Putting it all into motion

Animating your character can give it a whole new depth of personality. Garrick Webster discovers the secrets of five top animators.

The web, mobile content, video games, the proliferation of digital TV channels. There are huge opportunities for character designers, and because moving images are a key ingredient for all of these media, taking creations into animated formats gives the designer even more potential for success. Whether it's in feature films, TV shows, commercials or short idents, the big brands out there love the way characters add substance and appeal to their identities, and the more original and believable the character, the more effective it will be.

Dan Wagner of DreamWorks Animation is one of the biggest names in animation right now. He started as a child, and with 20 years in the industry under his belt, he's now working on the most challenging type of project in the genre: feature films. Wagner's input as head of character animation can be seen in some of his favourite screen creations, including Donkey in Shrek, and the penguins in Madagascar. But the character he enjoyed animating the most was Po, the protagonist in Kung Fu Panda.

The key challenge for an animator is to capture the personality, and that's a process that evolves throughout the making of a feature. Even the first scene Dan animated for Kung Fu Panda was being tweaked until the last week of production. Early animations of Po were too frenetic and bouncy, so they worked on giving him heavier qualities, more like a panda. At the same time they had to capture his nervous movements and insecurity - a large part of his personality.

"The animator and myself would act out how a shy person would be, someone who's a little unsure of himself. What kind of characteristics would he have? Po, he might be sort of clutching his hands or twiddling his thumbs - they were two of the characteristics where we wanted to convey the insecurity. There are eye darts, where he looks up, looks down, looks back up. But even though he's a little insecure, there's a sincerity and a warmth about him," says Wagner.

Going back through scenes and tweaking the details is a huge job on a feature, but one that must be done for consistency. In shorter format projects too, nailing the personality is critical. Consistency may be less of an issue because fewer animators are involved, but there is often more pressure due to tighter schedules and low budgets.

Sarah Cox, a founding partner at World of Arthur Cox, tends to focus on the function of a character. One interesting character they created recently was Cippi, a chipmunk for chewing gum company Vigorsol. "Usually a character has a function. Cippi must fart icy blasts. It is essential in animation to design that character around their function in a narrative. Maybe if they don't speak then they don't need a mouth, like the penguin in The Wrong Trousers," explains Cox.

"It is not always a case of just being minimal though," she continues. "In my film Heavy Pockets, a film about a girl who is bullied because she floats, it was essential that this character looked believable and realistic. It is less surprising if a drawing can float, so for this film we shot live action and drew over it to create a character that hovered between realism and fantasy."

In many cases, animation extends an existing character in some way. Many designers and illustrators have characters in their sketchbooks that they want to unleash on the world. James Wignall is a designer who creates animations under the moniker Mutanthands. Many of his characters have been simple and graphical. Although some might be little more than flat shapes with faces and legs, it's the detail in the animation that makes them seem real.

"There's a lot of little detail that adds up to help get the character across. For example by putting a slight extra flick on the end of a flailing arm, it makes the character seem that little bit more cute and bouncy," explains Wignall. His new anime-inspired project is upping the level of detail substantially, however. Watch out for it at www.psstpassiton.com.

Establishing a character early on in a feature, and then using repetition of the movements that demonstrate its personality in different ways, is another useful technique often employed by animators. Will Becher is currently working on the next Wallace and Gromit movie for Aardman Animations, but this summer his own short flick, The Weatherman, was doing the festivals. Created in stop-motion, the three-minute movie charts a weather announcer's battle with the elements.

"In order to make the film idea work in three minutes, I tried to set up the weatherman's character traits quickly and clearly at the beginning. By giving him a distinctive bouncy walk and putting a big smile on his face, I could communicate to the audience that he was a happy person who enjoyed his trip to work. By repeating elements like tie-straightening and walking to work throughout the film as an ever-worsening routine, I could show how as a character he was falling apart," recounts Becher.

Dialogue in an animation is often used to convey what the character is feeling and thinking. This can support the animation, but it also throws up dilemmas. For Wagner at DreamWorks, where big stars like Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman and Angelina Jolie provide the voice talent, there's the temptation to accentuate their contribution in the animation itself. For Kung Fu Panda, he didn't think this was right.

"We have a video camera that records the actor when he's saying the lines. I encouraged the animators to come up with their own ideas because we didn't want it to look like, 'Hey, it's Jack Black in a suit.' We veered away from making the characters look like the actors, or act like the actors. For this show we wanted the characters to stand on their own two legs, and when you look at Po hopefully you look at the character - you don't really think about the voice," he says.

Facial expression is one of the hardest things to animate because so much emotion is conveyed in the face. Becher's advice on handling it is to begin with certain elements, some of which aren't even related to the face. The posture of the body, and angle of the head are two indicators of mood; the angle of the eyes is important too. "Subtle things like these make a huge difference to showing what a character is thinking, or how it is feeling," he says.

The basis of a character, and its charm, still go back to how it was drawn in the first place. The hand that created it can't be overlooked and is the hallmark of the creativity involved. One great example of porting a drawn style over to animation is Jon Burgerman's collaboration with JS3D. His characters begin life as doodles, and even as doodles they incorporate a lot of story, style and personality. So it was a tricky job for Julian Stevenson and his team at JS3D to put Coco Gulab Juman, Dinkton Wallis, Tiddles MacKenzie and Yimmi Bites into motion.

First, Stevenson bounced a job back to Burgerman, asking him to draw orthographic views of the characters - front, back, sides and underneath, with zero perspective. "Getting a framework that enabled us to get these characters to actually move was quite a difficult process. They have crazy arms, legs, faces and other oddities, and are a world away from more standard humanoid animations. Michal, the lead rigger and animator, settled on a rig that had more of an emphasis towards squash and stretch, rather than relying on standard forward and inverse kinematics," says Stevenson.

Very little facial animation was attempted on this project. For one thing, it might have interfered with the illustrative style of the characters. Instead, their zany motion says more about who they are. "It's amazing to see the characters come to life. The animation is only very short but it still presents the characters' personalities and hints at the world they live in really well," says Burgerman.