Welcome to Series Craft, a new site feature in which we explore a particular creative facet of animation production in-depth and discuss the creative choices that lead to the finished result onscreen. In this first installment, we explore the character design of the recently-launched French series L’Épopée Temporelle (Time Epic) with designer Bertrand Todesco.
L’Épopée Temporelle centers on meek, heartbroken Thomas who embarks on a journey through history to look for his ex-girlfriend Iris and her inventor father. He and his robot pal whizz through the likes of ancient Egypt, Nazi Germany, and feudal Japan in a flurry of outlandish time travel reminiscent of Rick and Morty.
The series is connected to Adult Swim’s biggest hit through more than just story and tone. It too airs on Adult Swim, albeit not (yet) in the U.S.: in a sign of the network’s growing presence overseas, the show was acquired by Adult Swim France. It is the French unit’s second animated original, after Dickie.
Watch the first episode (in French) below. More are available on Adult Swim France’s Youtube channel.
French Youtube star Cyprien originally created L’Épopée Temporelle as an audio series, which was accompanied by illustrations from a range of artists, among them Bertrand Todesco. After the series wrapped up in 2018, Cyprien started developing an animated adaptation, which was eventually picked up by Adult Swim. He called on Todesco to design the main characters, using the illustrations as a point of departure.
Todesco has plenty of experience here: he has worked as a character designer in France and the U.S., initially on cg shows, now primarily on 2d productions. His credits include Nickelodeon’s Glitch Techs, and Dreamworks’ Doug Unplugs and Cleopatra in Space.
Below, he explains how he developed the characters for the animated series, talking us through the show’s unusual genesis. He has also shared reams of pre-production artwork …
The show’s origins
The style of the animated show is rooted in artwork created for the original audio series. As he was developing the audio episodes, Cyprien invited a range of artists to draw illustrations that would accompany them. The team included Todesco, as well as Boulet, Marie Spenale, Willy Ohm, Balak, Rours, Mlle Karensac, Sibylline Meynet, Ben Fiquet, Thomas Romain, and others besides.
The illustrators were given scripts, which contained descriptions of the characters and backgrounds. In some cases the audio tracks had already been recorded, so the artists were able to draw inspiration from the performances. They all had carte blanche and permission to work independently of each other. “Everyone gave their own take,” says Todesco, “and that’s what made it very interesting!”
After the audio series had launched, Cyprien started developing the animated adaptation. Todesco was hired as lead character designer, given his experience in this area. Mothy McFly (who was also animation supervisor) and MyFuckinMess designed the secondary characters. Adult Swim eventually acquired the series.
Developing the look
Adult Swim is Cartoon Network’s late-night brand and its shows tends to have a more adult sensibility. L’Épopée Temporelle bucks the trend a little. “My designs may appear to target this kind of younger Cartoon Network audience, with their rounder and cuter features,” says Todesco. This is deliberate: the show addresses dark subjects, like Nazism and the extermination of the Mayan people, and “the offbeat tone and the designs help make that ‘watchable.’”
Todesco started his career in cg animation, working as a character designer, 3d modeler, and story artist, then art director and director. The lessons he learned then have informed his approach to 2d productions. “My experience modeling on 3ds Max taught me to have a better appreciation of volumes,” he says. “When I draw different poses of the same character, or especially on a turnaround, I particularly pay a lot of attention to all the spaces and lengths of … everything!”
He cites his work on Dreamworks’ cg show Doug Unplugs, for which he “had to draw very ‘mathematical’ turnarounds. It helped me to remember the four views of a 3d modeling software.” He says he uses a lot of guides when creating cg turnarounds, as he tends to work on several views at the same time. “For a 2d turnaround, I use mostly horizontal lines, plus one vertical to be sure the profile view is correct.”
That said, his work on L’Épopée Temporelle was most immediately influenced by the illustrations for the audio series — his own and other artists’ (more on that below).
Todesco also decided to push further with approaches he had taken on recent 2d projects like Fabuland and Monster Delights: “I added the following features to my early development designs: big round eyes, parallel lines for arms and legs without curve or muscle indication (except for Iris’s legs), simple shapes, clear silhouettes, and pretty ‘flat’ designs.”
The decision was made not to use outlines, so as to make the animation easier and save money. “Mothy, the animation supervisor, prefers to build and animate characters without outlines,” explains Todesco. “It seems it saves time because you don’t have to deal with lines in the joints, which is hard to set up in a digital 2d build.”
Todesco stresses the differences between designing for 2d and cg productions: “I really like how we can cheat in a turnaround for 2d — especially the hair when you have locks in front of the eyes, or to create greater silhouettes when the characters are stylized.”
Designing the characters
It was decided that L’Épopée Temporelle would be a 2d show. The budget was limited. Those constraints aside, Cyprien gave Todesco a lot of creative freedom in the character design. Although Todesco was not instructed to combine the various visual styles that had been developed for the audio show, those illustrations were his main references. Below, he explains how he designed each of the main characters:
Eliot the coffee machine/robot: “Before anything else, I wanted to set the style, and everything started with Eliot. He is the only character that didn’t evolve in my illustrations, as I felt the first design was very lovable. I didn’t change or add anything from other artists for the animated series. I set him as the standard model and his design guided the rest of the main cast.”
Thomas, the protagonist: “I tried a plaid shirt (like on Thomas Romain’s illustrations) and teenager’s fluff (like on Willy Ohm’s), but I thought it would be annoying for animation. I tried to give him glasses too, which would give him a nerdy look for sure, but I preferred to save this accessory for the scientist, Dr. Simon.
“I always pay attention not to give the same features to several characters of a group. You have to choose which character most “deserves” that haircut, that pattern, or that color. Out of the same concern for diversity, I gave the characters different shapes and sizes, of course. Also, all characters have darker or more tanned skins to highlight, by comparison, the white skin of Thomas, who assumedly plays videogames all day long and never sees the sun.”
La Buse: “I found inspiration in LeDessinator and Keke’s illustrations that I mixed with a late design I made for stickers, for a collector’s-edition CD version of the audio series. I had three concerns for this character: the pants’ stripes, the beard, and the lips (not showing lips looked really weird). For all of them, I had to find the right simplification so they wouldn’t be a problem for animation.”
Iris: “I was afraid that the hair on the forehead would be in conflict with the eyes for expressions, so I gave more volume, like in Sibylline Meynet’s illustrations. In the end, the eyes are on top of the hair and the animation works just fine.”
Alienor: “I started to draw her as the queen of Wales, mixing one of Thomas Romain’s illustrations with one of mine. Cyprien told me she was actually not the queen anymore and she should be dressed like a servant! I referenced clothes from Disney’s Cinderella then, but kept the crazy middle-aged queen hairstyle. Cyprien didn’t like the mustache fluff and the mole, so I removed them for the final version.”
Dr. Simon: “I had a crush on Mlle Karensac’s design. With her permission, I simply used it as is, after a quick style adaptation, a color pass, and adding some details like the eyes to match Iris (because he is her dad). The poses and expressions were super fun to do.”
To see more of Todesco’s artwork from the series, visit his Instagram page.