5 Tips for Creating a Winning Character Design

by | 10 March 2016 | Animation, Conferences, Design, Graphics

spirit of siggraph contest

This year, the “Spirit of SIGGRAPH” is in your hands. SIGGRAPH 2016 has invited artists and innovators to create a character design that embodies the synergy of the conference and reflects the energetic and inventive spirit present in the fields of computer graphics and interactive techniques. The selected designer will be joining us at the conference, 24-28 July in Anaheim, California, and win a complimentary full-conference registration. To help you create a winning entry, we asked SIGGRAPH 2016 Production Sessions Chair Mikki Rose, a full-time computer graphics artist, to share her best tips for animated character design. And just a reminder: contest entries are due 15 April 2016.

  1. Consider your audience.
    Is the audience for you character children, industry professionals, international citizens? Should the character be serious or playful? Once the audience is determined, place yourself in their shoes. Younger viewers tend to respond best to simple shapes and colors, while a more mature audience can process more visual stimulation. For a conference such as SIGGRAPH, where the content presented is a perfect mix of educational and technical (with a certain amount of whimsy and awe), your character needs to be fairly versatile to represent each aspect. Imagine him/her/it standing next to a listing of Technical Talks being presented in a specific room, on stage introducing panelists in a Production Session, or as a photo-op for attendees in a reception area. How best can this character represent the SIGGRAPH community to an international audience?
  2. Consider how the character will be used.
    Will this character be used in still images only, or does it need to be animated? If so, in 2D or 3D? Both? In 2D animation you have some leeway in the physicality of your characters. They can run, jump, and bend faster, higher, and way more than you or I ever could. 2D characters can have tiny legs with huge bodies, can twist up like you’re wringing a mop, or stretch to cover a long distance in one frame. A lot of this is possible in 3D as well if done correctly, but it definitely needs to be planned in advance. This is a huge consideration in character design! Characters modeled in 3D must be designed with a lot more grounding in the real, physical world. A character with tiny legs and a huge body will take ages to walk across screen and realistically, would likely fall over and probably could never touch his toes if he needed to. A character with more reasonable proportions will feel more correct to the animator and audience. For any unusual amounts of stretching, twisting, bending, etc. that a character needs to be able to do, special rig attributes must be built in from the start. Likewise, details like hair, clothing, and props must be considered much more in 3D than in 2D. You can draw a character with hair growing from the bottom of his head up, or with a part on one side of her head, but when you try to build that in 3D you run into interpretation problems (i.e., is this character believable?). Make sure to include the necessary features, abilities, and range of motion in your character’s initial design.
  3. Carefully choose a color palette.
    Color choices within a character’s design can very quickly and easily convey a lot about his/her/its personality. Consider the various meanings assigned to colors throughout our history. At a minimum, bright, warm colors tend to indicate happiness, goodness, health, excitement, and so on, while dark, cool colors make us think of calm, slowness, boring, melancholy, and sadness. Great examples of this are the characters Joy and Sadness from Pixar’s 2015 hit “Inside Out.” Joy’s skin tone is a warm, orange-ish gold color, she glows a lighter shade of that same hue, and while her clothes and hair are green and blue — notice that her dress is a warm yellow-green and her hair is a bright, sparkly blue. On the opposite side is Sadness, whose skin tone and entire outfit are varying shades of muted blue. While Joy is an interesting mix of analogous and complementary colors, Sadness’ monotone coloring indicates her sorrowful personality. Several other meanings are generally assigned to certain colors. Blue and purple can indicate royalty, red can mean anger, yellow often means caution, black tends to be reserved to represent evil or death, green can imply poison, and so on. In the animal world, vivid colors indicate warnings or danger. Think about your character’s personality and the client’s desires; then, try to come up with a complementary palette that reflects each.
  4. Research real-life examples.
    Make sure to do your research! In general, people have a pretty good understanding of what typical animals (including humans) look like. You may feel like you know what people look like, for example, but then find out when you’re trying to craft the eyes, hands, feet, hairline, or any one of many other difficult body parts, that you need a real, human reference to look at. The same goes for many other everyday animals that we encounter. We all know most dogs have four legs and a tail, but when you actually sit down to draw one, will you be able to accurately recreate those features? This becomes even more important if you set yourself the task of crafting a character that has only ever been seen in your mind’s eye. Perhaps it’s a mythical creature with horns, snarly teeth, wolf-like fur on its back, and fish-like scales on its belly. In this case, you have a lot of research to do my friend! On the flip side, your audience will know if an aspect of your character looks incorrect. The more you study your subject, the more believability your design with have, even if it is completely from your imagination.
  5. KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid!)
    Pick one major feature of your character and develop that into a focal point. In many cases there is no need to create super intricate characters with hundreds of moving parts (unless that is crucial to your design). Remember our good friend the flour sack? Every animator to date has spent a good chunk of time trying to make a simple flour sack emote. It’s a tried and true test because it is an extraordinarily simple character design that TOTALLY works. Often when we try to create characters that are too realistic they fall into the uncanny valley, and no one wants that… You can convey realism, i.e., believability, without having to create an extremely realistic looking character. If you can get your client’s point across using a simple shape with eyes, you’ve done your job well.

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