Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Elastic Character Design

So, we're looking at about 2 days since John K's animated intro to The Simpsons aired on Sunday night—and the effects haven't worn off on me yet. If you haven't already, definitely watch the couch gag...in a number of places (1, 2, 3), and read the interview he did with Amid Amidi on Cartoon Brew.

There are so many ideas to take away from the couch gag and the interview. Too many to discuss; all equally compelling. But one big point-of-interest is this notion of 'on-model' animation and drawing—where you follow a strict set of guidelines and formulas to recreate a character so that each drawing is consistent with the next. John K demolishes the rules that normally govern production on The Simpsons, and even breaks the internal rules of his own concoctions. He is explicit here in saying to avoid consistency.

(image courtesy Cartoon Brew)

This has HUGE implications when it comes to the production of animation—namely, whether or not to allow animators to distort or give individual voice to the drawings they create. And also, how consistent you want a character to appear from shot to shot. Some shows and directors allow more freedom than others. Most studios today arguably follow a rather strict 'on-model' approach (to which I might credit the impact of the productization of characters for merchandizing). The need to develop a system is understandable when you have a number of artists working in production.

It also got me thinking about how this applies to comics—where artists are also making an effort to draw the same character over and over again from panel to panel.

I will speak to my experience.

Here, a character is born—in multiples, as I posted a year ago.

No one drawing represents the character. Each drawing is a study in the design I'm trying to work out—which I do by moving the character around and giving him different expressions.

Fast forward to this summer, when I decide to feature a version of him in a comic called The Cave. You can read the full 8-page comic, here.

We all understand the importance of maintaining a certain amount of consistency so that the reader can follow the character from one panel to the next. But I try not to set hard rules for myself, because it's important to me that the acting of the moment drives how I choose to draw the character. I don't create a model sheet to figure out turnarounds. Instead, I get to know the character with each panel and with each requirement.

As an exercise, I've stripped out an assortment of images from this comic, isolating the character and giving him a uniform color treatment (in the comic, the lighting and mood required a variety of colors).

I would argue, with a good deal of certainty, that you should have no problem recognizing that this page features drawings of a single character. Sure, color acts as an aid, but that is a big part of his design in the comic—and definitely helps bind one drawing to the next. Even without color, he should be fairly recognizable as one character.

There are rules to his design, but they are not absolute. Features morph, eyes change shape, and arms may lengthen or grow a little. (He's a cartoon character after all.) Sometimes he has defined elbows, sometimes he doesn't. And again, no one drawing defines absolutely what he looks like. His design is the combination of all of these drawings and the variations within them. Which is why I'd call this an elastic character design, one that accommodates freedom for unique expressions and poses. The design is not rigid—allowing room for variation and fluidity from one drawing to the next. That said, the variation here is pretty conservative. It's not like I've given him square eyeballs in one drawing or he loses his lips in the next.

Comics are different from animation in that you see multiples of a character at the same time on the same page. But you can still get away with a certain amount of variation, just like you can in animation, and preserve the essence of the character.

Bringing this back to John K...he has reminded us that a huge part of what makes cartoons fun to look at is this elasticity in characters. I think he's challenged us all to think about what that means, and how far we can really take it.


TOMEK said...

This post is very interesting Bob!
I love watching the process and the artist's thoughts behind the creation.
And especially when it's yours.

Bob Flynn said...

Thanks, Tomek!