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Top tips for creating animated characters

Shaun the Sheep animators talk to us about creating great animated characters.
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Model Maker: From the plasticine stage to a fully working finished puppet like that, was about 12 weeks.
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We put all of the bits together and then that’s a puppet which we can give to the animators.
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Jess: That’s a lot.
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MM: Yeah.
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Animator: The idea of the animation is to make sure we believe totally what the characters are doing, what they are thinking and how they’re feeling and the emotions they’ve got. The audience wants to follow the story without actually thinking that the characters are animated. So challenges in bringing Shaun to life are making sure he looks alive all the time. You don’t want him to sort of look like he’s sleepy, carry the emotion of whatever’s happening at the time so we do a lot of that, by using the eyes.
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MM: You need to make it so it’s very easy for the animators to use. Because really it’s the animators that put the expression and the life into the puppets. Alot of the character comes from the face and from the brow. Our job is to provide the puppets mainly and some animated props as well. So when we make the puppet we would make it in such a way that it was very easy for the animators to change over the mouths and also, so that they could change the brow expression.
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J: How do you test a story before filming?
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A: We do a live action test where we record ourselves to check the comic timing.
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A: That was OK, so that’s nice timing in that one. So we can move on from that and then start to work on the actual shot itself.
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Ok, so that’s you, that’s me,
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and then the way it works, is frame by frame we take individual pictures of the pig in a slightly different position and now we can get ready to move the pig again there you go
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and we start again.
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What I find rewarding about doing this is when you see a character come to life and really believe in what he’s thinking and what he’s feeling. And also when you go to the cinema and other people see your work, and you can see them laughing and enjoying the story and the bits you’ve filmed.
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J: A lot went into it.
To create your animation, you will need to develop one or more characters and create their ‘world’ in the form of a set. Watch the interview above with Shaun the Sheep animators to help inspire you!
When creating your characters, you may find it useful to have the following materials to hand. During times of remote learning, you can provide this as a ‘shopping list’ for your students to salvage from around the home.
  • Modelling wire
  • Corks or small cubes of polystyrene
  • Modelling clay or plasticine
  • Aluminium foil
Whatever type of animation you choose and story or curriculum area you bring to life, one of the key components will be creating your characters. In this context, ‘character’ refers to the main object you are animating.
In this step, we’ll examine how to create characters for your chosen animation type. By the end of the step, you will have designed and produced the characters you need. Please see the Cut Out Character template and Guide to Creating a Wire Armature attached below, which may be of help to you when creating your animated characters.
Before you start physically creating your characters, it’s useful to plan on paper first. In the Downloads section of this step, you’ll find a Role on the Wall template and Storyboard template. This can help pupils not only with planning the physical attributes of their characters but in considering their personalities, drivers and emotional sides – as well as generating a basic narrative. To use the Role on the Wall template, facts about the character are written outside the outline of the character, while the character’s emotions are detailed within the inside of the outline.
Any of our templates can be hand drawn by students at home if they don’t have access to a computer during times of online learning.

Claymation characters

Creating characters for a claymation animation can be great fun for young people, however there are a few things to look out for:
  • Keep the characters strong and simple (you don’t want arms falling off mid-shot)
  • Begin with blocks or round balls of clay/dough rather than thin strips, encouraging learners to build models with a flat, round base
  • Thin legs can be a weak area that might cause characters to topple over.

Armatures

Once you become a little more advanced with your animations, you can explore the world of wire armatures. These are the ‘bones’ of your character – they help to make them more sturdy and allow more realistic movements when animating.
Using a wire armature also makes it possible to animate movements, such as walking without your character toppling over. If you would like to learn more about armatures, the relevant file below contains a guide to creating an armature of wire.

Paper cut-out characters

Attached to this step you will find a Cut Out Character template. Try to use thin card or reinforce coloured paper with card for a stronger model that will last longer. Use split pins to attach joints and add strength to the character. If you are using sticky tack to attach the joints, remember less is more – you don’t want to be able to see it bulging from joints as you move your character.
Unlike claymation, anything you make using paper cut-outs will be in 2D. If you have time, make front-on and profile (side) versions of the main characters and models to add depth to your animation. Adding eyelids is also a good way to bring your character to life – the simple process of blinking adds a degree of reality to your animation and can be achieved by adding closed eyelids in certain frames.
Another quick tip is to put detail on both sides of your model, so that one model can be used for the front and back of a character.

Silhouette animation characters

The creation of characters for this type of animation will be very similar to the process for paper cut-outs. After all, both animations use 2D. The main difference is in ensuring that any details you want the audience to be aware of (such as eyes and mouth) must be cut out to allow the light to shine through them. To give the impression of characters walking through houses, you should simply move them behind the card.
Over the next three steps, you will look at creating a set for your animation, so the guide to creating Characters, Materials and Sets for Animation below may be of use.
Now, using the tips and ideas above, have a go at creating your main characters. Take a picture of them and add them to our Padlet wall. Post comments with any pertinent notes or tips for your fellow educators on this course.
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Filmmaking and Animation Online and in the Classroom

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