Book Review-Character Mentor: Learn by Example to Use Expressions, Poses, and Staging to Bring Your Characters to Life

Tom Bancroft’s new book shows animators how to bring their characters to life.

All images courtesy of Focal Press.

Character Mentor: Learn by Example to Use Expressions, Poses, and Staging to Bring Your Characters to Life, by Tom Bancroft.  Foreword by Adam Hughes.

Waltham, MA, Focal Press, May 2012, trade paperback $24.95 (xv + 163 pages), Kindle $13.72.

This how-to guide is one step up from the basic how-to-draw books. It assumes that you have already learned how to design a character. But beginning animators too often design characters who just pose lifelessly.  Character Mentor shows how to bring your characters to life through dynamic expressions, body language, posing, shading, use of backgrounds, and similar artistic “tricks”

Bancroft, an animation veteran going back to the 1980s who has worked on such Disney features as Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Aladdin, Pocahontas, Mulan, and Brother Bear, has titled his book Character Mentor in honor of his CalArts instructors and the first long-established professionals he worked with who shared their “tricks of the trade” with him.  “Mentorship as a way to learn was used by Disney animation also.  In 1989, when I got my first job in animation at the [then] new Disney Feature Animation in Florida, the studio trained the young artists by having them work alongside experienced mentors.  […]  I feel honored to have been trained in the lineage of such incredible artists.  It is one of the reasons I write these books: to pass on that knowledge.” (Introduction, p. ix).

Character Mentor consists of seven chapters, each of which ends with a “celebrity artist assignment” in which a veteran artist – a comic-book creator, an animation storyboard artist, a TV animation character designer, and so forth – draws an image that illustrates the lessons of that chapter.  The guide is art-heavy, with drawings (usually in color) on every page.  Bancroft shows examples from rough sketches to finished color poses.  Each chapter has an “Assignment” in which one or two amateur artists try to illustrate the goal of that lesson, followed by Bancroft’s “mentor notes” (corrections or approvals) of their work. 

One of Bancroft’s favorite examples, which he uses often, is “silhouette value”.  “A good way to check your character’s silhouette value is to shade it in on the back of your paper.  Figure A, if shaded in would be very unclear what the boy was pointing at – or even that he was pointing at all!  The pose in Figure B, clears that guesswork up!” (p. 6)

The chapters are “Now What?: Drawing Basics for Posing and Expressions”, “The Face: Breaking Down the Elements of Expression”, “Posing Your Character: What Are You Trying to Communicate?”, “Acting: Characters Acting and Reacting the Way You Want Them To”, “Staging Your Scene: Using the Elements of Your Scene to Create a Composition”, Leading the Eye: Prioritizing by Design”, and “ Putting It in Action: Creating a Character-Driven Illustration From Start to Finish”.  Within these chapters, Bancroft covers such elements as “twinning” (avoid poses in which the left side and the right side are identical), the use of clothing, line of action, clarity, the elements of the face, thumbnailing, and many others.

These are all good, basic advice.  The rules of artwork are only guidelines, but the skilled artist has to know them to know how to break them effectively.  Character Mentor is an easy-to-follow comprehensive primer.  Bancroft illustrates it toward the end by presenting and analyzing some of his recent commercial assignments: “to create concept designs for a computer-generated animation series being produced by The Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) called Superbook” (p. 136; animated Bible stories for children), and “A friend of mine who is a talented illustrator in China asked me if I would illustrate my version of the ancient Chinese story ‘Journey to the West’, also known as ‘The Monkey King’, for an art book he was compiling for an international audience.” (p. 146)

Character Mentor is Bancroft’s second book on this theme; a sequel of sorts to his 2006 Creating Characters With Personality: For Film, TV, Animation, Video Games, and Graphic Novels.  To “mentor” is a 3,000-year-old literary reference.  The original Mentor was a wise old man in the Odyssey, who tutored Odyseus’ brave but unskilled young son Telemachus.  Actually, Mentor was Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, in disguise, so readers for 3,000 years could be sure that Telemachus was getting the best training and advice possible.  Similarly, readers of Character Mentor can feel the animation lessons going back through Bancroft to the top animators of the 1930s and ‘40s.  And now Bancroft is passing it on.

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Fred Patten has been a fan of animation since the first theatrical rerelease of Pinocchio (1945).  He co-founded the first American fan club for Japanese anime in 1977, and was awarded the Comic-Con International's Inkpot Award in 1980 for introducing anime to American fandom.  He began writing about anime for Animation World Magazine sinceits #5, August 1996.  A major stroke in 2005 sidelined him for severalyears, but now he is back. He can be reached at fredpatten@earthlink.net.

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