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'Inspired 3D Short Film Production': Visual Elements of Effective Character Design — Part 3

Continuing our series of excerpts from Inspired 3D Short Film Production, authors Jeremy Cantor and Pepe Valencia look at visual elements of effective character design.

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.

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.

Be sure to check out Part 1 and Part 2 of this multi-part series.

A character designer has a number of visual devices at his disposal, which can be used to effectively indicate or imply a character's physical attributes, personality traits, biographical information and goals with descriptive clarity or interpretive subtlety. They are as follows:

  • Basic design elements

  • Biological and anatomical specifics
  • Color
  • Posture and facial expressions
  • Style, grooming and condition
  • Clothing and accessories
  • Exaggeration


[Figure 42] Simply varying eyebrow and mouth shapes can create a wide variety of facial expressions.


[Figure 43] The simple placement of a pair of vertical or horizontal lines can drastically change the overall proportions and attitude of otherwise identical characters.


[Figure 44] These very different characters are based on the same basic shape turned upside down.

Basic Design Elements

If you work out the design of your character with pencil and paper, consider the connotative values of different types of lines and shapes. Horizontals tend to imply tranquility. Vertical lines tend to imply rigidity or balance. Curved lines imply gentleness, while hard angles imply danger or stubbornness. And jagged, erratic lines imply energy, confusion or imbalance. A cuddly and sympathetic little bear cub will work well with mostly curved shapes, but his angry, battle-worn, man-eating grandfather might be a bit more angular. Try balancing straights against curves for interesting variety. A few simple lines in a circle can not only indicate a face, but also demonstrate a surprisingly large range of emotions depending on their lengths and angles (see Figure 42). Appropriately-placed lines can also indicate proportions and attitude (see Figure 43).

Basic overall shapes can also have connotative qualities. A V-shaped head might belong to a character with an abnormally large brain, while an A-shaped head looks more Neanderthal (see Figure 44). Similarly, someone with a V-shaped body might not necessarily be stronger than someone with a body shaped like an A, but he can most certainly outrun him (see Figure 45).

Try drawing your characters in silhouette to better analyze the appeal and visual connotations of their overall shapes (see Figure 46).

Symmetry is often considered a necessary component of beauty, but introducing variety in elements such as individual eye sizes can make for some rather interesting character designs (see Figure 47). Introducing extreme contrasts is another basic design strategy that can lead to appealing results, especially when applied to cartoon characters. Think about angular chins with rounded cheeks, huge eyes and a small mouth or legs so thin they couldn't possibly support the weight of your character's enormous head (see Figure 48).

Remember that even subtle variations in basic lines, angles and shapes can result in drastic changes in mood and personality.


[Figure 45] Using those same two overall shapes for bodies may suggest the difference between sloth and strength.


[Figure 46] A characters silhouette will reveal his overall shape construction, which can immediately indicate whether he is warm and friendly or perhaps sharp and dangerous.


[Figure 47] Asymmetrical eye sizes can be interesting in cartoon characters.


[Figure 48] Extreme design contrasts, such as huge heads or hands and skinny legs or arms, can be particularly appealing in cartoon characters.


[Figure 50] Posture will help indicate a characters physical condition, emotional state, personality or attitude.


[Figure 49] Try different color schemes in your character drawings.

Biological and Anatomical Specifics

Fur, teeth, number of legs, skin color, fur texture, ear shape and tails can indicate species, while details such as hair length, eye color, nose length and body proportions can imply age, gender, nationality and certain personality traits. Exaggerated physical attributes, such as huge ears, ultra-thin limbs, missing necks or squared-off chins, can also imply intelligence, strength and self-esteem. Shape and curve specifics such as bowed legs or pigeon toes also contribute to characterization. Interesting proportion contrasts, such as a large tummy and a small head or very long legs and a tiny torso, will also add to a character's interest and appeal. Except in the cases of injury, birth defects or mutations, all members of our animal kingdom contain an even number of arms and legs, so try 1, 3 or 5 if you want to suggest an alien race.


Unless your film is going to be black-and-white, experiment with different color schemes and combinations when designing your characters (see Figure 49). Changing a bear from brown to white will result in the suggestion of a different homeland. Making a human character bright green might imply that he is not from this planet. A black top hat might belong to a magician or a 19th-century president, while that same hat in orange or purple might belong to a clown or a pimp.


[Figure 51] The overall posture curve of a character will help imply confidence or perhaps the lack thereof.


[Figure 52] Grooming specifics, such as hairstyles, can help add personality to your characters.


[Figure 53] Clothing choices will help indicate character specifics, such as age, gender and personality.

Posture and Facial Expressions

Chest out, shoulders back and a smirk might imply confidence, while an arched back, drooping shoulders and upturned eyebrows might suggest meekness or depression (see Figure 50). A limp will certainly imply an injury of some kind. Hands on hips and pursed lips might suggest femininity. A character who grins all the time might just be eternally happy, but be careful he could be hiding something quite sinister instead. Pay attention to spine and leg curvature. A cat with a concave spine might be old, hungry or perhaps a bit proud.

That same cat with a convex spine might be stealthy and ready to attack or perhaps extremely agitated. Similarly, the overall posture curve of a character will indicate a lot about his personality, condition or emotional state. Curved postures are natural and dynamic and will imply confidence, age and condition, depending on the overall shape and direction of the arc (see Figure 51). An extremely rigid posture might indicate a missing sense of humor or a creepy disposition. Recall the first time Hannibal Lecter appeared in Silence of the Lambs. His calm but abnormally symmetric and vertical posture was certainly less than reassuring. The way a character sits can also indicate attitude. Crossed arms and crossed legs send a very different message from knees apart and outstretched arms. When designing your characters, draw them in a variety of different poses to discover and suggest mood and personality.

Style, Grooming, and Condition

Hairstyles, mustaches, beards, sideburns, ponytails, baldness, lipstick, eye shadow and nail polish can indicate attitude, age, social status and gender (see Figure 52). The condition of these elements will also say a lot about a character. Someone with torn clothes, unkempt hair, broken fingernails and dirt all over their face might very well be homeless. Then again, this person might simply be following the latest fashion trend. Or he might be wandering away from a recent auto accident or alien abduction.

Clothing and Accessories

Type, color, style and condition of clothing and accessories can imply personality, nationality, age, gender and wealth (see Figure 53). Someone dressed all in black might be a funeral director, a cat burglar or perhaps a deep, introspective poet you couldn't possibly understand. Psychedelic colors imply a free spirit, while browns and grays often belong to more conservative types. A computer nerd might pull his pants up much too high, while a wannabe rap star might wear them a bit too low. Untucked shirts and untied shoes might imply laziness, haste or a casual nature. Hats, scarves, cigarettes, corncob pipes, walking sticks, backpacks, glasses, bowties, snow boots, weapons, pocket protectors, roller skates, jewelry, tattoos and uniforms can also indicate personality as well as profession.



Different levels of exaggeration can indicate extremes in traits, such as strength, confidence, femininity and malevolence. A superhero will appear especially super if his biceps are larger than his head. In general, the larger the teeth, the scarier the shark. Keep in mind, however, that extreme exaggeration can cause the opposite effect. A vampire with 12-inch fangs, a huge cape, giant bat wings, glowing red eyes, foot-long fingernails and enormous, pointed ears will actually be more amusing than a subtler version not more frightening (see Figure 54).

With effective use of the aforementioned tools, the look of your character can directly indicate or merely imply a great deal of information to your audience and quickly establish empathy, familiarity or interest. Once you've successfully established such a connection between your characters and your audience, your viewers will follow your characters' actions and outcomes with interest. Ask yourself what you hope the design of your characters will indicate to your audience.

  • Do you want your viewers to like your protagonist?
  • Should they immediately fear your villain or should they be unaware of his secret agenda?
  • Should they think your protagonist is strong and courageous or nervous and cowardly?
  • Male or female?
  • Straight or gay?
  • Old or young?
  • Rich or poor?
  • Terrestrial or alien?
  • Animal, mineral or vegetable?
[Figure 55] It is usually a good idea to vary proportions between partners or teammates.

[Figure 55] It is usually a good idea to vary proportions between partners or teammates.

Play around with some of these design elements and see what kind of information your character can exhibit through visual cues alone. However, keep in mind that most visual design cues can be interpreted in many ways depending on the nationality, culture, history, experience and opinions of your viewers. Snakes will attract some viewers but scare others. Horn-rimmed glasses might remind one person of his favorite aunt but bring up painful memories of a strict and abusive third-grade teacher to someone else.

Designing Multiple Characters

When you are designing partners, teams or groups, it is generally a good idea to include a fair amount of variety unless you are creating a swarm of killer robot spiders (where it might be more appropriate to make them all exactly alike). Contrasting shapes, sizes, and styles can often make for interesting visual and relationship dynamics (see Figure 55). The short, stout man with the tall, thin wife is a familiar combination. The seven dwarves are all approximately the same size, but each has his own style, look and, of course, personality.


[Figure 56] A model sheet showing your character from a variety of different angles will greatly assist you in the future modeling stage.


[Figure 57] A nice, detailed drawing does not necessarily always make for a good CG character design image. Make sure you focus on dimensional specifics, such as shape, volume and proportions, rather than line calligraphy and shading when you

Character Design Progression

It is often perfectly acceptable and sometimes even crucial to your narrative to alter a character's physical attributes over time. Examples include overall size increase or decrease, black eyes, smeared makeup, a new crew cut, a torn shirt, an uncharacteristic wardrobe, improved posture or a shaved beard and mustache. Making such a change can contribute to the indication of a character's development, growth or decline over the course of your story. If Sammy the Slob shows up in an expensive and well-pressed Armani suit, it might not necessarily indicate any particular change in his attitude or personality, but it will likely indicate that something significant has occurred (or is about to occur) in his life. Perhaps he won the lottery, finally got a real job or is about to meet his girlfriend's parents for the first time.

Model Sheets

It is always a good idea to create formal model sheets of your characters, especially if you are working with a team. Since you will be designing three-dimensional characters, an effective model sheet will show each of them from several different angles (see Figure 56). A variety of poses and facial expressions as well as head and hand close-ups, silhouettes, translucent drawings showing the basic underlying forms and a few descriptive notes are also important details to include. Character design should be a fun, exploratory process, so draw a lot. Filling up a page or two with a series of small blitz drawings of your character in many different poses and actions is also an excellent way to get to know your character and provide this information to your teammates.

When you design characters using pencil or brush, it is important to realize that although 2D elements such as line quality and paint strokes will deliver style and appeal to drawings and paintings, they do not translate into 3D. By all means, include such artistic details in your two-dimensional artwork, but pay particular attention to volume, color, shape, proportion, posture and texture. A poor character design might become a better drawing if you add interesting, calligraphic lines and cross-hatched shading patterns, but doing so will not help the digital sculptor you will eventually become (see Figure 57). Always think in terms of three-dimensional space and movement when you are designing your characters.


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

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