Character Building Tips & Tricks

CGMA instructor Pete Zoppi discusses the art of digital character construction for film, animation and video games.

The Character Artist’s role is rightly regarded as one of the most technically and artistically challenging in the 3D arena. In part, this can be attributed to the increasing demand for incredibly detailed, often-near photoreal models – even when creating assets for video games. But in some ways, it’s also intrinsic to the subject matter. Whenever artists focus on characters – be they human, animal or something ‘other’ – their work is subjected to a special kind of scrutiny. Digital humans must successfully hold a mirror up to our own selves, or else be dismissed as unconvincing. Similarly, CG creatures real or imagined must echo what we see in the real world in order to be believable and effective on a primal, emotional level.

Here Pete Zoppi – CGMA instructor for CGMA’s Character Casting and Character Creation for Films/Cinematics courses and a senior character artist with a wealth of film and video game industry experience – offers some insight into character creation and model optimisation.

When it comes to character design, how important is it to consider context, in terms of the narrative itself, the character’s role, and their physical placement in the story?

The design ties directly into the context of the story and the environments that the characters will occupy. For example, in a modern, gritty and grounded world you would strive to design your characters using things that people can relate to. This means current tech, current fashions and so on. You can still push into designing things that people have never seen but the foundation should always be based in reality. Obviously, if designing for a sleek, future sci-fi story then it’s more acceptable to ‘stretch’ the designs. Keep in mind that the character design should give the viewer or (in the case of video games) the player some information about them and where they’ve been, even without knowing any of that particular character’s backstory.

How do you approach the sculpting and modeling process, in terms of determining which techniques to employ when building up detail?

Adding detail, for me, comes down to where and what the model is used for. For example, when doing a film or cinematic character many of the medium-sized details would need to be modeled into the mesh. This could mean panel cut lines, insets for rivets or bolts etc. If this same model was being used as a source mesh to bake into a game mesh, many of these details could be done in a texture painting application or by using floating geometry.  

Game rendering obviously brings with it an additional set of considerations, in terms of the need to consider the graphical processing limitations of the various platforms. Are there any hard and fast rules for optimising character models for real-time rendering?

Character optimization for game engines is a complicated task. There are many ways to approach it and a lot of the optimization is tied to not only the game engine but the style of game. When it comes to fast-paced shooters, the framerate is extremely important for ensuring a smooth and satisfying playing experience, for example, and so these games will often require much more optimized assets. On the flip side, slower paced, story-driven games can often afford higher poly counts per character. One thing I like to do is bias my poly count towards the important parts of the character. It’s especially important to note that players most often interact with and see other in-game characters from the waist up. Keeping this in mind, I can dedicate more of my poly count to the torso and head and reduce some of the geometry in the lower body, worrying less about details in the shoes, for example.

Peter Zoppi, Senior Character Artist at Treyarch

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