Making Of 'Captain Proton'
This cartoon character was based on a retro sci-fi idea. I wanted to show a character with strong pose, expression and silhouette with 3D art. My goal was to complete the process in 3D with the open source software Blender. In Blender you can configure your shortcut keys and the interface layout to match any stage of the process. What I did first was to prepare my tools for the task I needed and save the layout with a name.
(The 3D character creation method doesn't depend on the software. So you will be able to reproduce the same with your favorite tool).
References and Concept
You will not achieve an appealing 3D character if you don't have good references with good bases in character design. Working in 3D takes a long time and you will forget elements that are key points during the process. It's very important to define your 2D concept art design. In this case I collected a bunch of references from the internet and also had a female alien concept that I liked (Fig.01a). Sometimes I'll do a quick 3D sculpt concept too, like the one shown in Fig.01b.
Tip: Come up with a good 2D character design before you start modeling. Sketches are always faster and easier to change than digital sculptures. It will be a lot less painful.
I started by modeling the volume of the character. As I often do, I started with the head, and used simple polygon objects like a box. Then I divided the box with vertical and horizontal edges. In Blender I used the option To Sphere with the box (Spherify in 3ds Max), erased one side of my box and added a mirror modifier (Symmetry in 3ds Max) (Fig.02).
Tip: To sphere a mesh, select the elements (vertex, edges or faces) you want to affect in Edit mode, press Shift + Alt + S and drag your mouse out.
At this point, I didn't pay attention to details and just tried to define the main shape well. I continued with the geometry, adding more edge loops and pushing the vertexes and edges until I was happy with the entire body shape and the proportions. Having contrasting shapes is very important when it comes to character designer. I kept this in mind and also looked for good topology (Fig.03 - 04).
Tip: The topology that can be used for animation can also be used to pose your character in a easier way.
I continued with the face details. I added edges or extruded polygons to define the key areas: mouth, eyes, nose and ears. I added a subdivision surface modifier to test these elements in high resolution. I used the Sculpt tool with the Multi Resolution modifier when I was happy with the polygon's base mesh (Fig.05).
Tip: Hide geometry you aren't working with. Your software will flow better in the viewport.
Light and Shadow
I did a first simple light rig to test my model aspect. I went with a more accurate light setup to start working with materials. It's very important to achieve a good light set up. All your work on the final image will depend on this.
In this case I rendered the scene with Blender's internal renderer. I used five lights. The number of lights will depend on your scene. Maybe it seems a little complicated at first glance, but it's very useful to have the control with a light rig. Here are my lights:
1. A Sun light as a key light, with a yellow color
2. An orange hemi light as a fill light from the Sun
3. A blue hemi light as environment light
4. A blue point light for the lightning in the raygun
5. An area light to fake the bounced light color from the ground rock to the character.
In the light properties you can select This Layer Only to affect only objects in the light layer. I used this to exclude the eyes from one light (Fig.06).
Tip: In the shadows color use the same as in the ambient color of the world. It will help you to make a believable light setup.
The way you create your materials depends on the software, but the goal is always the same. You've got to reproduce the behavior of objects with light. The key words are absorption, reflection and refraction. There are also common techniques in any software. These techniques are very useful if you want to achieve a lot of different variations of materials. In real life most objects are made of more than one material. There are several layers of dust, rust etc.
The Material Editor is very powerful when combined with light setup and composition in CG. I use a lot of falloff ramps in the materials to control how the surface reacts with the light set up. I use a color for the specular reflection that matches with the main light color, and colors in fall off ramps on difuse or specular that match with the environment color. Doing this makes the scene more believable. You will see what I mean on the materials for the raygun and the eyes. The Blender node compositor for materials is very helpful and gives all the combinations you can imagine.
Tip: With characters, the eyes are very important. It's the first place a viewer will look so be careful to work hard on this area. A nice shader will help a lot! An example of this can be seen in Fig.07.
Before going with textures for the character or any object it's good to unfold the mesh in the UV editor.
It gives a mesh layout and is very easy to understand in 2D image editors. So you can use all the tools of Gimp or Photoshop to create nice and rich textures.
Blender tools for UV editing are easy to find by pressing T or the Space bar in the 3D viewport. Select UV Editing to work on a UV layout. Any window with the UV/image editor active will show you the mesh when you select it and press Tab to enter Edit mode.
With the mesh in Edit mode you can press Space bar and write your actions if you know them, like Mark Seam or Unwrap. When you are happy with the seams you've marked, choose Unwrap. It gives you an automatic unfolded mesh that is usually very good. If you're not happy with the result you can always mark other seams (Fig.08).
Tip: In Edit mode, select all the mesh faces by pressing A, then press U and the UV contextual menu will appear to unwrap your mesh.
Sculpt for Key Areas
Next I used the sculpt tools to define more areas, like the eyes, eyebrows, lips, nose and ears. I used the Multi Resolution modifier to work instead of the Subdivision Surface. This allowed me to go back and forward on the subdivision levels and work where I needed.
A fast way to give expression to your character is to use the Sculpt tools. It's easier to create blend shapes (morphers in 3ds Max).
Tip: When I'm finished with details I bake an Ambient Occlusion of the UV layout. I combine this in Multiply mode, low opacity with my color. This gives more depth to the model in the render.
3D Painted Textures
I painted the textures in Blender over the models in the 3D viewport and in the UV/image editor. I also used the open source image editor Gimp.
Configure your lights in the viewport preview to work. Activate the Solid option to display the object with one texture and lit with the default OpenGL lights. You can edit the OpenGL lights in the Blender user Preferences > System (Fig.09a - 09b).
You can also use your scene light setup to light your object. 3D Viewport > View Properties Menu "N" Shading > GLSL, then choose the method to display the object texture or press Alt + Z (Fig.10).
Activate this add-on: Paint > Texture Paint > Layer Manager to use the texture paint layers. This tool will appear in the 3D Viewport > View Properties menu (press N) (Fig.11).
Activate Texture Paint in Object mode. This will display the tools in the menu (press T) with all you need to paint in the 3D viewport.
Assign a material to the object selected. Choose the Blender UV Editing layout. In the 3D viewport press Tab to select all the faces. The UV/image editor will show the model UVs. Create a new texture and use it in the material you assigned to the object as Influence > Color. Remember to use Mapping > UV.
Press F to control the brush's radius. Press Shift + F to control the brush's influence (Fig.12).
The pose was sculpted with the Move tool. Like when painting, I used the F key to control the radius of my brush and the Shift + F to control the influence. Take care of your object distance in the viewport. It will affect the area of influence.
It was very important to show a good pose with a clear line of action. A nice shape and a strong silhouette helps you to read an image.
The facial expression was sculpted with details to give the character emotion that matched his actions. The cloth wrinkles were also done at this stage. I sculpted the wrinkles on the space suit depending on his movement.
I used these parameters in the render and environment menu (Fig.13).
I rendered two layers: one layer for the entire scene and another for the glows. Each one had its own passes for compositing later.
Tip: To do preview renders, use a small output size and lower the render AA samples and the shadows samples on every light. You can use the Properties > Scene > Simply options too.
The rendering for this image was very simple and it didn't use GI with radiosity. So a node composition was used to achieve a nicer image:
- An Ambient Occlusion pass was a very good way to add depth. This allowed me to do a subtle color bleed effect. I added a RGB Curves node to the AO to match the ambient light color.
- A Normal pass to light the objects in the composition with ambient light later.
- Render Layer with the Emit pass for the gun lightning and glows.
Some effects were added later in Gimp to finish the image. Like a subtle depth of field (Fig.14).
And here's the final image (Fig.15).
I hope you enjoyed this Making Of. I'm going to do a series of workshops in Barcelona (Spain) where I will explain in Spanish the techniques more in depth. I will teach the software Blender in this process with the problems I had to solve. Feel free to contact me.