Forgotten Story: Sculpting Stylized Characters

Forgotten Story: Sculpting Stylized Characters

Charlotte Johnson took Dylan Ekren’s class “Creating Appealing Characters”, talked about its structure, and the stylized character made within it.

Charlotte Johnson did another breakdown of a stylized character made within Dylan Ekren‘s class “Creating Appealing Characters” and talked about the structure of the course.


Hello, 80 LEVEL readers!

My name is Charlotte Johnson and I am a character artist in the game industry. I’m here again to write you another hopefully helpful breakdown of my latest work. (You can see my previous article about Sylvanas here.)

You might have recently seen my finished work from Dylan Ekren’s “Creating Appealing Characters” course. I’m going to give you a summary of the course, my process, and the struggles I encountered along the way. So let’s begin.

About Dylan Ekren and His Course

If you haven’t heard of Dylan Ekren, well, you should have (and now you have, so you are very welcome). Dylan Ekren is a modeling supervisor at Disney. Not only are his 3D sculpting skills phenomenal, but so is his 2D. Dylan’s work is a literal appeal, so it’s no wonder he teaches a course appropriately named “Creating Appealing Characters.” Once I saw the work coming from people who took the course, I just knew I had to get into it.

If you are interested in taking Dylan’s course you can find it here on Mold3D website. But be quick! Dylan’s class fills up almost instantly when it opens!

A few examples of Dylan’s works

Course Structure

The course is 8 weeks long and is broken down into weekly segments that look like this:

  • Week 1: Intro and Fundamentals of 2D design
  • Week 2: Blocking a character efficiently
  • Week 3: Refinement and secondary form
  • Week 4: Head and Face
  • Week 5: Hands and Feet
  • Week 6: Accessories and Misc
  • Week 7: Posing
  • Week 8: Paint and Presentation​

Before the course begins, Dylan discusses fundamental design while we begin to choose a selection of concepts that we want to turn into a 3D sculpt. Our first task was to block out the character shapes of different proportions. This was a good exercise to get you looking at overall shapes and playing with proportions.

Here are some blockout proportions I created:

The next week I finally settled on the concept I was going to make. I chose to recreate Puba24’s Forgotten Story concept. I loved the design and knew it was going to be a challenge for me as I haven’t made anything like it before.
When I began to break down the concept, I noticed that there was going to be some problem areas that I needed to address in 3D. Part of my job as a 3D artist is to translate the 2D concept into 3D. Not all 2D concepts will work perfectly when moving into 3D and therefore will need to be adjusted to make it the best piece possible when viewed from all angles.

Concept art by Puba24

Notes on potential problem areas when translating into 3D:

The sculpt begins!

Week 1: Body Blockout

In the first week, I started to block out the base shape of the character. I like to focus on the head, torso, arms, and legs as separate pieces and dynamesh them together at the end. This is the stage where I make sure everything lines up with the correct height and scale. This is the foundation of the rest of your sculpt and therefore it is important to get everything into the correct position before moving onto the next stage.

Week 1: Blockout of basic body shape

Week 2: Refining Body Shape

In the second week, I spent time refining the body shape. Even though the character is mostly covered by clothing it was a good opportunity for me to practice stylized anatomy.

At this point, I like to add secondary shapes, anatomical structure, more boney landmarks like the collar bone, elbows, knees, etc. I progressed pretty quickly in that week so I decided to block in the clothing as well. The clothing was made with a simple mask and extrude and cleaned up later with better retopology.

Week 2: Refined body and blocked out the clothing

Week 3: Clothing Blockout

In week 3, I spent time blocking in clothing. Since I already managed to add most of it in week 2 it meant that I could spend time on refining the shapes. This was a good opportunity to go back and check that everything had correct proportions since I had more elements to compare against each other.

Week 3: Refining the clothing and accessories

Week 4: Face

The next week was spent looking at the face which is, in my opinion, the most important part of the character. I start off by blocking in the overall shape of the head, trying to match the concept as close as possible. Once that is finished I rough in the structure of the face. I do this by looking at the main planar changes of the head, block in the planes of the eye sockets and cheekbones, and add placement of the ears. Once I feel like everything is roughly in the correct position I can start refining the shape of each feature. I break down the elements of the face into smaller shapes, treating the eyes, nose, mouth, and ears separately and paying attention to their unique shape. Sometimes I have the nose, ears, and eyelids as separate subtools – I find it easier to move these shapes around when they are disconnected from the rest of the face. Since the end goal of this project was to have a posed sculpt, I could add some expression into my t-posed character because it wasn’t going to be animated and therefore there was no need for a neutral expression. The main difference between the face in the concept and my sculpt is that the concept lacked some definition in the chin. Also, even though this character is stylized it is important to have an underlying structure of human anatomy because it brings a character into the realm of believability.

Week 4: Blocking in the face

Week 5: Hands & Feet

The next week focused on hands and feet. Since I already blocked in the shoes, refining the hands didn’t take too long and gave me some time to work on the character’s hair. I found it quite difficult to make the hair look good from every angle, so I spent a lot of time manually placing hair strands to get the feel of them spiraling around the back of the head.

Week 5: Refine Hands, feet and worked on hair

Week 6: Props

The following week consisted of making additional props such as the cauldron-shaped bag the character uses to carry the kid in and the yellow stereo that hangs from the side. These were pretty simple props, so I used just Maya to create them.

Week 6: Modeled additional props

Week 7 & 8: Posing

The next week I finally started posing the character but I didn’t have a huge amount of time since I was going away on holiday. This was a rough first pass on posing and in the end, I did several attempts until I got something I was happy with!

Week 7: First pass posing

Since I had little time on posing previously, I continued working on it the next week instead of doing the final presentation renders. I wanted the pose to look more dynamic and at the same time reflect the weight of the heavy bag attached to the back of the character. I ended up hunching the character more from the side but pulling his chest and head back so he was looking up higher and off into the distance. I raised his left arm to break the silhouette and changed the weighting on his feet. Posing can be difficult and I found it really useful to copy the pose myself in real life as this made me take notice of what foot the weight was being put on.

Week 8: Continued working on pose

At this point, the course had officially ended but I had still a lot to do! I spent the next 6 months (off and on) continuing to work on the sculpt of the main character and the boy in the backpack. I spent a long time tweaking many things until I was happy with my final sculpt.

6 months later

Rendering in Keyshot

I tried various rendering software solutions until I eventually decided to stick with Keyshot. I set up a basic 3 point lighting with a studio HDRI, polypainted everything in ZBrush, used basic materials for most of the model, and added a little more shine to the metal materials. I wanted to keep a clean look of the texture, the polypaint was straightforward as I didn’t have to worry about UVs.

The bulbs themselves are modeled in 3 pieces: the glass, the filament, and the metal. I couldn’t get emissive to glow in Keyshot, so added the glow of the bulbs as well as the dust particles in Photoshop.

Finished render in Keyshot


The things that I took away from the course were:

  • Think big: When you begin modeling, make a strong foundation. Think about silhouette, overall shapes, and proportion.
  • Presentation: Spend time on the final presentation. Checking final images in black and white as a small thumbnail, it will make sure your image values read clearly.
  • Take your time: Characters take a long time to make! Spend that time really pushing yourself to make it the best it can be.

Charlotte Johnson, Character Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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