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The unlikely inspiration behind your favourite film characters

And some easy tips for designing your own

Struggling to think of fun and creative things to do this half term (or just anything at all)? We get it. When you’re stuck inside your own four walls every day, it can be hard to come up with ideas. So it might help to know that the creative minds behind some of your favourite film characters were actually inspired by their immediate surroundings. We’re talking cutlery, household pets, posters...even a pair of binoculars. Read on to discover the very ordinary beginnings of ten famous film characters, plus tips from filmmakers on how to create your own.
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Wall-E

The eyes of Pixar’s adorable robot were inspired by a pair of binoculars director Andrew Stanton used at a baseball game. He told The Hollywood Reporter’s It Happened in Hollywood podcast:
"I missed an entire inning just looking at them...That cracked it open for me. That's pretty much what I did: I put binoculars on top of a trash compactor.”
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Yoda

Ever thought Yoda looked familiar? It could be because, according to Mental Floss, Star Wars special effects artist Stuart Freeborn partly modelled the character on Albert Einstein - particularly the wrinkly eyes - after seeing a poster hanging in his office.
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Forky

All parents know the pain of spending money on a toy only for the kids to be more interested in playing with the box it came in. Director Josh Cooley says it was this that inspired the Toy Story 4 team to come up with a character that wasn’t a toy, but rather a throwaway object which could, with a little imagination, become one. They settled on a spork because, well, sporks are just quite funny.
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Lumiere

According to Empire, legendary Disney lyricist Howard Ashman came up with the idea of turning everyone in the castle in Beauty and the Beast into objects, including a clock, candelabra and teapot.
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Toothless

In the How to Train Your Dragon commentary, the team revealed that one of the animators used their pet cat for inspiration for the movements and body outline of Toothless, the rarest of the dragons.
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Squishy

The idea for Scott “Squishy” Squibbles from Monsters University came from something most kids are obsessed with….sweets! Den of Geek writes that Pixar designers looked at a soft Japanese jelly sweet and decided it was the perfect starting point for a character, whose young personality is still “undefined” and “malleable”. Squishy is sweet too of course.
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Lou

Here’s one based on multiple changing objects: the main character from Oscar-nominated Pixar short Lou, a creature made up of the items in a school’s lost property box. Though some objects change, “The things that were non-negotiable were the two softballs and the red hoodie. Everything else was negotiable,” the team said in an interview.
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The Net Users

The Net Users in Ralph Breaks the Internet are meant to represent people browsing the web and were inspired by the icons and apps on smartphones: “Rounded corner squares. That was the initial inspiration for the shape of their heads,” production designer Cory Loftis explained.
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Miguel

Miguel from Coco was inspired by something very present in the character designer’s everyday life...his son! Daniel Arriaga said that he borrowed lots of little bits from his son to help bring the character to life: the mole above Miguel’s lip, for example.

Now...create your own character!


So, once you’ve chosen your pet, plant, stapler, favourite teddy, housemate...whatever as inspiration, how do you then turn that into a three dimensional character to rival the likes of Forky and co? Here are some tips from the pros to help you out...

GIVE IT A PERSONALITY

Pay attention
Walt Disney himself once said, “I definitely feel that we cannot do the fantastic things based on the real unless we first know the real.” So get to know the real: spend some time properly looking at whatever it is you’ve chosen to base your character on and pick out a few key details. The team behind Wall-E even made trips to recycling centres to observe giant trash crushers at work...but you can look closer to home, like noticing the unusual markings on your pet.

Put yourself in their shoes
Even if your character is based on an object, you’ll want them to have real emotions.
Emma Coats, a former storyboard artist at Pixar, gives this advice:
“If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations”.
So you *might* have to imagine what life as a houseplant is really like.

Give it a purpose
Wall-E lives to collect trash. Buzz Lightyear *really* believes he’s an astronaut. Forky believes his purpose in life is as a piece of rubbish. Remy in Ratatouille wants to work in a kitchen. Pixar animator and director Dave Mullins says:
“When you bring an inanimate object to life, you have to think about its intended purpose in the world.”
Make it flawed
No one is perfect, even made up characters. To bring your character to life, give it a flaw or two to overcome. Maybe your object is broken, your toy has been cast aside for a new favourite, or your character is quite literally a pile of rubbish (or a bin).

Give it a name
Maybe you’ll name your character after its most defining feature, like Thumper from Bambi, who keeps thumping his left foot, or Toothless, for his ability to retract his teeth. Or you could name it after your pet (did you know Indiana Jones was named after George Lucas’ dog, Indiana? The same dog that inspired Chewbacca?). Or just say what you see...hey, it worked for Donkey in Shrek.

GET SKETCHING

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Use shapes
Think about how you can use different shapes to express character. In Pixar’s Inside Out, Albert Lozano’s job was to turn emotions into characters, and shapes were a big part of that.
“With Sadness I thought of a teardrop...we tried to keep that teardrop shape in her body” he says.
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The more imperfect the better
There’s a reason Olaf in Frozen is misshapen - because in real life, all snowmen look different and slightly awkward. So don’t worry too much about making your character perfect - sometimes imperfections make a character feel more real, and effectively more loveable. If you do want to brush up on your drawing skills though, Pixar have created some handy videos to help you draw your fave character:
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It’s all about the eyes
The eyes can make a character way more engaging. They also tell you a lot about how the character is feeling. In Inside Out, Joy’s eyes are large and expressive, while Sadness’ eyes are smaller and...sadder. And Wall-E is pretty much ALL eyes, so definitely spend some time getting the eyes just right.

Get creative with the limbs
Your character doesn’t have to have traditional arms or legs. Take Cars, for example. The animators got creative by moving the tyres in or out to suggest hands opening up or closing, and used the steering when they wanted the character to point in a certain direction. Think what other details you can use to show movement instead.

Time to get creative!
So now you’re a pro…reckon you can design the next Forky? We’d love to see what character you come up with. Tag us in a picture of them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and we’ll share some of our favourites.