Knowing where to start your character design can feel like being blindfolded and throwing darts trying to hit the bullseye. We know, we’ve been there. It’s tough. But have no fear, there are a lot of ways to get the ball rolling and come up with some pretty great characters without feeling like you’re flying blind.
Here we’re going to share our top five tips for how to approach character designs for movies, or at least the tactics that have helped us.
Listen to and take note of the vision of the film
Let’s say you’re working on a larger project. Typically you’ll have an initial meeting to discuss the details of said project. If you’re lucky you’ll have a script to take a look at, but that is unfortunately pretty rare.
At the very beginning of planning and development, there is an initial meeting to talk out ideas. More often than not, you’ll be chatting with the director, producer, maybe some writers. But sometimes not even that. You might simply be left meeting with a few producers who are trying to convey all the ideas. Depending on the scale of the project, there will be more or fewer people.
This is when you really want to listen to what the directors, writers, and producers are saying and get a good idea of what they want this movie to be. If it’s a bigger movie and there are more people contributing to the conversation, take the opportunity to get all the angles and perspectives you possibly can.
You can of course pitch some of your ideas and contribute to the conversation. However, it’s best to mostly sit back and take in what they are describing. What is their vision for the film?
Translating vision into characters
Often, you’ll find that these folks will describe how they want their film to be in terms that are not visual. So they’ll say things like, “I want this scene to be warmer.” Well, what does that mean? As an artist, your first thought might be, “Ok, they want me to increase the red tones because those generate a feeling of warmth in a piece.”
Though you’re not technically wrong, that’s probably not what they actually meant. This is where the translation comes in. You’ve got to be able to interpret what they are saying.
Especially when dealing with folks that aren’t artists, you really have to be able to read between the lines. For example, an actor who will be voicing your character in an animated movie might give you some notes. This is indeed valuable input. However, you have to understand they are likely not going to be articulating what they want in terms you can really deliver on.
Asking for the character to have eyes like Al Pacino in “The Godfather”, for example. Of course, they don’t actually mean they want you to illustrate an Al Pacino look-alike. They are asking for the intensity that he brings to his more serious scenes.
They’ll say things like, “I don’t want it to look like me, but I want it to feel like me,” or, “I really like this other guy’s swagger. I don’t want it to be his swagger, but I want it to feel like his swagger.” Leaving you sitting there trying to figure out what you do now. How do you emulate intensity and swagger from actors, without drawing that actor? It can be a bit of a guessing game, for sure.
These descriptors are more emotionally based. So it’s up to you to translate emotional notes into visual notes. But what does that mean? Well, it means that the expression in that character’s face needs to express as much intensity as Al Pacino in “The Godfather”. The posing that you develop needs to feel like this person’s swagger and general mannerisms.
Learn to take a lot of input when developing characters for movies
Another important thing to keep in mind when dealing with very big licenses for major motion pictures is that there are a lot of people involved. For example, we worked on the Smurfs movie a while back. That was a huge license.
Think about it, Sony animation has just spent who knows how much money to acquire the license for the Smurfs. It’s not unreasonable that they would want to be involved in the development of the movie. It’s a big deal to them that this movie goes well. The same goes for all the other people down the line who invested in the project.
In instances like this, you may find yourself having a meeting with a room full of executives because there isn’t even a director or a solid storyline yet. There may only be a very loose idea of the story. And this is important, executives are not artists. They are bound to ask for some random and crazy things that likely don’t make a lot of sense.
Just remember that all of the comments that you get from that initial discussion can really aid in shaping the characters that the developers of this movie are looking for. Whether it’s a large conference room full of big executives or a video chat with one of the writers.
Try to be patient and dig deeper into what it is that they are truly saying. It may take some time, a lot of effort, and a ton of seemingly random input. But eventually, you’ll get to the bottom of what their vision really is.
A big pro tip, record that conversation. That way you can play it back and listen to it again to do your best to discern exactly what was being described. Due to the nature of development meetings like this, there’s so much information and so many ideas being thrown around. It can be hard to keep track and remember everything that was said.
At the absolute very least, take lots of notes and ask for contact information for everyone in the meeting so you can seek clarification later if needed.
Get the script to use for character designs
If you’re super lucky, before you have a meeting you’ll get a copy of the script. Otherwise, you’ll eventually get it somewhere along the way and we have one major tip for you with that. Use an excel spreadsheet. We know, it sounds strange. Trust us, it’s super helpful!
What we like to do is list each of the characters in the first column. Then as you read the script, put a descriptor of the scene in the second column. Select scenes that are going to be nice to illustrate. In other words, scenes that encompass each character.
In movies, as opposed to TV, you want to try to capture movie moments even before the movie is made. For example, in a TV series, you have to design stuff that is universal. Let’s say you design a dog. This dog needs to be able to swim in the water, it needs to be able to climb Mount Everest, heck, it even needs to be able to go to space if there’s a space episode in the series.
Movies on the other hand are very different. There is a finite amount of events going on in the film, and that’s it. So each moment and scene is unique. Use those unique moments to help you develop your characters. Once you get that down, you’ll be good.
Working specifically with animation in movies can be a little different. For instance, you’ll probably be working with mostly artists, which is nice. Also, you don’t have to show them the whole film at a glance right away. Like in live-action movies where there should be an entire story-line that they can piece together and have a complete idea of in the beginning.
Rather, in animation, you can break it down and start with the absolute basics. Perhaps you just start with shapes. You can simply start by playing with the relationship between different shapes and how they will fit together.
This is effectively looking at the character at a glance, or from super far away. At this point, what does the character look like? Is it interesting even in its simplicity? From there you layer on more and more details, adding color and texture and so on.
Our suggestion is not to show your hand and deliver a fully finished thing right away. Especially if it’s more seasoned directors and artistic developers who have a ton of experience. You want to start with a slightly less developed character to make them feel that they have more ownership of the final design.
This helps make them feel like you are in it together and that their input is important. You are going to create this character together. It just so happens that you are the one drawing it.
Character design can be easy, we promise!
These little tips and tricks are things that we never learned in school. Learning how to interpret what people are asking of you and how to bring that vision to life isn’t really part of the standard art curriculum. They are more nuanced ideas that you gain an understanding of with time and experience.
We hope that this article has helped guide you on how to work with these sometimes challenging situations. Luckily there are also a ton of awesome courses available through Schoolism to aid in your absolute best character development for your next big movie!