So far this week, mostly we’ve been looking at animals that have been made to look more human. Some of the greatest animal characters have been in that category.
But another way to think of animal character design is to try to create real, organic, entertaining personalities that aren’t just human surrogates, but instead retain as much essential animal character as possible. In my experience this latter approach is much more difficult, because it goes against our natural tendency to humanize everything. (Above: Poortvliet)
The mice in Beatrix Potter’s Two Bad Mice don’t behave in merely human terms. They respond to every problem in a way that’s true to the personality of real mice. Their eyes are mice eyes, not humanized eyes. Yet we can tell what they’re feeling: they’re “relatable.” If they had been humanized, the comedy of the story would have fallen flat. Potter knew mice well and kept several as pets.
Tony the Tiger is a purely human type: a hearty enthusiastic salesman. But Shere Khan is more like a real tiger. He has a mind we can fully understand. Disney was adamant that the “heavy” in Jungle Book not be a slavering monster. As drawn by master animator Milt Kahl, he is cool, understated, arrogant, and poised— very much a tiger. Kahl spent a long time studying tigers from life. When it came to the animation, he didn’t need to refer to photos. He drew most of the sequences from memory.
To achieve the breakthroughs that led to Bambi, Walt Disney brought in animal experts like Rico LeBrun and Bernard Garbutt, who could teach the anatomy inside and out. But these guys didn’t necessarily have the animator’s gift.
It also took the skills of artists like Marc Davis, who combined a lot of animal knowledge with an innate sense of personality and inner life. Putting all these skills together brought the Disney Studios a long way forward from the “rubber hose” animation of Steamboat Willie.
I believe that the development of authentic animal characters based on close observation is a wide-open frontier for the pioneers of CG animation. Below: Paul Bransom.
Let me offer a thought, which is very much open to discussion. I wonder if the character creation process that is currently used in many studios is overly dependent on voice casting by famous actors. While many great characters have been created in this way, the process may limit the range of potential types of animal characterizations.
Animators may feel overly tied to the timing, delivery, and even facial expressions and gestures of a voice actor. That actor may or may not have any sense of the entertainment potential of the genuine animal he’s portraying.
The art form is capable of a wider range of conceptions that can be achieved by following a different set of assumptions and starting points—and of course a deep commitment to the study of animal behavior.
Consider, for example, this monkey and elephant by Heinrich Kley. The monkey’s tail is holding up the umbrella, and the elephant is the perfect blend of human and elephantine, bringing out immense personality.
Here’s part of an outrageous encounter between a man and a baboon by A.B. Frost. What makes it funny is that the baboon is perfectly true to its nature. When he wants to fight back, he uses his foot in a baboonlike way to rip off the guy’s jacket.
Here’s a confrontation between a puppy and a chicken by Norman Lindsay. We know exactly what each character is thinking and doing, but neither characterization is framed in anthropomorphic terms. For example, when a puppy wants to play, he throws his paws in the air, and Lindsay has exaggerated that gesture. The chicken uses her beak and feet to fight back, keeping the wings tucked.
Can animal characters be developed without humanizing them? It's easier if they don't talk. Any dog or bird owner knows exactly what their pet is thinking, and appreciates their unique quirks. A dog will let you know that he feels remorseful or playful or angry using a different repertoire of expressions than we humans use.
Animal-morphic characterization doesn’t have to be realistic in a photographic sense, but it has to be authentic and convincing. I’ll leave you with these clips of the dog Bruno in Triplets of Belleville (pencil tests above, finished clips below). Bruno is a memorable character because his thought process and his behavior is so deliciously doglike.
(Thanks to Disney, Warne, Kelloggs, ASIFA, DreamWorks, Pixar, Blue Sky. All rights reserved by their various holders.)