Designing Ethnic Characters

As I mentioned in my last post, I recently attended the Motion 08 animation conference in New Mexico. One of my favorite seminars was “Character Design: Capturing Ethnicity”  given by Dan Haskett.  Haskett is a Disney veteran who has spent the last twenty years working all over Hollywood as a character designer. He contributed design ideas to such Disney films as The Little Mermaid and Mulan, DreamWorks’ The Prince of Egypt, and many other projects. He was even called in to help translate Matt Groening’s original designs for The Simpsons into a form more suitable for animation. The man knows character design inside and out.

I was interested in this particular presentation because more and more I am being called on by clients to design or illustrate people of specific ethnicities. If a client needs, say, an illustration of five accountants in a life boat, they’ll almost certainly request that one be black, one be asian, and one be hispanic or middle-eastern (oh, and make sure two are women).

As “white boys” go I’m as white as they come so I struggle a bit with drawing people of other ethnicities, especially children. For years my sketchbooks have been chock full of caucasians with only a smattering of people from other races. I guess because that’s been my world. I grew up in an all-white small town and I don’t run into very many ethnic people now in my cozy Midwestern suburb. Studying other ethnicities is something I definitely need to work on.

To complicate matters, in our hyper-PC culture clients are often terrified of offending minorities. Although I draw in a very cartoony style I don’t feel like I have the same freedom to exaggerate and caricature characters of other races as I do white characters. More than once I’ve had a client request that, when I draw an african-american, to make sure he doesn’t have large lips and a wide nose. I once had a client ask me to draw an asian character but to make sure that they eyes weren’t slanted! To a degree I can understand this. Obviously I don’t want insult anyone with a negative stereotype. But there’s a point where it gets a little silly. To some clients only white cartoon characters are allowed to have big noses, goofy smiles, crazy hair, or other “negative” features. As a result, I’ve often felt like my non-caucasian drawings are stiff and stilted.

Dan Haskett’s presentation was enlightening and extremely helpful. As a black artist he is in a unique position to comment on ethnic stereotypes in cartooning. He talked about the history of stereotypes in animation from pre-WWII “black face” cartoons to more modern examples of apathetic approaches to non-white characters. Haskett then showed us samples of african-american character sketches he had developed for a Hollywood project. I was amazed at his marvelous ability to capture a variety of personalities and designs within that one given ethnicity. He must have showed us thirty different male black characters, all rich with personality and expression and all very black yet none looking a bit alike.

He challenged us as artists to steer away from “formulaic” interpretations of ethnic characters and instead to study the wide variety of facial types that appear in all races. While specific ethnic groups tend to have similar characteristics, as artists we must be careful not to oversimplify by relying on any one “formula” for creating an ethnic character (something I’ve been guilty of). Haskett rightly pointed out that not all black people have big lips or wide noses or almond eyes. Not all asians have high cheekbones and flat features. The best way to create truly appealing ethnic characters is to study the rich variety of facial features that appear within a given race, and use that variety to inform your designs. I believe his exact words were, “Figure out a way to put together an appealing set of features that *suggest* a race without relying on stereotypes”.

His words were elusive and yet they makes sense. Take a good look at these black celebrities. Each face is completely different, yet each one is clearly african-american. If I could somehow remove the dark skin tones and reduce them to line drawings you would still be able to detect the ethnicity. Still, there are huge differences. Compare Colin Powell’s bulbous, upturned nose with Morgan Freeman’s wider, flatter nose. Cuba Gooding’s eyebrows are thick and straight while Eddie Griffin’s are thin and curved. Compare Griffin’s almond-eyes to Chapelle’s bug-eyes to Morgan Freeman’s heavy, authoritative eyes. Chapelle’s skull is long and pointy. Ray Charles and Cosby have huge chins. James Earl Jones has thin lips. Yet all are somehow distinctly African-American.

Finally, Haskett reminded us that no matter the race, in any character design personality is king. Haskett challenged us to look beyond the surface features and focus on capturing the personality and of each character you create. Who he/she is as a person should be the drive your designs, with racial considerations being a secondary issue. Is the character bold or shy? Serious or silly? Wise or foolish? What are his/her habits, fears, opinions? Focus on creating a unique, appealing ethnic character and then look for ways to reveal those traits through your design.

I’m not proud to say it, but for me that’s a challenge. One I welcome.

In my sketchbooks I’ve spent hudreds of hours studying and drawing various white people, yet I’ve drawn almost no people from other races. Haskett’s presentation really challenged me to start studying the unique personalities and humanity that appear in every race and not just rely on cliches to fill a racial quota in my illustrations. I’m planning to start a sketchbook that is filled only with people from other races, and when I get a variety of sketches that I like I’ll post them here on the blog.