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Creating character art part 1

Gordon Brown and Ken Fee discuss character design.
I think the most important thing to consider when creating a character is definitely narrative. The character has to have a really strong narrative background. That can be the fun site for an artist, but the real fun starts when you start designing the visual side to accompany the narrative. So the narrative supports the underlying visual design. But once you start doing the visual design, that’s when the interesting part happens. So for me it’s pushing away from realism and finding out stylised approaches to a character to accompany the narrative. I think too many people focus on the purely physical appearance, the mesh as we would call it.
So polygons and textures and UVs and so on, and don’t realise that you’re portraying a character. So the actual design of the thing has to evoke the personality, the mood, the feelings, literally the character of the piece. So you see a lot of work that students do fixates on the technical creation of something and completely forget about the fact you’re meant to be telling a story about someone. So that’s the most important thing to convey I think. It’s not the technical. The technical are the things you’ve got to work to get in into an engine. But they shouldn’t get in the way of actually the creativity, the conveying of emotion.
So a good example of this kind of visual style in a production game would be Dishonoured. I think they did a really, really strong approach to staying within a realistic realm but pushing the visual interest of their characters to make it a more visually appealing game. And the characters themselves are really, really interesting to look at. The most effective design I think is the Last of Us, which was a narrative story of a few years ago by Naughty Dog. They had a girl, a female character, and the whole nature of the story revolves around you caring about this girl. If you don’t care about the girl, the whole enterprise is a waste of time.
So we show, for instance, students or practitioners, you can see the mesh, the technical mesh. And its boring, it’s redundant, there’s nothing interesting about it. Then you put the textures on, you put the, in some cases, motion capture on, you put the lighting on and it becomes a living thing. So the fact that you can look– particularly for a parent– you can look at this mesh and believe it’s a living, breathing child, then that’s the strongest thing I’ve seen recently. So it’s not the guns on the armour and the explosions and all the rest of it. It’s about making people care. In my time in the industry I worked as a character artist for quite a number of years.
The one thing that kept on developing during my time in industry was the complexity of character production. So in the beginning, it started off relatively straightforward, low polygon counts, low technical requirements. As time went on and technical advancements progressed, that got more and more involved process. So what really stuck out was perhaps my time on Grand Theft Auto, Rockstar was the move over to scanned production, retopology processes, cloth simulation, and all of the technical hurdles we had to overcome to advance the visual design of characters as part of the process.
So those in particular were probably the most accumulated knowledge and the biggest learnings for me, that had to be supported by the traditional visual design language has been already established for so long. It’s all the new technical advances and making those two things balanced and work together was probably the thing that I learned the most from. In terms of working as a professional artist, the thing I’ve probably picked up most over the years is how it can be difficult to portray the correct things to a wider audience. For instance, if you try get someone to care about a character, you are trying to play on to the sensibilities of the viewer.
So for instance, what’s attractive is one of the most infamous things. If you want to make a male or a female character that is attractive be it sexually or emotionally, or any other way, everyone has different tastes and feelings and impressions. Culturally, you can get different mannerisms, facial expressions, and so on. And again, that can be very difficult to portray. We’ve had close involvement studios where the whole project failed. It was nothing to do with the skill or ability technically of the artist. It was to do with the lack of cultural awareness. So every slight flutter of the eye or turn of the head had a symbolic meaning that they didn’t appreciate.
So the big emphasis I got over the years is not the technical ability. We can teach people to do that. Its the awareness, the sensibilities, the understanding of just how complex it can be to communicate the sense of feeling and emotion and passion they have to do.
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Video Game Design and Development: Video Game Character Design

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