Mort:  Giving Death a Makeover

Today, I’d like to talk a little bit about character design.  Specifically, I would like to address the question of how to take a traditionally intimidating character and making them into an appealing protagonist.  We’re going to talk about the decisions that led to taking this:

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To this:


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Before we go doing a point by point design on each of these characters, it would behove me to go a little bit into the language of character design.  Cartoon characters are the actors of cartoons.  Where actors have charisma, cartoon characters have ‘appeal’.  Unlike actors who have to work for and practice their charisma, cartoon characters have to be designed with their appeal.

The first thing a cartoonist takes into account with designing a character is the intended personality for the character.  Every kind of personality elicits a different series of shapes.  I like to think in terms of the following diagram:

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When designing Mort, the goal was to take an often sinister and imposingly drawn figure and remove any vestiges of threat from him. Mort is meant to be a reliable and affable workaholic; he’s a nice guy with a dirty job that tries to make the best of things and keep a positive attitude.  That means we needed a character that had little to no triangular shapes in the design.  Points should be rounded with few exceptions.  He also needed to be cute, not just for any demographic either; he needs to appeal to a Chinese audience.  To accomplish this, we employed a classic design trick that is frequently used in both western and Japanese design.

The key to cute is all in the shape of the head.  Friz Freleng used this trick when he created Porky Pig, and Bob Clampett would go to use the same trick later on when he used Tweety Bird.

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Do you see it?  If not, take a look at this Japanese answer to the same design trick.

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In Japanese, this large headed, short bodied character style is referred to as ‘Chibi’.  It incorporates the use of a big head and a big eyes, but more importantly, just like the previous western designs it uses a similar head shape.  Cartoonists have known for a long time that in order to affect a ‘cute’ character they need to place a larger circle on top of a smaller circle.

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Behold, the essence of CUTE.

In order to exact this particular head shape on a skeleton, it made more sense to simply remove the lower jaw.  After that, it was a simple manner of giving him a short, stumpy body much like a Japanese Chibi character, giving him massive eyes, and then rounding out almost all of his potential points.  As you can see from the character design, Mort only retains two pointing elements in his design:  one on the top of his hood, the other on the bottom of his robe.  We even went as far as simplifying his hands into little ball shapes in order to reduce the number of angles in the character.

Mort in China

By reducing the angles, using a basic ‘Chibi’ design, and making the eyes extremely large we have created a character that so far has solid appeal for his target audience.  He is approachable, non-threatening, and not scary in the slightest.  So far Mort’s reception has been everything we hoped to be.

I hope this has been useful in helping you to understand a lot of the decisions that go into cartoon character design.  If you have any questions please let us know in the comments, or if you would like to see more blogs like this in the future regarding other characters in the books, feel free to comment.

I would also like to know  who is your favourite cartoon character?


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