Storytelling with character – designing Onírica

Onírica started with the idea of creating a universe, a story, and a development of characters and environments. We were looking to really put to the test our abilities across different facets of illustration and storytelling. What better way than with such an open-ended project?

1. Starting to walk

In a project such as this, there's often so much freedom that there's also an accompanying sense of 'I don't know what to say', or 'I don't know where to begin'. So we chose to begin by simply gathering a variety of references, and looking for ideas and themes to emerge. We love Pinterest, and at this stage found it helpful to start making some new boards and nurturing others. Of course, since this was a personal studio project and not for a client, we took full advantage and added in all the unique influences that most interested us. That's why you might notice Japanese and Viking influences, fantastical elements, etc. It's also true that certain elements came about thanks to chance or thanks to ideas that arose along the way.

Pretty soon, the idea surfaced of doing an adventure involving dungeons, swords and castles – but with an added surreal twist. And so from this mixture of ideas, Onírica was born.

Animated gif showing the development of the scene in which Cocó 'falls' into the dream world

2. Adding character

Onírica is fundamentally made up of two worlds: the 'dream' world and the 'real' world. In the 'real' world, to emphasise realism, a flat type of illustration with precise outlines was used (everything is more defined). However, in the world of dreams, the style is pictorial, plastic. This type of illustration can evoke something more beautiful, but at the same time something further from reality. The same color palette was used in both worlds to serve as a link between the two, giving unity to the story.

The two worlds of Onírica shown side by side, and their respective two styles of illustration

When creating a character, one has to imagine their personality. Are they fearless? Are they comical? Are they mysterious? These characteristics help define the physical aspects of the character. Cocó, for example, has been represented in the dream world with a scar on her face, suggesting that she's seen her fair share of battles. With Kitsune, their mask compels us to want to know what lies behind it, adding an enigmatic touch to the character.

The personality of the character helps define the physical aspects of the character

Poses also determine what the character will be like; Cocó and Kitsune, for example, are agile characters, and so action poses have been added (jumping, attacking, dynamic movements).

The Cometechos character arose from the need to create enemies in the story, and what greater enemy for a dream than insomnia. We began to think of the Spanish expression 'comer techo', which translates literally as 'to eat the ceiling' and means to lie awake restless (staring at the ceiling). We wanted something disturbing for this creature, something surreal (of course!) and something that represented said expression. Hence that big eye that seems like it will never blink; the mouth on the back (towards the 'ceiling'); and that pseudo-viscous texture.

A perspective drawing of the 'Cortanubes' plane

In the case of the Cortanubes, sketches of the elevation, front and side, were first made to better understand the morphology of the ship and thus be able to put it in perspective. Drafting a turnaround of a character has the same function – it puts the subject in different positions and ensures a guide to their proportions (helping to maintain consistency each time they appear).

A grid of illustrated thumbnails for quick iteration of environments and scenes

It's important for us to always push our sketches one step further. A first version may be correct, but often lacks punch or personality. In most cases, we find it's ideal to let sketches sit for a day or two (calendar permitting, of course). This allows for a return to the work with fresh eyes, leading to inevitable improvements and a richer final illustration.

Character development sketches, showing the progression and refinement of their designs

3. Details as glue

We had lots of fun including the small details that help make everything feel interconnected, and help to give the project added robustness. To give an example, the stickers on Sapoto-san's suitcase refer to locations (either from the 7 Pagodas illustration itself, or from the thumbnails). Another example can be seen in Cocó's room: looking at the cork board and on the shelf, we can see elements that refer to characters, landscapes or creatures from the world of Onírica.

Cocó's bedroom, with highlighted circles showing the small details and references to other parts of the story

A world is sustained when there are interconnections and when there is thought behind every little detail. It's almost like building a house: you start by imagining how you want the house (what style of story you want); then you make a solid foundation (the main characters with their corresponding stories); you install the wiring and plumbing that run throughout the house (the details previously mentioned); and finally you decorate the house (those final touches that complete every design). ✦

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