Continuing our Inspired excerpt series from the new book, 3D Short Film Production, authors Jeremy Cantor and Pepe Valencia move into character development and design.
Be sure to check out Part 1 of this multi-part series.
Before, during or after the creation of your story youll need to spend some time deciding on the specifics of your protagonists, antagonists, supporting players and background extras with regard to their physical attributes, personalities, motivations, relationships and arcs. Demonstrating these characteristics and their progressions to your audience is known as character development.
Before you can successfully describe a character to an audience, it is often helpful to create a resume or biography for him that will indicate physical, historical, social and psychological specifics. It is generally a good idea for you to know your characters intimately, even if you wont have the time to deeply develop them within the timeframe of your short film. You can easily assemble a character resume by applying the method-acting technique and asking yourself a few questions about the character. A good place to start is by asking, What is his dominant character trait? Everybody has one. Perhaps its shyness, greed, generosity, musical talent, stubbornness, pacifism, obesity, arrogance, fashion sense or schizophrenia. Selecting a single dominant trait will help guide your characters design and behavior. Other questions will help to round out the details:
Where did he come from?
How old is he?
What does he look like? Is he exceptionally tall? Dangerously skinny?
Do people generally like him? Does he have many friends? Enemies?
Do you want your audience to like, despise or fear him?
What does he need or desire? What skills does he possess that will help him achieve his goals?
What is his biggest fear? Does he have an Achilles heel?
What, if anything, does he do for a living? Is he good at what he does?
What is his addiction? Alcohol? Coffee? Chocolate?
Is he married? Does he have kids?
How does he see himself? Is it different than the way his friends or enemies see him?
What are his favorite song, color and ice cream flavor?
All images from Inspired 3D Short Film Production by Jeremy Cantor and Pepe Valencia, series edited by Kyle Clark and Michael Ford. Reprinted with permission.
While it is certainly not necessary to complicate your task by answering all of these questions, if you wrap your own head around the most significant attributes, history and motivations of your character, it will be that much easier to deliver this information to your viewers. And the more you know about your characters, the easier time youll have appending scenes to your story or someday producing a sequel.
When describing a character, use specifics such as Persian rather than cat or crotchety instead of old. If your film is going to have multiple characters, indicate their relationships in their resumes. Also take some time to think about the specifics of your characters environments. Do they exist in a tranquil forest or a dangerous battlefield? An isolated desert island or a heavily populated big city? A housing project near the train station or a penthouse apartment in Beverly Hills? Where a character lives or operates can significantly influence the specifics of his design and personality.
Because you will ultimately be delivering a film, which is primarily a visual medium, a sketch or a render with a few typed or handwritten notes can make an excellent alternative to a formal resume made up of descriptive text (see Figure 16).
Although creating a resume or a bio for your characters is recommended, it is certainly not required. You might choose to keep your piece rather abstract and metaphorical, where a generic character with little or no underlying biographical attributes will be most appropriate. Or perhaps youve designed an especially unique flying dragon and you dont really care about his history or why he is menacing the townspeople and eating all the cows in the village. Perhaps you just want to deliver some exciting flying sequences punctuated with a fierce and explosive confrontation against a powerful and equally two-dimensional wizard.
In a feature film, character history and motivation are important elements for audience connection; however, a short only needs to maintain an audiences attention for a few minutes. Therefore, it is perfectly reasonable to leave out such biographical information and simply deliver a protagonist with a cool look and some exciting mannerisms. By the time your audience starts wondering about where your protagonist came from and why hes behaving with such menacing ferocity, your film will be over. Just remember that if you choose to leave out character history and motivation, the design and behavior of your characters or the significant events of your story will need to be particularly unique and compelling to keep your audience engaged.
RESUME FOR MY DOG, BUTCH
Breed: Black Labrador.
Color: Black. (Duh!)
Age: Seven (or 49 in dog years).
Size: 28 inches at the shoulder blades.
Weight: 75 pounds.
Where did he come from? Not sure. He just showed up at my door one day.
Favorite food: Fluffy-burgers and apparently my wifes fettuccini alfredo.
Favorite movie: Mans Best Friend.
Least favorite animated short: The Cat Came Back.
Favorite hobby: Beach Frisbee.
Biggest fear: Spiders.
Favorite place to sleep: In front of the refrigerator.
Other: Generally suspicious of strangers but loves kids. Often dreams about being a member of the fire department. Wishes we would give him Evian instead of tap water.
[Figures 17 & 18] It is often tempting to arbitrarily add details in the interest of making your characters unique or interesting (left). However, such elements should only be included if they are important to your story or to the reaction you want to inspire from your viewers. It is often a good idea to exaggerate a characters dominant trait. A bumbling thief should be particularly dorky and clumsy, such as this fellow (right) from Egg Cola.
Simplicity and Exaggeration
When creating your characters, try to keep them fairly simple in both design and personality. A short animated film is no place for complex characters with lengthy biographies and introspective soliloquies. Choose a few major character traits and explore them sufficiently. Dont arbitrarily add details under the mistaken belief that more is necessarily better. The most important attributes will be the ones that directly relate to your characters behavior within the scope of your actual film. Details can round out characters, but too many can make it difficult to decide how they will react to the events or other characters in your story. Also realize that if you give a character an extreme trait such as a limp or a missing arm, your audience might be distracted from your story while waiting for this abnormality to be explained. Only include such details if they directly or indirectly relate to your story (see Figure 17).
Keep in mind that because a short film needs to deliver more in a smaller timeframe, it is often a good idea to exaggerate your characters most significant traits. If your protagonist is fat, make him obese. If your villain is muscular, make him enormous. If a character is allergic to peanuts, make him deathly allergic. Exaggeration not only increases the clarity of your characterizations, but also allows for a bit more margin of error when it comes to modeling and animation. Audiences will generally forgive the bending of physics rules when they are applied to an exaggerated or caricatured character (see Figure 18).
Character Development Tools
A filmmaker has four basic tools for developing characters:
Words (text, narration and speech)
Names can be descriptive, connotative, ironic or completely generic. Words, while often left out completely, can be used to help establish nationality, history, personality, goals, back-stories and future outcomes. Design will indicate physical attributes, species, profession, social status and perhaps a few personality traits. Behavior, which is ultimately the most effective method of characterization, will demonstrate personality, attitude and motivation.
Character Development Tool 1: Names
Long-form writers have the advantage of time; their characters can be slowly and deeply developed through behavior. The short-story author, however, must rely on a few shortcuts to effectively develop characters within the limited timeframe. Names can be particularly effective in this capacity.
Although it is very common and perfectly acceptable to give your characters completely generic names, such as Butch, Sarah or Sally Burton, you can use more descriptive monikers as handy shortcuts for describing or implying a few important bits of information about your characters. For instance, names can be used to indicate species, profession or nationality, as in Roger Rabbit; Mr. Potato Head; Krusty the Clown; Luxo Jr.; or Marvin the Martian and his trusty companion, K-9.
A name might also demonstrate an unmistakable character trait, as in Dr. Evil, Dopey, Speedy Gonzales, Bill the Butcher or Poor Bogo.
Other names contain more suggestive words, allowing them to remain a bit more interpretive or ironic. For instance, Jimmy Neutron is probably smarter than your average schoolboy; Han Solo is presumably something of a loner; Donnie Darko probably doesnt smile a lot; Augustus Gloop likely has a weight problem; Sprout is undoubtedly very young; and, oddly enough, a character named Curly is usually bald.
Still other names imply certain personality traits simply because they are associated with particularly famous or infamous historical figures or celebrities, such as Amadeus, Madonna or Shaquille. The name Arnold was once reserved for bookworms; however, ever since Mr. Schwarzenegger arrived on the scene, that particular handle now inspires images of squared-off chins and oversized biceps. An episode of Hill Street Blues once featured a character named Vic Hitler who couldnt understand why his standup comedy career was not more successful. And while it is certainly acceptable to give a particularly adorable little bunny the name Killer, doing so might distract your audience because they will likely spend a fair amount of time wondering whether this name foreshadows some future event or is simply ironic.
You might want to design the look of your characters before giving them names. Often, if you look at a character drawing, a name that feels right will just pop out at you (see Figure 19).
Of course, it is often desirable to forego naming your characters at all. In many films, especially short ones, the design, actions and dialogue of the characters are more than sufficient as narrative tools, and names are simply not required. Vagueness can sometimes be a powerful narrative device because it often allows for a bit more audience interpretation.
Character Development Tool 2: Text, Narration, and Speech
The limited timeframe of a short film is often insufficient for complete and effective character development through behavior. Displaying text or providing voiceover narration at the beginning of a movie is a timesaving technique you can use to add biographical information and details to the otherwise incomplete character development contained within the scope of the film itself. An advantage of this technique is that it provides the filmmaker the opportunity to open his story in the midst of an action without the need for any actual on-screen setup. Examples include the Star Wars films, The Road Warrior and Eric Andersons Horses on Mars.
Similarly, adding a few text lines or a bit of narration at the end of a film can be an effective way of punctuating the piece by providing a bit of information regarding the ultimate outcomes of the characters. This convention is very often used in documentaries, such as Dogtown and Z-Boys, films that are based on true stories, such as Remember the Titans and comedies, such as Animal House.
You might also choose to intersperse your film with dialogue cards to either simulate the style of early silent films or avoid the time-consuming task of lip-synching.
[Figure 20] The ways in which people and other creatures interact with one another help to characterize them.
With regard to actual monologues and dialogues, the pitch, tone, volume, style, accent, vocabulary and content of a characters words can indicate or imply personality, nationality, status, intelligence, motivation and goals. Conversations between characters will further define these identity specifics and reveal the nature of their relationships (see Figure 20). When Jerry Seinfeld contemptuously greets his neighbor with a sarcastic, Hello, Newman, we are immediately informed of the fact that these two individuals definitely know one another but probably wish otherwise. Dialogue is one of the strongest devices available for character development (see Chapter 9, Vocal Tracks).
[Figures 21 & 22] Generic characters (left) can work just fine in animated shorts as long as their behavior or dialogue is sufficiently interesting. Otherwise generic visual cues, such as mustaches and high heels (right), can become quite descriptive when combined in a single character.
Character Development Tool 2: Design
Sometimes it is preferable to tell a story with completely generic and unremarkable-looking characters that have no distinguishable features whatsoever (see Figure 21). Certain metaphorical narratives, such as Balance, are often best told with such characters so audience members might have an easier time folding their own points of view into the story. If your desire is to tell a story with generic characters, you will need to connect the audience to them through behavior or dialogue. However, since the short-story format often does not afford the author enough time to effectively develop a character through a lengthy series of indicative actions and conversations, it is generally a good idea to demonstrate at least partially your character personalities and motivations through design.
Definitive versus Interpretive Visual Cues
Before you begin designing a character, ask yourself how important his or her look will be in effectively telling your story. This will help you determine what kinds of painfully clear or vaguely interpretive visual elements your character designs should include. If you want your audience to immediately recognize or understand certain important character traits at first glance, design your characters accordingly with specific and unmistakable visual elements, such as professional uniforms, bloody fangs, wheelchairs or enormous muscles. However, if you want your characters to be a bit more vague and interpretive, keep such indicative visual clues to a minimum. Giving high heels to a female character or a mustache to a man is certainly a valid element of design, but it doesnt speak to the owners personalities, attitudes, or goals. Putting those same high heels on the man with the mustache, however, is a much stronger design convention and implies quite a bit about the characters personality and attitude (see Figure 22).
A well-designed character should have appeal, but keep in mind that the word appealing does not necessarily mean attractive. Rather, in terms of design, it simply means interesting to look at. And, of course, appeal is highly subjective (see Figure 23).
[Figure 24] Character design can imply more than just physical attributes, such as age, species or gender. Personality, nationality, religion or profession can also be indicated clearly with the right visual cues.
[Figure 25] Well-designed characters will often create an immediate audience response. Do these characters inspire sympathy, empathy, suspicion, laughter or fear?
A character will also be considered well designed if his visual cues tell the audience something about him. Even if that message is, I am completely generic and unremarkable, some thought needs to go into the look of that particular character to deliver such a message successfully. Character design can effectively reveal physical attributes (such as strength, gender, age or race), mental and emotional attributes (such as shyness, intelligence or courage), and biographical information (such as nationality, religion or profession) (see Figure 24). Motivation and goals are more difficult to imply through design and usually require behavior and dialogue to be demonstrated effectively.
A good character design should also invoke some kind of initial reaction or expectation from your audience (see Figure 25). You might want your viewers to immediately feel sympathy for one of your characters, so give him sad eyes, ragged clothing and a pair of crutches. Or perhaps your audience should be fearful or disgusted at first glance, in which case you should deliver angry brows, sharp weapons, menacing horns and fangs, or huge scars. You might prefer your audience to be confused; therefore, inconsistent visual elements might be in order, such as a tattoo of a peace sign on a soldiers forehead. Or you might want to make a characters design elements more generic and vague so your viewers are forced to wonder about the details of his past, present and future.
It is sometimes advantageous for a characters design to actually contradict his true nature. For instance, while it is often desirable for the look of a villain to inspire immediate hatred or mistrust from your audience, occasionally the most interesting and dangerous antagonists appear quite harmless until their surprisingly malicious true intentions are revealed.
In general, you simply want to avoid the possibility of your audience reacting to your characters with complete indifference. Some visual cues, even if they are subtle, vague, intentionally confusing, interpretive or altogether generic, should be included in your character designs to capture at least some degree of audience attention from the start.
The most distinguishable and expressive part of a character is usually his face. Size, shape, placement, orientation, symmetry and relative proportions of facial features will generate appeal (or lack thereof) and indicate species, realism level, age, gender, personality and, most importantly, emotion. You can choose to create faceless characters for your film, but keep in mind that doing so will force you to completely rely on body language, animation and behavior to deliver information regarding personality and emotion.
Facial features can be absent, sparse, highly detailed, cartoony, abstract or photoreal. Play around with facial feature specifics when designing your characters. Try large eyes and a small mouth, small eyes and no mouth, one large eye and one small eye, a large mouth but only one eye, a huge nose and tiny ears and so on. Draw many versions of the same characters face with subtle changes in size, placement and relative proportions of features to find just the right indication of personality and emotion. Try a variety of different facial expressions to see the range of emotions youll be able to deliver. Scan one of your character sketches into the computer and play around with a digital paint or morph program that will allow you to warp head shapes and feature sizes and see whether anything interesting and unique results. Examine the facial features of existing film characters who emote effectively and apply your discoveries to your own designs (see Figure 26).
[Figure 27] An expressive hand can be a stump, a mitten, a claw, a four-finger collection, a full five-finger set or something else entirely!
Generally speaking, next to facial features the second most expressive parts of a character are his hands, so dont neglect them in your design phase. If a character has no facial features whatsoever, hands (or paws or claws) will often become the primary tools for expressing personality, desire and emotion. Hands can be mere stubs or simple mittens, or they can contain three, four, five or perhaps even more fingers (see Figure 27). If you expect to rely on hand shapes, poses and movements to deliver necessary information about a character, make sure you design them appropriately. Give your character enough fingers to get the job done, but realize that a full set of four-plus-thumb is rarely necessary unless you are going for a high level of realism. Fewer fingers will be easier to model, set up and animate; however, if you dont have enough fingers it might limit the expressiveness of the poses you will be able to create. For instance, you cant make a peace sign with a mitten.
[Figure 28] Details are important visual characterization tools.
Keep It Simple and Think Ahead
Details will round out a character and often add interest or unique qualities, especially when it comes to realism (see Figure 28). However, be careful of overdoing it. Loading up a character with too many obvious visual cues can turn him into a cliché or a confusing mess of unnecessary details (see Figure 29). Be efficient and economical with your design elements. A healthy balance between clarity and subtlety is always a desirable goal, and elegant simplicity in design is usually quite appealing (see Figure 30). Also remember that it is not necessary to display or demonstrate a particular design element or character trait unless it is important to the story. Arbitrarily adding details is the same as blindly adding more ingredients to a soup. Less is very often more.
[Figures 29 & 30] More isnt always better. Over-designing a character (left) with too many visual cues and unnecessary details can turn him into a cliché and a modelers nightmare. Elegant simplicity (right) is often quite appealing.
Always think ahead as you design your characters. Only create characters that you or your teammates will be able to model, rig and animate efficiently (see Figures 31 and 32). If you give your protagonist a tail, your audience will expect it to swing and sway convincingly, and doing so will require more animation time. If you give your protagonist a huge belly, you're going to have to add appropriate deformers and controls to your character setup to make it squash and stretch properly. A character with a huge head and short arms might not be able to scratch his nose. Short legs and large feet make it difficult to create walk cycles.
[Figures 31 & 32] This is a great character design (left), but will you or your teammates have the time and skills to model, rig and animate such a creature efficiently? Simple characters like these (right) will be relatively easy to build and quite interactive when it comes time to animate them.
Constantly consider how your designs will affect the future stages of your pipeline and consider the possibility of leaving out unnecessary anatomical details. For instance, if you are creating a film with no dialogue, perhaps your characters don't need mouths. If your characters are cartoony or abstract, you can perhaps get away with omitting necks, shoulder joints or even arms and legs, leaving hands and feet connected to a torso by mere implication (see Figure 33). If a certain character will only ever be seen from a distance, don't bother to include very small anatomy or clothing details.
[Figures 34 & 35] This character from Kirill Spiridonov (left) is both unique and appealing, but if you design such a creature be aware that your viewers will expect to see his hair move appropriately. Will you have the time, tools and skills to accomplish this successfully? Stylizing features such as eyes (right) will make life easier for you during your production phase.
Of course, we are not suggesting that you compromise your designs based on the limits of your current skills. After all, the development cycle of your film should be a learning experience, and it is definitely a good idea to give yourself a few technical and aesthetic challenges along the way. Just realize that character elements such as hair, feathers, loose clothing and multiple limbs will require additional work down the line (see Figure 34). Robots, toys, mannequins and insects are certainly easier to work with than other more organic creatures, but your story might require more complex characters. If so, consider ways to stylize them that will reduce your future workload. Try using two-dimensional, cartoon-style eyes that float in space (see Figure 35). A six-legged spider might look just as convincing as one with the proper eight. A tucked-in shirt will be easier to manage than one that flaps in the breeze. A ponytail will be easier to animate than long, flowing locks. Three fingers will take 25% less time to animate than four, and mittens are simpler than gloves. Design your characters to your liking, but think ahead and strive to avoid unnecessary production complications.
[Figures 36 & 37] Is this creature two inches tall or two stories high? Knowing such details will be important when you start animating. Construction drawings of your characters will help you visualize their forms and apply proper perspective and foreshortening in your drawings.
Also during the design phase, consider how the physical details of your characters will ultimately affect the style in which you animate them. If you create a robot, is he six inches tall or six stories high (see Figure 36)? Is he made of heavy, solid steel or hollow, nearly weightless aluminum cans? Knowing such specifics will be extremely important at the animation stage of your production.
Always remember to think in three dimensions, even if you are designing in two. If you envision your characters as combinations of basic shapes (cubes, spheres, cylinders, cones and so on), it will be that much easier to design them as the three-dimensional characters they will ultimately become. Make a few construction drawings of your characters that show the simplicity of their underlying forms (see Figure 37). This will not only help you understand dimension and form, which will really come in handy at the modeling stage, but it will also assist you when you draw your characters in different poses from various camera angles.
If you choose to design your characters using traditional media, you'll need some basic drawing or sculpting skills. Keep in mind that you don't have to become another Michelangelo to design characters effectively. Many great designers are not necessarily great illustrators; however, if you are not comfortable with your chosen medium, the process of designing characters can feel like a chore rather than a fun and rewarding experience. Indeed, it takes many years to master figure drawing or cartooning, but it actually doesn't take that long to learn enough of the basics to get by. If you're looking for some good books on these subjects, review a few of our recommendations in Appendix B. Although it wouldn't be feasible for us to offer any comprehensive drawing lessons within the scope of this text, here are a few tips that might help you expedite the learning process:
1. Attend figure-drawing classes as often as possible. The more you know about the form and structure of real humans, the better you'll be able to effectively create unique exaggerations or abstractions. Always think in three dimensions as you draw. Imagine your piece of paper is actually a box and you are sculpting the model rather than creating a two-dimensional drawing (see Figure 38). Try drawing the figure as a collection of simple geometric shapes to more effectively understand volume and perspective. Draw a variety of different poses at different speeds. Do many quick sketches to capture overall lines of action, as well as long sittings where you can really study the details. Challenge yourself by choosing difficult poses, especially those with plenty of foreshortening. Flat, straight-on poses are much easier to draw, but they don't provide you with an opportunity to further your understanding of posing and three-dimensional space. Imagine yourself in the model's pose and try to feel the balance of forces acting upon him or her. Try caricaturing the figure as you draw. This will force you to identify the most meaningful and expressive details of the model. Focus on faces and hands. If figure-drawing classes are not available to you, practice drawing toys, action figures, stuffed animals and sculptures from many different angles. Working from photographs is less than ideal. Because your creations will ultimately be three-dimensional, your sources should be as well.[Figure 39] When learning anatomy, simplify your education by studying bones in groups, rather than individually.
2. Study anatomy. The most important anatomical elements to study as a character designer are bones and muscles. Unless you are actually designing a skeleton, try to learn about bones in groups rather than individually. Understand the overall shape of the entire ribcage, rather than the specifics of each rib (see Figure 39). Gain a cursory understanding of where the major bones fit together and their approximate rotation limits. Also, learn which bones can be seen protruding through the skin. With regard to muscles, it's more important to understand how they work than exactly what each one looks like. Realize that muscles can only pull; they cannot push. Every major muscle causes a joint to bend, and all muscles have opposing counterparts that generate the opposite joint motion biceps vs. triceps, quadrilaterals vs. hamstrings. Remember that muscles expand when they operate, but depending on the pose, most of them are usually in their relaxed states. Study the differences between bipeds, quadrupeds, fish and birds. With all species, a global knowledge of overall bone groups, muscle systems and proportions is more important than minutiae. Learn, for instance, that the hind legs of quadrupeds do not have two knees. Rather, four-legged animals walk on the balls of each rear foot, where the lengthened ankle only appears to be a second backward-facing knee (see Figure 40).
[Figures 40 & 41] Contrary to what some people think, quadrupeds (left) do not have two knees in each rear leg. Rather, they have extended ankles and stand on the balls of their feet. The notion of correct proportions (right) can be rather subjective. If it looks right, it is right.
3. With regard to proportions, trust your innate knowledge of the human form as well as your eye for appeal. Don't allow yourself to get caught up in the overly academic proportion rules found in many art books. For instance, the "fact" that the human body is approximately six heads tall is hardly a consistent reality, and this "rule" will only help when you're drawing an adult human standing straight up from a centered camera angle. Once you apply a low-angle POV, a bit of foreshortening or an age difference, such rules go right out the window. Indeed, understand the existence of this tendency, but realize that it is not a hard and fast rule and trust your instincts. Doing so will make it easier for you to design unique characters and draw odd poses from various camera angles. Remember: If it looks right, it is right (see Figure 41).
4. Understand perspective. Although there are dozens of very thick volumes available describing all of the rules and details of this subject, the notion of perspective really just comes down to two basic concepts. Objects, dimensions and relative distances appear smaller as they move away from you, and objects in the foreground tend to obscure objects behind them. All of the specific details of one-, two- and three-point perspective are actually variations on these two simple concepts. Of course, if you design your characters with sculpture or CG modeling tools, you'll get proper perspective for free.
5. Learn about color theory. Color theory is best learned by noticing interesting and appealing color combinations in the real world, and then recording your findings in a continuously growing library of quick color sketches you can reference when you are designing your characters and textures.If you really hate drawing or sculpting or you feel that you simply don't have the ability to effectively put your imagination down on paper or clay, consider collaborating with a friend who has the time and the appropriate skills.
To get a copy of the book, check out Inspired 3D Short Film Production by Jeremy Cantor and Pepe Valencia; series edited by Kyle Clark and Michael Ford: Premier Press, 2004. 470 pages with illustrations. ISBN 1-59200-117-3 ($59.99). more about the Inspired series and check back to VFXWorld frequently to read new excerpts.
Jeremy Cantor, animation supervisor at Sony Pictures Imageworks, has been working far too many hours a week as a character/creature animator and supervisor in the feature film industry for the past decade or so at both Imageworks and Tippett Studio in Berkeley, California. His film credits include Harry Potter, Evolution, Hollow Man, My Favorite Martian and Starship Troopers. For more information, go to www.zayatz.com.
Pepe Valencia has been at Sony Pictures Imageworks since 1996. In addition to working as an animation supervisor on the feature film Peter Pan, his credits include Early Bloomer, Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, Stuart Little 2, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Stuart Little, Hollow Man, Godzilla and Starship Troopers. For more information, go to his Webpage at www.pepe3d.com.