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A Lesson on Character Design by ‘SpongeBob’ Artist Robertryan Cory

Robert Ryan Cory, a veteran character designer on SpongeBob SquarePants and Secret Mountain Fort Awesome, has posted a helpful set of notes from a character design lecture he presented recently to CalArts animation students.

The 15-page lecture is available both on Flickr and Facebook (the latter is recommended because each image contains additional notes and comments).

Cory and I worked together on Ren & Stimpy: Adult Party Cartoon what now seems a lifetime ago, and it’s fascinating to see how much of his teaching approach is rooted in John Kricfalusi’s approach to drawing. The concepts, of course, are not unique to John K.; they are general concepts of solid draftsmanship. But the emphases placed on certain ideas gave me a sense of déjà vu, everything from Cory’s explanation of the different types of drawing (educational vs. disciplinary vs. experimental) to focal and supporting masses, and the conscious placement of details in specific areas.

Cory has his own idiosyncratic approach—he has absorbed his influences intelligently, filtering them through his own style, and he has evolved his own theories about drawing over the years. But his underlying approach can be distinctly traced to the Spumco school of cartooning. Seeing him expound these views to CalArts students seems appropriate because more than twenty years after Ren & Stimpy the Spumco approach surprisingly still dominates the CalArts ‘cartoony’ crowd, too, even if their shows (Adventure Time, Regular Show, Uncle Grandpa, Gravity Falls) have superficially different styles than Kricfalusi’s.

  • This is very comprehensive. I’m gonna have to hold on to this. Really great stuff here.

    Besides, where else are you going to find a sketch of Spongebob saying “I’m fuckin’ symmetrical”?

  • popyea

    Defining appeal as even distribution of mass blew my mind. I’m not sure why I didn’t realize this myself.

  • Robertryan Cory

    Hey thanks for the kind words and forgiving the misspellings ha(I had to write it really fast in between 2 jobs).

    I’d just like to clear up, I did learn a lot from John… But I learned the most from Lynne Naylor, Ed Benedict, and Craig Kellman. They gave me a lot of the fundamentals and I expanded it by experimenting and failing on purpose to see the results.

    This was all for a lecture at Calarts in my buddy, Dominic’s class. I gave a similar lecture in Phil Rynda’s class 3 years ago but decided to share this junk online because it can get confusing.

    I just want to make sure those 5 people get credited.

  • zoe

    There’s a lot of stuff in this lecture that seems somewhat arbitrary to me… For example, he seems to claim that even numbers are inherently more “appealing” than odd, and cites as evidence the fact that a character who is 2 heads tall will be more appealing than one who is 3 heads tall, and that a character whose eyes take up 1/2 the head will be more appealing than one whose eyes take up 1/3.

    But that doesn’t really have anything to do with 2 being an even number, it has to do with neoteny and the appealing qualities of babies, who are born with disproportionately large heads and eyes. For that matter, a character who is 3 heads tall will be more “appealing” than a character who is 4 heads tall. It’s not that the numbers themselves are magical by being odd or even, it’s because evolution has left us with a soft spot for disproportionately big heads and big eyes.

    I like where he’s going with the notion of balancing contrast with evenness, but I think it’s a mistake to equate evenness with “appeal.”

    • Robertryan Cory

      awesome, prove me wrong by drawing it rather than saying it. I encourage discontent.

      I came across this stuff from numerous years and lessons from other designers. Ed Benedict, Kellman, Naylor all would try to avoid landing anything on evens because it flattened, and looked less sophisticated.

      Sanrio always split on halfs and evens…super appealing.

      but please show me your approach.

      • Elana Pritchard
      • zoe

        Hi again – yeah, Elana was right that I was thinking at first about the Preston Blair baby design. But I also did some sketches to try to get at some of the other stuff. In the first one I did a bunch of heads which I consider “appealing” (and a Calvin down there), but all with different size eyes. I think appeal can be designed with eyes of any size. The second sketch, I tried to design the same character first at 2.5 heads tall on the right, then 2 heads on the left. To me, the 2.5 head one is more appealing, even though it’s not even-steven. Last I just fooled around with more bears of different head heights, and I think potential is there for any of them to be the basis for appealing designs. I think it’s possible that we may just disagree on what looks appealing, or I might be misunderstanding your definition of appeal.

        • guest

          I completely agree with you about the subject in general and your drawings. Assuming that by “appealing” we mean “likeable”. And if that is not what “appealing” is, what’s the point of it then?

  • Elana Pritchard

    There is no mathematical formula for appeal. It is a more abstract concept than that.

    • Roberto Severino

      What do you know! I said something similar on Tumblr but I also said that RR Cory was probably just trying to find the best way to explain an often difficult to visually concept to people. I really think a lot of it just comes naturally after you’ve learned how to draw well and mastered the fundamentals, etc. and really also depends on the show, the context and what the show demands.

  • Derik

    These were great lecture notes. I’m still very confused by aspects of character design. It’s one of those things I’m not sure if I’m good at yet. Does anybody know of any character design courses I can take either online or near L.A.? I would like to learn more about appealing drawings or characters, correct spacing and shapes.

    • largo

      Stephen Silver has a studio he just opened up where he teaches.