Designing characters can be as lucrative as it is fun. Digital Arts found out how to give your creations a life of their own.
The appeal of a well-conceived character can take on a life of its own – just look at the longevity of Mickey Mouse. Some creatives devote hours – if not their whole careers – to creating new creatures.
It’s an area of design that has been steadily growing in recent years. Contemporary character design is an art form in itself, and the proliferation of big-eyed sprites, sketchy doodle people, and caricatures adorn hundreds of products, and help sell many more.
Influenced by graffiti, cartoons, video games, and Japanese popular culture, contemporary character designers may try and subvert style by creating a darker version of the friendly cartoons we’re used to.
Sometimes, though, cute character design is literally an exercise in creating cuteness. One thing is certain though: characters sell stuff – from magazines to novelty gonks to product mascots.
“Character design has huge potential,” says artist Jeremy Dower. “You only have to take a glace at a local supermarket or department store anywhere in Japan to see how effective and appealing characters are at personifying and endearing a product to its consumers.”
The first generation of children who were interested in Anime, vinyl toys, and video games have now grown up and started creating, says Dower. “Inside each one of them is a latent, repressed, or even active affection for characters, toys and animation.”
Dower says there is groundswell of such art outside Japan, citing the designer toy movement and international character design cultures such as Pictoplasma (www.pictoplasma.com ).
“It’s just a matter of time before it enters mainstream culture, in the same way it has happened in Japan,” he says. Character art isn’t just restricted to the sketchbooks of Manga obsessives – the commercial potential is vast.
“Using character design in multiple forms to tell stories and to commercially exploit products has been used for hundreds of years,” says Nathan Jurevicius, creator of the Scarygirl character. “The advantages are having people engage with a product through something that personifies it.”
“People can relate to characters far easier than they can to a logo or a line of copy,” agrees UK-based artist Jon Burgerman. “People can understand things on a far more profound level through their relationship with a character – whether they realize it or not.”
However, Burgerman also points out that characters can evolve and start to have a life outside of their initial function. “Great examples of this are the ITV Monkey, Lara Croft, maybe even Mr Blobby,” he says.
“Mickey Mouse and Hello Kitty exist on so many levels, their potential has evolved into a sort of real-life existence.”
French artist Chick says character art can take your work in many different directions. Chick was formerly part of TeamChman studio, and is now part of its next evolution, Semper Fi. “Look at the Simpsons, Spongebob, Hello Kitty, Pucca – if it’s a success you can do so many things.”
Nathan Jurevicius describes his style as ‘Lithuanian old school folk meets Japanese pop with a dash of Australiana’. His most successful character-based design to date is Scarygirl.
“I’m probably most known as a character designer/visual story teller,” says Jurevicius. “All my exhibitions are usually based on the ongoing journey of my Scarygirl character and most of my personal projects spin off from this story.
I use many mediums to express this – animation, prints, original drawings and toys. “Scarygirl officially took form around 2001,” he recalls. “She coincided with some editorial work I was completing and then a Hong Kong toy producer took the 2D designs and transformed them into toys. Her personality is directly conceived from my daughter Arkie and her back-story is a combination of my orphaned grandfather and various folk tales from my childhood.”
The illustrator says the characters in the Scarygirl world have been refined over the years as they’ve grown on him and their worlds and back-stories have also developed and matured.
“Her main exposure has been through exhibitions around the world and in limited-edition vinyl figures,” continues Jurevicius. “The Scarygirl world has expanded to various publishing projects, including a kids book in the works, and the early development of a feature film with Passion Pictures.
"The original purpose was always to tell a full story through multiple formats but moving the project into feature animation wasn’t my first thought. Experimenting with different platforms and outlets to tell the Scarygirl story always provides some degree of challenge.”
Spread over six short animated episodes, A Fairly Reliable History of British Film told the history of British film through the two main characters, elderly extra Keith Guttenberg and jumped-up film buff Luke Lucas.
“The episodes feature as part of the BBC Movies Web site – telling, as you might have guessed a tongue-in-cheek ‘fairly reliable’ history of British film,” explains The Boy Fitz Hammond. “The agency I worked with came to me with mood boards of the look-&-feel of the characters.
"The mood boards were really thorough and featured examples of my previous work, so it was easy for me to get an understanding of what the client wanted. I was also provided with the scripts for episodes and character profiles of Keith and Luke to give me a better feel for them. I started the project with pencil roughs of each character and bounced them back and forth between the client and myself until everyone was confident with how they were developing.”
TBFH has worked on a few projects in the past where his characters were animated. “From the very start I was aware this was an animation project so I drew this with that in mind,” he says.
“I’ve worked on a few projects where my characters have been animated so I’ve built up an understanding of everything I need to give the animator in order for them to bring the characters to life such as angles of heads, expressions, mouth shapes, and body shapes. In the end I had created a kind of book of how the characters would appear in different positions and moods.”
TBFH had to visualize the characters and all the positions they could find themselves in. “I’d draw all the key positions for the characters and the animator was happy to fill in the in-between bits between the key frames,” explains TBFH.
German mobile phone client Aetka liked the look, feel and interaction between ‘Keith’ & ‘Luke’ so much that they wanted to use them as a starting point to develop two characters for their advertising campaign. Subsequently, two salesmen, ‘Aet’ & ‘Ka’ were created for a short animated commercial.
Taking your characters into 3D
Once you’ve created a character, you have several options to take it into 3D space. Designer toys and novelty gonks are a staple of the designer’s desktop, and many designers turn their characters into keyrings and plush toys. Animation offers another opportunity to extend the life of your character creations.
Several companies, such as Kidrobot, allow designers to create real-world versions of their creations. Founded by designer Paul Budnitz in 2002, Kidrobot has three galleries in the US, and sells designer Kidrobot items in boutiques around the world.
The Qee line of designer keyrings, introduced by Toy2R in 2001 has turned the work of artists from across Asia, America and Europe into collectible figures. Aspiring illustrators can download DIY Qee template software to create their own designs. There are as many other companies out there providing a similar service.
Mike Doney and Katie Dang, the two artists who form TADO, released their own series of miniature plush toys in 2005 called Fortune Pork, which featured many of the duo’s favourite characters made into tiny soft toys.
The series spread across T-shirts, accessories, and stationery. According to TADO, the characters needed a fair amount of adjustments to enable them to work in 3D – if you follow this route, be prepared for a large number of prototypes to be made and a lot of revisions.
Jeremy Dower has taken his 2D designs into animation, including some for a 60-second Coca-Cola spot by Monkeylab. “A basic generic template model was created in 3DS Max from a line drawing,” Dower explains.
“This was done to accurately and quickly achieve a transparent glass look. I then stretched the bodies into the various body shapes in Photoshop and painted the eyes, mouths and reflections over that. In the final animation their faces looked quite different.”
Some of Jon Burgerman’s characters also made the leap to 3D. “The characters I drew for the Sydney Morning Herald generated a fair amount of interest,” he says.
“2D characters were developed, these were then turned into 3D renders and eventually small toys. I was initially given a brief of what the characters’ personalities were like – I had to fill in the blanks and come up with what they were going to look like. They had to be relatable to the readers but not too human.”
Nathan Jurevicius says you should design characters with a wide-variety of mediums in mind. “It’s about creating appeal and a unique image that translates well into various formats,” he says. “The old rule of making a form with a distinct silhouette still applies.”
Turning your characters into cash
According to TADO, just about any 2D character can be popular in a commercial sense – it’s just a case of knowing which character is suitable for which audience. Illustrator Nathan Jurevicius, however, feels that the most successful characters are those that can emote some kind of feeling or message in an audience.
“In commercial terms, it’s possibly whether the character can maintain this feeling and yet be translated visually to a multitude of media that determines its success,” he says.
“For commercial, I always think mainstream,” says Jon Burgerman. “For a character to be successful in this sense I think it helps if it’s simple, easily read and relatable to ourselves, with human characteristics. Creating a successful character that looks simple is actually really difficult – it hangs on a canny economy of line, form, and colour.
"Cute characters seem to over populate commercial character platforms. When done right it can be very charming, although, as it’s seemingly so easy to ape, a lot of them just come off as soulless and twee.”
Jeremy Dower describes character creation as an intuitive process. “The worst thing you could do is try and ‘paint by numbers’,” he says. “If you take a look through Pictoplasma or at ‘low brow art’ like Jim Woodring or Gary Basman, you can see that many of the characters are hugely successful, in spite of conventional thinking about what makes a character popular or endearing.”
Nathan Jurevicius On Drawing
Beginning with pen or pencil on paper is the only way I start creating characters. I’d recommend this as the first stage of any 2D creation. I find that when you work this way it allows you to ‘sculpt’ on the paper through multiple lines and scratches. From here I normally take the sketch into illustrator and Photoshop, creating smoother line work and assigning accurate colours.
The Boy Fitz Hammond On drawing
I really only use Adobe Illustrator (and a pencil). I always rough out ideas on paper before I start on the computer. I find that physically drawing a character with a pencil helps with the fluidity, shape, and the detail of it. It gives me a better feeling for it having hand drawn it. Once I’ve got it in pencil, I’ll import it and draw directly over it in Illustrator – keeping the feel of the original sketch.
Jon Burgerman On character creation
I draw a lot of variations of a character and then try and work out what bits work best. Then, I take that information and re-draw the character again and again until I capture everything I want in one drawing. The challenge is not to repeat yourself too much and not to copy anyone. This is overcome by looking for inspiration away from character design and illustration.
Chick On character creation
I like to make quick sketches. When I have an idea I start on the computer and generally the idea progress while I’m working. Sometimes it’s completely different from the original idea. I like it that way. For me, it’s not a question of technique but an idea to develop.
Jeremy Dower’s character creation for Coca-Cola (top) made its way into 3D in the form of designer toys, while Doma’s characters found their way into huge street art installations (above). Jon Burgerman has also gone down the toy route as has TADO, with its Fortune Pork range (below).
Chick at Semper-Fi has created a wide range of character art, as demonstrated here (above). He says he tends to use Illustrator rather than Photoshop.
Jon Burgerman is one artist who’s made his living through designing characters. This giant wall mural was created for Miss Sixty’s showroom in Amsterdam. He says the key to creating commercially useful characters is simplicity, and human characteristics.
Illustration: Jon Burgerman, www.jonburgerman.com