Course overview Course overview
Designing Characters for Production
This class will focus on taking your character designs through a production pipeline and learning to make your designs functional for animation. In this course, you will be acting as a professional Character Designer. We will cover both common and important types of assignments that will be expected of you as a working professional. You will walk out of this class with not only the experience of a real professional setting, but also with professional work that you will be proud to showcase in your portfolio.
Character Design For Production WHAT YOU’LL LEARN
The more you know, the better.
Igniting your imagination
Nate Wragg was born in Davis, CA in 1983. He took an interest in drawing and painting at an early age. After graduating high school, he studied animation and design at The California Institute of the Arts in Southern California. Since then, Wragg has gone on to work as an illustrator and designer on various projects-including Ratatouille, Toy Story 3 and Puss in Boots. He was one of the primary character designers on the Pixar Feature Toy Story 3. As well as designing characters, Nate was also the Production Designer of Pixar’s short film Your Friend the Rat and has been involved in designing several main title sequences, most notably the animated end titles for Ratatouille. Most recently he was the Production Designer on Captain Underpants.
Character Design For Production Student gallery
Fall TERM Registration
Jul 27, 2020 - Oct 12, 2020
Great instructor. Sometimes an online course can be very detached from the real experience of a classroom, however Nate really engaged us as students through his lectures and fast and useful critiques, which made the whole experience more effective and real.
Nate is one of the best instructors I have ever had—he communicates concepts in a very clear way that is easy to understand and put into practice. His feedback is always very specific and he communicates both what IS working and what is NOT working, and as a result gives students a clear path forward in their work.
Nate is a great instructor with very professional approach. Many thanks for his thorough feedback and always being there to help.
Nate is one of the best instructors I've ever had! The way he explains and demonstrates things is so clear—he makes it easy for students to implement what he is teaching into their own work. I know my own work improved by leaps and bounds over the course of just 8 weeks, and I saw improvement in the work of my fellow students as well! Basically, I loved everything about Nate's course.
Allowed me to reevaluate my design process and help me make better final choices when designing a character. Allowed me to focus on shape language and functionality as well as storytelling
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environment design Benefits
What makes this learning experience unique?
Receive personal individual feedback on all submitted assignments from the industries best artist.
1+ Year Access
Enjoy over 365 days of full course access. This includes all lectures, feedback, and Live Q&A recordings.
Certificate of Completion
Earn a Certificate of Completion when you complete and turn in 80% of course assignments.
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Show us your skills
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Carolyn, the Flower Shop Owner
Interview with Austin Lee
Austin Lee shares his experience and process bringing Carolyn, the Flower Shop Owner to life over 8 weeks in Nate Wragg's Character Design for Production course.
My name is Austin Lee, and I’m a Seattle-based designer. I developed an interest in drawing at a young age, and being inspired by cartoons and animation led me to study visual communication design at college. Later, I studied media design at the Art Center College of Design.
In the industry, I’ve worked on AR/VR experiences as a visual interaction designer, which often requires skills in storytelling and concept development. I took Nate Wragg’s “Character Design for Production” course because I’ve always been fascinated by great character design work and the art of animated feature films. I wanted to gain exposure to the production pipeline and learn storytelling skills through character design by taking the course.
Initial character sketch
Designing a Character with Story
The following is my description of the proposed character: Carolyn, the flower shop owner, is an aging but a charming hippie lady who loves gardening and nature. They say that she regularly talks not only to her plants but also to animals. She is a bit of a hoarder, but she only collects beautiful plants and surrounds herself with them. While she often looks tired, it is easy to intuit that she is passionate about her work and genuinely enjoys her life at the flower shop.
Character reference sheet
When coming up with the story for the character design, I was inspired by an actual flower shop owner in our area who would often encourage her customers to listen to plants and see if they talk to them when choosing what to buy. She always projected a cool, hippie vibe, and she was always well-dressed in great color schemes. While reimagining an interesting background story for Carolyn, I began collecting references for the character. I wanted to illustrate how she was very active and energetic when it came to taking care of her plants.
Character Pose & Expression Sheets
Learning how to apply exaggerations in effective ways through stretch and squash was crucial in my design decisions. After receiving feedback from Nate, I refined the character design of Carolyn; I made her less muscular and gave her more exaggerated features, such as extremely thin legs and arms that would contrast with her big, strong, bulky feet and hands. Creating various facial expressions also added more life to the design.
Character Pose & Expression Sheet and Character turn-around
Tie Down & Clean-Up
Moving away from roughs to clean-up was an interesting process. The most crucial element was maintaining the overall feeling of the initial rough sketches while refining and simplifying the design. Imagining the 3-D structure referencing the pose sheet definitely helped a lot.
One of my favorite outcomes in the process was the design of one of the supporting characters, an iguana that was apparently jealous of the twin geckos that constantly grabbed Carolyn’s attention.
Final Style & Portfolio Assembly
The final style was driven a lot by the tie down and clean-up process in week 6. Given the relatively short time frame to color the final scene and assemble a portfolio of the entire course, I decided to leverage the line drawings produced during the clean-up process, as opposed to covering up the lines and fully rendering the final shot with color. Inspired by water color, I focused on generating a digital painting that felt light and had semitransparent look. The fidelity of the painting felt sufficient for this particular scene, which was supposed to show the calm and relaxed state of the characters.
Final painted character piece
Final Thoughts and Take-Aways
Nate taught how to effectively convey a story through the character design, which enabled me to push my design work further through applying a more stylized approach as opposed to creating a generic design that felt less appealing and imaginative. Nate shared how small details, such as props, can provide rich context for the character. To highlight her everyday life as a flower shop owner, I introduced small reptile residents into Carolyn’s flower shop and illustrated an array of plants that she took care of.
Trusting the process was extremely challenging in the beginning. In retrospect, especially in the initial stage, I wasn’t sure how the character and her surrounding world would evolve. As a matter of fact, I even thought of working on an entirely different character because I was not feeling confident that I could create an appealing design through a mundane flower shop persona. However, as the design was inspired by a real-life figure, and even after pushing the design, the character still felt believable and relatable to me.
The process of illustrating and documenting various poses and angles of the character enabled me to understand the structure of the character better and apply better acting. Moreover, being exposed to the production pipeline of character design developing through a holistic approach to storytelling was invaluable in terms of understanding the collaborative processes between directors and art and story departments.
Bringing Baba Yaga to Life
Interview with Arthur Lin
Children's book illustrator Arthur Lin shares how he took inspiration from a Russian folk tale to create an evocative design with his Baba Yaga character for Nate Wragg's Character Design for Production course.
Hello! My name is Arthur Lin and I am a children’s book illustrator currently represented by Shannon Associates. I am a freelance artist who has worked with clients such as Houghton Mifflin, Random House, National Geographic, and Highlights, among others. I graduated with my masters from the Academy of Art San Francisco in 2010. My family originates from Taiwan, but I was born and raised most of my life in California.
As my very first class since graduating art school, I felt I needed to push my artistic skills further to work as a character designer in a company. I’d heard great things about CGMA, and wanted my work to be looked at from an industry professional. During the semester, I was mentored by Nate Wragg, who is an art director at DreamWorks. The course was designed as a comprehensive breakdown of a production pipeline, which allowed me the opportunity to imagine myself working in a role at an animation studio.
Week 1: Designing a Character with a Story
For the first assignment, we were asked to create a character that we would work on for eight weeks. Starting off, I knew I couldn’t draw any generic character, but rather I had to discover an individual with many layers and complexities to their personality. Fortunately, the assignment aligned with a book commission I was working on based on Russian Fairy Tales. The stories had many characters to choose from, but I was intrigued by one in particular: Baba Yaga.
Baba Yaga is a witch who is both terrifying and powerful. She hides in a hut in the forest and scares all children who dare to approach her. Interestingly, she is also described as kind in some tales, where those with enough courage to find her will gain her wisdom. Although many try, Baba Yaga will normally trick the individual in order to test their worth.
In reading these stories, I felt the character’s motivations and traits perfectly aligned with what I wanted to discover in a character.
Starting off the process, my goal was to create an interesting design based on the character’s traits of being very imposing and mischievous. As I began to draw her, I wanted to make sure that her posture was pushed in a way that made her feel very cunning and intimidating. During the sketching phase, I went through several variations in which I finally selected one I was happy with.
My main sources of inspiration mostly derived from old children’s books from the 1950’s; in that era, the designs of the characters were very simple. The use of contrasting shapes was so effective it would read from a mile away. I also did a lot of photographic research in which I picked and chose important elements I could borrow for the design.
Week 2 & 3: Pose and Expression Sheet
Creating poses and expression sheets was definitely my favorite part of the class. In these small moments, we could make the characters feel much more animated and alive. In choosing poses and expressions, I drew segments of the story where I imagined the character reacting strongly to certain scenarios. In many instances, Baba Yaga would feel frustrated or sometimes she would concoct evil plans in her mind. This idea of eliciting a reaction really helped me push the storytelling element and the motives I felt the character needed.
During the process, it was also important to find the poses that didn’t work. With some trial and error, I often found myself rejecting certain emotions that seemed too “neutral”. Instead of an “angry” pose, I went with “extremely furious” to really sell the idea. As storytellers, it is important to put ourselves in the role of the character and think about how we could act things out more.
Week 4: Model Sheet
I found that creating a model sheet was an essential part of the pipeline, in that it would serve to assist animators in understanding the character from various angles. It was a great experience in helping me understand a sense of spatial awareness for the character and making sure certain areas were consistently aligned. Keeping every area consistent was a constant challenge, as I had make sure things flowed rather than appearing wonky.
One of the biggest surprises I also found was dealing with individual areas that needed special attention. For example, the nose and eyebrows would have to exist on a specific axis and would have to move together with the base of the head. Thinking about these areas helped me understand how we should always remind ourselves to simplify and think of these areas as only 3D shapes.
Although creating turn-around sheets was very time consuming, I found it to be a tremendous tool for whenever I would need to reference the character again.
Week 5: The Hero Pose
In creating Baba Yaga’s hero pose, I wanted to make sure that the pose fully conveyed the character’s mischievous nature. In this pose, I wanted it to feel as if she was hiding behind her prop, as well as her expression.
On deciding a prop, I simply chose her broom as it was mainly one of the items she was always carrying with her. Although she doesn’t fly on the broom specifically; rather she sits in a mortar and wields the broom as she travels.
Week 7: Putting it All Together
In creating a movie moment, one of the most important scenes dealt with Baba Yaga’s encounter with a young girl named Vasila. Vasila was traveling through a dark forest to seek wisdom from the witch. She is terrified when she first encounters the witch as she must find a way to gain her trust.
When coloring the scene I wanted to make sure to vignette it so that the viewer would focus on the important moment between the characters. The sparse snowy environment along with the frigid temperatures of Russian mountain lands was a perfect catalyst in setting the mood.
Overall, I really enjoyed my mentorship and feedback given by my instructor Nate Wragg. During the semester, it was always apparent that Nate would drive the concept of storytelling as the most fundamental part in creating a believable character. It was important to sell our ideas to our audience and really make our characters feel as if they could exist in reality.
Before taking this class, I always thought I should force myself to make picture perfect artwork in one shot. But during the semester, my philosophy changed as Nate would always drive home the idea of trusting the process and forcing yourself to make mistakes before anything becomes perfect. Following his direction further strengthened my art process and now I feel I make better decisions than ever before.
After going through the process of a production pipeline, it really helped me understand the intricacies of creating an interesting and engaging character. I realized that as a designer, I would have to make smart and bold choices to keep pushing the design as much as possible. Going through this process allowed me to loosen up and constantly keep coming up with new ideas until I found the perfect solution.
As the class ended, I gained much needed valuable insight on what the industry expects from you in these roles. I am especially thankful for taking this class and all the wonderful feedback that my instructor shared with me.
Interview with Rune F.B. Hansen
Rune Hansen tell us how he worked to bring his styleized detective to life with the help of Nate Wragg in Character Design for Production.
Hi my name is Rune F.B. Hansen and I took a course with CGMA called “Character Design for Production” taught by Nate Wragg. I am going to break down my process and go through the creation of the character Booth Blackwood I did for the course.
I’v done quite a lot of schooling, a bachelor’s in Computer Graphic Art from The Animation Workshop, a few fine art courses and now online art courses. I worked mostly as a background artist on animated short films and tv shows, tried my hand at art direction (check out “Grandma’s Hero” on youtube!), even directed a ted-ed short about norse mythology (also on youtube), but those jobs are few and far between when you are starting out.
So I started to feel stuck, because you tend to get hired for the jobs where you’ve proven you can do the work and my portfolio was mostly full of stuff I did not want to do. So in a quest to improve both my skills and make a new portfolio I decided to do some online courses and heard a lot of good stuff about CGMA.
Designing a Character with a story
For the first week we had to come up with the idea/story of a character and then use that to sketch it out. Nate told us to keep it loose, come up with a few key story points and sketch a character from it, and most importantly trust the process and stay loose.
I’d been wanting to do a noir detective story for some time and I love horror so mixing them seemed like the perfect idea-- a werebear detective that hunts monsters! But as I drew him it seemed more like two characters than one and I would prefer to practice drawing a human character so I focused on the detective aspect and waited on the bear part. I wanted an old school look and needed a weakness to balance out his brilliant detective brain. So gave him a war wound that requires him to use a cane, which would also help me develop a second character later on.
Character Pose & Expression Sheets
After some great critic and positive feedback from Nate, I pushed the shapes and design of the character more and staying loose and sketchy helped implement the feedback fast and easy. Doing the poses really nailed down the story and helped me decide what kind of person my character was. I did some self posing with a broomstick too. You can’t be afraid to look silly if you need some good reference!
I had a lot of fun with the expressions, where the poses helped get a feel of the character and how he carries himself, the expressions pulled out the personality. A lot of fun to do, lot of doing silly faces in a mirror and trying out styles for eyes, nose and hair. I found out I still wanted the animal part in there, just hidden, maybe for future use, so his anger, scowl and facial hair is all a reflection of that.
Doing the turnarounds was the biggest challenge for me, having only done a few before this and remembering how much I dislike this part of the process, I struggled getting it done. Forcing the character into such a static pose, making you question every decision you made, and easily seeing all the flaws makes it hard. But getting it done and thinking in 3D also helped me understand the character better and made it easier, and faster, for me to redraw him over and over again.
Coming up with a good hero pose means using everything I have learned about my character, going back and looking at the list of characteristics from the first week and combining it with the evolution my character has gone through with each drawing. Of course I took a lot of silly photos of myself again with a broom because great reference is key!
I was a little afraid he would look to “Sherlock”, but I hoped the cane and mutton chops would help the character standout. I tried out a handful of action poses, but him using his intellect and deductive nature felt better and more true to his strongest attributes.
Tie-Down & Clean-up
Cleaning up the turnaround was tough, with no sketchy lines to hide behind, all the small mistakes had to be fixed and the last decisions had to be made. Making sure everything lines up and is easily readable can be a lot of work and I found myself spending more time on it longer than I thought I would. I never really liked the dead look my character got from straight on, but Nate told me most characters look a bit off in a turnaround, so I made peace with it and moved on.
Cleaning up the poses and facial expressions was great fun. Adding the extra little details and applying all the great feedback I have gotten from Nate over the last few weeks really helped it all come together.
Having studied films for years and directed a few short films, this was my favorite part of the whole course. Setting up a dramatic moment, making your characters act and feel is a lot of fun, and makes your character look alive and part of a larger story.
For my second character I wanted someone that was different complimented Blackwood. I made a physically strong police woman that would be just as renegade as him, but very different in personality. Of course she is less fleshed out compared to Blackwood, I only had a few days to draw her compared to the weeks of work put into him, but she turned out okay. I might redesign her for future use.
The cinematic moment itself, is of a murder they have to solve and I hoped to capture the old school noir look, feel, and the diffrence between the character in their standing pose and in action.
Taking this class was just what I needed after a few years doing the same low level stuff on jobs. I was losing the joy in drawing. This was a great way to spice things up again and Nate is an amazing teacher. He’s good at giving the right amount of praise and critic and after each week I felt energized and ready to start the next part instead of feeling burned out. His teaching is full of positive energy and it rubs off on you, makes you want to do your best and trusting the process makes it less stressful and more fun when you don’t have to worry too much about how nice everything looks.
Overall it was an amazing 8 hard and busy weeks and I plan to use what I learned in my art from now on and see if I can push it even further.
You can see more from Rune here:
Magical Musing of Agnes Toadfoot
Interview with Paul Joseph Nicholson
Character Designer Paul Joseph Nicholson tells us how 8 weeks in Character Design For Production helped him transform his witchy idea into a fun filled final design.
My name is Paul Joseph Nicholson. I live in London, England. I work as a freelance character designer, although I’ve done a number of other roles in animation over the past few years, before fixing on character design as my career.
I’ve always drawn since I was a kid, but never pursued it academically. I came to the industry later than many people. Instead, I worked for nearly a decade in finance, before deciding to go back to college to pursue the career I’d always wanted to do.
I studied Character Animation at Central Saint Martin’s in London and from there had a number of varied roles in animation including working as a prop designer, colourist and layout artist.
I recently finished up working as a designer on the new series of Mr. Bean The Animated Series, which is the biggest gig I’ve had since graduating. It was a pretty varied role – doing animation layout, backgrounds, rigging characters and props for the show. It also gave me a deeper insight into the TV animation pipeline.
I’ve been pivoting my career over the past couple of years toward being a character designer, specifically for TV. I’d already completed two CGMA courses with Nate Wragg in 2017 and 2018 and was in the process of building up a character design portfolio. I wanted to do this course for some time, as I liked the focus on designing a single character over an eight week period, which would give me an opportunity to explore their personality more and push the design further, along with getting great feedback from Nate.
DESIGNING A CHARACTER WITH STORY
I came up with an elderly witch named Agnes Toadfoot. She’s an absent minded, eccentric and inquisitive character who lives alone on the edge of the Ebony Forest. She’s short and stocky, with long hair and a big nose. Other witches see her as a joke, because of her forgetful nature, despite being knowledgeable on witch lore and magic. To prove to her detractors she’s a competent witch, she’s decided to retake her witching exams, which she had failed when she was younger. But a condition of this is that she has to take in a young apprentice to train – something her rivals will hope she will fail at. I wanted to explore a rich, complex character, who could provide a lot of comedy moments but could have the opportunity to emote. Outwardly she seems clumsy and muddled up, but actually she’s a really knowledgeable witch with a lot of good ideas – it’s just she can’t always remember her spells correctly.
I brainstormed a number of character/occupation combinations, which was the basis of the first assignment. I hit upon the idea of doing a forgetful witch character, which seemed like a fun idea and had a number of opportunities for designing an interesting personality. I started thinking about this character and what sort of person they would be. I avoid drawing too soon, as I like to mull over the character for a while before committing pen to paper.
I have a series of questions written down that allow me to build up an idea of the character’s personality and motivation – such as looking at their strengths and weaknesses and listing their positive and negative personality traits. A lot of this is pretty rough at this stage, but it gives me something to work with as I move into the drawing stage.
Then I gather reference. I looked for old illustrations and photographs of witches and witch costumes. As she had a broomstick as a prop, I also gathered some references on those and assembled them onto a single moodboard to refer from whilst I was developing Agnes. I was inspired by the shape language of character designers such as Steve Lambe and Chris Battle, although my style differs a lot from their work. I also love the rich colour choices and proportions of Fabien Mense, which pulled the direction of some of the colour choices I made later on. In another course, Art Direction for Character designers, we were taught how to pull different elements from artist’s styles and mix them together to make something unique, which was what I tried to do here on this character.
CHARACTER POSE AND EXPRESSION SHEETS
I wanted to choose poses and expressions that summed up her witchy nature, such as performing a spell, riding a broomstick or making a potion. At the same time I wanted to show her forgetful nature and her overall clumsiness in performing a spell. Because she’s such an exaggerated, cartoony character I wanted to make these poses a strong as possible, but inject a little humour into them at the same time.
There were a number that didn’t work – especially during the first passes. Early on, you’re generally figuring out what works with the character and what doesn’t work. In a lot of sketches I did quick silhouette studies, to see if the pose was reading clearly – those that weren’t I’d either tweak or reject. I also chose poses that showcased her personality and what she was thinking. I keep things sketchy and loose at this stage and make a lot of quick gesture thumbnails. I then put the drawings away for a day and came back with fresh eyes and decided which looked fun and interesting and develop those.
I like to explore a large number of poses for any character I design, because it’s important for me to understand how they move and where their weight is distributed. I also wanted to see how far I could push certain poses to check that her design worked – in some cases, I had to tweak it a little, such as the length of the arms and legs, to make the poses clearer. I try to push as much as possible, though it’s always challenging for me to break the design. But I enjoy the process, and it’s these moments that the character really comes alive and gives me an opportunity to really showcase her personality.
The turnaround was probably the hardest part of the course. I’d not done many turnarounds before and I was looking forward to the challenge. I discovered you need to work slowly and carefully during the turnaround stage – it’s important to make sure all features line up on each turn, so this meant a lot of guide lines in Photoshop. As a result it was very different from the quick studies I had been doing for Agnes’ expressions and poses. The biggest problem was turning the characters feet. On my original submission, I had the feet and lower body turning more dimensionally in space – however this tended to change how she looked on each turn. Nate’s feedback showed me how to flatten some elements of the character on each turn, whilst preserving the volume, to give a greater accuracy to the character between each pose. This was a big revelation to me, even though in hindsight, it was common sense.
It’s always challenging to move from a three quarter view to a side view – as I find a lot changes in terms of proportions when moving from one angle to another. The back views were also difficult, as it meant thinking a lot about how the features translate from back to front. The core skill is making sure there’s consistency between each turn.
THE HERO POSE
I’d produced a number of character poses during pose week and had one pose in mind already for the hero pose. I wanted something that had a strong silhouette and summed up her personality and point of view neatly. I had her performing magic, whilst looking at a spell book, which balanced her magical nature with her forgetfulness. It was then a case of referring back to the character turn and earlier pose sheets to ensure she was on model.
I wanted the pose to show two things – first, that she was magical and second, she wasn’t entirely competent as a witch, or at least, she was still trying to learn her craft. I went with having her looking at a spell book, whilst trying to perform a spell. I had the idea of creating a single line of action that ran along her arms, linking the hand performing the spell to the hand holding the book. I chose two props in the end. The first prop I designed was her broom, which is her hero prop. I took a similar approach to designing it as I did to designing Agnes; exploring a number of shapes and coming up with a final design which I felt best suited her personality. A broomstick is an important element of what audiences would expect a witch to possess, but at the same time, I wanted to find a design that was unique to her. I also had to bear in mind that this is a prop that she would have to use, such as flying or sweeping up with it, so I needed to design it with her proportions in mind.
The second prop was a small clasp, which she would have affixed around her neck to hold her cape in place. This was a small detail, but I wanted to design it accordingly. Sometimes, it’s the small details on a character that really adds to their personality. I looked at a number of ideas – but settled on a toad design – which reflected in part her name – Toadfoot. As before I came up with a number of iterations before settling on a chosen design.
It was quite late in the process before I decided on colour, working in values until week 7. The first thing I did when I started exploring colour was to make a number of thumbnails with different variations for her skin and clothing. I wanted to create a strong contrast in the design. I decided to go with the green skin and purple dress as this seemed most eye-catching, but at the same time there was something familiar in that colour scheme.
PUTTING IT TOGETHER
For the story moment, I wanted Agnes attempting to perform a spell or making a potion and Agatha trying to give her advice or telling her off for her poor spell making. I also wanted to add extra characters (which was part of the assignment) to add to the storytelling element as well as a background to give a sense of place. I played around with composition – sometimes placing Agnes in the foreground, sometimes in the background. I use a thirds guide to help set up the composition, so there is action happening in each third and characters are placed so they can lead the eye through the image to tell the story.
We had to add a second character in the assignment, so I developed the apprentice character, Agatha, who I’d developed in my original story notes. I took her further, repeating what I’d learned with developing Agnes and coming up with a character design I was generally happy with. I like designing opposites in characters and imagined Agatha as being more studious, a little more prim and proper, and physically taller and skinnier than Agnes. That way the two characters are clearly distinctive when paired together. It was important to highlight the differences in their personalities in this moment. The third character was added at the last minute. The initial thumbnail had her levitating an object, but I swapped it out for a little critter, who is Agnes’s familiar. It was nice to develop three characters interacting. It meant there was action in all three thirds of the design and the eye could be lead from Agatha through Agnes to the critter. I wasn’t entirely sure what to portray so I made a number of thumbnails based on some of the earlier poses I’d done of Agnes.
I wanted to create an untidy cottage for the background, since Agnes is quite messy. There are lots of bottles and objects lying around. The difficulty here was that I wanted space for the three characters so I had to leave a lot of room in the centre of the image and move a lot of the objects to the sides, so the characters had room to perform.
FINAL STYLE AND PORTFOLIO ASSEMBLY
Agnes changed a lot during the course. My initial sketches had a skinnier, taller character. However, as I refined her and pushed her proportions, she became shorter and stockier. Looking back, the original sketches I did of her didn’t quite convey the personality I had in mind. As I developed her design over the eight weeks, I felt she became a stronger character – this was particularly true during the pose week, where I had to make a lot of refinements so I could get the character to move but still retain the overall design.
The biggest decision was to keep the energy in the character poses when cleaning up. This was especially true when inking, where I used long fluid strokes to replicate the energy of the original sketches. It’s easy to tighten up too much in the clean up stage and lose some of the magic in the original sketches. I also had to think about preserving the characters proportions that I’d developed in their earlier sketches and keep an eye on things such as tangents and making sure the pose still reads. It was also an opportunity to check for any defects in the design and to make final tweaks before calling it done.
Nate was excellent. His drawovers were very helpful and gave me new ideas to explore every week as well as helping to push my designs further. I realized early on that he liked the name Agnes Toadfoot and that I was developing an appealing character. He gave me the motivation to create a really interesting personality for Agnes.
It’s always challenging – it’s so easy to skip ahead and produce a ‘final’ design on the first day. The problem with that is that you usually settle on your first idea, which is rarely your best. Instead, it’s better to take things slow, making sure you explore all options, coming up with many different design iterations. It’s also important to refer back to your character personality questions and of course your research. It can be disconcerting, but the process is a means to an end – creating a great character for film or TV that fits the story.
This process gave me an idea of how to develop a full character design pack for a studio or client and the process of making that. I also feel a lot more confident in approaching a professional character design assignment, knowing what I need to produce, how to develop a character with story in mind and how to push my designs further to make a truly memorable character. It was very enlightening. Although I was aware of the way characters are designed for TV and film, I’d never actually followed a full production pipeline for character design before. It’s given me a new process to develop characters both for clients and for my own personal projects, which I’m looking forward to implementing from now on.
Capturing a Character
Interview with Daria Burkut
Illustrator Daria Burkut tells us about her process for bringing a book character to life over 8 weeks in Character Design for Production with Nate Wragg.
Hello! My name is Daria. I am an illustrator and animator currently living in Cyprus. I started to pursue art quite early when I was in elementary school. However, my career as an illustrator started only around four years ago. I graduated from Saint Petersburg Polytechnical University (Russia) with a Bachelor's degree. My final assignment was to create a digital children's book. Later, I studied in the Skills Up School in Saint Petersburg, where I had a lot of practice in academic drawing and digital painting. Now, I am studying Animation at the University for Creative Arts.
During my career path, I have been working on various projects, including illustrations for children's books, articles, and even short animated films. However, I felt stuck in character design. I had heard a lot of positive reviews about CG Master Academy, and Nate Wragg's courses in particular. I decided that it would be a great chance to get deeper insight into the professional character design process with personal feedback.
Designing a Character with Story
While watching the first lecture of the course, I was mulling over which character I wanted to explore during the eight weeks. I wanted this character to align with my student animation project for the next semester at the University. I hit upon the idea of taking a story from classic Russian literature. I could choose from authors such as Pushkin, Dostoevsky, and Bulgakov. I eventually opted for one of my favorite novels, “Crime and Punishment,” by acclaimed Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky.
The main character in this novel is a young man, Rodion Raskolnikov. Outwardly, he is tall and handsome. His personality traits can be described as grim and arrogant. At the same time, however, he can be very generous and noble toward those he loves. Rodion was a law student, but he now lives in extreme poverty. As the culmination of the story, the young man kills an old lady: an unscrupulous pawnbroker.
During the lectures, Nate has always reminded the students to think “story first.” While I was searching for the character’s shapes and proportions, I found it crucial to stay loose and explore with thumbnails. It is a great approach that prevented me from adding details too early.
Character Pose & Expression Sheets
Weeks 2 and 3 were devoted to the development of the character’s poses and expressions. Nate’s lectures focused on essential things like lines of action, finding references for poses, and pushing characters as far as we could. I was trying to find poses that would be specific for my character. Some poses seemed to be too static and generic, so I rejected them.
I wanted every pose and expression to tell more about the character to the viewer. Even though Rodion is acting as the bad-tempered and arrogant person most of the time, his nice personality traits are also essential. Thinking about the story allowed me to continue pushing the poses, and the expressions, further to make it clear and interesting.
While I was working on a turnaround of the character, the biggest challenge was to find the best way to show the character's coat. This coat is one of the most important features of my character, so I wanted to include it in the turnaround. Finally, I settled on the idea to make the coat and hat red to contrast with the black color of the character.
In general, creating model sheets was easier than I had thought. Nate explained how to use guides in order to make everything aligned and tidy. The biggest revelation of this stage was how the exploration of the character in 3D space helps to see which design choices work and which do not. Sometimes, while designing some features from one view, it is hard to understand how it will work spatially. Making a turnaround is a great way to deal with this concern.
Working on a hero pose of the character, I started with a posture that turned out to be not readable enough. In this pose, the character had three props that began to compete with each other. Nate pointed it out and suggested refining it by changing the pose and losing unnecessary props. Finally, I ended up with the hero pose, which showcases the personality of my character much better. Because I took a story from Dostoevsky’s novel, it was crucial to make Rodion recognizable. I decided that a moment right after the crime would be the best option for my character’s hero pose.
The main prop that I used was an axe. Rodion murdered the old lady with the axe, so this prop is essential for the character. In the hero pose, Rodion is trying to hide the bloodied axe inside his oversized coat. This coat, which looks like a rag, is also a significant prop for storytelling.
When I finished the line art for the hero pose, I began to explore different options for value and color. I wanted to make the axe eye-catching, even though it is not shown in the silhouette. The best way to do it was by adding contrast in values. I made a number of value and color thumbnails and settled on one with the light axe on the dark coat.
Putting it Together
I was very inspired by the lecture in Week 7. Nate explained how to showcase that the character is functional for a movie moment. It was not hard for me to choose a moment from the story. The main scene in the novel is when Rodion killed an old lady. I started by sketching a new character – the old lady – and the interior of her room. I wished to compose characters and objects so that they would lead the eye through the scene. In creating the additional character, I emphasized the distinctive shapes but kept the main style. During this stage, I referred back to my research and gathered new references for the old lady and the environment. I added a big window behind Rodion to maintain his silhouette. It also allowed me to light the scene in a dramatic way.
As I noticed during the course, Nate’s idea to keep a clear design also extends to how he organizes the lectures and how he explains his thoughts to students. He always paid attention to the most significant aspects of work. As a professional who has been working in the industry for many years, he could easily say which parts of a design are strong and where it is better to continue refining it. One of the most enlightening insights from the course was that thinking of a story first really helps to make a design specific instead of fixing on some generic options. For example, when I was working on Rodion’s poses, I tried to think about the specific actions my character would do. Another idea that became underlying for the course was to stay loose and trust the process. It helps not to put too much effort into the very first idea. Moreover, it was great to follow the professional pipeline and learn how people work in the real industry of featured films. I am grateful to Nate for his mentorship during the course. I have already started to apply this new knowledge to my work.
Quality Over Quantity: iterating to find your character
Interview with Amber Kenneson
I’ve been a freelance character designer and visual development artist since 2010. I’ve worked on several in-development projects for small, independent animation studios. Recently I created character designs for a pitch to Netflix and Disney Jr.; I also art directed the overall style for this project. I chose to take Character Design for Production for two reasons: 1) to build my portfolio, and 2) to get faster at tasks a character designer is assigned on a production (i.e. pose sheets, expression sheets, turnarounds).
Designing a Character with Story
The character I worked on during this course comes from a story idea I came up with a couple of years ago--the first time I took the course! Back in 2017 I came up with this idea of a rare book librarian, Lydia Kensington, who lives and works in England in 1915. When she travels the world to collect rare books and manuscripts, she’s not meeting with collectors over a polite cup of tea--she’s going out to find them herself. I was definitely influenced by Indiana Jones and other adventure stories (my favorite kind). I researched World War I intensely, and have continued to do so. I wanted to continue to develop it, and now, in 2019, I did. The character I designed in this course, Adom, is a curator at a museum of antiquities in Cairo--and Lydia’s main contact in Egypt. The design challenge here was creating a character that belonged in the same world as the original; I ended up reworking both characters multiple times until they felt like they lived in the same world.
Character Pose & Expression Sheets
When I start working on poses and expressions, I prefer to do the rough sketches with charcoal on paper; it feels looser and more free. Then I snap a photo of the page and draw over it digitally. Working fast and loose, I create a lot of roughs--which gives me a lot of options. Ultimately, I pick the ones that tell the story best. Time constraints are a factor as well--as Nate Wragg says, quality over quantity!
Tie Down & Clean-up
Since my character evolved so much from the initial design, and I was also reworking my other character at the same time, I had my work cut out for me this week! Adom’s proportions in my initial rough sketches were too realistic, and Lydia’s proportions were pushed too far on the stylization spectrum (plus there were other nit-picky design aspects I wanted to adjust). I kept adjusting both characters to eventually get them to meet in the middle in terms of style so the characters felt like they belonged in the same world. I was cleaning up pose sheets, expression sheets, and turnarounds for 2 characters. How to present everything was the big decision to make this week. What kind of line? Clean or sketchy? Add tone? Keep just the line? I played with a lot of variations.
From what I’ve heard, I may be in the minority in enjoying turnarounds. They are challenging, yes, but it really works the more technical side of my brain. Plus, as a character designer, it’s important to be able to do them quickly and well!
Putting it Together
For the “movie moment,” I really wanted to convey excitement and adventure in the frame! I also wanted to tell the story of the relationship between the characters, and how they differ in their response to danger. The Egypt setting is (I hope) clearly conveyed with the hieroglyphics and the Anubis statue; and while Lydia is fearlessly reaching for the ancient scroll, Adom, though helping, isn’t exactly thrilled.
I don’t design male hero characters often--and I think it can be challenging to make them look interesting. Nate Wragg helped a lot with that. When I was working on the initial sketches and designs in Week 1, I definitely had no idea where it was going to go--no preconceived idea of what the character might look like. I just had to sketch and sketch and sketch and… you get the idea. It was a highly iterative process, as is often the case in production. Going through the steps in the production pipeline and aiming to keep pace with what would be expected on a production (which was my own personal challenge) was a fantastic experience and great for building my portfolio! Nate helped me feel more comfortable and confident in designing male heroes, which I’m sure will come up at some point in my future career!
You can see more from Amber here: https://www.amberkenneson.com/
or follow her on instagram: https://www.instagram.com/amberkenneson/?hl=en
Trust the Process and Magic will Happen
Interview with Alberto Boscolo Gnolo
Hi everyone, my name is Alberto and I’m a character and props designer from Italy. Although I have an education and a working background in software engineering I’ve always been passionate about drawing and creating colorful stuff. So a couple of years ago I decided to change career pursuing my passion and started freelancing as a character and props designer.
I decided to take the CGMA Character Design for Production course for several reasons:
I wanted to experience how an animation production pipeline works, this is something that as a freelance is not possible to totally experience.
I wanted to get personal feedback and mentorship from a high qualified professional in the industry, such as Nate Wragg.
I wanted to improve my portfolio and how to present my work in order to have more and better opportunities in my artistic career.
Week 1 — Designing a Character with Story
In the first week we learned that before starting to draw any characters, it is important to write down and understand their personality, what is their background, why they do what they are doing. Doing this, it is possible to discover many things that later can be put into the drawing/design.
In my case, Angelo is a middle aged gentleman, working as a waiter and in love with running. Running has always been his passion and, from a young age, he’s always dreamed of being an elite athlete and even joining the Olympic Games. But life got in, and now he is so busy with his job that actually he doesn’t have any time for any training. For this reason he sees the dining hall as a playground for his training! His personality fits the waiter job, he is caring, gentle and serious, but when it’s time to run, he becomes very competitive!
When I started thinking about the character, I followed Nate’ suggestion to have some kind of conflict or contradiction into the character. It can be in the personality or in their job versus passion. This can make the character more appealing and interesting. For sure I knew I didn't want the stereotype of the powerful hero nor the evil villain. So I looked for a normal person, with a job that doesn’t allow them to follow his/her passion and so they need to be creative and find a way out. I’ve always been fascinated by those people that love running or cycling and trying to balance sport/work (and life of course!) waking up at 4am for training, or running in the parking lot downstairs at night. So from this came the idea of a waiter, that doesn’t have time for training. Since he has to run for his job, he tries to take it as an opportunity.
After writing down the character personality and background, it was time to think about what physical characteristics or objects could help to convey the storytelling of the character. In my case a waiter tray and a uniform were a must to make clear his job. A pair of track running shoes helped to tell about his passion and a slightly out of shape body would suggest no time for proper training.
As pointed out by Nate, at this stage it is very very important to do research and collect references to support the ideas you have in mind or even find something new. In this case I looked for middle age amateur runners not really in perfect shape, waiters with classic uniforms in Paris and Venice, and details like the waiter tray and the running shoes. For the shoes I looked for those vintage running one, since I wanted to convey that feeling you have when you see the old grandpa going out for a ride with the bike and shoes he used in his twenties and to which he is still emotionally attached. Then I looked for the typical poses and actions of professional runners while in a race or training.
At this point, after collecting these information, I was ready to put the pen on paper (…well, stylus on screen) and start exploring shapes and thumbnails and find the very first draft of the character.
Week 2 & 3 — Character Pose & Expression Sheets
For the poses I tried to put together typical moments of a waiting table job and the actions specific for a running/athlete training. This helped to give the idea of Angelo using the dining hall as a playground for his training.
With the expression I wanted to tell about his personality: he is gentle for his job, competitive when it is time to run (no matter the final result!) and sometimes embarrassed because clients or managers notice him eventually stretching while pouring some wine! Here, Nate’s feedback was very important to give the character the appearance of a middle aged gentleman with changes to the hair style and with wrinkles in the right places.
During the initial sketches for the poses I tried some normal waiter/customer interaction poses, like getting the order or suggesting a dish, and also a more extreme running pose like the one of an athlete at the starting block. The first didn’t work because it was too normal, not enough storytelling. The second one was rejected because a little too much, at the edge between funny and ridiculous.
Pushing the poses was the most difficult part for me. In the first draft I pushed them and I thought that was enough. But Nate, with his feedback and with some overpaint, showed me how to push the pose further, how to exaggerate it, always keeping in mind flow in the character movements, without having interruptions.
Week 4 — Model Sheets
This week was dedicated to the model in a 3D space and drawing it from different points of view. In previous projects I had to produce some turnarounds, even if it was always for hard-surface subjects like robots and vehicles. So this was not something totally new. Also the character’s shapes were quite simple and linear, so fortunately there were no surprises while putting it into 3D, just double (even triple) checking that everything is perfectly aligned and not wobbling.
As Nate suggested here, it is important to be very careful with all the alignment. The goal is both to make sure the character is functional and to avoid any ambiguity for the modeller. So it is important that all the details are aligned correctly in each view. Otherwise the modeller won’t know which one is the correct one, then it may happen two things: the modeller decides by himself which one is correct and it may not end up as the character designer thought or the modeller has to come back asking for clarification and taking some longer time for the process.
Week 5 — Hero Pose
For the hero pose I wanted to keep pushing the storytelling as that is the important part in the character. As suggested by Nate I looked for some props to add to help tell more about the character himself, his work, his passion, and personality. I sketched a few ideas, one where he was serving a table but furtively checking a stopwatch to see if he got a new BP and some other where he was running or starting to run with the waiter tray on his hand. Both the options were not optimal. The first was actually not very clear, why is he checking a stopwatch? For the second one he is running with a tray but it is not clear if he is running for a new BP (Best Performance) in the dining hall or because as a waiter it is normal to run. So I tried to merge the 2 stories from the two images: Angelo that is running with the waiter tray on his hand and checking the stopwatch on the other hand, with a very focused facial expression.
Week 6 — Tie-Down & Clean-up
The tie-down and clean-up phase is where all the final decisions are made and then everything is updated to be coherent. So it was important to take the final decision about the face, the hair style and the details of the character. Because we arrived at this point keeping it loose and trusting the process, everything was almost clear.
It was actually quite fun thinking about a few more details to add some more personality to the character. For example the shirt coming out from the pants.
I can say that from the first sketch the character evolved to better represent the middle age gentleman a little bit out of shape. And during all the process the constant Nate feedback was extremely useful.
Week 7 — Putting it Together
Week 7 was one of the most exciting because we had to think about our character acting in moving in a scene, pushing further the storytelling. For this cinematic moment I want to show Angelo in action, while training during his job but being caught or at least noticed by someone else.
The options for that other person were: the boss, the chef, the maitre or a client. I didn’t have a clear idea but I sketched a few options following Nate's advice to find a shape for the antagonist that could balance and work together with Angelo’s shapes. I found that a short person would be a good fit for the long shape of Angelo. A short person was perfect as chef/boss of the restaurant so I added a big hat to make him take up more space.
For this drawing I explored some composition around the idea of the antagonist watching or scolding Angelo.
The final drawing shows Angelo running between the tables checking his stopwatch and the chef puzzled looking at him.
Week 8 — Final Style & Portfolio Assembly
Honestly at the beginning I didn’t have a clear idea on how the character would have been. So I found it very helpful trying to stay loose and see the character slowly change shape and evolving into the final design even if starting from a very vague idea.
Every step of the process (poses, expressions, turnaround) and every feedback from Nate helped to slowly refine and define the character until I got a satisfactory final design.
For the rendering pass of the hero pose I opted for a style suitable for animation, stylized as proportions but realistic on some of the details. During the course I’ve started to think about the story as an animated movie so I wanted to follow this idea in the rendering pass. In this step I’ve also added a flat colors to all the drawings in the portfolio (poses, expressions, turnaround) to make it more coherent and of course more appealing.
How did the feedback and mentorship from the instructor help you make decisions about your character and story?
The feedback and mentorship by Nate has been extremely useful and on point in several aspects during this experience. It helped me to setup an interesting story for the character. It was helpful for finding the shapes that made the character more appealing. Nate’s advice and overpainting on pushing expressions and poses helped me give life to the character. It was useful for adding details that made the character on paper even better than the one I had in mind, like the hairstyle or the props used here and there with the character. Also it was definitely helpful to have his confirmation about some of the design choices that I was not really sure. That helped me to be more confident in some of the choices. Then all the advice about how to setup a portfolio for sure will bring results in the future.
During the course of the term, how did it feel to (as Nate always says) “trust the process”?
I have to say that it was kind of magic, it may sound extreme but it is true. Probably this is the most important thing that I’ve learned during this course. At the beginning I really didn’t have any idea about the character and how it would end up. Sometimes, at the beginning of a new project it happened that I felt like “wow, and now how am I going to do this?! I have no idea from where to start!!”. But Nate gave us a process to follow and trust step by step, that allow us to clarify the ideas on the road, and seeing the character evolving and getting shape, finding out step by step what works and what doesn’t and taking the most appropriate decision at the right time always at support of the storytelling of the character. I can say that now I feel more confident and professional on approaching new character and props design.
How did progressing through a production pipeline help you grow as a designer? What kind of industry insight did this process provide for you?
Progressing through a production pipeline, with the support and mentorship of a professional in the industry has been an amazing experience. Many times doing freelance the work is quite defined and limited so there is no chance to see the dynamics behind an animation studio. This experience made me learn and understand the teamwork in an animation studio and how to integrate in a professional environment. It helps to change your point of view, and how you should be in constant interaction between art directors and modellers and other collaborators involved in the production.
Also, the weekly live FAQ sessions gave very important insights about the business side, how to approach a new project even from the financial side, how to do job research and how to be ready and prepared for a job in the industry.
Those are all concepts extremely helpful that I’ve already had the chance to try on the field and see the results. I very much recommend this course.
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