Attitude in Animated Characters

Via: The Simpsons Black & White

Yesterday, Michael Sporn posted an opinion piece that expresses his dismay at not only the repetition present in Glen Keane’s artwork but also the continued presence of attitude in them. I had to go back and read it twice just to be sure I understood. Surely attitude comes from the character themselves not the way they look, right? Eh, no. As it turns out, you can pull plenty of faces that can be read as having an attitude.

The main point of Michael’s post is that Keane seems to have become comfortable with a series of repetitive character designs and an overwhelming knack for drawing them in poses that seem to shout rather than speak.

All of this got me thinking, where does the attitude of an animated character come form? Yes, their look has something to do with it, but actions speak much louder than words.

Think back to the original contemporary bad boy of animation, Bart Simpson. Look at the character model below (that took me an age to find):

Now we all know who Bart Simpson is, we all see his exploits and we all know that the picture above belies little if any of his character traits. Having said that, there are plenty of other pictures out there that can attest or allude to his mischievous behaviour. Perhaps the Simpsons isn’t the best show to use as an example. The characters are relatively simple and the show has relied more on plot and knowledge of the characters in order to elicit emotions from their characters, In other words, if Lisa is sad, she will cry, Homer’s eyebrows will furrow and he will clench his teeth if he’s mad and Bart will normally result to physical acts for a range of emotions.

Personally, I believe that attitude should come from inside the character. Think about Donald Duck. There’s a guy with some serious attitude problems yet they only came to the audience’s attention when they came up from below the surface. Outwardly, he seems like a genuinely charming duck, not the violent menace he often becomes in his short films.

What the Simpsons did do quite well was display the over-arching desire of some folks in the industry for their characters to display attitude outwardly. The classic episode of Itchy, Scratchy and Poochie is an excellent, satirical observation of this practise.

During the creation of Poochie, the executives constantly bombard the animator with ideas about how the character should look in the belief that form follows function. The last comment made is that the character should have more “attitude”, with the result that he gains a pair of sunglasses. Naturally because of the “attitude” that Poochie displays, he is immediately written off as one of the worst characters ever made.

When it comes to something like animation (and this is something that has been known for years), the former limitations of the medium (the traditional type anyway) meant that actions and noises were pressed into service as a means of displaying emotion.

My point is that the limitations of animation meant that characters had to convey their character as it were, in more ways than just the visual alone. With contemporary CGI technology it has become possible to mimic the muscles in the human face, thus allowing much more accurate replications of nuanced human reactions. This should become a crutch however, and traditional animation would do well to cling to the tried-and-tested methods of displaying attitude through other means rather than relying on looks alone.

3 thoughts on “Attitude in Animated Characters

  1. Bart and other Simpson characters act out any attitutde they have, but had they been put into poses with strongly defined caricaturization (let’s say the arched eyebrows, the dynamic tension over exaggerated for the poses) it would not be Bart nor would they be able to hold the pose for long on the limited animation show. No, the Simpson’s get their acting from the voice over actors, and because the actors are so good, the show’s characters fly.

    Feature animation gets its voices, and when they’re bad they hurt the animation, no matter how many drawings. Mandy Moore brings no life to her character in Tangled. and it made the animator try too hard to offer a complete character – yet not succeed. Whereas Donna Murphy brings more than the animator did, and her character – without the attitudinal posing – is rich.

    There are many factors that bring bad or good animation. The “Attitude” problem seems to have taken over too much of what I see in feature production, and it’s hurting the films.

    1. Thanks a lot for your input, Michael 🙂

      I believe with fervour that professional voice-actors remain the best choice when it comes to animation as they add so much to the character through their performance. Celebrities trying their hand are simply looking for an easy paycheque.

      The Simpsons is perhaps the best example of how a character’s voice can give more life to the character than their design. I completely agree that without them, the characters (looks and all) would have very little meaning.

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