Character Design for Entertainment Media – 101 (inc Branding Characters)

Today we are going to look at possibilities, practicalities and conventions of presentation of Character Design for entertainment media.

Okay, to recap what we looked at in the last session:

Well, we swapped hats again and rather than looking at the whole concept as a “Production Designer” might, we instead focused on individual, movable elements within the whole. This time putting on the hat of “PRODUCT DESIGNER” and/or “PROPS BUYER“, and we discussed trying to design objects, props and even vehicles as if we where considering their actual function and “reality” in order to lend “authenticity” to our design.

Next up is Character Design – It is worth noting that the Character is one of the key commodities (and by that I mean “saleable” items) from amongst the concept artist and designers repertoire.

Characters (along with Story) are the driving force behind the design and successful uptake by an audience for Games, Animation, Film, TV and even web and Print based media; and many successful characters are taken beyond the media for which they were created. Some appearing in other media (games characters with their own comics), toy and clothing lines, appearing on everything from pencil cases to lunchboxes.


Okay, first of all it might be worth having a think about what we actually mean by a character

For the purposes of these sessions we’ll define it as anything that moves under its own volition, speaks, or gives the distinct impression of harbouring its own inherent “life” or “agenda”.

This would include all human(-iform) characters… People, of all shapes, sizes, ethnicity and aliens, ghosts, gods, demons; animals and creatures of all types (speaking or non-speaking); robots, androids and mecha; A.I.’s (disembodied or with a computer interface), possessed inanimates or vehicles (Herbie*, Stephen King’s Christine* and the ship, Moya, in Farscape* are all characters), and any plants with intelligently mobile tendrils/tentacles/roots etc.

*Just look them up already…

So, much like in the previous two sessions where we took on the role of a particular type of designer (i.e. Production Designer, Art Director, Product Designer etc), we will again be looking at our game designs through slightly different eyes… As character designers you will become in varying degrees, Actors, Costume Designers, Choreographers, and in some cases (I’m thinking of creature and robot design in particular) Mad Scientists; who says this isn’t fun.


So where to start?

Sketches? Thumbnails?

Well, yes… but before putting pencil to paper there are some fundamental things we should consider.

Beached_Rockets_006___sketches_by_hesirThese images even though a simple rough sketch, shows relative scale between two characters, as well as alternative outfits.


Well, what does your character do? What is their job? Soldier? Explorer? Detective? Magician? Sentinel? Criminal? Does their role bring with it a uniform or specialist attire? What is there function in the game or animation? Protagonist? Sidekick? NPC, or are they just plain, good old cannon fodder or background bodies?

Establishing some broad strokes of basic characterisation like those just listed is a great start…

If you are working from an existing concept (whether that is a new and original concept of your own devising, or an existing narrative like a novel) you should begin by listing all the key characters from your chosen narrative/concept and their attributes and traits if relevant.

Lists are your friends…

So… Are they a traditional hero/heroine? Maybe a Dastardly Villain, or are they something in between… a complex (sometimes conflicted) Anti-hero perhaps? Are they Grim? Jovial? Aloof? No nonsense and business-like?

We are talking personal, internalised traits here… you could do worse than look at pages 161 – 280 (I’ve bookmarked it in the studio copy) of David Perry on Games Design… in which he discusses, in a vast amount of detail (right down to Myers Briggs trait and personality types), how to, and at what depth (depending on the role of the character within your entertainment media project) you should or can flesh out your characters.

Moving to the outside…

Does their appearance and costume reflect their character? Are they a heroic knight resplendent in shining armour, or a black-cloaked sorcerer complete with dark rings around their blazing red eyes? Or does their appearance disguise their true nature? Does those cute teddy bear like features and big doe eyes in fact belong to a creature that harbours a ravenous appetite for human flesh?

Is their costume reflective of an actual period of history, or of an existing profession or social type? Remember the Branded Character project?

Could it help to hit the books and do a little research?

Well, it wouldn’t hurt…


Remember (despite how some of you might view it): RESEARCH IS NOT CHEATING!


Does your character speak? If so, what kind of voice do they have? Rasping and harsh? Beautiful and clear? Whispering and indistinct?

Can you hear a particular actor or celebrity voicing them? Finding a voice for your character like this might actually help with other elements of there appearance…

How would your character begin to appear if you imagined them voiced by Iggy Pop? Kylie? Morgan Freeman? Bjork? David Beckham? Okay… maybe not.

Beyond, both simple and complex, appearances, how do they move? Are they Balletic and Graceful? Moving with deadly efficiency? Clumsy? Oafish? Heroically posturing? Skulking and slinking? Think about the differences in movement between some of the characters in say Prince Of Persia or Assassins Creed (people can and do move like that – See Damian Walters HERE), against say the lumbering Big Daddy in Bioshock.

Harry___Character_Sheet_001_by_hesir copy

Cthuliad Character Sheet 002 - Judith

Okay, with costume and choreography in mind, now might well be a good time to consider that great signature move you’ve been waiting to bestow on a character, and is that batman-like flowing cloak  (from 1.57) really going to help with a special double somersault attack whilst swinging a mace? And are those two-foot spikes on your hero’s shoulder armour going to help him/her forward roll out of danger? Just a thought…

Clank Sketch

So what about creature design? Well one really important thing you might want to consider is to try to avoid using creature designs from your favourite existing games as a starting point for your own… that way derivative design doth lay.


Sure, download some of those images… but try sticking them in your sketchbooks and maybe taking some time to analyse what that designer has done, what creatures/forms has he/she hybridised and to what purpose? What was their original source material? What effect where they going for? Most importantly did it work? Then think about how you can apply some of your findings to your own design process.

Just as I’ve said before about life drawing being important for your ability to draw the human figure, and observed drawing of objects and architecture for inanimates.

Observed drawing of animals from life is going to help you with your creature design… not just their appearance, but how they move, how their weight shifts during that movement.

Visit a zoo, get down to The Deep…

--- Fish

…and take your sketchbooks!

Even the odd sketch of (and so time spent observing) your domestic animals and pets can begin to inform you about the way creatures move, hold themselves, how their weight is distributed, and so helping you develop believable forms and creature shapes of your own…


No matter how fantastical they might be in essence…

--- POSTER - The White Ship - Page 42 - Manticore PosterThe images below were observed in Holy Trinity Church here in Hull, an amazing building, filed to the brim with carved pews and sculpted reliefs and woodworking… and again a great source for creature design.

x0 Wednesday Sketch 1st Aug 006

Sometimes a little hybridising of creatures and technology works too… what’s not to like about Robot Space-Monkeys for instance…?

Monkey 001

So at times it’s probably worth paying some attention to how technology fits together… pivots, sockets, flanges, radiators, valves, telescopic tubing, wires, terminals, vents, grilles, joints, fixings and hinges… all can be observed in the real world and then applied in the conceptual ones…

That of course goes for people too…


There’s no telling what strange shaped, visaged, bequiffed, garbed and choreographed human entities you might stumble across. All can be foder for your imagination, and reshaped and their unique details re-purposed for your character designs.

Oh, and as always… remember, anatomy… Life drawing will teach you more than you can imagine, about your ability to observe, visualise, as well as about the way bodies fit together.

Life drawing coloured

And when it comes to the practical part and actually visualising your characters and creatures (observed drawing practice aside) remember some of the tips we discussed in the first session, use those “basic primitives”, the simple shapes like cylinders, blocks, truncated cones etc to build your drawings upon.

You could also take a look at these extended notes HERE, with some “skill set” and “creative approach” building mini-briefs.

0 0 Sketch 001

Screen shot 2011-11-10 at 12.31.54

All of the points and thoughts above might help you iron out (or iron in) some of the kinks in your characters design… Still stuck? Try handing your concept over to a designer friend, see if their take on your character adds something interesting.

When developing your character designs, you should perhaps try to explore your characters through as many types of media as possible. Each new media will bring something new to the table, whether that is the ability to convey detail, movement and fluidity, outline shape/silhouette and character recognition etc.

When starting out its probably best that at least one of your characters should be “humaniform”, meaning you must consider human anatomy and various costume designs as part of your character design.

Your design development could include: rapid pen/brush pen thumbnails, silhouettes, pencil thumbnails, head shots, variant costume designs, multi-angle views of the figure, marker sketches, watercolour and pen and ink renders, digital renders inc. Photoshop sketches and full colour artwork, and perhaps if appropriate 3D digital models and fimo/clay maquettes

All of these techniques and processes allow for a range of possibilities and information communication opportunities when developing characters visually?

What do the professionals do?

Well the standard design development process applies obviously – >SEE HERE< – but on top of that some of these techniques professional concept artists use can be explored.

  • Quick Thumbnails, including The Lasso Tool or Pen Scribble Paredolia techniques –
  • Strong Silhouettes – inc “the lost-line method” – in which white space left (when creating quick marker doodles or brush sketches) on the paper can be interpreted as additional details.

One sure fire way to make your character design stick in the head of your audience is to give them a bold and recognisable silhouette. Animation designers have known this for a long time. A bold silhouette means your character is recognisable at a distance, in fog, rain, with sheet draped over them… and from every angle.

Check out the fantastic book by Scott Robinson and his then students, The Skillful Huntsman for some excellent examples of this developments of silhouettes and lost line sketches in practice.

Silhouettes are also a really “un-precious” way to begin development drawings, churning out a huge amount of possible shapes quickly.

  • …adding Detail to scanned Silhouettes –
  • Tracing Early Drawings and adding further Detail –
  • Tonal Value Renders
  • Adding Colour –
  • Final Renders –
  • Model Sheets – Sheets that show a range of poses, attributes and expressions of characters to aid animators or model builders further down the production line.

eg. – Gossamer the Mad Scientists Henchmen/Monster/Familiar designed by Chuck Jones

  • Front, Back and Side (with arm removed) Presentation Sheets – Sometimes called “Rotations”

Brief – Creating a Character Design Model Sheet:

So… you’ve now nailed the look and feel of your new character… How are you going to present this design to others to the best effect?

Well, take a look around.

Type  “Character Design Sheet” into Google Image search and you get >THIS<

As you can see, rendering styles vary from rough, to highly polished, from pencil to digital and combinations thereof.

But look at enough and you’ll start to notice agreed conventions… even when people are stretching other conventions such as gender-roles etc.

As in this great Hellboy as Hellgirl adaptation by Peter J. Lazarski and other professional and well-rendered examples.

So, what to add to your Model Sheet.

Well, typically we see views of the character from all sides, what are known in the animation industry as Rotations.

Cthulhiad Character Sheet 003 - Harry small

Try imagining that you are going to hand over your character design to someone who is going to build it in 3D. You’re going to be busy working on your next incredible design/visual and so the model sheet/design sheet has to communicate as much relevant information as possible because lets face it, look at your schedule, your not going to be able to oversee it.


And remember, this a practical communication tool. If you cant see something that needs to be seen or made by someone else in the chain just because you’ve hidden it behind something cool, YOU’RE NOT HELPING!

See the disembodied arms in conventional character sheets… why do you think they do that?

One of the best sketch model sheets for me was one one created by Mike Mignola to explain the depiction of his Hellboy character – You can find it in The Art of Hellboy (well worth picking up) – In it we can see pretty much everything we need to render the character from any angle, accessory and boot details. The second visual above some of the additional info, how the hair and teeth work etc, make it impossible to mis-translate the designers original intent.


But as we said last week… half the battle is trying to think in advance what your visual/design sheet is for. What information are you trying to convey, to whom, and why? We aren’t just making pretty pictures for the sake of it at this stage of the game.

Below are some further examples of character sheets that convey a lot of info…

Excellent character based animation project, with great style sheets…

1 – GatorDog by Selene Wyatt

Gatorgirl Character Sheet

Gatordog Character Sheet

Gatordog Expressions

…find more of Selenes great work here over on her DeviantArt pages…


2 – Pippi Long Stochings designs by Robert Simmons/Falarsimons on Deviantart

Pippi – Character sheets

Pippi’s Robot Monkey – Character sheets

You can also check out some of the great work collected and explored by Pictoplasma in their books or in their Character design Based Exhibitions, with a great little video to boot…

Also check out >THIS< video, which covers a range of ideas and resources.

And this one in which a Pixar Prod Designer talks about character designs.

Right, so plenty to think about…

I guess what it would be great to see is a design sheet, showing your chosen character’s inner character.

Plenty of notes on the sheet, and those conventional front side and back views (rotations).

And remember… I can’t tell much of the CHARACTER of the person/creature on your sheets then it’s not a character design, its a costume and/or an exercise in physiognomy and body proportion (that’s not to say that isn’t useful).

Lets see the character/personality of your creations.

And if they’re ready for NEXT WEEK, we can start thinking about unifying the things we’ve discussed in these last four Concept/Production Design sessions, by looking at pulling our environment, objects and character together into one (or perhaps two) visual(s).

Below are some Further Notes/Discussion points and Links taken from the Monday Sessions on Branding Characters.

Branding a Character.

Or creating a character with a/or to support a distinctive brand.

First of all, “Branding”, its  common term amongst Graphic Designers and marketing practitioners – But how do we define it.?

Well, the American Marketing Association Dictionary uses the following definition:

Brand is thename, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s product distinct from those of other sellers.”

..any other feature might cover a number of aesthetic choices… this might be colour, A, B, C, D

shape/silhouette… A, B, C, D, E, F…

some form of graphic. A, B, C, D, f, F

or simply a piece of clothing. A, B, C, … G

…or a combination of the above.

The heritage of this kind of branding can be found in some of the earlier recognisable brand (and heavily merchandised) characters.

A, B

…and their parallels in even earlier situations where a recognisable identity was paramount. For example in Combat…

A, B, C, D, E, F… and remember Kratos and his markings?… G

..and of course those areas of combat based differentiation of individuals that survive to this day…

A, B, …

~ by hesir on December 4, 2013.

3 Responses to “Character Design for Entertainment Media – 101 (inc Branding Characters)”

  1. How is the disney figure between olive and snoopy?

  2. […] – Character Design for Entertainment Media Seminar Notes & Brief – Delivered (Wed am) […]

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