The main argument in my dissertation was that a prototype, or a specific and unchanging pattern or form, in relation to the body shapes of children’s film characters, could lay a foundation for a limited beauty ideal, thus lead to poor body image. Initially, I was going to use character design theory to prove that many animation companies tend to use cookie-cut bodies for their heroines and female protagonists instead of designing their bodies on a readable level. Readable, in the sense of body shapes sending out visual symbols which present the character’s personality. I was a bit disappointed at first, finding that none of the books I was reading were that relevant to actual character design theory, as they all gave the same limited proportions for designing beautiful girls and women. I was shocked when I realized that they were in fact relevant. It seems that character design theory has a specific framework for designing beautiful female characters. It also seems like there is no theorists going against this.
One thing I have been forced to acknowledge during my research studies, is that character design is sexist. I prefer not using the word, frankly I do not understand the point of its meaning in today’s modern society (to the extent that I should). That is, until I started researching the principles of character design. The intention of my thesis was to demonstrate that a world-scale animation studios, such as Disney and Marvel, do not follow the protocol for proper character design in relation to their heroines. What I have found, however, is the exact opposite. Every hourglass figure in the history of animation can be justified simply on the grounds that there appears to be separate rules for designing a beautiful girl or woman.
In Tom Bancroft’s forth chapter of Creating Characters with Personality (2006), titled ‘Drawing (Beautiful) Women’, the author writes:
At the outset, and while still keeping this book kid friendly, I want to say that there are certain proportions, curves, and facial features with which you can endow your women to ensure that they will be appreciated by any “romantically inclined” viewer (Bancroft, 2006:65).
In an interview for the production of Mulan (1998, dir. Tony Bancroft & Larry Cook), Chinese reporters questioned the aesthetics of the heroine character. Bancroft comments: ‘I learned two things that day. When applied to drawing women, the concept of beauty varies a lot, but at the same time, there are some elements of feminine beauty that are pretty much universal’ (Bancroft, 2006:66). Bancroft’s general “rules of proportions” (2006:66) for designing ‘different types of attractive women’ (2006:66) are as follows:
1) A large head and a small body. These are childish features that portrays cuteness (Bancroft, 2006:67).
2) Small torso and waist.
3) Long, thin legs.
4) Small ancles and feel.
5) Large, expressive eyes with large pupils (Bancroft, 2006:68)
6) A small nose.
7) Thick lips and a small mouth.
8) ‘The most important rule: construct your female characters with curved lines’ (Bancroft, 2006:70). He adds not to overdue muscles, as this will obstruct the appeal of the feminine form.
Bancroft’s suggestions for portraying varying personalities are to vary the eyes and facial features, the basic shape of the head, and the character’s pose. In addition to fashion and style, of course (Bancroft, 2006:68-77). And, as he mentions early in his book: the character’s place in the hierarchy establishes which audience will find it appealing. Haitao Su has designed characters for high profile companies for over 20 years. His book, Alive Character Design, delegates a full chapter for designing female characters. It all starts out well by stating that ‘What is most challenging is that the designer must strike a balance between common aesthetic conceptions and characters distinctive personality’ (Su and Zhao, 2011:43), both mentioning aesthetic conceptions in plural and acknowledging that a distinctive personality should be portrayed. However, ‘The ultimate objective of female character design is to capture a feminine sexuality and beauty that appeals to human’s primitive consciousness’ (Su and Zhao, 2011:43) follows as ‘the golden rule’.
Ignoring that the female character is supposedly destined to always be designed for the purpose of attraction, Su does not limit designers to a one and only template of the female body. He simply writes beauties are well perceived, which is, in all fairness, common knowledge.
‘A character designer is supposed to have a profound knowledge of his character, approach anything without prejudice and be passionate about all the novel and interesting things’ (Su and Zhao, 2011:44) makes sense as pure text, and is exactly the kind of attitude I have been looking for to support my arguments. However, as Su approaches to explain that the male character designer has to put himself in the female character’s shoes for him to be able to put hers on correctly, the accompanying illustrations beg the difference. It appears that even though the character designer remembered to add in his character’s shoes, he forgot the rest of her clothes.
Haitao does offer an explanation to the appeal of the female body in more than basic terms of ‘lust’. In character design, the male and female are portrayed as opposites: like Venus and Mars, Adam and Eve, coffee and tea, etc… The male torso consists of a smaller lower triangle meeting a larger upper triangle at their tips. The female torso is the opposite: a larger lower triangle and a smaller upper triangle. These features resemble human anatomy in caricature. As well as Tom Bancroft, Haitao Su’s mains suggestion for getting the female personality out is through facial features and styling. Haitao’s highly sexualized ‘variations of apparel’ lacks the variation of characterization that Bancroft demonstrated. This could simply be explained through personal artistc style, but my impression is that Bancroft’s intention is to bring a realistic characterization to the surface of an animated character, and Su’s is to deliver designs to a targeted audience which desires sexualized characters. Another explanation might simply be that the artists, as authors, are targeting different age groups. Bancroft seems to go for Disney’s family audience, whereas Su, by impression, goes for the more graphic video game crowd of 12+.
Critical evaluation in a negative run is not something I am particularly fond of, but after reading through all of the character design books I have been able to get my hands on, I have to admit that I am disappointed. Not disappointed as much, as in shock. The first book I read was Bryan Tillman’s Creative Character Design (2011). I ignored his sexist guidelines for the heroine based on his writing style, as it appeared less academic and more like a 15 year old’s diary entry. However, as I went through more authors, many of which have worked in the industry for 10+ years, a pattern began to assemble. There is, as it appears, only one way to draw the body of the industry standard for ‘the beautiful woman’.
Most aspects of character design makes perfect sense. The use of basic symbols to form a character’s base makes for great visual readability. Appeal, to me, seems like the most important aspect. Appeal is conveyed through circles and rounded lines, which are soft and visually comfortable to look at. The regulations of creating the beautiful female, however, seems like more of a pattern that has proven successful in the industry.
From a Production Design point of view, limiting the female protagonist to one body type seems like limiting a girl’s bedroom to pink. I want my practice to respond to this limitation. Through the character designs for my studio project, I will use the character design code which applies to all other character types, and flesh out three varietie to the character design’s typical ideal of beauty.