Character Basics

Spaceman George was modeled and textured by Duncan Fraser, a badass games artist who generously donated George to the folks at Polycount. I saved time by using Rapid Rig for controls, but I skinned each vertex by hand because that’s how ballers roll. Then I thought about how I wanted George to move.

Characters usually act in two ways: how the audience expects, or the opposite. I’m oversimplifying a lot, but we make a variety of assumptions from a character’s physical appearance. Whether a character’s actions match our expectations reveals a lot about his or her personality.

Some examples of good characters

Heath Ledger’s Joker is fond of mayhem, but his clown makeup disguises an organized mind obsessed with planning. Whether he’s entering a party with a shotgun or confronting Batman in a police interrogation room, the Joker appears in control—yet his facial tics and darting tongue hint at wild instability. Contrasting both expected and unanticipated movement qualities yields a compelling character.

Likewise with The Beauty and the Beast: we expect the Beast to move like an animal and behave like a jerk. When he dances gracefully in the ballroom with Belle, we realize there’s complexity and depth to his character and empathize with his plight (or at least hope that he’ll transform into a muscular dude with great hair).

Setting up (and then subverting) expectations is also a great method for creating genuine, character-based humor. In The Emperor’s New Groove, Kronk serves as the villainess’s right-hand man. His huge muscles and deep voice indicate a familiar tough-guy archetype, yet the story artists and animators frequently undercut our expectations and the result is hilarious. Kronk is the world’s most reluctant henchman; he’d rather be baking spinach puffs than bashing in heads.

Thinking about space

So what does this have to do with Spaceman George? My first impression of George’s proportions focused on his enormous helmet, wide shoulders, and short/stocky build. I figured he had considerable muscles inside his spacesuit, making him a legitimate, awesome hero character.

But what if the swagger and oversized gun were a sham? What if George were actually weak and clumsy? His bulky suit felt ridiculous, not intimidating. I came up with a simple plot outline:

  1. Guarding something in space, bored and eager for action

  2. More than a little confident in his own abilities

  3. Ultimately screws everything up in an embarrassing way

This basic story was a decent starting point and I trusted myself to push it further in Maya. The myth of perfect video reference or flawless blocking is attractive but unrealistic. Good ideas happen when you’re engaged with your work.

“All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself . . . if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive.”

—Chuck Close, contemporary painter

Many of my playblasts shown on the following pages are messy and unappealing. I’m airing “dirty laundry” to explain my decision-making process, not to impress anyone with stepped keys and awkward poses.