Any animated character exists at the intersection of realism and expressiveness. I thought I had finally arrived at a good crossroad with my original Laika character below.
My Original Laika Model
But something about my original Laika failed to appeal the audience. On my last entry I received a polite but negative review by an anonymous apparent animator. The commenter said,
“I must tell you that this dog’s model is FAR from being
“I’m really trying to say something positive and help you to make
an interesting movie. One of the 12 basic principles of animation
as taught by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston say that our
characters need to be appealing. Unfortunately yours is not, and
this is a bad thing if you want a good response from your audience.”
With this in mind, I decided to recreate the mesh from scratch. (The fact that an anonymous commentator with a Braizillian IP address can bring a project I have been working on for months to a halt is at once the greatest promise and the worst annoyance of the Internet.) The commenter suggested the classic style of Disney animator Preston Blair, so I began by opening up a blank Blender project and trying to determine what makes Blair’s characters so appealing.
Preston Blair Bulldog Sketches
Of course, there are many reasons why this character, and all of Blair’s works, are so compelling. The model implies flexibility and motion. Even in a static pose, the buldog does not look like it was just randomly placed there – it looks it has a purpose, and could move at any moment.
But what about the actual design of the dog? I noticed that the entire character starts with a two or three basic shapes. Basic shapes help make the character easier to recognize at a glance while ensuring consistency thought the film.
So I applied shape-centric idea to my new model. I sculpted the head out of a sphere from a 2D view and a mussel out of a cube. The outline of my old model appears below in the background for context.
A circle for the head, a rectangle for the snout, and an oval for the body
From a modeling perspective, there is a dramatic structural difference between expressions, known in animation as “squash and stretch”. It seems as if the entire face changes structure with change in expression.
The Blair sketch that looks most like my imagined Liaka is this expression chart of a young pup. The pup is deformed using squash and stretch techniques.
Pup Faces by Preston Blair
Using these figures as reference, I created a mesh with a significantly-reduced snout and drastically-increased eyes compared with my original model.
Floppy Ears, Big Eyes, and a Short Snout
With the rest of the body, I took care to emulate the flexibility of Blair’s sketches. The end result leaves a much simpler body structure than the original model.
Laika's New Body
To judge any improvement, I put the two versons side-by-side.
Old Dog, New Dog
I am well aware that a redesign which lifts a few tips from a classic 2D animator will not necessarily lead to a more appealing character model and a more appealing character model will not necessarily lead to a more compelling short film. But there is a lot a computer animator can learn from the pioneers of hand-drawn animation.