RENDER A STYLIZED CARTOON CHARACTER
Luis Yrisarry Labadia details his complete cartoon character workflow from start to finish
In this tutorial you will learn my step-by-step workflow for creating a cartoon character, starting from a 2D concept illustration to a fully rendered 3D character. After working on some characters for the Tom and Jerry movie I wanted to do a cartoon character, and this cool alien hunter kid concept by the amazing Cory Loftis got my attention. It has lots of personality and is full of attitude! I really want to thank him for allowing me to share this project based on his concept art.
For cartoon characters the main rules are stay simple, less is more! Proportions are key, try to avoid straight and parallel lines, and exaggerate features as much as you need! Try to revisit your progress often and add notes to it, I found paint overs really useful for this. Also listening to people is important, in this case Leo Rezende helped me a lot with really good insights about cartoony style to take this project to the next level.
01 ANALYSE THE CONCEPT AND PLAN AHEAD
The first step is always the preparation and planning stage for the project. So start studying the concept and try to understand the most important aspects. Then you should decide how to approach the 3D execution, like how stylized you wanted to go and what are the biggest challenges to overcome. On this project I spent some time playing around with the idea of sculpted hair or proper grooming, and I ended up with the grooming because I felt inspired by the movie Onward that was released recently.
02 DISSECT THE CHARACTER
Split up all the different areas to have a general idea of what is needed. Clothing, hair, body, hard-surface accessories… This guide will be useful to keep the project organised and to set a plan to meet deadlines. This is key in every production and helps you to focus on what is more important. Also thanks to this guide you will be able to know when you need to cut corners when a specific stage is taking up too much time.
03 SET YOUR PROJECT IN MAYA
Start setting your Maya project and work in real size, as this will avoid unnecessary headaches later on. Just bring a cylinder in your scene with the desired size of the character, in this case 120cm. Export this cylinder as OBJ and import it in Zbrush, so now you have your Zbrush tool in real scale to export and import to Maya regularly. I use a plugin called Styx that speeds up the import-export workflow between Maya and Zbrush.
04 BLOCKOUT BASICS
Represent the volumes of your character with the most simple shapes. I like to start with a sphere for the head and then go all over the body with the most appropriate
primitives, like cylinders for the arms and legs and spheres or boxes for the hips and torso. Whenever I feel the proportions are good enough I go for the accessories and tweak the whole thing until I am happy with the result. Although you will always tweak things, the better you nail the volumes the easier and faster this project will go.
05 SECOND PASS
I recommend drawing the concept art by yourself for better understanding of the shapes. Now it’s time to refine the volumes in 3D. During this stage just use the basic brushes, Move, Clay and Smooth. To preserve the volume of a mesh but smooth all the unnecessary imperfections, press Shift and release, it kind of works the same way as the Relax tool in Maya. It can be challenging to figure out the profile of a character when you don’t have it in your concept, so do some research and apply your anatomy knowledge to get a natural and dynamic profile.
Import a screenshot of your blockout in Photoshop and compare with the concept to double-check the proportions are correct.
06 SCULPT THE HEAD
For cartoon characters it is always better to stay simple. Use your head blockout as a starting point and add all the primitives you need like a sphere for the nose or cylinders for the ears. You can also use spheres to subtract the eye region. Then Dynamesh the volumes and try to do as fewer strokes as you can to keep the volumes clean. Usual brushes for this: Move, Clay, Dam Standard, Inflate, Polish and Smooth. Once you are happy, Zremesh it to simplify your shapes and polish again; do this a few times.
07 HAIR BLOCKOUT
Append a simple cube and use the Bend Curve feature inside Gizmo 3D to easily define the strands of hair with its controls to bend, twist and taper. It gives you really clean and defined shapes.
08 CLOTH SCULPTING
Depending on the complexity of the garment it is preferable to use
Marvelous Designer or just sculpt it in Zbrush. In my case I just used Marvelous Designer to get some of the folds of the sweater that I later re-sculpted in Zbrush. The rest of the pieces are all hand sculpted. Marvelous is all about researching the patterns and simulating fabrics like they work in real life, so it’s important to search for patterns online. Regarding understanding drapery, it is all about tension points and gravity. I recommend the fantastic book Dynamic Wrinkles and Drapery by Burne Hogarth.
09 BACKPACK PHOTOS
I decided to use my own backpack as reference. So I did a quick round of photos around the backpack with my mobile and later imported them in Pureref, a software most of us use in the industry to get all references in a handy window. You can just drag and drop any image from any source, even from a clipboard, even a whole folder full of refs. And the best thing is that you can move the window around and leave it on top of Zbrush.
10 MODEL THE BACKPACK BASE MESH
With the front, side and top images as reference planes, build a basic base mesh in Maya – basically three cubes with chamfer sides in this case. I later decided to go for a more simplified and stylized version instead, but it was a huge plus to have these refs and get some details from it. Straps can be easily made using the Quad Draw tool in Maya and setting our sweater as a live surface to draw the straps on top. Finally the zipper was added in Zbrush with the IMM Plastic Zipper. Once you are happy with your base mesh export an OBJ to Zbrush and start sculpting!
11 BACKPACK SCULPT
Import the backpack OBJ and start sculpting the folds. Before starting, store a morph target – this is really handy to recover the original volume in case you over-sculpted some areas. Now start doing a quick pass with the standard brush in Zsub mode to get the cavities formed by the folds that many times are defined by
diamond shapes. Afterwards you can add some volume to the rim of those folds. The folds are mainly originated by tension points, usually from a seam to another seam or zipper. Understanding this is key for achieving convincing results.
12 MODEL THE ALIEN
Load your concept art as a guide with spotlight in low opacity and block out the alien extremities using Zspheres on top. Then bring a cube and cut the contour using the Slice brush, Delete Hidden and Dynamesh all. Now refine it to get the proper volume and Zremesh it. After some polishing add some organic imperfections for the flesh and hard variations for the skeleton pieces. Finally use a surface noise in the highest subdiv to create the imperfections on the creature shell. Then export the displacement map to later use in Arnold for Maya.
13 TEXTURE THE SKIN
For cartoony skin I prefer to directly Polypaint in Zbrush or Mudbox using the standard brush with a high focal shift and 50% opacity. The only downside of texturing in Zbrush is you need to subdivide your mesh a few times to get enough resolution to paint.
To better visualize the textures, the skin shade material in Zbrush is very useful. Now fill the mesh with a skin tone and then apply the reddish tones on the cheeks, nose and ears. For this specific character I also added some darker tones on the eyelids and drew a few brownish speckles for the cheeks. These small details add a lot of personality to the character.
Open Substance Painter and drop a fill layer with the main colour. For fabrics add a weaving pattern and scale it very small. Then add a noise layer with a lighter colour and a noisy mask that you can get from the multiple procedural textures in Spainter, and then another layer with a smaller detail and so on. Adding wear and tear is a must, so you can use the same procedure with a fill layer using the mask builder and tweaking the Curvature parameter, but don’t forget you need to bake mesh maps beforehand.
15 EXPORT DISPLACEMENT MAPS
When your base mesh is unable to hold all the detail of the high-res, you need to export a displacement map (games usually use normal maps instead). Just go to your higher subdiv level and open Zplugin/multi Map and set the Displacement options as in the screenshot. This process allows you to keep the detail without overloading your scene with thousands of extra polygons.
16 LOOK DEV
You need to add the physically correct values for each material. Try to understand how objects in real life can have a mix of materials like, for instance, a car has a metal surface and a layer of paint on top of
it. Two different materials that you need to combine with masks to get realistic scratches. With Substance Painter you can do this procedurally, which saves a lot of time.
17 SKIN SHADER
The most tricky shader is usually the skin and for that you need to enable subsurface, set your base colour to black and play with the subsurface scale. This feature allows you to replicate the translucence effect of the light travelling through the skin. Plug your texture into the Subsurface Color input. Another important aspect of the subsurface shader is to set a broad specular and a more sharp, less rough secondary specular (Coat). Although it is not vital, I always set IOR to 1.330.
You can use Maya and rig your character, but I love to use Zbrush, it makes me feel free to exaggerate the pose as much as I want without any limitations. Use Transpose Master Tposemesh to get a unique subtool and take advantage of your polygroups and topology to make selections easily. Try to use the front view as your desired view so you can easily go back and forth with the concept. You can also store views with the Zapplink inside the Document menu.
19 STARTING XGEN
It is very important with Xgen to be meticulous with the process The basic steps to set up Xgen are: set a project in Maya, work in real scale, keep a consistent naming system with unique names and no spaces, use default shaders for the scalps, delete history before applying Xgen and freeze transforms. Finally Xgen requires you to have non-overlapping UVS in one single UDIM.
Now you can safely work with Xgen, first select the mesh (scalp) where you want to grow guides from and create a collection. A collection is the group that contains all the descriptions (areas of hair or fur) on your character. Now you need to start placing guides. It is preferable to start with very few
that define the different areas and then start placing more and more to better detail the hair flow. I highly recommend to do a quick drawing before starting in case you don’t have a proxy hair mesh to follow. The next step is adding variation with Xgen modifiers Clumping, Noise and Cut.
It is essential to test different lighting sets to check your materials. When you think your material is not reflective enough and change your lighting setup, you quickly realize how crucial this is for the look dev stage. Afterwards you can set your lighting with a three-point lighting setup for interiors and HDRI for exteriors. For interiors I first assign a basic white material and drop a big Area light on the scene, and then I place the rest, always checking one by one to try not to burn out any highlights. When I am happy I switch all on and tweak until I am satisfied with the results.
22 TIME TO RENDER
First set Arnold to very low sampling settings to be able to go back and forth and quickly test out things – take into account you will do that many times. Secondly render the character in high-res by regions; for instance the hair and skin take longer to render, so to save time check if things look as good as expected in small crops. Thirdly add a bunch of AOV (render passes) in case you need to tweak your renders in comp. And finally go for a high-end setting and get your desired render!
Open your render in Photoshop and then load all the render passes in a folder; it is always good to have at least an alpha channel to isolate the background. Now create a folder called Colour Correction and start adding adjustment layers. The ones I use the most are Color Lookup to add LUTS, Selective Color and Exposure. Remember to save your renders in EXR 32bits if you want to be able to change your exposure later on. If you follow this system you can later reproduce the same adjustments to any other camera angle. •