Saturday, June 21, 2008

Diversity and "Fairyations"

There was an interesting comment from Bill Drastal in regards to my last post. He says:

I worked for a web company designing characters and other images and while I can't say what I designed them for, we were defiantly pushed in a direction where all the main characters came out looking like the same, and when we had to design characters of different racial backgrounds the direction was to make them, quote "Normal looking"

Believe me, Bill, I can sympathize with what you say. Unfortunately we live in politically correct times, and there's far too much sensitivity to portraying people of various ethnic backgrounds (other than caucasian, of course) with any degree of caricature. Sure it's a Black character, but it mustn't look too Black. Inexplicably, there seems to be a mindset that says that only caucasians can be caricatured and that the features of other races must be played down or, ironically, made to look more like those of caucasians. Frankly, I don't get it. In fact, I would think that the tendency to make Blacks, Asians and Hispanics all look like blandly designed White people would be more offensive to them.

Back in the early 1970's we had Bill Cosby's "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids". Though the entertainment merits of the show may be open to debate, the character design was rather commendable. It wasn't brilliant cartooning, but there was at least a very distinct, individual look to each character. Furthermore, this nice variety of shapes and sizes of the characters also helped to visually communicate something of each one's personality. This is something I can't stress enough in my class at Sheridan. Remember, you don't have a lot of time to explain your character to the audience. Ideally, the viewer should have some indication of what your characters are all about from a quick glance. Then you can use your acting and dialogue to further flesh them out as your story unfolds.

Alas, here we are in the politically correct new millennium and Bill Cosby has come back with another animated series, albeit aimed at the preschool set. Still, I really don't think that fact justifies dumbing the art design down to the level found in "Little Bill". As you can see, Little Bill and his whole family are a group of lookalike clones, completely lacking individuality of design as well as being devoid of real expression. I love Bill Cosby as a brilliant anecdotal comedian, but I really do question his taste in regards to the art stylings of "Little Bill".

Little Bill's friends don't fare much better either. They're still pretty much all the same basic design and rather robotic looking in their expressionless poses. I suppose I have to give some credit for varying the body types a bit, but overall they're pretty bland and similar in design. Is this something that today's little tykes really would enjoy? I'm just glad that I grew up on "The Flintstones" and old "Popeye" cartoons in my kindergarten days, before the days of highminded "childrens' programming" came into being.

Not all is bad today, however. Here's a character lineup from "The Proud Family" that shows character designs far more to my liking. I personally think this is one of the finest looking animated shows on TV currently. Yes, the stories are all little morality tales, of course, but it manages to be quite funny and entertaining too, not the least because of the beautifully designed characters. Just looking at this lineup of kids, you get a distinct impression of what each one is like - their personalities are obvious in a glance. Also, the visual designs work well as "silhouettes", that is, if you filled them in as solid black shapes they still would read clearly to the eye as distinct, appealing characters, all different shapes and sizes.

Here's Penny and her family, including her Dad, who's a real opportunistic type. I think he's a great character! Even the backgrounds on this show are pleasing to the eye and unified in design. I really give a lot of credit to all who have created the look of this show. Just compare these funny, colourful characters to their bland and boring counterparts on "Little Bill". I know what I'd be watching if I were still a 5 year old kid...

And now I'm going to look again at the new "Tinker Bell" movie from Disney. Like I said before, I would consider any one of these Fairy designs appealing enough on its own, as there is certainly a visual appeal to the head to body ratio, the flowing, organic shapes, and the colour schemes, as we've come to expect from Disney (though the impact is lessened by the CG animation, in my opinion, compared to the linear characters in classic Disney films.) But the fact that there are five of these tiny girls, all identical in face and form is what I see as a big, big mistake.

In looking at this publicity still from the film, one gets absolutely no impression of who these five fairies are: what their personalities are like, or how they might relate to each other in the story. Cute though they may be, they really communicate absolutely nothing to the viewer in their design. All of their various personalities are going to have to be explained through the dialogue, which is a real waste of the animation medium, I believe.

Not long ago, however, I saw this on Jim Hill's site. These young ladies have been hired by Disney to portray the five Fairies as meet 'n' greet walkaround characters at promotional events and maybe at Disneyland.

Ironically, I find these live young ladies to suggest far more in possible personality than their animated counterparts. We know who Tink is, but how about her friends? If I were to hazard a guess, I'd say that the one on the lower left suggests an outgoing, "Voted most likely to succeed" type of girl. The Black girl looks pensive and serene, maybe a shy type. The girl with the braid might be a goofy and not particularly bright type, reminiscent of Goldie Hawn in her "Laugh-In" days. Finally, the Asian girl looks rather mischievous to me, perhaps given to pulling pranks on the others. Whether these impressions are accurate to what the film's characters are all about is not important - but the fact that these live actresses convey something to me in terms of a perceived personality is what counts. Why am I not able to read the animated characters as such? In cartooning, personalities should be even more obvious because you have the liberty of pushing them more through caricatured designs, expressions and body language. Which leads me to the following sketch:

Just for fun, I thought I'd try redesigning the Fairy characters as caricatures of these actresses, cartooned in a Disney style. I haven't drawn Tink herself though, for obvious copyright reasons aside from the fact we already know what she looks like. Is this what I think the final designs should be? Not necessarily, as I think they could be explored more in various ways and then simplified and refined more for the final models. But I genuinely believe this makes for a better starting point - to try and create distinct individuals that suggest their specific personality type through the visual designs. This is what Disney has historically always been so brilliant at in their classic animated features. Female attractiveness should not all derive from just one template - variety is the key to engaging the viewer's interest! I know there is the art talent at Disney to pull it off - but why are the artists not calling the shots?


Thad said...

Pete, on the subject of black 'diversity', have you ever seen Warners' Waynehead (I think that's the title)? All they needed to do was slap a 1943 date on them, and their own censors would have immediately banned them!

Pete Emslie said...

Hey Thad, no I hadn't heard of "Waynehead", but I looked it up on YouTube and saw that there were a couple clips. It's actually pretty good - very expressive designs that are not afraid to depict Black kids in a funny, entertaining way. Also on YouTube was something from the more recent "Thugaboo", and the less said about that mediocrity, the better...

Adrian C. said...

Hi Pete,

I think another show that illustrates your point is "The PJs." Are the designs appealing? Maybe, maybe not. However, at the very least, most of the main characters are fairly distinctive from a design standpoint.

Robin said...

Hi Pete. I never mind some good criticism, you're more than welcome and invited to do it (as I don't really have a teacher or mentor per se anymore to help me with a second eye) So I just wanted to say thank you for posting your crits! I'll take them into consideration and give the koalas another go asap.

As for your post, I was going to mention the Proud Family when I started reading it, but then you came to it so I don't really have much to add.
But keep posting as well, it's always a pleasure reading about your opinions on the posts!

Trevor Thompson said...

The biggest defender ( or offender ) of anti-political correctness is no longer around.

Sadly, we lost George Carlin this Sunday.

Strangely enough, I lost my job on Friday because I used one of the seven dirty words during my lunch break. The problem, as I see it, with political correctness, is it started out as, maybe not a good idea, but albeit with good intentions.

But as John Cleese once pointed out, if you have ten people in the room and one or two out of that ten are offended by any one thing, eight people have to make adjustments to accommodate those individuals. And it's not as though these people are handicapped or crippled ( although I would argue that ), they've just made the choice to be fussy and the rest of us have to suffer because they might start writing letters.

Rational people don't write letters. Rational people know they have a choice and can change the channel. The two individuals in the room sincerely believe they have a RIGHT not to be offended by anything. They think that's in the Constitution, and it's simply not true.

The problem with political correctness, as I see it, is that it caters to the lowest common denominator, and if it keeps up, eventually, we'll ALL be the lowest common denominator; the antithesis of evolution.

The other problem is that it was designed to curb prejudice and racism. But as George Carlin knew, growing up in a varied neighborhood, the only way to eliminate those prejudices is exposure. Forcing people to speak differently doesn't change the way they feel inside, it just angers and alienates them further.

And the last thing to say is whoever's playing Tinkerbell in that photo below is indeed very pretty but the body's all wrong. The only thing unique and not super generic ( to quote the great Katie Rice ) about the character's design were those succulent hips and that bodacious booty.

That's a form of political correctness too, if you think about it.

Great post, Pete! Very insightful as always.

Yr. fan,

- trevor.

Bill Drastal Blog Mode!! said...

Well a big thank you on the sympathy. I ended up losing that job for very stupid reasons. While there though I always wondered how I could draw a racist image of myself, a big overweight white guy. My coworkers and I could think of anything for Blacks, Asians, Hispanic etc...but white people it was like I could draw a redneck but that's not very racist or a stuffy librarian or pasty rich business guy but then again that's more a job or career joke on librarians and business execs than anything racist.

And for those fairies, I've heard the excuse for design blandness as that the more iconic or generic the design the more the viewer is able to relate to that character because they imprint themselves to that character. It looks like they've created a fairy for different parts of a whole person. But real people are capable of being mischievous and smart and sassy, angry..etc. These characters almost seem to create the illusion that people are easily placed in nice safe little categories with no chance of ever changing.

I wish I could attend your class one day. It very much goes along with a lot of what I've learned from drawing caricatures and doing character designs.

Amanda said...

Your drawings of the pixies are adorable, and blow the 3d models out of the sky. There is still so much I need to learn from you 8)

Raff said...

Nice "fariations"! I'd throw Tink in anyway to show how they all look together.

>> I haven't drawn Tink herself though, for obvious copyright reasons <<

If you don't mind my saying this, it's just a drawing on a blog! I hope Disney aren't like the mob - that once you do a few jobs for them, they keep track of you forever!

Carlo Lo Raso said...

Great stuff as always Pete.
You're blog is like my "Continuing Education" course!


Will Finn said...

Hi Pete,
The Filmation FAT ALBERT designs are actually derived from a pair of NBC-TV specials animated at Depatie-Freleng and designed by Corny Cole, who should get credit for any merit in their look. Bill Cosby produced them for 'prime-time' several years ahead of the Saturday morning show.

The originals were very gritty looking, but appealing and loose. They were 'full' animation too, sometimes exposed over live-action footage instead of backgrounds, a technique Bakshi later used quite a bit.

The usual gang of incompetents at Filmation bastardized them for the series, but the costumes, proportions etc. come from those Corny Cole designs. For some reason, those original shows (along with a couple of follow up Flip Wilson cartoons done in the same mode) have gone down the memory hole.

Brian Sibley said...

Disney should hire you at once! I know which Fairies I prefer...

My biggest concern is the fact that Tink is going to SPEAK! Surely, the whole point of the character in the play and the film is that she doesn't. And yet look how much personality Marc Davis & Co conveyed simply through pantomime...

Kevin Kidney said...

This is really an eye-opener for me, Pete, I think the fairies program is so dull and uninteresting to me personally that I hardly even notice it. Just bland/pretty girls with wings. Your re-design suggestion is much more interesting and engaging.
I wish I could take your class.

Brian Sibley said...

Ah, but.... Just prior to the "You silly ass!" quote, Wendy has described Tink speaking in what sounds like "a tinkle of bells" and Peter explains that that is "the fairy language". Peter translates Tink's 'bells' into English and, thereafter, Barrie quotes Tink as though her words are now understood.

The book, Peter and Wendy was published in 1911. In the play, Peter Pan, first staged in 1904, Tink's speech was represented by tiny bells and the stage directions for this episode read:

(TINK replies)

WENDY. What did she say?

PETER. She said "You silly ass." She is quite a common girl, you know... She is called Tinker Bell; because she mends the fairy pots and kettles.

Apologies for being so picky, Trevor... Please pass the pedanticide!

slowtiger said...

I agree to everything you wrote. But one thing stunned me: "The Black girl looks..." - where is a black girl in that pic? Was that a reference to ancestry, or to skin colour? I just see 5 girls who all could be native germans...

When I walk through the streets of Berlin, I see much more diversity in people. They come in all sizes, shapes, and colours, but I find none of this in most animation. It is as if character designers don't watch real people anymore. They don't even use black if they mean black - I wonder if that's maybe only because very dark colours need a bright outline (like Daffy Duck).

Of course very often it's just such a small range of possible variations within a given style or production design. But even with a restricted set of elements it should be possible to create more individual characters (Peanuts!).

Floyd Norman said...

That original "Fat Albert Special" was directed by Ken Mundie for Campbell, Silver, Cosby. This was Bill's company back in the sixties.

The characters were designed by Leo Sullivan, Bob Bachman, Ambi Paliwoda and Richard Drew.

Clearly, producers are freaky when it comes to designing black characters. Seems part of our American culture. I suspect fear and guilt is behind all this.

frank said...

Is this something that today's little tykes really would enjoy? I'm just glad that I grew up on "The Flintstones" and old "Popeye" cartoons in my kindergarten days, before the days of highminded "childrens' programming" came into being.

I found that comment very interesting and thought provoking. Probably the seed for a whole new discussion?

I was going to say that I remember fondly the Chuck Jones cartoons of my childhood. That the "violence" and other politically incorrect themes were understood to be 'OK' because my parents thought that I could distinguish between animation and 'real life'.

But at the time, the cartoons were real to me. I can only distinguish the difference in hindsight.

So with ambushing children with personality scrubbed, inoffensive characters are we lying to them?

One day a 'protected child' may meet someone 'foreign' (to their sanitised experience) and they may tend to fear and real violence rather than recognition and interest.

I think it is a thinking animator's skill to caricature the variety of people in the human experience from a starting point of knowledge - don't animate what you don't know. If you don't know, go and find out. The finding out is fun.

I don't think a big, fat, white dude, for example, should animate another person without doing a bit of research and communication about that person.

The resulting characters would be more interesting and a better way to spread tolerance and understanding than making everything a cold cafe latte, imaginary 'correctness'.

Just a thought from an Australian animation student based on the comment quoted.

Nebbie said...

Do you think that sometime, you could post a blogpost that talks more about how political correctness makes it harder to create an interesting female or person of color character. I agree with the part where you say, "There seems to be a mindset that says that only caucasians can be caricatured and that the features of other races must be played down or, ironically, made to look more like those of caucasians."

Some person of color characters, like the PoC fairies in Fairies, do look downplayed.

AliceNorthernLights said...

Is racism. They believe that people of other race are more sensitive and can be easily offended. Also they think that people of other races have confidence issues, and that's a total BS.