Character Design Practice: Shapes

Character Design for Animators: Shapes
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Designing characters around base shapes for contrast and appeal is a time-tested tradition among animators. Today we’ll go over that process and then leave you with a free worksheet of shapes to transform into characters, improving your art and design skills!

To begin, let’s review one vastly important aspect of art: Contrast. You can watch Ferdinand walk through all the details of this essential aspect of art, but to summarize contrast improves art by providing the viewer with two (or more) things that play off one another simply by being different. Contrast = interest. This applies to almost every aspect of art, but is even more important when we dive into character design.

Unique Shapes/Contrast in Individual Characters

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Take a look at this image of Po for a few great examples. First, his color scheme is classic contrast: Black and white. There is no greater contrast than these opposing forces. Look deeper into his design and you’ll see a myriad of contrast from shape.

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He is made up of many circles overall, and note the squares in other areas of the design. All these elements work together to create a visually interesting character. If he was made entirely of one shape it would not be nearly as interesting. Yet at the same time, there is an overall form to adhere to rather than placing things sporadically or randomly. His overall pose is a triangle, which you’ll see repeated in many of the promo images and poses Dreamworks puts the character in.

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Unique Shapes/Contrast in Cast of Characters

It doesn’t stop there, though! Not only should characters have contrast in their individual designs, there should be contrast among the whole cast!

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This rough image from Disney’s Aladdin is a perfect example. You see the characters each have a variety of base shapes and that each one contrasts nicely with the others, providing a lot of visual interest and appeal.

Applying Shape Contrast to Your Own Work

To apply this to your own work, it pays to practice working character designs from base shapes. For example, if we begin with a simple shape like this:

Base Shapes for Character Design Challenge
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we can transform it into a number of interesting characters while still maintaining the “shape” nature we are looking for.

Transforming shapes in character designs
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Keep in mind:

  • The design does not have to match the shape exactly (or it can, if you so choose)
  • You can add elements outside the main shape, as in the case of Po above
  • The designs can be “inspired” by the shapes, as in the Aladdin characters above
  • You can design in any style
  • The character need not be human; anything goes
  • Keep things loose early on and simply focus on the “feel” of the shape and character
  • These will usually only be starting points, not final character designs

Ready to give it a try? Here are some challenging shapes to practice with. Save the image and reduce its opacity to draw over, or use it as reference in a separate window while you draw. You can also print it out if you prefer working on paper. See what concepts you can dream up based on these complex shapes, and if you’re still looking for more practice after that, draw a handful of your own shapes and then design characters around them! The sky is the limit.

Crazy “Above and Beyond” Animator Bonus Challenge: Take your newly designed character and put him/her through one of The 51 Animation Exercises to see how they move!

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