Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Generically Speaking...

Katie Rice has just posted a very thoughtful analysis of "generic" versus "specific" female character designs over on her blog. What I like about the way she's written it is that she is not slamming generic design when it has a visual appeal (which does have its place), but rather, showing how designs with a more unique individuality can be more interesting to the viewer. I've long been an admirer of Katie's art, as I feel she's a naturally funny cartoonist who also manages to bring out not only great humour, but also some real humanity in her cartoon sketches. Her girls do not display a cloying cuteness, but instead she taps into the mindset of young adolescent girls, somehow bringing out an endearing goofy side in addition to their cute femininity. She's even got a term for her special brand of drawing girls: "Retarded Cute". One of my favourite posts is this one recalling her high school girlfriends. I find it very charming and funny. By the way, this drawing to the left is one of her many self-caricature sketches. Katie has a goodnatured way of lampooning life, even when drawing herself.

Unfortunately, there is an awful lot of art out there in the world of animation and especially consumer products that is extremely generic and not even aesthetically appealing. Look at these "Bratz" characters for example. In fact, I'm rather loathe to even call them "characters" at all, as that term would imply that there is some personality there. From having looked at much of the art on "Bratz", I can honestly state that there is absolutely no personality to be found in these designs whatsoever. None of the characters are capable of emoting - their faces are frozen in one generic, non-expression. And as you can see, there is no discernible distinction between the girls, save for different clothes and hair colour. Facially they look to me like five identical little clones of Angelina Jolie!

Remarkably, even the folks at Disney are content to add to the generic glut with their "Disney Princesses" line of merchandise. I would like to state for the record that I have always admired and championed the Disney classic animated features, so it pains me to see how these characters are now being handled by Consumer Products. The concept is an awkward one to begin with, actually. If you study the merchandise art out there, you will notice that these princesses, though posed together, will never acknowledge or interact with each other because they are all from separate character "universes". If they're on the cover of a book, the content of the book itself has them portrayed separately in their own stories. But on the cover they are posed as if in some inane Vanity Fair photo shoot, looking out at the viewer, never at each other. So right away the "Disney Princesses" is a concept with inherent problems. Besides, these girls were always more interesting within the context of their own films, surrounded by colourful supporting characters that they could work off of, being part of an appealing ensemble. Taken out of that context they are not particularly interesting.

What I particularly object to is the way they are handled in the art, always highly airbrushed to the point where they lack definition of tonal value. But the worst thing about them in my opinion, is the way their designs have been homogenized, their expressions reduced to vacuous smiles and their features becoming too similar, so that they start looking like all the same character. Though I understand the reason for this, for example the more angular design of Aurora being rounded down to fit in with the other girls, I find the process rather insulting to the great Disney artists who brought those characters to life onscreen.

Likewise, these drawings of Tinker Bell and the new "Disney Fairies" marketing program leave much to be desired. To be fair, any one of these characters I'd consider to be visually appealing in their design as separate entities, but collectively they suffer from the same problem as "Bratz" - all are identical if not for their costumes, hair and, in this case, skin colour. The tragic thing is, it doesn't have to be this way. In fact, I suspect if this were placed completely in the hands of the talented artists that work at Disney, these characters would show more individual distinction in design. I'm convinced it's the executives in Disney's Consumer Products division that have mandated this appalling blandness of design, as these types rarely show good taste when it comes to the art aesthetic.

Coincidentally, this reminds me of a project I worked on back a few years ago for a merchandising concept entitled "Bella May". The title character was an all-American type girl of about 15, and had a group of friends that included the prerequisite girls of different ethnic background. Unfortunately, in the rough concepts that they'd had someone come up with (pictured at left), all five girls looked identical, just like my complaints about "Bratz" and the new "Disney Fairies", despite the fact that one was supposed to be Asian, one Black, and one Italian. Now, I don't have a problem with overtly politically correct concepts so long as each character is treated as a distinct personality. It's when they are homogenized into all practically the same design that it offends my artistic sensibilities. Anyway, the folks putting this program together had been referred to me by a publisher I'd been working for and they knew these characters were in need of a massive overhaul.

Since they'd agreed to my terms that I'd want to redesign them so they all looked more like the nationalities they were supposed to be in addition to trying to capture the personalities better as described in their character bible, I decided to take on the project. The finished pencil art on the left is what I finally arrived at after exploring different ways of portraying each girl based on her character description. However, the initial designs had to start with some sort of reference material so I'd have a better idea of what I was trying to do and that their designs would have some basis in reality, though caricatured into appealing cartoons.

My first step, therefore, was to start compiling reference photos of girls of that age. I recall looking through department store catalogues and sketching various young girls, as well as collecting a bunch of images through Google Images. (The cartoonist's best friend!) The fact is, though, there is an unfortunate trend today in some members of various ethnic groups not wanting to see what they consider to be "stereotyped" depictions of themselves, therefore one is always having to be careful in the way these things are handled. Disney is constantly under fire for this (always unfairly), which makes me think that their lookalike fairies is their way of playing it safe and avoiding controversy. It shouldn't be this way of course - nothing should be sacred where cartooning is concerned, and anybody should be fair game for the art of caricature. However, I do like to make sure that my cartoons have some basis in reality, for the simple reason that I can learn more by studying real human types rather than just trying to make things up from scratch. This makes for richer personalities in my opinion. These rough sketches were made after trying different approaches, maybe combining different physical aspects from several reference photos to come up with a satisfying character type that seemed to suggest the right personality I was looking for.

The people I was working for were very nice and they liked what I'd come up with. They paid me upon delivery but, sadly however, this project never did get off the ground. I think they had underestimated the costs involved in starting up a merchandising venture like this and got cold feet about it. It's too bad "Bella May" got cancelled, as I was hoping to develop these characters further and, hopefully, work on the actual artwork for the various merchandise. Ah well, it was not to be, but at least it was fun to revisit this project in today's blog post.


Trevor Thompson said...

Ya know, the one thing about Tinkerbell's design that made her original, her big hips, thighs and ass, were cause for controversy in the 60's with women's groups.

And now, whenever you see Tink on bumper stickers or T-shirts, if she's redrawn she's given a Bratz doll body and the facial features look more symetrical and less like Margaret Kerry.

It's like George Lucas with his re-remastering of Star Wars, it's like, "leave it alone, man". Quit dumbing things down for the younger generation. That's why they're so stupid!

I'm going to post my thoughts on this on my blog soon, so feel free to drop by.

Thanks, Pete!

- trevor.

Andrew Manzanares said...

That was very insightful. I'll refer to this post when designing my girl characters for sure! Thanks alot Pete!


oh and P.S.- I love Katie Rice's stuff too! She's definitely got a feel for design and is in my opinion the best girl character designer at John K's studio.

Christopher Olson said...

I wish I could draw caricatures like that! I have a lot of female characters with detailed backgrounds, and I can spend time imagining their features and what they might look like, but it never comes out on paper.

Maybe I should move past drawing my hands?

IZA said...

Really Great post! I strongly agree with both your point of view on this, as well as Katie Rice's! And couldn't agree more!

Bill Drastal Blog Mode!! said...

This post is so true on so many levels. 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"

I also wonder if its a general public thing, or a case of severe vanity in this country. I'll work at the caricature stand and have countless people (not just women, men have gotten very vain as well) walk up and ask that I just draw them "normal". Like I can read their minds and understand what their definition of "normal" is. I just tell them that "normally" I draw people funny.

Once again very insightful post.

Hacky Crapper said...

You do a disservice to yourself by connecting any of this to "political correctness" which is just a straw man used by one certain political group to discredit another.

Money talks, baby. That's what it's about!

Pete Emslie said...

To be sure, money is the reason behind this "Disney Fairies" concept. They want another merchandising program to follow on the heels of the "Disney Princesses". But I blame political correctness for the way in which these characters are being designed. Lobby groups representing various ethnicities have always given Disney a hard time about the way they're being portrayed in animated form. Disney has taken heat from Arabs over "Aladdin", Blacks over "Song of the South", Latinos and gays over "The Lion King", Native Americans over "Pocahontas", etc, etc. By designing all of their fairies to look identical to each other, despite one being Black and another Asian, Disney is taking the "safe" route, so that nobody can complain about the way any single character is depicted. Yes, it smacks of political correctness to me.