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What are today's 3D animated character creators good for

We often see 3D characters in video games, movies, and advertisements but how many viewers can actually see beyond the facade? What does it take to create such models, animate them, make them likable? There is no ultimate 3D animated character creator that can consistently produce original personages, so in order to build a truly unique and memorable character, you need to go through a lengthy process.

3D Animated Character Creator Tools of the Trade

3D character design is an integral process of game development. Creating even a single three-dimensional model may require a team of specialists, specific software, and hours of work. All because you must follow the procedure from early sketches drawing to animation step by step without skipping a thing. When you need multiple personages to be done, then various animated character creators tools are a must. Today our lead artists from the 3D design department of Argentics take on the topic of 3D character creation in detail.

Where are 3D character models used the most?

Three-dimensional models are popular for their flexibility and realistic looks. Take any modern 3D animated character creator, and you will be able to achieve any level of detail – from simple raw sketches to insane photorealism. We all know that not only video games and movies use 3D animated characters. Modern media is no stranger to using CGI as well. Let's dive deeper.

Games

3D character creation is one of the main gamedev pillars – just because every game needs at least a protagonist. Some titles offer you to play vs. environment or non-personalized opponents (for example, cars in racing projects). But in the majority of games, you face enemies that are 3D NPC (non-playable characters).


In 1992, id Software created Wolfenstein 3D, the first 3D-action/shooter. The next year the same team brought to the world another legendary game – Doom. These titles laid the foundation of the shooter genre. Since that time, the mechanics and graphics have evolved immensely, and the industry has given us countless loveable characters – Master Chief, Nathan Drake, Lara Croft, you name it!


Cinematography

Today practically all movies use the "green screen" technology that allows filmmakers to draw things and effects in post-production. With an advanced 3D animated character creator software it is even possible to add non-existing characters to scenes or draw digital crowds for background. Complex models must be animated manually with the help of certain software. An alternative way is to use the motion capture technique that records all movements and emotions of the actor chosen as a prototype for the character.


3D animation makers are also the go-to option for making CGI cartoons like Into the Spiderverse. Their arsenal of tools simplifies manipulations with 3D characters allowing more flexibility. This comes in handy in graphics-heavy films like Transformers or Pacific Rim. 3D models in those films require tons of computing power to simulate and render gigantic robots fighting each other in a real-world environment.


Advertisement

Marketers will do anything to sell the product. These guys always have equally brave and insane ideas for ad campaigns. Using 3D characters for promotion is not the newest trend, of course, but it is still fairly popular. Commercials with recognizable 3D mascots look cooler and draw consumers' attention. Many established brands implement CGI in their ads. For example, M&M's have created a memorable video for their 75th anniversary that showed the evolution of the brand and its main ambassadors.

The process of 3D character creation


The most typical choices for three-dimensional characters are humans, robots, aliens, and various forms of extraterrestrial life. In some cases, even inanimate objects like electronic devices or furniture pieces can be characters. However, before animators bring them to life, they must be imagined, drawn, and turned into computer models. The whole process consists of five stages.

Stage 1: Concept

Every creation starts with an idea. That idea must be presented in the concept form. The quality of concept sketches is not a thing to worry about. First sketches for 3D characters are just approximate visualization that will save you time and energy, serving as a primary reference. Even quick raw concept arts provide enough information about the looks of the future personage.

Stage 2: Modeling

Now you are going to need a model for your character. Usually, the developers choose to do this with polygons and NURBS (however, polygonal modeling is more common). The number of polygons in a model defines the quality and clarity of 3D character visualization. More polygons make the modelers' job harder and render time longer. That is why some projects go with low-poly models, while others have time and budgets for high-poly assets.

Stage 3: Texturing

At this stage, modelers need to choose colors and sources for a model. To be able to create a 3D character, you will also need a UV-mapping (texture map). Basically, it is a 2D image with a texture that covers the surface of the 3D model. This mapping is necessary for perfect and error-free texture mapping on the model. When it is done, artists need to draw the texture and refine it in accordance with the 3D character model. This involves the preparation of a full set of textures with:
  • Bump mapping;
  • Displacement mapping;
  • Alpha mapping;
  • Normal maps;
  • Specular maps;
  • Color palettes.

Stage 4: Rigging

Virtual objects can be represented in two ways: visual (grid/skin) and mechanical (as a hierarchical collection of interconnected bones or simply "the rig"). The latter is used to work with animation (keyframes and poses). Basically, it is like creating a skeleton the model will be using to move. Otherwise, it won’t be able to deform accordingly to actions and movement.

Stage 5: Animation

At this final step, the main goal is to make the movements and actions of the character look as smooth and believable as possible. If your 3D character interacts or shares scenes with real actors in a movie, for example, there is no room for error because all imperfections will be clearly seen on a big screen.

This is where the keyframes animation technique comes into play. The designer sets the character's position in the first and the last frame of the action sequence, and the rest is done by a 3D animation maker. It sounds rather easy, but when you need to recreate complex movements, it gets intense.

Notable 3D animated character creator tools

Now let's talk about software that helps designers do lots of the hard work without forcing them to learn complex modeling techniques. Some of the following tools can be used by beginner animators as they have a rather gentle learning curve.

Make Human
The main benefit of Make Human is its free, open-source nature. Despite this fact, MK is a solid solution for creating photorealistic 3D personages. Any human-like model in this program can be created and adjusted through a multitude of controls. Designers can easily bend and curve body attributes to form new unique characters out of basic models. The controls and UI are mostly intuitive, providing you with a simple way to build new heroes with all kinds of possible (and impossible) human forms.

Blender
Another free and open-source solution. The popular choice is not only for designers but also for video makers who need a reliable program for making VFX, video editing, rendering, etc. As a 3D animation maker or character creator, however, Blender is not the most comprehensive solution. Nevertheless, it still has enough unique options and cool features to satisfy animators. For example, you can import a photo with a human, and the program will create a 3D character out of it after a quick scan. Models created in Blender can be easily adjusted in weight, height, and other physical features.

DAZ Studio
Completely free software for 3D character modeling. It will be suitable for pros and beginners alike. Inside the package, you will find an arsenal of tools that will let you create any 3D character your mind might come up with. DAZ has a neat feature for quick gender-swapping (changes between female and male models). Expect complete freedom when tinkering with other parameters as well. Add clothes and accessories, change hair color, physical attributes to build original characters worthy AAA game projects.

ZBrush
ZBrush is another fantastic 3D character maker with a variety of awesome features. Originally its main focus was sculpting and painting, but the latest versions offer features for 3D character animation (store camera positions, animate poses, etc.). The program is a good choice for modeling and texturing as well with its advanced pixel technology. Unfortunately, unlike other software on the list, ZBrush is not available for free and requires a subscription ($39.95/month). A free trial is available, though.

Maya 3D
Maya is one of the most used programs in the industry for creating special effects, animations, and 3D characters. This super flexible tool can be adjusted to your particular needs on the fly. Although the software is demanding on the technical side, the result is totally worth it. Many famous 3D characters like Shrek, Stuart Little, or Gollum were created with Maya. This should be enough to realize what kind of animation quality is achievable with this amazing instrument
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