Making Of 'Cowboy'
Hi everybody, I'm here again to explain how I did another character illustration in 3D. First of all, I want to say thank you to all the 3DTotal team for offering me the chance to publish my work and this Making Of on their site.
I've been working with 3ds Max for years, but I wanted to know if any open source software could be a good alternative program in which to work independently of the OS. So I did this project to test the Blender tools to see if I could produce 3D cartoon characters with the same quality as I could get in Max. I didn't have to change my method of working because of the software and I learned some extra things by taking this journey with Blender.
The Main Idea and Collecting References
Everything starts with an idea. All designs need to have a well-defined idea to be strong designs. The same thing is true of characters, stories and illustrations. For this image I wanted to do an old cowboy, so I looked for some references for my topic. I collected a lot of photos, pictures and drawings from my favorite artists. At the beginning I didn't have in mind to do a full illustration, but by the end I saw that creating a character within an environment added context and helped a lot to describe him (Fig.01).
Designing the Character
I'll never get tired of saying that it's important to write a description of your character down on paper. This will help you to keep the designs in mind without and focus on the main idea without any distortions or deviations. This is what you receive from the script writer in the animation industry or from your client if you're a freelancer. In my school I teach my students to write a list of words that describe the character accurately before they go to design it. This is something I learned from my teacher Stephen Silver and it's very helpful.
I've made a list of questions to better understand any characters that I create:
• Who is the character?
• Where is the character from?
• Which time period does my character come from?
• What is my character's personality?
• How does the character look like?
• How old are they?
• What are their mannerisms?
• Do they have any specific physical details (tattoos, scars, etc)?
I try to find a contrast in shapes and experiment with some silhouettes. This is the concept I did at the end of the process (Fig.02).
A Method to Work with 3D
I try to avoid orthogonal views as much as I can and model everything in perspective. The main reason is because it increases your sense of depth in 3D. It helps you to do better digital sculptures later on.
I used the image information that I had from my 360 degree concept. When you have information about all of the views, like a blueprint, it's ideal, but I was able to produce this character with only a ¾ view concept. I actually prefer doing this as it forces me to have a better understanding of the drawing and how it's constructed (Fig.03).
Modeling for Animation
I love digital sculpts, but the main reason I use poly modeling a lot is because I like to prepare characters for animation and do things with them later. So my character was modeled with the box modeling technique and the edge extrusion/connection technique. I used the powerful Blender tools for modeling and UV mapping, which are incredibly great. From my point of view Blender has amazing tools for modeling and it's as good as any commercial program.
There are some tools that work differently in other software, like the knife. For example, by default in Blender you press Enter to finish a cut and then you automatically exit the tool. So you have to activate it again before you continue doing other cuts. In 3ds Max you can use the right mouse button to finish a cut, but you don't exit the tool until you press the button twice (Fig.04).
Illumination, Shaders and Render
When I finish any model, the next step is to do the UVs when I'm going to use it for mapping some textures. At this point you can rig your character to give it a pose, or you can do it later, after the next step. Sometimes before I start rigging and posing I like to test the light and the mood of the scene. I like to choose materials and colors in this stage of the process.
I like render engines that let the artist "paint with light". Some of them give you radiosity and bounced light with color blending for free, but it's nice to have control over all these things. I used Blender Render again, which can use good shaders and hair to achieve what you want. You don't have color blending so I placed the lights where I found that they were going to give me control of the main light and the bounced light (Fig.05).
It's always nice if your render engine has good solutions to solve complex shaders, or if you can create them without too much pain. Blender Render can use good materials with the power of a node editor. There's no specific shader for skin like in mental ray or V-Ray, but you can trick it. I mixed three nodes of materials so I had three different layers in the skin. The textures were also painted inside the Blender 3D viewport and UV editor. I started with a base skin pattern and a baked AO map over it (Fig.06).
Hair and Fur
This time the hair was done in Blender. The good point was that I didn't have to compose the hair later. Blender gives you good and believable hair perfectly integrated with the light in the scene and the native render. I only had to prepare some lights for the hair to show some aspects of it better. I used the native shaders of Blender with some special setup for the hair (Fig.07).
Be careful with your scale when you work with hair. It's important because the hair's aspect depends on the relation between hair and lights. It will affect your control over the hair shader mainly with the sss (sub-surface scattering) and the specular.
I used vertex weight maps to control the areas where I wanted to have hair over the 3D model. You can also use bitmap maps (grayscale) to control the same parameters (Fig.08).
It's very important to create several groups of hair in order to create good-looking hair; hair that can be believable in high resolution, close up renders. You have to do at least three different groups of hair: long hair, eyebrows and short hair. It's also important to spend time combing the hairs group by group until you achieve the look of your design (Fig.09 - 10).
Rig and Pose
I used the autorig that comes with Blender. You can find it if you activate the "Addon" (or plugin) called Rigify in the preferences. I scaled it to match my character's size and then I entered into Edition mode for bones. Then I adjusted the size of any little bones. Be careful when using "Metarig" (Rigify); it has its own layers for bones and controls, and some of them are hidden. You will find them in the properties panel under the Armature section.
There's a nice feature in the Blender bones: you can represent them in five different ways. One of them is really interesting since it has a cool property. You can use the B-Bone mode and subdivide a bone to control its deformation. It's a really nice way of achieving cool curve deformation on them for free (Fig.11)!
Final Render and Composition
Blender has another extra in the software package. It has a compositor editor with nodes for free and it's very well prepared for any production. I did all my compositing in Blender. I added a little color correction and some tricks to get the mood and lighting I was looking for. I used a normal pass to control light in some areas. I did also some light effects, like a little chromatic aberration, some vignetting and finally some adjustment on the levels (Fig.12).
I always do a clay render test. It helps me to see if the volume and the light will work with the character before the last render (Fig.13).
As a character design professional, I must say that Blender is a very good tool. It gives me all I need to achieve the same quality of characters I did before with commercial software. Maybe some tools need a little bit of improvement, but no more than in other programs. What is awesome is that you can contact the developers directly to ask for something and they respond in person - a few minutes later you can have an update with your problem solved.
In my process I was working with the same files on different computers with different operating systems including Linux Ubuntu, Mac OSX and Windows 7. I never found any problems with it and this was the final result (Fig.14).