Skip to main content

Developing Characters, Environments, and Story Boards

Lesson 4 of 13

Exploring Movement, Facial Expression and Costume Design


Developing Characters, Environments, and Story Boards

Lesson 4 of 13

Exploring Movement, Facial Expression and Costume Design


Lesson Info

Exploring Movement, Facial Expression and Costume Design

For this exercise, as I mentioned, the students started with a lot of historical reference. They did a lot of Greek mythology studies and that was really helpful for costume development. But again, the production team was like, no, we want you to move further, we want you to move to something more dynamic, something more exciting. So the students started to riff and they started to think about music because this thing would be set to music. They started to think about action figures and action heroes. And they started to think about the motion of these weapons and how they would act. I just think that's funny, a little candle with fire because Apollo had an impulsive, passionate, all of the characteristics you would expect of a sun god. So they just started thinking about those adjectives and started to really riff. Now these are some examples of, for Apollo, he uses what almost looks like a chariot of fire to slay his victims. And so they were starting to think about that action and m...

otion, still keeping it really loose. And this is something I really recommend. Once you've kind of got an idea of who your character is, is doing an expression sheet. This is common in animation. This is common in gaming and even for children's books. Doing expression sheets helps you know who is my character? What does their face look like? And you can see that Apollo is, he's a dude, you know, he's like your classic, hard-featured, strong, loud, and powerful. There's a lot of testosterone here in this character. And the design of that reflects it. There's a lot of sharp angles. The face is very hard. The jaw is hard, the mouth is large. You can almost hear him when you look at these sketches, or I can when I look at this. You could read the dialog or not. But this is something that I think is critical to step in closer to the character by studying the face. Now here you see the character lineup. This is a common device used for gaming and for animation, seeing the character from front, side, back, in this case, the power-up format. And the reason why we do this is because the people who are translating this to something that's moving need to understand what the character looks like from different points of view. So this is really a critical piece. The other thing that you can see here is that we've started to think about color. Because Apollo is a sun god, he has to be in the warm, sort of, zone. He's about light and heat and his power is flame and fire and sun. So you can see the palette is all dialed in the direction of warm tones. Now the other thing I wanna mention is that there are two teams. So this particular team, team Phoebus, is all related to sun, and light, and warm, and heat, and technology. So we had to kind of think about that as we developed each character for this particular team. And it had to be the opposite of the other team. I have a question. So in the exercise of doing front, side, back, power-up, one leg and no arm, tell me about that. So this is something, I know it looks very weird but in animation in particular, it helps them know what's happening on the side of the body, so the arm isn't covering it. So it's just a common convention. You'll see it a few times now as I show you other things. But that's just again, it's just to see the side form of the body. But you see this one's highly rendered. And then these others are simpler. It's because once they've done the render, which will inform the Becker college students how to render it in dimensions with light and shadow, they don't need to repeat that because this gives them a kind of clear idea of that direction. And it also takes time. We had five weeks to do this project. So it wasn't a very long period of time. You had to cut some corners. But that's really the indication of the final render for CG. This is his power-up stage. And again, that flame, that color, is a really important indicator of the action that's about to happen when he goes into battle. So the students wanted to indicate to the other side of students building the CG, okay, we want this to happen because this will really excite the viewers onscreen to see this in battle and we want you to know how active that action is. So this next character is Artemis and she's also from classic Greek mythology. And as you can see, she used the bow and arrow, she's sort of the goddess of the wood. So the initial studies focused on that kind of historical classical reference. But because this whole team, they decided we're going to be mechs, mechanical beings, they were part human, part mech, that they had to start to dial it in to, okay, what if you combine this historical reference with mechanical parts? So they started to look at prosthetics, a prosthetic arm, a prosthetic leg, or legs, and then combine that with the Greek mythology. The other issue was the moon. She's the goddess of the moon so at first they were thinking maybe the hat would reference that moon shape. But then someone came up with the idea of the moon being the weapon which I thought was wildly cool and very dramatic. So it's interesting when you have a group of people working on something. Oftentimes you are in your studio space, you're doing your own thing, but if you can collaborate with several people or a whole team, it can be really exciting to see all the different ideas that bubble up. So this is Artemis, who is actually the sister of Apollo in battle form. And you can see the prosthetic arm, how it's attached to the bow and arrow, how the legs form, and again, the action poses to tell us how this character might move is really helpful for the team to understand. And you notice that her face is designed very much like Apollo because they're siblings. She's not like a feminine character. She has more masculine qualities. She's strong, she's powerful and this was a decision the students wanted. They were like, Artemis can kick it. She's amazing. She's as strong as Apollo. So they designed her face to look a little like his because she's a sibling but also they wanted those same cues, the strong angled eyebrow, which kind of indicates a fierceness, the strong jaw, and not a lot of rounded shapes, a lot of hard shapes and angular geometry to the face. Again, this is how you make things believable, even if they're fantasy-based. So this arm that they've created is based on prosthetics. The students had a whole wall of prosthetic arms and legs that they wanted to incorporate in this character. So they researched it so it made it believable. Even though it's made up, it's still believable because they studied how it actually functions. This is the phases of the moon as she powers up, before she fires. They even went so far as to think about how would that function? When she lets go of this arrow, how does it come through the moon face? So I thought that was really interesting, very detailed, and again, they didn't have to do this, but this was them thinking through how to make the project as strong as it could be. And this is the final lineup for Artemis. You can see again, this is rendered and these are simplified. You also see her palette. She's not as warm as Apollo but she's still in the warm realm of coloration. This was a little too cool so they dialed her to be a little more neutral-warm. All of team Phoebus has to be about some level of warmth. Now this is Mini-B. The libretto's favorite character is the little tiny pig who is the sidekick or the pet of Artemis. Now notice Artemis is like hard-edged and sharp and she's powerful. Mini-B is a little potbelly pig. He's the opposite, he's soft, and round, and sweet. And he has no natural ability to fight in battle. So when they looked at this, the production team was like, you know, it's good, but that character looks like a toy, looks like a doll, like a stuffed animal. There's no life in those eyes. And I'm pointing this out because this is a really common problem when people are designing characters is they forget the eyes, the mouth, the face gives expression and tells us how the character feels. So by not giving it expression, it felt like it wasn't alive. So she said, "I want it to be more like a real pig, "like an actual real pig." So the students went back, they did a whole set of new sketches and now they based Mini-B more on like a little child, like a little three-year-old, but also a pig. And here you see the leg of Artemis and Mini-B is clinging to that leg. Now Kenna, when you look at the pig and you look at the leg, does anything come to mind in terms of their difference? You mean of the last one? The difference between Mini-B and say, Artemis. It's just her leg, I know, but... Well, doesn't have that same mechanical or fierce feel. A little bit wimpier (laughs). Yes, he's little, you know, there's no way, she'd have to protect him unless he has other means. But the difference is really, you get a size relationship. He's really tiny, she's really big. He's round and soft and she's hard, crisp. So it's not just that we're trying to express a difference between Mini-B and Artemis. It's that when you have characters, you want contrast because if you don't have contrast, it becomes less interesting in terms of storytelling. So here, the libretto said, well, Mini-B somehow turns into Boris when they go into battle. Well her idea was that just magically, poof, little Mini-B turns into this big massive boar. Well, the students were like, no, no, no, they're technology-based, Mini-B would have like a machine that he would get inside of and that would be his way of battling. So they started to mechanize, little Mini-B is inside of that thing and they move from a power-up that's physical to something mechanical which was, she thought that was a great idea and I agree. And they started to think about, well, how would attacking Boris move? How would it be powered? So again, they were looking at machines, and engines, and trains, and different things to figure out how this character would move when it's actually battling other characters. And this is the final translation of Mini-B. Of course Mini-B has to have costumes. It has to be Greek-related. 'Cause he's very proud of his outfit and he always has to have some level of pink. And they had to warm it up too. They had to make sure he had something warm. And this is the mechanism, this is the machine, that Mini-B gets inside of. You could see that Mini-B is like a little pig right in there. So this is his power-up machine. And again, if you look at the legs, it's just like Artemis. So that's the connection between the two. And just to remind you, this is the final kind of translation. This is a prototype but this is what it will look like onscreen moving for the final opera. Now remind you, this is a video game opera. So it's this weird combination. But I think it's really interesting to think about the first sketches and some of the sketches I just showed and where it was landing. So all of this is about process. You're getting to the story through this development process. And that's, I think, it's not something that happens instantly, full-born, ever. So here we have Adonis. And Adonis was probably the most controversial figure and character in all of this. And I think it's interesting to know because the idea for the opera being a video game is to pull young people to go to operas. Operas are attended by a lot of, let's just say, the older generation. And so to bring young people in, the librettos was really interested in connecting. And so the idea was that by making it a video game, that would happen. Well, the students contended, when they were doing the characterization of Adonis, is that it should be gender-fluid. It should be non-gender. It could be male or female. Well, the production company said, well, traditionally, that character is a feminine looking male. So we want to be true to that but you can land there in however what way you want to. So they started off with a very feminine-looking character and then shifted to something that was more androgynous. And then even went as far as to make a kind of mechanized-looking Greek statue which was a springboard for the next steps. But remember, this was all different students combining ideas, pulling out the things that make sense, discarding things that maybe weren't as strong. They landed on the idea that Adonis should be more of a boy. Like, maybe he's a teenager or a 20-something, but a young boy and that he is attracting Apollo and Aphrodite. He's the power of attraction. But he's wily, and he's unpredictable, and moody, and emotional. Hence the idea of a teenager. And this is the character expression sheets to kind of understand who he is. And again, they discarded the Venus Fly Trap but they kept the whip idea. And now you can see the translation of the sort of young boy, between 18 and 20-year-old character as the Adonis. And this is his final turnaround. And what they wanted to do again was to combine, he's a mech, and he's human. So there's a combination here. They wanted to make sure, he's about the heart. He's about love. But he's also, he attracts with the love, with this glowing heart. But it's covered by glass because it's his vulnerability. It's both his strength and his vulnerability. And that plays out in the storyline. So they wanted to represent that symbolically in his person. So I really thought that was a very clever translation. I also think the choice of red is spot on because he's about love. So he had to be this palette. He also connects with the larger team Phoebus, which is all about warm colors and tones. Now this is the other team. And can you see a difference here? And what would you see? What's the first thing that comes to mind when you look at what you just saw and what you're seeing now for the other team? Well, for starters, is that color palette. This now is cold versus the warm. That's where I would start. Yep. Is there anything else about the form that instantly strikes you? Just think silhouette or shape. Well, it seems to be much bigger, rounder, not as mechanical-feeling. Yeah, so this whole team is based on the night. It's based on earthiness and coming up from the earth. Everything is earth-bound. So it's nature-based. That's why that the opposite in terms of palette, because they're tied to the night. But she looks like a mountain. And so they started to think about how can we translate the physical world we know into characters and make them feel really the opposite of the mechanized, warm, sun god team. So they looked to symbols of night, obviously fireflies, night sky, a moth, things like that. So this was the early translation of this character Niobe. And she's a mother character so their initial sketches made her really old and it was not quite right because she's meant to be a mom with like nine kids. So they started this translation and then did some younger expression sheet to show, in battle, she loses all nine children. So we wanted really to see both her arrogance and her agony. And so that was important to be able to capture that. And I'll mention that one of the things that became extremely important for this opera, was the ability to see the face. Initially the technology, the face was not going to change. And the librettos was like, we have to see the expression on the face. The only reason why we care about characters is because we understand their emotion. We feel pathos for them. So that was one of the reasons why we really had to go through this exercise because of the tragedy of what she experiences. This is her turnaround and again, they drew from, in this case, sort of Asian warrior costume combined with the idea of earthiness and things from a forest and then combining that with the idea of night, which I thought was a really beautiful translation and combination of these disparate elements coming together to make one idea. And that's really also the crux of making interesting things is juxtaposing unexpected tangents, things that you don't think about, you put it together in this new stew and suddenly, it's an invention and it's yours. It's not complicated, you just have to be able to pull from different sources to make that happen. So this is her power-up stage. She's rooted to the Earth and she moves almost like the Hulk, how she battles. She battles with power and banging the earth. And she has this glowing orb in her back where all of her children pop out of which is a kind of a wild concept. But you see it's all roots, and greenery through her whole body. And all the characters are related in this way. These were the initial sketches for the children, right here. And this was the sketch that came after. Kenna, if you look at it, what do you think is the difference between these character studies and that one? Well, this one on the right-hand side looks more human to me. Whereas the ones on the left seem more non-human character. They're bug-like, right? Bug-like, yeah. So the initial sketches, they didn't look like humans and the problem there again has to do with emotion, that we wouldn't care if they look like bugs. So what if you slay all of Niobe's children. They're not really children. So we had to go back and the students started thinking about, what if they are children? They look like human beings. The audience will care more. And so that was a transformation that was really critical. And this is the final turnaround for Niobe's children. And you can see that the eyes are large, maybe like a seven-year-old child. The costume is related to Niobe's because it's all made of roots and leaves. But they're dangerous too. They have these claw-like shapes that they have to use in battle. And they have a power-up. They're connected to their mother through this portal in the back. So it's a really wild invention of some of the things we recognize from movies, maybe from other video games and original to these students and their ideas. So now we come to Aphrodite. This was another challenging character because Aphrodite is supposed to represent the highest ideal of beauty. So the first sketches were your typical, what I would call a trope, an expectation of something that's sort of a generic vision of what Aphrodite would look like. She has an hourglass figure. She had kind of blondish hair. She was not truly, deeply inventive. She was just typical. And so the students didn't feel satisfied with this translation. They like the idea that she would cast these mirror shapes as her weapon, because mirrors represent vanity. But they weren't really excited about that. So they started to do, about halfway through the project. They were pretty settled on this and then a group of students were like, no, no, no, no. This isn't gonna work. We need something more interesting in terms of how we translate beauty. They decided to shift to a different kind of figure. They wanted to go with an African-American female who is not a size two, who's powerful and beautiful, but not your classic vision of Aphrodite. And so this took off. And the class supported it, as did the production team which was amazing and wonderful. So these are just some character expression sheets of our powerful Aphrodite. As you'll see, her hair turns out to be turquoise. Again, these are fantasy characters. They're not like real people. They held onto the idea of the shield, throwing this, sort of mirror shapes all across the space. So that's how she would slay her victims. And again, you look at her figure. She's not your classic vision of what you think Aphrodite should look like. But that's what made her amazing and beautiful is that she is a different standard of beauty. And that is what my students wanted to do is to say, let's pull past these generic ideas, these old notions of things. In many ways, let's blow past what we've seen in history and come up with a new idea. And so she ended up being this beautiful form that represents a couple different things. The mirror shapes, but also, if you might remember the shells, that's a classic association with Aphrodite. And also the feathers, the swan, that's another classic, symbolic association with Aphrodite. So it incorporated all those elements into her outfit to express that she is Aphrodite and then of course, she has this beautiful array of reflective mirrors that she uses. They're beautiful but they're also dangerous. So as a character, she is kind of two things, she's rounded and she has sharp elements. So she's both beautiful and dangerous, very much like her love interest, Adonis. My favorite character in this whole thing is Marsyas. Now Marsyas is supposed to be a satyr so he's part man, part beast. So initially a lot of the drawings really focused on the beast part and not so much on this is supposed to also be a man. And so we moved from this, which he's supposed to be sort of agile but also he's made of all these overgrown elements. So they started to think about him more as a man. Spoiler alert, I'm gonna tell you what happens between he and Apollo. Apollo is, of course, a victor between Marsyas and Apollo. Could you imagine a sun god dealing with someone who, he's battling with daggers and a flute so he doesn't really have a shot. But we love Marsyas because he's a playful mischievous spirit. But here he's been transformed to be a little bit more of a human character with the legs and body being more animal-like. And so this is again, it's like trying to figure out, what does he look like? What are his body forms and shapes and how does he move? Again, I love these sketches because, literally, people look in the mirror, look at their face, and they make faces to capture, what does that expression look like? And I do want to reference as a great book for capturing facial expressions. It's by Scott McCloud, it's called Making Comics. And even though it says making comics, and he has another one called understanding comics, it's an excellent guide for anyone who wants to do narrative imagery. And he actually has a spread in the book, I believe two spreads, which combines, like, anger plus frustration, what does that face look like? And there's basic structural elements of a face but it captures the essence of that. So you really want to capture, what is the emotion of this character? And what I think is funny about this, is they wanted him to be, he's sort of gruff and you can imagine him pretending he's tough. But look at what the sprout on the top of his, like one little sprout, which has a lot of expression. And that tells you that he's vulnerable. And it's kind of foreshadowing because he is vulnerable. And then his final turnaround. I just think this is a stunning use of these. It's like some kind of gemstones and grass and he's made of wood. His form is humanoid but he could break. Or if he's introduced to fire, he's made of wood. He's gonna burn. So there's a lot to this character that before you even know the story, you can imagine what could happen in the interaction.

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