Creature and Character Design | Illustration


Nov 28, 2014

Character Design Project Walkthrough | Client: ELKAR Publishing

Hi there! So it seems I can now share with you this Character Design project I did almost a year ago. Bellow you'll find a narration of what I was presented with and what the process of creating these characters was like. I hope you find it insightful!

So last winter, a publishing company from the Basque Country called ELKAR asked me to design the lead characters for a series of illustrated books, which could potentially turn into an animated project as well*. I was in Canada at the time, but being Basque myself, they tickled my motherland-pride (heh) and got me interested (and somewhat homesick) right away. However, I made sure to leave emotions aside, and negotiate a solid deal, for the work that I was going to have to do. After some wrestling, my bid was accepted and we were on our way!

The draft that was presented to me, along with two short stories (which I really enjoyed, btw) described a pair of twins as the protagonists, with their mystical grandmother and a very wise black cat; who would take the young readers on different adventures throughout Basque History. So right off the bat, there were a couple of key design considerations I would have to keep in mind:
  • *The fact that the illustrated project could potentially evolve into an animated series, meant the designs would need to function in both mediums; as well as providing model and expression sheets. 
  • The lengthy historic timeline implied that either the characters would need to have multiple different costume designs, or a neutral attire that could fit in different time periods. The client chose the latter.
So the first thing I did was to visualize in my mind what I imagined the characters to be like as I read the stories. That gave me a "feel" for the characters to help me inform my design choices further down the process. Then I gathered some reference along the lines of what I was envisioning (See bellow) to get the client's thoughts on it and see if we were on the same page. 

CREDIT: Some of the images above belong to the great Marie Thorhauge, others are the work of the always amazing Headless Studio, and the rest are old sketches of mine from different projects. 

Once I reconciled my vision with what the client was looking for, I started sketching out different potential line ups... with slightly different looks/styles. You can see those bellow:

Option A had more of an old-timey feel and was more geared for a traditionally animated project eventually. Option B was a bit more solid and stylized, and would be more CG or ToonBoom friendly. Option B was favored by the client; they loved the Grandma, but some notes were given about all three other characters that needed to be addressed in another iteration (Bellow). 

I pitched this one as the potential final line up, and luckily they loved it! Something to note, design-wise, is that there was an underlying mystical touch to these characters in the writing, which I wanted to make sure translated onto the design. For instance, Grandma (Andere) has a duck-like right foot that she discreetly conceals with her clothing: In the story, she's a half "rivermaid", a common creature in Basque mythology. The clothing I chose for her is inspired in a traditional attire, which used to be worn by women in coastal towns in the Basque Country, and is still worn today during traditional festivities. 

The other characters weren't inherently mythical, but I felt like I wanted to infuse their designs with a bit of that same feel. Specially that of the girl (Lur), as she was described as the more adventurous and closer to her Grandma. I pushed her feline features to resemble how gnomes and elfs are often depicted in Basque mythology. The cat (Baltaxar) was described as being darkly colored or black, but I chose to push that feature by making him pitch black, to the point where his inner features are lost into a silhouette. I made the boy, Amets, the most neutral of all, as he was described as the more cautious and somewhat fearful of all characters; and so he would feel a bit out of tune with the feel and pace of the other more confident characters, even from a design point of view. 

Since the designs were accepted, I went on to developing some model and expression sheets for each of the characters:

Baltaxar, the cat, was an interesting character to work on. Building on the idea of him always being seen as a black silhouette with eyes and nose... I pitched the client the idea that he could perhaps move as a shadow over very few frames (thinking about animation here), leaving a stylized trail, and even disappear when entering dark places, with only his eyes, nose and whiskers being visible. A bit of a "Cheshire Cat" effect, if you will. The client was on board this idea as soon as the model sheet above was presented to them. As you can see on the model sheet, as Art Direction note to any artists coming into the project down the road, I recommended for the structure and limbs of the cat to be sketched, even if they were eventually going to be lost within the blackness of the silhouette, as this would help the overall shape make sense and read better. 

At this point, I was able to create a color version of the character line up, for which developed color charts for different times of day. You can see a couple of those bellow, including a step by step chart I made describing the process I followed to achieve that look. 

The indications on this last image, as the rest of the project, are written in Basque, for the rest of the artists coming into it in the future. Just in case anyone reading this might be interested in knowing what the steps were, I'm translating them bellow:
  • Clean up.
  • Base color. Line art in Overlay mode.
  • Local colors (solid) in Normal mode, on a clipping mask or with transparency blocked. 
  • Darks and "stains" on Overlay mode, also on a clipping mask.
  • Lights and Rim Light on overlay mode, also on a clipping mask.
  • For the "Through-the-trees highlights" effect, create some white marks with an irregular brush on Overlay mode. Duplicate that layer, apply and delete the mask so transparency is no longer restricted, and then apply a Gaussian Blur effect to that layer, in order to achieve that luminous look. 
And that's it! I hope you enjoyed the post and hopefully found it insightful in some way! Thanks for stopping by and feel free to ask anything or comment! Cheers!

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Oct 15, 2014

#Inktober 2014 | "Faun"

Craft paper | Sakura Pigma Micron 08, [Black] | Uni-Ball Signo, [White]

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Oct 9, 2014

Animation Mentor CREW Characters | Creating Aia

Hey, hey! At last, the first of the new characters I'm designing for Animation Mentor has been officially announced! Her name is Aia and she's a member of the CREW, the new batch of advanced characters that comes as a follow up and an evolution to The TRIBE characters I had previously designed. This means I get to show what went into the process of creating her...

Meet AIA.
She's the Pilot of The Crew and an all around badass. This was the premise I had in mind for Aia... someone who was confident, adventurous, filled with positive energy... as well as captivating and appealing as a result. I wanted that appeal to come from within and build the design around that driven personality, of an unrestrained and comfortable-with-herself person. Okay, okay! So I might have romanticized her personality a bit... So what. I strongly believe that as a character designer, whether you're designing a likable character or a villain, you have to invest yourself emotionally with it, if it's going to result in a genuine and memorable character. Plus, I draw whatever I please, so beat it... Here she is and this is how she came to be! Enjoy!

Once my proposal for the concept of the Crew got picked up (which I unfortunately can't show you images of, since it includes the other characters that will be coming out in the future) and we decided to start further developing the lead female character... I went looking for reference. In this particular case, I can't say it was a very tedious process  ♥v♥

This last model is Devon Jade and I feel obliged to give her special credit, as I was greatly inspired by photographs of her more than any other's. The striking white hair was a big part of it I'm sure, as this was a trait that I wanted to have in this character, even before I came across this particular model. 

Simultaneously, I was doing quick sketches and explorations to try to find the character. These type of sketches are also useful to receive feedback from the client and get a better idea of what they might like. Ever since I started collaborating with Animation Mentor, I've been working closely with the great Bobby Beck (CEO & co-Founder of Animation Mentor) and in this particular case, him and the team over at AM fell for #7 bellow. So, the sketches continued developing in that direction.

Fun fact... #2 was inspired by this rad looking cute girl I briefly came across at a bar in San Sebastian. I would have so loved to go with a hairstyle like that.You never know where inspiration will strike... sometimes it just "walks into a bar". 

Once we settled on a design for Aia, I proceeded to create a detailed rendering of it, to server as solid reference for modelling and texturing down the road. I'd like to thank my friend Jose Manuel Fernandez Oli (also known as Olijosman), who currently kicks major ass at Blue Sky, for sitting down with me and sharing his wisdom back when he visited last summer... I'm still nowhere near his genius, but he's definitely been a big influence in the way that I try to approach this type of renderings. And if you know his work, you can probably tell "I was trying to do an Oli" ;)

Once the color render of the design was given the "final" stamp, we started working on the modeling of Aia. In order to give art direction on the modeling progress, I did some paint overs over initial sculpts by our modeler, before moving to poly-modeling. Working with stylized human characters is specially difficult, as everyone's eye is naturally trained and highly critical when looking at these types of designs. Appeal is a tricky thing. 

After numerous iterations and by the end, minuscule adjustments, we eventually came to Aia's final model, which was then ready to go into Rigging and Texturing. As you can see bellow, we put great attention to detail in all areas... subtlety is complex.  

At this point the process diverted into two simultaneous streams: Rigging and Texturing. For the former, I created an expression sheet for Aia with a collection of notes and objectives that I thought we really needed to nail. Luckily for us, we had the amazing Ozgur Aydogdu in charge of rigging, and well, as he usually does, he knocked it out of the park. As a former character animator myself, when I first got my hands on the rig and was able to play with it... it amazed me how intuitive and easy was to get very rich and appealing expressions very quickly. I still want to create some poses and renders of my own... perhaps even an animation? 

Pretty much simultaneously, I was working with Animation Mentors shader artist Rachel Ito, to develop Aia's look. Closely referencing my color rendered sketch of Aia, I was in charge of painting the color/diffuse maps that would then be applied by Rachel along with her shaders. Here are some viewport snapshots, just displayng the basic color maps with no lighting or shaders yet. 

At some point during the rigging process, once we started seeing some animation tests by the amazing Lluis Llobera, we came to the realization that even though the standard hair was working and looking great, it was perhaps too big of a leap forward for beginner animators coming from the TRIBE characters. So, while we definitely wanted to keep Aia's standard hair, we determined it'd be wise to add an optional alternate hairstyle that would be shorter, with fewer controllers, and thus easier to animate. It was time to go looking for reference again and start sketching and exploring.

While I would have gladly gone for something more rad, it was decided that we went with the pixie cut, which turned out very well in the end. At first I designed it as one single bulk of geometry, but we felt it was a little boring... so I developed an alternate design with separate strands of hair, which is the one we ended up going with, and is now the optional alternate hairstyle for Aia. You can compare the two versions bellow:

And this basically brings us to now! There's an animation test coming up soon that I can't share with you just yet, but I'll update this post with it when it's out. If you have any questions about the design and creation process of Aia (that I might be able to answer), feel free to ask in the comments bellow!

Oh! I guess there's room here for a small p.s... So you might be wondering about the name Aia. I was offered the privilege of naming the character I had become quite attached to, after working on her for so long; so I named her Aia, after a mountain in my hometown of Oiartzun (Basque Country), called the Stone of Aia. It's a very peculiar landmark, and a very important one for me. Whenever I come back from my travels and see it pop up in the horizon, that's when I know I'm home. So yeah, if you are a die hard Animation Mentor fan, and feel like doing some creative pilgrimage, gimme a shout when you visit this part of the world, and I'll be happy to take you for a hike to the top of The Stone of Aia ;)

Original photograph by Seamus 1372

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