw and took credit for other peoples work. You are a genious and I look up to you as an artist. You weren't scared to express what you wanted and didn't care what other people thought. Great work
You're my hero and inspiration.

lisa said...

The info above- helpful for sure. Well done. Clear and concise. The last comment by rigodiaz. WOW, unfair. Disney had the talent to find talent and the ability to guide that talented group to create something more that what just one artist could create. Yes, his team could draw better than him. Yes Ren and Stimpy was really great and different But, go easy there - many creative people have scouted out talent greater than their own to bring their ideas to life- example: Jim Henson. The ablility to realize your own limitations and know when to ask for help is both great and humble. By the way if your art isn't perfect ( saw your blog) spend more time drawing and a little less posting negative stuff.

Paul said...

I'm glad I found this blog, Mr. K; it's got plenty of mini-lessons in it. To the person who was complaining about falling into the cliched character syndrome: why can't you create an obnoxious butler as opposed to the straitlaced standard; instead of Arthur Treacher how about Jack Black? How about an anorexic chef from Flatbush rather than a fat French one? Looking at the cliche should inspire you to break it.

Paul said...

Lisa; to be fair Disney did great cartoons but the characters had no depth prolly because the artists were crushed into leaving out any real tics out. Hence the point of this blog.

JaNette said...

Hey Lisa, my girl. I dont know you but you sure do not know how to manage a negative fact. Take a break--- By the way Rigodiaz is my hero hope you can handle that. I love how Mr. Stuff and Mr. Diaz draws. GREAT JOB EVERYONE___ keep it up and remember one full drawing per day!!!!

Nikki Starostka said...

Hey John. I've just had a design class with Craig Kellman and he said a lot of the things you have written. And he actually used a lot of the same examples as you. But this is a nice post to get reminded of that stuff he told us. thank you.

Trey said...

Hey John,

I am making a youtube animation and I need to draw a pregnant woman. I am going for your ever so infamous style. Perhaps you could give me some pointers?

Trey said...

Hey John,
I am making an animation show for youtube, and One of my characters is a pregnant girl. I am trying to go for your ever so infamous quirky style. Any pointers?

MohdNaguibHassan said...

I think great character design means character that people love, and not just for the sake of aesthetic purposes

nancy phill said...

How does one create a cartoon character for a video game which will be able to stand the test of time?

how to set up online shop

fandumb said...

I just take character archetypes and try to flesh them out in different ways. Nothing too interesting.

I do love Craig Kellman, though. I love his work on Hotel Transylvania, and the Madagascar movies and TV show (the TV show is a huge guilty pleasure for me. Yeah, it's bland and stupid, but I love it anyway.)

Waqas Malik said...

children from Sodie and Jimmy!! :D what a positively cute idea!!! <33