Peopling the Scene

Finished head
Parts is parts: A basic head mesh for a human figure.

Finally, the part I’ve long waited for (but with more than a little apprehension): Adding human figures to the Erie Canal scene. The setting is rural upstate New York, and the time is early morning, so we won’t need many. But the view would seem lifeless without a few human inhabitants.

I have little experience in creating human figures, but it is a skill that I’ve long wanted to learn. Now would be a good time.

And the first lesson: This is a complex, labor-intensive process. I tip my hat to all the modelers, riggers, and animators who work hard every day to bring 3D film characters to life. My plans are more modest (for one thing, they don’t involve animation). I simply want to make a collection of quality human figures that can be posed and used in the lift bridge scene and other scenes later on.

Of course, 3D human models of varying degrees of quality are available – for free or for sale – from many online sources. But what’s the fun in that? I much prefer working with assets that I create myself.

My process using involves four applications: Silo for creating the mesh, Maya for rigging and posing, Mudbox for sculpting and shading, and Terragen for rendering.

Here we go.

Beginning the head
A box, subdivided and cut in half vertically, will eventually become a human head.

As with most things, we begin with a box to create a model of a man’s head.

Subdividing the head
The head is subdivided and begins to take shape.

The subdivided box is shaped and cut to rough in the skull, chin and positions for the ear and eyes.

Head detail
Details begin to emerge.

More edges are added and details – nose, lips, eyes – begin to take shape. Edges are routed to follow the natural contours of the face.

Finished head
The base head model, subdivided and smoothed.

Several iterations later, we have a man’s head.

Hand model
Hand model based on photos of my own hand.

Other body parts are also modeled separately. These can be adapted and reused as needed.

Foot model
Believe it or not, this is one of the most difficult body parts to model convincingly.

The torso, arms and legs are modeled, and then all of the pieces are put together.

Attaching the hands
Head and hands are attached to the main mesh.

Now we have a basic mesh that can also serve as a base for additional models later.

Finished base mesh
Finished base mesh of a basic male figure.

In Maya, the mesh is UV mapped and hair and eyebrows are added. A skeleton is built and bound to the mesh, and a control rig allows it to be moved into different poses like a puppet.

Rigged mesh
In Maya, the mesh is rigged so that it can be moved into different poses.

Binding the mesh to the skeleton is by far the most difficult step. Maya calculates the initial bind but it then must be fine tuned by hand – a time-consuming process that requires some practice and a lot of patience. But it’s the only way to make sure the character will move naturally.

Posed figure
The clothed and posed figure.

Clothing is added in Maya and the figure is posed. Folds and wrinkles in the clothing are added in Mudbox.

Skin and face details are painted in Mudbox.

The displacement and painting tools in Mudbox are used to add details to the face and hands.

Shaded hand
Shaded hand in Mudbox.

And fabric textures are sampled to shade the clothing.

Shaded figure
Shaded figure in Mudbox.

Finally, the figure is imported into Terragen for shading adjustments and a test rendering.

Finished figure
The finished figure, rendered in Terragen.

All of the people in the canal scene will be positioned some distance from the camera, so there is more detail here than necessary. But it can always be used more prominently in later scenes.

One down, several more to go . . .

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