Shannon Tindle Explains Why Characters Today Look Awful Shannon Tindle Explains Why Characters Today Look Awful

Shannon Tindle Explains Why Characters Today Look Awful

Mars Needs Moms

Salon, of all places, published an excellent piece about animation character design. They interviewed designer Shannon Tindle (Coraline, Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends, and some as-yet-to-be-released DreamWorks films) about why films like Gnomeo and Juliet and Bob Zemeckis’s mo-cap efforts have such poor character design and asked him to explain which mainstream features work and which don’t from a design perspective. He remains diplomatic throughout while delivering useful advice:

“For me, it should be something that’s believable but not necessarily realistic. Those are two things that people interchange quite a bit on productions — and I’ve been involved in a lot of them. From my point of view, it’s been proven that realism is not really appealing to an audience. Two good examples of successful design that audiences embraced — Kung Fu Panda and Up — are films that certainly were not realistic but had believable characters. A lot of people are actually afraid of stylizing characters in animated films, period. They tend to want to push it to be more realistic, but the first thing people see in an animated film is the characters, and if it’s a character that doesn’t have an appealing, believable design, they’re not going to feel any connection to it.”

(Image: Still from Mars Needs Moms)

  • For years I’ve been saying the same thing about video game and animated character design — stylize and make a rich, original world instead of trying to mimic the real world and fall creepily (or embarrassingly) short.

    Digital animation seems more about wowing the audience with technical prowess instead of creating compelling characters with unique design. “UP” was a perfect example of how it should be done.

  • In robotics there is an oft used term, the uncanny valley which states and inverse relationship between reality and believability in that the closer your designs are to being human the more off-putting they feel. Case in point, Final Fantasy Spirits Within. The reason why Mocap is a failure is that it trays to mimic human movement, because the animation is then applied to a non-human it feels weird and is rejected as fake. Same with realistic animation.

    • ben c

      you stated that like no one here has ever heard of the uncanny valley. give us some credit, come on

  • A good article, and a good choice of image to go with it. The problem that so many computer animated films chasing realism keep running into is that they end up with something that looks almost real. And that little bit of “offness” is unappealing to look at, especially with human characters. We know what a real human is supposed to look like, so when we see something that looks almost like a real person but falls a little short, it’s disconcerting. When it’s a stylized design, we don’t expect it to exactly mimic reality and are able to enjoy it for what it is (though this doesn’t mean there aren’t bad stylized designs.)

    The point he makes about having a visually diverse lineup of characters is a good one. I think it’s part of what’s turning me off to Gnomeo and Juliet‘s look and part of why I don’t really like Cars. Put all the characters in silhouette and most of them start looking very similar.

  • tgentry

    Preaching to the choir. If only someone could get this article into Bob Zemekis’s hands.

    • Well, his company’s plug has been pulled, so I guess they won’t be making any more mo-cap films anyways.

      • Mark Walton

        Ha ha ha – we can dream, but no. Zemeckis is already starting ANOTHER company, and, unfortunately, he’s hardly the only one interested in doing mo-cap animation (Avatar 2, etc.) Studios doing “hand done” CGI animation are relying more and more on mo cap too – it’s just too temptingly fast and cheap.

    • Nay – at least you must get it hammered into his head.

  • tgentry

    I disagree with your point about character design in gaming George. I think the reason ‘realistic’ characters in film animation are pointless and not worth pursuing is that you can easily get a MUCH better looking version simply by filming real humans and doing it live action. With video games it’s not quite that simple. If you want to have a game set in the real world or with ‘realistic’ characters (and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to use whatever look suits your vision best), you STILL need animated characters. With the games of today you can’t simply turn on a camera and get great looking humans. I think gaming is an area where it’s understandable to be trying for more realistic humans (if that’s what your game requires).

    • Karen

      You can fil live actors for video games, too. But in either case, it’s not a “technical limitation” as much as it is an artistic (or “supposed” artistic) choice. There aren’t any goodlooking video games with humans in them, really–but I attribute that as much to the lack of narrative structure as I do with bad design choices–you notice bad things (and even good things) more when the story doesn’t hold your interest.

      • tgentry

        I agree there are some instances where you can film live action humans for games, but like I said for the majority of games today it’s not possible. This isn’t the 90’s where full motion video is all the rage. It wasn’t even all the rage then, which is why it’s not around anymore. In a medium where a player’s choice is the defining action, it’s far too limiting if not impossible to run game today with full motion video, especially since a good 75% of games have a player in complete control of a character shown in the 3rd person. How could you possibly pull that off with video? You can argue that it simply doesn’t look good yet, which may be the case for now, but to me at least they have a reason to be trying. I can’t say the same for film.

      • tgentry

        Also Karen, I would suggest you look at games like Uncharted 1 and 2. While they aren’t “photoreal” characters, I think they’re excellent examples of believable video game characters working within the limits of the technology. They have great personality and the stories are told very well. Those games are an excellent example of where mo-cap and “realistic” characters are perfect for a video game.

      • Heavy Rain had excellent human characters

      • Kyle Maloney

        I avoid realistic humans in animation regardless of being film or video game. The bottom line for me is close but not quite doesn’t cut it and is an instant turn off for me. If your not going to use video of live humans give me stylized characters.

        I was fine with “realistic” humans in the n64/ps1 era, even even to an extent in the ps3/gamecube one. but now its gotten realistic enough to go into uncanny valley and it makes me ill to look at. I miss the days of Crash and Spyro. now realistic humans have virtually taken over with countless gritty first person shooters. (not so much with the wii, but on the other two systems)

      • HermanMelting

        “There aren’t any goodlooking video games with humans in them,”

        That’s the most roundabout way of saying “I find Sly Cooper very good-looking” I’ve ever heard.

  • Kitschensyngk

    If ever we need a reminder of the value of believability over realism, look no further than right here on this blog.

  • Alissa

    This needs to be printed out and sent to every executive ever en masse. Especially whoever ok’d the movie that picture came from.

  • Steven M.

    Great article. If only the filmmakers knew any better.

  • I think it’s a few things: lack of vision from those in charge who aren’t artists; weak draughtsmanship in general-I think Golden aged professionals were classically trained. Today it seems many young artists in the biz are either derivative, or skipping the fundamentals and jumping to the “stylization”; and finally I think the idea of caricature and pushing the limits of the medium has gotten lost, or in TV perhaps isn’t feasible with the bulk of the animation done over-seas it would be hard to “over-see”.

    • It isn’t poor draftsmanship. The kids I see these days can outdraw a lot of the old guys. They spend a lot of time studying the old masters on the internet.
      Your first answer: lack of vision by those in charge is the best one.

      • OtherDan

        John, what I see are many younger people going rubber-hosey with their extreme drawings (in figure drawing classes-no less). But, it’s also hiding some fundamental drawing weaknesses. But, you’re right: there are some very skilled/talented draughtsmen working. A smaller percentage of them can transcend their skill and make fun characters. I just flipped through the “Art of Bolt” book and I was comparing Joe Mosier’s looser character sketches to Jin Kim’s tied down versions. I think Jin’s job was to solidify the designs and explore expressions. But, it’s a shame to see the zeal in Joe’s drawings get washed out and morphed into something safer and less alive. I have noticed working on shows that pretty much always, the looser more fun work at the earlier stages inevitably gets diluted as it goes through the stages of production. So, part of this character design issue is due to that. If they start of boring. They will surely end up unappealing.

      • For the record, I think Jin’s work is pretty impeccable. That nuance I pointed out between his interpretation and Joe’s is a small example of something that typically happens much more broadly in a production. But, I think it’s actually a good example of two approaches to character design. One is more expressive, and the other is more refined. Having just flipped through the book, I use that as an example. If Jin reads this, no offense intended of your work.

  • sigh

    Mo-Cap sux. Out loud. End of story.
    I love every version of “The Christmas Carol” I’ve ever seen…except the mo-cap one. Just made me ill. Mo-cap ruined one of the best children’s books ever, “The Polar Express.” And I swear to the powers that be if that clownshoes ruins “Yellow Submarine” I’ll personally leave him every way but alone. I’ll only spare his life as a thank you for “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.”

    • I know, I started that Facebook group protesting about the Yellow Submarine remake. Last I heard, mind, it’s been cancelled, right? I bloody well hope so.


  • Shannon knows his stuff. And he’s right. There is no lack of fantastic character design in the biz, check out most art of books. It’s whoever makes the final decision that is to blame or credit, whichever the case may be.

  • Kelly McNutt

    I’ve had a saying that simplifies it just a bit more: “convincing vs. realistic”. Or, as an art teacher once proclaimed, “charmingly incorrect vs. irritatingly correct”. Another thing that seems to be lost in the recent wave of CG animation is the language of the camera. We’re treated to swooping, turning, meaningless camera motion every two seconds or less. It’s all about contrast! If everything is moving all the time, how are we supposed to know when it really REALLY means something? Just my 2¢.

    • Ryoku

      You forgot that slow-mo matrix thing we’ve seen in a billion animated films.

    • kenneth

      That is absolutely correct! Sometimes I wish the camera would just STAY STILL!!! I’d take a hand-painted Ghibli film over one of these camera-panners any day.

    • Mark Walton

      So I’m not the only one who found “Unstoppable” “Unwatchable”?? I am afraid that this hyper ADD-“style” of cinematography is the future of movies, from what I’ve seen lately.

  • Gray64

    I recall reading once where Adam Hughes, one of my favorite comics artists and modern illustrators, described his style as “naturalistic” rather than “realistic,” saying that images are more enjoyable for the artist and the audience if they’re exaggerated a bit. For another example, take a look at a lot of Norman Rockwell’s work; you could almost describe it as cartoon realism.

    • Ricardo

      But, even so, Rockwell’s paintings/illustrations are VERY realistic. Can you imagine something like that being animated? How that would look?

  • Chelsea

    Great article.
    I think there is an increasing risk in CG films these days- especially ones that push for more realistic designs. The more realistic they get, the more the audience places them in the ‘real world’. Animation has a reality of it’s own where the audience will accept the characters in the films to do things that would be IMPOSSIBLE in real life. When you have realistic characters, however, you loose that ability and the audience will be pulled out from the film saying “well that’s impossible”. It’s animation, anything should be possible.

  • You could not have picked a better picture. And yeah, that frog in the trailers for Gnomeo & Juliet is stomach-wrenchingly awful.

  • ZiggyStardust

    regarding that picture above, is he supposed to have lazy eyes or is that the dead eyes of the uncanny valley? seriously

  • Good article. That being said, I’m not hating the Character designs on Gnomeo and Juliet all that much (maybe the frog though)

  • Pixar is NOT consistently good with human characters.

    Most glaringly would be the unappealing humans in Wall-E, and the humans in Toy Story 3 are still bad as well. These recent Pixar human designs have been a step way down from the standard they set with The Incredibles, and to a lesser extent the bar set by Up and Ratatouille.


    Even worse–




    In fact Pixar had their asses handed to them by Tangled and HTTYD this year. It’s truly baffling why people who claim they are animation lovers on this site, so blindly support Toy Story 3 as the gold standard of the animated feature, when it has such sub par design in the human characters.

    • Norm,

      I can’t say that I agree with you when it comes to Toy Story 3’s human designs. They didn’t want to change the models too much from how they looked back in the first and second movie.

      Everyone fell in love with Toy Story and they wanted to keep it as if there had been no long extended periods of time passed in-between them. They wanted to keep the same feel as it had in the first and second and that’s exactly what they did.

    • I Disagree as well. TS3’s humans were terrific IMO. They were appealing and captured alot of subtlety in their acting, especially Bonnie.

      Don’t forget that with Ratatouille, Incredibles and Up, those Human characters were more stylized and exaggerated. In TS3 they had to make them more subtle, I imagine to separate them from the toys and make them feel more natural. either way, i loved their designs and all of Pizer human designs since Monster’s Inc.

      • If you guys actually like these designs, I can only feel sorry for you. These are pretty awful. There’s nothing “natural” about these characters at all. They look like a big fat artistically directionless compromise between straight realism, the horrible designs of the first 2 films, and Ratatouille. I’ll stick with Tangled and HTTYD as the direction I’d like to see animation go as far as human designs are concerned, not TS3. Glen Keane>Pixar. Nico Marlet>Pixar.

      • Kyle Maloney

        I’m not going to knock Tangled’s human animation, as it was fantastic. Loved all the squash and stretch going on in the rigs. But their design was pretty generic Disney. Flynn is just Aladdin in 3d more or less, and Rapunzel isn’t far from being Ariel. The conceptual pieces looked a lot better.

        I liked HTTYD, but their humans looked awful to me. they felt like stock generated humans for teaching animation.

        TS3 humans, as mentioned needed to remain consistent with the previous films, it would have been very off putting to change the proportions too much. They did the best that could be done considering the “realistic” approach they already locked themselves into. Its not fair to compare these humans to those of the incredibles, they serve different purposes.

        We can agree though that the Wall-e humans were awful to look at. And even to an extent with Ratatouille. but I still say the TS3 humans looked great.

  • Katie M

    I dont understand. Zemeckis has made some amazing movies… all before year 2000. Why is he so stuck on mocap??

    • Funkybat

      I think that is the $64,000 Question in all this. I have my own theories, but I decline to share them, lest they actually give Zemeckis any ideas he doesn’t already have for what to do with all this mo-cap!

      Mo-cap is a great tool for VFX, and can be useful in live-action films where you need base actions for a character who is then finished by actual animators, such as Smeagol/Gollum or Dobby, or the character in Avatar.

      Trying to make cartoons primarily with mo-cap or an entire move with mo-cap characters is just a recipe for disaster. I’m sure Zemeckis believes that if you just keep doing more of these films, the technique can be refined to the point that it bridges the uncanny valley. Even if it can be, that wouldn’t be a “cartoon” as much as it would be a VFX-only film.

  • In regards to computer animation, I think that character design breaks down into three different camps, with degrading levels of success:

    1) Stylized forms with realistic surfaces: Scrat from “Ice Age”, Any of the Parr family from “The Incredibles”

    2) Realistic forms with stylized surfaces: Something like “Waking Life”

    3) Realistic forms with realistic surfaces: “Final Fantasy”, “Polar Express”, “Christmas Carol”, etc.

    Option 1 seems to be the most successful, and is pretty much the category of character design followed by Pixar, Dreamworks, Blue Sky.

    Option 2 seems to be the least used, and more popular in independent productions.

    Option 3 seems to fail the most with the artistic crowd, but doesn’t always fail with audiences. For something like this, I think it might be better to just film the human characters of your film in live action and make the rest of the film in CG.

    • Bruce Wright

      I disagree on Polar Express. The skin in that film doesn’t have realistic surfaces. The skin on that one is pastel soft, and not the bizarre hyper-pockmarked pores-and-broken-bloodvessels of Christmas Carol and this.

      It’s the fact that the faces are dead. These children are seeing THE REAL SANTA CLAUS, and all they can manage is a tight little half-smile that looks like they’re on botox.

      It’s not the texture. It’s the motion/rig/deformations.

  • I think it’s silly to say that the only way to achieve appealing human characters in CG is to stylize the hell out of them. You’re telling me that as a designer you can only choose between extreme exaggeration and uncanny valley?

    • Bruce Wright

      I’ve long complained that the concept of the “uncanny valley” is really an excuse for poor artistry.

      The reason the Polar Express zombies are zombies has NOTHING to do with the technology. It’s the artistry. The dang things move like they’re not alive.

      If the things in Avatar moved the same way, you’d call them zombies too.

  • Adam

    Great article, but why did Cartoon Brew use such an old picture of Shannon?

    (Kidding, Shannon. I love ya, dude.)

  • Spencer Morin

    It’s psychological. If the character almost looks human, but you know that he isn’t human, it’s like playing a sound byte of a dog barking to your dog. You raise your ears and go “huh?”

  • I’m a fan of cartoony cartoons and mo-cap doesn’t do much to me. However…sometimes a guy comes to me and says that we have all type of realistic paintings in art history and why can’t we have that style in animation.

    I actually don’t have a good answer for that. I don’t know why it doesn’t work in motion or why people can see a very realistic painting and be pleased by it.

    I must admit I’m not a very big fan of realistic painting either, but art history is based on it.

    While I love cartoony stuff and I would want to see more of it I still think there may be some ways to go with realistic stuff and be acceptable and artistic. I haven’t watched the whole Final Fantasy movie but from I’ve seen of it I actually thought that looked a little better than most Zemeckis’ efforts.

  • Johnno

    Actually, I’d argue that a few games do very well in the photorealism attempts department.

    Heavy Rain for example is very good! It’s not perfect all the time, but there are plenty of scenes that are outstanding in that game. But of course this also has to do with good character design. Even photorealism demands appealingly designed characters.

    The Uncharted games are more stylized but very fun! Of course the great animation in it is thanks to a mix of mo-cap and hand animation. Only the body is mo-capped. The face, fingers etc. are animated by animators who also will of course tweak the mo-cap data of the body.

    Kratos in God of War III is also one of the most amazing CG characters ever done especially in Real time.

    Also the upcoming L.A. Noire is using an interesting facial mo-cap system that looks pretty amazing. If the models were od higher quality with better texture work, it would be indistinguishable. By next generation, animation and advanced mo-cap will play a big role and I think we’ll really start seeing some amazing things in gaming!

  • Shannon LeClerc

    Is it just me or does the guy in the picture look like a child molester?

  • rghbr

    The character in that picture looks great though. Unfortunately, he was the only character that looked good in the trailer.

  • Marc Baker

    I feel the exact same way about Hollywood’s continuous attempts to push the envelope of CGI, yet they never seem to realize that story, character are what matters most. As well as creating a unique looking world that’s unlike our boring real world. It’s almost as if Hollywood wants to replace the fantasy world with reality thinking that they can wow audiences even more because in their mind, people see ‘fantasy’ as ‘fake’ when fantastical worlds, and unique designs can amaze people just as much.

  • AJ

    It is a bit odd that C.G.I films try to make the characters in films as realistic as possible, but any live action film since the dawn of cinema has been using make-up to hide imperfections in the skin. maybe if the c.g.i artists made less pimples and pores the characters would be more appealing.

  • Lara

    Considering Berke Breathed’s style in “Bloom County” and “Outland”, it would be fun to see one of his works adapted in that kind of looseness someday.

  • Marc Baker

    It’s only A matter of time when someone makes A CG animated film about insects where they look soooo realistic that they make ‘Antz’, and ‘A Bug’s Life’ look more pleasant by comparison. There’s A reason why Ward Kimball designed Jiminy Cricket the way that he did. So that he looks pleasant enough to look at, and connect with for 88 minutes. People generally don’t like insects, but if you stylize them A bit, people will embrace them more.

  • GW

    I’m not a professional, just a fan. Personally, I think realism in animation is perfectly alright, provided that the filmmakers don’t bite off more than they can chew. There’s a large number of people talking about how realistic animation doesn’t work, but aren’t nearly all examples people are familiar with rotoscoped or motion capture?

    If we’re really going to examine the point, let’s look at some examples from Japan and Russia.

    From Russia, here’s some of the more realistically styled films directed by Anatoliy Petrov. And Mother Will Forgive Me Too Firing Range Hercules Visiting Admetus, a film which is incomplete and awkward at points, but the most ambitious attempt I’ve seen towards realistic human characters

    From Japan, there’s Hamaji’s Resurrection, directed by Shinya Ohira who was an animator on Akira before he made this film.

    My personal take is first, that there’s more than one sort of realism in animation. Speaking for the idea of full visual realism, something that looks real down to the last detail, I don’t object to the idea but think it’s very, very hard and a system based so heavily on motion capture reference is not the way to get there. Loosely basing something on motion capture doesn’t make it automatically uncanny, but let’s face it, it’s not the ultimate answer to a photorealistic animated character.

    I don’t believe that you can make any effective judgement on an audience’s taste unless you look worldwide and see how tastes change under different economic systems. The mass audience is not the ultimate arbiter of quality that so many would like them to be. There are some things that simply aren’t meant to be appreciated by the culture at large and others rely on it.

    Here’s how I think realism in animation works, particularly when it comes to character animation. If something is realistic down to textures and such, it has to be a bit exaggerated in movements for the audience to enjoy it. If a film’s a bit less photorealistically rendered, then there’s room to be more accurate with realistic motion. The most thematically realistic films, in contrast, seem to take a few steps back from visual realism because it isn’t effective for their purposes.

    The biggest flaw in realism after the fact it’s so difficult to pull off, I think, is that it’s so stylistically limiting. There’s not enough room to express much of a personal vision past a certain point. It’s a stylistic dead end.

  • kenneth

    I just don’t understand the hatred towards performance capture and zemeckis. By saying that realistic CG animation is “badly designed,” than all live action is “badly designed.” And for the sake of argument, should we all revert to cartoony, big-eyed, geometric characters like in the Incredibles? Should “serious” CG films like Beowulf and Final Fantasy really have the same comic flair as Pixar characters? In that case, should we replace all the audio animatronics in the Pirates of the Caribbean ride with cartoony creations? To me, this whole argument doesn’t add up. I say just leave Zemeckis alone, and if you guys don’t want to see “Mars Needs Moms,” than don’t see it. Personally, I like this style, even though it’s still in its infancy.

    • Funkybat

      I consider mo-cap a VFX tool, not an “animation” tool, even it if is used to “animate” CG models. It’s a scientific distillation of data recorded from life. There is plenty of artistry put into the concept stage of those films, designing the characters, props, environments, storyboards. But then all of that is put into service to a bunch of recorded dot points, and animators are left mainly to do “finesse” to this recorded data. The best mo-cap, such as in LOTR and Harry Potter, has to have a *lot* of “finishing” done to it by animators.

      Those of us who believe “animation” is an art form in which artists who have learned to carefully observe and interpret life into something familiar yet not “real” are for the most part put off by Mo-Cap. It’s almost worse than the rotoscoping “fad” of the 70s and 80s. At least there, an artist was drawing each frame. Mo-Cap ain’t got no soul, hence the creepy feeling widely reported. Artists are where the “soul” comes from, which is why we can empathize with and even cry over the exploits of a bunch of simply-designed “toys” rather than be creeped out by them.

  • udx

    This kind of quote is why I enjoyed movies like Wall-E, Toy Story 3, How to Train your Dragon, Over the Hedge, Kung Fu Panda, etc. You don’t need realism to create characters you can enjoy.

  • I think it all comes down to the Uncanny Valley. The problem with much of Zemeckis’ work is that they’re realistic enough for us to want to be taken in, but just off enough to be really, really creepy. They’re a stylistic paradox. Even the character motion in, say, Christmas Carol waffled back and forth between slapstick and realism. The result was that the slapstick moments looked bone-crunchingly horrible and the character designs macabre.

    • Ryoku

      A paradox? You mean that thing that can destroy the universe?

      • Funkybat

        If we’re lucky, the destruction could be limited to our own galaxy…

  • Ken Boyer

    You called it Shannon! You the BEST! :)

  • People often mistake realism for character. An audience can tell realism but they feel character. And yes, Shannon is brilliant.

  • Ricardo

    Alright, so… this post is kinda old, but I cannot refrain from commenting.

    I’ll start off by saying that I don’t think that realism is a problem at all. Reaching a level of realism that is convincing enough is a problem.
    You see, Avatar had well animated faces. I didn’t see anybody complaining of that (maybe there’s some comments here, I didn’t read them all). Now Tron: Legacy had really bad (imho) facial animation on the young Jeff Bridges/Clu.
    So, the fundamental problem is that animators can’t give 3D characters the sense of realism that we as humans could be fooled by thinking they’re real people (or animals, even, to some extent).
    And I’m so sick of seeing clichéd animation on 3D characters, realistic or not. I guess all animation students learn how to animate the very same way, so when they get together to do a short or a feature, there’s no difference in the way characters behave between scenes.

    You guys might have seen the capture technique Team Bondi is using on a game called LA Noire. I don’t remember if it was posted here, but google it and you’ll find a video about that specific tech. Let me just say that it is, albeit low-res, mind-blowing! And I assume that’s because no animator has interfered with the capture. Maybe it has required some cleaning up, I can’t really tell.
    But the capture they used went for the heads only. So some of the body animation looks very weird and disconnected. Characters walk in an unconvincing way, hands look oddly stylized and “animated”… The focus of the game is on the little nuances of expressions, detecting when a character is lying and such, so that is justifiable.