Character Actor Characters

Does that headline sound confusing? Well, it shouldn’t. Allow me to explain, and in the process you may learn something you didn’t know about character designing for animation.

In movies and TV shows, you always have your lead actors around whom the story is usually based. However, to make those stories work, the lead actors must be surrounded by a cast of characters who may have much smaller parts, but are key to the storytelling. These actors are called “character actors” and often breathe the soul into a story whether with their own lines or just by being catalysts in some way.

Character actors are often very interesting looking people, too. Our lives are not filled with perfectly chiseled faces everywhere we look – unless you happen to live in Beverly Hills. No, those that pass us by on a daily basis come in all shapes and sizes, various levels of face wrinkles, hair colors, and style of clothing. They are the variety of life! Character actors are needed to help us relate to a story as if we were living it ourselves.

Well, in animation, character actor characters are needed, too! (See! That title makes sense now, doesn’t it?) We need interesting looking characters to fill in the background. Some have lines, some are silent extras, but all are necessary.

A few years ago I was working on an animated project and was tasked to create a number of these background characters. Today I will be showing you some elderly people specifically. The assignment was that we needed an elderly couple wearing winter coats. So, I created two men, and two women for the director to look at and give notes on, fully expecting I’d have to go and make real changes to create a third or fourth version.


A set of four old people. I was actually trying to make the men look Japanese. The women could have gone a few ways ethnically depending on how they would be colored.


The director actually liked two of the people right away with no changes! However, the story now demanded they needed to be in life jackets. Easy fix! Life jackets they shall receive!


Although they looked buoyant already, life jackets were added to set a good example for the intended young audience.


Now normally after this, I would go in and create a clean line version without the blue tones because another artist would take them and give them their colors and textures. This was to be a computer generated project. I would also normally create turns to show the character all the way around, and create expressions or poses, or even mouth charts. But these two were mostly background, and so I was told these drawings were all that was needed for the finals to be made by others.

So, how did these characters look in the final film? Well, apparently they ultimately were scrapped from the scene for which they were intended. When looking at the final footage, only the man made it in, but he was made younger, and his clothes were changed. As you can see in the image below, he didn’t much resemble the original drawing at all, but the foundation was there. Thus is the nature of teamwork on a movie.


Who needs plastic surgery to look younger when CGI can take care of it?


This was a pretty low budget project. I’ve worked on low budget, and I’ve worked on big budget. For me the work remains the same. I try to do my best work in every situation. Smaller budgets often mean deadlines are tighter, and there is less time to refine something, but I don’t slack off in my duties. I say this because sometimes younger artists coming up will perceive a job to be less prestigious, and they won’t put as much of themselves into the work.

Even if budgets sometimes can’t quite get the final product to look as finished as one might hope when they were creating designs, one should always take pride in their work and give it all they’ve got!