Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Animal Characters, 1: Anthropomorphic Absurdities

Have you ever watched a parrot scratch himself with a feather? Here’s a YouTube video:

Owner Cheryl Rampton didn't train Poncho to do this. He figured out how to hold the feather in his foot and reach back to scratch his neck. If the grip on the feather needs adjustment, he uses his beak to hold it for a second. The wings stay tucked.

A parrot really has three “hands”: his beak and his two feet. With those he’s got nearly as much dexterity as we humans do.

When we want to design a character based on a bird, we naturally want to make their wings into hands. This makes sense from the standpoint of comparative anatomy, but it goes completely against their bird nature. And it’s impractical. A bird can gesture with his primary wingtip feathers, but he can’t shake hands, make a fist, or pick up an object with them.

Putting animal heads onto humanoid bodies leads to other absurdities. Did you every wonder why you never see Elsie the Cow below the shoulders? Would she have (ahem) breasts or udders? Either way would be pretty weird.

For the rest of the week through Saturday we’ll look at how character designers have developed clever ways to infuse animals with human personalities.


Anonymous said...

Oh that will be very interesting! I was just asking myself these questions for the umpteenth time as I am starting to work on a kids book with a bird as the main character.

Can't wait to read what you'll have to say.

Unknown said...

I've thought of this myself, especially when comparing Beatrix Potter to some of Disney's creations. I do a lot of animals in my work and I can't bring myself to draw anything other than a real animal, no matter how silly the drawing. I think sticking an animals head on a human body is pretty lazy. ( except of course, things like the Minatour, which seems to hinge on that impracticality and grotesqueness, which is something else entirely.)

Anonymous said...

You can almost see the relief in his eye. Notice how precise his scratching gets when going for his ear.

I see that and wonder what a theropod could do.

Michael Damboldt said...

Absolutely amazing. (the video) Considering parrots can articulate humans sounds as well, perhaps they're more intelligent than many scientists give them credit for. (learned behavior and tool usage is something very few animals can do)

James Gurney said...

I agree, Michael. That video shows a genuine mind at work. Crows are amazing tool users--and tool builders, too. Even my little parakeet has a sense of humor and laughs derisively every time I drop a pencil or a paintbrush.

I recommend the new issue of National Geographic, which has a great article on animal cognition. The writer got to see the famous African grey parrot Alex before he died. His demonstrable knowledge of concepts like shape, color, similar, and different--not to mention a rich and creative vocabulary--has rocked the science of animal cognition.

Thomas, as you say, it makes you wonder what the brainer theropods might have been capable of.

Michael Damboldt said...

It's almost scary if you think about the capabilites of a theropod. Especially Deinonychus and Troodon. I would definitely not like to be on their menu.

ricardo said...

Umm, I agree that making a bird using his wings and feathers as arms and hands is an absurd, but it's also much more relatable than having them picking up stuff with their feet.

I was really impressed with the video you posted, and I actually just saw Alex on Youtube! Jesus Christ, what was that! Amazing!

Kevin Hedgpeth said...

Elsie the Cow suffers from the character design problem I call the "mermaid conundrum": the idea of the slice-and-dice reassembly of human or animal parts to create a new entity.

In the character design course that I teach, we practice 'synthesis', a combination of human & animal/animal & animal traits into a new creature where there is a true blending of anatomy (along with color and texture)to achieve a viable, uniform design. This concept is appropriate for both realistic and 'cartoony' characters.