To truly appreciate the significance of character design, one must understand its profound impact on our lives. Think of those cherished childhood memories spent glued to the television screen, eagerly following the adventures of our favorite characters. These animated drawings shaped our imagination, taught us valuable life lessons, and became lifelong companions. They ignited our dreams and sparked our creativity, leaving an indelible mark on who we are today. But what makes certain characters stand out and become timeless classics? The answer lies in the intricate process of character design.
At CGWire, we help animation studios from all around the world to manage their character assets. From experience, we gained invaluable insight into the intricate world of character design and how important a well-crafted character design process is. Join us in this article as we explore the intricacies of the character design process, uncover the techniques employed by masterful animators, and gain a deeper understanding of what it takes to craft compelling characters.
What’s Character Design
Character design is the process of creating characters, from protagonists to supporting cast, to drive the narrative and engage the audience on an emotional level.
A well-designed character possesses a unique visual aesthetic that instantly captivates the eye. From their distinctive physical features to their attire and accessories, every aspect is meticulously crafted to convey their personality, background, and purpose within the story. The artistry lies in finding the delicate balance between familiarity and novelty, ensuring that characters feel fresh and intriguing while remaining relatable to the audience.
But character design is not limited to appearances alone: a remarkable character transcends the boundaries of their visual characteristics, embodying a rich inner world that fuels their actions, motivations, and relationships. Their personalities evoke emotions, whether it be through their wit, humor, vulnerability, or strength. Memorable characters possess flaws and quirks that make them feel human, relatable, and flawed, allowing us to connect with them deeper. The art of character design lies in creating such personalities, infusing them with an unmistakable presence that resonates long after the credits roll.
For example, consider the character design of Mickey Mouse originating in 1928: with his iconic round ears, white gloves, and cheerful personality, you can still recognize Mickey Mouse’s silhouette a century later.
The deliverables of the character design process include concept art, model sheets, turnarounds showing the character from multiple angles, color schemes, and any additional reference materials needed for production.
Why Character Design Is Key
Characters with distinct visual designs are more likely to leave a lasting impression on the audience: unique silhouettes, color palettes, and memorable details contribute to the character's recognizability and set them apart from other animated work. A well-designed character becomes instantly recognizable and can endure in the collective memory of audiences for years.
Well-designed characters also have the power to evoke strong emotional responses. By attributing human characteristics to non-human characters like relatable traits, distinct personalities, and expressive features, animators can establish a deep connection between viewers and the characters on-screen. This connection fosters empathy and engagement in the story's outcome.
Who Is Involved In Character Design
Character designers specialize in conceptualizing characters based on scripts and storyboards. They create initial sketches, explore different designs, and refine the appearance and personality of the characters. Character designers work in team under a supervisor or an art director. The art director oversees the overall visual style and aesthetic direction of the animation project. They provide guidance and ensure that the character designs align with the broader artistic vision of the animation and maintain consistency throughout the production.
During pre-production, storyboard artists work closely with character designers to translate the character designs into sequential drawings or panels that represent the key moments and actions of the story. They help establish the character's physicality, movement, and expressions. Modelers then take the 2D character designs and create three-dimensional models using specialized software. They sculpt and refine the digital models, ensuring accuracy and attention to detail in terms of proportions, anatomy, and costume design.
During production, animators are responsible for breathing life into the characters. They use character models and rigging systems to create believable movements, scenes, and expressions. Animators infuse personality and emotion into the characters, giving them a sense of vitality and bringing them closer to the intended vision.
The Character Design Process In 5 Steps
Character design combines artistic vision, storytelling, and audience connection way before any actual drawing is done.
The character design process begins with understanding the project requirements―script, genre, target audience, and artistic vision―to gain insights into the world and tone of the animation.
- Understand the audience - Gain a deep understanding of the story, themes, and target audience to guide design choices and ensure characters resonate with viewers.
- Get familiar with the genre - Familiarize yourself with the animation genre and study existing works to understand visual conventions and desired artistic direction.
- Conduct research - Gather references like pictures or videos and study existing material like scripts or concept illustrations.
- Develop a visual mood board - A visual mood board showcases the desired atmosphere, color palettes, and textures to serve as references throughout the design process.
- Understand each character's role and personality - Each character’s visual representation should align with their narrative purpose. But you can’t understand a character without taking into account its relationship with other characters, so make sure to not just limit yourself to the characters you are responsible for.
When you are acquainted with the global picture, it’s time to drill down into the details.
In this phase, artists generate initial ideas and concepts for a character’s design. They explore different visual styles, traits, and personalities that align with the story and project vision. This is mainly a brainstorming stage, but you can leverage character sheets from the scripting phase to guide you. A character design concept should address the following points:
- Personality - The character's defining personality traits and how they influence their actions: strengths, weaknesses, fears, desires, unique quirks, and mannerisms.
- Backstory - The events that shaped the characters before the story begins and their current goals.
- Role - The character’s main role in the story and how they relate to other characters.
- Visual appearance - The look of the character: physical features like age, body type, hair color, silhouette, and facial expressions, but also clothing style and unique visual elements that mirror their personality, role, and backstory.
- Expressions and body language - Everything related to how characters move and express themselves through movement.
A character needs a distinct design, but it also needs to remain relatable for the intended audience and respect the production’s unique technical constraints like the color palette or the art style.
Artists create rough sketches and thumbnails to flesh out the initial ideas. These quick and loose drawings capture the essence of the character, exploring proportions, poses, facial expressions, and silhouettes. Multiple iterations and variations are created to explore different design possibilities.
- Explore different ideas - Use sketching as a creative outlet to generate a variety of design ideas for the character: experiment with different shapes, poses, and compositions, and allow your imagination to roam freely past the boundaries of your initial concepts.
- Emphasize silhouettes and proportions - Focus on capturing the character's essence through their silhouette, with distinctive and recognizable outlines that convey the character's personality and role. Proportions can also emphasize specific traits.
- Show facial expressions and gestures - Sketch various facial expressions and gestures to convey the character's emotions and mood: eyebrows, eyes, mouth, hair, and hands are precious tools to evoke feelings.
- Use dynamic poses - Explore poses that capture the character's potential movement―how the character might interact with the environment and other characters. This helps in understanding how the design translates into practical animation and storytelling.
During sketching, always refer back to the character's backstory, personality traits, and role within the story to ensure that the sketches align with the narrative and accurately represent the character's essence and development throughout the animation.
The refinement stage is an opportunity to bring the character design to its full potential, adding depth, and details while removing anything that doesn’t contribute to storytelling:
- Clean line art - Create clean and precise line art to define the character's features, contours, and proportions. Use confident strokes to refine the initial sketches and ensure a clean design.
- Add shades, highlights & textures - Add shades to give the character depth and dimension, while highlighting key features to bring attention to specific areas. Experiment with textures to add visual appeal.
- Maintain visual coherence - The refined design integrates all the visual styles, color palettes, and aesthetic choices established in earlier stages. Aim for a final design that is clear, visually appealing, and easily recognizable by ensuring that each element serves a purpose and avoiding clutter or excessive ornamentation that may distract from the character's essence.
At this stage, the design is complete and ready for delivery.
Turnarounds and Model Sheets
The character design process ends with the delivery of character packs including concept art, turnarounds, and model sheets.
Turnarounds are illustrations showcasing the character from multiple angles, typically including front, back, and side views. These visual references serve as a guide for 3D modelers, helping them accurately recreate how the character should look from different perspectives in a 3D space.
Model sheets go beyond turnarounds and offer additional detailed views and references for specific elements of the character design―facial expressions, hand poses, costume details, accessories, etc. They help artists maintain consistency and accuracy throughout the animation production by offering precise visual instructions for each specific element.
Turnarounds and model sheets are essential tools that also serve as references for rigging and animation, ensuring realistic movements and expressions.
It’s An Iterative, Collaborative Process
The character design process includes reviews and feedback loops as the project evolves. It’s not a straightforward process where everything falls right on the first try. Having the right methodologies and tools to support this collaborative aspect is important to increase productivity.
Because of this, Kitsu is an invaluable tool for character design. Sharing designs with colleagues or clients becomes a seamless process: just upload your work and gather constructive feedback from the user interface:
By providing a centralized platform, Kitsu enables open communication and coordination among team members involved in the animation pipeline. Designers can seamlessly connect with modelers, riggers, and animators to ensure a smooth transition from the design phase to the production stages with delivery tracking:
Lastly, Kitsu offers version control, providing a comprehensive history of the character design process. Designers can easily revisit previous iterations, track changes, and maintain a clear record of the design evolution. By having all the design assets in one place, designers can efficiently manage their projects, making it easier to access and update character designs as needed:
Character design requires a wide range of skills from storytelling to drawing and a good understanding of human psychology. Great character design allows animators to create timeless classics that resonate with viewers. Because of its complexity, character design often requires a team to get right.
That’s where Kitsu comes in handy to review, exchange feedback, organize character design assets efficiently, and manage deliveries throughout the entire production pipeline. CGWire software is open-source and developed in collaboration with studios, so we know from experience how valuable it is for character designers. Try Kitsu for free, it only takes minutes to tour the product.