Friday, August 03, 2007

Pete Emslie Starts To Solve The Bland Problem

If you are going to do "realistic" type stories in animation (I don't know why anyone would want to to, but that's all they seem to do), then you ought to learn something from live action. Real people are unique; they aren't all clones of each other like you see in animated features.

Here Pete Emslie took a bunch of the real child actors I featured a couple posts ago
and did caricatures of them in an animatable style. (by keeping the details to a minimum and giving them some construction)

Pete's caricatures still have a somewhat Disney-esque look to them (without being all out Cal Arts style), all the kids have been cutesified, but it's a great first step towards breaking free from formula cartoon designs.

If I had really talented artists like Pete and some others, I would make them compete with each other to keep refining their characters and making them more and more specific-and combining different characteristics of different kids until we had something really unique and cartoony, so we weren't merely copying live action characters.

Some could be on the cute side, some on the funnier side. Variety and distinction is the key.

At Pete's site he explains in detail what his thoughts were:

As I said, if I was making a reality based animated feature, I would keep exaggerating and refining and doing variations of the designs until they become more and more specific and alive.

What usually happens instead in a feature studio, is the producers and executives keep shaving off all the unique parts of designs and personalities until the characters end up being the same old faceless, personality-less cartoon stereotypes.

Harald Siepermann explains that creative process here:

Harald Siepermann's Clayton gets toned down by the Disney process


MitchLoidolt said...

Pete - those are swell drawings!

I liked the rendition of Bobby Driscoll a lot, though I didn't know who he was.

Funny, though - when I looked at wikipedia, it says he was the model for Disney's Peter Pan...

How come Peter Pan didn't look nifty like your drawing?

lastangelman said...

Danger! Will Robinson! You've been Disney-fied!
I like the Opie Taylor and Danny Partridge caricatures, they both look like they been into the loco-weed. Alfalfa has that same expression I've seen on Disney's Ichabod Crane, horses and monkeys and apes from Jungle Book.
Nice late night post.

Dragline said...

Thanks for the written and drawn examples. Wouldn't you want to make a realistic cartoon just as change of pace, or challenge? Also, do you think any Warner's characters are bland, as far as looks go? I've always thought some of them had a boring look. Tweety is a godamned horror.

Rossco said...

Hi John.

Do you think that the upcoming Gorillaz movie will do anything to reverse the blandness in a world of Disney diluted feature animation?

Sean Worsham said...


I just had a major brainstorm! Why don't we all create a forum where we create a challenge each week where we take something like take a bland cartoon character and make it unbland and exciting! We can make each week a different challenge. One week we can choose a bland character like the Smurfs then the next week Scooby-Doo, etc. We can make designs so good that we will easily forget the old crappy designs! has similar challenges on there forums where they propose for example, "Realistic versions of the Smurfs." The artists would have something like a week where they can put their finished pieces on the forum and a winner is chosen. We can take it another level where we put the cartooniness back in the bland cartoons and propose a challenge where we have a week (or two) to create a non-bland and totally more exaggerated and cartoony Smurfs.

I propose using existing characters so that nobody can copy our own creations and since no profit will be made, no lawsuits should happen. Plus everyone can see who created what since the artist will post their own drawing up w/ their name on it. At the end of each weekly (or bi-weekly) challenge John, Mike or Eddie can pick the winner to make it more interesting.

To liven things up, we can also do a charicature challenges where we can do like what Pete did and take some movie actors or celebrities and make non-bland charicatures of them for fun. We can even do sub-challenges like what's the most animatible etc. This will be done all in good fun. What do you think? :)

Clinton said...

I will try to non-bland these characters myself and see how far I can go with it. I reckon in cartoon design, you can't go too far because the animators will have to be able to animate them.

Chris said...

I love these drawings! John, I see what you are saying about how they could be pushed further, but even as-is, this is the sort of work that inspires me as when I try to develop my own style.

John said...

Wow I love those Drawings Especially Alfalfa. I got to say that while Cartoony cartoons are always going to be my favorite on occasion I do like stuff with elements of being realistic But that’s not to say its not imaginative like in allot of anime it can be a mix of both realistic and imaginative.

Dragline said...

Sean, you have a great idea. Shouldn't cartoonists exchange ideas in a visual way instead of so much talk.

Emmett said...

Mr. K, could you give an example of an animated feature with a "realistic" story. Just so I understand, because I can't tell if I have seen one.

Pete Emslie's drawings are excellent. As a viewer, I can tell that those drawings would really hold my attention if they were actually animated.

There needs to be more independently financed animated features. I can only hope that in that way, the artist's work won't be tampered with.
John K. talks about the executives shaving off parts of the art: a fine example of that is Gerald Scarfe's wonderful character designs for Disney's HERCULES. Check them out on his website, and see what that movie could have been.

smackmonkey said...

I couldn't figure out what was bugging me about the characatures last I slept on it.

They're beautiful drawings. Very slick and polished with that "Oh, I just knocked these off" Disney animator looseness. A couple of construction lines showing. Just the right amount of blue pencil. Much better than anything I could do for sure. (Though Alfalfa obviously misses the mark)

So, after overcoming my envy, why am I completeley uninterested in these guys? I know most of their live-action counterparts and can picture them engaged in their own idiomatic activities...which are almost completely comprised of DIALOGUE!

Gad! Opie can chuck a rock into the lake and Danny Partridge can finger his bass but, with the exception of Alfalfa, for the most part these characters are all live action talkers! They completely fail to inspire any specific actions or idiosyncratic behavior that are better handled through animation as opposed to live action. They don't have any reason to be animated. Would Will R. strut down the street with a walk anywhere near as entertaining as Popeye's? No chance. What actions would it be fun to animate Danny P. engaging in other than selling a classmate a bag of oregano? Nada.

It seems to me that all these characters would have roughly the same little interchangeable walks and runs and cycles and behaviors we've seen for years with maybe the Danny kid having an affected "cool" public persona. But behind the scenes, in his private moments, even his actions would look little different than all the others. I see your point, John. They're just not specific enough.

Schism-Schasm said...

Hello, John-

Long-time admirer, first time writer.

I've found the recent discussion of bland vs distinctive character design fascinating.

I was just wondering (maybe you've touched upon it before) about your opnion of Disney's Hercules? I'm a caricaturist, not an animator, so to me it seemed like the use of Gerald Scarfe's aesthetic (he's arguably Britain's most well-known caricaturist) was a welcome and- for the most part- successful break from the usual CalArts look. Do you think they were on the something with that, should have pursued it, or didn't go far enough in the first place? I'd hoped that subsequent films would have seen them bring in many more and varied "consulting artists", but then cg kicked in and that was that.

Wonderful to see your thoughts expressed on such a regular basis!


Terry Anderson

JohnK said...

>>(Though Alfalfa obviously misses the mark)<<

I thought Alfalfa was great- alo better than the actual animated vesion of him.

And Opie (Ron Howard) is a really good kid actor. He doesn't just "chuck rocks".

He has a whole range of interesting expressions, gestures and body attitudes. He has really funny reactions too.

These are all extremely hard things to capture "realistically" in animation.

Which is why I favor cartoony animation which does things that live action can't compete with.

But I also like to use aspects of all arts in cartoons. Whatever works.

JohnK said...


Emmett answered your thought for me!

Kent B said...

Achieving a high level of blandness takes a lot of hard work. I followed your link and looked at Harald Sieperman's drawings, and they have a great flair and style. It must have been a real challenge to homogenize drawings with this much feeling in them, but the big studios have staffs of highly trained professionals who are up to the task.

The problem is that just as "real actors" have personality, so do artists - EVERY artist has a natural individuality and you can see it in the pencil (or ink) strokes. Every animator (and assistant animator) has a different "flair" that just comes out naturally. How is the goal of "consistency" to be achieved?

In order to completely homogenize a drawing, I've found that you have to go over it not just once or twice, but multiple times, fastidiously removing any trace of individuality!

So it seems that "putting personality into drawings" is a lot less work that taking the personality OUT of drawings. That's part of the reason these pictures cost so much to make.

Jim Rockford said...

John,It would be cool to see what you could do with these characters...hint...hint.

smackmonkey said...

>>I thought Alfalfa was great- alo better than the actual animated vesion of him.

And Opie (Ron Howard) is a really good kid actor. He doesn't just "chuck rocks".<<

I've never seen the animated version of Alfalfa but my criticism did not pertain to the actual people. I loved The Andy Griffth Show and my dad used to hang with Jackie Cooper. I never missed an episode of Lost In Space and I'll admit to watching the Partridge Family because Laurie was hot and Danny was funny. Most of the drawings are of very talented individuals.

My problem, which may simply be a failure of imagination, was with these very well done stand alone drawings and what sort of fun-to-animate role-specific character action they inspired WITHOUT any supplied dialogue or pre-conceived personality. What actions come immediately to mind? Sorry, not much for me that isn't too nuanced to be enjoyable. The Opie drawing would be the most fun on the surface of things followed by Danny, the Beav, and Alfalfa. You'd have to give the other two a sub machine gun to get me interested.

Brian B said...

I love Pete's caricatures. I was looking at some the other day. It's clear there's a Disney influence, but it doesn't cripple his drawings at all. I think he actually takes a lot of appeal from Disney in solid shapes and construction.

I try to think where it might be a hindrance though.. I guess in contrast. There's a unity to these designs altogether. An appeal in this collection of heads. Just theorizing, that might take away from the specificness and contrast of them as individuals for the sake of an appealing collage. When a animated film is in motion, the design working as entertainment is going to trump the designs working as poster materials.

Everyone should check out Pete's caricatures though. I think there's something in them. He doesn't ever chuck his Disney influence. He obviously believes there to be valuable appeal in them. He keeps that in his caricatures but to a lesser extent. There's some really wicked designs that I think could still be animated. These kid models are kind of safe in the idea that they're easy for a production team to draw. Your look at his caricatures and imagine moving and rotating them. It demands talent. Check out his Larry King and Letterman. Those I believe. Only needing slight refining in the shapes to finalize.

For the website, since I hadn't mentioned it:

I like how creative Letterman and King's eyes are. As well as Meg Ryan's, Dean Martin, Tom Hanks. Things I don't like about the style.. Some of the teeth are just white blocks, some of the faces not pushed enough for me. The head and jaw are fairly even in ratio. There's no exaggerating contrast in the head and jaw or jaw and head. Same for the hips and ribcage and ribcage to hips. That drives me nuts a little bit, but I guess that's just my inclination.

Anyway, much thanks to Pete Emslie for the effort and great drawings. There's a ton a talent in them. Which makes sharing styles and ideas very painless, without the impediment of bad drawing to kill progress. It's defnitely something, seeing two talented professionals trading ideas and work freely. 5-10 years ago I'd of begged for something like that.

pinkboi said...

I just had a thought about the notion of non-bland characters being potentially offensive. We all know plenty of reasons why this is false, but here's one reasons it's almost true..

International market & fragmented American culture

I was talking to a Japanese friend (日本語で) and she told me that she HATED Olive Oyl! Apparently, she sees the character as selfish and weak. So how do you market to everyone? I say, you don't.

You select a certain, narrow segment (one you as an artist can relate to!) and wow the crap out of them. Since you know what you like and not what everyone likes, this is really the only good way to make something good that you believe in. Ironically, what you make this way is more likely to have broad-based appeal since the result is more genuine. You see, my Japanese friend DID enjoy Popeye despite her qualms with his gal.

By the way, about having just a blank screen... John Cage tried that with music. No one liked it, but it sure made him (in)famous.

Kali Fontecchio said...

Those drawings are great!!!! Thanks Pete for letting John share!

Bill Field said...

John, I posted this on Pete's site and thought you might like to read it too, so I'll post it here too--

Pete- There isn't much that I can add to the sterling comments of my peers--- but, I'm going to try...

I've loved caricatures most of my life, and at an early age got one of myself at the International Marketplace, while living, as an Air Force Brat in Hawaii. I remember at age 7 studying it and redrawing it, over and over again- and upon finding a book on the subject in my elementary library, began drawing my friends, teachers,and relatives. The same time I was bit by the acting bug by way of impressions of stars, politicians, and cartoon characters. Those two things seemed to go well together.
I read the books by actor/cartoonist, Dick Gautier on caricature, and strangely enough many of his theories on the art are similar to John K.'s-- especially when it comes to originality. I received my B.A. in R-TV-F/Advertising Art at UNT about 30 miles from Dallas. Learning from Vernon Fisher, whose most famous work is at the MOMA- it depicts Bushmiller's Nancy opening her door to a phallic looking ghost... I graduated with Ron English, known for his Modern Pop Style and evil-twin version of Ronald McDonald on canvas. After college, I went from being SeaWorld Texas' Media Liason, to Kids TV host- to research analyst at Southwest Research Institute, to Creative Dir. for a Video Game Company, to my own studio where I've conceived animated ads and packaging for Quaker, Kellogg's, and the like.
In 2001 my folks, my wife and our close friend, Daphne were back in Hawaii on vacation, where we went to see Don Ho's show (I'd seen him 4 or 5 times as a kid and 3 as an adult) mentioning I was a cartoonist during his meet in greet, I was called up on stage to caricature Don during his finale.
He was thrilled with it and he and his manager came to me after the show and I pitched an idea that I thought of on the fly- How about a Don Ho Cartoon Show- featuring the 30yr younger version of Don that I'd drawn, but with the 70 yr old singer's voice, but extending his brand to the MTV generation. They loved it, and promised to call me in Texas, to develop the idea-- I never got that call, but 2 years later, Jerry Beck's website posted an article about MTV's "DON HO CARTOON SHOW"-- complete with my rendition of Don, from that darn caricature. They made 6 episodes, that never aired. But I guess that goes to show what can evolve from just one decent caricature! Thanks for your terrific post and your fantastic Caricatures!- Bill Field

Roberto González said...

I love those drawings! I also like Sean Worsham's idea. I think that could be funny as hell if someone has the time and interest to pull it off.

I would sure contribute with some drawings.

Anonymous said...

As a reader i usually go for more idiosyncratic stuff like Oscar Grillo's:

As an illustrator/ comics artist i dig using bland styles when used to illustrate sick, twisted stuff on purpose ^_^

Brian B said...

Holy crap! That development process was really sad. So many awesome drawings of Clayton tossed away. I'm not saying they had to choose the more difficult-to-animate first few drawings, but choose something. I like the design with the high up cheeks, as well as the crooked thick neck marker drawing.

It's a shame they got rid of the beady eyes for the Disney eyes. It was like they took out a chunk of sincerity to the character. I like in the preproduction pieces where one version of him is this slick, seedy guy with an obvious sense of enjoyable humor. Another an overbearingly seedy guy, flooding over into a man starting to lose a handle discipline-wise. He kind of reminds me of "The Comedian" from The Watchmen in that one. A very cool character, not your cliched scumbag.

Thanks for the addition, John.

Phil said...

I've just been reading about how Disney use old code in their animated films so that each film they make does not have to be completely re-written. Examples included backgrounds and character poses.

Has anyone any other examples?

bart said...

On blanditude: I read a while ago that 'featureless features' go down really well with most people psychologically, not merely because of the absence of strong lines but also because the Casper / Bugs Bunny styled face resembles the one of a baby and is thus automatically positively perceived by a human audience on account of our instincts for preservation of the species.

A more practical reason could be that bland faces need less lines and can be drawn faster and animated easier for that reason.

I'm a Belgian and have seen the 'Brueghelian' style of drawing that our comic artists were known for some decades ago, rapidly deteriorate into overall blandness, with the disappearence of all facial wrinkles on the characters, no matter what expression they had. The only means left other than text now are the size of the eyes and / or pupils, the position of the eyebrows, the shape of the mouth and the suggestive lines around the head. With the main concern of the current editors being as to pump out as many albums as possible, my guess is that 'blandness' is a choice made on economic grounds. What do you think about that?

bart said...

Warner Bros. studios tried to 'debland' some Loony Tunes characters recently. The MSN report on that is here.

Anonymous said...

Cartoon Lad on floor in foetal position cries

"me hate bland. talk of bland make me go more talk of talk of how to fix more theories on no like."

Tool said...

john, i wanna know what you think of Cats Dont Dance. that movie seemed to at least not have any of the super bland type character designs, although there was a lot of 'feature animation' formulaic things in the film.

PCUnfunny said...

Tool: Cat's Don't Dance was bland as hell with the standard Bland deigns. The dancing in ths film couldn't even beat a Friz Freleng toon from the 30's.