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Simple shapes yet a complex character

2D Character Design From Ideation to Production

2D character design is the art of creating life on a 2-dimensional surface. It could happen on a piece of paper or the screen of a tablet. Anyone with a pen can draw shapes and forms, but only a capable artist can structure those shapes and forms in a certain way that makes the viewer believe that the character is alive. Even if that character is a humanoid mouse wearing shorts and sporting hipster sneakers.

…when you look at a photo or realistic drawing of a face, you see it as the face of another. But when you enter the world of the cartoon, you see yourself.

Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art
Micky Mouse Character Design
A mouse with a human face wearing red shorts and sneakers. Why not?

 This believability enables the artist to communicate with the seemingly lifeless drawing on a deeper level. They create emotional fascination toward that character for the viewer using pen and paper.

The main goal in any sort of character design is to visually communicate original characters using life observations, reference, and our imaginations.
 The fundamental principles of 2D character design apply to any kind of character design. Still, it is worth mentioning that there are vast differences between the process and the purpose of 3D and 2D character design. This article focuses on providing a concise overview of 2D character design. However, we will touch upon the main differences where the subject calls for it.

But you might wonder: I’m a 3D modeler, should I continue with this article?

Absolutely. Let’s start by stating that even in 3D character design, the process begins with 2D concept creation. Therefore much of what is said about the process holds true for both 3D and 2D character design. Moreover, when talking about the character design profession, we are talking about a very specific branch of visual arts with governing principles that are more or less the same. Other than using different techniques and tools, the main differences in design philosophy are briefly discussed below.

Evolution of 2D Character Design

 In a broad sense of the concept, human beings drew characters since they started painting the walls of the caves. However, cave paintings and the countless other works that were done between then and the modern era can’t be counted as 2D character design. It is the process and the purpose of a drawing that classifies it as character design or not.

Gertie the Dinosaur is a cartoon character that is considered to be the first example of systematic 2D character design. Gertie belonged to an eponymous animated short and was created by the American cartoonist and animator Winsor McCay. Before Gertie, McCay had shown remarkable talent in being technically dextrous with quick drawings for magazines and later, comic strips.

Image shows McCay pitching Gertie to his team, much like what the process looks like today

McCay was a pioneer, but 2D character design really gained prominence with the significant increase of cartoons’ popularity. That was thanks to the efforts of Walt Disney, although even the legendary Disney’s earliest designs were quite simplistic; lacking any skeleton structure and any respect for the restrictions of the real world. It all changed when Disney looked to the real world to innovate the process.

With the advent of video games in the 90s, the demand for character designs experienced a new peak,
Like to know more about the history and evolution of character design? Please refer to Tony White’s “Animation from Pencils to Pixels” chapter 2.

Character Design Principles

A Character Designer’s Mindset

Being well-versed in creating visual art necessitates developing skills toward hand drawing for the artists. Still, there are major differences in the creation process according to various demands of each career. Each artist has his/her own personal creation process. But an artist working in an industry should possess a certain mindset & goal toward creating artworks. The entire creation process may differ from those who create art for the sake of it.

As part of the entertainment industry, efficient character design is done with consideration toward a wider range of applicability. It requires the artists to be able to function as part of a team. When talking about character design in this article, we are referring to 2D character design for vocational purposes.

2D Character designers create all of the concepts, styles, and artworks of a character from the ground up. This often entails communicating with writers or creative designers to get a sense of the character’s personality and quirks. Artists use this to build a visual presentation of the character’s physical traits in their minds.

A Challenging Process

Such a draining creative process is very complicated. So, it must come as a surprise that the character design field is attractive to a lot of young artists. As the pre-production begins, the character design process starts with a meeting between the character designer and the creative/narrative director. Often this is done collaboratively, and they pass on comments and discuss the possible concepts together. Consequently, their skills can be considered as complementary toward fleshing out a character from scratch.

For starters, designing every bit of a character on round simple shapes is a necessity as this makes them easier to manipulate and turn. This will make the process of animating that character much easier later on, and even if the character is not meant to be animated, following this directive enables the creation of cost-effective still-images that could be used for a multitude of other purposes such as promo arts and marketing content.

A seemingly complex character design can be made up of simple shapes

 Other than minor differences in execution, when it comes to collaborating on a project as 2D character designers, there are certain industry-specific concepts that they must understand in addition to their craft.
Knowing these will go a long way toward ensuring a smooth transition to a team. And easy onboarding with a project without encountering many hiccups along the way.

Understanding the Scope of the Project

The scope and scale of an animation project depend on various underlying factors, such as the budget, target medium (will elaborate on this matter later in the article), and production runtime(such as the number of episodes or issues) among other things. The decision to use 2D or 3D animations and what styles to use is itself a contributing factor to defining the scope of the project, and so it is vital to know how this decision will affect the scope of the project.

 Do you get the same vibe from these two iterations of Pokemon’s Ash?

 Generally speaking, going with quality 2D usually adds to the scope and the production cost of a project. Especially if the target medium has a long production run like a TV series or an animated film. In 2D animations, every frame has to be drawn separately, and since there are at least 24 frames per second in any animation. That means a 10 minute 2D animation takes about 144000 hand-drawn images! Although this number decreases with the use of “filler images”, the number would still be staggering.

2D or 3D? That is the Question

While there are several methods to make the process easier and the artists don’t have to draw the entirety of each image (i.e they may use previously created character assets to lessen the workload required for each frame), it is still much more convenient and less time-consuming to move a 3D model around a CG environment and create compelling animations.

 Over 750 artists completed more than 2 million sketches. Snow White included 250,000 final drawings.

It is important to note whether going with 3D or 2D, choosing the specific visual style also plays a huge role in defining the scope of the project. A good character designer should develop their own style through practice, but they should also be able to adapt to any style as needed since the creation process is a team effort as mentioned before. Selecting a style that matches the scope of the project is absolutely necessary. A character designer must understand the needs and overarching theme of the project very well.

Understanding the different purposes and needs of a project can distinguish a proficient character designer from a novice. For example, in video games, much of the story is mostly told through actions of the player rather than dialogues or monologues and character development faces certain limitations when compared to a medium like comic strips; and the character design must be aware of that

While applying this principle when designing video game characters is beneficial, note that if the same principle is observed when designing a dramatic character with a complex personality for a cinematic work, it can result in a shallow character that feels out of the place.

Learning Soft Skills

You are talking with clients or managers, and you have to be able to communicate and understand effectively—both in writing through emails and verbally through phone calls and in-person, face-to-face conversations.

Jordan K. Buckway

 2D character design, unlike pure art, is not just a representation of the designer’s own self or personal ideas. Character designers cannot just get to work as soon as a brief is provided and then submit the design files once the work is done without any communication between these phases.

Character designers should be able to accurately understand a project’s vision and translate it into a piece of visual design; meaning developing active listening skills so you can truly understand what others are saying is crucial to this profession.

Being a good character designer is not just about how skilled you are at drawing, it is also about how involved and keen you are at trying out new ideas and concepts, how you react to feedback and how much of a human touch you can bring to an otherwise technical product design process. 

Purpose and Effects: Mind the Genre & the Medium

 A big part of being a character designer is matching your style with the production you work on. The character design process of a AAA video game will be very different than that of designing characters for South Park. While they may sound similar, understanding the scope of a project is different from realizing the purpose it is being made for.

 Bloody serrated blade, muscular body, wild facial expressions… you don’t need to play GoW to know Kratos is hyper-violent

A character designer must understand the impact that the work is meant to have on viewers. In a game like The Super Smash Bros that mostly aims at creating a lighthearted, purely entertaining atmosphere, having a brooding mushroom that occasionally smokes pipe not only makes no sense, it is in direct conflict with the overall theme of the game and damages the product as a whole.

Based on the argument above, it is necessary for character designers to immerse themselves in the game’s universe through reviewing concept arts and communicating with the narrative designer and art director and use that immersion as fuel to imagine what those characters actually look like and then bring to life.

To work effectively as a character designer, one must know that each medium needs its own approach and mentality.
A brief overview of these mediums and their specifics is provided below:

Cartoon Animations (Movies, TV)

These are usually aimed for a younger audience, so it is only appropriate to use softer colors and rounder shapes to build our characters (unless a character is the villain of the story). Exaggerating different visual characteristics of the characters is a norm in the field; in order to express their personalities clearer for the children. 

Video Games

In a video game, the characters’ appearances need to be more telling and visually expressive. This is why most video game protagonists and antagonists look borderline stereotypical. Every bit and detail of a video character needs to reinforce the exaggerated position and personality of a character. (e.g

One other factor that makes designing characters for video games unique is that in creating their appearance one must specially consider the function of the character in the game. This requires the artist to be familiar with the gameplay of the product. The design for a magic-user who is an expert at healing magic (support role)  should be very different from that of a Necromancer (offensive role), who is also a magic user but with aggressive functions.

One of Pixune’s own original characters that was done for a game. This guy’s appearance scream violence
Book/Mag Illustrations

If the company brings you as a character designer to work on an illustration project for a book or a magazine, chances are that they will provide you with a detailed description of what exactly they want to show to the readers. Its’ because those characters are often well-known within the context of that book (story characters) or magazine (mascots and brand characters).

Note that when drawing for a cover of a book/mag, you need to be extra careful with the details. Since the cover illustration often acts as the main hook to grab the readers’ attention, it needs to be as attractive as possible. Clients always pay a lot more than usual for the cover images, so those extra hours you put into designing them are well worth the effort.

Comic Books

Comic books are potentially the most fun and rewarding projects a character designer can work on. In such projects, the team needs you to work closely with a writer; this means regular meetings, sharing of ideas, and generally going about developing a small army of characters together. In comic books, images often tell half the narrative (or even more) and they often give you a lot of freedom to bring your own vision of the characters into life.

Advertisement

Almost every character ever designed to appear on advertisements are extremely stereotypical, way more so than video games. They just need to showcase just a couple of attitudes or adjectives. Advertisements are composed of very short videos or single images, and there is no time or need to convey a complex character to the viewer.

Ads 2D Character Design
Tony the Tiger of Kellogg company exudes confidence, happiness and health; highly motivating for any buyer
Eastern Media (includes all of above)

While the basic governing principles of 2D character design hold true for both hemispheres, there are some marked differences in styles. In traditional western animation, the end is to create “believability”, and therefore most western animators put great value on smooth and lifelike figures and animations.

With eastern designs (with Japan as its cradle) artists put greater emphasis on illuminating characters’ personalities through appearances, rather than creating a cartoon version of reality. That is why most manga & anime (eastern equivalents of comic books and cartoon animations respectively) characters sport highly exaggerated visual traits, and they express emotions without any subtlety.

For more information on the subject of the differences between these two distinct styles please refer to Cartoon Revue’s article on the subject.

Character Design Production Process

Pre-production: Look before you jump

Step 1: Research

Without any doubt, research is the most important part of the character design process. More often than not, the narrative designer hands characters’ description to a 2d character designer. This includes the background, the setting, the purpose, the potential audience, etc. However, many times the character description given to an artist is just made of a couple of short sentences. So, artists have to know how to fill in the blanks and flesh out a character But they need to hold off until they have done two types of research:

a. Thorough research on different aspects of the characters based on the story. Like their history, geography, anthropological aspects like gene make-up in terms of physical attributes, costumes, literature, society and belief systems. To get all the nuances and details rights is vital. It helps to both avoid irrelevancy and inaccuracies in design patterns and get inspired.

b. Research in the existing list of characters and stereotypes, which are ample in number and variety. Sources of inspiration could be animation series and movies, commercials, video games, and all the aforementioned mediums. You can make up a very original character by borrowing each of its’ aspects from one that already exists; the exaggerated lines from one, the bold colors from another, the comic, vivacious, and light-hearted gestures from a commercial jingle character, and the grave human emotion reflected in an epic or anime character.

In the video game Star Wars: Republic Commando, the Delta Squad who act as the main protagonists of the game, sport some impressive armors that easily distinguish them from the rest of the clones army. Designer Michael Licht drew inspirations from roman gladiators, navy seals, and ninjas. The result is a character that radiates ferocious power like that of the gladiators, but also the cunning and the silent lethality of ninjas and seals.

Star Wars Character Design
Can you discern the different sources of inspiration in designing these commandos?
4 Crucial Tips for the Research Phase:

 Here at Pixune we find the research and brainstorming phases absolutely delightful, it provides a chance for everyone to come together and pour out their ideas and passion into the project. We are going to share some very practical and useful tips with you; tips that are the extract of the accumulated experiences that we had during these years.

 1. Single out unique aspects and features

 Animated characters have a lot in common, and as a designer, you should be familiar with as many as possible. When drawing inspiration from your selected sources, look for what stands out, what makes those characters especially appealing, and then single out those features, and start looking for possibilities to transform them into your own version of it.

To make it clear, you can take inspirations from how endearing the shape of pooh’s protruded belly is, how much of bug’s bunny’s charm comes from his bunny teeth, and how you can play with the direction, size, shape, and color to have big eyes reflect different characteristics like innocent playfulness, deliberate flirtatiousness, or clumsy goofiness. Can you discern how having big eyes affects characters like Bart Simpson, Tweety, and Goofy?

Read More: Color Definition in Art (3 Main Categories)

2. Find Novelty in Old Concepts

Remember that there are myriad ways to manipulate your sources of inspiration; you can exaggerate different features, or tone down exaggerations, you can add overtones and undertones, lower and raise lines, enlarge and shrink shapes; you can mix and match any of these elements. These will enable you to make the character your own, this is why the research phase is so critical, it acts as the foundation of all the other tasks that come after, thus it can be said that it is the most important step in 2D character design.

So just take everything in during the research phase as a possibility, as a raw form, as reference material. It is extremely vital for a character designer to be able to look at old things like he/she is seeing it for the very first time, to go beyond the established definition of concepts that have been reinforced during a lifetime. This is arguably one of the hardest and most rewarding parts of the character designer profession.

One of the most popular characters in the world, Betty Boop was inspired by the singer Helen Kane

Neil Gaiman is one of the most fantastic and celebrated contemporary character designers. As primarily a writer, he is not a visual artist, he doesn’t draw or sketch his ideas. (at least not professionally, just enough to be able to show what’s on his mind to a collaborating artist). However, the creative process behind character creation is the same, and we are going to use one of his works as a great example of what it means to look at old concepts in a new light and reinvent them.

Example for Re-inventing Established Characters

Snow White is one of the most well-established folklore characters, the story has been told and retold for generations. She is a kind and beautiful maiden that goes into a coma after eating a poisoned apple. She remains in a coma until she is kissed by a prince. However, Gaiman thought that a woman with black hair, pale skin, and cherry red lips could be a vampire. What’s more, she slept in a coffin for a long time. From there, it was easy to add more bits and pieces to Snow White to turn her into a new vampire princess.

Another great example would come in the form of some of the immensely popular classic Disney characters like Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Beauty And The Beasts. Original tales written by Grimm brothers were their source of inspiration, but with some quite radical changes.

At Disney, they had to make adjustments since Grimm’s version of the stories were quite grim, (pun intended), Disney 2d character design team reinvented them to be more cheerful, life-affirming, hopeful and colorful, which was far better in line with their target audience.

To sum up the research process: You observe and extract the concepts from various sources, you combine and convert them to reflect your own take, and you create an original character.

3. Draw from Personal Experiences

 While you are researching both underlying concepts of the project and the ones created by your colleagues, don’t shy away from drawing from a little bit of your own personal observations in life, including about your own features and characteristics, and people you know, either personally or through a medium, like books, movies, folk tales, etc.

Notice how McShane has lined up these figures to give a better understanding of dimensions

  Consider how Kevin McShane, a creative cartoonist, has drawn himself in 100 different 2d character design styles, which are all very remarkable, and with tons of inspiration opportunities. It goes to show that personal experiences are a great and ready source of inspiration for your work, should you be willing to expose yourself.

4. Workout the Details

 A key factor to success as a 2D character designer is paying attention to minute details; the slightest angle, direction, shade, and colour difference can drastically change how the character is perceived; so don’t forget that being meticulous while doing the research is well worth the effort.

If you take the time to compare the model sheets depicting nuances of expression and poses that have been drawn for Sinbad’s character, you will notice that a difference as minuscule as one-tenth of an inch in sketching the start line of a smile determines whether your character is smiling victoriously, smirking wickedly, or grinning disapprovingly. So if you want to embolden any of these characteristics in your character, you need to be mindful of that one-tenth of an inch.

Step 2: Visualization

 By this phase, you should have enough fuel to fire your imagination. Heaps of different ideas, frames of reference, and facts make up that fuel. Now is the time to start visualizing the characters, first in anatomy, then in gestures and movements, actions and reaction, so on and so forth, to finally arrive at a solid character in your mind. This is basically a creative warm-up between research and thumbnailing. You should think of your character in as many different situations, poses, and actions as possible.

In many studios and teams, the visualization process is done by discussing the various aspects of the character with the narrative designer or the creative director. This takes some of the creative burdens off your shoulders and ensures that the final product is in line with the vision of the creative director. Two brains work better than one!

With this briefing, there’s often a series of suggested traits be they physical or emotional, and the 2d character designer uses those notes to start thumbnailing ideas. Rough thumbnails help to flesh out the many directions that the designer could take.

Step 3: Thumbnailing

A lot of cartoonists and many other artists use thumbnailing to find the best poses or general scenes that they want to incorporate within the illustration project. Thumbnailing is a way to go about having a somewhat complete image but in a very rough and small form, it is just a really good way to save on time while quickly pumping out ideas.

Character Design Thumbnailing
 Each of these six thumbnail figures can be worked on to become the final original character

a. Anatomy

 The very first step in thumbnailing is picturing and drawing the anatomy of the character, consisting of shapes for different parts, a circle for the torso, head, hips, bosom; and vertical lines indicating leg length, volume and shape. Remember the earlier point that we made regarding using circular shapes in your designs.

Leonardo DaVinci is well-known as a legendary anatomist his works are truly peerless

 Character designers must be intimately familiar with human anatomy through research or actual drawing of live models, even if they use highly exaggerated and cartoonish styles in his/her work. One must know the real-world dimensions to be able to exaggerate any bits of it purposefully. If the artist wishes to be able to do the more difficult task of designing creatures, then studying animal anatomy is also a must.

b. Poses, expressions, and accessories 

 When the anatomy is set, the character designer proceeds to imagine the body in different poses, clothes, and accessories. Facial expressions are of utmost importance since they reflect feelings, inner thoughts, attitudes, and nuances. All of which illustrate different traits of the character’s personality. To design a character, you need to know what their traits are, whether they are smart or dumb, mean or kind, brave or cowardly. The factors are all seen in the nuance of the lines, shapes, and colours.

Frozen Expression Sheet
 A Disney expression sheet showcasing Elsa’s with different facial expressions

Creating accessories for the character is often another team’s responsibility. The team of artists in charge of world-building is experts at this stuff. In smaller teams, however, an artist may have to do several types of tasks. Should the responsibility fall on you as a character designer, you’ll need to put extra time into the research phase. You should know the world that your character lives in as thoroughly as you can. This is vital, as it will enable you to understand what kind of accessories you have to design.

Beware of Off-modeling During Thumbnailing Stage!

Avoid off-modeling when sketching, which can be a slight but noticeable deviation between the initial concepts of your character’s appearance. that can happen when drawing it in different poses, clothes, etc.

This can also happen during the process of Inbetweening or the tweening, which is a fundamental part of the animation; consisting of drawing the inter-frames between two images to create an illusion of movements when shown in a fast sequence. Off-modeling will make your work look shoddy, and can even lead to lawsuits, based on the ensuing inadvertent similarities with trademarked characters you have drawn inspirations from.

 A prime example of this is the famous MOBA game, League of Legends. Several companies sued Riot Games for the existing similarities of some of the skins that the development team made for the characters of the game. The original depiction of the characters themselves was in the clear, but some iteration of them as skin were not.

Step 4: Defining the Character’s Personality

 A big part of designing a character is incorporating four aspects of their personality visually. A character designer reflects these personality traits in a blend of lines, shades, and colors that move. Sometimes the character’s personality is pre-defined and you have to base the visual of the character on it. But even if the personality is pre-defined, creating a well-crafted character with a personality that is clearly expressed in an artwork requires the character designer to have a grip on these four elements:

a. Background

 Imagine that your character has Spanish heritage but was born and raised in the U.K. He is in his mid-20s, comes from an educated and wealthy family, and is a medical student, these are all big contributors to his personality and big chunks of his characters.

Knowing that background, you can infer that the character should have copper skin, probably wears glasses, and wears brand clothing. 

b. Role

It is a coming-of-age story about a young man that wants to forge his own destiny. So, the role of this character is to rebel against the norms of the well-off communities. He has grown up in one, so he has bursts of outrage, a rebellious spirit, and a sense of determination. These should be visible in his appearance, expression, mannerisms, costumes, and so on.

c. Attitude

 Since he comes from a well-to-do family, his attitude towards rebellion is peaceful protests at first. But after meeting with harsh opposition it turns into radical and revolutionary behavior. Whether he is violent or peaceful (or any other attitude) in his role should be discernible by how he looks.

d. Action

 The appearance of a character should be telling how he/she acts or reacts, especially regarding the motion patterns. A violent, rebellious character is expected to have sharp, sudden movements that reflect his impatience toward what he has rebelled against. Knowing this, designing colder colors or softer clothes for him would be counterproductive toward defining his character visually.

Step 5: Special Consideration Regarding Different Types of Characters
Villains vs. Heroes

 In combining these four elements in your character, their background, the role they take up in the storyline, the attitudes they adopt faced with ups and downs, and in every action they take, the character designer needs to be extra careful not to lose sight of a very important aspect of 2D character design; whether they are generally good, a hero (also referred to as protagonist), or they are generally evil (antagonist), a villain.

Marvel and DC 2D Character Design
Marvel and DC universes are excellent sources for getting familiar with heroes and villains designs

 For example in Beauty and the Beast, Beauty is obviously the heroine, whose lines, shapes and shades of the smile, all reflect her goodness, as well as the look in her eyes, expression, and movements. In contrast, the audience perceives the beast as an obvious villain at first. But they change their opinion gradually as he falls in love. His expression and poses change gradually too, in line with his role.

Refer to Ben Cambero’s article on Creating Hero Versus Villain Character Archetypes for more information on the subject.

Creature vs. Humanoid

 Characters you design fall in two broad types, humanoid, or creature. Humanoid refers to any character that more or less resembles a human form with the same skeleton structure. This means that fantasy races like elves, dwarves, orcs, etc all fall into the humanoid category.

Pixune 2D Character Design
“Super Zebra” by Pixune studio is a prime example of an anthropomorphized creature

Creatures themselves can be further divided into two separate categories. One is anthropomorphized creatures, meaning aمnimal, objects or even concepts with human characteristics. These designs leave a lot of room for creativity and novelty since you can give an object, animal, or even concepts like kindness, bravery, intelligence really amusing conceptualized human forms.

For example in the animation movie Inside Out, Riley’s five main emotions, joy, sadness, anger, disgust and fear are anthropomorphized into colorful characters by playing with color, shape, size, and lines’ dynamics.

Rick and Morty Character Design
A sentient cloud with five brain-things is a main supporting character in a Rick & Morty episode.

The other type of creature is those that look completely outlandish and have no relation to human or real animal forms whatsoever. These creatures have no clear definition and could be anything from the myriad weird creatures with no limbs or head as depicted in the TV series Rick and Morty, to the formless monster in the movie The Thing.

General tips for the pre-production stage:

1.  Do not forget the Importance of unique 2D character design

 One thing that should be on your mind during through all the character design process is that the character you develop needs to be original, and completely unique, you can only borrow some aspects from the existing characters, but you have to change your character to a degree so that no one can be too readily reminded of any existing original character.

This way no one can accuse you of copying another original character. They may, however,  guess that a particular character has been your source of inspiration, and admire your imagination and creativity to add your own signature to it. You need to make your audience feel like the essence of the character you are trying to communicate is one of a kind and entirely new.

2. Work the lines

 One of the first and most versatile devices used in 2d character design is lines. You can play with the infinite ways that they may be manipulated, to create the niche that sets your character apart from others. You can make them thicker or thinner, softer or sharper, more or less uneven, less round and more pointed and angular or the other way around, more straight or more curved.

The possibilities that playing with the lines present to create unique characters are plenty. By working with the lines you can create a sense of cuteness, cruelty, roughness, softness, a sense of humor, surliness, seriousness, impishness, and a long list of nuanced characteristics that are enough to make it distinctive from other characters.

3. Silhouette it first

Many artists start the production of a 2D character design with Silhouettes. We refer to a silhouette as a black outlined shape of the character, much like a shadow with no detail. Silhouette thumbnails are among the most helpful and productive methods of the design process. Especially when it’s necessary to produce a large number of variations of concepts within a short period of time. Not all artists use this method and it’s certainly not a necessity to design a creature or a character purely based on a silhouette shape. That doesn’t mean that designers don’t subconsciously focus on shapes and designs that make a strong impact on the viewer.

Character Design Silhouettes
Silhouettes allow you to get a general feel of the characters’ appearance before fully committing yourself to one

One of the best ways to make sure your character is unique is to draw it in silhouettes first, this way the main lines, shades, and angles are clearly distinguishable from any other character that might have inspired you, you can make the necessary changes here, before it gets any more compromising. Visit Mike Corriero’s blog post on the subject for more information: The use of Silhouettes in Concept Design.

3. Add nuance with the color

 After you have created original silhouette shapes and facial features in the profile form, you may add nuances using color. This offers a world of possibilities to have your character stand out and reach a brand new identity.

Imagine a woman wearing a pink suit with purple hair. She is in direct contrast with another woman of similar shape but wearing a beige power suit with brunette hair. Such change may not be enough by itself to make the character completely unique. But it is a deciding step toward that end.

4. Exaggerate

 One of the most effective ways to create new characters based on inspiration from others is to exaggerate certain features. Imagine one of your sources of inspiration has a pointed nose indicating lack of imagination and adventure in that character, you may exaggerate the length to add a level of insecurity and wariness to account for why they lack a sense of adventure.

Exaggeration used at the right place and in moderation can give your character highly pronounced traits and layers. It can make it a lot more fun and unique. For example, Cinderella’s step-mother’s pointed chin and high arching eyebrow indicate cruelty and judgementalism. The exaggeration in the ugly’s sisters’ noses indicates intrusiveness and the plump build of The King expresses naivety and wealth.

  Now let’s take a closer look at the Roadrunner, inspired by the real-life birds, but it’s somewhat drastically changed. The actual roadrunner is rather plump, short and with a relatively short neck, short bent legs, and short crew-cut crest, but the animation character is tall and slim, with a long neck, long fully-vertical legs, and along curling crest, an appearance which is in harmony with Road Runner’s character and role in that animation.

5. Think outside the box

 One of the many advantages of working with animations rather than real images is pretty sweet. Although you use characters that look completely unrealistic, you communicate real-world feelings with the viewer just like a real person. Work that to your advantage. Observe what particular feature is realistic, and think of what fun ways you can make them visually exaggerated. It still has to be completely in line with one important concept: The overall theme of the story.

Blind passion means trouble, a complicated concept visually simplified by the magic of 2D animation

For example, what if you want to show that too much kindness is a liability in the real world? You can make your character’s heart protrude far above the surface of his chest in a whimsically and exaggerated way. So wherever he goes, the heart gets stuck in between doors, windows, tree lines, people’s body parts, etc. This conveys a message that when a heart is too big, it gets in the way of a normal life.

Production: Reap what you sow

 With adequate pre-production, the production stage should be smooth sailing. In the pre-production stage, the team makes every effort to create an original character. The type of background, role, attitude, and actions make up a distinct personality. Which should be apparent in its looks to a degree.

By the production stage, we should know their personality, gender, role, anatomy type, and the style we should use. For example, if we were to design Popeye, by now we should know that he is a male human, hero, western army-type character with an appearance that exudes physical and mental strength, determination, and protectiveness. We know these and more thanks to the extensive pre-production run.

Remember to retain some measure of flexibility during the production stage. No matter how thoroughly you went through pre-production and what you decided was a good idea back then. You still have time to re-adjust some items. You can keep a checklist of all the ways that you can re-adjust the whole or part of a character to improve your own original one.

Model Sheets

 At this stage a team is tasked with creating model sheets, (also called turn/ orthographic, or Ortho sheets). These are pieces of drawing with the character drawn from multiple angles. They usually include four to show the front, three-quarter front, side, and back. The team uses Model Sheets to have a first-look of how the character would look in different angles. So they can draw it in different clothes, actions, and etc.

Character Design Character Sheet
Creating detailed model sheets goes a long way toward decreasing misinterpretations of your work
Expression Sheets

 Next, the team needs to draw the character’s face in every emotion, expression, and body pose possible. They call these drawings as expression sheets. The team uses such sheets as references all through the production, to avoid discrepancies or off-modeling.

Team Discussions

 When all the material is prepared to create a character storyboard, the team needs to get synced before continuing. There are meetings between the three parties involved in the production: Character designer, motion designer, and the client. This is to get feedback, study the technical feasibility or possible glitches, and finalize different aspects, and settle on specifics.

Pencil Test

 Now that the still version of the character in different poses and expressions are ready, you can show the photographed sheets in a fast sequence to create a rough version of an animated scene with the character to see how it will turn out. The team does this using digital animation or video cameras.

Animatic

 Simply put, the animatic stage is where the team creates an animated storyboard. Boards are brought into an editing program and are cut together with the correct timing and pace of the film. They include basic sound effects, dialogue recordings, and scratch soundtrack.

After that there might be additional steps according to the nature of the project; for 3D movies and games, the character might go to 3D artists for modeling and rigging. Or if the project is a 2D animation the 2d character design might go to storyboard artists for more work. It might also go to visual development artists who might create more details for the characters.

Tips:

Pay attention to clients’ ideas/sketches

 Make sure you factor in the client’s ideas in the team discussion stages. Otherwise convince him why you won’t, to avoid dissatisfaction and conflict after the production is finished

 Always keep the budget in mind

There are many issues that the character designer and the client should be clear and on the same page with. The budget, which can affect how they approach the entire design, is the most important one. So make sure the client knows what the end result will cost and how cost cuts will affect the result. It is equally important that the team have a clear idea about how much adding certain features cost. And choose styles and production methods that suit the project’s scope.

Create model and expression sheets in line-ups

When creating models or expression sheets, remember to put the characters together in line-ups. What this means is that characters that are shown in a sheet should be drawn with the same metric scale. Mind that they should all be standing on a leveled platform. This has huge impacts on presenting an exact image of the character. It will give the viewer information about how big or small they actually are.

Drawing your character with line-ups makes the actual proportion of your characters clear for the viewer

Post-production: Stay flexible

 The production stage is often considered to be finished when your team has agreed on every detail of the character. F and you have heaps of materials to satisfy the demands of the project. Sometimes the project includes animating the characters. For these projects, you should have also prepped the full runtime of the animation.

Get Feedback

 Ask non-expert, casual observers on what their take of your animated character is. If their opinion conveys the targeted message, create the desired feeling, and yields a favorable outcome. Don’t shy away from making changes if necessary, but be mindful of the budget limits. Even if you can’t make further adjustments due to any reason, the feedback will be invaluable for your next project.

Fine-tune

First, make sure everything is up to standards. Afterward, you may review all the feedback and reevaluate the work accordingly, and add the final touches. If there are to be any changes to the work at this stage, they are almost always minor. However, the feedback may be overwhelmingly negative. Then it may be wise to postpone publication and go over some phases of the production stage again. A recent example of this is Sonic the Hedgehog movie. The studio canceled the initial release date to rework the entire character design of Sonic. That happened because fans slammed it on the internet for awful character design.

Adding Sound: Voiceover/music

The team adds the soundtrack, sound effects, and sometimes voiceovers during the final edit. Then you can check if everything clicks together. And if it didn’t, you will know what you need to do to make your character fit the theme. Like when you add voice to a delicate, coquettish female character. And during reviewing a scene you decide that her voice is not flirtatious enough. In such an event, you need to make the required changes.

Let’s wrap it up!

Don’t ever fall in love with your work. Flexibility is a key factor to be a successful character designer. It’s important to remember that the things that the studio asks you to draw don’t necessarily belong to you. That’s not to say that you can’t fall in love with your designs and enjoy the process. But you don’t get to decide which ones live and which ones get shelved! Being adaptable and open to critique or changes is a vital part of the job. And there will be times when your favorite design will get rejected.

Most folks here at Pixune root for Comix Zone and Oddworld series as the pinnacle of great 2d character design!
We bet that there are at least a few characters that made a diehard fan out of you; we would love to know who they are and what made them so great in your opinion!

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