Editor’s Note: The following piece was contributed by Aardman Nathan Love. With a vision to be the most inspirational animation studio in the world in the eyes of its talent, partners and audiences, Aardman Nathan Love creates original animated entertainment, based on strong characters in compelling stories, for the viewing public’s enjoyment. With a value system built on creative integrity, independence, open collaboration, excellence and humor, the studio has created notable work for brands including Kellogg’s, Perdue, Movantik and UPS.
Whether they’re charting new courses to promote a well-known breakfast cereal or addressing an uneasy health issue like IBS-D, the designers, directors and animators at Aardman Nathan Love have an inimitable knack for creating memorable characters that connect a brand to their audience.
From the Xifaxan “Gut Guy,” who made his mark during this year’s Super Bowl 50 broadcast, to “Carl the King Crab” for Froot Loops and most recently, Nix Ultra’s muscle-bound “Super Louse,” the creative team at Aardman Nathan Love has unveiled a variety of character designs over the years. These designs have not only built brand awareness for their respective clients, but reintroduced staple products and perhaps helped ease the conversation about several touchy subjects.
Read on to hear from Aardman Nathan Love creative director Anca Risca and director Eric Cunha on the studio’s character design process, their tendency towards client collaboration, their approach to anthropomorphism and building mainstream appeal without sacrificing their creative vision.
Behind the Scenes with Aardman Nathan Love
What’s the first step when a client comes to you with a concept that they need a character for?
The first step is the conversation. When we touch base with the client initially, we’re looking to understand all the goals that we’re collectively looking to achieve. Most often, this initial phase goes hand in hand with researching the brand, pulling character and style references, and starting on loose initial sketches to get the ideas rolling.
Do your clients have a part in the character design process?
Clients definitely have a voice throughout the entire process. Although we do work toward honing in on a design internally, we usually present the entire process of how we got there, so everyone can see the different ideas and thoughts leading up to the design. This provides a great point of conversation, sparking ideas for how to move forward in refining the character through multiple rounds of revisions.
Describe the “loveable” aspect to the characters you create. What design principles help with lovability, and how do you incorporate them based on the character you’re creating?
When we’re aiming to create a lovable character, we’ll generally lean toward big, expressive facial features, and fun characteristic imperfections that make that character unique. We also design with body language in mind. We love exploring whether they’re shy, goofy, or outgoing … and finding the depth of their character through these key expressions and poses.
Do you ever worry about realistic or humanized aspects of characters entering the uncanny valley? Are there any abstraction techniques you use to mediate characters being discomforting?
When the subject is touchy, and even more-so when the character itself depicts an element that could be considered gross or uncomfortable in a realistic depiction, we strategically choose to take a stylized direction rather than an accurate representation. Handcrafted stop-motion-inspired visuals seem to really resonate with an audience, creating that separation. This helps to keep the focus on character, mood, and message, and to create a memorable and ownable style.
[In the mood for some stop-motion how-to? Check out this stop-motion animation tutorial.]
Do you find creating a character for more mainstream concepts, such as Kellogg’s King Crab, more or less challenging?
When designing Carl the King Crab, our only goal was to make the most awesome Froot Loopy villain there was! Of course, we had to avoid him having weapons or being too scary, but overall the process was more exciting than challenging. With characters that depict symptoms, pests or body parts, especially for pharmaceutical projects, design decisions are made with many more considerations of how the product is represented. It’s all about finding the right balance, and ultimately we’re tasked to be problem-solvers that can find that sweet spot in creating a balanced, effective, ownable and lovable character.
What advice would you give up-and-coming designers/animators when it comes to creating characters that connect?
Do your research, communicate your thought process clearly and be open-minded! When you have free reign with a design, it’s easy to let habits and personal style take over, so it’s important to always go back to those initial conversations and ask yourself whether you’re hitting the target and goals. And most of all, have fun with it. You never know what ideas are going to stick until you dive in and try them.
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