Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Book Review: Alive Character Design by Haitao Su

Six months ago, Alive Character Design by Haitao Su was officially released. Then the date was pushed back, then it was published, then it was unavailable. I finally have this book sitting on my desk and can write a review.

While waiting for it to be released, I’ve pored over a number of extracts from it, which were very interesting and some of which were quite helpful and instructive on their own. Unfortunately, the included extracts are possibly the best information in the book.

The views expressed are quite narrow, applying for the most part only to traditional cartooning styles and very cliché archetypes, bringing to mind the narrow Disney character designs and their very set formulas.

‘Alive Character Design for Game, Animation and Film’ covers the principles of character design, but it is a very rudimentary explanation, mostly covering tools and software rather than actually going over how to construct interesting characters. This is the only time the book discusses character design as an overall whole, and the section is all and all only about eight pages of the hundred and seventy odd which the book boasts.

From there it goes into character categories:

Female Characters – here the author has decided female characters are entirely and exclusively about “creating distinctive sexuality and beauty”. Every character in this section and explanation is about large-breasted, narrow-waisted women in provocative poses wearing revealing outfits. Absolutely nothing about diverse character traits or different ages. I note here that while “Female characters” lumps together all female characters ever. Apart from one or two very brief mentions, female characters are not revisited.

Male Characters - “Highlighting the Character’s Heroism” implies you are going to get a very shallow view, and that is pretty much what the section is, filled only with heroic male characters. Almost everything in this section looks the same and all focuses on the “heroic” style character. “Male Characters” is really only “Heroic Male Characters” and has about three other sections devoted to male character types.

Q-Style Character Design – here the author delves into the design of cute and cuddly characters. This one is a bit more diverse, covering very young characters, very old ones, male and female, animals and monsters. But it has the feel of an art book more than an instructive text, sprinkled with the odd tip but nothing overly useful.

Monster Character Design – This section I found a bit more useful, the leg positioning stuff was good (which is in the below preview), but the comment associated with it isn’t about centre of balance or drawing on animals to work out anatomy but instead talks about the attitude of a character, which I think is a bit less relevant to why the pose is wrong.

Animal Character Design –The majority of this section focuses on taking animals and personifying them with ridiculous outfits. This isn’t entirely what I wanted to lean about giving animals character. I wanted to know how to do that without turning them into puss in boots.

Supportive Role Characters – “Make them Stupid and Ridiculous”, I downright disagree with this. Making supporting characters stupid and ridiculous is not always required in a storyline, and making idiotic supporting characters doesn’t exactly expand my knowledge of how to use supporting characters and the diversity of plot tasks they can accomplish, or even how to design a supporting character without detracting from the main character.

Villains – This section gets into it a wee bit more, talking about lighting villains and the type of gestures you can imply. Some of the facial expression information is good too, but it’s all a bit light and missing in content.

Inanimate Characters – Here the book discusses personified inanimate characters. The idea is distilled down into five approaches which are explained in detail. These include examples, but the examples are all of different things using different approaches and you have to really understand what the words are inferring to understand the examples and it can be a bit confusing.

Mechanical Character Design – This section discusses different type of humanoid mechanical robots. There are only two minor illustrations in this section which are not humanoid, which is again a very shallow view for such an important and broad topic. Again we get a bit lost in the generic details, like giving robots personality and the idea of AI and cyborgs. All well and good but it’s not really explaining how to combine real-world inspiration into unique characters.

Next there is a “Gallery Appendix” which is some sort of out of place promo for five random cartoonists. The reason there are included is not mentioned, and why it is referred to as an appendix is beyond me. I am guessing they are cartoonists who inspire the author, or perhaps helped fund the book, but nothing is ever mentioned and the category merely includes a photo, name, brief biography and a whole bunch of examples of their work.

This is followed by a two page interview which is more a background and biography of Haitao Su rather than anything useful. It’s a bit lengthy and conducted in an interview format rather than an address from the author to the reader.

Finally an acknowledgement….and then it just kind of ends. No final words of wisdom or suggestions on how to tie everything together. It leaves you confused and more than a little dissatisfied.

In Summary

Perhaps the reason I disliked this book so much was my six month wait after the first time a release date was announced for the thing to actually be published and released. Based on the previews I’d seen, I was very excited and looking forward to recommending this book. “Alive Character Design for Game, Animation and Film”, the title promised so much and delivered very little. It struck me more as an art book with the occasional word of wisdom to impart than a proper learning guide.

Maybe I was just expecting too much. I still haven’t found a proper character design book which explains how to create believable, memorable and detailed characters, something which teaches me how to decide on costuming, age, gender, traits and personality. I guess I just wanted this book to explain everything to me, not just narratively but visually. How to illustratively build characters with extra legs, strange joints, missing limbs while making them look like they anatomically correct.

Overall, a great disappointment. While I can’t argue that Haitao Su is a great artist, his overall approach to the subject was very limited and haphazardly compiled, confusing and very cliché. This is combined with a halting and sometimes overcomplicated way of wording and discussing topics which makes me think it was done by a translator rather than the impassioned words of the artist. Not a book I’d recommend for learning much, though the pictures are quite pretty.


  1. I was just about to buy this book. Then I read your review. Thanks!


  2. I figure this book tells us a lot about the attitude problems of the industry as a whole.