In designing characters for preschool, clarity is key and so we often aim for very simple characters with few details. But in the animation process we then have to take those simple characters and make them live. They need to act, just like a live-action actor does, and tell the story through their actions, their emotions, even their thoughts.
Does that matter for a preschool audience?
Yes. Not in quite the same way that it matters to adults. What a Disney fan or the Cartoonbrew crowd might consider great animation does not apply to preschool. Preschool animation can be simple, can be crude. But I have seen first hand that preschoolers will be more engaged when they believe those characters aren’t simply moving – they are living.
We must make our characters truly live.
But every now and again, an animator takes a look at a basic preschool character, possibly a crude design with little more than a shape, eyes and a mouth, and thinks, that won’t work. Those characters need more details to get across the expressions. How can I work with such basic pieces? Where are the eyebrows?
If you are an animator and have ever thought this, I point you towards puppets and the amazing work that great puppeteers do. Many puppets can’t move their eyes, or eyebrows. They can just open or close their mouths and little else. Some puppets have almost nothing to work with in comparison with animation. But through poses, subtleties, sometimes just a tilt of the head, a puppeteer can make us believe that their puppet thinks, feels, and lives. They can get across any emotion through movement.
We are taught this as animation students, most commonly with the emotional sack exercise (although that is often abused by forcing limbs and more onto the shape), but we tend to forget it soon after. We get used to the crutch of details. Details that, more often than not, we simply don’t need.
I have seen some of the most basic characters brought to life in Fluffy Gardens, Planet Cosmo and more and the best animators know that, to make a character live through movement, really all we need is to master that movement. Watch for the differences the tiniest move can make, the changes in attitude a tilt forward can bring, or a tilt backwards. See how the slightest change or subtle movement of the face can make us believe a character is listening and thinking. Bring the characters and story to life.
Study the puppeteers. They have much to teach us.