Characterisation in 2d animation


The main problem that animation faces is that it is an overtly fake diegetic form. The viewer is presented with a constructed reality of drawings and paintings, which may represent the real world, but unlike photographic film, does not look like it. The challenge therefore is to create characters that may believably inhabit their particular diegetic reality. Animators have strived to find a way to resolve this issue through their character design and an awareness of how to deliver narrative information through their characters. This essay will illustrate the solutions that animators have found to make their audiences believe what is put in front of them.

In 1914 Winsor McCay took up the (self-imposed) challenge of making dinosaurs live again via animation. The result was Gertie the Dinosaur a semi-live act with McCay performing onstage with the projected film behind him. Gertie herself was obviously an animated projection and to make her believable she had to have a strong individual character.

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McCay achieved this through his own 'interactions' with the character of Gertie. He talks to her and asks her to perform tricks, which she obliges to do. We are also drawn attention to the fact that she is thirsty and she drains a lake. The performance would climax with her picking up McCay (as he exits the stage.) and bounding of the screen with him on his back.

Through this series of call and response between the live action McCay and the animated Gertie, McCay creates the illusion of human understanding within the animated dinosaur. There is also at one point a look of glee in her face after a fight scene when she throws the defeated mammoth into a lake. Through the human interaction and the animation McCay has anthropomorphically endowed the animated creature with human emotions: he has made her believable to the audience by giving her recognizable human traits.

In his book 'Understanding Animation' Paul Wells recognizes that the use of attributing animated animal characters anthropomorphic characteristics has become a mainstay of character development. It will be discussed in further detail later in the essay.

The basic principles of characterization as a narrative strategy in animation have been summed up by Wells. The character may be understood through its costume or construction, it's ability to gesture or move and the associative aspects of its design. It is pertinent at this point to discuss these aspects of character design.

Regardless of if an animated character is an animal or human, animators rarely try to completely reproduce natural form. As such the problem is that they are presenting viewers with unnatural looking beings. If the viewer is to accept the characters shown before them, the characters themselves must be presented as believable. This is why animators rely on exaggeration of individual features to suggest certain character types. Halas and Manvelldescribe this in their book 'the technique of film Animation. Characterization is achieved by the distortion of shapes and forms big eyes, big mouth, big nose, large head small body etc.

What is stressed by animators is the gesturing parts of the body, particularly the features of the head. The eyes, nose, mouth and ears are all vital in creating the illusion of human emotion. There is a general rule of thumb with regards to which shapes go with what characters: kind gentle characters tend to have soft rounded faces with wide smiles and large rounded eyes. Porky Pig is a great example of this principle. He is the embodiment of the jolly fat man. Villains on the other hand are much more angular. They often have a rather sharp chin and small eyes and a crooked mouth that somehow lends itself to a wicked smile. They are often presented as grotesque, much like the Evil queen in Snow White and her incarnation as the old crone. These generalizations serve as visual shorthand for the viewer; they optimise the impact of the character through economy and allow the viewer to make connections and process narrative information about the characters more quickly. In the words of Wells, animation manages to compress a high degree of narrative information into a limited period of time through a process of condensation.

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This method of economy and condensation was born out of functionality as much as anything. Partially it was due to the fact that cartoons are usually very short. As such narrative information has to be delivered with great speed. Also when television became the dominant domain of the animated short, characters had to be easily recognizable on the small screen. It's much easier to do this by recognizing one or two strong individual characteristics than several small ones. Most importantly however the simpler that a character is to draw, the quicker they become to reproduce. They rely on caricature and stereotype to relay narrative information quickly and succinctly.

Halas and Manvell go on in their book to describe the visual style of Tom and Jerry in terms of the aesthetic principles of animation: The drawing and coloring have an economy and a visual impact that matches the overwhelming vitality and sometimes the crudity of the action and characterization. This highlights the importance of economy. Extraneous details can confuse the situation and detract from overall characterization. What is needed is a just a couple of well-chosen details.

In 1917 Max Fleischer invented the rotoscope. This device allowed animators to successfully mimic natural movement by blowing up still frames of photography and allowing the animator to copy them exactly. Max and his brother Dave were both inspired by the work of Winsor McCay and between them were instrumental in the development of both technological and character development of animation.
The rotoscope worked by using a drawing board with a frosted glass center. One frame of photography at a time was shone onto the glass and the image was traced. It provided an accurate reference of movement and articulation so that on screen movement could be replicated with a lot more fluidity. By doing this animators were able to draw more complicated figures in a believable and convincing way.
Richard Willams has drawn examples of some of these more complicated characters in his book 'the animators survival kit.' The examples that will be discussed here are the representation of the young and old woman as drawn by Williams. By taking two examples of opposing but similar characters, we can see how the rotoscope paved the way for the development of characterization in animation.
The young woman is characterized mainly be her curvaceous figure. She has a strong convex curve along her back and an hourglass figure that extenuates her breast, slim waist and shoulders. She stands upright and tall. She also has sleek long legs and flowing long hair. This form communicates her youth vitality and energy. The old woman by contrast has a much rounder concave curve of the back, which seems to curve round into her body giving her a rounded torso. The breast is also molded into this rounded torso that desexualizes her. Her hair is also shorter. She is hunched forward making her look tired and weary. The lower body is also rounded and she wears a long skirt to cover the legs. In contrast we see only the ankles and feet of the old woman and she is given short dumpy legs.
These two examples show the importance of form and shape in delivering character information. These two figures could represent the same character at different ages but the presentation of form provides us with completely different information about the characters.

Williams also stresses the importance of movement to illustrate character. As stated earlier this art of animation was greatly enhanced by the development of the rotoscope. The way that a character moves can be fluid and smooth which would suggest grace or elegance. Alternatively movements can be jerky or plodding, which will in turn infer characteristics of weakness or foolishness. Again he uses examples to discuss and illustrate the main differences between the masculine and feminine walk.
The feminine walk is smooth and elegant. She keeps her legs close together and as such the footsteps run straight along the line of action. As a result there is very little up and down body movement. The feminine walk seems to glide along the line of action. The masculine walk however is much more aggressive. The feet are kept well apart, far out from the line of action. The masculine walk is a full on stride, which makes the character as wide as possible. There is much more up and down movement on the body. This makes the walk much more kinetic and at the same time suggests power and strength.
Much like the generalizations about character form, these conventions can be subverted to comic effect or to deliver more information. For example a Masculine walk may become a drunken walk if the feet are allowed to cross the line of action. (I.E. if the right foot passes across the center of the body and steps down on the left and vice versa.) Through these examples it is clear that the way that the animator makes the character move is vital to characterization.

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The Fleischer brothers were also responsible for two of the most beloved cartoon characters of the thirties: Popeye and Betty Boop. These two characters are archetypes of hero and heroine character traits. It seems only fitting therefore to discuss how these characters are so distinct, and the methods used to give them such strong individual identities.

Popeye originally appeared in Comic strip form some years before his screen debut in 1933. During this time of American economic depression he was a figure of aspiration for the workingman. As a navy man he had a career that stood for American strength and pride; this also made him stand out as the champion of the just causes. As such he was the embodiment of the strong everyman in times of hardship.

He is identified as a sailor by the uniform that he wears with style and pride. He embodies the macho sailor stereotype by striding along with a sailor's walk, feet apart rocking from side to side. He also has the iconic tattoo of an anchor on his arm; this marks him out as a man who figuratively wears his heart on his sleeve. His physical appearance is defined by the exaggeration of his muscle; importantly however Popeye's strength comes from eating spinach. Although he is always strong and muscular, it is not until he eats the spinach that he has the strength needed to defeat Bluto. After he has eaten the spinach his forearms are inflated to appear three times the normal size. As Wells points out Popeye's masculinity is predominantly defined by the association between his own organic expansion and the strength of hard metal or machines. As his muscles grow they either transform shape into anvils or air brakes or we see moving pictures of locomotives or battleships on his form arms. Popeye's physical strength therefore is amplified by the imagery but he also associated with American mechanical or military strength.

Popeye is remembered for his fights with Bluto but the important thing to bear in mind is that he is not a troublemaker and is usually a very amiable character. He has the characteristic rounded face of the jolly fat man. He walks around with a smile making jokes to himself and being generally full of life. There is also his voice that characterizes him as a salty old piece of seaweed. It is only when his girlfriend Olive Oil is put in jeopardy that he is called into fight; thus he is characterized as a rescuer rather than a man of violence.

Betty Boop first appeared in 1930 in the cartoon Dizzy Dishes. Her Face and body defined her femininity; she has a large head with huge childish doe eyes and full red lips. She also has the typical hourglass figure with a full bust that shows of a lot of cleavage. She was also a dancer and her movement and walk were characterized mainly by the feminine swing of the hips. After the first cartoon her skirts got smaller and smaller and she became much more overtly sexualized. She was an embodiment of femininity – or at least the male fantasy of femininity. The blend of sexual charge and childlike innocence that came through mainly from her eyes and her distinctive voice disturbed the censors. Her raunchiness was toned down after the Hayes code of 1934.

Now that the development of human characterization has been addressed; it is important at this point to addresses the role of anthropomorphism again. The rise and success of the animation of Walt Disney, Chuck Jones and Tex Avery are prime examples of how the lending of human characteristics to animals and vice versa has created some of the must vivid and enduring icons of animation. Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck et al have become such fixed images in the popular psyche that it is important to understand what made these characters so memorable.

When dealing with animals we must bear in mind the association that people already have with those particular beasts. Any given animal will have a mythology and literary tradition that comes with it; by being away of these traditions animators have been able to associate these ancient traditions with their own creations. For example foxes are sly and cunning; sharks are ferocious and unforgiving; horse and lions are heroic and noble creatures both ferocious yet majestic. When an animator is devising a character they tend to marry the preconceived ideas that people have about a particular beast with the traits they desire for their character. This is what wells calls 'associative relations' and opens the form of animation into a narrative dialectic that requires an extra-textual understanding on behalf of the viewer.

A good example of how the principle of associative relations works would be Kaa from The Jungle Book. The snake has a literary history that dates back to the story of Adam and Eve. It was the seductive yet untrustworthy snake that facilitated mans fall from paradise. The snake is sly; professing friendship but always has his own agenda. The snake glides along the flow in a smooth fluid motion, which is at once deadly and seductive. Kaa is attributed with these characteristics through legend and association. This is further illustrated by his ability of hypnotism, which is of course a human discipline. He talks to Mowgli and soothes him to sleep with soft words and hypnosis in order to eat him. In dealing with associations that are so deeply rooted in the common psyche the characters themselves become instantly memorable.

Animal characteristics can also be applied to human characters. Heroes are often seen riding horses; the horse itself is a creature of nobility and heroism; and the tradition of the hero on horse back is one that has permeated every folklore around the globe. The human therefore basks in the reflective glory of its animal companion. The best way to summarize the use of anthropomorphism in characterization is to say that the human in the animal identifies the human character within. In turn the animal in the human illustrates and enriches the character of the human.

Animators create artificial worlds and diegetic domains for characters to inhabit. As mentioned at the outset of this essay the problem is that the animated world we are presented with is so overtly fake that it is a challenge to make the characters believable. Animators exploit the fantasy element of their work; they draw attention to the fact that we are presented with talking pigs and indestructible heroes through comic exaggeration of their abilities and their follies. However what Animators do manage to do; is insert enough natural movement and recognizable human emotion into their creations that we except them fully as real believable characters within their own right.


Bordwell and Thompson. (2001) Film Art: An Introduction, New York: McGraw Hill.
Canemaker, J. (ed.) (1988) Storytelling in Animation: The Art of the Animated Image Vol. 2, Los Angeles: AFI.
Griffin, H. (2001) The Animators guide to 2D Computer Animation, Oxford: Focal Press,
Halas, J and Manvell, R. (1968) The Technique of Film Animation, Norwich: Focal press Limited.
Wells, P. (1998) Understanding Animation, New York: Routledge.
Williams, R. (2001) The Animators Survival Kit, New York: Faber and Faber.