The Cast & Character Design

“I think, therefore I am…”

2D hand painted cell animation is a dying art form and I lament its passing. There is a beauty to the dancing lines of characters animated by hand that evolves from macro nuances in the drawing process from sketching through to inking in the lines and eventually the colours in the paint.  These almost imperceptible changes  from one drawing usually only become apparent when viewed at speed and little pops and shimmers and shakes occur, it is not and never was an exact science. However those same quirks also bring life to the animation, a wonderful spontaneity that is inherent in the form. For all of its beauty this hand painted approach is becoming more and more costly and was unfortunately, not within the means of our budget. I wanted to at least honour that form by avoiding the pitfalls associated with computer generated art that creates an unappealing sameness from the fluid movement of CG animation and the sterile, flat perfection that vector art inherently has. I wanted the design to begin on a drawing board and not in a software package. So, once again, I turned to the analogue graphite based recording device…

…my pencil.

I began doing lots of sketches to try and work our characters out because I find that once you have ‘found’ the style or design of a character you have to keep drawing it to iron them out. Streamlining them is a fantastic and rewarding process. That’s why so many classic characters look different early in their incarnations. If you look at the early Bob Clampett Daffy Duck and compare him to the Chuck Jones version of a later period very little remains the same can be said for Bugs Bunny and  even Mickey Mouse. It’s an evolutionary process that is wonderful but also daunting. If you are doing a one off movie you have to get it right first go so you really have to compress the design phase and get your final designs as close as possible because once the characters are there and you commit, they are there for life. Animated characters, just quietly, live a long fucking time. The creators of Bugs and Daffy and Mickey are long gone.

The process for me is about learning the character and what the look actually tells us about them and how that look is tied to expressions and how those expressions ultimately bring that character to life. By drawing a character over and over you tend to stumble on particular looks that evolve into  that final version you are looking for so you can’t be lazy. If you design within a CG environment its too easy to commit to the finished product before it has been developed properly. Here are a couple of early version of Little Johnny through to the finished version.

Still too Wacky…

Better but not quite…

The final version above established the basic look and  the next step was to refine him into the definitive version. The final version was illustrated by Studio Moshi,  Lead character designer, Michael Amos.

After a characters’ look has been established the next phase involves seeing the character from all key angles such as, front, 3/4 front, side, 3/4 Back and back. This is called a Turnaround. Here is an early pencil sketch turnaround of Miss Prussy, Little Johnny’s schoolteacher, that all the boys are smitten by and incidentally, some of the animators!.

And here is the final version as painstakingly built by Lead Asset Builder, Craig Bruyn under direction from JC. Reyes.

“Look! It’s moving. It’s alive. It’s alive… It’s alive, it’s moving, it’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive, it’s alive, IT’S ALIVE!”  Henry Frankenstein, ‘Frankenstein’ 1931.

Once the Turnarounds are finalized the art is imported and reconstructed in vector based software in our case predominately adobe’s Flash Builder to create  the  libraries of ‘parts’ required to build the character. A bit like Dr. Frankenstein putting all the parts together to create new life!  The character is then built up piece by piece into extensive libraries. For example, there are countless hand gestures that can be used to express the emotions of a character and each has to be constructed for the task. This is where computer assisted animation excels. The ability to reuse and mix and match libraries and working with composites of expressions broadens the palette enormously. In hand painted cell animation elements are not as easily interchanged and they have a lifespan. Once a cell is mishandled or scratched it is rendered useless so it has to be redrawn. We embraced Flash to exploit the benefits of symbols and libraries and the things that make it a great work tool. But Flash is just that, a work tool and there is no magic button that will design brilliantly or create a performance no matter how many geniuses tell you! Therefore you cannot let the tool dictate your work. In the end good design begins with a good idea and good ideas are generally simple. In working the character for Mrs Rogers, the other school teacher that strikes fear into all children,I wanted to give her a furry eyeball,like one eye keeps focused on the task at hand like writing on the black board and the the other is always on the look out for bad children. Her physical appearance was based on a beetroot…

…with a scrotum hanging from it!

In the end we designed approximately 30 characters to make up the cast of little Johnny and here they are in a line-up that is created as guide to ensure relative scale.


Now with the cast well underway it was time to start directing them.


Ralph Moser


Little Johnny The Movie

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