Augment Caricatures

27 October, 2010

I mentioned last time that I'm starting to approach my thesis as if it was a Hollywood blockbuster. Right now I'm in the pre-production phase which means: story work, character work, casting, design of the sets and props, special effects planning, etc.

In this post, I'd like to talk about one component of that process: the character design. Unlike most blockbusters, I'm starting with real people and using media and objects instead of actors to represent them. Hence character design is extremely important. Will the viewer immediately be able to recognize each of my four or five main characters across different pieces that render them in different forms and possibly different media?

In order to ensure that they will, I'm conducting a series of visual studies of my main characters designed to reduce them to caricatures. For each person who figures prominently in the story, I'm making study drawings of them from historical photographs with an eye towards the question: what is the single defining visual characteristic needed to represent them? How simply can I indicate their visual identity.

Here are a few examples of what I've come up with so far.

Bill English Using Mouse and Chording Keyboard

Bill English. Engelbart's right-hand man, the Chief Engineer and Assistant Director of Augment. His two defining features seem to be his big dark glasses and his round domelike forehead, emphasized by his slightly receding haircut.

Doug Englebart

Doug Engelbart. Founder of Augment. Our hero. This is a little bit of a tough one as in many ways Engelbart was the typical suit-and-tie engineer-type. But after making this drawing and a few others, I focused in on the hair and the head shape. His hair has this signature pompadour flow to it and striking shocks of gray and his whole head has a very solid rectangular shape with a very strong chin.

Now, here's an example of how these two caricatures in action. The following is a frame from my storyboard of the scenes in Act 1 (about which more in the future):

Founding of Augment storyboard (closeup)

Hopefully, even with just those few extremely messy strokes, the presence of the hair and the glasses let you know that what you're seeing is Engelbart and English looking through a door into an empty room.

Let's take a look at two of our secondary characters as well. In many ways these are harder as they are likely to get less "screen" time and hence need to be instantly recognizable.

John McCarthy

This first one is John McCarthy, the head of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab, which had a kind of sibling rivalry relationship with Augment. Thankfully, McCarthy is a caricaturist's dream: giant halo of frizzy hair and beard, big black glasses and prominent nose. The glasses alone wouldn't do it for us as we've already got glasses as the primary element of English's caricature, but with all of McCarthy's frizzy hair poking out in every direction they should be confused.

This last "character" is a little different, but I think it plays an important enough role in the story to actually be worth considering as a character rather than a prop or an effect.

Mouse prototype

The original mouse prototype. English built it out of wood and two potentiometers from a sketch by Engelbart; its invention was one of the most famous achievements of the lab. As a caricature, I think the things most important to emphasize are its large size compared with today's mice, its primitive construction, and the fact that it's made out of wood.

Next time, I'll have an example of using these caricatures: a basic storyboard from the outline I presented last time.