model sheet for The Birds in "The Parkbench"
Dave Levy recently posted on his blog about the 3 main categories he sees in modern animation design. He calls them "Appealing Design, Grotesque Design, and Appealingly Grotesque Design". About "Appealing Design", Dave writes: "it's a simple design, rooted in classic appeal but with just enough modern quirks to give it a little edge". Dave also writes that he sees an emphasis on "moving characters in interesting ways" and "playfulness in story construction", though he wonders if that "maybe reveals an attempt to overcompensate for simplistic graphics". I was flattered to be called one of "this movement's artists", and I did recognize some of the strengths and weaknesses I see in my own work in what Dave had to say and would like to respond to it here.
As I mentioned previously on my blog, the designs for one of the films I am currently working on were inspired by Owen Jones' The Grammar of Ornament (see the original post). In the book, Jones talks a lot about bringing everything to a perfect balance of shapes. The focus is on pleasing proportions, symmetry, and repetition.
Plate XLIII, "Moorish Ornament" ;
The Grammar of Ornament(Owen Jones)
I applied these design principles to my characters as you see here:
Plate X, detail "Egyptian Ornament" (Jones) and The Son from "The Parkbench"
This approach was helpful for several reasons. The film is about seven individuals whose paths cross and some walk away winners and some walk away losers. The Father and Son, The Balloonseller, The Birds, The Man on the Bench, The Other. No one speaks and everybody's costume is fairly nondescript, and since I was going to move the camera around, showing every character from extreme close up to extreme wide, sometimes even in the same shot, they would have to look as unique close up as they did from a distance just based on shape. To demonstrate this, I've posted two different shots of the birds here:
Close up on one bird ;
overhead shot of both birds surrounded by other characters
So that the viewer will never be confused, each character has a distinct hand, distinct nose, distinct leg; but that hand, nose and leg all make sense on the same body by being somehow similar to one another and expressive of a personality. For instance, the design of the boy emphasized circles... notice, even his knees are circular:
The boy's face is dominated by perfectly circular lenses, repeating the large circles of his head and body. His shirt cuffs and pant legs are circular; even his hands have rather circular fingertips and palms. By comparison, his Father has a more grotesque, dripping body with long, jointed, fingers and a large nose falling over a large chin. We still know they are related because their postures match and they both wear glasses.
That makes shots like this work:
The hand that comes on is immediately identifiable, there are only two hands with long bony fingers in the film and they both belong to the Father.
This kind of quick recognition was needed throughout the film as most cuts are jump cuts, you are suddenly thrust beneath a smoker's chin, between two eyes and a giant nose, staring out from under a pigeon's belly. Whose chin? Whose eyes? Whose belly? They all need answers.
The Ballon Seller's Chin ; color concept
Man's Face ; pencil test
The Bird's Belly ; pencil test
The designs had to be simple enough to draw the six minute film by myself, to create instantaneous character recognition in every shot, and to allow for playfulness in pantomime given the lack of dialogue. Sound effects will come in later and further separate the characters by giving each one a unique library of sound: the falling of their feet, the tapping of their fingertips, the drag of their cigarette, the swing of their hips will all be unique.
Their body language was just as important to establishing character. The Man on the Bench is totally normal, his walk is just an averaging out of Every Walk. The father has a big stride to match his overall bigness, but stays low to the ground for balance. The birds are clumsy, their feet slap the ground as they go, and one can be identified as easy going, the other touchy, all with the body language of their walk. I've posted pencil test animation of them both:
The Pleasant Bird
The Touchy Bird
And while I generally wanted my characters to have "appeal", there were some I wanted to be more appealing than others. I had a special interest in designing the birds and the balloon seller as sympathetic characters: they are going to lose the most in the film, and those losses should be felt. They have eyeballs and mouths to show their emotions, a big leg up on the other guys, as it turns out. The Father and Son are meant to be more emotionally removed: they are entirely non-sentimental, staring out blankly from behind large glasses.
The Balloonseller and his very unemotional counterpart, The Father
And what about the story? The version currently up on YouTube is incomplete, but I hope the finished film will indeed have what Dave calls "playfulness in story construction". Still, the story has been fixed for some time now and its consideration has admittedly become secondary to considerations of the way I wanted to tell it. I don't know how wide an audience this film will have, and it is not really for a wide audience. I made it for me. It continues to be an extremely pleasant process, working on it is a meditation for me. Every part of each character and each movement is so controlled and predetermined, it becomes very easy to luxuriate in the process and really dig in. I hope what's left at the end can still make a mark, but that is not as important to me as what I've learned in doing the film.
Moving ahead, I am beginning to work on what will hopefully be a series of films much more capable of finding a wide audience. The stories for the series, which I can not currently announce by name, are told by people from all over the country, of all ages, races and genders. For this series, I will be taking a lot of the lessons I learned in designing "The Parkbench" forward to apply to more specifically characterized personalities. Their universe will hopefully still have appeal but will have the other foot solidly in reality. I look forward to sharing more with you about this, but in the mean time let me present a few of the characters designed for that project.