Report – Character Building

Posted on: Thursday 06 July 2017 11:10pm by Tom Jordan

What do you get when you cross a writer, an illustrator, an animator, a creative director, an art director, two voice actors and an art director? Answer: The perfect panel to deconstruct what goes into making a successful character.


  • Don’t fall into the trap of creating your main character in isolation for your pitch bible, develop them through dialogues and interaction with the other characters in your world.
  • A character’s voice should be acted, not just mimicked
  • Visuals can be stronger when the designer absorbs the back story of the character
  • Children are a great source of inspiration for character creation
  • All of the above need to work together to develop a character


Voice Director Dave Peacock introduced a stellar line-up of creative talent to a packed, eager Cinema 3, and posed the question to each panellist: what are your processes for creating and developing a great character?

Writer, creator and director Tony Collingwood said that there are always three elements that go into making a character: it has to be written, designed and acted. Tony’s characters often start with the writing, but sometimes the idea starts out as a sketch. His sage advice was not to fall in to the trap of developing a character in isolation, which creators often do when creating their pitch bible. Tony has them ‘meet up’ with other characters early on in the process, so he can develop the characters through the conversations and dialogue they might have with each other.

He said that in animation development there are few chances for spontaneous development, but the initial work with the voice actor is one of those opportunities.

Actor Marc Silk not only talked about the voice actors that inspired him as a child, such as Brian Cant in ‘Camberwick Green’, Mel Blanc’s over-the-top Warner Bros. range, and June Foray’s Grandma from ‘Tweety Pie’, but also brought them to life with an uncanny recreation of each character. He said a memorable character has more than just someone who is good at ‘doing a voice’, they have people actually acting that character. He demonstrated with a gorgeous clip of Kermit reciting the alphabet song with a young girl, who even though she can see Jim Henson beneath the desk operating the puppet still completely buys into the idea that Kermit is real, because Henson’s characterisation was so authentic.

Akiya Henry, also a Voice Actor, talked about the differences between developing a character for stage and for voice. With a stage character, it develops over a six-week rehearsal process, but then once the production begins it grows even more due to the presence and interaction with an audience. But with voice work she knows the world from the very start through the visuals, which helps her to interpret the character. She added that when the creators first hear the voice, they often respond to the actor’s interpretation and that helps them to bring it to life even more.

Both voice actors said a good voice director, such as Dave, really makes a difference, and it can often be better to get the actors together so they can bounce off each other rather than record in isolation.

Sarah Cox, Executive Creative Director at Aardman, said she learnt a lot about character design through her work on the Tate Movie Project, which had the participation of 34,000 children across the UK. Children viewed and came up with characters in different ways to adults, she said, citing and showing a clip from a film called ‘Royals, Rascals and Us’, about Cardinal Thomas Wolsey making Hampton Court Palace, which came out of the project and was created by kids. Her own daughter was her inspiration for the Disney Junior show ‘Nina Needs To Go!’, based on an experience of getting almost to the front of an hour-long queue for train tickets only for her daughter to need the loo, resulting in them missing the train.

Ellen Jin, Art Director for DreamWorks’ ‘Spirit Riding Free’, spoke via video link about her formulation of the visuals of characters. She always begins by reading through scripts and getting a feel of the character, rather than just working off a flat brief. The target audience also comes into play when shaping the look of a character, ranging from more exaggerated appearances for younger audiences or comedy characters, to more realistic-looking people for older or more dramatic programmes. She had arounf three months to build the design world for ‘Spirit’, with a week or two spent on the main character. The characters’ individual back stories also helped her to come up with the clothes and style of each person.

While the panel talked, Seb Burnett from Rumpus Animation was sketching away potential characters, and one of the sketches was used in a quick fire exercise to name a pair of characters he’d drawn (in this case, a drip of water and a bucket, but that’s another story), and for Marc to create an impromptu voice for it. The two characters were created pretty quickly, but the point was that all the above elements work together and influence each other to develop a dynamic character.

Oh, and check back soon for the audio to hear a room full of delegates being taught to do the Scooby-Doo voice in under a minute. Only at CMC!

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Tom Jordan

About the author

Tom Jordan

Freelance, CMC Content Manager & Writer, Editor, Project Manager

Tom Jordan is a freelance writer, editor and project manager based in Sheffield. As well as being the Content Manager and Blogging Editor for this year's CMC, he is the author of the voice of the John Keats at Guy's Hospital in London, part of the international Talking Statues project,… Read more