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
Lectures by Nate Wragg
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
summer TERM Registration
May 6, 2019 - Jul 22, 2019
Melis Malatani / Summer 2017
Great instructor. 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 critique, which made the whole experience more effective and real.
Amber Kenneson / Summer 2017
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.
Kate Dmitrieva / Summer 2017
Nate is a great instructor with very professional approach. Many thanks for his thorough feedback and always being there to help.
Amber Kenneson / Spring 2017
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.
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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.
Learn anywhere, anytime, and at your own pace with our online courses.
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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.