Tuesday, October 21, 2008

How Do You Make an Unappealing Character Design Look Appealing?

In my opinion, an animator should never be concerned with the design of a character. Countless animators have proven over the years that animation transcends the aesthetic appeal of a character. I remember when I was in school studying animation. A student graduating a year or so before me had created a brilliant short film about a scarecrow chasing a crow through corn fields. The scarecrow was entirely made of thin tubes, with no textures, and a low-poly straw hat. The weak uncreative character design didn't hinder the performance in the slightest. In fact, in some ways it augmented the quality of the animation because the animator didn't have to think about weighting issues, intersection problems, muscles, textures, etc. It was raw animation in its truest form.

I think this rings true for all great animation. The appeal or lack of appeal of a character's design should exist independently of the animation. Of course, that's not to say a great design won’t bring more appeal to the viewer's relationship to the character. Having a great design is...well....great! But an animator's ability to make the viewer connect with the performance, personality, and nature of the character's “soul”, will not be impeded by poor design.

Let's look at some concrete examples of this. Take the characters we see animated in so many animation school programs. I've seen sack jump animations that have had me on the floor laughing. Ballie, at Animation Mentor, is a couple of leg tubes and a sphere. This is hardly creative design at its best. But when a student flawlessly makes Ballie perform in a way that touches me, the symmetry, lack of textures, and flat surfaces, fall to the wayside.

We can look at poor design choices and how they may have affected a character's performance in films as well. I've spoken about Luxo Jr. in another article. The design of Luxo is nothing special. I'm sure no one would disagree with that. It's an ordinary metallic lamp with nothing interesting about its design per say. And yet, when it moves, it springs to life. The animation works so strongly that the essence of a child screams out at you. You cease to think about the design and become absorbed with the character's thought processes. When he reacts to squishing the ball I sincerely feel he's sad. Look at the design for Eve in Wall-E. It’s an oval! And yet the animation is nothing short of fantastic, and we never question the design choice. In fact, as an animator, I revel in the fact that Pixar purposefully chose a simplistic design and then made me ignore that stark fact by absorbing me into her performance so skillfully.

As an animator working in the industry, you will always be given characters that have poor designs. Even psychologically, you can work everyday on low-res puppets that look terrible. But as long as the animator can connect with the essence of the character to create an intriguing performance, it will always come out in the final product. And in some cases, when the animation is brilliant, it will rise above all aesthetic obstacles.

Guest blogger Aaron Gilman


Laura said...

Very insightful! I'd never thought of that before. Thanks for posting!

Muddu said...

Gr8 post !

Grejotte said...


But what about a character design that is so poor that you can't make any great poses because of geometries going through each others or a bad bad weighting that makes the geometries looks really weird if you push the poses too much?

Aaron said...

Hi Grejotte. Thanks for the question! A broken rig or a poorly weighted character is going to cloud the quality of the animation, there is no question about that. A broken rig should be avoided at all costs if you cannot fix it yourself, or if you are not in a production pipeline and having it fixed by someone else is impossible for some reason. If you are unable to achieve the poses you need, then clearly you will not be able to execute the animation at the level you wish. If the problem is weighting, then I would suggest parenting rough pieces of polygonal geometry to the character's joints, creating what some of us call a low-res "tootsie" character. Yes, Tootsie just like the chocolate rolls. By parenting the pieces you keep the rig light, and you can then hide the poorly weighted geometry, and work only with the new low-res character. You may get some intersections between the pieces when posing the character, but this will bother you a lot less than distortion in the geometry, caving in, or twisting, which are common symptoms of bad weighting. You can put all the tootsie pieces on a layer and easily hide them when you wish. Do this until the weighting issue are fixed by yourself or someone else. If this is not possible for some reason, then personally I would only ever show the tootsie geometry when presenting the animation. The poorly weighted geometry will only serve to detract from the animation. But remember, poor or uncreative design, which is what I wrote about, is VERY different from broken design, like broken rigs or incorrect weighting. So in the case of the latter, I do believe it can detract from the quality of the animation, but this is purely because these issues are "wrong" and do not exist in the character's universe, if that makes sense.

@b said...

fantastic post...now whenever i come across any character to animate whether good or bad, this post will also be in my mind. thanks!

Virgil said...

I, mostly... strongly disagree. :D
Although maybe it is true that very good animation can bring (unexpected :P ) life to otherwise badly designed and/or built characters, great animation is not only great because of how it moves, but because of how it looks too. The old Disney animation is so magical because its golden poses are simply truly gorgeous drawings, and the whole animation is built around them. so anyway, I saw crappy animation that looks appealing, and, as an animator, I didn't like it (I perceived it as cheap and unfinished), I saw great animation playblasted from Maya and looking very incomplete... from a "drawing appeal" point of view, but I think the real magic comes when animation is both correct/alive and good-looking. just like an ugly person, in reality, might be... real and all... but that doesn't make me want to look at him/her. while more interesting people have some charm, not necessarily because they are very good looking, but because they have something special in the way they look and behave. so I don't perceive appeal as "cuteness" but rather as personality, charm, charisma, which is obtained with both animation/acting/movement AND design. and idea. :)