Character Design and The Illusion Of Life: With James Woods :: VSP #2


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By Lauren Morse and Jessica Doll for The Oatley Academy Of Visual Storytelling, Lauren Morse, and Jessica Doll for The Oatley Academy Of Visual Storytelling. Discovered by Player FM and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not Player FM, and audio is streamed directly from their servers. Hit the Subscribe button to track updates in Player FM, or paste the feed URL into other podcast apps.

Is there more to you than what other people see?

Character Design is a fundamental aspect of Visual Storytelling.

…but there’s much more to Character Design than the visual aspects.

Disney Visual Development Artist James Woods – best known for his Animation Character Design work on Mary Poppins Returns – joins me for today’s lesson:

Character Design And The Illusion Of Life.

Click through to start the lesson…

Watch The Lesson:

[ download the mp3 ] [ download the pdf ] [ download the bonus clip ]

Lesson Transcript:

The following is a transcript of the full lesson (with links to each resource mentioned).


Hello, my friends and welcome to The Visual Storytelling Podcast – where I help Artists and Writers find healthy, fulfilling careers in Animation, Games, Comics, Film and Illustration.

I’m your host Chris Oatley. I’m a Visual Development Artist and Illustrator – most notably for Disney – and if you want to become a professional Visual Storyteller like the guests on this show or many of my students, check out the courses and resources here at!

Before we begin, download the PDF Guide and the mp3 for this lesson.

You can also download a deleted scene where James talks about the difference between working alone as a student and working in the studio environment at Disney.

…and if you like today’s lesson, please share a high star rating (and, if you have time, a positive review) on our iTunes page at:

Tip #1: Think Like An Animator

Before James became a Character Design wunderkind, he struggled with Animation studies that didn’t quite fit.

As you listen to James’ origin story, consider how his training as an Animator informs his current profession as a Character Designer.

(Oh, and if you don’t understand how Animators think, don’t worry. At the end of the lesson, I’ll share a link to my resource list so you can keep learning…)


[James] Growing up, I would watch all of these Disney films. My parents would hand me and my siblings a stack of paper to keep us occupied.


We would all sit around and have our box of felt-tips and crayons and draw as we were watching the film.

I would have the VHS covers kind of lined up in front of me – The Little Mermaid and whatever – and I would start drawing from there…

[Chris] Yeah, I liked the covers. And The Little Mermaid cover was one of those that I also drew.

[James] Covers are all of these characters in their “hero moment.”

…where it’s them at their greatest.

[Chris] Yeah, right.

[James] And from the age of four, I’d said – watching The Little Mermaid, or something: “I want to do this.”

My parents, luckily, kept all of these drawings, which I did as a kid.

…and I had this really big back catalog of all of these terrible trace-overs, or weird, egg-shaped Ariels, and whatever…


…which, for some reason, going from Egg-Ariel, my parents thought that there was some promise in this.


…and so they bought me all of these color-by-numbers, like an undersea coral reef scene or something…

My teachers could see that I was easily distracted or wasn’t engaged in, maybe, the more academic side of schooling.

…but I was very keen to be drawing posters for the classroom. So from there on, I guess, I was always known as “the kid that drew.” But I had no idea about anatomy, or really what it was to be a free-thinking artist.

…but, I think, when I was fifteen, in art class, my art teacher knew that I had an interest in Animation. I was very keen on becoming a traditional, 2D Animator.

So she brought this local Animator in, who went to the same school, but had gone into Stop-Motion Animation. He was an Animator on Corpse Bride, and all of these kind of things.

And that was my first encounter with a professional who put the whole thing into context for me: “Oh, this is actually… It’s a job. It’s a lifestyle.”

…and so that really inspired and kick-started me into wanting to take Animation seriously. At this point, I went home and was like: “I’m going to make my first short film!”

The film never got made, but I spent my weekends trying to figure out how to animate – terribly. I was not really grasping it.

[Chris] But you were obviously searching. You were exploring Animation and, perhaps, even exploring Character Design a bit.

…but what did you know you were looking for?

What were you conscious of?

[James] It was always a keen interest in character.

I don’t think I ever crossed over into painting or drawing environments. But to me, it was just really interesting to – it sounds so cheesy…

…but creating that kind of life on a paper where you felt like there was something existing inside of this drawing, like a backstory, or whatever it could be…

[Chris] The Illusion Of Life! Yeah!

[James] Yeah, exactly.

[Chris] That’s what brought us all here.

[James] A university in the UK called The Arts University Bournemouth, has an Animation program.

So I went there for three years, learnt all of the basics: Ball-bounce tests, flour sack and whatever…

If we had these assignments like “the yawn,” I would put together a really simple character to animate.

…but it was just just a stock baby yawning.

…or a stock kid doing a baseball pitch.

…but on the side of it, I eventually found Character Design to keep my traditional side alive and interested.

So I was dabbling with Character Design whilst doing these 2D tests.

…not really thinking that I could become a Character Designer because I didn’t really know what it meant to have a voice as a Character Designer.

Eventually, I picked up some steam with that and saw that I was really enjoying Character Design.

I was able to experiment and broaden my design vocabulary to a point where I thought: “Oh, maybe I could pursue this…”

So I went through school here in the UK. Graduated in 2013. Then, in summer of 2013 (after a couple of years of applying) I got accepted into the Disney Summer Internship at the studio here in Burbank.

I came out here for eight weeks in summer 2013. I had, I think, probably to date, the best summer I’ve ever had. [giggle]

Just learning, being immersed in the environment…

I guess, coming from the UK, where we don’t really have a big Animation scene, it was my first time really being exposed to, not just one Animator in a building, but a whole bunch of Animators, and a whole bunch of people in the Art Department, and it being this fully-functioning Disney entity…

I spent eight weeks as a Character Design mentee.

…which was great. I super-encourage everybody to apply for that. And don’t be discouraged as well… It took me a couple of years to get accepted.

I then returned to school. I went to CalArts for a year, before having to discontinue the school for personal reasons.

Then I, luckily, landed my first freelance job in my last year of school, doing four weeks on Moana, which was my first feature.

That was really cool. Especially since, as a kid, The Little Mermaid was my favorite film. I would watch it every day. So it felt like I was coming around full-circle, getting to work underneath Ron and John. I really lucked out with that freelance gig.

So I was here for four weeks. Then I went back to the UK for about two years while freelancing for Paramount Animation Studios.

…until coming back out here in 2016 to work on the Mary Poppins sequel.

In May of 2017 I was offered the role at Disney Animation as a full-time Character Designer.

Tip #2: There’s A Lot More To Character Design Than Drawing

A drawing of a character is not the same thing as a Character Design.

…a drawing of a character represents one, small moment.

…while a Character Design is an aggregate.

Of course, there are visual aspects of Character Design: Proportion, poses, clothing, color…

…but it’s the invisible aspects: Experiences, opinions and energy. Motion and emotion…

…that combine to create The Illusion Of Life.


[Chris] Some of the best Character Designers I know have some sort of Animation background. They have moved a character around in space.

How did learning The Principles Of Animation – the flour sack and whatnot – change the way you designed characters?

[James] I think it’s really important for Designers, or students coming up, to have a grounding in Animation, because, to me, a design really comes to life when you’re thinking about a character in motion – as if you’re animating.

In my cube at work, I have keyframes and in-betweens pinned up on my walls because I want to be reminded of the character’s thought process from A to B.

…and try to install that in my drawings.

Having that Animation background definitely forces you to think about the particular quirks and nuances they might have in their pose or expression.

…because nobody moves back and forth in the same way. They have a specific way of going from A to B. Not in a pantomime sense where it’s an over-exaggerated kind of: “I’m feeling sad today, so I’m putting my fists to my eyes. …and I trace the tear down my cheek with my index finger.”


…but it’s just figuring out how that character, in their mindset, would go about that in their unique manner.

…and I think a design, to me, is successful when you can look at it and imagine how that drawing or character would sound when they’re breathing.

If you were to run up to this design and push them, would they fall over?

…or would the design just bend around your hands because there’s no physicality or solidity to them that feels real?

[Chris] Yeah. We’re talking about a character who is alive.

…and has a life outside of that rectangle – that window of the paper – that you’re looking through to see their life, right?

…or the screen – if you’re watching a movie.

[James] Exactly.

So much of it is posing and emotion which, I think, makes up the design.

…and then the actual aesthetic of them is the “icing on top.”

[Chris] Yeah, that’s awesome.

In my Character Design class – the students are always sort of shocked and disoriented by this – but in the first assignment, I give them the designed character.

Literally, I give them a model sheet and say: “Use this character.”

…and then they act out – they draw the character in different poses – and act out a Shakespearean soliloquy without any direction. So they get to decide how melodramatic, or how tragic, or how comedic their performance is going to be.

…but everybody uses the same character.

…and they’re going: “Why the heck am I doing the same character in a Character Design class? I’m supposed to be designing characters…”

…and that’s when I say: “Because there’s more to the design than the visual aspects.”

And that’s the first assignment. You identify the spirit of this character.

As a Character Designer, the thing that is going to separate you from the rest of the people just making pretty character drawings, is that soul.

No matter what you’re designing, you have to put that soul into the design.

Tip #3: Design Characters From Observation

If you want to make your characters seem more alive, draw from life.

James and I both learned more about Character Design from quick-sketching random strangers in coffee shops than we did in our art classes.

Here’s how you can make the most of this essential practice…


[James] I think, as a student, I grew the most when I would take days and days at a time just sitting and drawing people in cafés.

It’s like drawing gym.

You’re working out your drawing muscles.

Having to get the idea of that person, get that pose, get that action down immediately…

…with no fuss around your line.

You only get that “snapshot chance” to get them down. So, obviously, you have to use artistic license for a lot of the rest of it.

[Chris] Right.

[James] There was an element of caricature if that person was sat down for a long time and I was able to play with their features, or exaggerate aspects of them, or whatever…

Maybe, without even knowing it, that was me (I guess it was) Character Designing at that time, too.

But, a lot of the time, when you’re character sketching, the person is in and out…

[giggle] Bish bash bosh! Get it done!


I can’t stress that enough. I think a lot of people, when they want tips about drawing for Animation, think that there’s a secret shortcut.

They’re going: “How did you do it, specifically?”

There’s no shortcut.

It doesn’t matter if you have a Moleskine Sketchbook…


…or a cheap whatever…

A Moleskine feels great to draw on, but it isn’t going to suddenly amplify your drawings by whatever account.

But sit down with whatever you have. I used to sit down with a little – almost like receipt paper – pad and had a cheap ballpoint pen or whatever…

Just draw, and draw, and draw, and draw.

[Chris] Lined notebook paper! I would draw on spiral notebooks because the nice sketchbook put mental friction in there.

[James] Right. There’s that pressure to get it nice. And then if you do a crap drawing, you have to tear that piece of paper out!

[Chris] Right!

[James] Lo and behold, anybody should [giggle] go through your fancy Moleskine and find [giggle] a crap drawing!

[Chris] Yeah, right!


[James] So I mean, it’s about losing ego.

It’s just about making as many crap drawings as you can. So, [giggle] eventually – two-hundred crap drawings down – you’re going to have one cool one, and then it will become more frequent.

You’ll start to get a grasp of people, behaviors, all of that kind of stuff…

…which then informs your Character Design later on.

[Chris] Oh yeah.

[James] Because you’re observing all of these people around you, and drawing from those experiences, and injecting that into the experiences of the fictional characters you’re creating somewhere down the line.

[Chris] Yeah.

[James] But, at the heart of it, it’s all drawing. Whether you’re drawing in a café for the sake of figuring out posing for Animation, or Story, it all just comes down to drawing.

…and really tightening-up the connections between your fingers, and your eyes, and your brain.

…and it all pays off across the board.

So yeah, to every student, I just say: “If you can’t get to a figure drawing class, just get a sketchbook.

…and don’t be afraid to sit down in whatever coffee shop, or whatever shopping mall, and just sketch.”

All day. Every day.

…for years, and years, and years.


[Chris] Yeah, right!


James is @JamWoodser on Instagram and I’m @ChrisOatley.

…and if you haven’t done so yet, download the PDF Guide and the mp3 for this lesson.

The PDF Guide contains a full transcript of this lesson, images, links and, a resource list for those of you who want to design or develop characters that seem more alive, but don’t (yet) have any Animation training.

You can also download a deleted scene where James talks about the difference between working alone as a student and working in the studio environment at Disney. The scene didn’t fit within the focus of this episode, which is why it didn’t make the final cut, but it’s really inspiring and insightful nonetheless.

…and if you liked today’s lesson, please share a high star rating (and, if you have time, a positive review) on our iTunes page at:

Our Theme Music was composed by Seth Earnest, produced by Seth Earnest and Chris Oatley and performed by Seth Earnest with guitar work by Storybook Steve.

Our Album Art was designed by Maike Oatley with Chris Oatley.

To learn more about Character Design, check out Good Character Design Goes Deep and my Tips For A Competitive Visual Development Portfolio!

Until next time, my friends, remember: A good Character Design has a life of its own.

Recommended Resources for Character Design & Development (With An Animation Focus):


The Illusion Of Life by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston

The Animator’s Survival Kit by Richard Williams

Acting For Animators by Ed Hooks

Invisible Ink by Brian McDonald

The Hidden Tools Of Comedy by Steve Kaplan


Disney’s Tarzan (2001, 2-Disc Collector’s Edition, Glen Keane Sketch Cover)

Lilo & Stitch (2009, 2-Disc “Big Wave” Edition)

The Emperor’s New Groove (2001, 2-Disc “Ultimate Groove” Collector’s Edition, Gold Box)

The Sweatbox (“Banned” documentary about the making of The Emperor’s New Groove)

The Incredibles (2005, 2-Disc Collectors Edition)

The Making Of ‘How To Train Your Dragon’ (Originally a “BD Live” exclusive)

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