So, are you interested in creating 3D characters? If you don’t know where to start, here I’ll guide you through the process. Covering the basics, the tools you need to start making your own 3D character from scratch, from the importance of anatomy and proportions to choosing the right software for you.
How are 3D avatars made? The basics
Here are several things you have to pay attention to when you create a 3D character:
- Anatomy: The secret when it comes to modeling a 3D character is a good foundation. Understanding anatomy will pay off 100% This includes understanding how the character is built, the underlying skeletal structure, the muscles, and organs. Understanding this will make your character more believable and better looking overall.
- Proportions: If you want to create a realistic 3D avatar, you better respect the proportions. This means that the body parts should be the correct size when compared to each other. When the proportions are off, the character will be distorted. You can play with this actually when creating 3D characters that are unrealistic. You could enhance their traits by making certain body parts oversized.
- Overall design: When you are done with the anatomy and proportions, you can start to go into more detail. Like hairstyle, accessories, clothing style, and other aesthetic elements.
- Textures and materials: This is the final step, where you add color and detail to the character. You should match how realistic you made your character in the first three steps by choosing the right textures and level of detail. If your character design is more on the unrealistic side, less detailed textures enhance this feel.
Once you understand these fundamental concepts, you are on the right track to creating a visually appealing 3D avatar.
Choosing the Right Software
There are quite a few 3D programs available for you to choose from when it comes to creating 3D characters. These programs came with their own strengths and weaknesses. As a beginner, I suggest that you don’t invest in expensive software; try the waters first with free software.
Being free does not mean that the software itself sucks. Blender, for example, is a great 3D software. I mentioned how most software has its strengths and weaknesses, Blender, while it may not excel at a single thing it is a well-balanced program, and you can do pretty much anything with it; it does everything, and it keeps getting better and better with continuous updates. Also, there are a lot of resources you can find for Blender, and it is beginner friendly, unlike other paid programs with a very steep learning curve. Keep in mind that 3D software can be extremely complicated.
Here are a few notable ones:
- C4D, or Cinema 4D: This software has a user-friendly interface, has a wide range of features, is pretty versatile, and can be integrated with other software as well. It is known for its stability. However, it is also pretty expensive, making it less accessible; sculpting is limited and not as widely used overall.
- 3ds max: just like C4D, 3ds max has a lot of features and room for customizability, and professionals use it. It, however, is not beginner friendly and has a steep learning curve to it, with a user interface that is not intuitive. This is a powerful 3D software for modeling but requires a heavy investment of time and resources from the user side to master.
- Blender: Unlike the two examples above, Blender is free software. Has a wide range of features allowing users to create complex 3D models, animations, and even 2D animations. Has a big community with a lot of tutorials and resources and a ton of plugins and scripts. The user interface, although it has seen some improvement, is still not as solid as C4D. There are a lot of free 3d models for Blender since the community is on the active side. You are sure to find a lot of videos on how to make characters in Blender.
You shouldn’t think of these as 3D character creators; they are much more capable of creating anything you can imagine.
Creating 3D character models
Before jumping right into creating the basic mesh for the character first, you have to settle on the main design of it. Make 2D sketches, settle on a clothing style and accessories, try drawing different poses, and make sure you like the vibe of your sketch before committing to it.
- Topology: this refers to the arrangement of the mesh and how the polygons are placed. Characters with a decent topology are way easier to animate and render. There should be a consistent density of polygons, and it should follow the natural curves of the character’s body.
- Edge flow: this could be part of topology; actually, it’s again about the arrangement of the polygons. A proper edge flow will make your character model deform realistically during animation. An example of this would be around the shoulder area. Here the polygons should be forming a circular loop to allow for rotation without any visible creases or seem.
How to make a 3D model of your face?
In general, there are two ways to go about this. You either scan your face using a technique called photogrammetry or 3D scanning, or the second method, where you create the 3D model yourself. If you learn how to use any of these methods, you will be one step closer to learning how to make a 3D avatar.
- The first method you can use is a 3D scanner. This device will create a 3D mesh of your face, which, later on, you can edit and refine for the following steps.
- If you don’t have access to a 3D scanner, which is very likely, you can opt for photogrammetry. This is essentially a process where software pieces together a 3D mesh based on multiple images.
- You can also create a 3D character model from scratch using photo references of your face. Take a few pictures from the front, the side, and above. You can import these pictures into the 3D software of your choosing and follow these pictures to create the 3D model of your head manually.
Texture and materials
At this step, you add colors and materials textures to the mesh you created. Here we can bring up the topic of render engines, what they are, what’s the difference between them, and their importance.
This is an essential step in the process, where you decide how your character reacts to light; here is where you add colors, patterns, and materials to your mesh. Choose between different textures for skin, different materials for clothing, and different materials for accessories.
There are many render engines available, and each has its own strengths and weaknesses. Here are a few examples:
- Arnold: This render engine is physically based and is famous for having the ability to handle complex scenes and has a photorealistic quality. This is why it is very popular among VFX artists.
- V-Ray: This is a versatile render engine capable of rendering realistic scenes. The main uses of this go from product visualization to character animation.
- RenderMan: This engine was developed by Pixar. It can handle complex scenes, which is perfect for the film and animation industry. It also has the capability to create stylized effects.
- Octane: Octane is a GPU-based render engine; it is fast and capable of handling a vast number of textures and geometry. This is favored by artists who need high-quality results quickly.
Rigging and Animation
Alright, now that you got your character created and added the textures as well, it’s time to rig it! What’s rigging, you ask? Rigging is basically creating a skeleton for your character. You stick your character mesh to this skeleton, and by manipulating the skeleton, you manipulate the movement of your character mesh, making character animation possible.
Here you need to set constraints if you want your Character to move realistically. As you animate, you may find errors in rigging, but these can be fixed on the spot, so they are not a big issue. For example, moving the leg also moves other parts as well, which it shouldn’t be moving.
If you have done your character mesh right and have good topology, rigging your character will be much easier. Once you’ve attached your character to its virtual bones, it’s time to animate.
To make a convincing animation that looks good in general, you must pay attention to timing and movement principles. You have to keep in mind balance, momentum, weight, and how all these affect the movement of your character. Also, when animating the face, a good topology is absolutely crucial to make it move naturally.
Creating 3D characters in Blender requires a lot of learning. You have to understand anatomy, proportions, textures, and materials and familiarize yourself with the software’s interface. Learn how to use it.
I feel like Blender overall is the best choice for people who are new to 3D character design, mainly because of accessibility. You can learn all the basics here, and you will have knowledge that will carry over to other software as well if you decide to switch to a different 3D software in the future. If you don’t have the time and energy to spend, you can find a 3d character creator online free of charge. However, these limit your choices significantly.