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The Basics of Character Design

Why do so many people love Pixar? Sure, the studio makes clever movies that are fun for the whole family. The animation is pleasing, and the set designs take viewers out of their everyday lives to explore something new. But what stands out most in Pixar’s movies? The characters.

Pixar characters are hard to forget. Woody and Buzz are forever ingrained in the imaginations of anyone who grew up with Toy Story. And viewers would be hard-pressed to forget fluffy, blue Sully and grinning, one-eyed Mike from Monsters, Inc.

Even if they’re not Pixar fans, everyone can name an animated character that’s made a lasting impression on them. Whether the character is from a video game, TV series, or film, a well-designed character can feel like an old friend.

These feelings don’t happen by accident. Great characters are memorable because character designers work hard to make them that way. Artists put time and effort into creating characters that evoke emotions, and entice viewers, players, or readers to get invested in what will happen to these characters next. Let’s explore what it takes to create an animated character that we know and love.

 

What’s the purpose of character design?

In video games and animated television, character designs are key to making audiences connect with on-screen protagonists. In order to engage viewers, characters have to exhibit unique personalities and appear visually stimulating.

In other words, they must be able to express a wide range of emotions. Therefore, designing a character entails knowing what that character will look like in a number of different emotional situations—happy, sad, angry, and exuberant—and in a variety of different positions—facing forward, facing sideways, running, sitting, and hiding.

To accomplish this trying feat, a character designer needs a range of artistic skills. They start with basic skills in illustration, and end with highly technical skills—such as knowing how to accurately shade a 3D figure, and to successfully navigate design programs (including Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop).

Besides having graphic art skills, character designers also need to understand people: What makes them tick? After all, designing a character isn’t only visual. The process involves knowing a character inside and out, so that its design reveals a cohesive personality. So in this profession, a little understanding of human psychology and a sense of humor can go a long way.

 

What kinds of work do character designers do?

All visual stories need characters. While designing characters for video games may seem like the most glamorous career option in this field, designing figures for educational videos and textbooks can be just as fulfilling. Thanks to the wide variety of media that storytellers use today, character designers may get work designing picture books, graphic novels, comics, cartoon series, animated movies, computer games, mobile games, and/or video games.

Each of these media presents a unique character-design challenge for either freelancers or full-time employees to tackle.

Some clients may approach character designers with a written story. The designer’s job is then to create images of characters that had previously been described using only words.

Other times, clients will come to designers with the general concept for their video game characters. In such cases, they may expect character designers to stick to rigid rules when creating these characters. (This character needs to be male, X height, Y weight, wearing this type of clothing, and have this sort of face.)  Or a client may just ask the designer to come up with characters that will fit into the game’s world. In both cases, intuition is key to coming up with characters that embody the client’s vision.

The character design process

As with any process that requires lots of thought, time, and effort, the character design process should begin with research. Before designers even set pencil to paper (or paintbrush tool to Adobe Illustrator canvas), they must have an understanding of who their character is.

Some important questions include:

  • Where did the character come from?
  • Where do they currently live?
  • How old are they?
  • What is their general disposition?
  • Who is this character’s target audience?
  • What are their hopes and dreams?
  • What are their motives?

Once character designers have locked down that information, they can start some informed research. If the character comes from a northern, woodland setting, relevant research might include looking up such environments, and seeing what kinds of creatures live there. For instance, ask:

  • What do those creatures look like?
  • How do they move?
  • Do they have fur, hair, or feathers?

All of this information can help inform character art, even when it comes to completely fictional creatures. The most out-there fictional characters have some basis in real-world beings.

How to get started

Besides taking into account a character’s background, character artists need to keep other important visual considerations in mind when beginning a sketch. These considerations are mostly audience-related. How does a character designer (or the designer’s client) want the audience to perceive the character?

First impressions are everything, and this concept is especially true when it comes to animated or drawn characters. While live actors are chosen to play a part because they can approximate a character’s essence, the design of an animated character is 100% deliberate.

Visual artists have complete control over their charactersin a way that directors, makeup artists, and costume designers can only dream of achieving with on-screen actors. To take advantage of this control, character designers must think about how to express their characters’ personalities by exaggerating certain features.

Character designers often take a lot of time during this initial step. They create countless versions of the same character, altering feature after feature until they come up with the sketch that best depicts the character’s essence and background.

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For a character that’s often surprised, playing around with different types of big, wide eyes might offer the desired result. And characters that are always the butts of jokes might need silly features. It’s the designer’s job to figure out what will provoke laughter from the target audience by trying a bunch of different combinations of features.

While character designers need to get creative for their jobs, they also have to adhere to basic anatomical rules. Of course, certain creatures are totally whimsical, mythical beasts that don’t correspond to any existing human or animal proportions. However, all characters ultimately have to fit into a universe—the one where their particular story takes place.

All universes have a set of rules. By developing a character, designers have to adhere to those rules—which could mean sticking to classic human proportions, or staying true to an environment where all living beings walk on their heads and see through their toes. Regardless, designing within a specific, logical universe is key, whether or not it’s the logic we’re used to here on earth.

Making a thumbnail

With a solid idea of how the character will look, designers can then create a thumbnail, which is a basic version of the sketch that communicates important details about the design to clients. In all likelihood, this thumbnail will not include color, or feature many of the finer details that will appear in the final design.

At this stage, designers often focus on the character’s silhouette. They must ask this question: If someone colored this character entirely in black, would viewers still be able to recognize it? In other words, would a thumbnail of a pirate still look like a thief on a ship if its entire form was a shadow, with only shapes (no colors or details) to define it? Or would it just look like a big, black lump?

To answer these questions, designers have to pay attention to negative space (the empty space around the character) to make sure that the character is easily recognizable to viewers—even when it’s shrouded in shadows.

Play around

Now character designers can really start to fill in the blanks. Choosing the right color palette, making a variety of outfits, and experimenting with some different poses all make characters more dynamic. Essentially, designers can bring a character to life during this part of the process.

At this point, character designers have to remember not to stray too far from the character’s original premise. For instance, the colors of the clothing have to fit the character’s mission and setting. As designers move through this process, it sometimes helps to keep a list of the character’s key elements nearby, just to make sure that artists stay on track.

Finalize and polish

Light and shadow make characters appear 3-dimensional. A character wouldn’t be very convincing if its appearance didn’t change, based on sunlight and shade.

When adding light to an initial character design, artists need to choose a light source. This determines the angle that light hits the character, which means that it also indicates where shadows fall.

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Illustrator and cartoonist Denis Zilber offers a very effective lesson on light sources. He also goes over ambient occlusion, which is a fancy term for “shadows within shadows.” Ambient occlusion can bring an increased level of realism to any fictional character. It details how 3D characters interact with the real world.

A quick look at character-design software

When it comes to designing characters, these two programs can go a long way:  Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop. Both offer a series of brushes, colors, textures, and editing tools. In fact, any program that allows a designer to make precise changes and easy edits should perform well in this field.

Some design programs double as animation software. They can be great options for character designers working in 3D or creating highly realistic, lifelike characters. Adobe After Effects, Maya, and Blender all fit into this category.

The character design style spectrum

If you’ve come across advertisements, cartoons, video games, or picture books during your time on earth, chances are that you’ve encountered a wide variety of character designs. These styles range from abstract and 2D to hyperrealistic. Creating each type requires a specific skill set (on top of the skills already mentioned).

When covering the basics, there’s no need to go into all of these character types. However, it’s worth getting a sense of the variety of styles that modern character designers have in their artistic arsenals.

On one end, there’s the flat, simple style often found in shows on Cartoon Network. This easy-to-use character-creator program for “Adventure Time” lays bare the technical simplicity of such characters.

Their features are made of basic shapes, such as circles, dots, and rectangles. They’re colored in blocks and don’t have any shading, other than slightly darker or lighter tones that suggest shadow or heavy sun. This program makes animation as simple as the complex animation process can be, and often results in kid-friendly designs.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are the hyper-realistic characters that people most likely encounter when playing certain video games. Remember The Sims? These characters are about 100 times more humanoid than them.

Through programs like Adobe Illustrator, some artists can achieve highly realistic characters. Unreal Engine is a software framework for video game development, so it’s another tool that character designers can use to create extremely lifelike figures. Such characters fall short of photorealism, but their movements, features, and expressions closely portray living beings. Their creators follow strict rules about shading, and the characters react to stimuli as real, three-dimensional creatures would.

There are countless other styles. For instance, there are extremely detailed 2D figures, and characters that pop off the screen but refuse to follow the rules of physics. From flat to full and whimsical to straightforward, creating characters requires the full use of an artist’s imagination.

 

Starting a character design career

Ultimately, character design entails plenty of observation and practice. No character is completely original, and that’s okay. All artists require inspiration from previous works. Studying existing characters and learning from past styles helps designers come up with new concepts.

Though character design is a niche field, it borrows from the wider art world. Character designers often begin as art students, and learn a range of technical and critical skills before honing in on the character-design profession.

Art is just one discipline that informs character design. Computing, engineering, and other technical skills may also contribute to the character designer’s toolkit. For example, in the University of Utah’s program for game design, students participate in both art and engineering courses, in order to get a fuller picture of the field they’re about to enter.

Collaboration between departments prepares students for jobs in the real world. Character designers have to fit into a much larger ecosystem, in order to create inspired final products. Characters need a team of accomplished storytellers to bring them to life, and some of those storytellers need to be character designers. In other words, they need to be people who can communicate a character’s entire history and personality through its design.

After all, no story is complete without the characters that move it forward. What would Toy Story be without Woody and Buzz?

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