This is the third installment in a series designed to help you understand the responsibilities of a Visual Development Artist and create a portfolio that exceeds expectations.
In parts one and two, you intensified your visual exploration of story and character. I’m also hopeful that you began to think of your portfolio as a storytelling medium in itself…
Today, I’ll share an inspiring character development exercise that I learned from storyboard guru Justin Copeland…
The Invisible Upholstery Shop:
Last week, I was driving to the coffee shop to work on a set of lessons for The Magic Box and I noticed something I had never seen before…
It was an old upholstery shop.
…old but still operational. Judging from the cool, vintage sign out front and the age of the building, I would say it hasn’t moved from that spot since the 1930’s.
So why – if I’ve driven past this shop over a hundred times – didn’t I notice it until last week?
…because until last week, upholstery shops had no significant meaning to me.
A couple weeks ago, I bought a vintage desk chair that needed to be reupholstered…
In that part of town, the upholstery shop’s stylish, antique sign is one among many. Lots of cool, old signs, cool architecture…
But it wasn’t until the upholstery shop meant something to me that I finally noticed it.
Have you ever seen a movie where the director sacrificed storytelling just so they could show off a cool environment design in a way that has nothing to do with the characters?
Your attention drifts, doesn’t it?
Stories Are About Characters.
The audience connects to the world of our stories through our characters.
If your environments don’t mean anything to any of your characters, they won’t really matter to your audience.
No, not every specific detail of every environment is going to have personal meaning for your characters. Every world has invisible upholstery shops.
…but every place in your story should matter to the characters in some way. Otherwise, you might end up with Star Wars Prequels.
Now, before I go on a tangent about filmmaking, I’ll apply this concept to Visual Development.
Here’s an exercise that will help you design environments that tell stories about your character(s).
Who Lives Here?
What is the difference between “a house” and “a home”?
A house is an meaningless environment. One among many.
But a home…
A home has meaning.
…a home matters to someone.
My good friend Justin Copeland teaches Films On Paper – our storyboarding course at The Oatley Academy.
It’s actually much more than just a course on storyboarding. Justin and many of his students think of it more like a course on cinematic storyTELLING. (Side Note: All the best storyboard artists think of storyboarding this way…)
One of the assignments Justin gives to his students is called “Who Lives Here?” and it’s a great exercise for any visual storyteller.
The goal is to design a character…
Without designing the character.
…to communicate the story of the character through a drawing (or painting) of their personal space.
Here’s a nice example from one of our outstanding Films On Paper alums Anissa Espinoza:
Try It! It’s Fun!
In part two of this series, I shared Claire Keane’s advice – that every piece in a Visual Development Portfolio should respond to a question about your character.
The “Who Lives Here?” assignment is great because it forces you to consider all sorts of questions about your character(s).
…the room will just look generic or vacant if the character is under-developed.
Draw or paint a single environment and try to answer at least ten questions about your character – without placing your character into the environment.
This assignment is a lot harder than it looks.
…but if you want an even more intense challenge, try to communicate that the character leads a double-life.
Something like: “She’s a hair stylist by day and a werewolf by night!”
This will add a whole ‘nother layer of mystery and discovery for your audience.
What Does Your Personal Space Reveal About You?
My messy office looks like one of those abandoned labs from Jurassic Park 3.
…but the one uncluttered area is my workspace. #priorities
Look at your own room (or a living space that you inhabit often). Try to see it through the eyes of someone who doesn’t know you already.
What kind of story does your personal space reveal about you?
Next, in part four: Why Prop Design Is Essential For A Competitive Visual Development Portfolio!