Monday, September 28, 2009

Character Design as a job VS Character Design for Animated Cartoon Stories

I've done both.

In the mid 8os, after working from horribly bland designs for Saturday Morning cartoon shows, I got a job that was much more fun (for me) - designing characters.

First for Dic's Heathcliff and then for presentation departments at Hanna Barbera and TMS.

Designing characters in the abstract for pay, and not having any responsibility for any of the other departments in a cartoon studio is a fun job.

You don't have to worry if your designs actually work and what problems they might cause for the other artists. This is a selfish profession, and if I wasn't able to sell my own cartoons, I was glad to have it. I hated drawing the boring characters in Saturday Morning cartoons doing the boring things the boring writers would come up with - or not come up with, but just steal from the last 30 scripts they plagiarized.

At least now I could personally have abstract fun creating visuals that might fool an executive or impress my artist friends. The kinds of designs I usually came up with for "development" while sometimes superficially interesting to look at, were in reality usually pretty shallow. They weren't really characters, because no one had bothered to work out entertaining personalities for them - and that wasn't my job as I was told many times.

When I designed my own characters though, I was using a whole different set of rules. These designs couldn't just look superficially interesting; they had to be characters. Real ones with souls, personalities and humor. That made them harder to coordinate the poses and the design. It shocks you to reality when you have to come up with poses that tel a story with your own awkward designs.

I had the lucky break to do layouts on the Jetsons after serving a stint as a "designer" for Iwao at Hanna Barbera on bullshit pitches designed to trick Network executives - shows with catchy names like "Rock Wars".

Having to draw an expert character designer's characters (Ed Benedict) and make them move and act and perform tricky things forced me to look at everything about cartoons in a more mature way.

I discovered that no job at a studio should be completely isolated from another. Each specialism had its role in making the overall cartoon better.

To me, the most important job in a cartoon is animation - the guy who actually has to bring the characters to life on screen. Even a director's job is to create the optimum situations and framework to display animated characters doing things that only animated characters can do.

Unfortunately, no one in America (on TV) did animation anymore, so I used the layouts on the Jetsons to create the poses and acting and life as a substitute for animation.

I came back from Taiwan a much wiser and abler cartoonist, because I now knew the results of good or bad stories, storyboards and designs and how they affected the potential life (or lack of) the characters.

From then on, I never believed in model sheets again, except as a starting point. The people who have to pose and move the characters are the ones who have to come up with the myriads of new expressions, poses and shadings of personality that a mere character designer - abstracted from the visual telling of the stories can't ever do.

That's why many of the best character model sheets are made by animators and directors. They make them functional because they have to use them themselves.

Modern design is completely abstracted from the process of animation today. TV animation is mostly done in flash - and even when a show theoretically does "traditional" drawn animation, the animators are rigidly forced to trace the model sheets.

Why does everyone today want to be a character designer? Because it's the only potentially creative job left. Unfortunately even that is not very creative anymore because everyone just copies the same designs over and over again and each year they get more primitive. How many times has DeeDee been completely ripped off?

But the design has never been animated as well as when Genndy animated her.

It's now at the point where anybody can be a character designer - as long as you can fool the executive in charge into thinking you're the hip new thing that's already been around for 25 years.

It doesn't matter if the designs are actually animated characters anymore.


chrisallison said...

AWESOME green monkeys drawings. keep the old drawings coming, i haven't seen a lot of these. they're really awesome!

Kaiser Fate said...

The really pathetic thing is that Flash is actually quite a capable program. I don't suppose you've ever seen the 'Brackenwood' animations by Adam Phillips?
Isolated from the commercial world, here you have an ex-special effects animation supervisor and character animator from a backdoor studio in Australia making his own designs, his own worlds and his own stories and bringing them to life on ones in full animation. Even the earlier, more primitive episodes are quite beautiful in their execution, but with each new episode that comes out they are animated more smoothly and professionally.

This stuff beats nearly everything you see on Cartoon Network, and what shocks me (and has since I first started using Flash myself ten years ago) is HOW MANY NAMES are in the credits!

ONE GUY can make complete animations that run circles around what a team can do! What is their excuse for tracing model sheets and underanimating? Too much effort?! Where do they find these people?!

the plummer said...

Kaiser, Phillips is an excellent example. Especially since it shows what can be done when you put someone good down in front of ANY medium or program.

John, I hope I can count as someone who tries to constantly transcend the line between animator and character designer =). In fact, I feel that both should be the same as a default. I usually have to take a grain of salt with some of your posts, but this one is pretty dead on. It's too bad I feel like this - this description of character design - is the norm to me, and yet I still meet people who think designing characters interesting or by animators is a radical idea, or who can't get through a scene without tracing the old model sheets.

Granted, not everyone can get by without standard designs and draw a character naturally for acting that looks organic and pleasing to the eye. But I wonder if that would change if this more natural artistic version was pushed.

AShortt said...

I really, really hate sounding like an a** smoocher but geezus but this is an unbelievably great blog! Bobby Bigloaf - O my friggen Gawd that`s genius!

Geneva said...

I love this series of posts. Damn, do I hope you can get a show greenlit soon.

Rick Roberts said...

Holy crap ! I LOVE that drawing of the Noid !

Chris said...

Wow, that's Bobby Bigloaf from your Raketu spot!!! Guess his time had finally come. =)

Niki said...

I keep looking back at these designs and thinking that they'd be cute to see move on TV if it could be done in a good way. This whole design thing might be the reason I've returned to watching anime instead of cartoons US-thailand made. At least they look good moving now, and the the only US cartoons that are barely decent are superhero cartoons. But the Super cartoon's genocide has already begun

Alishea said...

Don't the animators or character designers physically work out poses? I illustrated a children's book series and had to literally act out a couple poses I was trying to illustrate to make sure the characters' bodies mimicked a real body. Isn't that what "professionals" do? Like look at themselves in the mirror, make goofy faces, draw, etc.???

HemlockMan said...

You know how I knew Tartokov was onto something with Dee Dee? Because I freaking HATED her! HATED her! He wanted me to hate her. He succeeded.

SoleilSmile said...

Good commentary. I'll be sure to keep functionality in mind with my current gig.

Niki said...

Since we constantly talk about entertainment I thought you would get a kick out of this. It makes me wonder how many bad films came out of the 40's and 50's if there be any.

and Hemlockman? he didn't want you to hate her, he wanted boys without sisters to develop a love for pain when we got it.

drawingtherightway said...

So animators literally had to trace model sheets? What was the sense in hiring animators if all they had to do was trace drawings? They could have trained anyone for that.

Bryce Johansen said...

Hey John

I can kind of see where your going at from what you've stated in this post and the displays of your old 1980's work from the previous post.

The designs looked nice and a lot of people liked them but I wouldn't want to try and animate any of them...maybe the gay-guy if there were more body poses but then again there wasn't anything too interesting about his face anyway.

Gad said...

well things are crappy now in the world of animation as you like to say over and over
but you can't really say it was any better before
you always remember the good things in the past. but as some one who was a little kid in the second part of the 80's i know there were lots of them then, bad cartoons I mean, I am ashamed to say I was addicted to he-man.
I didn’t see how Hanna Barbera’s animation is any better then today flash cartoons, Fred Flintstone is nothing but a square with to sticks as legs that just move back and forth.
I would hardly set Hanna Barbera as an example of good animation and good story making

I think the problem is a problem of ends and means, the goal is telling a good story. The means to do so is animation (and in that is included the design of the character) , so in your declaration that the directors job is simply to place a set for the animators to do there stuff, the animators are but the actors, the tool for the director to tell a story.

K. Nacht said..., gee... like these are so great, and like, yer opinions are so spot on, and like, Ed Benedict ain't shallow but still water which run deep...but gosh, don't get me wrong, like pathos is phoney and, like, funny is profound...and angles are like empty, but curves are like sophisticated, and God Damn Shaggy and Scoob and the fukin' Hair Bear Bunch...

John said...

John, if you have any more drawings of that monkey, please let us see 'em - he's hilarious!

Sean Lane said...

Those upskirt Jetson pictures are the cutest!

Trevor Thompson said...

Hey John,

most of these layout poses from the Jetsons seem pretty clean, especially the one of the girl.

Did you draw them straight-ahead or use construction and erase heavily...?

Chris leonido said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Guy said...

I didn’t see how Hanna Barbera’s animation is any better then today flash cartoons, Fred Flintstone is nothing but a square with to sticks as legs that just move back and forth.

You're an idiot.

No, idiocy doesn't explain it. Do you have some sort of mental disorder? Like dyslexia but for cartoons? Are you a cartoon-dyslexic idiot? How awful.

Rick Roberts said...


I think Hanna Barbera had great construction. However, I feel there cartoons left much to be desired. I love those early seasons of The Flintsones and The Jetsons though.


I am really tired of your insulting of me and others with your ignorace. You are your own minstrel show. Take a look at Gad's blog and then call him an idiot again.

nktoons said...

-Some of those characters are pretty funny to look at John :), I have always enjoyed your sense of humor and drawing but your analysis on animation leave me in awe.
Great posts like this one are very inspiring. I liked your crude/flat drawings from a few posts back. They made me sneer at the 80's nostalgia. However they illustrated your concepts very well. I learned alot from comparing and contrasting those drawings with the drawings you made later in your career. Thank you for sharing!

Mizter Luis Rodriguez said...

I wish i'd discovered your blog earlier. I grew up with all of your cartoons, and when I read your blog I feel as if the Spice Girls wrote letters to me when I was in middle school (I mean I feel like I'm in contact with someone I admire, not that you could be a Spice girl)
Anyway, I dont like Spice Girls anymore, but I do love your work and appreciate your valuable words.
Wish I found your blog earlier so I could be one of your pupils. Little talent, lots-o-heart over here.

thomas said...

More than skill being devalued. labor in general is the thing that's been devalued.

Although deskilling is part of the devaluing of labor, I think arguing about the sorry state of animation being due to deskilling is misleading.

Is Pat Metheny necessarily a better musician than the Ramones, or a blues musician who uses three chords?

lee artist said...

these are very creative john, good work

Zam3d said...

John, did you also worked on Catillac Cats" from Dic too?