3D character creation in Blender: Firefighter – references & modeling (Part 1)


Hello! This is a small series (4 tutorials) going through the process of creating this firefighter character. My goal was a full character with about 30K polygons and PBR textures that can be used in a realtime engine. In this first part of the series I show how to set up references and start modeling the character. Part two will cover how to create the different assets, UV unwrap them and create a low-poly and high-poly version of the character that can be used for texturing in Substance Painter. In the final chapter I pose the character and demonstrate my workflow of rendering and presentation. Have fun!

3d character model firemen

Final character – modeled in Blender 2.83, textured in Substance Painter, cycles render

Concept Art

Before starting to create the 3D model, it’s essential to have a two-dimensional visual representation of your idea. You can use a photo, combine multiple photos, draw, paint or create a very basic 3D model to draw on top of. I started gathering reference images of different firefighters, their luggage and tools captured form several angles. After some first studies in my sketchbook I scanned in a small drawing and added more details in Photoshop. I also added some colors and shading, but you don’t have to add too many details.

concept art and build 3d model character

I also included some more detailed orthographic drawings of specific details; this can be very helpful for modeling

Starting in Blender

I use PureRef to organize my reference pictures and concept art on a second monitor and start with the basic modeling. You can use a skeleton or human base mesh as a starting point and use the grease pencil tools to block out your idea in 3D. I use primitives to add volume to the skeleton and change their position, rotation and scale. This way you can figure out the position of different parts in 3D.

model 3d skelenton

The rigify add-on skeleton is a good base for modeling

Character blockout

This is what my rough character blockout looks like. It’s only a previsualization of the final model to see the three-dimensionality. I will replace the individual parts with the final props later, but the overall appearance of the character will not change too much after this step. If the design is not working at this point, you can draw over it, change the proportions, add or remove elements.

character blockout 3d model

Modeling guidelines

One of the major goals for this project was to achieve a realistic look without a high polycount. A lot of detail is added using normal maps, but I also wanted to optimize the topology for an easier UV unwrapping, texturing, rigging, and rendering workflow. I only modeled the parts that are visible, removed interior faces and details that don’t change the silhouette of the model a lot. Another way to make the workflow easier is to pay attention to the edge flow of the model. All loops should flow in a logical way, without spiraling around the arm, for example. I also modeled all the assets separately to make rigging easier.

wireframe final model  3d character

Wireframe of the final model

Modeling workflow

It’s important to take a close look at the concept and think about the modeling tools you want to use. The solidify, subdivision surface, mirror or skin modifier can make modeling a lot easier and more procedural. I try to keep the models very basic initially, then I apply the modifiers and modify the shapes in edit mode. To finalize the asset, I dissolve (x) unnecessary edge loops and faces. More advanced modeling techniques for modeling the final assets will be mentioned in part 2 of this tutorial.

modelling workflow 3d objects

There are always multiple ways to get to the same result, but it’s important to develop a manageable, efficient workflow

Working with accessories

Most properties of the character are positioned at an angle, but modeling the flat shapes and rotating the mesh afterwards is much easier than working with a rotated mesh. You can add keyframes to have the same asset in two different positions, one for modeling and one for assessing the part in context. At this stage I also play around with the arrangement of objects to achieve an interesting and balanced look from all angles.

model rigging 3d model

First renders

Before adding too much detail to the model I use the Eevee engine to see what the rough shapes look like. I pay special attention to the silhouette and the shadows that are cast; this has to look good without too much detail. Especially when working without a concept, adding basic colors at this stage can help too to identify any distracting patterns. Think about the focal points of the character and arrange the different parts in an organized way.

concept first rendering 3d model

Asking other artists for feedback during this preview rendering phase is also a good idea

Cloth simulation

Recently I started using Marvelous Designer in my workflow, but it’s totally possible to sculpt clothing in Blender. I’m not an expert in this software, there are some good tutorials here. I use it to add the main parts of clothing to the basemesh, but I always refine the simulation, add details in sculpt mode, and retopologize it manually to have full control over the flow of topology.

cloth simulations 3d model firefighter

The only thing I worry about is the overall appearance of the folds, more detail will be added later

Tweaking the mesh

With all the parts blocked in and the clothing simulated I’m ready to create the actual models for the accessories. But before that, I take a break for a day to come back with a fresh view and end up changing the design a bit. I use the sculpting tools to adjust the proportions and the silhouette of the model.

3d model firefighter

In part two of this tutorial I will go through the modeling techniques I used to model the individual assets

Top tip 1 -  Don’t start with details!

The characters silhouette has to look good from far away, it’s much easier to change the design at the beginning of the modeling process.

firefighter silhouette character design

Add a black material and a white background to check if the character reads well from a distance

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