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.