Character design & interactivity | An interview with Rex Crowle

At the moment we are living in a computer dominated period where movies like Avatar by James Cameron shows us glimpses of the future and the possibilities of (realistic) character design. But not everyone is charmed by perfect, rendered and glossy images. They miss the charm that comes from the lack of perfection, the warmth or naiveté that comes with animations from the last century. Some say that in time of recession people tend to reach out for things in the past because its comforting and more clear then the future, but on the positive side it means a new wave of creativity in animations and games.


In the last couple of years there has been a big rise of craft or DIY styled character design in animation and games. Thanks to the success of puppet movies like “The fantastic Mr. Fox” and “Coraline” there has been more and more awareness for this movement. The look and feel of these puppet animations are quite analog, textured and nostalgic and yet modern in approach and quality. By using less refined materials as wool, cardboard and wiring they have made beautiful characters that appeal to a big group of viewers.

A great example of the renewed attention for craft can be found in the game industry, more specifically in the PSP game Little Big Planet (LBP). Its interesting to see that the crafts movement started in homes and communities where people came together to make, create, interact and share their designs has found it’s way into the online gaming community of LBP. The game offers the players the possibility to create their own characters, games, levels, attributes and rules. These creations can be uploaded to the LBP online community where other gamers can play or edit their version of your level. This element of interactivity and creativity is crucial for the success of the game.


I had the honor to interview Rex Crowle after the keynote he gave at the Playgrounds Festival (7 & 8 October, The Netherlands) and pick his brain on topics like LBP, interactivity, his influences and character design. At the moment Rex works and lives in London and is working as art-director, graphic-designer and illustrator on the follow up of LBP.


I was quite curious to know what his opinion was of the success of LBP and he answered that it’s a combination of two things: the insanely popular main character Sackboy and the interactive element of the game. “He really did become big and popular and when a character comes so big it no longer becomes property of the designers, but of the public or better said property of his fans. But at the same time it is definitely an idea that needs to be protected because various companies want to get involved. They all want a piece of him and stick their logo on his ass. The strangest companies that have no physical product or companies in the service industry like cleaning companies, just to name one. He shouldn’t become an F1 racing car covered in logos. He is a character that people really have taken to their hearts but I wouldn’t be hard to destroy this relation by abusing it.”


I also asked him what his influences were for the visual design of the game:

“Sackboy finds his influences in 80’s children series like ‘Bagpuss’ and ‘The Clangers’ and a lot of 80’s pop culture is scattered through the game. Like having a level full of CD’s you would have a level full of cassettes or VHS tapes. It somehow is more or less a second hand shop, a really battered grungy secondhand shop, where you find stuff that people once loved or discarded. I am an 80’s child so there is no escaping that! I think it’s more clear in the personality of the game. Inspired by 80’s videogames, like Pac Man & Donkey Kong, we made multiple games with small levels that aren’t complex like the games you have nowadays.”


Seeing that we are living in a society where characters are playing an important role in our everyday visual communication and identities I asked Rex about his vision for the future of character design:

“Character design has become more appreciated, so it’s understandable it’s going to get picked up. But I don’t really like that character design has turned into the designer toys fad. They have become 200 dollar toys behind glass case in some shop for that kind of audience. It would be nice if it more mainstream and more usable like normal toys. And if would play with it and the arm came of you kind think how to make another arm of plasticine or something. Just to explore the possibilities. “


The coming years will be quite interesting when we will see prices drop further of 3d printers and the possibility to create 3d objects in our home space becomes widely available. It’s just a matter of time before everyone will own a small 3D printer. “I hope with the coming of 3D printing and rapid-prototyping that in the future it will give more exploration possibilities and interaction. I know it’s a bit late but I was thinking while making the character Grip Wrench to give all the assets away and see what anyone would do with them. That would be fantastic not knowing what would come out of it. I really would like to do something like that.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: