Course Spotlight: Character Design and Creation

This month we’re spotlighting the Computer Animation program, focusing on the courses that make up the backbone of the curriculum that students learn across its 20 months.

Character Design and Creation is one of the courses in the Computer Animation program that focuses on modeling for film, animation, or video games. For this class, students learn about organic modeling, which has to do with building 3D characters (or non-living things) that move and deform or have complex structures and curves.

Character modelers can be compared to sculptors within the traditional arts, except that modelers use computer software packages like Maya, ZBrush, 3ds Max, and Mudbox. “So we’ve taken traditional sculpting techniques used with clay, and simply transitioned them into the computer world,” explains Marcus Scarsella, Course Director for Character Design and Creation.

Students begin with the basics of modeling, which are all about contours. At first, students have a hard time replicating what they are seeing, says Scarsella.

“They have trouble gauging ‘How wide is this arc? How deep is this arc? How sharp is that crease or wrinkle?’ So the first week we just go into contouring,” he says. “We’re making gestures on a model to study where the arcs are, where the shadows are, and how they move through the object. And then we take that information, and we start laying down wireframe for the model.”

Using software, students learn how to make a wireframe, the surface topology of a character (similar to a topographical map). Once the wireframe is in place, they move on to add realistic textures like muscles, tendons, veins, wrinkles, even pores. The final step is resurfacing the model to reduce the number of polygons within the character. This makes the model usable by the rigger, the artist who makes the model move.

Learning to see and judge shapes and contours is an important part of Scarsella’s class, as is learning how to approach character modeling in different ways, using different software programs. Depending on the software, modelers can create characters by building them polygon by polygon, or they can sculpt them out of a larger amorphous shape or a sphere, much as a tactile sculptor would do. “The second week we spend a lot of time building the same thing different ways,” says Scarsella.

According to Scarsella, savvy modelers pick and choose their approaches, depending on the needs of each project. Background characters might be designed differently than hero characters, who show up in lots of close-ups. High-end films and games have different approaches than lower-budget animations.

Scarsella says he prompts the students to ask themselves the following questions: “What is this going to be for? How is it going to be seen on-screen, and how do we tailor our workflow or our pipeline to fit that need or efficiently create a model for that need?” He adds, “Purpose dictating process – that’s one of those slogans I try to get them to understand.”