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Izabela Zelmańska shared some thoughts about the recent real-time character study.
I was inspired by very original and quirky characters from Tim Burton’s animated movies, plus trailer from upcoming “Alita: Battle Angel” reminded me how enormous eyes can be awesome. I decided to try my own spin on cartoon/realistic mix.
After gathering enough reference I started sculpting neutral face and expressions. I started out with my own head scan, but sadly I don’t look much like the cartoon character, so it took some work to get the desired look. Later I used my good old, battle-tested base mesh with nice topology and started matching it to expression_s to create blendshapes. This part is tricky – you can quickly confirm one shape to the other, but it’s all about the proper movement of skin/muscles and it can take a while before you have realistic movement instead of artificial morphing.
Hair model was pure ZBrush hand-sculpt, instead of using Fibermesh as usual – I needed thick cartoonish strands instead of zillion thin splines. This actually simplified engine work – I didn’t have to work with multiple hair cards, transparency, depth maps, sorting issues etc – just made simple SSS shader for thick hair and voila.
Part of Unreal Engine’s appeal is access to tons of example content. My fiancee (much more experienced with real-time) helped me base my own eye shader off of Photorealistic Character template supplied by Epic. We used our own textures and made some shader modifications, especially to make the eye reflection really pop. We had to mix actual scene reflections with a bit of fake reflection map and tweak refraction to get that dreamy wet look. As for the transformation bit, it was actually possible thanks to Epic’s shader bits, though I’ve been using them not NOT as intended – scaling UV’s in a rather crazy way.
No bones were harmed (or used at all) during the making of this animation. Just blendshapes, everything (apart from shaders and lighting) was assembled in 3ds Max, and I used a nice speed boost to get everything inside Unreal – alembic format. Instead of exporting geometry, skeleton, animation etc. separately and re-assembling in Unreal, I let alembic export/import_ handle everything. This may not be the most ‘lightweight’ solution as resulting files are big, but you can see your MAX scene in Unreal in no time, even without knowing much about meshes, morphs, skeleton setups, collision geometry and animation assets.
Typically I would morph expression_s normal maps as well as geometry, but this time my mesh was dense enough to handle detailed skin movement/wrinkles without blending normal maps. I built my skin shader around the one from Photorealistic Character template and just focused on getting my diffuse/specular/sss/roughness right. It was a bit confusing at first but my fiancee knows his stuff and I keep learning from him. He also helped me tweak lighting and scene reflections to get the most out of my shaders.
Mainly I learned that I am unable to produce genuinely cute and innocent characters – they always end up at least a little bit creepy. Seriously though, apart from refreshing my knowledge of Unreal, I was really happy to see huge productivity boost compared to offline rendering. You can iterate so much more on shaders and lighting when you don’t need to wait for sequence to render out. Also, the latest tool in Unreal’s arsenal – Sequencer turned out to be a robust, powerful animation tool which makes additional animation like eye transformation a breeze. Will definitely keep using!