Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Character Design - part one

Of all the phases in developing a film, character design gives me the greatest heebie-jeebies. Not that it isn't a fun process, but creating a character you are happy to live with for the months/years it will take to bring to life, that sits in with the overall look of the film, and that will be able to perform all the things that is required of it (Is the face mobile enough to express emotions clearly? Are the arms long enough to reach for the props? Does the structure of the head work face-on and in profile and in three-quarter view?) can be a daunting task. It's the exact same process as casting a live-action film with real actors: so many directors have been quoted as saying that eighty percent of their work is done already if they get the casting right. (Vivien Leigh was born to play Scarlett O'Hara in 'Gone With the Wind' - no other actress could have touched her interpretation; but Alec Guinness - brilliant, brilliant actor that he was - should never have been talked into slapping on brown make-up and playing the Indian character Godbole in 'A Passage to India'. A horrible distraction in an otherwise amazing movie.)

The look of our central character, Rosie, was a struggle to find (more on this in the next post). But sometimes things can fall into place with incredible ease. Take, for example, the character of The Barman who serves Rosie as she sits in a bar waiting for her date to arrive. This was the first sketch of The Barman I made, and it's not a million miles away from the final design:

There's a reason this first sketch came easily. One of my oldest friends is David Bowers, director of live-action movies such as the recent sequels in the 'Diary of a Wimpy Kid' series. We met up at college, and David became a very good animator and story artist, and in the process managed to sneak caricatures of me into a couple of the productions he had worked on. I was never able to return the compliment until I put The Last Belle into production and decided to model the Barman - very loosely - on David. (I say 'loosely' because caricature is not my strong point, and my often odd-looking drawings are hardly complimentary. But sometimes it's good to start with a real face as a jumping-off point, and then let your pencil take you where it will.)

I'll usually take a drawing like this and begin to sketch out poses and expressions that I know will be required to tell the film's story. In this case I changed the nose and played with the general proportions:

 And the more confident I felt, the more I'd work into full colour (pantone pen on paper) animatic poses, which then became the basis for the key animation drawings:

 Our drunken lout, Wally, was the first character to be designed, and the character from which the whole concept of the film developed. He first appeared in the corner of a sketchbook looking like this:

Knowing that he was drunk throughout the film, I wanted to keep his outline scratchy and irregular, as if it's falling apart. (Ronald Searle's line quaity was a huge influence here.)

Now he's getting a bit fatter, and I've moved the eyeballs right up to the top of his head. These quick ink sketches were made playfully and unselfconsciously, not to try and create 'good' drawings (were it not for this blog these drawings would never have seen the public light of day), but to see how expressions and proportions might affect the face.

So now I've moved the eyes to the top of the head can I get a frown, or a bored look? Quick doodles answer the questions...

Getting looser and faster now...

And as the body gets fatter the head gets smaller (well he's not the smartest of guys)...

And now the dreaded bermuda shirt has appeared. It seemed a funny idea at the time but hand animating it probably added about five years to the production schedule. You live and learn. The eyes are a little bigger and the nose a little smaller, but this has the unfortunate effect of making him 'cuter'. Sort of.

So to counteract this the eyes get even smaller and the nose even bigger. And by this stage I'm comfortable enough to start doing quick storyboard sketches, and feel 'in character'.

We have our man!

So these two guys were fun to develop. But Rosie proved harder to pin down. That collection of frustrated and irritated sketches I will save for the next post...


  1. every time I read a post I learn a little more and cant help but smile. The Barman's final look is definitely a bit more mature looking than the first-(a good contrast to Waly) his nose has a similar appearance to Rosies (was that on purpose?) I have yet to see your film and im guessing as to who Rosie ends up liking but Im I cant help but anticipate what happens. -- Wally is definitely uglier in the final version.

    The animatic poses! thanks for sharing that- its something I had never thought of when designing a character and makes obvious sense. I cant thank you enough man.

  2. Ha ha - you're guessing right about why I changed the Barman's nose... but I shall say no more for all those who haven't yet seen the film. Yes, doing animatic poses is a really good way of getting comfortable with a character: you're forced to put the character in poses that the story requires, rather than poses that just make a drawing look good. And once you're through with the animatic you've done so much of the thinking already that the animation phase is a joy rather than a struggle - you have your foundation (proportions, basic timing, etc) in place already and can just enjoy giving the performance. Try it out and see if it suits you - for me it's a great system!