Cartoon Design and Character Development Basics with Animator Carlos Campos

Today I had a good talk with my buddy Carlos Campos, a freelance animator who I’ve worked with on many smaller productions, generally of the short animation variety.

In fact, if you have ever seen the Youtube channel Kindertunes, you may have seen one of his animated kid’s songs that we’ve done together, such as the Itsy Bitsy Spider, The Teddy Bears Picnic, or Take Me Out To the Ballgame.

Here are some of his designs for bears that appeared in the Teddy Bears Picnic video.

On our animation projects we’ve done together, Carlos mainly uses Powerpoint, but there are of course other options for programs which can animate, none of which I know how to use myself. In other articles on this website, Carlos has given tutorials on how he designs shapes in Powerpoint.

Today, I grilled Carlos on how he goes about designing a character for one of his cartoons from the ground up. This process of character development, I would say, is animation 101.

It’s part of the process you’d need to know in order to start an animation project of any kind. This is why it was so interesting to me, that I wanted to ask Carlos how he goes about developing a character.

It so happens, he’s currently working on a character for a new animation project about an old rat, and that character is in development as we speak.

Enjoy our interview on the basics of cartoon character development!

Q: Hey, Carlos, I hear you’re doing a music video about some rats. Can you explain this a little?

A: Well, that is true! But not about any kind of rat, this one is an ironing expert!

Q: Oh really? Interesting…

A: Yes! Many Mexican children know about it, since it happens to be a character from a traditional children’s song.

Q: What song is it from?

A: The name is “Una rata vieja” which translates to “An old rat”.

Q: Ah. And so you are in charge of the video, and so also you must create some digital rats.

A: Exactly.

Q: How do you do that?

A: The process involves different questions, such as Why? How? What? and Where?

“Why?” is a crucial one. The answer has to be the motivation behind creating a character. A purpose. In this case, as it often is, it’s about transmitting a message. An uplifting, fun children’s song, in Spanish, from the rich, Mexican culture.

In order to convey this vibrancy, there are important elements to be taken into account. Using clear, simple, universal symbols that are grounded in reality in a creative way.

So I start with basic shapes such as triangles and circles. But they are very rigid and unlike forms found in nature.

I sort of smooth the edges and make each shape into something more organic.

Then, I put the pieces together to make a character model that can be tweaked, moved around and edited easily, which will simplify the animation process.

Q: Do you differentiate between a mouse and a rat somehow, or do you just aim for the basic form? I’m no animal expert but i’m sure there’s a difference. At the same time, I understand you’re focused on simplifying the shapes.

A: As you can tell from the pictures, the rat’s body is quite elongated. If it had been a mouse, I’d have made its body more compact, but that’s a very good question!
 
It depends.

The main difference is that a mouse is smaller than a rat. That’s it! I n this case the song revolves around a “rat” character and no mice are ever mentioned so it’s hard to see the contrast.

Q: What program are you using to do the design and animate, is it all one program?

A: Yes! It is Microsoft PowerPoint 2013 from the Microsoft Office Suite for the Mac.

Read my interview with Carlos about storyboarding in Microsoft Powerpoint

Q: How long have you been using it, and how does it factor into the way you design characters? Are there any other programs you’ve tried which are similar, that you maybe don’t like as much?
 
What’s the advantage of designing in Powerpoint? Sorry for all the questions…

A: I have also worked with the Adobe Suite for more specialized projects. The learning curve is quite steep though, and some of them such as Photoshop and Illustrator may be better suited for tasks such as photo editing and graphic design.

Then there is 3D software such as AutoDesk Maya. There are huge differences in how each program is used, and I honestly prefer the qualities of animating in 2D.

This also involves the “How?” aspect of character design. The medium used does affect the outcome. There are digital tools such as the ones stated above, and traditional ones.

One could create characters by sculpting, drawing or painting them. Writing them, too!

Q: So do you usually stick with Powerpoint then?

A: Yes! It is my platform of choice for this type of project.

Q: You could make them out of ASCII code.

A: Hahaha, very true! Must be hard to animate though!

Q: Do you ever draw the characters first or do you make them in Powerpoint from scratch?

A: I might draw them first but to me that’s very rare. I do it mainly for storyboarding. When creating them, I like to do it straight on PowerPoint.

Looking for other examples for inspiration is very helpful, too!

The style can vary dramatically from one project to the other if the niche is very different. A rat in a horror-movie animation will appear differently to that in a children’s video, of course, even though they’re based of the same animal.

Q: So how long will it take you to create a rat like this one here? What’s his name again?

A: Traditionally, it’s a “she”! In this case I’ve decided to have “genderless” I guess, so that any kid can identify easily with it.

Another key thing: making characters relatable somehow.

It doesn’t really have a name… “Rat”, I suppose!

Q: Does Powerpoint do any texture?

A: It has the option to add textures from a pre-existing library or through and image file.

Q: Do you think you’ll add texture to this rat, or keep it as is?

A: Again, I think keeping it simple might be a good idea, especially for younger viewers who might be overwhelmed with too much detail.

In some scenes there might be several elements on the background already or I might add texture on there too.

I’m open to new ideas and/or seeing how the style develops.

Q: So the design is partly to please the audience that might be watching, but also to make it easier to animate? Not to overcomplicate it….

A: Exactly! And it can also be a matter of personal preference. I tend to like keeping things minimal in all aspects of life. It will be part of the animation which is already in progress.

Q: How many basic picture templates do you have in a given animation? For instance, how many are there in this one?Do you need some basic ones to work with?

A: Oh, what do you mean by picture templates?

Q: As in, static images of the character.. where you just need to move certain parts of their body, not everything

A: Oh, right. Well, again it varies. A 30 second sequence could have 10 individual “slides” with the character. Then when the setting or the pose needs to change, I create another one.

Q: How long do you think this rat video will be when all is said and done?

A: The length of the song is around 1.5 minutes, so around that.

Q: And how many emotions would you say are conveyed in that whole time?

A: About 10, probably. Other scenes also provide context and do not necessarily include the character’s facial expressions. That give moments in the animation “room to breathe”, so to speak.

Q: So what would some of those emotions be? anything in there specific or complex like “indignancy”?

A: Hahaha…No. Maybe more like calm, shocked, then relieved…

Q: That’s part of the plot, I guess…

A: That’s it! They match the lyrics as the story unfolds.

Q: Right.. How about colours? How do you decide on some of those, such as the background?

A: The color palette is tetradic. That is, it uses four colors, made up of two complimentary color pairs, with their different shades. This is to make sure that they all look harmonious together.

The rat was originally meant to be dark gray, but the color was then changed to a grayish-light blue.

This change was made to avoid the cliché while making it look friendlier in a way. More “cartoony” yet still grounded in reality.

Q: Did you learn this somewhere or would you say it’s more common sense?

A: It also ties in with the other shade of blue used in one of the backgrounds. This is all color theory! It can be common sense to an extent, but it is also an important principle in graphic design.

The rest of the palette includes a warm, brick orange, vibrant blue and greens, and even variations of pink. They are all reminiscent of the bright colours typical from traditional Mexican architecture. Gives it that sense of fun and liveliness.

Q: Ah.. so the colours are fairly meaningful then

A: Yes! Imagine if they were all red, blue and white, or dark and eerie-looking? That would make people think of anything but Mexico!

Color is a big part of our culture of celebration. We actually call “hot pink “rosa mexicano” here, which translates as “Mexican pink” since we like those bold hues so much! They are part of our identity.

Q: Wow, there’s a lot of little details to be considered. I can’t wait to see the final result.

A: Yup! It makes every project an interesting one.

 

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