In a process as intricate and complicated as animation, tools like model sheets help animators maintain a cohesive appearance throughout their film or show. As defined by Stephen Cavalier in his book The World History of Animation (thank you, Stephen Cavalier), a model sheet is “an animator’s guide to a character in a film, usually showing views from all angles, a variety of poses and relative scale.” In other words, artists typically create model sheets to reference the intended look of a character when later drawing them in a project or so to show other artists how to illustrate that character.
As much as I want to go into the excruciating detail of the history of model sheets— despite, frankly, nobody asking me to— there does not much in the way of documentation regarding the first uses of model sheets. Rather, studios have ubiquitously implemented model sheets since the beginning of animation as a tool that animators use to ensure a consistent, standardized look and feel throughout the film— no matter which specific artist works on a given scene. Additionally, model sheets are not exclusive to animation and remain widely used in other visual mediums— particularly comics— which also necessitate various artists repeatedly portraying a character. Of course, that context still will not stop me from researching old model sheets, including this one from 1937 of Mickey Mouse (thank you, character designer, Don Towley), but it does open the door to understanding the purpose of model sheets and how they may have evolved in the time between Steamboat Willie and today.
Although model sheets come early on in the actual animation process, they are themselves documents of the final stages of the character design. Once the project’s concept artists and character designers finalize the presentation of the character, they begin work on a model sheet to be used by the other artists. Moreover, there are a few different types of model sheets, each with its own particular areas of focus: concept sheets, turnaround sheets, construction/ structure sheets, pose sheets, and expression sheets. As an example, the previously shown Mickey Mouse model sheet acts as a sample of a concept sheet; because of how it displays the design of the character from multiple angles but remains very loose and sketch-like in its presentation. Similarly, construction, pose, and expression sheets can also present rougher drawings, so long as they provide additional clarity to their given topic. Those topics, respectively, demonstrate the shapes that make up the character’s design, what the character looks like in specific poses, and how they visually express certain emotions.
Conversely, a turnaround sheet displays a more technical view of the model from various angles (particularly a front, profile, back, and ¾ view) to supply a more objective rubric for the animators to follow. Animators often refer to the turnaround design of the character as being “on-model,” whereas deviations from the turnaround, intentional or otherwise, are referred to as “off-model.” Especially in specific spaces of animation discourse™, going off-model can be seen as categorically an error; however, going off-model remains an advantageous technique for animators to implement to convey high emotion, notably in comedy or action-oriented scenes. To reiterate our previous definition (thank you again, Stephen), the model acts as a guild for the animator— the rules to follow to ensure a consistent look throughout the film/episode. Breaking the rules can serve to best convey a specific motion or emotion, but it remains imperative to understand the rules first to know when best to break them.
Often when a production has various model sheets for the animators to reference, the studio will compile the model sheets into a single booklet, also known as a style guide (although occasionally still referred to generally as the model sheets). Shows like Yogi Bear and Angry Beavers use their style guide as a means of assembling their different turnaround, pose, and expression sheets into one, accessible place for all the “Yogi Bear facing a ¾ angel” fans out there. Meanwhile, other shows implement additional production materials. The style guide for The Life and Times of Juniper Lee acts as a great example of this— and not (exclusively) because I love this show and will take the excuse to mention it. The guide exhibits turnaround, pose, and expression sheets while also providing other elements from the show like backgrounds, color guilds, and the specific logos and fonts to use for title cards and promotional material. Further, style guides can also provide the artists with lists of dos-and-don’t for when animating. The style guide for King of Hill includes a list of over sixty reminders for the animators– ranging from ensuring characters make adequate eye contact to rules regarding animating a shot of a clapping crowd to even annotating how thick a character’s glasses should be (there’s definitely a behind the scenes story to that one). These particulars may seem incredibly pedantic but can prove to be a godsend in a production spanning so many different artists across several studios and countries. Style guilds, and model sheets to the same extent, assist the artists in their process of animation but also exhibit all the hard work and passion that has gone into the project already. That someone would care about something so much that they have put a demonstrable amount of thought into how exactly something as mundane as a pair of glasses should look.
In the time between Steamboat Willie and today, model sheets haven’t evolved so much as they have adapted to the ever-expanding complexity of animation. However, even as the scope of animated films continues to grow— both financially speaking and in terms of the sheer number of artists working on a given project with studios often collaborating internationally amongst hundreds if not thousands of animators— model sheets serve as a reminder of just how much work goes into creating our favorite films and shows. Moreover, it reminds us of the passion those artists must have in order to persist through that multiplex process to ensure that that film or show comes to fruition. The countless amount of character design drafts ultimately leads to a guide for others to develop that vision further. Model sheets act both as a vital part of the animation process and as a glimpse into the love and care that fuels that process. And also, turnaround sheets are really complicated— I wanted to end this on a cute, sappy note, but I’ve been holding that in. Anyway, happy animating! Good luck with making your turnaround sheets!