September 17, 2011

The Importance of Character

I've always believed that great characters are the foundation for awesome children’s projects. In fact, in animated feature films there seems to this "story is king" motto, made famous by Pixar owners and directors. As I have been working in the animation industry for over 12 years now, I see more and more evidence of the theory that Character takes higher president (and entertainment value) over Story. I'm not saying that Story is over-rated, of course the age-old debate "which is more important, or which comes first? Story or Character" is always a fascinating subject to me. I believe you remember and associate with Characters first and foremost, of course Characters cannot survive without a survive without a good story for them to live in, but Story does not exist without a structured and entertaining Story to support that character.

That’s why I was excited about the recent coverage on the research from educational animation advisor, Alexis Lauricella. As Alexis’ study, “Toddlers Learning from Socially Meaningful Video Characters,” concludes, social relationships that children develop with a character impact their ability to learn from media. In the case of her study, toddlers who saw a sequencing task performed by the beloved Elmo were significantly more able to perform the task themselves than two control groups. That's why places like Disneyland and Disney World work so well in my opinion, the children (of a certain age) truly believe those costumed characters are real, and that's what makes the experience so magical to them. Micky, Goofy, Dora, Elmo and all other characters on site get related by their on-screen animated selves, and the kids make that association with the characters they watch and love on television.

In addition, I've recently read a study out of the University of California, Riverside on the importance of social relationships with media characters. The study, “Media as Social Partners: The Social Nature of Young Children’s Learning From Screen Media,” had equally telling results. Similar to Alexis’ work, this paper cites the social nature of learning from screen media, concluding that there is a direct correlation between a child’s relationship with on-screen characters and their comprehension of information presented.

Through personal experience, my 3 year old daughter has formed these bonds with on-screen characters to a profound level. Calliou, Pocoyo , and Toupee & Binoo are just some of the characters she loves to watch. I observe her reactions and how much she looks forward to what the characters do next.

Characters do not survive without story, and story does not survive without character, but the more I see the relationship between my daughter and the on-screen characters that she truly believes are 100% real, it makes me think that characters should be created, designed and developed first. Of course the younger the age demographic a cartoon is for, the simpler the stories will be, but it's still a testament to the power of characters and how much kids believe in these characters.

Even when I think about films like Star Wars, Die Hard, Blade Runner, Alien, and Star Trek... what is the first thing I remember when I recall these films? Is it the story or the characters in those stories? Of course I always remember the characters first. The same goes for classic cartoons new and old.

Sure when you say "Homer Simpson" instantly some quotes, catch-phrases and brief moments of funniness come to mind. But when you say Simpsons, you think of the characters within that series more so that specific stories. Simpson relies a lot on it's huge cast of characters along with its writing. Of course the best of those two worlds is what creates truly great television or film.

From Spongebob to Harry Potter, characters are developed around a strong story structure. These structures I made to have the character grow, face conflicts and evolve within their own universe. One TV series I love to follow is House. This series is the epitome of the saying "the story writes itself". Why? Because the producers and creators of this show masterfully created a complex, intriguing,  and detailed main character.

House often clashes with his fellow physicians, including his own diagnostic team, because many of his hypotheses about patients' illnesses are based on subtle or controversial insights. His flouting of hospital rules and procedures frequently runs him afoul of his boss, hospital administrator and Dean of Medicine Dr. Lisa Cuddy. When you create such a thoroughly well-thought out character such as Dr. House, the scripts really do write themselves, simply because when you have a character created with such a detailed personality and back story you simply have to create the situation and how the character will react and engage in that situation becomes obvious, and thus, the stories write themselves. The creation of a strong character had to come first.

This is all leading me back to the study regarding the social relationships that children develop with a character impact their ability to learn from media. Showing how children will only connect with appealing characters, characters that happen to be educational in their performances is just a nice bonus.

And that's my random rant of the day.

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