Sketches, clay models and antlers as a hat stand: How we created the character of Boris J Buttstacks

In Erase All Kittens, we try to create funny, quirky characters that fit in both our overarching storyline and individual episodes teaching different coding skills. To us, this is just as essential as our code education — the last thing we want to do is make another ‘chocolate covered broccoli’ learning tool!

For example, when we designed our maps episode to teach kids about URLs and creating links, we needed to invent a character who would make Arca run around to complete strange tasks in different locations.

We decided that this character was going to be lazy, extraordinarily deluded and fairly eccentric. We named him Boris J. Buttstacks.

After deciding on the character’s task, name and general personality, the way we go about designing it depends on the importance and recurrence of the character in the storyline of E.A.K. For example, if a character is really complicated in shape it will be harder to animate, which won’t make it a good fit for a frequently recurring or playable character.

Buttstacks is the main character in the URLs episode but we haven’t planned for him to be in future episodes of E.A.K. So we added a lot more visual detail and also some quirks. We ended up with a character description like this:

Boris J. Buttstacks is the self appointed “Mayor” of Ponyhead bay. He lives in the park on a park bench and dresses himself in clothing and accessories he finds in bins and on the beach. Buttstacks’ favourite hobbies apart from napping and eating pickled onions, is loitering around the entrance to Ponyhead bay — pretending that he is extremely important to strangers. He is also in love with a mop.

After that, it is time to sketch out what he might look like, starting with shapes and silhouettes.

This part is the most important — if the character isn’t interesting as a blank shape, it will never feel ‘alive’ or elicit an emotional response from anyone — no matter how much you try with the detail. Once I had a concrete idea of what shapes will work, I started adding more detail, using Pinterest boards as inspiration. We knew that Boris J. Buttstacks had to be slightly repulsive to match his character traits. So our main source of inspiration became the blobfish — a deep sea fish also known as “the world’s ugliest animal”.

After choosing a favourite sketch — a tubby looking hobbit with antlers used as a hat stand (see top of page) — we drew several poses and facial expressions to see how different moods suited him. We were quite pleased with Buttstack’s expressions, feeling mildly disgusted or amused looking at them, so we moved on to the next stage.

Before the finalised character designs in our game art style we make a clay model of him/her. This helps to visualise the character more clearly from all angles, and makes the process of drawing out the turnaround sheet a lot quicker and more accurate.

Once Buttstacks was fleshed out in clay, we took pictures of him from all angles (even unflattering quadruple-chin shots) and imported them into Illustrator. At this point the character was ready to become a real person/creature.

Deciding on colours is tricky — they need to work for the character, and also on different backgrounds in the game. Given that Buttstacks sleeps on a park bench, the colours of his clothes needed to look old and dirty — so he got an algae green for his ill-fitting suit — as if it were once a white suit that got washed up and covered in seaweed before he found it. Buttstacks pink, puffy face was inspired by the aesthetically challenged blobfish. The only pops of bright colour come from a few of his hats.

Whilst working on this, our Chief Scribbler Dee, wrote and recorded Buttstacks interactive dialogue — voiced by her friend Bryce Keane, Head of Communications at Atomico. This was one of the most hilarious experiences we’ve had in the history of Drum Roll, so we’re going to save it for another blogpost…

If you have any questions about character design or the characters in E.A.K, feel free to get in touch:

Leonie van der Linde is Chief Pixel Wizard at Erase all Kittens — she’s the lead illustrator and animator, and also the creator of E.A.K. merchandise.

The game that teaches children transferable digital skills - designed to inspire girls to code and create! (age 8+)