Thursday, 26 June 2008

1 - Character Brainstorm

First of all I should let you know that I don't claim 'authorship' on any of these comics games and exercises. Many of them came from my time spent at The Center For Cartoon Studies 2 years ago, under the expert tutelage of Steve Bissette, James Sturm, Alec Longstreth, Aaron Renier and James Kochalka. Some excellent ideas and techniques came from Sharad Sharma of World Comics India (their amazing work is a whole other post sometime). Other exercises will be versions of ideas from the books mentioned in my last post, and the majority are combinations bits culled from both.

OK - Character Brainstorm. This is a great first exercise, as 1) it gets everyone drawing straight away in a non-precious way, and 2) it gives me a chance to go around as see who is going to have a brilliant enjoyable session, and who might need a bit more attention or encouragement. Time allowing, I would start a first session with a quick 10 minute game of Consequences (draw a head, fold it over, pass it on, draw a body etc...) as it's great for loosening up, but only if I've got more than a day with that particular group.
Pencils and paper handed out, I give everyone 10 minutes to sketch AS MANY COMIC AND CARTOON CHARACTERS AS THEY CAN THINK OF. Not ones from your imagination, but existing characters. I make it clear that no-one is going to be marked on these drawings, so keep them rough and sketchy, and above all quick - if you can tell who it is from just their face, then don't waste time drawing the body - move onto the next one. You might be able to draw Spongebob beautifully, but all we want is the basic features or shape.
Once I've got everyone started, there will usually be a few who look stuck or claim they can't think of any. More often than not, if you've got one character down then there are sidekicks, friends, family or enemies that accompany them. Think about all the British comic characters, the American ones, and what about from cartoons? - not just new cartoons but all the old ones that you might catch - Looney Tunes, Disney, Hanna Barbera and on. What about films? - all the animated movies, old and new, CGI or traditional, all those you might see on TV over Christmas? Think about all the human characters, then all the animals (there must be at least 20 different cat characters, dogs, mice), all the robots, all the monsters or aliens?
After 10 minutes is up then it's pencils down and we count up how many we've managed to get down on paper. numbers will vary from 5 to 25, and those with the most get to tell everyone one or two that they think no-one else will have. More and more I'm finding I've not heard of these characters as they'll be something off Nickelodeon or an obscure Pokemon warrior.

I tell the class that as I've been walking round, I've noticed that lots of people have got the same ones, and I start to draw them on the board, allowing them to guess as soon as they recognise them-

The speed with which they identify Bart, Marge, Spongebob, Patrick and the rest is incredible - I ask them how they recognise them so easily. After mentioning that they are on TV a lot (and pencil cases, rucksacks, lunchboxes and so on), someone will point out that they all have identifiable shapes. After asking them if they know who Matt Groening is, I tell them how he designed the Simpson family to be distinctive in silhouette, and how we could pick out any of them from even a split second clip. We discuss how some characters might have a particular logo-

and how all of these characters can be considered logos or brands themselves, especially Mickey Mouse. Logos also need to be instantly recognisable,- a good test being if a child can recognise them before they can read the names -

I'm always a little dismayed when only one or two recognise Charlie Brown's shirt-

-so I draw Snoopy's shape alongside him them most give a nod of acknowledgement. Having told them a little about Charles Schulz and the popularity of his work, I show a few images on the whiteboard. Explaining how for 50 years, Schulz had to do a newspaper strip every day, that means drawing Charlie Brown roughly 4 times a day -

- and as the newspapers demanded a new strip for every day of the week, including Sunday, that means -

Here's where I get them to do a bit of maths, and work out (or just count) that Schulz would therefore be having to draw him 28 times a week,

112 a month,

Which is 13,44 times over a year. Now Schulz drew Peanuts and Charlie Brown for a staggering 50 years (or thereabouts), which would workout at 67,200 drawings of Charlie Brown -

Of course this is a massive generalisation and a bit misleading - CB didn't feature in every strip, not all strips had 4 panels, and so on, but it drives home the point, that keeping your character designs SIMPLE could end up saving you a lot of work and effort.
We discuss what difference it might have made if CB has been originally drawn with a normal shaped head, with realistic eyes instead of dots. Some kids might suggest that he wouldn't be as interesting, or as funny, and many click that maybe he wouldn't have managed 50 years of it.

I find it useful to get them thinking more about Peanuts than Spiderman or more dynamically rendered superheroes and characters. While loads of kids see the Marvel/DC style as the pinnacle of exciting comic art, virtually all will get frustrated by their own attempts at imitating it. Now I'd never want to put someone off from copying characters like these, it's a great way to learn, but I find if the bar is set at a more achievable (not necessarily lower) level, then even those who are rubbish at drawing will get so much more out of the sessions.

This all leads neatly into the next exercise I would do with a group, which I'll post over the next few days.


Ash said...

Jim, I think you might have confused them by drawing Dilbert instead of Snoopy!

My camera has given up the ghost after that rainy trip to Dog & Partridge so my blog has died after only 2 days :(

Marek Bennett said...

Jim --

Here are two links from this great lesson concept:

1) Hilary Price's new book, Pithy Seedy Pulpy Juicy, has a really cool little lesson that relates to Charlie Brown and character design. (I won't mention where in the book, since it's a bit of a surprise.)

2) Your lesson gives the kids a chance to access prior knowledge and examine the design practices of professionals. Andrew Wales has another way of getting this information onto the page and into our own characters... I've posted it here!

Peter Beare said...

Hi Folks, this stuff works!
I finally delivered a comics workshop and put Jim's good advice into practice.