Monday, February 13, 2012

Designing My Own Characters Is A Different Process

When I design characters for myself, I think less about design than I do about personality. In fact, I rarely think at all about it. I feel it instead.

When designing characters for commercials or even for other people's cartoons, I rely more on design theories in the abstract. Like how to balance shapes and spaces that add up to a pleasing 2 dimensional graphic that is more symbolic of a general character type, rather than a fully dimensional multi-layered personality.

This is partly because I am designing backwards and partly because most producers, executives or scriptwriters don't want specific character designs. "Specific" features are generally considered ugly by authority figures in the animation world. I'm not sure why; perhaps it's just because traditionally so many animated characters have been generic symbols rather than true characters. I've learned to work both ways for different purposes.My most specific character is George Liquor. He is the only character that I've ever created all at once in a flash. His basic appearance and personality just popped into my head at the same time. I wish that would happen more often!

Usually my own characters start as an idea that rests somewhere between a general character type and a specific variation. Then I let nature nature take its course and allow the characters to evolve, being pushed along by the stories I write for them.

I give my own characters a lot more design flexibility than I do for characters for other studios. I let the storyboards, layouts, animation mold the designs - and vice versa. I don't think of each creative stage in a cartoon as a separate entity. I find that drawing storyboards is probably the most significant factor in designing a character's visual appearance and specific personality:
When I draw storyboards, I am free of the restrictions of too much consistency.


Chloe Howley said...

Hi John, Do you find that people are less likely to use characters if they are done in your own 'style'? I find that a lot of modern character designs (mainly children's animated characters) are very simple and often lack imagination... it saddens me.
When I design characters I usually start with the expression I find defines there temper and personality.

jeffreyJack said...

""Specific" features are generally considered ugly by authority figures in the animation world. I'm not sure why; perhaps it's just because traditionally so many animated characters have been generic symbols rather than true characters."

--- I was reading a recent interview with Diane Disney, Walt's daughter and she was asked if Walt identified with the character (Mickey). She said he did and as he grew in popularity, Mickey's rascally activities that took place in earlier cartoons had to be passed on to other characters like Goofy and Donald because Mickey now represented the company and couldn't be seen doing gruesome things. She said Mickey is now considered primarily "a host".

This seems like the opposite of character development and design- the devolution of a character as his popularity increases.
I wish Mickey could have his nards back.

David de Rooij said...

Interesting article, John!

fandumb said...

I came up with one of my own characters the same way you did with your George Liquor. Just popped into my head!

Joshua Marchant (Scrawnycartoons) said...

From what I can gather, Ren and Stimpy started out as doodles and when the pilot was made they were given basic types; idiot and asshole.

They naturally evolved into more specific characters because of the stories and voice-performances.

Anonymous said...

Great to hear from you again, John. Hope the Facebook page hasn't frustrated you to the point of insanity yet. I hate using it too and getting on it. Blogger's a much better medium of communication in my humble opinion.

Excellent post, as usual. Made me think a lot about how to push the boundaries of "safe," conservative character design techniques.

bob said...

you should of also mention that an artist shouldnt be limited to focus on one particular style and mainly focus on what feels best for the story and how to convey the point not just to try to make the most extreme expression and let that be the guiding point of the story structure

also john I would love to here more color theorys from you I would also like to hear your experience working with billy wray and scott wills and how they change your view how to make pleasing color schemes work

JohnRyan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JohnRyan said...

haha, infact John, I think you already have.

You obviously know the true meaning of creating a cartoon character.

I'm a huge fan, Peace!!

JR Cartoons said...

hey John, it's me John Ryan
this is my new, extra-spectabular
blogger account.

How r u on this shitty day?

Lee Kalba said...

I find that my designs mutate as I do more with the character. I start finding aspects that are more interesting and begin to stylize those.
It really is instinctual, the bits I start exaggerating come to me organically, as I draw the character more and in more situations. On one guy, it's his neck and chin, maybe because of the grumpy nature. On another, it was her upper arms and shoulders. Whatever it is, one of those things that drives me nuts, in so many comics, is the interchangeable characters - just change hair and costume. The thing that pisses me off, is when these are fan-favorites.

JR Cartoons said...

hey John, could you tell me the name of the production music you used in this video?

Thanks, John

Yout pal,

Demetre said...

I can tell you designed your characters differently. When I first watched Ren and Stimpy as a kid, I was blown away at the fact that this looked like a real cartoon. Like someone was using their imagination for once. It was breathtaking to say the least.

rokasko said...

Mr. K:

I don't know if you're aware, but Denmark is a very expensive place to live. The food, the gas, everything is just really high-priced. Even if the school is cheap, many people probably won't be able to afford the costs of just being alive. But it's a good idea you have, I will say that much.

Trevor Guitar said...

Your legacy, though may be that you were so accesible to your fans. As a creator, I do believe Ren, is one of the greatest characters ever created in cartoon history. And that this is your cartoon-legacy.

Whatever you feel about George Liquor.

Ren's personality is ingenius, his design is just familiar enough, and yet altogether new at the time. Your style is a compliment to his design.

His voice is perfect, the best part. Also kudos for Stimpy because his voice was also well complimentary, completing the pair. And when it regards voices, Ren and Stimpy are of the best, I believe Ren's voice, to fit his character, is better than any other cartoon character ever created, or at the least equal to bugs bunny.

I just thought I'd share this with you. I've commented on your blogs for years. Maybe you will read this one and it will touch a nerve-ending which you can pluck out and let stink come forth from it, in honor of your masterpiece characters, Ren, and Stimpy.

SpenSer R-S said...

Hey John,
I want to immortalize my American Bulldog, Mochi, on myself in the form of a tattoo of her in a pooping stance. I grew up with your cartoons, and frankly, my dog's personality reminds me so much of your crude, gross, and yet adorable and loveable characters that I feel like a cartoon representation of her could only be sketched by you. If you could please email me back at, I'd love to send you an inspiring picture of her, as well as a self-addressed stamped envelope, and even a check for five bucks, if you need payment.