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"Shapes in Character Design, Part 1"

October 12th, 2014

"A Cabinet of Curiosities"

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"Characters come in all shapes

and sizes, and unless they are shapeshifters, those shapes and sizes are designed to show who and what characters are"



"A Cabinet of Curiosities"

“Shapes in Character Design, Part 1”


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Recently, the Characters Engage Linkedin group featured a popular discussion on the subject of Shapes in Character Design.


Early on in the discussion, a British Concept Artist stated that shapes are of primary importance when it comes to good character design.  


An American Storyboard Director and Professor agreed.  Shapes, he said,  form the basis of all his character design work.  He then pointed out that the psychology of shapes needs to work in harmony with the personality traits of characters, and shapes have to be simple enough for storyboard artists, visual development artists, and animators to be able to work with the characters in the subsequent production.  


Despite the importance of shapes, this group member believes that the concept of form following function is losing ground.  While there may be some merit to off the cuff doodles, he said, intentionality of design distinguishes the stylists from the artists.


A European IP Developer then asked: "What would you say are the most important functions shapes should serve?".


In response the Storyboard Director stressed a point he had made earlier.  The primary role of shapes is to express the personality traits of characters.  The sharp edges and dagger-like shapes used to construct "Anton Ego" of "Ratatouille", for example, match his scathing, destructive personality.


The IP Developer then added a few functions he considers to be worth mentioning.  He said that technical functionality is important because characters need to be able to work in the format they are intended for.


Furthermore, recognisability and the ability to differentiate them from other characters are of primary importance.  They also need to reflect the overall shape language of the style, tying the character into its world.


Shapes need to help engage the audience and are some of the most basic building blocks of that intangible quality characters need to possess... appeal.  


A point that is likely to become increasingly important is the question of the shape architecture of characters intended for transmedia properties.  If characters need to be built in both digital 2D, and CG, for example, their shapes need to work in two, as well as three dimensions.  


The IP Developer then asked: "How do you approach creating a new character? How do you get to those shapes? And how do you arrive at the final overall composite shape of your characters?".


An American Animator and Chief Creative Officer explained that he usually  begins the process by sketching characters together with other characters.  He is particularly interested in how their shapes look when combined, as these characters interact.  He also takes their visual relationship with backgrounds and props into consideration, as his characters gradually take on contrasting and complimentary form.  


This artist developed his process as a way of overcoming the hurdle of having to design characters from scratch.  


A Character Designer from the UK then described his process: "I begin by asking for character descriptions, episode descriptions, treatments, scripts and whatever else I can get my hands on, bible-wise.


I then ask to speak to the writers, directors, producers and commissioning editors to get a feel for their views, ideas, thoughts, and feelings about the character and the property, which also includes all the technical information and formats the property is intended for.


If I am the first artist on the property and have to lay the foundation stone for the style, I ask for style guides and the client's thoughts on style-related issues.


During this whole process I usually start to feel the character.  I let it simmer until I can feel that it's about to boil over, and then I grab a pencil and start to draw small, rough thumbnails.  Sometimes, if I get it right, the first one nails it, in terms of expression and appeal.


Then I go to work, until the model sheet puts that first thumbnail into proper shape, creating the shape architecture, as I go along.  I tweak until it's as close to what I see in my thumbnails, as I can get it.


Only after that do I step back and approach it from a different design angle, unless the customer wants me to submit a number of versions straight away."


Part 2 of this article will follow in the next issue of Characters Engage.  In the meantime, you can join the discussion and share your thoughts on Shapes in Character Design... here.







Husband and wife Mike Yamada and Victoria Ying both attended Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Ca and work as Visual Development Artists in Feature Animation.  They have contributed to many high profile animated movies for DreamWorks and Disney over the last few years, including, "Tangled", "How to Train your Dragon", and "Kung Fu Panda 2".


The Cabinet of Curiosities is a beautifully illustrated 88-page hardcover storybook.  It tells the story of a spooky old house which the kids have inherited from a long lost uncle.  The house is full to bursting with mysterious doo-dads and trinkets, and each room is a strange, personally-curated monument to a crazy ancestor.


After a more than ten times overfunded Kickstarter campaign, the team completed the book and the 52 page supplement "Curiosities Jr", and both books are now available on their website "Extracurricular Activities".


To visit the website, please click the link below:




Please also check out Mike Yamada's blog here...




and Victoria Ying's blog here:




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