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'Inspired 3D Short Film Production': -- Visual Elements of Effective Character Design -- Part 5

Wrapping up the character design section from Inspired 3D Short Film Production, Jeremy Cantor and Pepe Valencia get into the feelings of the characters and how that effects design decisions.

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, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4 of this multi-part series.

How Do You Feel about Your Characters?

Once youve at least partially designed your characters and given some thought to their onscreen actions and reactions, it is important to consider how you feel about them. Remember that your relationship with your characters will be significantly longer than that of your audience; therefore, it is especially important for you to like or be interested in your protagonists, antagonists, and supporting players. As the psychologists say, if you dont like yourself nobody else will. The same is true for your story characters. Try to look at your character designs objectively and decide whether they inspire concern, curiosity, neither or both. If your good guy makes you sneer and your villain makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside, you might indeed require professional help, but more than likely your designs could use a bit of rethinking.


[Figure 62] Using software to mess around with a drawing or a photo is an excellent method for coming up with a new, caricatured or severely exaggerated character.


[Figure 63] Mixing elements from different genres or species can lead to some interesting results.

Where to Get Ideas for Characters

Ideas for your characters can come from almost anywhere. For example:

  • Think of a person or a pet you know (or knew) and then vary, exaggerate, twist or caricature with subtlety or reckless abandon. For design, try using Photoshop or morphing software such as Elastic Reality to alter a photograph of your chosen victim (Figure 62).

  • For behavior, consider the feelings that come up when you think about this individual, and use that information to drive the choices your story counterpart will make. Exaggerate what you know or remember about this person or animal. If it was your strict grandfather who liked watching films, have him behave like a drill sergeant and regularly quote famous movie lines. If it was your small and gentle pet garter snake, perhaps make him a rather large and ferocious king cobra instead.

  • Combine elements from the genre/style matrix (see Figure 63). Put a tigers head on a robot body, bat wings on a swordfish or a pair of space antennae on an old man.

  • Anthropomorphize a non-living entity. You can accomplish this by giving character to a non-character or by adding human elements to an otherwise inanimate object, such as facial features and appendages to a traffic light (see Figure 64), or lifelike animation to an office supply (Luxo Jr.). Flip through a toy or gadget catalog for ideas. Or take the opposite approach and make an animal, alien or toy based on a real celebrity or a historical figure (such as Rover Dangerfield).

  • Alter, multiply, mix up or omit anatomical elements. Give a human six arms or a giant chin. Put someones eyes on the back of his head. Omit a torso and just have the arms and legs emanate from an oversized head (see Figure 65).


  • Think of interesting contradictions or juxtapositions. Examples of this might include a Chihuahua puppy as a guard dog; a six-foot-tall infant; or a typically ferocious, flying mythological creature who has tiny wings and behaves like a coward (Run, Dragon, Run!!!). (See Figure 66.)

  • Try immersion. Look at a large number of character images from comic books, action figures, animated films, childrens books and video games. Then close your eyes and let your internal sensory overload combine elements from these various sources in new and interesting ways.

  • Imagine the world or setting of your story and then consider who might live or operate in such a place. Who lives in the jungle? What types of mutated insects or reptiles might live near a nuclear power plant with questionable safety standards? Who lingers in dark alleys? (See Figure 67.) How has evolution dictated the physical attributes of your alien characters who live on a gravity-free world that is always 400 degrees below zero?
[Figures 65 & 66] Try leaving out major anatomical elements (left), such as arms, mouths or, in this case, a torso. Contradictions make for interesting characters (right), such as a cowardly dragon or a fuzzy, floppy-eared warrior.

[Figures 65 & 66] Try leaving out major anatomical elements (left), such as arms, mouths or, in this case, a torso. Contradictions make for interesting characters (right), such as a cowardly dragon or a fuzzy, floppy-eared warrior.

  • Consider your plot progression and then think about what kind of characters will be appropriate to your story. An underdog-beats-the-odds scenario might require an introverted little schoolboy with a pocket protector and thick-rimmed glasses. A natural catastrophe might need a superhero or a particularly tenacious military official to save the day. A futuristic space battle should probably involve a few interesting aliens or robots.

  • Consider your characters profession or goal and then give him appropriate physical and mental attributes, a proper uniform and all the right tools. A mountain climber will be lean, fit, determined and adorned with ropes, spikes and energy bars. A restaurant critic might be overweight and carry a notepad. A junkyard dog will probably be large, ugly, missing one eye and drool a lot.
[Figure 67] Who might live in one of these places?

[Figure 67] Who might live in one of these places?

  • Start with your characters nemesis. What kind of resourceful hero will rid the city of its giant rat infestation? Who might slay the evil dragon? Who will save the day when Shotgun Sherman escapes from prison and comes to town to exact revenge on the elderly and unsuspecting sheriff? Will it be the deputy, the town drunk,or young Timmy and his trusty slingshot?

  • Begin with a name. What will Shotgun Sherman look like? How about Joey The Squirrel Rigatoni or Doctor Henrietta Frankenstein? How might a pitbull named Gandhi behave? What kind of eating habits can we expect from Albert the Anaconda?

  • Take a blank sheet of paper and allow your pencil to wander aimlessly around until something interesting or familiar begins to appear. Then explore and refine until something more concrete develops. Draw some scribbles and random shapes of differing sizes and then add facial features and appendages. Grab a hunk of clay and start pushing and pulling until you see someone you know.


[Figure 68] Using various shapes and sizes of simple objects such as 3D puzzle pieces within a CG software package can be a playful way to invent a new character.


[Figure 69] Use Mother Natures imaginative animal design sense as a catalyst for your creatures.
  • Work in a similar exploratory fashion with some CG modeling software. Assemble a pile of primitive shapes and then translate, rotate, scale, connect and combine them until some interesting and more complex designs begin to materialize (see Figure 68). Create a sphere with a large number of vertices and start pulling points and adding deformers until you see something appealing, then run with it.

  • Put descriptive words in a hat and pull out a few. Man, woman, old, young, policeman, stupid, Martian, dog, unicorn, alcoholic, extroverted, overweight Put two or three together at random and then try to draw the resulting combination.

  • Go people-watching. Sit in a park or ride the subway and observe clothing, hairstyles, accessories and behavior. Then go home and invent a story around someone you saw. Combine elements from a number of different individuals into a single unique character. Or do the same with zoo animals.

  • Try to think of an animal species that hasnt been used too many times. Cats, dogs, birds, mice, fish, dragons, rabbits, ducks, ants and dinosaurs have all gotten more than their fair share of attention from storytellers and character designers. How about a lemur, a tapeworm or a Portuguese man-of-war instead? Collect reference images from nature books and then try to create caricatured, cartoony or abstract versions of some of the less popular members of the animal kingdom. If you cant find any new ones, create your own by combining elements from a few different animals.

  • When designing creatures, examine animals. Go zoo-drawing and look at animal documentaries and textbooks, especially those that feature predators, deep-sea animals or insect close-ups, such as the film Microcosmos. As it turns out, Mother Nature is an extremely creative character designer, and many film creatures have been based on existing animal species (see Figure 69).

  • Look at rocks, clouds, and trees, searching for suggestions of faces and figures (see Figure 70). Sketch your findings and then evolve them into more complex or realistic entities with some appropriate personality traits and perhaps clothing.

  • Choose a fundamental emotion and build a character around it. Psychologists list the six basic emotions as happiness, sadness, anger, disgust, surprise and fear. Each could very well be the central character trait of a protagonist, a villain or a sidekick. Use variations of these six as catalysts for a characters physical attributes and behavior.

  • Peruse a psychology text or a book on personality types. One such book is The Writers Guide to Character Traits by Linda N. Edelstein. Select a few character traits (preferably disorders or dysfunctions) and see whether the corresponding descriptions inspire any ideas. Edelsteins book describes physical and mental conditions such as amnesia, insomnia and hypochondria. Analysis of such disorders and their corresponding causes and manifestations might have been the inspiration for films such as Memento and Hannah and Her Sisters. Perhaps reading the characteristics of narcolepsy or schizophrenia might generate some ideas.


[Figure 71] Fill a page with a series of small, quick blitz drawings to find your characters look and personality.
[Figure 70] Find interesting faces, figures and postures in the real world.
  • Do some blitz drawing. Rapidly fill a few pages with quick sketches of figures, faces, animals, aliens, clothing styles, and interesting poses. Dont worry about quality, just quantity. See how many different character doodles you can spew out in 30 minutes. Explore and exaggerate with reckless abandon, and dont erase. Just keep drawing (see Figure 71). Try different styles and species. Close your eyes on occasion and if a character appears before your minds eye, put him down on paper as quickly as possible.
  • Use or alter standard archetypes. Investigate such sources such as Joseph Campbells Hero with a Thousand Faces and the Italian Commedia dellarte theater for characters, such as mentors, shape shifters, tricksters, harlequins, wealthy misers and arrogant captains. Consider variations on typical character types from stage and screen, such as the wacky neighbor, the trusted canine companion, the voice of reason, the oppressive boss, the clueless parent, the clown sidekick, the elusive love interest or any of the seven dwarves.


Show Them to Others

Show your character designs to others and note their reactions. Ask your viewer to tell you something about your character based on what they see. Do they like, hate, fear or feel sympathy for your characters? If their response is not what you planned or expected, you might want to review your design elements.

A Few Examples

Lets take a moment to examine a few unique and interesting CG characters with regard to the concepts discussed in this chapter.

Bart Goldmans Robobird is a hybrid character that combines robotic design elements with those of a wingless bird (see Figure 72). His relative size is established by the inclusion of the lampposts in this image. The overall design is elegantly simple, while details such as gears and pistons help to clarify its mechanical nature. This character would be fun to animate, and the limited number of moving parts would make him highly interactive as well. Based on his displayed behavior, Robobirds personality appears curious and instinctive. A couple of details that might further refine this character would be some texture mapping and perhaps a name.

[Figures 73 & 74] Phil McNallys Vic Vinyl (left) from Pump Action and Francois DeBues Goffer (right) from Sahari.

[Figures 73 & 74] Phil McNallys Vic Vinyl (left) from Pump Action and Francois DeBues Goffer (right) from Sahari.

Phil McNallys Vic Vinyl from his short film, Pump Action, has a maniacal expression and exhibits sadistic behavior, clearly identifying him as a rather psychotic villain (see Figure 73). This character is particularly interesting because one does not normally associate the notion of evil with balloon people. The design elements and behavior that create this contradiction make this character especially unique. Vics design is fairly simple and was therefore presumably not too difficult to model and rig. Using mitten hands and drawing rather than sculpting his face are a couple of design choices that contribute to Vics overall simplicity and readability. Other details, such as seam folds, an inflation valve, and a plastic hook on the top of his head, add interest and believability. The alternating colors of his different body parts also help with readability.

Goffer from Francois DeBues Sahari is an amusing space alien, identified as such by his green skin and helmet (see Figure 74). According to his bio (, Goffer is a member of the half-man, half-gherkin race of Agurkans from the planet, Agurk. He is 30 years old, weighs 75 kg, is 1.85 meters tall, and believes himself to be a great leader, despite the fact that he is employed as the mother ships janitor. This disparity between his self image and his true identity defines most of his onscreen behavior. Much of Goffers appeal comes from his proportions and facial structure. He has a thick, rounded chest, very thin arms and legs and large feet. He has no ears or nose, thus focusing attention on his large mouth, goofy eyes and expressive brows. His two lower fangs add a bit of personality and humor to his expression. Goffers design is a bit more complex than that of the first two examples; therefore, he was presumably a bit more difficult to model and rig. However, he still certainly falls under the category of elegant simplicity and does not contain any unnecessary details. Goffer is friendly but perhaps a bit too trusting; his curiosity ultimately gets the best of him.

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