Friday, May 25, 2007

Six Authors In Search of a Character: Part 5, Character Design

A live actor can take his or her own body for granted. An actor literally has a lifetime of experience living in it and intimately knows his or her own shape, size and physical limitations.

One reason that a producer or director will cast an actor in a role is because he or she is physically suited to it. The actor is the right age and gender for the role and may also be the right height, weight and personality for it. If actors have been chosen for these qualities, they don’t have to think about altering themselves physically, merely about how to best play the role.

When actors do physically alter themselves, it is a novelty that is cause for discussion. When Robert DeNiro gained sixty pounds for the role of Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, it was still being mentioned in reviews of the DVD 25 years after the film’s release (Abel 1).

The unity that exists between actors and their physical selves in a performance does not exist for animators. The physical manifestation of a character exists independently of the animator, so the animator must relate to a character’s appearance differently than a live actor would. In addition, animators are not responsible for the creation of their characters’ appearances.
“By the time animation of [“The] Sorcerer[‘s Apprentice”] and Pinocchio got under way in January 1938, Disney had introduced a new layer of character designers. These people would draw preliminary model sheets of new characters, improving on the story sketches, but would not animate the characters; the animators, in pilot scenes, would uncover flaws in the designs and draw the final versions” (Barrier, Hollywood 256)
Somebody needs to determine what an animated character looks like. Character design may start as early as the first inspirational sketches for a film or may start at the storyboard stage. Ultimately, though, the look of a character has to be codified so that it will be consistent throughout a film. Character designers may refine work that has already been done or may design characters from scratch, but they are the ones responsible for pulling the look of a character into focus.

The model sheet was the tool developed for the sake of consistency. Model sheets generally fall into two different types. Some are detailed instructions as to how to draw a character. They include different views of a character so that an animator will know what a character looks like no matter which way he turns. The sheet may also specifically comment about sizes and proportions, either in words or by the use of guidelines. Because characters will probably be handled by more than one animator, model sheets are necessary to maintain a consistent look for a character.

A Jiminy Cricket model sheet from Pinocchio, showing how to draw the character’s head from any angle. From the collection of the author. Click to enlarge.

Model sheets were used at least as early as 1920 (Adamson, Fleischers 27). However, as late as the mid-1930’s, some studios were still not using model sheets, leading to characters whose appearance changed scene by scene.
“The model sheet, which establishes the look, shape, and even dimensions for each character, and which is so essential to professional animation, was unknown at Van Beuren. This meant that even a simplistic, homely character like [director Burt] Gillette’s [sic] real winner, Molly Moo Cow, given to thirteen animators, would emerge as thirteen different cows. Rubber-legged and amorphous to begin with, Molly would go through a most disquieting process of metamorphosis when the work of these thirteen animators was cut together into what was supposedly a single five-minute cartoon” (Barbera 47).
Other model sheets exist to communicate a sense of a character’s personality. These sheets may not draw the character as he will appear in the final film (and may include a warning to that effect as below), but give examples of poses and attitudes that communicate to the animator the essence of who the character is.

A model sheet for The Little Whirlwind. From the collection of the author. Click to enlarge.

Character design has an impact on animated behaviour in very specific ways. The degree of realism in the design determines how realistically the character must move. Here are stills of two rabbits. The viewer instantly gets different expectations from these designs. Max Hare, from The Tortoise and the Hare (top) is designed to resemble a human; he stands on two legs and wears clothing. By contrast, Thumper from Bambi, is designed to more closely resemble a rabbit.

Frame enlargements. Click to enlarge.

The character designer has done more than design a look; the designer has provoked expectations. Presented with these designs, the animator must deal with the expectations or risk alienating the audience. If Max Hare runs, he has to run on two legs. If he were to run on all fours, he would look ludicrous. Thumper, looking more rabbit-like, must move like a real rabbit if he is to be believable.

Design had a similar impact on Andy Serkis when he was cast to play the character of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Serkis recalled,
“There were also sketches by the incredible Alan Lee and John Howe. One pencil sketch by the latter, which to me depicted Gollum as a cross between a homeless junkie and a survivor of a concentration camp, directly influenced how I would move as Gollum in the films. From this image I strongly felt that Gollum should be on all fours at all times, that the weight of the addiction to the ring had reduced him to a crawling wretch” (11).
Design also provokes expectations with regard to personality. Here are examples of early character designs for the Queen in Snow White.

Preliminary designs from The Art of Walt Disney by Christopher Finch; final design from Treasury of Disney Animation Art by John Canemaker. Click to enlarge.

The plumpness of the design at left implies a certain ineffectuality. The facial expression doesn’t imply malice. While the preliminary design on the right appears meaner, the Queen doesn’t appear much of a physical threat.

Contrast them with the final design of the Queen. Her face combined with her trim figure implies that she’s a woman of action who is motivated by hate. She seems far more threatening than the early designs.

In live action terms, the early design might be played by someone like Roseanne Barr while the final design might be played by Angelina Jolie. For performers who were contemporary with the release of Snow White, the early designs might be played by Margaret Dumont and the final design played by Judith Anderson. Forgetting personality for a moment, each of these performers would bring a different physical presence to the role, one that is unique to their own physical beings.

Animators not only lack the unity with characters that live actors have, they also lack the physical identification with a character. The animator’s physique is does not have to relate in any way to a character’s physique. It is possible for a single animator to deal with a range of characters, regardless of their appearances, and the animator must collaborate with designers who shape audience expectations as to how a character should move and behave.

Over the course of Frank Thomas’s career as an animator at Disney, he animated the following characters: mouse (The Brave Little Tailor), dwarf (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), fawn (Bambi), queen (Alice in Wonderland), pirate captain (Peter Pan), cocker spaniel (Lady and the Tramp), wizard (The Sword in the Stone), panther (The Jungle Book), and alligator (The Rescuers). This list is far from complete. These characters vary widely in their sizes, shapes, ages, genders, and species. By contrast, DeNiro gaining sixty pounds is only a minor physical alteration.

The character design and the motion begin separately and the animator has to work to close the gap between them. On Disney features, an initial minute of animation was done for major characters, where the design was put through its paces. Animator Frank Thomas wrote that,
“We must study the design carefully, questioning the shape of his whole figure, his costume, his head, cheeks, mouth, eyes, hands, legs, arms – even the setting he is in and how he relates to it” (222).

Animator Grim Natwick talked about the evolution of the design of the Snow White character and the animators’ part of the process.
“There were probably two thousand different drawings made trying to develop Snow White’s character. She started out as a little fairy-book character that that didn’t seem right. As the character changed, they gave us two complete months to practice animation on Snow White before we had to make a single scene that would go into the picture. So if a model came in from the designing department that we animated and we found things we didn’t like, we simply went back and told them. As a matter of fact, every model that came to an animator at Disney’s did not have to be animated until the animator wrote his okay on it” (Maltin 56).
This was not true in later years. During the production of Sleeping Beauty (1959) at Disney, Frank Thomas complained about Eyvind Earle’s “very rigid design” and how it was inhibiting animators (Barrier, Hollywood 557). Thomas and Ollie Johnston later wrote that, “the animator must give up his best tools of communication if he limits his drawing to the restrictions of a strong design” (516). The collaboration between animators and character designers is not always a happy one.

In the realm of stop-motion or computer animation, there is a further step in the design process. In these types of animation, the character must be constructed. In the case of stop motion, the character is constructed out of physical materials where in computer animation, the character is constructed in the virtual world that exists within a software package.

Constructed characters free animators from having to worry about drawing a character in a consistent fashion. However, while freeing animators in one sense, it can restrict them in others. When drawing, animators are only limited by their ability to visualize and draw the characters in various positions. However, there are physical limitations to constructed characters.

Characters for stop-motion are limited by the physical world. They can only bend so far before breaking and their limbs are a fixed length; drawn characters face no such limitations. Computer characters are more flexible than stop-motion puppets, but they go through a process called rigging, where the character is wired with virtual bones and the influence of each bone on the character’s surface determines how the character will deform when moving.

This rigging process includes the face, so how the mouth and eyes move is heavily determined by the rigging work. It’s quite possible that an animator will be frustrated at being unable to create the facial expression or body pose that he or she is looking for. While the way a character looks has an impact on the audience perception of a character’s personality and how it should move, the physical limitations of stop-motion puppets and the process of rigging computer characters can act as a limiting factor on an animator’s control of motion.


Benjamin said...

"Animators not only lack the unity with characters that live actors have, they also lack the physical identification with a character. The animator’s physique is does not have to relate in any way to a character’s physique. It is possible for a single animator to deal with a range of characters, regardless of their appearances, and the animator must collaborate with designers who shape audience expectations as to how a character should move and behave."

I think the only reason live-action actors have to look like the right "character design", is for the audience. I think it's very possible for actors to act like a different character design though. Good examples are for example Gollum, or the faun in Pan's Labyrinth, or characters with physical defects, like the wonderful performance of Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot, or (as I read in "Hirschfeld On Line") Zero Mostel transforming into a Rhynoceros on stage without costume. That physical unity is of course useful for actors, but I wouldn't overrate it either.

I think that's something that could be very important to realize for animators. Perhaps something that would improve on animated performances... if you learn how to act (on all levels) like the character, than you can really get into it. If you get to that point, you don't have to act "like yourself" - only aiming for hitting the right emotions, etc - and then add the character's physicalities to it; it could all become united.

Of course, this is something that requires a lot of acting skill and intuition, and a lot of focus, so it would be nearly impossible to do this for TV, or even for more than 1 character (or a few max) on a feature film.

Malik Ming said...

The character designer has done more than design a look; the designer has provoked expectations. Presented with these designs, the animator must deal with the expectations or risk alienating the audience.

Interesting. I've never actually thought about that way, but it makes total sense. A chubby character and a skinny character will move appropriately, and if they didn't, credibility would be lost (unless the aim is irony).

I think this also addresses a common complaint of John Kricfalusi's (among other things) of how contemporary character designs don't say a single thing about the character's personality, and then that the animation, stock or generic, does nothing to help. It can, as it did in Ratatouille: I agree with John K. that the designs are mostly generic (excepting Anton Ego), but I still think the animation saved much of the picture.

This is also a complaint about most anime, in which characters are generally distinguished by age, hair, and costume alone. (And some of that hair and those costumes are pretty radical.) Physique also always says nothing. In the best cases (e.g. nearly all of Miyazaki's films) the actions and not the performance tell us what we need to know to accept the characters as living beings. In Miyazaki's case, though, his animation is skillful enough to warrant performances, rare as they are.