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Forum Insights: The Decline of Design
Below are insightful posts from Digital Media FX forum posters on the subject of The Decline of Design. Some posts have been edited for length or spelling and grammar.

Post by Gordg on May 8, 2001:
Character design has been faltering for years.

The hard earned wisdom of past artists was lost in the eighties. New generations of artists appear to lack a fundamental understanding of good design.

I see two main types of character designs...

The stylized character: graphic creations that don't have a good sense of weight, volume, proportion or structure. In addition they often lack contrast, rhythm, harmony and unity. Simply put ... they don't flow, resulting in an unappealing character.

The realistic character: based entirely on a realistic human model. These designs lack imagination, unique qualities, and strong caricature. This makes them bland, and unappealing.

I'm not saying artists need to draw characters that look the same as the old master's designs. What I am saying is, they need to develop they're aesthetic sensibilities to the same level as the old masters.

Albeit, the animation industry today is not interested in quality, and does not allow artists to push themselves to explore their craft. The industry only requires a competent technician that can emulate existing modes of design.

This is a form of inbreeding. Artists learn by copying other artists, who learned by copying earlier artists, who stole ideas from the original masters. Today animation artists don't develop their skills of observation and interpretation of the real world, but rather rely on mimicry of style, without a true understanding of the underlying principals of good design.

There needs to be a return to solid drawing skills rooted in keen observations of life.

Post by Samus Aran on May 8, 2001:
Gordg, I think your post was very well-said.

The statement you made about artists copying other artists, instead of using and interpreting life from observation, is true of other areas of art too. Many students here want to paint in the same style as another artist, instead of honing their own strengths... I also think of all the young people who watch Disney, Japanese animation, etc. and then emulate only that style in their drawings. I've seen so many young artists who can only draw in the anime style, comics, or the Disney style. They use someone else's method of interpreting reality instead of finding their own. While it can be a way to start, artists have to grow and find their own voice.

I think design is a challenging thing to approach because people will like and dislike it according to their own tastes, in part. But I also agree that there are fundamental rules to good design, just as there are fundamental rules to good composition.

When I make a character, I find myself drawing it over and over again changing it, until it just looks right to me aesthetically. It's a lot of 'artist's judgment'. I could probably get better at it if I knew the guidelines to good design better... I'd be interested in hearing what other people here consider good visual rules of design.

Your post is inspirational... Makes me want to hit the sketchbook.

Posted by Streep on May 8, 2001:
Gordg, I wholeheartedly agree.

This post made me think of Picasso. I have heard that he was an accomplished realistic artist. It was only after he had worked hard on his earlier art, that he could then listen to his inner voice that caused him to create his later art.

I personally can not draw to save my life and I am forever impressed by those who can draw something that looks like what they were trying to make. But design today is awful. The hands in Atlantis come to mind (and to think of it the hands in TENG looked the same). Now I know that Atlantis is supposed to be emulating the art of the guy who made HellBoy, but what might look all right in a static medium like a graphic novel looks horrible in animation. The hands alone prevent me from suspending my disbelief and allowing me to enter the world of the movie. (It was OK in TENG because it was silly and it pushed down the fourth wall, but Atlantis is serious and that suspension is key at least in my opinion.) And don't get me started on the glowing yellow balls in the submarines, I really don't like those at all.

I however do not see any improvement in this poor design quality in the near future, especially in this age of downsizing. Without a strong figure to shepherd a new cast of masters, there will not be any. It obviously will not be coming from Disney. As long as Eisner is so devoted to the bottom line that he is willing to cut off his nose to spite of his face. This is one reason why I like Pixar. Lasseter (and I am in no way comparing him to Walt) seems to be creating an atmosphere where art is fostered. From his previous films, design seems important. I could be wrong as I am only an animation fan and not in the "know" of certain things. But that is what I see.

Posted by Penanimate on April 4, 2001:
the strike in the early 80's is what led to most non-theatrical production moving offshore. It's a different ball game these days; you can't compare what went on in the 40's to what's happening today.

Ironically, the 80's strike may have something to do with this fiscal tightening. The Tigger Movie was produced "offshore" for significantly less than Emperor (they came out roughly around the same time). Tigger generated more revenue relative to its cost than Emperor did, and those sorts of things open the money boys' eyes really quick.

Sorry to beat the same drum over and over, but don't forget Disney is a business. If they think there's more profit (despite lower revenues) from offshore production, then that's where they'll head. They don't care one whit about art quality or "legacy". Those are quaint notions ascribed to the "artsy" types. As long as we let them drive our thinking, the business types will always have it over us.

Posted by Dave on May 9, 2001:
How about this for a realistic character; Max Steel and the Final Fantasy movie - both have photorealistic characters to different degrees but both I feel suffer the same flaw, both try to show off how good their motion capture suites are and how realistically they can model humans, but ultimately the results are boring. I think there is a difference in design and aesthetics but I wouldn't say that it is necessarily a bad thing, Ren and Stimpy had such basic animation and really stylized character design but what made them fun is the writing in the show.

I agree that there are a lot of young animators out there who have found a particular style, be it anime or Disney and stick to it totally, I personally have a different view, I treat every animated project I do individually, and every one has its own visual look that makes it different from the last one, that in itself is part of the challenge.

I probably would go and see Final fantasy but I somehow doubt it will be as good an experience as the iron giant

Ultimately, however, visual look of characters aside, shouldn't we be a lot more concerned with the animation, acting and the story?

Posted by Chris2 on May 9, 2001:
One can certainly mix two schools of design and come up with something that's a new and interesting mix of the designs. The modern comic 'look' is sort of a mix of Japanese, European, and traditional American styles. Look at the work of Jim Lee, Joe Madueria, John Romita Jr. and a few others for examples. Jr's current style looks like it mixes his father's traditional style with the rough lines of European stuff and the strong/exaggerated facial expressions of manga/anime
Certainly, one can find variation within existing designs. Although a lot of Disney and anime/manga might look the same at first glance, if you take a closer look you'll see there are subtle variations depending on the artist/studios and their demands. Studio demands certainly played a role in Atlantis' character designs-if one looks at Mignolia's actual work, it doesn't look a whole lot like the stuff in Atlantis. In fact, Mignolia recently did an Atlantis poster in PC Gamer which shows a visual style which is quite different with the look of the film.

There's been a few complaints about anime-mainly that it fits into either of the two stereotypes mentioned by Gordg-but I disagree-there is plenty of caricature to be found in anime. It's important to keep in mind that the animation medium in Japan goes hand-in-hand with their comics industry, pretty much. So they're animating by comic book rules, most of the time-which is fine with me, personally. There are plenty of examples of good old 'squash-and-stretch' though-like in Totoro and even in Akira.

I suppose you can call anime a 'compromise' or 'balance' between animation and comic book staging.

Posted by Mooka on May 9, 2001:
Being a student I have to agree with all this.. I see so many people in my class just concentrating on trying to make all their drawings look like their favorite anime show or favorite Disney feature, and not nearly enough people studying from life. And it shows.. When we get a character design project you can almost exactly predict what "studio" their characters will look like.

Now , I do study the old masters like Reubens, Michelangelo, and Leonardo to see how they interpreted different things and how they described the forms on paper. This I think is good. Studying how things were done so you can see effective ways to describe things.

Now, were you referring to the old masters as in the old animation masters? I think you can learn from them too. I has to be done the same way though. See how they interpreted something and then applying those techniques to your own designs. I think too many people just see a design (for instance, lets say a well designed hand) and then just copy it and kinda' paste it in with their designs. I see this at my school a lot too.

It's kind of sad really because life drawing and the daily routine habit I've formed of studying everyday things is one of the greatest aspects of animation to me. To me it's more enjoyable and rewarding than anything else. I think I'm learning more by doing that too.... I think... I'll let you know when I get my marks back...

Posted by Gordg on May 9, 2001:
Yes, I was referring to the old animation masters (such as Moore, Kahl, Thomas, etc.) .... but there is a lot to be learned from the masters of the renaissance as well. I also find great inspiration and understanding can be derived from the masters of various disciplines and artistic movements (storybook illustration, modernism, magic realism, etc.)

My comments were based on North American animation, since it's the industry I'm most familiar with. My anime/manga knowledge is limited at best, so I won't express an opinion on that design aesthetic.

When I'm speaking of graphic styles and realistic styles, I am referring to a broad overall look. Many characters fall into these categories, but they range greatly to the degree they adhere to the strict definition.

But how closely they fit the definition is not relevant to how well they use good design principals and fresh approaches.

I think Penanimate has distilled the essence of what I was saying...

Posted by Evil_Phil on May 10, 2001:
Again, got to agree with what you're saying. All the time I see classmates animating and it is very clear that the styles are not truly there own but ones close to comics, Disney, etc.. When I started I was heavily into Disney. In the end I was 'thinking' too much about what I shouldn't be doing that I wasn't allowing myself the chance to develop a personal style. The lecturers rarely consider the process of animation in its entirety (Spelling?!!) They look for nice storyboards and animation but don't give us chance to develop styles/ characters...

Posted by Alphawolf on May 10, 2001
You can't expect a teacher or lecturer to teach you your style. They can give you the basics and show you how they and others do it. But finding your own "eye/hand" in the field has to come from you. It's work you do on the side because you love it that will help you "develop styles/ characters".

The key is to learn to draw what you see first. Leonardo had shelves full of books on medical dissections and how the body was pieced together. Those books with notes and sketches in the columns are famous; many of them are seen in ads and stuff all over today. There were also designs for inventions and notes on period every day items. Artist of the renaissance were all pretty much known for this kind of in depth study. Once you have a working knowledge of drawing reality, then begin looking to the artists you respect and like the style of. Mix the techniques and styles you like into your drawing to create a new look based on all you have gathered.

Now it's real easy to say that, but I for one have been trying to get it together with little to no luck for many more years than I care to talk about. It's not easy. My recommendation is to collect books, sketches, and magazines, comics, films, and any other media you see that intrigues you. Keep it all like a packrat. But use it all too. Take the look of a wolf from a picture you took of some billboard, put it with the style of Balto or the wolves from Beauty & the Beast and mix your knowledge of reality and your own style and get a new wolf.

And if you ever think to yourself, 'I have it! This is the perfect wolf!' Put your pencil down, walk out the door and never look back. You’re no artist. We inevitably never are satisfied with our own work ever. There is always something we wish we could have done better, or a technique we see just after we finish the project that we want to go back and ad to it. Save the new technique for the next project, work on the skill you want to do better in your sketchbook, make those notes to yourself and always look to improve. If your sketchbook is neat and organized and your drawings in them are all finished products with nothing started and then stopped suddenly in the middle, your doing it wrong. Logical right brain thinking in a sketchbook is a sign you have a lot to work on. See the kids in school who have drawn all over the cover of their math book and turn in test and research papers with doodles in the columns and back of it? Those are the potential Picaso's of tomorrow.

If you are working on a new drawing and just can't seem to get some part of it right, stop. Make a note in the column telling yourself what's not coming out. Then back off and find something else to work on for a second. Look at pictures that inspire you and have a drink or something. When you come back if you see what’s missing, start again. Also if you see your having trouble getting a perspective or particular position down; open that sketchbook and throw down as many rough drawings as it takes till you see where the problem is, then work on correcting it. I devoted two sketchbooks to drawing nothing but ears on a head. I still don't like how they turn out when I draw them. But still I persist at it.

Creativity is not copying what you see, it's adding to it and improving on the basic ideas to bring about a new product. An amalgam if you will of everything in you and everything around you to bring a new life into the world. Anyone could copy the Mona Lisa, but only a master artist could make her smile.

Wow, reading back over this for spelling I think that this is either really deep, or a lot of babble. At any rate I hope it helps someone.

Posted by Gordg on May 16, 2001
To achieve a solid finished product you need to take time in the preproduction stage. This is the most important stage. It sets the ground work for the intense, time consuming production stage. If it hasn't been completely thought through , weeks of work in production could be wasted due to mistakes made in preproduction ... mistakes that may have only taken an hour to correct in preproduction.

Even if potential employers never look at your preproduction work (but most do), the overall quality of the film is dependant on a successful process.

In addition, you may be able to grunt out a decent looking film with a faulty, time consuming process, and it may get you hired. But in the end if you don't understand process, you won't be able to deliver in a timely, professional manner, and your employer won't keep you around for long.

It's all about process.

That said, the process is somewhat organic in nature. It is very important to build a solid foundation in preproduction, BUT you need to be flexible enough through out the process to allow for small adjustments. There is always the potential for becoming too focused on development, while not leaving yourself enough time to do the production work. My approach is, take care and get a broad solid structure for the film in the development stage, but once you have that , move forward and fine tune it in production.

This is an approach that works well when developing the story. If you first build a story with solid structure and fully developed characters .... humorous bits of business will evolve from it in the production stage.(as opposed to stringing a bunch of gags together that aren't grounded in story or character development). But I'm drifting off topic.

But I whole heartily agree, one must always strive to improve. Though in my old age, I have come to realize it's also important to celebrate your successes. There is very often good qualities to be found in your work ... even in work that you feel is 90% wrong. It's this positive influence that keeps you motivated.

Posted by D.E.E.P. on May 16, 2001
I agree wholeheartedly with the comments made above by Gord and Alpha. Even in this business, your boss will most likely not care about how much time and effort you have put in to your finished product. All he wants is results. I have fallen victim quite a few times to this type of mentality. You have to get used to it.

In my situation, I have to get a certain number of designs out within a certain number of days. The schedule isn't necessarily planned on how much actual time one needs in order to design a show in particular. It's planned way before anyone really knows how difficult the work load might be. So if one show happens to be much bigger than the previous, I have the same amount of time to do it. My boss doesn't mind that I'll have to put in a couple more extra hours to finish my work on time, he just wants everything on his desk by Friday afternoon. That's the way it is.

I know this sounds a bit harsh, but once you get the hang of it, you find ways to manage your time better and get everything done much faster. I have. And don't forget that animation is still a whole lot more fun than any other job out there. Well, most of them anyway.

Posted by Gordg on May 16, 2001 (in response to post directly above)
... what's your approach to design?

I realize you are often emulating an existing style, so you don't always have the freedom to explore your own. But ideally what would be your approach?

Personally, I'm a bit bohemian in my approach. I throw out all the rules on character design. The rules that tell you to work with simple geometric forms, lines of action, and well balanced proportional characters that you can easily turn in space.

What I do is ...

I immerse myself in the characters character (odd wording ) until I fully understand their quirky uniqueness. I then thumb through hoards of reference material and look for real people as inspiration (they are usually far more unique looking than what I could imagine) I use them as a point of departure, sometimes mixing and matching characteristics from several people.

I work with fundamental elements such as, line, shape, texture, scale, contrast, etc. ... completely ignoring the fact that the character will have to be animated. I take these elements and push them as far as I can, then I push them further ... to the point of being absurd. Also I will take my initial inclinations and go in the opposite direction.

After I have played for a while ... throwing in everything and anything, I usually discover a few appealing ideas. It is at this point I start to cull out the essence of what I find appealing. I would liken it to what Michelango said about sculpting "you remove everything that isn't the figure" (sorry about the really bad paraphrasing, but I was to lazy to go find the exact quote).

Then, and only then (if I'm still getting a good feeling from the character), I will begin to think in terms of animation. I take off my creative beanie and put on my technical hard hat. I carefully adjust the design to meet the demanding rigor of a character in motion -- I begin to solidify the design. And with a bit of luck, and a lot of ingenuity I don't lose the appeal in the process.

... then there are the times when the character leaps out of my pencil fully realized in a nanosecond.

Posted by D.E.E.P. On May 16, 2001 (in response to post directly above)
How do I approach design....hmmmmmm.

It's always been hard for me to describe the techniques I use in my work. I just don't know how to put it into words, that's why I could never be a teacher. But I'll try to explain it the best way I can.

The first thing I do Monday mornings is read the current show's script, finding the extra characters within that episode. The script gives you a specific character's personality, which is really the most important part of the process. Doing that gives me a good mental picture of what I need to draw. Next comes the research. Most of the extras in the show I'm currently on are animals. All kinds too. So if I need to design a crow for example, I'll get my books on birds and try to find as many pictures as I can of crows in action. I'll even go on the net and see if I can find some movie files of crows in flight. One thing I wouldn't do is to go look at crows from other animated films or cartoons. At least not right away. I used to do that, and my designs looked an awful lot like what I was looking at. My boss would notice too. That's why you need to look at real life when designing in order find your own way of interpreting what you see. I learned that the hard way when my boss told me all my designs were way too Disneyish! This mistake is also the subject which started this thread. Every good character designer should refrain from emulating another show's style. It's very hard not to do so, but one must at least try.

What I do then is lay out all the images I found on my desk and then I start drawing. And that's where I have trouble expressing my technique. I don't know what happens exactly at that point. I just pick up my pencil and draw. Keeping in mind the show's style, the character's personality traits and the animal's structure. I then try to come up with something that looks good and that would move well. I usually do a lot of sketches before ending up with something I like. But as I've explained above, my schedule is very restrained, so I have to work fast and be productive. Having a bad drawing day in TV animation is a killer. Supervisors have no sympathy when it comes to those. So I get all those bad drawings out of the way as quickly as possible. I do know experience is a big factor when it comes to speed. When I started out it took me a couple of days to come up with just one character, now I do one or two a day, sometimes more depending on how difficult they are. In a few years, I'll get faster than that.

When I finally show my boss the designs, I go through the awful approval stage. Not only does he need to like it, the client also needs to see it before it gets approved. So if they don't like it they'll make comments and I'll then go and fix the drawing based on those. When that's done I have to clean everything up. Since I do my own clean up I'm less worried about losing appeal in the process. But it's still very tricky to keep everything looking as nice as your roughs, and one must be careful when working on someone else's drawings. And if done well, cleaning up can even improve a drawing.

Well that's it in a nutshell, I hope I didn't confuse anyone. Like I said, I'm not very eloquent when it comes to explaining my approach. Maybe that's why my post is so long. But all in all, it's very similar to Gord's approach. So maybe you guys should look at his explanation so you can better understand mine.

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