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Starting With the Shape

Alex Untoria shares how essential shape language was to the character designs he developed over 8 weeks in Character Design for Animation with Nate Wragg.


Hi, I am Alex Untoria. I grew up in New Jersey taking art all the classes my high school had to offer, then continued on to college where I received my Bachelor’s in Animation and Illustration. After college, I worked as a graphic designer but I decided that in order to truly pursue a career in the animation industry I would need to really refine and improve my work. This past year I enrolled in a number of CGMA classes; one of them being Character Design for Animation. I decided to take the Character Design for Animation class at CGMA because I have always enjoyed creating new characters and developing their story through their design. I also really admired the work done by the instructor, Nate Wragg. Developing a story through a character is something I find extremely rewarding and fun! Hopefully, with the guidance of my instructors and through practice and determination, I can achieve my goal of becoming a character designer within the industry of animation.

Design Silhouettes

For the Crusader Character project, we were primarily focused on building a silhouette that was easily identifiable and that personified the character’s mood or personality. In my design, I wanted to show a character who seemed relaxed and untroubled while also appearing confident and maybe even a bit sinister in his intentions. While in the sketch phase of the design process, I went through a number of various poses in order to find one that I thought worked best to represent the emotions I was going for and that would be a clear read if broken down to its basic shapes and silhouette. Once that had been decided, I sketched and cleaned up the design making sure not to lose any of the information I had decided on. I chose to have my character be leaning on his sword stuck in the ground while crossing his leg, implying that he does not feel threatened and is in a comfortable and relaxed position. Secondly, I chose to have his other arm be held up, holding a dagger showing he still has a sense of danger to himself. Throughout the design, I chose to utilize triangular shapes in order to make the character feel a bit more dangerous. Through some discussion with my instructor (Nate Wragg), I was able to push the line of action in my design a bit to give the silhouette and pose a clearer read and feel less rigid. After the class, I continued to adjust character details and even explore some more facial expressions.

Character Line-Ups

For this week’s assignment, we were tasked with creating a line-up of three pirates. My final three pirate’s personalities ended up stemming from these three ideas; A large overweight drunk, a short gun-crazy wacko, and a stoic leader type. Through some sketches and exploration, I finalized which sketches I wanted to continue with. I chose to use specific shape language with each character mostly circular shapes for the fat drunk, square, and rectangles for the crazy shooter, and triangles for the tough leader. I did a bunch of revisions on the silhouettes and the poses of my three but I knew roughly where I wanted to go with them. In order to make the line up more appealing, I also rearranged the characters so that the way they were displayed would complement their design. As far as props go I wanted to make sure that whatever the characters had, whether it was a prop or clothing, fit within the bounds of the shape language. For example, I gave the fat drunk a chicken leg and a round bottle of rum both round shapes to compliment his circular design. For the tough leader, I designed her rifle to incorporate some triangular features to match her sharp chin and triangular design. The crazy gunner design was a bit tricky, I wanted him to have a lot of rectangular features but the design started to feel very static and robotic so I fixed this by adding slight shapes from the other two designs to complement the boxy feel. This also brought all three designs closer together in order to make them all feel like they inhabit the same world. Minor details like eyes, hands, and render style also help the designs fit together.

Story Moments

This assignment involved putting two characters at a park bench or bus stop and having them interact with one another. Coming up with the idea for the final design was difficult. I worked through a number of quick silhouette studies and sketches before finally resting on the design I chose. My scene was about an elderly man happily feeding pigeons in a park while death, quite literally, is waiting for him. I chose to run with this story moment because out of all my other ideas I felt this one had the biggest impact. My other ideas were of an alien and a human reacting to it or a creepy stranger interacting with a normal person and other not so very interesting ideas. The dynamic of death waiting for someone was just comical to me and I really thought the story could be portrayed nicely through a single visual image. I chose to make the Grim reaper character much larger and imposing than the elderly man and also made choices in their shape language to clearly separate the two. The old man and the birds around him are all made of curves and round shapes while death is made with more square and triangular shapes to contrast. My instructor (Nate Wragg) was able to help guide me into making decisions, such as crossing the Grim Reaper’s legs, using his hood as a brow, and adding more birds around the old man that would ultimately enhance the piece.

Character Turn Arounds

This assignment was really fun for me! We were tasked with taking a character from another week’s assignment and do a front and side view of their face and torso. It was fun because we got to take a previous character and start to design them in a more 3D way. I took a snobby looking character from the week 4 “Librarian” assignment. For the original assignment, I designed this character to be a geeky looking librarian that might be a tattletale or a grumpy snob. I used triangular shapes mixed with curves to get a pointy yet pudgy feel to him. For the turnaround assignment, I had to adjust a number of things in order for the character to feel real in a 3-D space. I ultimately kept the character the same but adjusted some facial features and gave the body more volume to make him feel big and grumpy. The most challenging part of the turnaround was figuring out how certain lines and structures of the character would turn and change as the view of the character changed. I found I had to redraw and adjust my lines to make them more believable. For example, while drawing the side view of the neck and collar, I had particular trouble with how the lines should curve and slant according to how it looked through the front view. I found that using guides in Photoshop made it easy to figure out where things should start and end throughout the turn but finding the right way to connect to those points was more difficult than anticipated.

Final Thoughts

My instructor was extremely helpful in giving both personal feedback to my assignments and general inquiries during the Q&As. His input during assignment feedback was very directional and was able to help me make decisions while cleaning up the homework assignment and helped me while furthering the assignments after the class and even in my personal work and other course work. Nate would make sure that his draw overs were clear in the feedback videos and emphasized the difference that small subtle changes could make in the design. In my opinion, the week 5 “Story Moment” assignment was the most fun because of the story that we were able to tell through the interaction between the characters. I learned a lot through that week’s feedback and was able to implement what I’ve learned throughout the rest of the class. As far as tips for future students and artists I think the best word of advice is to focus on roughing out the concept and silhouette of the designs first then flesh out the details. I know that many artists like myself that struggle because we are too focused on the details first. If you can focus on the simple shapes and silhouette of the design first and not get too attached to the details in the beginning you will see more success come out of your design in the end!

You can see more from Alex on his website: alexuntoria.com