We knew what we wanted to do with the personalities of the characters for Lunatics!,
and we had back-stories, descriptions, and a few personal details. But
we didn’t have characters, and I intentionally left some creative room
there, because I felt that a real character designer could do a much
better job. I had done something similar to this for a game project
years back, and my first choice was to contact one of the designers who
had worked on that project – Daniel Fu.
Of course, years had passed, and he’d gone on to different sorts of work. He’d also done his own
online comic series with “The Retriever“. So I felt pretty lucky when he agreed to do the designs for us.
Daniel Fu has been a comic artist since before 2000. He
worked together with Rosalyn and Terry on an earlier free-culture
project in 2000, and so he was a natural choice for this project. He has
created several graphic novels on his own, and is perhaps best known
for his series The Retriever. In 2011 and early 2012, he completed
design concepts and model sheets for the characters that will appear in
Lunatics! Currently he designs interactive interfaces for commercial web
It was a challenging problem, because I wanted
to have the sets and props made to real scale. If you look at something
like Pixar’s “The Incredibles“, you can see that that doesn’t really work
for highly-stylized character shapes. Props have to be extensively adjusted
to compensate for the different proportions of the characters. I wanted to
avoid that complication.
But I also wanted to avoid the problem of the “uncanny valley“.
When you have extremely realistic models of people, the audience gets
really sensitive to how they move. You can see examples of how this is a
problem in “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within“, “Beowulf“, or
“Animatrix: Final Flight of the Osiris“. All of these were done with
photoreal characters — and actually, they pretty much look fine in stills.
But it’s disconcerting to watch the animation, because of this effect.
People describe it as “doll-like” or “zombie-like”. What’s more, these
films achieve the level of believability that they have through
extraordinarily accurate (and expensive) animation —
far more than would be practical for us. There are also
far worse examples of the uncanny valley effect
(don’t say I didn’t warn you!).
As a rule of thumb, the more the characters look photographically real and
less like drawings, the more sensitive we are to the effect. Which
tends to work against the goal of having accurate proportions. Daniel’s
designs therefore had to tread on a pretty fine line between the two
extremes, which required expert talent, but he pulled it off very
There’s also more than one way to make a character look
more stylized. Distorting the proportions (as in Pixar films) is just
one option. You can also give yourself some slack by using a different
style of rendering that makes the characters look more like they are
drawn and/or cel-shaded. This is why 2D animation often looks “warmer”
than 3D animation.
Fortunately, you can do something like that with toon-shading and Freestyle
line-rendering in Blender. And although we’re not really there yet, we think
this is going to be the best option with Lunatics! But it all starts with
Daniel Fu’s character designs, which are just awesome:
Since then, Daniel has also been helping in the character
modeling process, to try to maintain the same sense of style as these
drawings are transformed into models. We’ll have more about that in our
next update, where you’ll meet character modeler, Bela Szabo.