while back, I showed the concept art for the halfling at the 2012 Gen Con keynote address, and then again later here on Dragon's-Eye View. Since that time, I've spent a lot of time talking to folks about the "cartoony look" of the halfling. It has been really difficult to get across the idea of what concept art is, what its purpose is, and how it is used. There are a lot of misconceptions about what concept art is—even among artists who don't work in concept art.
Concept art is not just "illustration" by another name. The purpose and intent of concept art is very different. I have often used concept artists that weren't technically proficient in their drawing skills, but what they excelled at was generating great and original ideas. They needed to be able to draw well enough to impart those ideas to others: illustrators, modelers, fashion designers, set designers, and so on. Too often we use the terms concept art and illustration as if they are synonymous. They aren't.
So rather than try to explain why the haflings won't look like the concept art in the published game, I figured I'd illustrate what's going on.
In case you didn't read the first article on the halfling, let me rehash for a second. We were trying to address a number of issues when we took on redesigning the halfling:
- We received a lot of feedback from the fans that the visual interpretation of the halfling didn't fit with the historical lore, and a lot of folks missed the old "hobbit-like look."
- I had significant issues with the current visual design due to the fact that it was essentially a micro-human and meant we had to put some visual scale in an image so that you could tell it was a halfling rather than a human.
- We couldn't just have a hobbit design in the game for obvious legal reasons.
So we took on this challenge and did lots of iterations and got to a place that we felt the "concept" was hitting what we had defined as the essence of the D&D halfling . . .
. . . and this is where we left it. The intent was never to pick this guy up and use it exactly like that. They would have looked weird and funny in context with other realistically rendered characters, right? So when I started talking to Jesper Esjing about doing some further concept work on the halfling, we came at it with a specific intent in mind: imaginative realism illustration and 3-D modeling. So, in this instance, we came at the design with a refined visual palette.
A lot folks get hung up on this term—even more so when they are discussing illustration and model creation in the fantasy genre. We talk about fantasy ideas as if they are actually reality. I get that. I do it too. Where I often trip myself up is when I start talking about a fantasy-based element that doesn't exist in the real world and try to apply the concepts of realism to that item. For instance, I can't tell you how many late night discussions I've had around the body to wing surface ratio of a dragon—as if weight to lift ratios actually exist in the fantasy realm or that gravity and magic have some logical way of dealing with each other.
I bring this up for a simple reason. I've had a lot of folks tell me that the halflings don't look realistic. If you are talking about the stylistic representation of them in the concept art, then you are right, they aren't. They are a stylistic interpretation of a humanoid figure. But if you are talking about the anatomical idea of a halfling, then we have a whole new discussion.
Just for illustration purposes, let's bring in Joe. Joe is today's model, and he will be subjected to all sorts of visual humiliation today.
As you can tell, Joe is a human. We recognize the anatomical form that defines him as human, right? Don't worry—this isn't a trick question.
We can even morph the body around a bit, and he still feels like a human, right? Even if Joe loses a body part, he's still identifiable as a human.
Now, at some point, we can push the form too far, and we start to question whether it still looks human—whether it is now a realistic interpretation of a human.
Somewhere between the extremes of a "normal" human form and an "un-natural" alteration of the human form, there are a few million variations that we identify as human and will call realistic. I'm sure you could have expressed this yourself, and probably a lot quicker, but hang with me for a second.
In truth, this entire time, we've been talking about a 3-D model. This is not anything real. It is a visual interpretation that allows us to let go of the idea of whether it is real or a model and instead say that it is "realistic." We are willing to call it realistic because it fits within our understanding of what a real human would look like. So, in short, we say that the model looks realistic. That makes sense, doesn't it?
I went through this whole exercise simply to circle back around on the halfling.
I talked to Jesper and said, "I want to do a realistic rendition of the halfling."
Jesper instantly responded in the same manner that I would have as an illustrator, "But halflings aren't real."
When we start talking about realistic interpretations of something that doesn't actually exist, we have to walk a very fine line. Step too far to the right, and you end up with something that looks so alien that folks don't relate to it. Step too far to the left, and you have a figure that just looks like a human (one of the millions of variants on the form that exist in reality).
In the previous article, I talked about some of the visual identifiers that we used as markers for hitting the essence of the halfling.
- We wanted a figure that harkened back to the original essence of the halfling and fulfilled the lore and legend of the race. Simple and in touch with nature. Quiet and fun-loving. So we went with a short, stout (almost plump) figure that had a soft and pleasant personality to it. Nothing earth-shattering in that.
- It should look short without any visual scale items being required in the scene. This one was a lot tougher. Here, let me show you. If I take Joe and make him shorter . . .
. . . well, he just looks like Joe. Unless I put something in the image to give him scale, we can't tell his size.
In the world of illustration and model making, we understand this issue, and we understand that there are visual cues that we use when we are looking at the human form to create visual references. The head to body ratio is one of the easiest ways to trick the eye into thinking we understand the size of something. For instance, what happens to our perception when we look at a representation of Joe through the years? Let's take him into Photoshop and do some quick warping to illustrate. Yes, this get's ugly, but I'm just trying to illustrate a point. So please don't mock me too much for my quick butcher job.
Subtle changes to the size of the head and placement of the shoulders, hips, and knees change our perception of the age of the subject. This was part of the game we were playing with the halflings when we played with the proportions of their anatomy. Granted, in the concept art, we have accentuated the proportion changes for effect, but it was done with the purpose of setting a visual cue in place. Whether you liked the stylized representation or not, most of you told me that you definitely felt that the figure did look short. Maybe the size of a young child. And that was the intent of the concept art. Well, one of the intents.
Now, if I want to take that initial race design and start to incorporate it into our current style of rendering, what would the race start to look like? That's the million-dollar question and the reason that all of you have probably read through this article, right?
Jesper and I had the same conversation that I went through above. We ended up asking these questions: What does it mean to be "realistic"? What are the most important touchstones for the character design? What is the essence of the race? How do we make it distinctive?
While the art pieces below are just sketches and rough direction for the moment, I think you can get a sense of how we use the concept art to inform and influence the final expression of the race. You can see that we start to render the form in a more "realistic" manner. Then we use the visual cues to try and make him feel short, and see if we can hold onto that essence that we started out with. I think we are getting close, but we're still not there.
What do you think of the halfling now?
And now I want you to consider what I have to do when I start having conversations with my partners in the comic and video game industry, and how they are going to depict the halfling.
For fun, here's a great video that discusses the differences between illustration and industrial design/concept art (the entertainment industry's term for industrial design).
Jon Schindehette joined Wizards of the Coast in 1997 as the website art director. In the intervening years he has worked as the marketing art director, novels art director, and creative manager. In January of 2009 he moved into the role of senior creative director for D&D. Jon is a long time D&D player (started in 1978), and currently plays in a Tuesday night game and DMs a random pick-up game for younger players. He can be found on Twitter (@ArtOrder) and at theartorder.com.