The Puppet Masters - character design at Flaunt Productions
Today’s entertainment is more complex, intricate, and bombastic than ever. From television to video games, advertisements, interactive installations and beyond, today’s digital experiences are technical marvels, woven together by hundreds of immensely talented individuals.
However, it’s not quality visuals or exciting narrative arcs that immerse us. What holds these stories together is something altogether more primal, reaching back to the days of tales told huddled under starry skies: it’s the characters that hold these experiences together.
Approached with proper care and consideration, characters can speak to the deeply human, holding a mirror up to the audience and revealing something about ourselves. Without characters, a story is flat; it means nothing.
That’s why Flaunt Productions takes the construction of character so seriously – even when working on projects that are anything but serious…
If you’ve got it, Flaunt it
Based in Glasgow, Scotland – and part of creative triumvirate Axis Studios – Flaunt truly understands the power of character development. Over the past 14 years it has placed considerable care into the crafting of character; cultivating personalities that audiences really want to spend time with.
"Characters are the vessels for the stories people want to tell," begins Stephen Donnelly, Flaunt director, art director and head of development. "These are the creations that audiences want to fall in love with, or go on an adventure with, or view the world through, seeing the story through their eyes. Characters let us understand stories."
This is especially true of children – any parent will tell you that a children’s show without interesting characters is doomed to lose its audience’s attention.
"Kids get excited and inspired by characters just as much, if not more so, as by story," says Marc Bouyer, director and character artist at Flaunt. "Character development matters more to them than abstract considerations like background. If a character is well designed and constructed it can not only carry a show, but elevate it."
At Flaunt, designing characters starts with considered writing – a good character is about much more than aesthetics alone.
"The best characters come from a good script, above anything else," explains Donnelly. "From there, it's a process of psychoanalysis. You look at the story and analyse the characters; that can inspire visual metaphors, right down to their proportions."
For Riggers, this process feels akin to that of a 'puppet master': "We feel out who the character is and fit ourselves into their shoes. We ask ourselves about their motivations, how they move through the world, how they see things. From that we build a visual image, which we then transpose into the digital realm.”
A sense of style
Flaunt employs artists of varied disciplines and backgrounds, each bringing something unique to the studio’s design process. It’s up to them to create the visual elements of a character – a process that tends to be the most fun when working on highly stylised creations.
"Stylised characters embrace the 'anything is possible' aspect of animation," says Shanti Riggers, one of Flaunt’s talented character artists. "With realism, you must stick to rules and respect physics. Stylised gives us, our clients, and our partners much more freedom to experiment.”
"In some cases, stylised characters make it easier for the audience to follow what is happening," continues Flaunt director Denis Bouyer. "For instance, a strong silhouette in an action sequence makes it much easier to follow movement. We can also use different colours to communicate differences between characters when several are on screen.”
Character design goes beyond physicality too: “With stylised characters we can communicate their emotions, transmitting the feeling of sadness through their composition alone.”
Work hard, play hard
Flaunt is careful not to exaggerate stylised characters, and avoids making any aesthetic decisions that don’t align with the character’s motivations. To avoid this, a considered production pipeline is applied.
"We're very careful to balance a unique look versus broad appeal," remarks Andrew Pearce, Flaunt’s executive producer. "We can make a character that stands out as very iconic, but when you do that you can sacrifice what we'd call 'broad appeal'.
“By balancing broad appeal with unique individualism, we ensure that audiences can easily identify with our characters, while still making sure they stand out from the crowd.”
The ability to hit that balance comes from Flaunt's 14 years of experience serving many of the biggest brands around – along with the pedigree and expertise of the studio's artists, of course. The studio has a meticulous, but also explorative approach to art. It allows instinctual creativity to take concepts where they want to go, but layers this with a considered approach to design that can only come from years of working across the artistic landscape.
“At Flaunt we like to have fun, and that shows through in the characters we create. But to create truly great characters you need to do more than have some fun on the sketchpad – you need to think deeply about what you’re going to say, and how you’re going to say it,” concludes Pearce.
“Put simply, if our characters don’t draw the viewers in – if they aren’t capable of telling the audience something deeper about themselves – they haven’t done their job.”