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'Inspired 3D Short Film Production': Visual Elements of Effective Character Design -- Part 4

In the fourth part on character design from the book Inspired 3D Short Film Production, Jeremy Cantor and Pepe Valencia look at behavior.

Be sure to check out Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 of this multi-part series.

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.

Character Development Tool 4: Behavior

No matter how effectively you design a character, his true nature will ultimately be defined by his actions, reactions, and interactions. As the comedian Bill Maher once suggested, You are what you do. In most short films, there simply isnt enough time to fully develop a character this way. Therefore, you must apply shortcuts to successfully characterize through behavior. Exaggerated mannerisms are often quite effective in this capacity. A man who strokes his chin, a girl who twirls her hair, or a cat that limps will be immediately identifiable every time he or she is displayed on screen. In Moonsung Lees Bert, the small vegetable characters trip and fall often. This recurring mannerism helps to identify them as children. Often, providing a character with one or two quick initial actions or gestures is sufficient to tell the audience all they really need to know about a characters personality and goals (see Figure 58). In The Wrong Trouser s, Gromit (the dog) reads a birthday card at the breakfast table and dismisses it with a roll of his eyes. This quick, singular action indicates that he is not only more intelligent than your average illiterate canine, but perhaps a bit less childish as well. Within a few seconds of seeing this character for the first time, viewers have all the information they need to decide whether theyll identify with (or at least be interested in) this character.

[Figure 58] Deep characterization through behavior is next to impossible in the limited timeframe of most shorts. Therefore, one or two indicative actions in the beginning of a film can be an excellent shortcut for defining a characters

[Figure 58] Deep characterization through behavior is next to impossible in the limited timeframe of most shorts. Therefore, one or two indicative actions in the beginning of a film can be an excellent shortcut for defining a characters


Behavior is made up of actions and choices. How your character dictates or responds to the events and other characters of your story will define his personality. Is he confident or meek? Intelligent or mentally challenged? Selfish or altruistic? Stubborn or flexible? Serious or comedic? If he decides to kill someone, he will be seen as a villain. If he decides to kick a dog, he will be seen as a really horrible villain. If chooses to run from danger, he is either a coward or rather practical. If he chooses to face a threat head-on, he is either brave or stupid. Keep in mind that in order for a characters decisions to inform an audience of his nature and personality, his choices must not be obvious or trivial. Youll learn nothing about a character who simply chooses pleasure over pain or wealth over poverty. Rather, a character will define who he really is based on the difficult choices he makes for instance, wealth-plus-misery vs. poverty-plus-happiness. Choosing between two negatives might shed some light on a character as well. In Martin Scorseses Casino, a pair of cheaters is caught with their dishonest winnings. One gets his hand smashed by a hammer. The other is given a choice: The money and the hammer or no money and the door. The latter might seem like the obvious choice to most people, but a particularly greedy masochist might take the former. Choosing between a pair of positive scenarios can also be rather difficult. Two dates for the prom sounds like an ideal situation, but the ultimate decision will leave at least one member of the equation somewhat disappointed.

Probably the most effective situation in which you can fully develop a character is by showing how he attempts to solve the main conflict of your story. This is where the men are separated from the boys, the strong are separated from the weak, the cunning are separated from the foolish and often the living are separated from the dead. No choices are more telling than those made under pressure.

Character Arcs

A series of actions, reactions, choices and interactions will ultimately bring about a change in your protagonists physical, geographical, social, or mental status. For your story to be particularly interesting, it helps if this change goes from one extreme to another or perhaps comes full circle back to the original status. Examples include:

  • Life to death

  • Rich to poor

  • Naïve to wise

  • Indifferent to in love

  • Drunk to sober

  • Desert island to the civilized world

  • Male to female

  • Rags to riches to rags

  • Loner to social butterfly, then outcast again

Such a change in a characters status is known as a character arc. The central plot of many stories is actually contained within the physical or mental arc of the protagonist, rather than through a series of external events. More often than not, plots and character arcs intertwine to form a narrative whole.

For a character to arc, he must have some degree of free will and the capacity to act upon his desires and goals. A paralyzed man who dreams of Olympic gold will not initiate much of a story unless he makes a miraculous recovery, lives vicariously through another or has his story told as a dream sequence. Make sure the characters you create have the desire and ability to participate in the story you want to tell.

Some characters are tragic, and a downward-spiraling arc will indicate this most effectively. Other characters are comedic in nature, often because their behavior indicates that they are not aware of their flaws. Buzz Lightyear is funny because he believes himself to be something more than just a toy and he behaves accordingly. Dan Bransfields Fishman is humorous because he actually thinks hes a pretty good superhero. If the arc of a flawed character brings about an awareness of his dysfunction, it will no longer be an amusing element of his personality. If Archie Bunker had ever suddenly realized the folly of his bigotry, he wouldve become hesitant or introspective, and the flaw would no longer have been humorous. If handled properly, such a drastic personality change can make for a rather interesting character arc or plot progression.

[Figure 59] Most characters will behave in ways that are consistent with their true nature.

[Figure 59] Most characters will behave in ways that are consistent with their true nature.

Dominant Character Traits

Most story characters tend to have a singular, dominant trait and the majority of their actions will be consistent with this personality detail (see Figure 59). Recall the fable of the scorpion who hitched a ride on the back of a tortoise to cross a river, but stung the tortoise before reaching the other side, drowning them both, because he couldnt escape his true nature. Sometimes it can be interesting for a character to behave outside of his true nature; however, a good reason must exist for this occurrence or your audience will lose their connection with your character.

Gender and Age Specifics

When you are creating aliens, monsters, and otherwise abstract or inanimate story characters, it is generally not necessary to indicate gender and age. However, when you are creating humans or familiar animals it is often a good idea to do so, either through design or through behavior.

Through Design

In terms of design, it usually helps to exaggerate the otherwise subtle and stereotypical differences that exist between males, females, children and adults to sufficiently sell the identity of your characters. With regard to human beings, females tend to have rounder edges, thinner necks and noses, larger eyes with longer lashes, fuller lips, longer hair, wider hips, smaller ribcages, longer legs and smaller feet. Women typically dress and accessorize differently than men. Dangling earrings, heavy makeup, sparkling jewelry, bathing-suit tops, skirts and high heels do not always necessarily indicate gender, but these accoutrements do imply a certain degree of femininity. Exaggerating physical tendencies is definitely appropriate when designing cartoony humans.

[Figure 60] Design specifics can easily indicate gender and age.

[Figure 60] Design specifics can easily indicate gender and age.

Animal gender differences are usually indistinguishable to the casual observer. Exceptions include lions and antelopes. You can, however, adorn cartoony animals with typically human attributes to indicate gender.

Human children tend to have shorter limbs; larger heads; smaller, upturned noses; bigger eyes and ears; and fewer hard edges. Certain grooming styles and articles of clothing, such as large hair bows, pigtails, saddle shoes, oversized short pants, mittens and absence of facial hair, can also help indicate youth (see Figure 60). With regard to animal proportions, youngsters tend to have larger eyes, ears and feet, with shorter legs and tails. Cartoony animals often wear clothing; therefore, dressing them like human children is often appropriate and effective.

Through Behavior

Indicating an animated characters gender through behavior often requires exaggeration, politically incorrect generalizations, and a bit of stereotyping. For instance, it has been said that men seek to control their emotions with logic, while women often control their logic with their emotions. Men seem to prefer shopping rather methodically, while women seem to enjoy a more casual approach. Men often elect to repair their own cars and program their VCRs on their own, while women will often seek help or read the directions. Women will tend to be calmer in extreme situations, but they freak out if they see a tiny spider. Men will attempt to solve their friends problems by offering advice or assistance in physical retaliation, while women will provide a good hug instead. Girls play house, while boys like guns. And girls tend to be cleaner and more polite. How might these stereotypical tendencies manifest themselves in the behavior of your story characters?

With regard to the indication of age, children tend to be less subtle, less balanced and more extreme in their reactions. They often carry toys and will generally respond more physically than their adult counterparts. Children tend to act before they think, while adults strive to do the opposite (although they often fail). Adult dialogue is often more sophisticated and less direct. Children tend to get right to the point even if they cant always find the right words.

Remember that all of these are mere generalizations, but it is very often necessary to exaggerate stereotypical differences to effectively indicate age and gender in animated story characters.

The Sliding Scale

When you are creating a film character who will not be intentionally lifeless or generic, your goal will be to eventually establish a relationship between that character and your audience. The longer your film, the deeper that relationship needs to be to keep your audience engaged. In a feature film, the connection between a viewer and a story character can be considered a long-term relationship. Because of the depth of this relationship, the audience members will ultimately expect to get to know the protagonist rather intimately. To accomplish this effectively, a feature film must present a sufficiently long series of actions, reactions, decisions, explanations, interactions and conversations. The benefit of the long form is that it allows for a more gradual pace when delivering these behaviors, and this slow, complex delivery results in relatively deep character development. Once a character has been on the screen for several minutes, the audience will start to wonder about his history and goals. Who is this guy? Where did he come from? What is he trying to accomplish? At some point during the course of a feature film, these questions must be addressed to keep the audience engaged.

In a very short film, however, the protagonist will be little more than a passing acquaintance to an audience member. Your viewers wont care so much about the specifics of your character because your film will be over by the time they start asking questions. Therefore, more shallow (but not altogether absent) character development is often perfectly acceptable in a short film. You must still establish an audience-protagonist connection, but you must do so rapidly. This is most effectively accomplished through descriptive design, exaggerated mannerisms and, perhaps, introductory text, narration or dialogue.

[Figure 61] The shorter your film, the more you must rely on indicative design for characterization. Behavior is generally a preferred characterization tool in longer films.

[Figure 61] The shorter your film, the more you must rely on indicative design for characterization. Behavior is generally a preferred characterization tool in longer films.

Behavior is the most effective and appropriate character development tool in a longer film, while design is especially effective and appropriate in a very short film. The in-betweens will exist on a sliding scale (see Figure 61). At one end of the spectrum sits the four-hour epic, in which design is preferably more subtle and a multitude of actions, reactions, conversations and choices are presented. At the other end of the spectrum is the 30-second gag, in which there is only time for perhaps one or two actions therefore, design is usually quite descriptive and often much more exaggerated. The longer your film, the more you can rely on gradual development through behavior. The shorter your film, the more you must rely on design and exaggeration.

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). Read more about the Inspired series and check back to VFXWorld frequently to read new excerpts.

Authors Jeremy Cantor and Pepe Valencia.

Authors Jeremy Cantor and Pepe Valencia.

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, Charlies Angels: Full Throttle, Stuart Little 2, Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone, Stuart Little, Hollow Man, Godzilla and Starship Troopers. For more information, go to his Webpage at