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"With increased interactivity across the media platforms and the advent of AI and AR, will characters turn into friends?"
An interview with Ed Bell
Character topic: The silhouette
Ed Bell has had a wonderfully varied career which included working on "Who framed Roger Rabbit" and "Ren & Stimpy", voice directing Denzil Washington, Samuel L. Jackson and Will Smith and handling clients such as Snoop Dog and Quincy Jones. But above all else Ed Bell is an illustrator and character designer with a voice, a style and a flavor all his own. Ed Bell is that rare thing... a true artist.
In this issue:
CE: Mr Bell, yours has been a very interesting and diverse career, spanning many different job descriptions and media fields. How would you describe what you do?
EB: Boy... you opened with an easy one there! Now, let me see, what is it that I do? If you asked me six years ago I would have said I’m an artist who is interested making some nice animation that is engaging and delicious. I would have said I like to play a part in good content creation, so when any opportunities present themselves I take what role will be most productive to that project.
Now, I’d identify as a teaching student, struggling to master the disciplines necessary to make short films and animation that come more directly from my imaginative resources. If economics would afford me the time, I would work to do for animation exactly what Outkast and Kanye do in their chosen idiom of music: that is move you, the viewer, to consider a fascinating story told with a sense of swing, and a healthy reverence for the Blues tradition that gave birth to Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Jimi Hendrix, Howlin Wolf and so on, and so on! If I were a very rich man, I’d find a way to produce work which spoke to the need in all of us for 'Soul' as an aesthetic ideal, because I believe there’s a rich mine in that creative direction that is nearly untouched by animation (with Chico and Rita J being an amazing chink in the armor of show business. Films like this give me hope and inspiration!).
If you're asking yourself if you need a personal style you have to ask certain questions to guide you. How do you want to operate as an artist in your career? There is something to be said for just mastering a style of design which can easily be adapted by many different employers or collaborators, like many of my esteemed colleagues, who certainly work much more often then I do lately!
Growing up, I was constantly trying to parse out the secrets of the Disney appeal which is very rhythmic and melodic, the Warner’s impish sense of humor, Terry Gilliam’s lunacy and swagger, and the African art that surrounded me in South Central during the eighties. It seemed important to capture my experience of things in the way I apply a line or form to the page.
I always wanted to be able to experiment in all the wonderful avenues and tributaries that illustration offered to animation. The life of a European animator of the seventies and eighties appealed to me so much, I just gravitated to that approach to the profession instead of taking series and film work, I think in order to keep my personal comfort zone from gaining any traction on me during a long and gradual production cycle.
Why is the silhouette important to so many character designers and why not to others? Is the silhouette of equal importance across all character-driven industries and media? These are some of the questions we are currently discussing in our Linkedin group.
The character designer and IP developer who started the discussion added, "I'm one of the character designers who doesn't use the silhouette often. I am usually more interested in the shapes. When it comes to making sure that my character is instantly recognisable though, I also use it".
Then an art director, illustrator and animator eloquently equated character design with a friendly police lineup, which helps the audience identify the character that made off with their attention.
He went on to say that the prime viewing angle for the silhouette will only be seen occasionally over the course of the narrative. With toys this issue is even more pronounced, given that they are seen from all angles at all times.
He concluded that because the designed silhouette may be almost "invisible" in the finished product, its significance has to lie elsewhere. If a characters' shapes and proportions can be abstracted to the point of the silhouette, while retaining the ability to trigger our emotional response to the point where we are left with a sense of the character, then that is its true, deeper purpose.
This group member then compared this effect to our ability to recognize "Beethoven's Fifth Symphony", regardless of whether it was played by the Berlin Philharmonic or on a kazoo.
The character designer and IP developer who asked the original question replied by saying, "your point regarding the fleeting nature of the silhouette is a really important one here".
He also found the parable of "Beethoven's Fifth Symphony" very interesting. Despite the fact that the signature melody is only one small piece of music in a symphony... it is the defining one, the one we are meant to recognise and to this character designer, that is what the silhouette should achieve.
It's understood that a signature theme will only be heard occasionally, but every time we hear it, we know... we are listening to the "Fifth". The silhouette certainly isn't the only signature visual that makes the immediate recognition of a character possible, but it's an important part of a whole.
Why not join the discussion and let us know what you think... here.
CE: Of all the great projects you have been involved in, which did you enjoy most and why?
EB: I feel like all of these great experiences are fractal in nature, each building upon the last. As a kid, I most enjoyed the projects that kept me working alongside my folks from school. But as a grown cat I have to say the most fantastic project was helping to build Wild Brain up and put it on the map as a world-class studio. That was a thrilling ride all the way. Not without its pain, but a thrill no less. At the end of my time there, I got to be part of a project inspired by the WPA, where we filmed dramatizations and directed the performances of star-caliber actors to illuminate the letters written from slave to slave across the battle lines of the civil war. Because of that project I directed actors whom I idolized. That was an awesome thing to be part of. Working with my friends at Maverix to pursue our personal artistic goals has been the most rewarding. The Maverix are all my family now, we’ve been through the fire together. It seems like the best ventures have been those that celebrated the community side of our industry while we created work. The studios that did the outreach were the finest. Our auctions for relief around the world are pretty well known in the SF area.
CE: In 2010 you began to head a new course at the California College of Arts, teaching the history and techniques of high end character design for all media. Could you tell us a little bit about the course?
EB: The course is intended to teach you how designing a character is a great deal like imagining and describing a great friend, a person or a pet you’re sure would impress anybody you know with their remarkable mannerisms and beliefs, with their attitudes to life and the things they want most. When you describe a character among your peers, you use your words and body language to draw a mental picture of this person. The course makes you practice building a character’s “inner life” through exercises that allow a student to walk in their character’s skin while they consider the form and structure of the work. Younger students get more of a “cartoon” theory angle on the lessons with a ton of fascinating history and exposure to the work of European and Eastern animators, I love.
The course shows you how to do all that descriptive imaginative picture-making on the page rather than in my ear! I get you thinking in active verbs and adjectives, then show you the graphic design tricks inherent in all good design, and we apply them to what we can glean about a character’s purpose and function in a story or a situation. The class exposes students to designing approaches like sculpture armatures, and cut-outs or collage. Honestly, I pass down things I got from unforgettable teachers. I try to act as a conduit, a window onto to Winquistian Knowledge! Haha…
CE: The loose, almost musical fluidity of your lines and shapes make an Ed Bell drawing instantly recognisable. As a great illustrator, character designer and educator, how important do you consider the development of a personal style to be, when it comes to character design?
EB: Thank you very much. I think I would describe the process I’m in right now as one of finding a kind of brand... a product, some content that can be a platform for making more work. I like to keep busy, and the industry has made shifts which make it harder to keep business coming in, at least how an independent contractor would like.
As trends wax and wane around me I want to make some attempt at being heard as a defined voice... and maybe I have to be more of an advocate for having a 'Point of View' rather than a style, because all our tastes and mannerisms will evolve, if we are lucky, to embrace more variations on any chosen style. I mean the connection you are drawing to music in my drawing hand is on point. I’m trying to realize things that I hear more than things I see. If I were to draw you a mind-map of my creative motivations, you’d be looking to your right at decades of cartoon art, classical American illustration and animation. But flanking that, on your left you could see my fascination with WPA era graphic design and the illustrators of the Harlem Rennaisance such as the great Aaron Douglas and Miguel Covarrubias. Somehow a lot of Krazy Kat, and Kirby and Clampett mingle with the Harlem crowd.
CE: What are you working on at the moment? Is there something our readers should look out for?
EB: Yes, you should keep an eye out for the new Spectrum Fantastic Art annual 19, due out soon.
I’m currently working on new drawings and paintings to present in a small show in SF this summer. I’ll post announcements as soon as things are in place. Then I’m animating for a promo, and storyboarding a personal project called “Weavers’ Way”, which I will post as each step progresses toward an animatic and character tests.
CE: Thank you Mr Bell. For more great artwork by Ed Bell, please check out these links:
As young artists we spend a great deal of time mimicking everything we like, consciously or unconsciously. The influences later become abstracted, nuanced in the artist’s mind. But they always imprint themselves in one’s method in one way or another.
I grew up in the arts under the influence of teachers such as: Tee Hee, Bob Winquist, Hal Ambro and Jules Engle. They showed me the imperative of virtuosity and a sense of taste. Cal Arts, at the time I was there, seemed to me to be opening our young eyes to the fact that we are all entertainers, really. Once we accepted the idea we grew to respect the art and craft of all entertainers at work. Glen Keane, Tony Fucile, Darrel Van Citters, Franz Vischer and Bruce Smith all helped me find my way with animating characters. So their respective “styles” had an effect on me, even as they contradicted everything my layout experience in TV had taught me! As a layout junior on “Mighty Mouse, New Adventures” and “Ren & Stimpy” show under the great John Krisfalusci, I had to adapt to a rigorous standard of cartooning that really sticks to your wrist, if you are a decent student of his marvelous techniques.