3D Character Creation: Morphs Pt 1

I wrote a couple of books a few years ago: Cartoon Character Creation – Volumes 1 & 2.
I always planned to post some excerpts here, but never got around to it. Last year, working on Chuggington with the fantastic animators at Motion Magic in China, I realized that while I have changed some of the ways I work since writing the books, the core information and methodologies remain the same, and is still very useful information that many animators aren’t aware of.

Since Chuggington is animated using Maya, and those animators were benefiting from this knowledge, it further impressed upon me how universal the information is. I was always disappointed that the books were tied to LightWave 3D 8 since so much of the information applied to 3D characters and animation in general, regardless of which software was being used. I guess this is also my chance to share that information with a wider audience.

I’m going to jump straight to one of my favorite sections of the books, and one of the most valuable ones, Morphs for Facial Animation.

Note: In LightWave, morph targets are called ‘Endomorphs’, in Maya they’re called ‘Blend Shapes’ and in Blender they’re known as ‘Shape keys’. For simplicity here I’ll just refer to them as ‘Morphs’.



Morphs for Facial Animation

Morphs are the ideal way to create facial expressions for cartoon characters. While using morphs is not the only way to create facial animation, it is the easiest method for both creating and animating facial expressions. You have more flexibility using morphs than other techniques, such as using bones, as you have full control over the position of every point in the model for each morph.

LightWave’s implementation of morphs, called endomorphs, is useful in that it records new point positions for each point included in the morph in a vertex map. This means that all your morphs are held within the model itself instead of having a different model file for each morph as with Maya. Other benefits of endomorphs are that you can adjust point positions in the base model at any time and have those changes automatically propagate through the morphs. You can add or remove geometry and the morphs update appropriately, and you can create multiple characters from a single base character without having to create new morphs for each one, as they just inherit the morphs from the base character (although they will likely need some adjustments).

The drawback to morphs is that they are linear. This means that the points move from A to B in a straight line. While it’s rarely noticeable when the morphs are mixed together and moving fluidly, it can be noticed in certain situations. The eyelids are one of the most common areas you might notice this, which is why for some characters it’s useful to use bones instead of morphs, or a combination of the two, for some things (later in the book I explain some ways to overcome the linear aspect of morphs when it becomes a problem).

The most important resource for creating facial expressions is a mirror. Make sure you have one next to you at all times when creating the morphs. When you start to create a new morph, make the same expression while looking in the mirror to see what your face looks like and how it changes when you move back and forth from a neutral expression to the required expression. By doing this you have a much better idea of what you need to change in your model to create the same expression. Make sure you check your own face fairly regularly during the creation of the morph to make sure you haven’t forgotten anything.

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Finally… Some New Cakes

It’s been a while between posts, and even longer between cakes. Since my last post my family and I spent 6 months in China, and all sorts of other fun stuff has been happening.

I’ve been so busy I haven’t even had a chance to make many cakes, only 2 since making Elmo and Rani a couple of years ago. In December 2009 I made a Captain Mack cake, and December 2010 just after getting back home from China I made this Ariel cake from The Little Mermaid.

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Evil Clown

To celebrate Halloween, I thought I’d show you a little anim I created this time last year.

A few people have asked where my Facebook photo (above) is from, and this is it. The clown was created (modified from an existing character I had made) and this animation completed in 2 days as a quick test. The audio is from a sample video from Hollow3D.

Check it out after the jump (hehe I’ve always wanted to say that…).

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OLIV3R from Top Gear

I just came across this sketch I drew last year, and thought I’d post it. I had been working on some car designs for a show I’m creating when I watched the Top Gear Botswana special. In the show, Richard Hammond bought a 1964 Opel Kadett which he ended up naming Oliver (I also had a kitten named Oliver so the name is kinda special to me too). The character that Hammond created for the car set my imagination going and I created this little design:

Edit: I just realized not everyone will know what the original Oliver looks like so here’s a couple of pics. Oliver in Botswana (driven by the Stig) and the restored Oliver with Richard Hammond.

If you haven’t already seen it, you can catch the Top Gear Botswana special on the season 10 DVD…

I first wrote this article in 2001 as a partner to How to Determine an Hourly Rate. Since then it’s been published in books, magazines, and numerous times on the web. Since most of the sites it was published on have long since vanished I thought I’d post it here.

Download the Excel file used in this article.


Part 1 – Why Schedule?

One of the most important things about being in business is proper scheduling. Whether you’re working for yourself or part of a team, knowing how long things take, and when tasks will be complete are vital to a productive environment.

One question I hear asked quite often is how long a particlular task should take. The answer is quite simply just 5 minutes a day. The question can sometimes be valid if the task is something that the person hasn’t done before. The trouble is that everyone works at a different pace, and everyone has differing opinions about how long a task might take.

By following the tips in this article, in a very short time you will be able to estimate much more accurately how long a particular task will take you. This will benefit in quoting for jobs, organising your workflow, and enhance productivity.

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I first wrote this article in 2001. Since then it’s been published in books, magazines, and numerous times on the web. Since most of the sites it was published on have long since vanished I thought I’d post it here, as it seems that it’s more relevant now than ever.


Step 1 – Preparation

So you’d like to be your own boss, or maybe you are picking up some contract jobs while looking for full-time work. Either way one of the most difficult things can be knowing how much to quote a client.

Many of your contemporaries are hesitant to advertise their rates, in case they are undercut in a bid, and potential clients would undermine their ability to negotiate if they were to advertise what they are prepared to pay. So how do you find that magic figure that is low enough to get work, but not so low that you can’t pay the rent? High enough to compensate your time appropriately, but not so high that you price yourself out of the bid?

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How I Made an Elmo Cake… Part 4

Here we are at the final installment, part 4 of the making of Elmo. Wow, I certainly didn’t intend for it to be anywhere near this long when I started. In Part 1 I talked about planning the cake, making the stand and making the icing. Part 2 covered making and carving the cakes. In Part 3, rice crispies were made and molded into arms, legs, eyes and nose, and blocks and toys were created.

Since last time, the carved cake and rice crispies arms and legs have been in the freezer, firming up the rice crispies. The eyes, nose and blocks have been covered with fondant and overnight you’ll notice they’ve hardened quite a bit since making them, hard enough that you can easily handle them without fear of putting dents in them. If you’ve made them a few days in advance, by the time you get to this stage they’ll be very firm. Finally the cake is almost ready for the final coat of icing, the fur, but first we need to make the smash cake.


Smash Cake

You can really do anything with this cake that you like, decorate it however you want. I based mine on a cute cake I’d seen online, but running out of time, I rushed it. I would have liked to put a bit more time into it. I also had special requirements for this smash cake, as the birthday boy has lots of food allergies. The cake was gluten free, and the butter cream icing was made from special margarine. The fondant was designed so it could be easily pulled off before serving. All these considerations went into the design of the cake, but you can do whatever takes your fancy. It’s quite fun making a mini cake like this.

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Where’s the Animation?!?

You may be wondering what all this talk of cakes is all about, and why is it on a site primarily about animation? And to be honest you’d be right to ask…

Let me start by saying my blog will continue to be a place where I answer peoples questions, whatever those questions are about. Lately I’ve been asked quite a few questions about making cakes, and so that’s what I’ve been posting about. This blog, as well as me posting what I’m interested in at the time, will also be somewhat reactionary, allowing me to respond to pretty much anything people tell me they’re interested in, if I have something to say about it.

I’m not really at liberty to discuss or show much of the animation work I’m doing just at the moment, but that will soon change. So if you’re waiting for more of that sort of thing then please be patient. It won’t be too long now.

Speaking of which, you may have noticed I’ve taken down the Charley Bear pages temporarily. Don’t worry, we’re just doing some re-tooling, a few adjustments, before re-announcing it to the world. There is a lot happening for Charley at the moment, and all will be revealed very soon.

Soon I will be releasing some video and written LightWave 3D training to bridge the gap between what was and what is now. LightWave has recently had some additions that are definitely worth talking about.

I’ve also recently revisited X-Men: ROA, and have some cool stuff to share. But I’ll leave that for another entry.

So let me finish by saying, thanks for your interest, and please let me know at any time if there’s something you particularly want to know, or topics you’re especially interested in. I’m happy to talk about what you want me to talk about.


How I Made an Elmo Cake… Part 3

Welcome to part 3 of the making of my nephew’s Elmo cake. In Part 1 I talked about planning the cake, making the stand and making the icing. In Part 2 I talked about making and carving the cakes. In this installment I’ll cover making and molding the rice crispy arms, legs, eyes and nose, and creating the blocks. The final one will cover piping the fur and finishing touches.

We left off last time with the carved cakes in the freezer. I usually put aside whole day for carving the cake, adding rice crispies, and preparing it for final icing, so I’ll carve the cake in the morning and do the rice crispies in the afternoon. Having the cake in the freezer while you make the rice crispies should be long enough to firm up any parts that have started to thaw. Otherwise you can leave the carved cake in the freezer until the next day, or pretty much for as long as you need.


Rice Crispies

Rice Crispies Recipe

I’ve adjusted the recipe for Aussie measurements, and for the 250g bags of marshmallows available here.

Melt 1-2 tablespoons of butter in a large bowl. Add 250g of marshmallows and toss to coat. Microwave for 45 secs, stir and microwave another 45 secs and stir. Microwave another 10-15 secs if necessary to fully melt the marshmallows.

Add 5 cups of rice bubbles and stir until mixed well. Leave to cool for 5-10 minutes before using.

Note: The hotter the marshmallows the harder the rice crispies will be, so if in doubt, it’s better to microwave a bit longer than necessary.

I made the arms and legs from rice crispies. You don’t necessarily need to use rice crispies for the arms and legs, but I’ll talk more about that later. The eyes and nose are also rice crispies covered with fondant. These really are best made with rice crispies. You could also make some or all of the blocks and toys from rice crispies instead of cake. Certainly if you want to make a ball toy, that would be easier with rice crispies than cake. But before I get too ahead of myself, let’s talk about what rice crispies are, and why you would want to put them in a cake?

Rice crispies are a combination of rice bubbles, or some other kind of puffed rice, and melted marshmallows. They’re often used in 3d cakes like this one, for a number of reasons. Rice crispies are light, much lighter than cake. I was quite surprised at first just how heavy some of these cakes end up when you’re talking about feeding 40 people or more. If you want a cake structure that is larger than the amount of cake you need then it’s useful to use rice crispies for some parts just so you can more easily carry it. Also when you’re making tall cakes, or cakes that are top heavy, rice crispies can be used for the top parts so you don’t need such strong support.

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How I Made an Elmo Cake… Part 2

In How I Made an Elmo Cake… Part 1 I talked about planning the cake, making the stand and making the icing. In this installment I’ll cover making and carving the cakes. Following that will be making and molding the rice crispy arms, legs, eyes and nose, creating the blocks and piping the fur.


Making The Cakes

As I mentioned last time, when planning the cake I set the size by using existing tins for the body, a pudding tin and a small pyrex bowl. These work well together as the rim of the bowl is the same diameter as the pudding tin. I used the same combination for the head of Serenity’s Dorothy the Dinosaur cake. Going from there it was just a matter of seeing what tin sizes would best fit the head.

As you can see from the plan above, I ended up using a pudding tin, 1/3 of a pudding tin (cut into a wedge), and a pyrex bowl for the body. I used two 20cm cake tins for the head with 1/3 of a pudding tin on top and below. I used two 9cm (3 1/2″) cakes for the smash cake. So I would need:

  • 2 x 20cm cakes
  • 2 x 15cm (7.5cm or 3″ deep) cakes – pudding tin
  • 1 x pyrex bowl
  • 2 x 9cm cakes

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