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Developing Characters, Environments, and Story Boards

Lesson 5 of 13

Developing a Cast of Characters with Style

Mary Jane Begin

Developing Characters, Environments, and Story Boards

Mary Jane Begin

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Lesson Info

5. Developing a Cast of Characters with Style

Lesson Info

Developing a Cast of Characters with Style

Developing a cast of characters with style. What I mean by that is not you have to be stylish to create characters, but when you're creating characters in a world there can be multiple styles of how you translate that. What I've just shown you has a certain look and feel to it but there's more than one way to do this. Here you have the Permadeath lineup. You see, we understand something from the silhouette, the variation of these characters, and their shapes and sizes. When you bring color to it, you can see the two different teams, and really be able to identify them on screen both because of their shape and because of their color. Let's look at this lineup. This is from the student that I showed you before. These are the kind of finished character lineup for all four characters from the story. When you look at them, there's a really nice variation of size and shape to tell you who's who, and also the color pallette tells us a lot. This character's pallette is really the opposite of t...

he villain character. It has to do with the saturation of the colors, the intensity, sort of the asymmetry of the character, versus his sort of rigidity and paleness. That's an instant cue that they're really different, one from the other. I also like that this character has this little hair point that goes up, and she's actually a good character. She's rough, but she's befriended this character. The opposite of that character, with that little point that goes down. Those little tells, they're tiny, but we pick them up as human beings. We see that. I think that's interesting. The color pallette, the shapes. I mean, look at this. You kinda know already, based on his expression, that he doesn't really wanna go along with anything that's gonna happen, but he does. He's a little afraid, but he goes along. This is this character named Rune. One of the things that you can do when you're doing a turnaround, once you've done your sketches and your roughs, is creating lines that show like this is where the elbow is. This is where the neck is, top of head, just guidelines as you're making that turnaround. It's a very simple exercise, but that helps to keep things proportionate as you're drawing it again and again. People often have a hard time with that. They draw a character three times and it looks like three different people. When you start out practicing, just do these horizontal lines to create like where's the waistline, and keep the proportions really consistent. The other thing I wanna point out is that Rune is an artist. She's creative, and so hence the idea was like, how can we push that? You get the patches on the leg, one sock up, one sock down, one earring, not two. Everything about her is asymmetrical, not balanced in even the sense that everything is perfect. Also her color pallette. She's wearing complimentary colors like we are wearing today, Kenna, purple and green. That kind of gives you a cue of what her personality is like and who she is and what she's all about. Of course she has a magic wand, so that helps. This is a really different world, created by another student. This is a design for a comic book series. It's actually not for a game or animation. This person really wanted to create a world that's dystopian and dark, so hence the pallette dials into the kind of sensibility. It's also more rendered and realistic looking than what you just saw, which was very flat, very graphic, based on sort of traditional cartoon stylization. This is not that. And so, instantly, when you look at this, if you could describe, Kenna, what is the feel difference from what I just showed you, to this? What, just what's your instant feel in terms of how the story would be different, what you would expect? The characters in the last ones were more light. I mean the shapes were kind of more bouncy, I guess, if you will. Whereas, this is darker. The color tone, the color pallette is darker. The facial expressions are darker. Maybe a little bit more stylized or realistic, if you will? It's more realistic. As soon as we dial into realism, we expect things to be a little more serious, typically, unless the pallette denies that. If the pallette is more muted and neutralized, and the imagery is more realistic, we expect the story to be in that vein. Interesting. You're trying to match the style to what the story is about and what you want to suggest to the viewer. You also might notice that, I want you to just pay attention. Her shapes are very rounded. She's the heroine. She's not the villain, and so she has a lot, there's a lot of roundness to her characterization. Typically we, as humans, see round shapes, organic shapes as friendly, as connected, and pointy shapes as sharp and potentially dangerous. That's not uncommon in character design to push a character, and you can play with that, but to push a character to have more round shapes if they're meant to be friendly and approachable, and sharp shapes if they're not. You can see the world that he lives in is, you know, the pallette is muted. It really reflects the kind of coloration that you see in her costume, her hair, and the overall pallette. This is just a closeup of that. Again, what's interesting as you start to see a character in its context, they really do have to align. You can't, I mean, can you imagine the characters, like Rune with a magical wand, in this world? It would be unthinkable. Your characters have to merge with the world that they're in to make us the viewer believe that it's real. This is the villain character for this storyline. I mean, would there be any question that this is the villain character? What's the cue to you that like, okay, this character's probably not very nice. Oh, to me? Yeah. Well, not just the facial expressions, but even the gestures, and then the harshness of the hair. The hair, and this is, he really pushed this. The hair is meant to look like a claw. It's this, like dial the heat out really cold, so you say, "Oh, this must be like a cold character." And the points, everything about her costume, and her hair, and even her facial features is pointed. The pointedness, it's like we think of knife. We think of sharp things that hurt us. Anytime you start to see pointed shapes, there is this instant, intuitive response. Any human being is gonna be like, "Oh, sharp." You can counterbalance that, and create a complex character that might have more than one sort of sensibility, but when you're coming at it straight to figure out, what's my initial response? This is what we read here. I think it's really interesting, because you know, if you contrast the two, it's really pretty obvious who you might align with and feel like will be friendly to you, and that you will connect to in a storyline, as opposed to how is maybe the dangerous one. Now, this is, again, stylistically (makes whooshing noise), you know, we just turned the wheel. We're in a whole different world. This is called Robouquet. Basically it's robots, and a Robouquet, and a flower pallette. These are like roller derby gals, and each of these characters, their color pallette is based on, this is Magnolia, the color of the flower. Look at the stylization. I mean, all these characters, they're made up. They're invented. They're very much like the character with Rune, where you see it's very stylized. It looks like a cartoon, but if you notice the body form, it's pretty realistic. It's based on real human anatomy and really well drawn. It convinces us of this form being, maybe not as serious as what you just saw, but maybe not quite as silly or flamboyant as the first thing that I showed you. What's interesting is this student really carried that through. I recommend that if you're trying to play with proportions, study the human body. Take an anatomy class. How do you draw a human being? I think that that's a critical piece, even if you're stylizing it to a really simplified form. Understanding how the body proportions are aligned so you can play with those proportions is a critical piece. I think this is a very cleverly done storyline. This was also a pitch for an animation. Look at these mechs. Are these frightening to you at all? (laughing) It's because their color pallette is really sweet. It's flower based. They're rounded. They're bulbous. They're not sharp and sort of angled. Everything about them is kind of cute. And they also, there's a feminine quality to the basic shapes of these forms. It's a really fun play to make these feel both mechanical but not overly mechanized. Also the simplicity of the designs to create, it's mechanized, but it's not in fine-tuned detail as to what those mechanical parts are. It's not focused on that. What programs or software are your students using to generate some of these characters? The primary one is Photoshop. Most of the work that you've seen was done in Photoshop. The character with Rune with the magical wand, that was done in a vector program, Illustrator. The Adobe programs are really big at RISD, so that's what most of my students use. Some students though, use Procreate. If they work on the iPad they use Procreate or Adobe Sketch, because it's, Procreate is really fabulous, because you can do a sketch, you can hit, you know, re-track it and then show the process. It shows every stage that you took to get to that final. That can be really instructive and very fun to watch, but you can figure out where you might change something, based on that. The Adobe programs, Procreate are the primary, but Illustrator and Photoshop is probably, I'd say 90% of my students know how to use it, and that's what they use when they're creating rendered forms. Thank you. You're welcome. And just for people who are new to this type of illustration, a question had come in about, can you define what rendering means? Yes, oh absolutely. When you're thinking about a form, if it has any level of dimension, where you have light and shadow, it's considered rendered, drawn out to tell about the light and the shadow. If it's flat, shape oriented with no sense of strong light and shadow, or if there's light, it's a shape of light and a shape of shadow. That is considered a graphic approach. So, rendering, think dimensions with a soft transition between light and shadow. Graphic approach is more flat, shape based. They're two stylistically different ways of approaching things. And examples I showed really do talk about that. Permadeath is more, ended up being more rendered. Light and shadow transitions are soft and more realistic, and the things like with the character of Rune or the other project is more flat and graphic, or shape based.

Class Description

Instructor Mary Jane Begin is an award-winning illustrator and author of children’s picture books, a Rhode Island School of Design graduate and professor in the Illustration Department.

In this course, Mary Jane will help viewers learn about the components of developing a visual narrative and learn about best practices for creating more believable characters, authentic worlds and compelling, dynamic visuals that tell a story.

She will cover the following topics

  • Creating a cast of characters
  • Developing characters through multiple iterations
  • Creating a turn-around
  • Inventing environments
  • Designing images/storyboards
  • Layout and understanding light, stylization, and overall pacing of imagery.

Mary Jane will also guide viewers through developing compositions, creating depth of field and merging real and imaginary worlds. The course will come to life through real-world projects both from Mary Jane and from other masters of the industry.



I have to say, this class and the companion class were very humbling. I assume I am not like most people who would watch this class in that I have no such artistic talent. I cannot draw at all (limited to "Spike" from TED Talks), but I had no idea such thought, imagination or ideology went into creating these designs. Professor Begin has an amazing presentation style, she is clear, concise and thoughtful. The subject matter was amazing and I can only see it helping me in evaluating my own work and taking a whole new perspective on art, light and evaluation. I highly recommend this class whatever no matter your creative bent. Thank you Creative Live for hosting this wonderful speaker.

a Creativelive Student

This course is well organized, very informative and goes into great detail regarding the best way to develop character(s) and how they should relate to their environment. Mary Jane articulates her points through art fundamentals, color theory and the power of strong research - as well as her extensive experience in the creative industry. I highly recommend this course for anyone interested in advancing their career or pursuing a career in animation, game design, or children's book publishing.

Nancy Morrison

Excellent!! This is a course that I will review over and over for there are so many great bits of information extremely well explained embedded in the broad concepts of composition and detailed illustration both in her own pieces and that of constructive critiquing her student's work. MJ is an excellent teacher! I am looking forward to her other classes! Nancy