9 tips and tricks for 3D Character Design

9 tips and tricks for 3D Character Design

9 tips and tricks for 3D Character Design

9 tips and tricks

About this article

We recently created a 3D animation for Circle Health, you can read the full case study HERE. We were tasked with creating 3x 3D characters to represent Circle’s staff for a recruitment campaign.

The characters came out nice so we thought this would make an excellent and bang up to date (2022) article looking at how we actually make our characters at Bigman.


Make a good plan

The first thing to do for good character design is to figure out who our characters are. In this case we decided that fun, dynamic and energetic were the traits we wanted our characters to embody. They had to be funky and built to dance!


BE your audience

Celebrate the differences
Humans are incredibly diverse, with many different languages, cultures, nationalities, ethnicities, sexualities, genders, ages, abilities, body shapes etc.

Modern brands need to reflect the diversity of their customers, of course this is a moral imperative, but it also makes great business sense as you don’t want to alienate certain demographics of your audience.

Inclusive character design
As character designers, we often abstract certain character elements/traits so as to make our characters more suitable for everyone, we kicked off the design process by ignoring any details, and just exploring some quite crazy body proportions to see what we liked.

Throw EVERYTHING at the wall… see what sticks

We took a few of our favourite body shapes we had been playing with and started to work into them with some details specific to our healthcare client’s needs.


Skin tones
In a world of many skin colours, if we want to be inclusive we find it is often better to choose tones that are more fantastical and abstract, rather than realistic ones, as then anyone no matter what their skin colour can identify with the characters.

We wanted funky characters so we had to go quite wild, but there were also practical limits we were up against – our characters needed to dance and some of the more crazy proportions would have made things really difficult to work with. In the end we chose a moderately crazy base proportion to work with, the idea was that our 3x characters would all be stylised with roughly the same proportions, but with variations layered on top of that.

Face abstraction
Keeping in mind the ‘less is more’ ethos of good design, we tried to do as much as possible with the bare minimum of facial elements, we wanted them to be bold and iconic, especially as they wouldn’t be seen in close ups and would be moving fast throughout the scenes.

Know WHY you chose your colours

Rationalise it!
Well, if you are a natural colour genius maybe you can just pick cool colours and be done with it, but in our experience, it usually takes some degree of planning to make sure we have colours that are going to work across all the contexts we know we are going to have to put our colours in.

No scrubs…
Hmm…OK actually the scrubs were a pre-requisite for this animation because of the hospital context, so we thought we would base our entire character gang’s colour scheme around the teal scrubs colour.

Wheely cool
We went with an analogous colour scheme which is the fancy word for taking colours next to each other on the colour wheel, with teal in the centre. Each character got one region of the colour wheel, from there we just toned the colours lighter or darker, or played with the saturation to give us a nice solid framework with plenty of room for creativity still.

Apply CONSISTENT rules

High crotches
In the end, the body style we liked had a very high crotch line that disappeared underneath their tops. We hoped this would give us a very leggy look which would look cool when dancing, especially when combined with a low fish eye camera.

Skin tones
We settled for abstract tones that would be non-specific to any racial groups, we kept them a quite de-saturated so they would work nicely with any crazy costumes they might wear in the final animation.

Working as a set
We played more with variations in hair, body type and accessories so we felt like we had 3x characters that would complement each other as a set.

Draw as 3D as possible

Side views
Once we got sign-off on the characters from all stakeholders, we had to get them ready for 3D modelling. It is super important to make sure that the front and side views actually line up properly because 3D modellers hate it when the concepts are impossible to make in 3D, like an M.C. Escher illustration!

Proxy models first?
Sometimes it actually helps to do some really simple 3D models, take screenshots from a few angles and then draw over them, this is quite a common concept art trick, basic 3D modelling is easier than you might think.

We drew each character out as outlines in the classic T-pose so that the resulting models would be as easy as possible to ‘rig’ (see below)

Work the (WEIRD) angles

Go beyond the original concept
When directing a 3D model, we need to make sure we get across the essence of the 2D concept art, but it’s also important to know the limitations of the concept and when we just need to wing it in 3D to move it forwards into its final form, often we can find ways to improve upon the concept in subtle ways.

Look at my bottom!
We’ve found with experience that weird camera angles like the bottom view are amazing for picking up on bad/ugly forms and making sure we fix them up. These have subtle but important benefits when we see the model from the usual front/hero camera perspectives and of course the characters will be spinning like crazy so we needed to double check we made them look good from all angles.

Look at my quads!
We want our characters to be as bendy as possible, so we make sure we have the flow of lines as smooth as possible, we want our polygons to be quads (4 sided) as much as possible rather than triangles or pentagons that can pinch in ugly ways when we deform the character in animation.

Push the rig to the limit BEFORE you animate

Work it!
The last phase before animation is rigging, i.e. putting the bones in the character so it can be put in any pose we need.

We like to put our characters through a bit of a fitness routine before we sign off the rigging as done, this way we can spot any problem areas before the animators get hold of it and start sending out bug reports!

Shake that!
Because we were making a dance video, we had to be extra careful to put in some quite extreme poses into our rig testing videos as we knew from the storyboard we would be really putting them through their paces.

ITERATE your process

Post mortem
It’s important for us as a studio to grow with each project so we always do a post-mortem at the end to reflect, and looking back, I think we could have perhaps pushed the inclusive design principles harder. I really wish we’d have included a character in a wheelchair, not only would this have given representation to another community that is still so largely under represented in the media,  but also would have pushed our creativity even further by incorporating a character with assisted mobility into some fun dance sequences.

Watch the Final Video

If you want to watch the final video, and find out about the behind the scenes work we did on the choreography and lighting design, check out the full case study we wrote about this…

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