The evolution of a character model

As I follow the steps in Blender Production, (see this blog entry for details), one of the things I’ve discovered that the author didn’t discuss is how evolving skills with blender impact the animation work flow. The character I’m developing for my little animation has evolved from a simple stick man to a full human model with a complete rigging, but it has been a several week diversion and required redoing my master reel.

My first idea was to animate a literal stick man.  It would have a body, arms, and legs that were simple cylinders. There would be no arms or feet. The head would be a featureless sphere.  Easy to model, trivial to animate.  I soon realized that I wanted arms and feet, and that the body should have a different cross section than the limbs.  I came up with a design that was still trivial to model.

Rough stick man figure

My first attempt at modeling a character. The idea was to have a very abstract character in a very realistic environment

The awful colors were not meant to be used in the final animation. They were simply to make it easy to distinguish the bits. It took a whole ten minutes to model.  Most of the time was spent getting the proportions I wanted.  It worked fine for the story reel, but there was no way it would work in the finished animation.  I thought I could get away with simply modifying it a bit to fix the proportions.  This result was also disappointing.

Stick man evolves

Some size and shape tweeking and horrible cone feet and hands are not enough.

The tweeked version looked good enough to use for rough animation.  I redid the storyboards and story reel using it. I realized I had no idea how to build the rig of controls that would allow me to animate it.  This led to my first diversion, Blender’s Armatures: A Crash Course, which is a brief but dense introduction to blender’s armature, the main tool for controlling characters in animation.

Having completed the tutorial, and armed with a little knowledge, I made a simple rig of 14 bones. This took me nearly two days, as I learned by doing the things I hadn’t really understood from the tutorial. In the end I had a simple, difficult to use rig for my character. I spent a couple of weeks using it to make a master reel, with the character posed for each of the key frames.

While I was doing all of this, I was also trying to learn character animation from tradigital Blender. I got as far as the example of creating a walk and was overwhelmed by the amount of control a believable character would need. It became clear that my simple rig would not serve.  I found another excellent tutorial, DVD training 8: Humane Rigging. Unlike previous tutorials, it consists of more than one video.  There are, in fact, 35 videos, a DVD’s worth, which explains the “DVD training” in the title.

If you want to learn how to rig characters in blender, I highly recommend this tutorial.  It goes through five different characters and rigs them. Each character is briefly introduced and its animation requirements are discussed. A series of videos introduce a particular rig designed to solve a specific problem. The problem is described, alternatives are presented and discussed, and the rig is put together step by step to show how it is done. One or more videos are then spent on putting the  various rigs together into a single rig.

I learned a great deal from the video and feel it was time well spent. The downside was that I spent two weeks watching the tutorials and playing along at home, building each rig in Blender.

Between reading tradigital Blender, watching the two tutorials, and setting up the first attempt at a master reel, it became clear that rigging was going to be difficult and time consuming and that I needed a more realistic character. An abstract character simply wasn’t going to work. I started another digression, starting to follow a tutorial on how to model characters for animation.

Then I was reminded of makehuman, an open source tool designed to, well, make humans.  With makehuman, you can create a usable human mesh in very little time. Makehuman has a very shallow learning curve, at least to reach the point where you can export a usable character for blender to import.  I also encountered rigify, a blender add on that makes character rigging easy. I spent an hour stumbling around with makehuman and blender, finally reaching my current character. It was generated in makehuman and imported into blender.  The import allows selecting between the rigging that makehuman generated, or a rigify rig. I don’t see anything wrong with the makehuman rig, but am trying the rigify rig to see how well it will work.

Current stick man figure

A makehuman character, slightly tweeked from the default, with “clothing” being nothing more than colors

It took another hour of fumbling around to replace my abomination with this character and generate a new master template file. In the new master file, the character is posed in each of the keyframe positions, but the poses are not very good.  But it’s good enough to use as a starting point.

In total, I was diverted from my animation project for six weeks.  I will need some of the things I learned, so it wasn’t time wasted. I may never rig anything from scratch, but the tutorial taught me a good deal I didn’t know about how the controls of a good rig are implemented and how they work.  That will help a lot when I use rigify to animate the makehuman character.

Had I remembered makehuman, even without being aware of rigify, I could have generated a usable humanoid character, even with fumbling around learning how to export an import, in less than an hour. This would have saved me significant time, but I wouldn’t understand rigging as well as I do now.  I consider the knowledge a fair trade for the time.