Disney artist Karl Gnass's tips for drawing anatomy and authentic characters

Disney's Moana

Working for Disney, Fox and Sony ImageWorks, storyboard artist Karl Gnass is a master of understanding the human anatomy, how to draw it accurately, and how this dictates what realistic movement looks like.

He’s all about creating authentic characters, and this has led him to become an advisor to the animation industry as it looks to create authentic character and creature designs.

He’s worked on films such as Moana, Stuart Little, Tangled, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and I Am Legend.

Karl leads workshops and teaches basic drawing skills to animators, CG and 2D artists, helping them to develop detailed character expressions and how facial muscles work, anatomical breakdowns and storyboarding. He also leads a Dynamic Figure for Maya class to animators.

He aims to help others build an understanding of the infrastructure of the body, so the characters begin to move from that skeletal structure, rather than from points on the surface.

In this Q&A, find out about how Karl began storyboarding, understanding anatomical art, how to communicate movement, his artistic process and advice for new artists.

For more on drawing characters, see Disney animators give drawing tips for cartoon characters, or Disney layout artist Rob Dressel on the challenges of visualising Moana.

Can you tell us a little about your past and how you got to where you are today?

"I realised I was an artist by a single event that occurred when I was around 10 in grade school – I was asked by my art teacher to help him produce a mural on the lunch room wall. When I look back at that incident, I can’t believe that it could have been a random choice, I must have had some skill that he thought might have been useful.

"My first professional engagement was with Sid and Marty Krofft, who produced shows such as H.R. Pufnstuf and Lidsville. I was in a small team working on story and visual development, we created characters that were either people in costumes or puppets, and I was working with some of the most prestigious puppeteers in the world at the time. I was interacting with the puppeteers behind the scenes and I had first hand insight into how the puppets worked and how best to design characters for their specific needs.

"Some years later, when I started working with CG artists and animators, I realised they were basically puppeteers too. I was able to offer my insight into how to make their CG characters feel a lot more authentic. I also spent a number of years writing, and then I went back into the CG business as a storyboard artist for Fox. I worked on Peter Pan and the Pirates and from there, I moved on to Disney and worked on some shows there. Some of my favourite shows I worked on with Disney were Gargoyles and Darkwing Duck, because they were original shows.

"Once Disney saw my skill level, they asked me to start teaching the other storyboard artists and animators. I began teaching storyboarding and also basic drawing skills to create authentic characters.

"Now, I solely focus on teaching as I reached a point where I realised my contribution would be better as a teacher of the basic skills, and to keep people on point in terms of story and character. They’re both integral, because after all, all stories have to be delivered through character. I worked closely with the great 2D animator Glen Keane on a class for the artists on Tangled, to get them involved in and interested in creating rigs and characters that would express more genuine body movements. That teaching rolled over to my participation on Moana, I helped the team there in creating authentic characters as well.

"When it came to the characters in Moana, there were half-naked characters and the creators wanted to ensure that the body parts felt authentic. So what I helped them do was build an understanding of the infrastructure of the body, so the characters begin to move from that skeletal structure, this means there is more authenticity, rather than just pulling points from the outside.


"Essentially the animators learnt a skill set that included an understanding of how the body moves from the inside out, rather than from points on the surface."

What are some of the most exciting projects you have worked on, and what did you contribute to them?

"When I was a storyboard artist, the most fulfilling projects were the original stories, for instance Gargoyles and Darkwing Duck with Disney. However. I’ve worked on many other projects that were brought over from feature animation to television.

Disney's Darkwing Duck

"When I was working at Sony ImageWorks, I was there consulting and teaching drawing skills, the animators asked me to come on board on a freelance basis, to develop the expressions and a whole anatomical structure for the face and head of Stuart Little. So I built the structure of the face and produced 30 different kinds of expressions, showing which muscles worked, including varying degrees of each expression. For instance – anger – I’d start with low level anger and annoyance, all the way up to rage. I did this to give the animators a library of concepts and ideas to use when they brought the voice actors into the studio.

Sony ImageWorks' Stuart Little

"I also remember working on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, where I was tasked with creating the troll in the bathroom. The team wanted a character that had weight and could throw it around. So, I designed a model and we talked about designing it and developing the character that would be both impressive and scary.

"At Disney, sometimes I do classes specifically for animators. It’s set up in pretty much that same way that we did it on Tangled. We start with a model and have the animators work with the model, directly with their rigs and I then teach how to create the actions, how it would be felt in the body and joints, to make it feel its most authentic. These sculptures would have to be alive and real, not sit there like a piece of waxed fruit."

Disney's Tangled

What are the most important, foundational concepts people need to think about when working in anatomy art?

"I don’t think anatomy is useful if you study it by rote, I always think of anatomy in the active sense, so I think of it as active anatomy. When I teach anatomy, I teach it in terms of how it’s contributing to the phrase and the story. In other words, if somebody is in an activity, it’s not just how a singular muscle works, but how it works in conjunction with other muscles, and ultimately how it works with the expression of the character.

"What would you suggest to a new artist looking to explore anatomical form? Where should they start?

"I often give a series of small points that people should begin with. Firstly, what’s the story – when you draw something, whether it’s from your imagination, or from someone who is taking a position you’d like to capture – that should be the first question, not do I have the anatomy in order to be able to accomplish this.

"What anatomy does is it allows you to have more vocabulary, which means you have the ability to be more articulate. So, my teaching always starts with what’s the story? Can we build it fundamentally into a series of forms? And can we use the anatomy to express that story?"

Could you give any insight into your artistic process? What rules do you follow in anatomical form?

"There really aren’t any rules! For me, it’s really about concepts, you might have one concept in one situation that doesn’t fit the next one. So the artist has to be a concept maker, or a tool maker, because every concept is a way of understanding the complexity of the character you’re trying to work with.

"My three stage method allows people to look at their drawing and be able to troubleshoot for themselves, to find where in the drawing process they’re missing something. In other words, I’ve taken all of the drawing concepts and put them into these three stages. Artists can then identify their own strengths and weaknesses.

"What I like to do in a classroom setting is have brand new people sitting next to the professionals, because everyone is involved in at least one of the three stages. My intent is to provide a system that allows students to take charge of their own development, by asking the right questions and finding the answers in those stages."

How can you communicate movement in depictions of anatomy?

"The more one understands anatomy and the structure, the more one can use it as a vocabulary. When I was working with the puppeteers at Sid and Marty Krofft, they could really make a piece of paper feel like it was alive. They intrinsically understood where that internal movement comes from that makes us believe that the piece of paper is alive. In the early stages of CG I didn't witness that at all, but it’s beginning to happen more and more, and I’m excited to be a part of that process."

What has impressed you about Axis Studios (sponsor) in the past?

"I’m only recently becoming aware of the burgeoning animation scene in Europe, but I became acquainted with Axis Studios through Animation Centrifuge. I’ve been extremely impressed by their character design, their camera work and editing. The way they’re unifying their studios to make it all the more collaborative is a wonderful idea, and something you don’t see often, especially in the US. I’m interested to see how it plays out and what it means for the future of the industry."

Karl Gnass will be giving a lecture on figure dynamics and drawing class for Animation Centrifuge at Glasgow Caledonian University, sponsored by Axis Studios, on Wednesday 30th August – 10am-5pm. Tickets are available here.

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