Character Design for Animation

CGMA course by Nate Wragg  

The purpose of this page is to share what I’ve learned after completing an 8 week course by CGMA: Character Design for Animation. 

This class was taught by Nate Wragg, who’s currently a Production Designer at Dreamworks, and who has worked on such films as Ratatouille, Toy Story 3, Puss & Boots, Mr. Peabody & Sherman, and many more. He’s also an illustrator for children’s books, which you can really tell by his whimsical, sketchy style:

Source: Nate Wragg CGMA 2020

Shape Language 

Shape language is crucial to strong character designs for animation. It’s the idea and practice of taking features or points of people/animals/objects and breaking them down into basic shapes to use as a foundation on which your character is built! 

When we began studying shape language, we were tasked with simply creating circles, squares, and triangles at different sizes and proportions, and turning them into monsters. 

Source: Vanessa Trepanier 2020

By starting with simple shapes, we can influence everything about the character, including personality, attitude, storytelling, and even the style we choose to draw in. 

Source: Nate Wragg CGMA 2020

In the above example, Nate chose to work with a triangle, but he specifically flipped the triangle upside down to help evoke a feeling of strength and heroism. He also shows us two completely different styles for the same character design: for example, the one on the right echoes the triangle shape with sharp edges and lines, and smaller triangular shapes throughout the design.

Source: Vanessa Trepanier 2020

As we started to learn more about shape language, we were instructed to keep pushing our shapes further and further. In the above design, I chose the square shape as my starting point. I decided that I wanted to have a beanpole style character, which allowed me to really play with the sizes of my shapes for the head and chest. I also translated the square shape into the boxy designs of the armour and shield, as well as the sharp angles on the linework. 

Contrasting shapes also push details like facial features further :

Source: Vanessa Trepanier 2020

In the above examples, the main shapes directing the design are contrasted by other shapes making up the smaller facial features. For example, the middle character is based on a rectangle, but the face is also made up of triangles in the nose and shape of the skull, and circles for the ears! 

At the end of the day, by combining and experimenting with different shapes, you can really push your design and build a strong character that’s ready to tell a story! 

Storytelling, Silhouettes, and Lineups

A strong character silhouette is key to a strong character design. You want viewers to be able to understand who your character is without needing to be told. When you combine shape language with a strong silhouette, it can enhance and support your design to make it truly successful. Silhouettes can also tell a story; the way we pose the character, what they’re wearing, the proportions we choose, and the shapes we build from all come together to tell a story about your character. 

When you’re making more than one character, you typically make a character lineup. The characters should all be diverse, built up from basic shapes, have a strong silhouette, and tell a story. The characters should all have a unique identity and look distinct to each other in the lineup, while still in the same style or universe.

In the character lineup below for the movie Onward, when we break down the characters we can see that each one is built up of basic shapes, and the proportions are all varied slightly as well. 

Source: Disney & Pixar 2020

Designing in Different Styles

One of the final things that we discussed in the class was style. An artists’ style can affect the way a design looks through the line quality, the types of edges, the position and distance of key features, etc. Specifically for this class, rather than us focus on creating our own styles, we were instructed at different points to mimic the design of other artists; in this case, the styles of Ronald Searle & Rocky and Bullwinkle. 

What I learned

I learned a lot from this class because it approached character design in a totally different way than I have in the past. I was lacking the foundations of a strong and successful design: shape language in particular. 

My sketching skills have also improved, especially when it comes to adding action and movement to any poses or ideas! During, and since, the class I’ve been sketching a lot more, both in my professional work at BVG, and my personal work or concepts at home. 

And finally, I have a couple of new brushes, and a really nice sketchpaper PSD texture I put together for the class; sketching feels fun and fresh again!