Designing Characters for Animation: When Inspiration Becomes Appropriation

Posted by Charlotte Belland on
Portraits of Native Americans by George Catlin.
Photo by Nutopia Ltd
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this blog post are solely those of the author. 

The Cult of Progress is an aptly named episode. The cult-like consumption of others in the name of progress is a reoccurring story of the white European narrative. As a white cis woman, this episode reinforced one of the reasons that my primary art subjects are animals. While I have studied and can produce drawings of humans, I avoid the subject. I find that when I design a human character, it can lead me to appropriating and misinterpreting the experience of others.

As an educator of young animators, I frequently find myself in conversations about Character Design, one of the most popular, yet most challenging tasks of the pre-production animation pipeline. Our students are very young and many have not traveled far from where they were born. College is their first step out into “the real world.” Students are ravenous consumers of imagery, but most of what they have consumed is from popular culture. This can lead to the unintentional appropriation of cultures.

Character designers have a responsibility to honor the culture they are trying to represent.

Napoleon’s books, Description de l'Égypte, catalogued and shared details of ancient and domestic Egyptian cultures. Artists and craftsmen were inspired by the imagery and many appropriated the designs and cultural symbols. Like clockwork, college art educators can tell the time of the semester based on the cultures that are appearing in the character designs of the students. These coincide with the students Art History classes. Just like Egyptian symbols appearing in the work of Parisian Artists, the exposure of new cultures will appear in young animators’ designs.

The danger in designing characters is that even a systematic, scientific cataloguing of details can be a form of appropriation. Even though George Catlin made it his life’s work to thoroughly record the disappearing cultures of the Native Americans, his work was disingenuous. Catlin wanted to record all of the details because the Native Americans were “doomed and must perish.” The Artist Edgar Heap of Birds provides an observation that a culture cataloguer would miss: Native Americans would never depict themselves as individuals. Students can be expert cataloguers, but even though they might think they are avoiding cultural appropriation by just drawing facts, they can do even more damage by applying the details in a sterile field. 

The Devil is literally in the details.

Character designers have a responsibility to honor the culture they are trying to represent. While a large portion of that is immersing oneself in the visual language of a culture, the key action is listing to the context of those symbols and images. If appropriation, even if it is unintentional, is identified, an animation character designer must accept the responsibility of his/her/their actions and remedy those visual choices. Art educators must also take responsibility to challenge the visual cultural choices of students. After all, these choices will eventually appear in the visual catalogue of the Internet. And consumption without context can lead to the acceptance of misinformation.

Charlotte BellandCharlotte Belland, BFA, MFA is an Associate Professor and Chair of Animation at the Columbus College of Art and Design. Her artistic practice focuses on capturing the immediacy of animal movement with ink drawings.

“Working with ink is foundational to my process because the quick, permanent medium keeps me focused in the present moment. Even though my ink drawings are a single moment in time, the energy of the gesture that leads and follows that moment must resonate in the lines. This energy honors the essence of the animal and encourages viewers to pause and appreciate the beauty of the animal realm.”

Belland graduated with a Master of Fine Arts Degree in Computer Animation from The Ohio State University. Part of her creative habit is to post a daily animal drawing to Instagram. Those drawings can be viewed on Instagram.

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