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Animal Crossing Gijinkas: A character design challenge

Picture yourself mid-March this year. Schools and businesses have just recently shut down, and everyone has been locked down within their own homes. Educational facilities and commercial businesses have to quickly adapt to an online format and everyone’s already beginning to feel somewhat like a caged bird.

But then, like heavy rainfall after a year long drought, Nintendo releases Animal Crossing: New Horizons for the Nintendo Switch, and it takes the world by storm. Within the first few hours of its release, everyone was already fishing, catching bugs, filling out their villager wish lists and gathering materials to complete DIYs.

We artists devoured this new content as well; Animal Crossing New Horizons fanart blew up online in the form of illustrations, animations, zines and so much more, and one form of this that spiked in popularity once more was the gijinka craze. We here at the studio are also avid fans of the game, so the only likely conclusion was to make animal crossing gijinkas of our own.

Four animal crossing characters stand in front of Michaelangelo's David, smiling at the camera.
Winged Canvas team members (left to right) Gio, Jessie, Jay and Fei visit Jessie’s island for a group photo (as typical Art Nerds, we’re standing under Michaelangelo’s David in the museum portion of the island)

What does “gijinka” mean, you may ask?

Gijinkas are fan re-designs of animalistic characters that give them humanoid qualities, and in this case, it’s drawing Animal Crossing villagers as humans. While most popularly done with Pokemon, a spike in Animal Crossing gijinkas was realized since the only non-animal character is you, the player.

Illustrated gijinkas of the pokemon Zorua and Jirachi with the original pokemon beside them for comparison.
Pokemon Gijinkas of Zorua and Jirachi, Illustrated by Jessie Chang

The art community is no stranger to art inspired by Nintendo, with their huge roster of bright, fun and colourful characters to choose from. The entirety of the Animal Crossing franchise is no exception, with nearly 400 villagers to choose from almost everyone has a favourite, and thus everyone has a different set of unique villagers to take inspiration from.

Not only that, but villagers are all set within different categories of different personalities. While the villagers in New Horizons can become quite stale as time goes on, art nerds instead take that as an opportunity to expand upon their favourite’s personality, and take it upon themselves to give their villagers more depth and more interesting villager interactions. Animal Crossing as a whole is a very open book when it comes to creativity, so of course we art nerds at Winged Canvas decided to take some of those creative liberties ourselves.

By we, I mean me, Jessie, one of Winged Canvas’ Cartooning and Anime and Digital Art instructors. My obsession with the game was rampant, and I sucked in varying coworkers and students alike into playing the game as well. When I was tasked to create some Animal Crossing New Horizons fan art for a digital art speedpaint, my immediate thought was gijinkas. I’d seen a ton all over my Instagram and Twitter feeds alike, and was excited to create gijinkas of my very own.

Making the gijinka dream a reality

The villagers I chose to illustrate the first time around were (left to right) Coco, Raymond, Whitney and Bob, four of my personal favourites.

Four animal crossing villagers (left to right), Coco, Whitney, Raymond and Bob, with Jessie Chang's YouTube avatar in the bottom right corner.
A still from our first animal crossing gijinka video on YouTube

With ideas for what I wanted to do with each in mind, I got straight to work on the initial sketch. Allow me to share with you my character design process for the Animal Crossing gijinkas that I created!

A sketch of gijinkas for (left to right) Coco, Raymond, Whitney and Bob, illustrated by Jessie Chang
(Left to right) Coco, Raymond, Whitney and Bob's sketched out gijinkas

While illustrating them, I kept one thing in mind that I wanted to keep consistent across the board; everyone would keep a little bit of their animal traits, meaning I would leave their tails and ears. There wasn’t a large amount of reasoning behind this, other than that I thought they were cute, and sometimes that’s all the reasoning you need.

Part of the character design challenge for me was also attempting to make each character look unique. Designs for all four of these characters are incredibly popular, since they’re considered, well, popular (Raymond especially). My brain had a predetermined look for the lot of them, but I attempted to get past those to create my own designs for them. Do I feel like I succeeded? Not completely, but I’ll get back to that later.

Breaking down the characters individually

The main thing I focused on for each character design was pulling out the varying traits that I interpreted for each one of them. Of course their canon personalities were what drove these interpretations in the first place, but adding my own flair to each one let it feel more personal.

A side by side comparison of Coco's gijinka on the left, and her in-game character on the right.
Coco, a side by side comparison

Coco is my favourite villager due to her creepy aesthetic, and I wanted to pull a little bit of that back into her design as well. However, I also see her as a sweet, timid individual rather than a creepy figure, so I settled on a design that I think resonated with a little bit of both, with the hollow-eyed mask and Samara-esq hair contrasted with her petite figure and bunny ears.

A side by side comparison of Raymond's gijinka on the left, and his in-game character on the right.
Raymond, a side by side comparison

Raymond gave me the biggest challenge due to his extreme popularity in the franchise (probably TOO popular, in my opinion, haha), so coming up with a generally original look became a pretty big challenge. I personally don’t think I succeeded in that category at all, because I see him generally the same as a lot of other people do; smug but also fairly high strung and serious. So instead of bringing that out, I decided to focus on what I interpreted his relationship with the other villagers to be.

I have all four of these villagers on my own island, and I liked to think that Raymond and my other smug villager, Zell, both like to bug Whitney due to her also being somewhat high strung and serious, almost like little brothers bugging their older sister (and I can relate to Whitney, hard). Thus having him interact with Whitney in this piece.

A side by side comparison of Whitney's gijinka on the left, and her in-game character on the right.
Whitney, a side by side comparison

Whitney herself, as I mentioned, I liked to think of as more of a serious, powerful businesswoman type character, where most of the time I see her portrayed as either a calm, mature individual or a completely stuck up, snooty individual. This time around I decided to portray that within her physical look, with her hair back in a bun and giving her a business-casual-esq outfit.

A side by side comparison of Bob's gijinka on the left, and his in-game character on the right.
Bob, a side by side comparison

Bob is a bit tricky to explain, not because the design process was complex but because it was mainly instinctual. I wanted Bob to have a more modern, lax outfit, so rather than overthink about it I just went with what seemed natural for the majority of people around my age; a hoodie and camo pants.

All the clothing articles I’d included were in game items, so I didn’t have to do too much palette research (thankfully) and I finished the full illustration with ease. Shaded it in, added an overlay, wrapped up the recording and called it a day.

Second time’s a charm!

The first completed gijinka piece, illustrated by Jessie Chang.
The first completed gijinka piece!

I woke up the next morning, looked at the piece, and felt pretty dissatisfied. While it isn’t bad per se, something about it felt somewhat forced or unfinished. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why until much later, but I’ll come back to that too.

Three Animal Crossing NPC's (left to right), Isabelle, Tom Nook and Redd. Jessie Chang's Youtube avatar is on the bottom right corner.
A still from our second animal crossing gijinka YouTube video

Until then, I was tasked with creating a second gijinka piece, but this time with the main NPC’s (non-player characters) of the game. The villagers I chose this time around were Tom Nook, Isabelle and Redd, on account of their dynamic being the most fun and most popular one around. This time, I decided to approach my character design process a little differently to see if that could raise the quality of my next piece. To me, I feel as though I succeeded.

This time around I tried to think less about an actual character design process, and instead focus on the energy of the piece. For me, anyway, I find that the energy of a piece is what makes up half of its quality. If that doesn’t make sense - and honestly it probably doesn’t - allow me to explain.

Hindsight is 20/20, and this piece was no exception

A sketch of (left to right) Isabelle, Redd and Tom Nook's gijinkas, illustrated by Jessie Chang
Sketches of (left to right) Isabelle, Redd and Tom Nook for the second set of animal crossing gijinkas

I realize after the fact now that the interaction is quite similar to the first, but to me I feel as though it has a bit more life behind it. Now all the characters seem to have a bit more life to them; Tom Nook on the right clearly dislikes Redd, who seems to be more cheery and indifferent to his very obvious dislike for him, while Isabelle is more surprised rather than unhappy. It’s far easier to “read the room” on this one in comparison to the other, which I think is super important, especially if you want to capture some kind of character dynamic. It should be fairly obvious from the immediate get go rather than take you a bit to figure out, which is part of why I feel that this piece is superior.

With more technical notes, I also find that I like the composition of this one a lot more as well; it has a bit of a triangular look to it, while the other has this strange rectangular look with the four heads that feels oddly flat.

A side by side comparison of the first gijinka piece and the second gijinka piece. Both pieces have been drawn over. The first has a drawn-on rectangle to show its rectangular composition, while the second has a drawn-on triangle to show the triangular composition.
Composition comparison -- the flat rectangle compared to a more dynamic triangle
The completed second animal crossing gijinka piece, illustrated by Jessie Chang
The second completed gijinka piece!

When I began to finish the piece (which took almost four times faster than the previous; 1.5 hours compared to the 4!), I also chose to use a different brush to line and colour the whole piece to give it a bit of a rougher look, which I also think worked in its favour. Colouring in the lines to add more depth to the colour also worked a bit in its favour, since the last piece’s all black linework made it seem a little flat.

But overall, I decided to let a little more loose on this piece, and I think it feels a lot more natural that way. From working on both of these, I learned that sometimes thinking less makes things a lot nicer; overthinking can lead to certain aspects feeling very forced, and sometimes it’s good to go with your gut rather than your head. Both of these pieces definitely gave me a good character design challenge, and I’m glad that I did them!

How would you create a gijinka?

The main and only rule is that there isn’t any! Gijinkas are meant to be your interpretation of said character placed into a human or humanoid body. Most gijinkas look different because everyone has different character design processes, and everyone has different character design ideas. Some prefer intense detail, some prefer more simplistic looks, but it’s all up to you! Create a design based off of what you believe said character’s energy matches.

Ready for your own character design challenge?

Download our free character design template to get started!

Jessie Chang is a digital artist who specializes in comics, illustration, and character art. She teaches our Art Mentorship program!

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