Thursday, February 21, 2008

Animal Characters 2: Humanization

Some animals have body configurations that make us think of them in human terms.

Monkeys, rats, mice, squirrels, rabbits, bears, and kangaroos all seem to have hands. And they seem to be comfortable on two legs, so it’s no wonder they’ve been so popular as characters in animation. Scrat, above left, is exaggerated but not very humanized; the photo at right is humanized but not exaggerated.

We’ve all seen dogs and tigers and elephants on their hind legs in the circus, so it’s not too hard to imagine them in a humanoid mode.

Horses and donkeys are much harder to humanize. Even though they make funny faces, their mouths are far from their eyes, they don’t have hands; and they don’t often walk on their back legs.

So it’s a real credit to the character designers and animators at DreamWorks that they created such a memorable character out of the Donkey. Besides endowing him with expressive eyebrows and giving the lips a lot of mobility, they used a lot of ear movement to show expression.

Prey animals tend to have their eyes on the sides of their heads. This presents a problem on a 3-D character where both eyes need to be visible from a lot of angles to show human-type emotions. So one of the first jobs of the designer is to bring the eyes forward. They also like to show some whites to the eyes so you can see where they’re looking, especially in a long shot.

In Ratatouille, the main rat characters shifted back and forth between humanlike and ratlike characteristics. When they were raiding the food cabinet, for example, they ran on all fours in a very ratlike way.

These are the kinds of challenges all animal character designers face. Which animal characteristics should you maintain and accentuate, and which human traits do you need to give the character--particularly a speaking character--so that he can think and act to win the sympathy of the audience?

In the next post we’ll take a further look at the sympathy that we humans inevitably feel for animal emotions and expressions.


Erik Bongers said...

Do you remember the movie "L'Ours"?
The two main characters were a cub bear and an adult male one. The most important thing about the story was that it was about 'real' bears, not humanized at all. (ok, a tiny bit perhaps.)
It shows that a whole range of 'humanization' is possible and that it's not really necessary to stay in the upper 'humanized' zone.

But then again, I'm not sure what age kids would have to be to appreciate L'Ours. Not to mention the cruel scenes.

Check out these moving scenes. I really enjoyed seeing them again.
This movie is a pearl when it comes to story-telling with limited means. Look how much is suggested with camera movement and such.
It's all in French I'm afraid...

Shawn Escott said...

Awesome Blog!! Wow, there is a ton of cool inspirational posts you have put together. I'll be sure to check back often. :)

James Gurney said...

Erik, Thank you for mentioning "L'Ours" or "The Bear" by Annaud. I haven't seen it yet, but after looking at that clip, I've got in on my list.

Shawn, welcome, and I enjoyed your blog, too. Nice cafe and post-it sketches!

Michael Damboldt said...

I was actually sceptical when I first heard about Ratatouille. I wasn't sure how they could successfully engender a sense of love for a rodent that has been the bane of humankind for millenia.

However, after seeing it, I have to say it is one of the best movies I have ever seen. The subtle plots and plays of human perception gave way to an amazing script, and actually made it lovable. (Especially considering the rat was non-disneyfied, as in not sitting in a hollow in the ground drinking tea and eating crumpets).

I think the same thing goes for Science Fiction.

If you notice, the two most popular Sci Fi franchises, Star Trek and Star Wars, both have many different creatures, but the most enduring are creatures like the Vulcans and Wookiee's, because in some way we can relate to them.

Actual probability of human-like aliens aside, I think part of their success is the humanization factor of the characters.

Sam said...

If you have a look at some of the original designs of Donkey, or for that matter; the entire Shrek film, there are some very cool ideas, and what I think are better, of what Donkey should have looked like. I'm liking this blog. *link*

Erik Bongers said...

Glad to have helped expand your movie list !
I admit that I've been watching the second clip (the cougar and the meeting with foster papa bear) over and over again.
I think I will be buying the DVD and I hope it contains the-making-of, because I remember from TV that after almost every rock in those landscape scenes there is an animal trainer hiding !