Think of your favourite characters. Mickey Mouse. Bart Simpson. Spongebob Squarepants. Cartman. The Minions.
Go anywhere in the world and you can expect to see these faces – these are some of the biggest cultural icons in human history. And they all began in animation.
So clearly there’s something magical about a well designed character, but did you know you can tap into this magic by using characters in your brand videos too?
In this article, we take a look at some of the popular types of character design, their distinguishing features, and the right situation in which to use them.
The benefits of using characters
Characters add expense and complexity to animation, and often a story can be told graphically, without characters.
So the first question you might ask is, why use characters at all?
We’ve talked before about the biology of storytelling. According to neuroscience Professor Paul J Zac, character driven stories with emotional content result in better co-operation with others by enhancing our sense of empathy.
In other words, people respond to your brand more if you can make them feel.
Pixar are the masters of character driven storytelling. Can you imagine the famous “Married Life” sequence from Up working without characters?
What’s the Difference?
How does different character design affect storytelling?
The realism of a character can actually have a profound effect on the level of involvement the viewer feels towards the story. This psychological effect, known as masking, was first described by cartoonist Scott McCloud. This phenomenon means the viewer will often feel more familiar with non-detailed characters.
Different styles of characters also have an impact on the complexity of the animation, as well as how far the budget will stretch.
Let’s take a look at some popular character styles, and where they’re best suited.
Remember, these are just some of the types of character available – there are so many more out there.
Often, we want to feature characters to perform a physical role in the story, but we never need to see close-up facial expressions. In situations like this, it makes sense to design characters with a simple outline.
You might see characters like this as a slightly more advanced version of the “stickman” that we might quickly sketch in a storyboard… just detailed enough to sell the concept, and no more.
- Simple forms and movements
- Intentional lack of detail
- Depicting the general concept of people
- Showing physical movement without close-ups
Emerging over the last few years, we have seen more and more graphic designers turning towards character design and bringing with them their sensibility for precise geometric forms.
While this character style is low in detail, they can often still be very emotive, with well placed facial features animated in clever ways to introduce drama. Add in some clever lighting and art direction, and this style can be every bit as emotive as complex pieces with much bigger budgets.
In this piece for The Bully Project, designer Emanuele Colombo shows how graphic characters can provoke an emotional reaction and help to shed light on some very dark issues. The unique, slightly experimental, graphic style is instantly memorable – and a perfect compliment to the stressful tone of the story.
- Flat colours
- Geometric vector shapes
- Detailed movement and expressive characters on a budget
Since the first children’s publications,we have seen books that feature lovingly crafted illustrations, designed to fire the imaginations of children (and often adults too).
Styles aimed at children typically feature characters with more child-like proportions and behaviors, designed to appeal directly to the core audience.
Illustrator Oliver Jeffers’ work is a great example of the semi figurative styles we often see in storybook art, with the artists trademark use of mixed media that serves to introduce organic textures, that offer a hand-made appeal.
Naturally enough, we often see the storybook style used in children’s TV, particularly shows aimed at younger audiences. Puffin Rock, from the Oscar-winning Cartoon Saloon, has a gorgeous distinctive style, with a lot of the hallmarks of a storybook.
- Child-like characters
- Hand-made, textured feel
- Appealing to young people
- Firing the imagination
Comic book art as we know it evolved throughout the twentieth century, going from a child-focused form to becoming gradually more adult orientated as we move towards the noirish anti heroes of the eighties and nineties.
The character design of comic book art has evolved accordingly, with the noticeable influence of Japanese Manga becoming more prevalent in western art, with the likes of Jamie Hewlett and Bryan Lee O’Malley.
The signature styles that evolved from comic book art can be seen regularly in TV animation, such as FX Network’s Archer. The show’s character design cleverly references the mid-century spy comics that are parodied to such great effect.
- Heavy lines
- Flat colours
- Expressionistic lighting
- Realistically proportioned
- Looking stylish and sophisticated
- An edgy and adult-oriented tone
Hollywood’s move towards CG animation in recent decades was spearheaded by Pixar, who also influenced the character design tropes which have become standard to the industry. Design styles that we see in Toy Story and A Bug’s Life in the 1990s have become adopted today by most of the big studios.
Many of the design features we talked about in storybooks, such as exaggerated child-like features, are present here. The big difference, however, is in the realism of the textures and lighting – a level of realism we can only expect to see in high-end CG animation.
We can see the most sophisticated example yet of the evolution of Pixar’s style, in their 2017 film Coco. Many of the environments look completely photo-real, although interestingly the characters are purposely designed to be more stylised. This is a perfect example of Masking – deliberately using simplified design to offer a more universal experience.
High end CG animation has begun to filter down from Hollywood productions, to now be seen in TV and online advertising. Generally though, the time consuming nature of this style means that, for now, this is still the domain of big budget projects.
- Realistic lighting
- Beautiful life-like textures
- Blending characters with live action environments
- Delivering the slickest high end experience
There’s lots of evidence that using characters to create an emotional human story can help your brand to tell their story.
There are also lots of different styles that can be used, far more than we have time to discuss here.
It’s all a matter of matching the right style to the right project – in order to deliver the type of animated experience that best showcases your brand to your audience.
What’s your favourite character style and why? Why not let us know in the comments below…