Thinking about Character Design 101 – 4th July 2017 taster session.


What is Design for Entertainment Media?

Firstly what do we cover in terms of Design?

Broadly the Design of Sets/Environments, Props (inc any portable device, weapon or object) & Vehicles (essentially drivable props), and finally Characters.

Entertainment Media?

Well, all and any forms of (predominantly) visual media that provides “Entertainment” for an audience, whether that audience is a single individual or a large group:

Which in a broad sense covers: Books, Comics, Animation, Television, Film, Theatre, Opera (and other musical theatre), Ballet, Outdoor Performance, Events, Attractions, Interactive (and passive) Digital Entertainment including Games, and any hybrids of the various individual elements above, many of which fall under the broader category of storytelling and performance which have been part of our cultural heritage in some form or other for as long as we have been able to speak and draw.

Looking more specifically at this specialism,

What are Characters? How can we define that?

Well the definition we use on the Games Design course we run at HSAD states:.

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…

Why in Entertainment Media, Characters can be as Important as Logos.

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.

Identifying Logos without the text and vice versa.  Logo 1, Logo 2, Logo 3.

…is something that a Graphic Designer strives for, a brand should be immediately recognisable.

So, as we have seen above, we can recognise logos simply from a recognisable shape…

What about Character Silhouettes? How many of the characters below can you identify?

This of course has become one of the key elements of the process of Character Design, even for complex characters such as those found in AAA Games and animation and film too.

i.e. Creating a recognisable, or simply appropriate Silhouette.

But there can be more to it than just a recognisable shape…

The development of Pixar’s Merida (Pixar’s first female protagonist) from “Brave”, it is possible to see both physical and psychological influences on her overall character design, here they discuss her hair reflecting her free character and spirit, while we see an animator acting out her frustration whilst creating pivotal scenes – getting into the head of the character (something we try to do whether the character is like us or not).

So what else can we look too?

Defining Characteristics – Powers, Abilities, Flaws and Weaknesses.

Lets take a character everyone knows: what about Superman?

What are his powers and abilities? What are his flaws and weaknesses? How does these flaws affect our ability to tell stories?


So where to start?

Sketches? Thumbnails?

Well, of course, 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.

CONCEPTUALISATION – Thinking about our characters before we start making images.

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…



Hero or Villain?

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

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…

Role or Job.

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?


Does their appearance and costume reflect their internal 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?

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

Well, it wouldn’t hurt…


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.

Choreography / Movement / Physical Appearance and Body Shape.

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 say, the lumbering Big Daddy in Bioshock, or some of the characters in say Prince Of Persia or Assassins Creed (people can and do move like that – For example, see stunt man Damian Walters HERE).

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, are those two-foot spikes on your hero’s shoulder armour going to help him/her forward roll out of danger? And is that batman-like flowing cloak  (start video from 1.57) really going to help with a special double somersault attack whilst swinging a mace?

Just a thought…

Subtlety and a sense of the Unique in Character Design.

The influence of our own lives on characters we invent can be huge.

We tend to hang out with people who dress the same, listen to the same music and like the same movies. – this doesn’t help us design a great range of characters however. It tends to make design characters that are exactly like us, or perhaps even the polar opposite when designing the villain.

Maybe if we have travelled a little, tried new things, hung out in new places and been a little more open to meeting new people from a range of places we might have more to go on.

What things, people or places have you seen that your peers may not have experienced, could any of that be used to help design your character?

And what about Creatures?

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 lies derivative design.

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.

Example: From the Horror/Zombie-esque Game – The Last of Us.

The Infected from Last of Us. Vs.  Cordyceps and Ants.

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 Poster

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, be-quiffed, garbed and choreographed human entities you might stumble across. All can be fodder for your imagination, and reshaped and their unique details re-purposed for your character designs.


This is where we get to the skills necessary for the job… well, underpinning it all is traditional Art & Design skills (something asked for in Industry when looking for Game Artist jobs).

0 0 Sketch 001

Screen shot 2011-11-10 at 12.31.54In Part Four we will look at some tips and tricks for drawing faces and figures.

Once we have done a fair amount of thinking, reading, researching and a little more thinking about our characters, then we need to start experimenting with images…

So the Character Design Process process might go a little like this:

Your early 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 Pareidolia techniques – DEMO
  • More elaborate sketches.
  • 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. – DEMO

One sure fire way to make your character design stick in the head of your audience is to (as we mentioned earlier) 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.

This also might involve 2D digital skills (that build upon your traditional skills), Photoshop for example.

  • 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”

These then can be shipped out to 3D specialists (which also might be you – many concept artists are now asked to have 3D skills, particularly digital).

This might involve clay maquettes… – Show Examples – Shifflet Brothers.

Or, move into the digital 3D realm… and this might involve more sculpting, just digital in this instance – Sculptris DEMO.

All the while considering how these might be rigged and finally animated – Remember what we said about knowing how our characters move?

Okay so lets take a step back… we saw how much of that early phase was built upon drawing. That freaks every on out. Especially if they have avoided drawing for six years and then get onto a games design course and say “I want to be a concept artist for games”, and my response is “Great, show me how good your sketchbooks are”.

This happens a lot, and it means that the person in question won’t get to the level that I can teach them to, in just the three years they are with me. Especially as I’m having to go back over basics they should have covered in their Art or Design GCSEs (which they may or may not have taken), or consolidated on their BTec.

In particular, and in no preferred order… Perspective Drawing, use of Light and Shade and Contour to generate Form, and Human Proportion.

If you want to be an Artist for Games or any other form of Entertainment Media, start drawing now. It will put you way ahead of many other students who make the decision late.

PART FOUR – SOME TIPS & TRICKS and Sculpting in digital 3D.

Physical Drawing: Computers will not save you – Contemporary Digital Sculpting in 3D software s an extension of drawing…

Drawing Organic 3D shapes – Contour Lines, Slicing the Melon – student hands on

Drawing Faces – Proportion – DEMO – student hands on

Drawing Figures – DEMO – student hands on

Differing Body Shapes – DEMO

Pareidolia (with a big brush) – DEMO – student hands on

…again in Photoshop – DEMO

(Z-Brush) Sculptris – DEMO – student hands on


~ by hesir on July 4, 2017.

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