Character Design for Animation
A successfully designed character is unique, distinct, and easy to animate. Animation literally means to imbue with life. For character design, life means emotion and movement. It doesnt matter how cool your character looks if he cant communicate how he feels and move believably.
When an audience watches animation, the image is usually a small part of their field of vision. This means a characters body language must convey emotion, feeling, and thought just as well as the face, because the face will not always be seen clearly. This applies to standing, sitting, and walking. Your character will need to be able to droop while standing and drag his feet while walking to express sadness, stand up tall and walk with a confident gait to show pride, and so on.
But dont neglect designing an expressive face, because you will want to show close-ups.
Characters must be able to move smoothly and believably. Simple, three-dimensional forms that can be represented by a few lines or a simple, geometric shape are most conducive to this. [Construct a head out of a cone and represent it with a triangle whose base is curved. Make an arm out of a cylinder (or a hose) and use two curved lines to represent it.]
Make sure all of the dimensions are not equal’Äîone should be greater than the other two. This helps create both the illusion of weight and unambiguous depth. [Rectangular prisms animate better than cubes, and watermelons animate better than spheres, because the longer dimension makes it clear how the object is rotating or moving (a spinning sphere is just a nonmoving circle) and also makes it possible to have a fulcrum balancing two sides to communicate weight. Dont use a perfect cube or sphere unless it is attached to a second shape such as a spherical head with a protruding nose so the dimensions arent identically.]
Short to medium length limbs animate best (see Looney tunes and Disney animation from the 30s and 40s) because they move enough for a viewer to see the movement, but not so much that even the tiniest gesture is sweeping. Make sure the body is also medium length. Stubby limbs (such as in Rugrats) do not animate well, because they cant move very much. Long limbs dont animate well for the opposite reason’Äîthey move too much for even small movements (watch an episode of Aeon Flux). Remember the amount of a viewers visual field that the animation shows up in.
Detail does not animate well. The human brain can only process so much information. Thats why film is 24 frames per second’Äîmost people cant perceive any more. Movement from one frame to another is very quick and a lot of details are perceived as flickers. Simple forms rendered as simple shapes are easier for the brain to process. Detail also takes a lot time to draw over and over and almost always results in sloppier animation. This is why Japanese animation with a lot of detail tends to use a lot of static shots and pan over Keep your design simple.
Rubbery movement is considered retro, but you still want a small measure of rubberiness to create the illusion of weight. It allows for follow through, stretching, squashing, and exaggeration’Äîall of which animation is really good at and distinguishes it from other art forms such as live action or still drawings. Make sure your characters can be moved slightly rubbery.
The current trend in animation (and one that pops up from time to time) is to make characters sharp, angular, and flat. Designs from UPA in the 40s and Batman: The Animated Series in the 90s used this style, were wildly popular, and inspired others to imitate the style for decades. Sharp, angular, flat characters dont appear to have weight and therefore the movement doesnt feel as believable.
Unique, Distinct, and Appealing
A well-designed character is unique and immediately recognizable. Characters should be distinct in overall shape, color, and movement. Only varying one of these dimensions is not sufficient.
To test your characters shape, blacken the character so he is a silhouette and see if he is quickly recognizable.
To test your characters movements, move a stick figure the same way your character moves and see if you can still recognize the character from just that.
If you want an audience for your work, your characters must have charisma and appeal. An interesting character draws more viewers and readers than plot, action, or any other element of a story. Shows with interesting characters have much better ratings and longer runs even if the stories are awful than anthology series with intriguing stories and ideas do. Books follow the same trend. That is the main reason so many successful animators such as Ub Iwerks or Bob Clampett saw little success when they left a popular cast of characters to create their own work.
Audiences also like characters who change and grow (meaning they go from problem or flaw to overcoming it) while still retaining their essence.
Weird and different are not synonymous with creative. This is a mistake many artists make to their detriment. Dont be afraid of archetypes and what is tried and true.
- Thomas, Frank and Johnston, Ollie. Illusion Of Life. http://www.frankandollie.com/PhysicalAnimation.html.