Creating Characters for Animation

Creating Characters for Animation

Jacob Ovrick discussed his approach to the production of awesome stylized 3d characters for film and TV.


I started out going through Animation Mentor. This is an online school where you are taught by animators working in the industry. I got a job working on The Smurfs 2 with Sony for a few months while finishing AM. Afterward, I did freelance animation jobs and started teaching myself to sculpt in ZBrush. I’ve worked as an animator on the Dreamworks/Netflix series “All Hail King Julian.” Most recently I’ve worked on a soon to be released video game with stylized visuals (unfortunately I am not presently able to disclose what game it is).

Creating Characters for Animation

For a film/TV/game models I have to model whatever characters I’m assigned, taking direction from art directors and make the final asset work within the specific studio’s pipeline. These requirements can be any number of things: A strict polycount limit, UVs need to be all on one sheet, and so on. For personal projects, I mostly do what I want without worrying too much about pipeline restrictions.

Modeling Process

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I start everything in ZBrush and do most of the work there. I usually block characters out with very low-resolution primitive forms, keeping them separate & detached from one another until I get the general silhouette and structure working. Then I boolean or dynamesh everything together and sculpt. I tend to spend a lot of time pushing and pulling on characters, making minor adjustments as I look for something that feels perfect and appealing. Blocking things out can be tedious, but it is a safe, reliable way to do things when you are first learning to sculpt or you are dealing with a type of character you haven’t made before. Anything I can’t make with zmodeler or coax a good mesh out of with zremesher I retopologize in Maya.

Shape Language Fundamentals

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Round shapes look cute and soft, square shapes look strong and stout, triangular shapes look aggressive and streamlined. I think it’s important to note that you combine these shapes, you don’t strictly rely strictly on one individual shape or the other. A cute character can have sharp triangular shapes; if you were to only use ovals and circles you’d end up with something that looks blobby. Look at Bugs Bunny: he is mostly made up of round, oval shapes, but if you really break him down from general to specific you find triangles. His head has an oval shape for the main mass, two secondary ovals on the sides that form his cheeks, oval shapes for his eyes. His overall muzzle shape is round at the bottom but at the top, there’s a triangle; straight lines going from his cheeks “pointing” into his nose. His nose is round on top but it tapers into a triangle at the bottom. His ears start as round forms at the base but they taper into triangles at the ends. You can break any character design down like this. It is a useful skill to start thinking about even if you are recreating an existing design rather than making your own.

Building an Animatable Mesh

For a character to be animatable their mesh needs clean loops around all the areas that needs deform and bend. The areas that tend to deform the most are the mouth, eyes, elbows, knees, wrists, ankles, neck, shoulders, the spine, the points where the legs join the abdomen, and everything on the hands. In the case of some characters, you can obviously add other extremities like tails, animal ears, wings and so on to that list. Legs, arms, and fingers need to have a cylindrical topology with enough loops around bend points to allow them to deform without getting a “bendy straw” look. To me all these major deformation areas are the easy part; the hard part is the fill-in between. The fill has to be clean an organized as well, most an even grid, but you often have to redirect the flow of lines or reduce the number of lines going from on area of the body to another. In the hands, for example, you have to find ways to cut down the number of lines coming from the fingers so there isn’t so much topology going down the arm. You always have to do this without making a total mess; reducing the number of edges in a way that is still structure & clean can be a challenge.

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Right now I use Substance Painter, but I still like to paint certain things like eyes in ZBrush. I do as much of the “painting” as I can in the actual sculpt: some of the physically protruding details I put in will end up being flat at the end: they’ll only actually appear in a normal map and in substance they are affected by procedural shaders that add ambient occlusion, edge highlights, etc. The idea is to give yourself a coloring book in your sculpture. For stylized characters less is more; color gradients and patches of detail go a long way. You don’t necessarily want to cover the entire character with detail; think in terms of big shapes supported by a few smaller shapes. You can also learn from traditional makeup artists. When you want something to pop, like maybe a character’s eyes, darkening the area around can help. There has to be a balance to everything though, going too dark or too light in any one area can muddy the texture.

Rendering with Keyshot

A: Keyshot helps because it’s a quick and simple way to get renders that look good; you can send a high-poly sculpt straight out of ZBrush into Keyshot. I use it less now that I have started using Marmoset Toolbag. Marmoset makes adding lights much more straightforward than anything else I’ve ever used and the fact that it runs in real-time makes this process more intuitive than anything else I’ve ever used. Seeing what I’m doing is very important.Advice for Newcomers

A: I recommend learning with video content and taking online workshops. There are endless amounts of sculpting videos you can watch on youtube, you can buy tutorials on Gumroad, and you can subscribe to sites like Pluralsight and Brushboost. You can take workshops from iAnimate, Animation Mentor, Animschool, CG Tarian, Mold3D, and Animsquad. These are expensive but you will get the most from them. I would recommend studying character animation and 2d art as much as you can alongside 3d art; a lot of the things you have to learn to draw are the same things you have to learn to sculpt (proportions of the human body for example). Character animation deals with making characters look alive and appealing, My animation training has informed my modeling a lot.

If you found this article interesting, below we are listing a couple of related Unity Store Assets that may be useful for you.

Jacob Ovrick, Modeler

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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