Character Creation Module 03

Design Decisions

Module 03 is upon us!!

This week we will be exploring several aspects of design as you continue to flesh our your character. Over the past several years, I’ve seen many changes in the industry revolving around how roles and responsibilities are defined. I’ve seen many trends that decrease the value of a standard production artist and a flood of new professionals trying to break into the industry on all fronts. Technical know-how can easily be taught, and frankly, should be a given if you are graduating from any respectable program, or even just extremely dedicated to training yourself. Several years ago I came to the realization that it’s your artistic ability, not technical know-how, that can set you apart from the hoards of others who are competing for the same few jobs that exist in this industry. With that in mind, we delve into the greater world of design. Remember your unique artistic style is the one thing that can never be out-sourced or phased out of a production.

The smaller is to the greater as the greater is to the whole
This philosophy is one of the pillars of design. Essentially, it means that all components of a design should relate to one another. This is a common occurrence in nature as illustrated in the images below.

Notice how the veins of the leaf mirror the forms of the branch. If we were to pull out even further, you would see how the forms of the branch relate back to the overall structure of the tree. There are many variations to this rule but understanding this fundamental example is a great starting point for improving you own designs. This same thought can be applied to your character. How does the design of the head relate to the torso? How do the toes relate to the feet and the feet to the legs? Without fail, understanding the answers to these questions can help improve your character. Look at all the parts of your character and see how they relate.

Try this exercise- Look through all the designs of your fellow students in this class. Take the heads off of all the characters and see if by design alone you would be able to re-attach them to the appropriate body.

This classic toy, Mighty Men and Monster Maker, taught me one of my first lessons in character design. Just because you can mix and match any kind of head, with any kind of torso, and any set of legs, doesn’t mean you should! All the elements of your design must relate to one another.


The same exercise can be done with all the accessories. On a larger scale, the next time you are watching a film, see if you can truly define the underlying design style and determine how well defined that underlying style is. If you took any character out of “Star Wars”, and put it in “Star Trek”, you would be able to see that it looked out of place. If you were defining a new space epic, think of how your design decisions and visual style would set it apart from any other property.

Video: Characters With Unified Design

  • Big fish (Sando Aqua Monster) from Episode 1
  • Opee Sea Killer
  • Cave Troll

Form Follows Function
This one is fairly straight forward, but often forgotten. Take a look at the two distinct examples below.

The fins of a Lion fish serve several functions. The most obvious is to help the fish maneuver through the water. A less obvious function is defense. The dorsal (top) fins are actually hollow, ridged tubes that contain a very painful poison. The contrast of the brown and white strips also serves a function but I’ll let you determine what that could be. I think it’s safe to say that the “design” of this fish is quite stunning and beautiful, but the important thing to remember is that it’s also there for a reason. Moving on to a drastically different example, we can examine the form development of this Willy’s Jeep. A few obvious notes are the high ground clearance to overcome various terrain obstacles and a low overall height to help avoid gunfire. Some less obvious design choices include flat front fenders and hood for laying out maps, and headlights that rotate 180 degrees to light the engine compartment for nighttime field repair.

The overall thought is to think about the forms you are developing for your design, and understand why they are there.

Avoid ambiguity
Simply stated, when you don’t know why you are making design decisions, you don’t know when you are making the wrong design decisions. Ambiguous decisions lead to ambiguous designs. In our field there is nothing more forgettable than an ambiguous design………. or portfolio.

Over-Designed Characters, “Did someone say video games?”
A very common problem in character design is not knowing when to balance areas of high detail with areas of less detail. Areas of less detail allow your eye to rest and actually gives more importance to your high detail areas. Tools like ZBrush make adding detail incredibly easy and fun, you just need to make sure you don’t overdo it.

Video: Areas of Interest

  • Transformers
  • Princess Amidala
  • Video Games
  • Edward Scissor Hands

Scale and Model Orientation
When referring to a design choice, this can be a fairly straight forward concept. The one note I would add is to be be aware of scale relationships with other characters in the same world. I’ve run into situations before where a script called for sixteen foot tall characters to interact with six foot tall humans. This puts the eye line of the human directly at the crotch of the sixteen foot tall character. If that’s the kind of story you want to tell, then that’s cool- I don’t judge – but if not, then changing the scale of your larger character is a discussion you might want to have with your director.

The other point worth discussing is the scale of the models relative to the production environment they will end up in. Whenever possible I would suggest modeling your characters as close as possible to the final scale they are intended to be. Simply put, if your character is supposed to be six feet tall, make him six feet tall from the beginning.

Video: Units, Scale, and Mesh Orientation (Beginner Foundation)

  • Settings/Preferences/Settings- set unit scale (Studios use different units of measure)
  • Proper mesh orientation
  • Scale is relative in ZBrush

*Studios use different units of measure. It is common to use 1 centimeter= 1 foot, or 1 inch. You NEED to know what scale is being used before you deliver your model to any other department and it is good practice to setup your design sculpt in the proper scale from the very beginning.

Exploding meshes
When importing and exporting to a poly modeling package from ZBrush, your mesh might explode. This will happen if the point order changes and is fairly straight forward to avoid. With GoZ this is a much less common problem.


Video: Point Order and Importing/Exporting (Beginner Foundation)

  • ZBrush sculpts vertices
  • Point order display
  • Each poly modeling package will order the points differently when dividing the mesh
  • When importing an obj into Maya uncheck the “create multiple objects” box in the obj import window
  • GoZ


Composing Pictures by Donald W. Graham
Weapon: A visual history of arms and armor, by DK books (This is a great visual reference with thousands great images of weapons and armor. It might be a good reference for those of you who are beginning to chose and define accessories.)

Assignment: Refine your design decisions and continue sculpting. Make sure your model is in proper scale and practice taking your mesh from a poly modeling package into Zbrush and back. Revisit your design decisions and clarify your choices based on the design topics we’ve discussed above. I’ll be checking the forum this week to provide more specific feedback which I will be adding to this post.




Video: The Block-In Mesh, After the Basics

  • Represent everything that influences your design
  • Proportions and the overall relationship to your character
  • Block-in all your layers of clothing
  • Refine equally throughout


Remember, this video is for your eyes ONLY. Please do NOT share it with anyone as it contains designs for a production that is not yet released.