So say you have an animated show. Spend all that time and energy rendering these awesome characters. Boy they sure look great. Hyper bright and colorful. But what’s this? They don’t seem to fit against the background well. They kind of get lost in the shuffle of colors.
Now if this were a still image this might be okay, but remember things are moving. You do not have time to absorb every detail in a shot before we’re on to the next shot. So the environment has to work with the characters. It’s not the focus, the characters are.
Some shows solve this problem by having a very painterly background. As with Lilo and Stitch (and many other Disney films)
The background contrasts with the characters by being fully rendered with soft lights. There’s no line work. no black even (but characters can have solid black). So the flatly colored characters pop against the rendered background.
Unfortunately this method can be rather pricey as it takes a lot of time to render out backgrounds to this level. TV typically doesn’t have the budget a film has.
Some shows will keep the background very abstract, lacking dark lines still. But there’s far less contrast than on the main characters.
Here’s My Life as a Teenage Robot for example
These characters have colored lines or solid shapes (like the bg), but they’re generally darker than the bg. And the background has large areas of negative space for the characters to stand against. They’re almost always the most detailed thing in the shot.
Sometimes the background has just as strong a contrast as the characters (because it’s night, or spooky, or you’re just into colors like that).
So you keep the background abstract and full of strong shapes still. But maybe you make sure the lines on the characters are bold enough to stand out no matter how much dark might be in a scene. Toss some accent lighting on there too to keep it colorful and make sure big black shapes don’t melt into the background.
Or make the character the only thing of that particular color, and the bgs generally a complimentary, split-compliment or just rarely analogous color.
Maybe they’re also generally the brightest, most saturated thing in the room too.
The original Ben 10 had a nifty trick. They wanted to keep the bg and character designs consistent to each other (with the exception of occasional, sparingly used, gradients). What do they do to keep the characters the focus of your eye always?
Put some perlin noise back there. It muddles the bgs just enough that your eye will go right to the characters. Handy trick that can keep costs low (the style is easily reproducible).
So that’s some subtle texture. But what if the bg is straight up textures?
We’re back to shape rules now, but now the bg is the most complex thing and the characters are the simplest.
What do all these shows have in common? That contrast. Something to make a character pop out. The ratio of more/less detailed, more/less saturated, darker/brighter always has to skew more one way or the other to make your characters stand out. Different scenes will have different solutions to this problem, but you can count on some style consistencies so it never looks like you suddenly jumped to a different show.
Something to keep in mind for you folks working on comics, animated projects, or “cartoon” styled illustrations. Next time you’re indulging nostalgia or enjoying your favorite animated fare, take note of how they solve issues like this. You can learn a lot and might find it applicable to your own work.