CAP 101 - Concept & Character Development

Lesson 1 - Creating from a Script


This lesson introduces the student creating and drawing characters based on a script. Objectives important to this lesson:

  1. Different kinds of character designers, and where they fit in the animation business
  2. Fundamental concepts of Character creation
  3. The character hierarchy - levels of detail in characters
  4. How to sketch a character based on a script definition. What details can you get that are not spelled out in the script?
  5. Create characters using geometric design method

The Creating Characters with Personality text begins with a discussion about character designers, and gives us some details about two general types of character designers. General observations about design work:

  • a character designer may be an artist called in to create characters based on a script, an idea, or an existing work in a different medium
  • a character designer may have to work within constraints such as making a character look like an actor who has been cast for the voice of the character, adding details from historical research, changing physical attributes to support story details, and placing the character at the right level of a hierarchy (see below)

Two types of character designers:

  • blue sky designer - This designer comes up with designs "out of the clear blue sky", but will also work within constraints to create several different concepts for one or more characters. This kind of designer will throw out a lot of rough ideas to see what the people who give approval will like.
  • character polisher - This kind of designer may refine, combine ideas, or just finish a design based on the work of the blue sky designer(s). The polisher will set a standard for each character that must be followed throughout the rest of the project.
Added value: This discussion is not in your book.

The Pixar web site has a nice lesson on how their animated movies are made. Think about their sequence in terms of the two artists above:

  1. The pitch - A rough story is presented, perhaps with blue sky designer illustrations. The polisher may be needed next if the pitch is approved.
  2. The text treatment - Writers flesh out the story, and may go through several versions. No art needed at this time.
  3. Storyboards - The designer is called in (or back) to make a comic strip version of the approved story.
  4. Voice talent records the script - Several takes on each scene are done. (Animation of the scenes is done after the voice recordings are made.)
  5. Editors make reels - Editors use the voice tracks and the storyboards to create a non-animated version of the story.
  6. Art department creates look and feel - Both kinds of designers are needed again. Rough ideas must be submitted, edited, approved, and polished.
  7. Models are sculpted and articulated - This means that the design moves from 2D to 3D, in both models and in computer software. Which kind of designers will you need?
  8. Sets are created and dressed - This means that computer software is used to create each scene, including props (items handled by actors) and stage dressing (items not handled by actors). Which kind of designers will you need?
  9. Shots are laid out - The characters are added to each scene. Think of this as making a 3D version of the storyboards.
  10. Shots are animated - Pixar describes what the animators do as being like operating a puppet, making the on screen character act out the scene to match the voice tracks. Key frames are set, and the animation software adds motion that the animator can modify.
  11. Shading is added - Color and texture are added to surfaces, like fur and reflections.
  12. Lighting - Light sources are added to the scene, adding shadows as well.
  13. Rendering - The raw information in the animation program is used to create a "final" version, frame by frame, of the project.
  14. Final touches - Sound effects, special effects, and music are added. Each frame is transferred to film, if needed.
Designing a Character

Back to the text, the author advises you to think about a character before designing that character. What do you know about the character from the pitch, the treatment, or the script? How does the character look in your mind, given everything you know or can learn about the character? Think about this and make notes before you start drawing.

The author has a system of classifying characters, based on the amount of detail in their drawings. This is not the only system we could use, but it has some good points. Characters can be thought of as falling into a hierarchy, a spectrum that runs from very few details to very many details.

  • Iconic - Characters with the fewest details. Yes, iconic can mean something else. However, the author means "simple design". Simple lines and shapes are used. Look for simple eyes, lack of articulated joints, general lack of detail. I will suggest that Stephan Pastis draws Pearls Before Swine this way. Tom Wilson draws Ziggy this way, too.
  • Simple - More advanced than iconic, including some hair detail, clothing detail, and the capacity to be drawn to show different emotions. Take a look at Bill Amend's FoxTrot. His characters are more detailed than the ones referenced above (hair and more clothing detail), but still lack irises on their eyes and their hands have three fingers (and a thumb).
  • Broad - More facial expression is possible, but the characters are meant for comedy, not for drama. The author notes that the mouth is often disproportionately large. In general, features are exaggerated. Take a look at some Garfield strips here.
  • Comedy Relief - This kind of character is used for humor, but is not meant to "look funny". The character may be used for dramatic acting as well. This level of detail is just under that of a lead character, in the author's opinion. This is a tricky point. In some productions there can be a difference of this type, but not always. Consider this strip from Frank Cho's Liberty Meadows. The two male human characters are drawn in Comedy Relief style. The two animal characters are drawn in Broad style. Brandy (the female character) is drawn in Lead Character style. (See below.)
  • Lead Character - This kind of character will look more real than previous styles. In the Liberty Meadow strip linked above, note that Brandy is drawn with detailed eyes and hair, while there is less detail in the other characters, drawing the reader/viewer's attention to her. As I noted above, not all comics or films will include this level of character difference. More often, a product will have a common level of detail across most of the characters.
  • Realistic - Characters with the most details. This is seldom seen in animation, but may be used for effect in comic strips. For example, sometimes Frank Cho draws one or more panels in extremely high detail, adding some of his Broad characters for contrast (or not). Some artists are known for their realistic style. Look at this collection of holiday-related superhero art. The Neal Adams Batman looks pretty realistic, until you scroll down to the one by Alex Ross, an artist who epitomizes realism.

Links to more comics online.

Assignment 1: examine several other comic strips. Pick examples (other than mine) of each of the styles above. Describe why you think a character or a comic strip displays that style.

The author makes a point about characters that fit together. If several characters are meant to be part of the same story, they look like part of the same story when they are drawn with similar levels of realism. As noted above, exceptions like Liberty Meadows can work, but they are uncommon. Most stories are told with a similar level of realism throughout the story. Keep this in mind when you are creating a cast of characters.

The chapter concludes with a summary of a movie that will be a case study for this class. The author gives you a pitch for a movie, telling the basic story, and describing each of the main characters in one paragraph apiece. You will use this material for reference as you create your own version of each character for this class.

Let's turn to The Art of Flash Animation. First, ignore the preface and the first chapter. They are nice background if you care about why the author wrote this book, but they do not contribute to this class. Mr. Smith begins chapter two with a discussion of three ways to create a character:

  • the frankenstein method - Cobble the character together from parts you have seen or used on other characters, adding new parts to finish the job. This is not meant to excuse plagiarism. Think of it this way: if the blue sky designer described above creates a dozen concepts for a new character, the polisher might take pieces from each of those designs to create a version that the customer/client/boss will approve. In fact, you might to be told to do just that: use this face, that body, those ears, and make it all fit together.
  • the observational method - Observe the world around you, and base characters on things you see. This means you should make sketches when you see something useful, interesting, or just unusual, and use those sketches for material when you need it. This does not mean that a character you draw should be identical to someone in the real world. It means that you use the real world as your starting point. That point can include the physical character, a motivation, movement the real person made, and attitude shown by that person's actions and expressions. In a minute or two, you can have a fleshed out character in search of a story.
  • the random doodle method - The method is explained with an exercise. The author asks you to move a pen or pencil around on a sheet of paper, making curves and lines without looking at them. When you have done so, he asks you so gaze at the jumble of lines, looking for a character. He compares this to looking for shapes in clouds, but it is more than that. You can add to the shapes you see in the doodle, giving the character that you develop more detail as needed. (Try that with a cloud.)

The text turns to a new topic (that is also in chapter two of Creating Characters with Personality): viewing a character as a combination of geometric shapes. Mr. Smith mentions two other methods first, but explains that he does not care for them:

  • the grid method - This method is good for copying an image. You overlay an original sketch or photo with a grid of horizontal and vertical lines. You place a similar grid on your drawing material, and you draw in each square, one at a time. This link will take you to a YouTube video made by an artist who uses this method for creating a painting based on a reference photo. Mr. Smith tells us this is unacceptable for our needs, since we need to draw frames that are different from one another, not exactly the same each time.
  • the gingerbread method - This method starts with an outline, like using a cookie cutter to make a gingerbread man, then adding details as you go. Mr. Smith tells us this leads to flat drawings, as opposed to the next method.
  • the geometric construction method - This method is a good introduction to thinking about your drawings as being three dimensional. Start by looking at a subject (observational method) and look for standard geometric components in that subject: circles, squares, triangles, etc.

Students should read chapter two in both texts to get the idea from two perspectives. Please follow Mr. Smith's instructions, starting on page 47, to draw a version of his 1940s style character.

Mr. Smith introduces the concept of model sheets. A model sheet will be a series of drawings of a single character. Typically, you will include front, back, and side views. His advice to use a three quarter profile view is also a good idea, as is his inclusion of separate views of the character showing several different emotions.

In his discussion of drawing heroic figures, several points are raised that are generally true. Be aware that you will follow these ideas or not, as dictated by your script:

  • Male figures can often be characterized by a triangle whose base starts at the shoulders and whose apex descends to the waist. The base of the triangle may be the widest part of the figure of a hero.
  • Female figures can often be characterized by a triangle whose base starts at the hips and whose apex ascends past the waist. The base of the triangle may be the widest part of the figure of a heroine.
  • Figures in general can be described as being so many heads tall. (Total height is a multiple of the height of the figure's head.) Mr. Smith recommends a hero being six or seven heads tall. Stan Lee recommends making super heroes (and villains) a bit taller than other characters.

Mr. Smith makes several observations about drawing female characters. In the interest of disclosure, I will admit that I do not care for some of his illustrations. However, I agree with some of his advice:

  • Simple is better. For any character you draw, the simpler you make the design, the easier it will be to continue to draw that design in many frames.
  • Give the impression of eyelashes by drawing a single line that is thicker toward the nose and thinner toward the ear. Drawing individual eyelashes will not work in a medium shot or long shot. The same goes for hair. Typically, you will draw a shape, not individual hairs, unless you are going for an extreme close up.
  • On the theme of less being more, Mr. Smith continues to say that we should draw little detail on noses. He makes reference to the classic image of Betty and Veronica in Archie comics. Look at this image showing both the classic technique of little detail on a nose, and a more realistic version that was proposed for Archie comics. (Checking the internet, it has not carried over to the main titles.) Not all artists follow this advice. Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury, comes to mind. The characters in the Doonesbury family, in particular, have long, prominent, oddly placed noses.

Mr. Smith makes a few observations about sidekicks. He is talking about the concept called comedy relief in the other text. These characters are typically shorter, and less realistic, but remember that this is a generality, not a requirement. In Monsters Inc., Mike is small and iconic in many shots, but is he less of a lead character than Sully or Boo? Physically, the rule has been followed. As noted in our first text, this kind of character can be used dramatically as well.

General advice about villains is offered:

  • Make the villain as strong as the hero, or there is no conflict. Making the villain stronger than the hero gives the hero something to overcome.
  • Avoid stereotypes for villains, but be aware of stage dressing that works: dark colors, angles instead of smooth lines.

Mr. Smith ends the chapter with advice to copyright your work by filing with the US Copyright Office. His quoted fee of $30 has gone up. Current rates and methods of filing can be found at the address he gives us: Note that it is less expensive to file electronically than by asking for a paper form (it is not downloadable) and mailing it to the copyright office.

Returning to Creating Characters with Personality, Mr. Bancroft discusses some general attributes of various shapes. Again, these are generalities, but they can help you plan a character based on them, or understand a viewer's gut reaction to them.

  • circles and curves - cute, cuddly, good
  • squares - solid, dependable
  • triangles - sinister, suspicious, bad

If a character is built from a series of shapes, the sizes of those shapes can be changed to change the character as well. Mr. Bancroft illustrates the idea by drawing a character with thin or small connectors (arms, legs, neck) between large shapes (head, hands, feet). Using this technique, he makes a more memorable character, but by using it too much, he makes an unappealing character.

Assignment 2: on page 39 in Creating Characters, follow Mr. Bancroft's directions to make a rough sketch for each of his main characters, using shapes that fit their descriptions. Do NOT be overly influenced by his rough sketch. You should make this your interpretation at this time. It is only a starting point. Be aware that some points in the script need to be reworked. (For example, what is a shiatzu dog? One that gives massages?)

Mr. Bancroft discusses variance and recurrence of shapes in designs. A variety of components gives your design better appeal than using the same kind of line for every surface, but repeating some elements can help the viewer recognize the character as having a theme. He also mentions negative space. This is easy to misunderstand. Negative space is not black or shaded space. With regard to character design, negative space is the part of a scene where you did not draw a character.