Mandy - Character Breakdown

Mandy - Character Breakdown

Damaris Stevens
by Phenglar on 6 Jun 2023

For my first personal project, I aimed to enhance my sculpting, texturing, and grooming skills through the creation of another stylized character. I focused on improving retopology techniques for future facial blendshapes and creating animatable grooming

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Project Overview

I'm glad to present you my latest creation, Mandy, a lively 3D character based on the captivating concept art by Hong SoonSang. In delightful contrast to Brokkr Úlfarr, my previous Viking warrior, Mandy embodies youthful curiosity and vitality.

Mandy's transformation from 2D concept art to a 3D model was a challenge that required a diverse set of skills, and an emphasis on adaptability. The objective was not only to craft a meticulously detailed digital sculpt but also to ensure that Mandy was fully animatable, allowing for the portrayal of a wide range of facial expressions. I am currently in the process of crafting the blendshapes for this purpose.

Softwares: ZBrush, Maya, XGen, RizomUV, DPK_bcs, Substance 3D Painter, Arnold, Nuke, Photoshop, DaVinci Resolve.

Creation Process and Techniques

In crafting Mandy, I adopted a similar approach to the one I employed while creating Brokkr Úlfarr. However, my focus was on ensuring she was fully animatable, adhering to industry standards. Additionally, I aimed to address any aspects of the Brokkr pipeline that needed improvement to elevate it to top industry standards.

This chapter explores the specific steps taken to achieve these goals, highlighting the enhancements made to make Mandy a seamlessly animatable character and refining the overall character creation process.

1. Reference Research

Following a similar process to my work on Brokkr, I began by reviewing the reference shared by Hong SoonSang on his Artstation. Subsequently, I conducted extensive research to gather additional references related to various aspects such as art direction, anatomy, and clothing textures.

(Below is a selection of my actual references.)

2. Modelling

In the modelling phase, I used ZBrush and Maya. Mandy's youthful features were carefully sculpted to stay true to SoonSang's original concept.

2.1 Blocking and retopology

I began the project by blocking out the shape of Mandy's body using ZBrush. After that, I focused on creating her clothing and detailing the inner mouth.

I dedicated a significant amount of time to meticulously refining the topology. I found great inspiration from the topology examples provided by Sergi Caballer on his website.

For this character, my goal was to create a facial topology that meets industry standards. I received invaluable help from Sarah Rivelli, a professional facial modeller, who greatly supported and contributed to the process. I am sincerely grateful for her assistance.

Aside from the positioning of the "stars", the main modifications to the facial topology, in comparison to Brokkr's character, were focused on three specific areas. Firstly, the number of vertical edges between the eyebrows was adjusted. Secondly, the inner part of the eyelids was optimized to be only a few edges wide, which would facilitate the creation of blendshapes in the future. Lastly, the inner mouth was modified to have a completely flat top and bottom sides, allowing for seamless integration of the teeth and gum.

Once I achieved the desired topology for the entire body and ensured its complete symmetry using the abSymMesh script in Maya, I utilized the DPK_bcs Maya plugin to craft the essential blendshapes for the creation of Mandy. This primarily involved lowering her hood and opening her eyes, along with creating a simple blendshape that allowed for the contraction and dilation of her pupils. This enabled me to precisely adjust Mandy's gaze as desired, in accordance with my intentions.

A cluster deformer in Maya served the purpose of opening Mandy's eyes. By employing the cluster deformer, I could exert precise control over the geometry, allowing me to adjust and shape the eye area to achieve the desired wide-eyed expression for the character.

To centralize the final modelling process, I transferred the blendshapes into ZBrush layers, consolidating all the completed components in one central location.

2.2 UVs

The UV unfolding process was carried out in RizomUV, which allows for a more precise and efficient layout compared to Maya. To enhance effectiveness, I transferred my meshes to and from ZBrush and Rizom using the ODZBrushRizomBridge plugin. Strategically placed seams were given priority to ensure both seam invisibility and layout efficiency.

Next, I conducted a quick validation in Substance Painter to maintain texture consistency and prevent blurring. The final layout consisted of 4 UDIMs for the clothing, two for the eyes (one for the cornea and one for the iris), and one for the body. This ensured a high resolution for each part of Mandy's model.

2.3 Final Details

To finish the modelling phase, I sculpted minor clothing details such as folds. Once satisfied, displacement maps were exported and checked in Maya for accuracy.

3. Texture

I initiated the texture process by painting the body, eyes, and clothes in ZBrush using polypaint, following the same approach as I did for Brokkr. The polypaint maps were subsequently exported. In Substance Painter, I employed smart materials to obtain the desired textures, making adjustments to each parameter to align with the original concept art and my references for clothing and art style.

It is worth noting that while rendering the coloured eyes and skin, I identified certain facial shapes that required modification. The inclusion of colours in the model proved beneficial in identifying any undesired shapes and facilitated improvements to the modelling work.

4. Groom

I used XGen for grooming, with a specific focus on creating Mandy's distinctive hair. The fringe and pigtails were treated separately, considering their unique shapes, positioning, and growth direction. I referred to the 2D concept art to ensure the hair perfectly matched Mandy's quirky and playful personality.

Similar to my approach for Brokkr, I achieved the braids using blocking meshes. However, unlike Brokkr's method, I did not use the Tube tool. Instead, I converted the edges to curves and then transformed them into XGen guides. I also observed that the outcomes were greatly improved when the blocking meshes accurately replicated real hair, extending from the roots to the tips, rather than only starting from the base and ending at the tip of the braid.

Unlike my previous project, I gained insights into rendering groomed animations. After consulting with professional groomers like Martin Behem and Alvin Arevalo-Zamora, I realised that interactive grooming is not well-suited for actual production. For the same reasons, I decided to discontinue the use of groomable splines.

Instead, I learned that wrapping the groom supports to the basemesh and having the guides follow them is a more appropriate approach. In certain situations, it may be necessary to convert the animation into an alembic cache before applying the groom. However, since I worked alone on this project, I was able to complete all the necessary steps within the same project file without the need to use any animation caches.

Consequently, I followed the industry-standard method for rendering my animation by performing batch rendering after creating dedicated patches for the batch using the XGen panel.

5. Look Development

Upon finishing the grooming process, my next step involved preparing the model for rendering. Using Maya and Arnold, I focused on fine-tuning the textures, colours, and light interaction to achieve the desired visual outcome.

For this project, I opted to utilize CAVE Academy's lighting setup, which provided a convenient way to quickly establish an appealing environment for an engaging turntable animation.

6. Post-Production

As Mandy is still a work in progress, with facial blendshapes being created to infuse her with expressive emotions, the final stages of posing and lighting are yet to be completed. However, to present an appealing preview of Mandy's character, I adjusted the lighting from the lookdev scene to illuminate both her eyes, infusing life into her gaze. I further refined the output during the compositing phase to create a captivating visual presentation.

My primary focus during post-production was compositing in Nuke, and Arnold's AOVs, including ZDepth, RGB masks, and cryptomattes, greatly facilitated this process. By arranging my lights into light groups, I was able to seamlessly adjust their intensity and colours, allowing for greater flexibility in the scene's ambience.

The techniques I applied were similar to those used for Brokkr, including the introduction of volumetric fog for a deeper atmospheric effect.

Finally, I used DaVinci Resolve for colour grading and video editing. This final step brought a subtle refinement to the visuals and marked the completion of the current stage of Mandy's creation.

Final Thoughts

The experience of turning Mandy from a 2D concept into a 3D character was a truly satisfying challenge that stretched the boundaries of my skillset. I approached each step with meticulous care, maintaining a strong adherence to industry standards and refining my understanding of facial topology and grooming techniques. Each stage of the creation process offered valuable learning opportunities, and professional guidance was key in overcoming challenges and elevating the quality of my work, enriching my proficiency as a 3D character artist.

Though Mandy's development continues, primarily focusing on crafting her facial blendshapes, the progress achieved is invigorating. Looking back on this journey, I am deeply thankful for the knowledge I have gained and eagerly anticipate incorporating these insights into my future endeavours.

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