Ethan Snell showed the whole process of creating a fully animated character from scratch in Blender.
My name is Ethan Snell, I’m a 3D generalist and cinematics artist by trade and a character artist/generalist by hobby. I’ve been working in 3D for 10 years. I started working in Blender when I was supposed to be doing math homework back in high school. Honestly, I’ve learned more math from 3D than those work-sheets would have ever given me.
Professionally, I worked as a broadcast designer for several years at |drive| studio, where I was part of awesome projects like the most recent world cup. I’ve recently joined the team at Psyonix to work as a cinematic artist.
After years in motion/graphic design, I was getting burnt out in 3D. Knowing I needed a fun project for myself, I jumped into building a character. I don’t have a lot of experience as a character artist, so I made my primary goal as comprehensive as possible: I wanted to go through the entire process of creating an animation-ready character from scratch – аrom sculpting to retopo to materials to rigging to rendering. All the steps along the way were going to be a learning process. I wanted to create a character that was super expressive and could fit into different roles with different clothing or hair. This exploratory learning process was just exactly what I needed. The ability to try out different things without fear of a deadline let me be super creative.
Additionally, I’m learning character animation because there are very few easily accessible characters to animate with in Blender. As a secondary goal, I wanted to release Iris as a downloadable character to try to fill that void a little bit.
Features of Fully Rigged Characters
Developing a character for animation is a bit different from just creating a cool character sculpt in ZBrush because the character needs not only to look good from every angle but also in many different poses and expressions. Building a still sculpt allows you a little more freedom in terms of shape language. You can ‘cheat’ because you only need the model to look good in a specific pose, sometimes only from a certain camera angle.
A lot more time is put into polishing the design making sure that the mouth and facial features look good from every possible angle and work when the characters face deforms. I’ve got a folder of almost 100 different renders of Iris, at different stages of sculpting and refining.
Additionally, there’s some technical hurdle: retopology and actually rigging the character. The model has to be constructed, reconstructed, and weight painted in a way that lets it deform well. This is less a difficult process and more of a puzzle-solving one. Referencing good topology and patience will get you to the finish.
Developing the sculpt for a project like this is only the starting point. The sculpt geometry is only used to design the character. From that design sculpt, you need to construct a functional version of the character via retopo and hand modeling. Only then can you start building materials and textures.
The process of building Iris has been a special one, and this project has kind of become a symbol of where I am as an artist. Over the past 6 months, I re-designed, re-built, and re-rigged Iris 6 times in total and worked on her in between other work I was throwing myself into. And each time I came back to her, I stuck to the basics – anatomy and appeal, trying to learn and apply as much as possible.
I got a ton of awesome anatomy pieces of advice from my friends and some discord groups.
Building the model was a very iterative process. Every time I came back to her, I brought in something new that I had learned. This approach allowed me to experiment with specific techniques in other projects and then carry over new knowledge into the next version of Iris.
It was especially a good exercise in terms of character anatomy and appeal. I ended up reworking the anatomy and appeal during every iteration she went through, and I’ve been studying and experimenting along the whole process in order to level up and train the eye. The confidence and the ability to drop any progress and start over was really important both for me and for the final result.
Above is a selection of the WIP images. At every stage, I tried to pose her and test how well she was able to emote because the character means nothing in a T-pose.
Most of the energy was put into the face. I really wanted Iris to be able to clearly emote, so I spent most of my time making sure her face can deform into appealing shapes. BlenRig uses a smart set of action constraints to deform the facial muscles, and I feel like the time I spent working on those and the anatomy itself contributed a lot to the final product.
One of the things I wanted to solve first was creating mesh hair, and after I had figured out a sneaky method of making it with blender curves + a procedural material, I uploaded a tutorial on YouTube. I also uploaded a video on the techniques I used to create the clothing materials, so check the channel out!
Another thing I wanted to learn was Marvelous Designer. I redesigned Iris’s clothes several times during the process, and I feel like I have just started to learn how powerful Marvelous is. It is a very intuitive program and I will definitely use it in the future.
Texturing and materials are a fun process for me, and I enjoyed creating all the different materials for the final version of Iris.
For clothing materials, I used the incredible character art from Uncharted 4 as a reference. First, I created a fabric details file to model the individual threads.
I used that as the base for the material, layered in some fuzz, dirt and fabric seams, and created new UV layers as needed. It’s not a complicated material at all, just with a lot of layers. I give a basic breakdown of the process in this video:
For the face and skin of Iris, I used a lot of references checking out the projects by other people and the results they had achieved with different values. I experimented with a couple of techniques but ended up keeping it simple. The base values and shapes were painted in Blender’s internal paint mode which is simple and easy to use. I then polished that paint map in Photoshop where I was able to have a little more control over the texture.
In terms of material design, I fell in love with a piece of art by Rayner Alencar which didn’t become a direct reference but more like a spiritual inspiration. I imagined the story for the character and tried to design her look, poses, and colors around that story. That became a reference point for colors and design. One of the things that came from that approach was the heavy bags under the eyes. It’s a small thing but I think it makes Iris more interesting.
Rigging in BlenRig
I’m not a rigging artist, so solving how I was going to rig the character from the beginning was very important. Very quickly, I settled on using BlenRig which is a semi-automated rigging addon for Blender. Its advantage is that it’s a well-developed rig with deep controls which is used by the Blender Animation studio for their open movie projects. Additionally, it’s designed to be easily adapted to different characters. It’s as close to a production-ready rig for Blender as possible at the moment, and it was a natural choice for me.
One of the super neat features of BlenRig is that it uses a mesh deform system for deforming your character – all you need to do for it is to modify the cage. For most cases, this can help you get the base deformations up and running very quickly. You’ll still need to weight paint the hands and face, though.
BlenRig takes time to learn, of course, and unfortunately, it suffers from having fragmented documentation. Learning more about rig building and weight painting is a future goal for me, and there’s definitely room to improve the rig itself.
After running through the rig a couple of times though, I was able to get it to work well. There’s actually a video series on how to use BlenRig uploaded just recently. If you’re interested in learning how to get a character moving in Blender without building a deep rig, it’s a great point to start from!
Overall, this project was something I learned a lot from, but I also realized I have a long distance to cover yet. I see a lot of things I can improve in Iris but it’s time to move on. I’m happy to share the whole process because I feel like it was a massive level up for me. I started this project not believing in my ability to learn and grow as an artist and ended up getting empowered by it. Now, I’m excited to jump into something new. If someone can learn from my experience, I’d be glad to share it.
I hope that Iris can be used by people who want to practice or learn animation in Blender. The rig is powerful and deep and should be great for these purposes. Additionally, the character is reasonably generic which should help people create their own versions of Iris. The base mesh is included in the blend file, so modifying or creating new clothes should be an easy process. Most of the renders were done in Blender’s ray tracing engine Cycles, but I’ve updated for Blender 2.8’s new real-time engine Eevee!