Building an Animation-Ready Character from the Ground Up

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Getting Started: Stick Figure Posing

You may be an amazing detail artist, but how good are you at creating effective animation-ready art? Cartoon art is different from illustration in that it focuses not only on style, but on efficiency. When you’re drawing a character fifteen times for one second of motion, every additional level of unnecessary detail can add hours of work and more than double the level of difficulty. While that’s fine for a team of animators splitting the work on a feature-length film, what about independent animators or studios that have to produce an entire season’s worth of 20-60 minute episodes in a very short period of time?

Once you have your character concept in mind, it can be hard to break it down to the necessary minimum – especially when working in reverse from complex art. Instead let’s look at how to build an animation-ready character from the ground up, starting at the simplest level and working with basic shapes to construct the body. Whether you’re fully traditional or combine in traditional with 2D computer animation, this tutorial should still be of use to you.

I like to start off with a stick-figure to capture the pose and flow. The important thing to look at here is the central line of the body, the arc and flow of it, and the positioning of the lines marking the shoulders and hips. The body counterbalances its planes to maintain equilibrium, so if one plane of the body tilts in one direction, another plane will tilt in the opposite direction to maintain balance.

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Basic Shape Breakdown

From the stick sketch, add bulk using plain shapes. Visualize the body, and try to break it down into rectangles, triangles, cylinders, and circles. Try to think in three dimensions; for instance, my head isn’t just a circle with a triangle tacked on to it. It’s a curving sphere with a pyramid appended to the bottom, which means that I need to think about the dimensions that aren’t visible as well as the dimensions that are. The neck is a cylinder, set atop a pyramid for the slope down to the circles of the shoulders and then perched atop the tapering box of the chest.

Don’t get too detailed here; you’re not trying to capture accuracy. You just want to get a basic idea of bulk and form, captured in simple shapes. Look at it as building an old-style wooden marionette, before they’re carved in detail.

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Adding Basic Detail

So far the body form is very generic; start adding in other small details, like a few rectangular blocks to represent the connected mass of the fingers, a solid and generic shape for the hair, and any other body features that are necessary to the character.

Remember – shapes only. The only thing that I tend to use an amorphous shape for from the start is the hair, but some people prefer to break even that down to interconnected blocks and circles.

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Adding Finer Detail & Making Corrections

Let’s get to the actual detail work. Start drawing on top of your sketched forms – you can’t see my block forms underneath because I retraced on a separate sheet, layering using a light table. Try to see how much you can add proper shape and form without deviating too far from your base shapes. Add in a few more details – individual fingers and more individual sections on the hair, but not too many, as hair is a pain to animate and the more complicated that you make it, the more you’ll be kicking yourself later.

This is a good time to correct any issues with proportions and positions, as once you start drawing the actual defined shapes of the body you’ll notice where things don’t work. You can see that I had to correct the right leg, because I placed the knee lower than that of the leg on the left, when it should have been higher due to the angle of her hips.

The important thing to remember as you’re working on this is that you aren’t illustrating, and everything that you’re sketching now, you’ll be sketching hundreds of times over in the future. If you find yourself spending too much time focusing on any one area, then you’re putting too much detail into it. Try to think of what’s effective to capture the body flow – challenge yourself to convey the most with the fewest lines.

Animation generally stays within enclosed shapes for each color, so that the cel painters (or digital colorists) have guidelines for where solid fills go and don’t have to estimate.

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Penciling In Features

Here’s where I usually stop to draw in the features, starting with the eyes. I’ll usually draw a perfectly round pupil, then draw the shape of the eye around it, using sharply angled lines that I’ll soften and round out later. Those extra sketched lines are guidelines:

  • First, draw a vertical line bisecting the head from the point of the chin to the crown of the head; it’s going to arc a little, but it’s supposed to. If the head is tilted instead of looking straight forward, you’ll have to estimate a little – but it won’t take you long to develop an eye for it.
  • The head is basically composed of a circle with a triangle appended to the lower half; in order to draw the guideline for the eyes, look at the circle composing the upper half of the head, and sketch a line that would divide the circle into equal hemispheres, following the circle’s arc. Your eyes should be centered so that the arc bisects them.
  • The generic way to position the nose is to draw another arcing horizontal guideline at a point halfway between the guideline for the eyes, and the point of the chin. Where the horizontal guideline bisects the vertical guideline is where the center point of the nose will rest.
  • The positioning of the mouth is similar: draw another bisecting line halfway between the nose’s guideline and the chin. This line is the crease/part of the lips, with upper lip above, lower lip below, while the vertical line neatly divides the mouth into two halves.
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    Refining Linework

    After retracing with clean lines, you have a basic body form with minimal lines, detailing only the what’s absolutely necessary while still maintaining proportion, balance, and style. As you’re retracing, choose which lines you do or don’t need carefully. The fewer, the better.

    The only problem is…she’s naked. Some people prefer to draw everything all at once - body, clothing, etc. I prefer to start with the base body – for the sake of decency we’ll say she’s a mannequin, or wearing a body stocking – as a reference; drawing a clothed body freehand can often result in incorrect proportions and awkward drapery, even if you’re drawing simplified cartoon clothing that almost directly follows the lines of the body. It’s rather like buying new clothing; even though you know your sizes (as long as you haven’t gone off your diet), you don’t know how an outfit is going to look on you until you actually try it on, and while you may have imagined that the blue shirt you’ve been eyeing would drape one way, the image in the mirror tells you something entirely different once you’ve got it on.

    All right, that analogy deviated a bit far off the beaten path. To sum it up, you need the base body underneath as a guideline so that you can draw clothing to follow the position and angle of each portion of the body. So, let’s move on to give her a little cover.

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    Adding Clothing

    With the body base drawn, it’s easy to fit clothing over it. You may notice in many made-for-television cartoons that clothing is often skin-tight, distinguished from the body only by some extra bounding lines and different colors. This is a common trick for animators with a great deal of content to produce in very little time; adding extra detail to the clothing adds extra hours to the work. Just by drawing seven arcing lines, I’ve given her a turtleneck.

    However, I’m not a big fan of the “tights as fashion” look, so I gave her khakis, using a great many straight lines and trying to keep to angles rather than curves – following the lines of the legs to determine the drape and flow of the pants, and drawing some small detail, but not too much. Just in one leg I can count at least eleven key points that I would have to match up from one frame to the next, though currently these shapes are easier to work with than the shapes of her bare legs.

    Now…I have issues with hands and feet; some days I can draw them, some days I can’t. So I cheated – I gave her immensely long pants that completely conceal her feet. We’re going to say that I did that to make her easier to animate, because that means that I would rarely have to worry about her feet. But if you do draw shoes, remember that you’re only hurting yourself if you have to draw every single lace and tread.

    Also don’t forget, when adding clothing, that you should still try to keep your shapes entirely enclosed.

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    Final Result

    Retraced, this is the finished result: clean artwork with simple lines and easily identifiable key points that can be used to estimate from one frame to the next. It’s not fine art, but it’s a valued one nonetheless; simplicity in design doesn’t always have to be childish or bland, and some of the best cartoons use extremely simple lines in a very effective style to create unique characters with more implied detail than actual visibly drawn detail. Varied line width has a great deal to do with that, and it’s something that I try to use often once I get to the final line stages of a piece. If you’d like to learn more about actual art techniques such as line weight, Guide Helen South has a plethora of articles and lessons on drawing and sketching.

    Creating a character this way also makes adding color very easy, whether you’re painting cels or coloring digitally. I filled in plain, solid color without highlights – you’ll find that your average Saturday morning cartoon still doesn’t use many highlights and shadows save for in exceptional situations – for this in Photoshop in less than ten minutes using nothing but bucket fills, if you’d like to take a look.