Spotlight: Big Wide Action Show (Part 2)

This is part 2 of a continuing series on the making of The Big Wide Action Show Open. Part 1 was on thumbnail storyboards. Part 2 is on character design. Part 3 is on layout, backgrounds and color. More to follow -- stay tuned.

And we're back. Sorry for the delay in continuing this series. There was so much artwork, so many drawings to go through that I found it difficult to decide on exactly what to upload. But enough gabbing -- I've got a good amount of work to show you, so let's continue.

In the first installment I showed you all how I go about visualizing a particular project by thumbnailing it out first. But even before I did this, I had to create and develop the characters first. It was a pretty interesting process I went through to design Big and Wide, the two main characters in The Big Wide Action Show open, so I'll try and be brief.

It's extremely rare to create and animate original characters when you're in the broadcast animation business. Most of what we do within this field is based on pre-existing characters, characters that have already been created and designed by networks such as Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon, PBS (PBS Kids), and others. I've had the great opportunity to animate some of my favorites from my childhood like Shaggy and Scooby, as well as Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. I kept pinching myself whenever I was working on those projects because I couldn't believe that I was getting to draw this character ALL DAY -- the same character that I got in trouble for drawing during class back in the day. It was very rewarding (to say the least). But there's really nothing to animating these characters -- they are already there with model sheets, lip synch positions, character poses all done and ready to animate. The legwork and sweating over character design has already been done for you, the animator. But what about when you have to create new and original characters? Ah... therein lies the rub. Read on:

The first all hi-def, all animation network, Animania, approached us back in 2004 and basically said, "We need you to create some original characters for us." Whenever a network says this sort of thing, it is tantamount to gold. I had to wipe the drool off my face when I was told that I would be the one to tackle this great project. And boy, did I tackle it. A little background info for you first:

Animania had a block of shows that were more geared toward action and sci-fi and wanted to have a couple of hosts to introduce and promote this block. But what to call it? This block of shows definitely needed a name and a concept to give it some identity, instead of just simply showing a bunch of shows. Animania's tagline for their network is: Animania: Big. Wide. Fun, so they decided to do a take off of their tagline, and thus, The Big Wide Action Show was born.

The clients wanted to do a send-up of all those superhero/action/sci-fi/monster genres -- poking fun at these genres, but at same time paying homage to them all. The open was going to be a big challenge for me -- tons of scenes with tons of action crammed into a very quick 20 second time frame, so the characters had to be bigger than life and memorable. The clients wanted two characters to act as "hosts:" Big, a superhero-type dude, and Wide, his sidekick. Originally, in earlier versions, Big and Wide were just regular joe-shmoes that just so happened to be a world-saving super-duo. Here was an earlier version (by the way, please click on all images for larger versions):

The joke here was that nobody knew that Wide was a robot and did odd jobs around the house. This was their "pedestrian mode." But when called to action, they would then put on their metal gear to get into "battle mode." It was pretty funny, but too much time was needed to establish who the characters were before they actually did any butt-kicking. This storyline was scrapped. For a while, both Big and Wide were supposed to be human -- Big being a superhero and Wide being this strangely wide man. I did a couple of drawings with this in mind:

Geez, it's kinda embarrassing to show you all the above drawing because it was so early in the process. I was just getting started and I hadn't had the chance to really get all the proportions and musculature right. But below you can see that I pumped Big up more because, well, he didn't seem big enough. Still needed work.

I liked that Big had this smallish head on a huge, pumped up body. Kinda taking that superhero concept to the extreme, with a teeny-tiny head. Speaking of Big's head, I did some studies with him wearing these googles, similar to the character of Batou of Ghost In The Shell. I liked the mysterious look that the goggles gave him:

Still not satisfied, I did some more explorations with Big, even giving him a Japanese jitte-like baton:

I was not digging Wide as a human character. He looked odd, being this strange, squashed, hunched-over character. He just didn't look aesthetically pleasing to me. I mean, a character like Wide would prove difficult to animate anyway, but I wanted him to be likable, and a crouching, deformed man did not seem so likable to me. I suggested that maybe going back to Wide being a robot would be better for the character. That way, the squashed look won't look so odd for a robotic character, like he was designed to be this way, plus you got your sci-fi genre. Some early concepts of Wide as a robot:

I was liking how Wide was progressing, but the clients wanted him to be more human-like in appearance. This would make Wide even more likable to the viewer and the clients were right in this bit of detail. Even though I was digging doing something "cool" by creating robots, Wide was looking mighty cold. No personality. But more on Wide later....

Going back to Big, the clients felt that we were getting "too serious" with the designs. So, I got rid of the goggles, and took a long, hard look at the stereotypical male superhero and all the send-ups and take-offs of that genre: Roger Ramjet, The Tick, Bob Parr of The Incredibles, and many others, to try and see if I could capture the spirit of the superhero that maybe the others had not picked up on. A hard task, but it was worth a shot. Getting into character, I felt that Big was a softy at heart, kinda ditzy, but was a sweetheart who would never hesitate to get that cat out of a tree for you. I began to develop a wide-eyed look for him, with that ever-present curly-cue lock on top of his head as a cutesy joke:

With his body, extreme was the main word. I wanted Big's muscles to be so grotesquely developed that there would be no way that he could move if he was a real person. To give off this effect, I drew his hands and feet incredibly small, making his muscles seem larger than they already were. He now has a tapered, dainty look to him:

With a couple of more tweaks, we finally got our guys. Below are the final modelsheets that I gave to my assistants to animate. As you can see, Wide went through more changes before we reached this final design, and I would have to say that I'm very happy with the final result. One thing that I was worried about was maintaining consistency between the two characters, and I believe that we achieved that.

Here is the size comparison for Big and Wide:

Various hands and feet for Big. His feet proved to be a strange thing to animate. Don't know why.

I love drawing a variety of faces for a particular character. It's fun to put yourself in the character's head and try and think what they will look like if they were sad or happy, excited or depressed, introspective or curious. It's a good exercise for animators to explore different emotions.

Here are Big's turnarounds, both body and head. Man, the CHIN. That was tough to figure out.

At first, I wasn't sure about the anthropomorphic eyes and face for Wide, but like I said earlier, I now see that it was necessary for the viewer to be open to him. My earlier versions made Wide too cold and lifeless. No connection was being made between viewer and character. But here, he's a very likable guy, offering that perfect comical sidekick quality that we so desperately needed. A good balance to Big's simple doofyness.

Wide was more difficult to animate, considering that he was wide and made of metal -- there was some squash & stretch going on, but not too much. Having a segmented armor thing going on made it a lot easier to pull off some of the squashing and stretching. The fun thing I added was that Wide's "hands" can convert into various tools and objects, like a blow torch. Or a plunger.

Overall, Big and Wide had to look like a true team, a believable superhero team that could save the world in all their goofy, quirky ways. I was very happy with the results, and I had a blast animating them. Even though Wide was a bit difficult to animate, I saw it as a great challenge and I enjoyed that aspect of the character.

Up next: Backgrounds and Color.


  1. I'm loving these "Spotlight" features, Ward. It's like watching the DVD "Special Features." Thanks for all the time you must put into these. Looking forward to further installments!

  2. I love it! More please!

    You do great work, Ward, and I love taking a look at your design process.

  3. Great to see these production arts!! THanks for sharing!!

  4. OMG. Ward. This is a fantastic post! I really dig your character designs... You are able to give these guys so much roundness and depth with just a few strokes. Can't wait for the next part!

  5. Great work! I too love seeing the progession of it all. You certainly HAVE been extra busy!

  6. If queried, both of my boys will tell you that they want to be animators as their hobby when they grow up. My 13-yr-old, for example will tell people who ask that he wants to be a veterinarian by day and an animator-slash-comic-book-artist by night. (I don't have the heart to tell my 7-yr-old that the day-job prospects for 'video game tester' are pretty slim.) I am going to show them this totally awesome, wonderfully detailed post in the morning. Thanks so much for breaking down the process in such detail.

  7. Wow, wow, wow, so cool to see your whole character development process! It shows how much work goes into truly great characters.

  8. Ward, you have GOT to post this stuff on SFG! They will eat it up over there!!!

    I'm in serious awe, great stuff man!

  9. I absolutly love seeing what goes into designs-behind the scenes. Like Jeremy said.. a dvd special feature.
    I'm digging your style more and more each visit.

    no not really... just DAK

  10. Wow, Ward, even I (who worked at Primal during the time you were working on this) didn't realize the amount of "process" it took to develop these guys for Animania. I LOVED reading about your animation and character design decisions broken down, step by step. Besides your obvious talent in animation, you are talented at breaking down the process for others. You'd make a good animation professor. I LOVE "Wide" especially...he's so goofy, and I love how you had him holding a dainty little feather duster in the beginning! So funny. I'll be awaiting your next installment.

    PS - I'm still waiting for "Big, Wide, and Nasty" to come out, too! heh heh (just kidding)

  11. Wow. It is SO cool to see your process, man.

  12. wow character development is awesome, i wish i had your skills, love the blog

    Bored@Home at http://video567.blogspot.com/