Thursday, 27 March 2008

"You'll find a note, then you'll see my silhouette..."

In character design, a rule of thumb which has more or less fallen by the wayside is that cartoon characters should be identifiable even in silhouette. When you think of the most legendary icons in animation this is clearly apparant. Because of their distinctive designs you could easily pick out Mickey Mouse (for example) from his outline alone. This extends to the entire Looney Tunes ensemble, The Simpsons (this was, according to Matt Groening, the main reason they all had such bizarre hairstyles) - even the kids in South Park, probably the most basic designs ever in animation, have distinguishing hats.
In more modern animation it seems that these considerations aren't made, or perhaps in today's CGI era they might not be considered necessary.
When I was going through the character design stage the silhouette rule didn't occur to me, being an absent minded dumbass. Fortunately there are only four players in the film, all of whom unique to themselves - the decomposing Duck, the Creepy Kid, the slovenly Hunter and the well-coiffed Prospective Lay.
I've been musing on this chiefly due to a handful of scenes in which the characters are only viewed in silhouette, and my concern that they pan out alright.Two early shots of the Duck are not indicative of the eventual character design. While not proportionally realistic, I wanted there to be no ambiguity that the creature we were dealing with was a duck and nothing else.
Later on we get our first glimpse of the reanimated beast, taken from this layout drawing:For the sake of atmosphere I decided to keep the character in silhouette to begin with, briefly illuminated by lightning but just for long enough to get an impression of his appearance. The subsequent shot from behind the Duck makes use of the slower flight cycle created for the penultimate scene, which works just as well in silhouette.On the whole I feel that these shots work visually, as the audience has been given enough information to connect the dots and let the silhouette speak for itself.The Creepy Kid, who we first see fully illuminated, has one brief silhouette shot in which he picks up the dead Duck's corpse on the beach. The distinctive hair and the character's prominence in the scene help to sell the shot.Although there was one somewhat dodgy realisation. While the line test seems innocent enough, an indication of the character's arm and hand visible, once it has become a full-on silhouette in cleanup his thumb could be misconstrued as another appendage altogether. This is why it helps to have a fresh set of eyes around the studio (cheers to my ever-observant and apparently one-track-minded cleanup assistant Jo for spotting this). In the finished shot we decided to resolve this issue by making the index finger visible as well.The Prospective Lay has only one backlit shot, when she stands with the Hunter in the doorway. Given that the Hunter is not as readily identifiable (in this scene he's wearing a suit and his hair is pulled back into a ponytail) without the voice work there could be some potential for confusion.The shot quickly cuts to a close-up of both characters properly illuminated thought, and when the two run together in sequence said potential is negligable.The penultimate scene features some of my favourite shadow animation, in which the Hunter (having gone nuts) quivers and babbles like a lunatic. I wanted to convey his madness through having his hair in disarray and indulging in some crazy eyeball acting. Keeping him in the shadows also contributes to a sight gag in which it is revealed that the Hunter is, once illuminated, stark bollock naked.
In the end I think it's safe to say that the characters are more or less identifiable as silhouettes, but possibly only in contrast to one another being of such varying proportions. When I started this project I came up with character designs that were in keeping with my drawing style, flat and lacking in depth or consistent proportion. I didn't foresee that my project would extend much beyond limited animation. As a consequence I had to create the illusion of depth and a third dimension afterward. With my since-accrued knowledge of animation processes I imagine the designs for my next project will be the other way around, beginning with an awareness of depth and shape and having that be the foundation for the way the characters turn out. I would speculate that the reason the 'classic' characters can be identified by their outlines alone is that they were also constructed with a skilled knowledge of space, geometry and fine-art principles. Having never been schooled in either I have frequently found myself with some catching up to do in the making of this film. It is, however, always a fascinating process.

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