Character Building - Part 1

In the first part of two-part tutorial, Axis Animationâ??s Graham McKenna offers advice on for character deisgnâ?¦
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One of the biggest challenges we come across as a 3d artist is the ‘character’. Striving to insert life into them can unravel a multitude of nuances which are the backbone to believability.

Over this month and the next I’ll outline a few aspects I consider beneficial which hopefully allows you to make as much time for those nuances. For the purpose of the article we’ll look at a creature I created at Axis for the stunning short film Codehunters directed by Ben Hibbon.

1. Concepts and Design

I cannot stress the importance of this first stage enough. It is the foundation from which everything else will grow. In production these can vary dramatically, on a scale of very simple to very detailed. I prefer the latter when working with an art director as it leaves less room for interpretation when the goal is someone else’s vision. Where possible I try and get elevations of the character from front and side. This can be invaluable in terms of getting your geometry proportionally correct at an early stage, allowing you to concentrate on those details we talked about earlier. The image above shows the concept I used for the side elevation, which I consider a good initial building block. Note the red line overlay, which I’m using to approximate the actual form of the skin underneath the fur.

2. Proxy cages and wire cages

Dependant on the character I do some ‘3D groundwork’ in the form of a simple cage. This can either be low poly count primitives or wire extrusions, whatever you find easier. The reason I find this stage beneficial is that it allows you to create a mould for that third dimension and confirm that the ‘2D to 3D translation’ is working. Where this is most evident is when you view the character from a three quarter/isometric view. It could be a simple height of the hip or width of the waist but I find this one technique that allows you to put those ghosts to rest early, freeing up time for those nuances.

This being said I admittedly go ‘freehand’ on many occasions and don’t discourage it; complexity dictates the approach on most occasions. In essence you’re building a template at this stage and it’s worth mentioning that with some subject matter you could already have the perfect building block available to you in the form of a previous model you created.

Human characters are a perfect example; you could have spent many hours finessing a head, hand, foot etc, and with a few minor adjustments these can be massaged to suit your needs. This is an approach I would encourage but, in this instance, the character design is quite unique so that dictates the approach. The image below shows early development of both proxy and wire cage approaches to the creature.

3. Proportion

Proportion can ‘make or break’ nailing a character, especially a human. Proportion is actually one of our nuances. The gap between a character’s eyes, the face height splits, the forearm’s length to the bicep’s length etc.

By creating cages I outlined earlier it allows us to manipulate such aspects early creating a simple 3D template before serious modelling takes place. This can be particularly invaluable when the concept art has limited detail as I described earlier.

It should be said that although we’ve been thinking about proportion and manipulating it at such an early stage, it should not be forgotten about throughout the rest of the modelling process. As your mesh evolves we have the ability to finesse proportion and should always take that opportunity.

4. Primitive Shells become one

Once we’re happy with our 3D template it’s time to move onto actually creating the geometry. In this instance what I look for next is primitive forms, the shapes that when combined, create the overall shape. Experience has taught me it’s best (and easier) to tackle zones of your mesh in isolation and then join them together at a later stage. A classic example of this is the face and modelling such aspects as eye sockets, nose, mouth and ears. and then stitching the zones together to create the overall face. By creating these zones it also allows us to do a further check on our proportions and manipulate where required with ease before we stitch it together.

The first image here shows a technique I use on occasion before creating my primitive shells. It shows a basic ‘marking’ of zones on the concept art. I sometimes do this when the character is complex or off-beat (i.e. not human) or I simply want to understand it more. Where this can be beneficial is it gets you ‘thinking about what you’re going to do before you do it’ an aspect you should train yourself to do early in your career. The second image shows the creature’s arm, which in basic form is two cylinders, shaped to fit our concept/cages. They are then joined together to create a continuous mesh.

In part two of this tutorial we’ll look at topology, mirror modelling, UV creation, texturing and shading of your character models.



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