Sunday, October 31, 2010

A study in anthropomorphism: Disney's "Robin Hood"

Anthropomorphism is defined as the attribution of human characteristics to animals or non-living things, phenomena, material states and objects or abstract concepts. Examples include animals and plants and forces of nature such as winds, rain or the sun depicted as creatures with human motivations, and/or the abilities to reason and converse. The term derives from the combination of the Greek ἄνθρωπος (ánthrōpos), "human" and μορφή (morphē), "shape" or "form". With such a broad definition one realizes that anthropomorphism covers characters as diverse as Osmosis Jones, Mickey Mouse, HammBagheera, Draco the dragon, and the Pixar luxo lamps. All are anthropomorphic characters, but in animation when one mentions an "anthropomorphic character", they usually mean a very specific type of animal character design. And more often than not the first one that pops into most animator's minds is Disney's Robin Hood.

While I can't state definitively why Robin Hood in particular is seen by so many as the quintessential anthropomorphic character,  I can say that he is a classic case of form following function in animated character design.

The studio chose to tell the "Robin Hood" story with animals. A fox, known for being a clever, attractive, and thieving animal, was the natural choice for the title roll. But there's one obvious problem to animating a more natural fox (such as Bagheera, who was a very natural panther); he has to draw a bow.

This becomes quite a trick for a natural fox. His shoulder blades rest on his sides, not across his back, which won't allow him to comfortably rotate his elbow up to eye level while keeping his "forearm" (front leg) straight and horizontal. Comparative anatomy between dog and human skeletons shows us that this is just the beginning of a natural fox's troubles with the role:

His humerus is too short to allow him to draw the bowstring all the way back to the level of his ear, he has no opposable thumbs to allow him to grasp the bow in the first place, and his toes are likely too short to hold an arrow to the string. Plus, standing on what amounts to his tiptoes to do all of this becomes rather awkward.

Famed Warner Brother's animator Chuck Jones had a simple formula for turning the hind legs of animals into easily animated human-like feet for anthropomorphic animals:

Anything covered by the shoe became the foot, while the sock covers the ankle and calf. This is exactly how Robin Hood's hind feet were redesigned. The rest followed in much the same way; The humerus and toes made it halfway to human proportions, and his shoulder blades now rest across his back. In fact, the earlier Robin Hood designs left even more of the natural fox behind in favor of a more cartoony look:

 But form followed function again; Robin had to have a few serious moments in the story, so a slightly more "realistic" and less comedic design was chosen:

Though he's still far from being a natural fox in design. In fact, remove the clothing and have him stand on all fours and the design gets a bit weird:

Disney's Robin Hood is clearly meant to be bipedal. Most quadrupeds turned into bipedal anthropomorphic designs either employ the Chuck Jones design method when rendering the hind legs or, as in the case of many rodents and ungulates, they end up keeping their natural legs and often walking on their "tip-toes". When human legs are substituted it can end up looking either like a person wearing a costume or just something that's a bit freaky, as is shown by Rune Bennicke's delightfully odd "weird wolves":

In the end Disney's Robin Hood in a mix of mostly traditional animated fox with enough human anatomy to get through many of the same challenges that Erroll Flynn had to, including drawing that bow. You'll also notice that the muzzle of the character in the final film version gets slightly shorter over time than that in "model sheet #5". This is because animating dialog tends to be a bit easier on a shorter snout (Draco also had a comparatively short muzzle for a dragon):

As always; allow your character's design to follow the functions they must perform in the story. Doing so makes an animator's job much, much easier!


  1. What a great post, very insightful. I love this blog.

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  2. Wow I learnt a lot from reading this. Thank you!

  3. Thank you for post and sharing this !

  4. Thanks for the feedback guys. Much appreciated!

  5. This is quite interesting, curiously, when I needed to explain to my mom what anthros were I referred to Robin Hood!

  6. So far this class has been my favorite. I have loved these movies for years. I find it very cool to see the model sheets and how the characters are revised. My kids also find it cool that I'm looking at these animated characters as part of my school. ;-)

    without knowledge of animal anatomy the problem with a natural fox using a bow wouldn't have been solved like it was. It gives me another way to look at designing my animal caricature.

  7. This is a great post. I don't think I would have realized this without you pointing this fact, I know I wouldn't. Very enlightening. Thanks so much.

  8. I'm not sure I'll do an anthropomorphic one or not, but I read this regardless. Thanks.

  9. Awesome notes on the hindquarters, and I never noticed the changing of the nose size before! Thanks for the post!

  10. This post is super helpful! I am learning to draw animal people, and was trying to figure out just what it was I always enjoyed so much about the Disney Robin Hood design. This post explains a lot f it, and I love seeing the reasoning behind the design. It's definitely going to help me change the way I draw.

  11. Oh how cool--didn't realize that was a Chuck Jones solution.

  12. Pretty interesting_ I wouldn't have thought to add shoes and socks to a four legged animail! The theory seems to work however- great post, very helpful.

  13. I realized I might be drawing something anthropomorphic, so this helps in steering me in the right direction. Thank you.

    Also, Bennicke's "weird wolves are amazing! I must try that sometime.

  14. Great article, it definitely gave me food for thought.

  15. I think Chuck Jones concept of the sock and the shoe help me a lot in simplifying the anatomy of the animal and still keeping it within the context of the character. I also find this post helps with the holistic construction behind designing an anthropomorphic character.

  16. Thank you for sharing this with us!
    -Heather Blauvelt

  17. This was actually really interesting and reminded me why I am building this character and to think about the actions that this character will perform.

    Very nice post. Thank you!

  18. I always thought the animals in Robin Hood looked a bit odd. It's clearer to see how anthropomorphism can make a character more appealing and how to go about it. Excellent post.

  19. Not sure if I'm doing an anthropomorphic character or not, but I read this anyways. Very helpful info!

  20. Noticed Robin Hood's legs still had a bit of fox anatomy, as did his arms. Nice read.

  21. I see so many artists online that design things to look "pretty" without remembering that it must function properly in the world in which they live. I'm glad that my psychosis about things working is actually a good thing with animation.

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  23. Thanks for sharing this! Very useful information!