• Mr. Squash, meet Mr. Stretch.

Creating Real True Characters


It all started when I looked at my character and found that I knew nothing about her. This put me on a journey to find out how to make my characters “Real” for myself. I found that this not only helped my animation, it improved my speed, solidified my poses, and gave me someone to animate with who is just as into the scene as I am. Here’s how I got to that point.

I find myself reading a lot about how actors come up with characters. This is great reference to read but I find that half of what actors do doesn’t apply to animators or is just too time consuming for a few second clip. I have never found it helpful to go and write a whole life story of my character before starting to animate. But the character HAS lived a whole life up to this point.


Another problem I find with these acting books is that they always speak in the first person. “What am I doing?” “What am I thinking?” I find this distracts me from actually having a character come to life because it makes me feel like I have to become the character and act out what the character is feeling or doing. The best characters I have animated just feel and do what they want. It’s like I have little to no control over them.

I decided to start by diving into multiple thoughts of character development and trying to apply it to acting in animation. When I was doing this I came across an simple difference between the character development strategies of a puppeteer and that of an actor.

The puppeteer speaks to/about the character and an actor speaks as the character. So I wanted to know which works better for animators. After some research and some thought as to what worked best for me. I came to the conclusion that the puppeteer way is closer but still not quite right. So taking my knowledge I added the writers perspective on character development and then tried to make sense of it all.

Pixar’s Carl

Lets start with the masters of character at Pixar. When I think of a character like Carl from Pixar’s Up after watching the movie I feel like I have a great understanding of who Carl is. When I think of Carl making a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice in the morning I can picture it perfectly. The grumbles, the facial twitches, the random points of frustration. As a character he is not so much someone I can be but a complete person who’s actions I know so well I can visualize them in my mind.

So the question is…How can I get a character no one has animated before to the point in my mind where Carl is?

Always In Mind

The first thing I decided to change was the way I thought about coming up with a character. Second I devised a way to develop the character, and the last test was easy, does the character work in my mind.

Things to start your mind:

1. You are not making up a character. The character already exists but you just met them.

2. It is not my job to make up the character, my job is to get to know them.

3. The character is always comfortable being themselves. They are not playing a roll they are just being them.

Getting to know the character:

4. Remember the pose they where in when you met them (first saw them in you mind) draw or create that pose and have it as reference.

5. Close your eyes, sit down, and interview your character. Ask them questions. How do they feel about the objects in the scene? How long have they been doing what they are doing? visualize them across the table/room in your mind and really talk to them and let them answer.

6. Make sure to ask them questions they disagree with.

7. Pose out a few of your favorite facial expressions and poses from your interview. As you pose them let the character tell you how they where in that moment for the finer points.


8. Continue to talk to and get to know your character as you animate their scene.

Post Check:

9. Is your character moving fluidly through their life and talking to you as themselves?

10. Does the character continue to hold up as you run into them through different situations?

11. Is your character interesting and extreme enough to be an animated character?

12. Empathy, Do you connect and believe your new acquaintance?

Further Explanations

If this makes perfect sense to you have at it, if not I would like to explain a little more about a few of the exercises above.

Exercise #1: Remember that you can’t just take a character that you have seen before and place their personality onto this one, you can use them as a starting point, but not exactly. This character is their own person and can’t be exactly like some other person.

Exercise #2: This is to stop my mind from adding personal inflections I do onto a character. If it feels too much like you its probably not them.

Exercise #4: This is not the first pose you see them in, it is the first pose that defines them as a character. The pose that says to you, this is who I want to star in my animation. Its kind of like when a director sees someone on the street and casts them for a roll in their film.


Exercise #5:
It is important to imagine your character into a place where they feel comfortable. For example I interviewed an old lady character in her kitchen at her table.

Exercise #8: I find this point more important than it sounds. If you get stuck in your animation it can be kind of fun to see if you can get your character to talk you through it. Let them tell you what is right and wrong with how your are animating their performance. This is the exercise when your character really gets to shine! When the actor tells the director what to do, and the character feels the most alive to you personally.

For some final words: Having a character work like a person in your mind is not a replacement for any other animation exercise. I still get up and act out what my character does, but now I am only doing an imitation not trying to be the character. The whole purpose of this is to have a more detailed and complete idea in your head when you sit down to animate. You still need to make a performance for your scene but instead of a one time go, or shooting hours of video reference let the character do take after take in your head, with you as their director.

Spencer started his road to become an Animation in 2003. Since then he graduation from Savannah College of Art and Design and Animation Mentor. He has worked in film and television, as well as video games. His most recent professional project was Alvin and the Chipmunks 3: Chipwrecked. Spencer is currently between jobs, and his professional demo reel can be found at Spencer3d.com. A big thanks for sharing his wisdom with us via Animator Island!

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6 comments

  1. Mandi says:

    Wow. This is an amazing bunch of tips for character getting-to-know-ness! Thanks! ^.^

  2. Ferdinand says:

    Thank you for this very helpful article! It reminds me a lot of a technique we learned in director’s class, where we would interview the actors while they are in character (before writing any concrete dialogue). And after you are through interviewing a character where he was comfortable, it gets really fun and interesting if you throw them in unpleasant situations. That way you learn a lot of how they move, talk and react under pressure (and you can’t really hurt them because they are just actors… or in your mind). Hmm, and in your mind you can even manipulate the surrounding, so you can even test slapstick stuff.
    I like the idea of letting the character talking you through the scene.

  3. fuzzywii says:

    amazin’ primer on characters bro! Excellent work.

  4. YOSKIBROSKi says:

    THIS IS STUPID

  5. alexi balian says:

    Spencer- fantastic article- thank you for sharing- best- Alexi

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