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 my 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 highly 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’s 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 4 am 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’s 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 ones, 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 this information, I was ready to put the pen on paper (…well, a stylus on a 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 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 modeler. So it is important that all the details are aligned correctly in each view. Otherwise, the modeler won’t know which one is the correct one, then it may happen two things: the modeler decides by himself which one is correct and it may not end up as the character designer thought or the modeler has to come back asking for clarification and taking some long 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 of 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 his 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 is running with the waiter tray in 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 hairstyle, 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 of 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 maître, 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 of 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 flat colors to all the drawings in the portfolio (poses, expressions, turnaround) to make them more coherent and of course more appealing.
The feedback and mentorship by Nate have been extremely useful and on point in several aspects during this experience. It helped me set up 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 about. That helped me to be more confident in some of the choices. Then all the advice about how to set up a portfolio for sure will bring results in the future.
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. In 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 allows 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 the support of the storytelling of the character. I can say that now I feel more confident and professional in approaching new character and props design.
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 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 modelers, 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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