Q: I love your background people. They all have distinct personalities. Do you keep files on faces, or just make them up?
A: I know I have told this story a few times on the blog, but one of the most valuable pieces of advice I ever got on my cartooning came, independently, from longtime MAD editor Nick Meglin and longtime MAD artist (and now fairly longtime MAD art director) Sam Viviano. Both told me that there was a disconnect in my early work between the caricatures I did of specific actors and the drawings I did of people who were not specific people but “extras” or “background people” as you call them. The pointed out, very correctly, that my caricatures looked like they were supposed to be somebody and my extras looked like cartoon characters. This was causing an odd incoherence to the overall effect of my work doing parodies (aka “continuities”). Their advice was to be more specific with the other character’s faces and personalities.
My solution was not to get references for everybody I drew, that would take forever. Instead I just collected some references of types of people. Different ages, different ethnicities, etc. What I needed to do was have a “jumping off” point for these extras—something that could give me ideas for things like hairdos, features, “looks”, and that type of thing. They still had a certain generic “cartoony-ness” to them . . . I didn’t want people to wonder who they were supposed to be, or to take way from the focus of the main characters. They needed to have enough individuality so I did not resort to the same old conventions for all my background people.
The most useful references I found were modeling source books. I had an artist who did caricatures with me at one of my theme park operations who worked as a production artist at a place that did a lot of catalogs and advertising books. He saved a stack of modeling source books and stock photography books from the trash bin for me, and they proved to be a great resource for “extras”. The modeling source books are organized by age, from babies to teens in a kid model book and from young adults to elderly folks in the adult ones. These are models used in catalogs and ads, so they are not just the beautiful people. In fact, most are very ordinary looking and great for just browsing through and seeing “types” to use for extras. Hairdos and basic facial features are all I usually take form them, as they are all straight-on, smiling head shots and not really useful for specific reference. I wouldn’t want that anyway… I can’t take that much time with things like the background people.
If I want some more specific references, then I have a few other resources. Mark Simon’s book Facial Expressions has about 50 different male and female models, of various races and ages, all making various facial expressions at different angles. I seldom use an exact reference with that book either, but in this case the expressions are something I can take or get ideas from. The internet is really too big for such use, it’s almost impossible to just browse images hoping to find something unless your search is narrow enough. “Adult Male” is useless, but if you search for “fat, bald man” you’ll get a lot of images that fit the bill, and you can look for specifics there to incorporate into a drawing. Again, I would only to that much work on an extra if the situation really demanded it. True “background people” only need a little individuality.
I have been known to use people I know as extras, but that is just for fun.
Truth be told I make up most of the background people I draw these days, with just a little bit of paging through my dog-eared modeling source books. Maybe I’ve gotten better at coming up with a variety of “looks” just out of my head.
Thanks to James Bean for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!