While live-action films cast actors, then use costumes and makeup to achieve the look they want, animated productions get to design their characters, limited only by imagination.
That means it’s up to the artists on the picture to create characters with all the charm and charisma of movie stars, pretty much from scratch, whether they’re drawing by hand, building stop-motion puppets or sculpting 3D-CGI characters.
And often it means making sure those handcrafted “stars” are recognizable at any age, or as magical doppelgangers — even transmuted into frogs.
The stop-motion “Coraline,” for example, unfolds in two parallel worlds, which required alternate versions of most of its characters. Coraline Jones goes through a hidden passage in her new house to find an idealized, fun “Other Mother” and “Other Father” waiting for her.
Compared with Coraline’s drab, frazzled real mother, says helmer Henry Selick, “The Other Mother is a little prettier, a little slimmer and her hair was more lustrous. Her poses were more like a dancer.”
That was something Selick had to create for himself, as author Neil Gaiman hadn’t given much description of Other Mother. “Neil could say, ‘Coraline meets the Other Mother, who looked almost exactly like her Real Mother except for her eyes. Her eyes somehow looked hungrier.’ That’s great writing, but we had to go further.
“Character design isn’t just about shape and proportions but also about the expressions that capture attitude,” Selick adds.
“The Princess and the Frog,” Disney’s first 2D film in years, also had dual-personality issues to solve. Lead character Tiana had to change from a human to a frog. Disney animator Mark Henn says, “I don’t think I’ve had to do anything to that extent before.”
Henn’s challenge was to convey a consistent personality for Tiana whether she was human or amphibian. “We had to find a physical language for her mannerisms that would translate onto a frog,” he says. “Her eyes were key to that. We wanted them to be recognizable even when she’s a frog.”
The artists behind Pixar’s “Up” worked to ground their characters in reality.
The crucial challenge was finding a “shape language” for the human characters, especially lead character Carl and his wife, Ellie, who are seen from childhood through old age.
Production designer Ricky Nierva says, “The idea was as simple as circles and squares. Our young characters are round or oval, which is more dynamic. But at age 78, Carl is static, and square.” Carl’s look was inspired by images of Spencer Tracy and James Whitmore, but Nierva says they also studied Hirschfeld caricatures. “We wanted to see how much we could simplify Carl but maintain the look of an old man. That’s very difficult because old men’s faces have wrinkles upon wrinkles. ”
To emphasize his boxy design, the Pixar team often framed Carl in doorways. It’s a common animation technique: placing characters in scenes in ways that enhance their design. For example, throughout the indie hand-drawn film “The Secret of Kells,” the characters appear as if they’ve come off the page of a medieval manuscript.
Irish director Tomm Moore says, “We’d make poses where the characters would fit into the background like figures in a stained-glass window. It was uniquely 2D, but flatter than the Disney style.”
“Kells'” international team included producer Didier Brunner (“The Triplets of Belleville”), and Moore recalls, “Didier encouraged us to go beyond traditional character designs and make something that could only look like an illuminated manuscript. There’s something similar between hand-drawn animators and illuminators in their craftsmanship.