14th Dec 2021 | Open Movie | Sprite Fright
Sprite Fright is the new Blender Open Movie that was recently released on YouTube. Now it’s time to share some of the lessons that were learned during the production.
A lot of content I find online about character sculpting is following a very similar workflow. Nowadays I find that workflow very strict and outdated, especially after I followed it myself in Spring and other film productions.
So what do I mean with that?
I still see a misconception that character design needs to be first figured out in 2D.
Only after extensive drawings and illustration work do the sculptors come in and slowly adapt the design as faithfully as possible in 3D. This is very rigid and top-down.
Drawing and painting was always much more efficient and creating variations & ideas is fast. But keep in mind that 3D sculpting is faster, more flexible and intuitive than ever! My advice is to also work on the character design in 3D as soon as possible.
After Ricky Nierva completed his initial concepts we immediately jumped into 3D.
A couple of days of sculpting can tell you a lot about what works and what doesn’t in your 2D drawing. From there we kept bouncing back in 2D & 3D, adjusting and exploring the design until we came to the result that worked best.
Sculpting early on in Blender saves time instead of wasting it.
There are of course many artists that can convey a design perfectly in 2D.
But this won’t tell for sure if it actually works in the movie.
And it's incredibly useful if the sculpts are always available to the entire team.
So we even had early shading, rigging, animation and environment exploration with the characters as soon as possible.
This is a lesson I finally had to get hammered in.
Sculpting is primarily a design task, not a production step!
So try to avoid these common sins when presenting your sculpts:
Your job as a sculptor is to create an appealing character design in 3D. That also means showing the design over creating a model that can efficiently be retopologized and rigged.
When the director needs to approve your work it will be unnecessarily hard if the sculpts look dead and just completely without … character.
So do yourself a favour and try to:
If you want to take it to the next level then take a bit of time to use the Pose Brush and Transform tools in Sculpt Mode.
A character in a proper pose & expression can really help solidify the design!
These sculpts are too hard to update and maintain of course.
But don't think now: "Well why not just draw this. Sculpting it won't take too much time!?". Yes! Sculpting your designs and trying stuff out in 3D will not take too much time. And keep in mind we are a very small team. I was the only sculptor for 13 characters and we still got to do all this.
Put them into a production ready T-pose later. Only once you need to hand over the sculpts for some early rig/animation tests, layout work or the final retopology.
The characters don’t get created in isolation.
You need to be constantly aware of what is required of them in the storyboard.
Some characters might only be in a few shots with very little interactions.
So be aware of what your character needs to be able to do:
Storyboards are often not on-model or spatially consistent.
If you are aware of that then you will spot the issues in the character designs.
Like that the Sprites will have to be visible from certain angles, or even hold hands.
With their huge caps that becomes impossible. So the story or design needs to be adjusted. The earlier this happens the better!
All of this said, the story can change a lot during your work.
So be prepared for changes!
Don’t rush ahead and start sculpting in detail before the design is approved.
I’d even say that adding detail should be done as procedurally and non-destructive as possible. So shader & geometry nodes can help a lot here.
And of course create versions! Keep old files and models around.
Just imagine feedback comes in that the sculpt you had a week ago actually worked better ... but you didn't keep it.
It also helps to keep the design focused.
It’s easy to rush ahead and lose yourself in the details.
But if you detail the sculpt iteratively over the entire body, it will be easier to keep the original shape-language and design in mind.
We had to learn the hard way in this production.
For this movie we had an insane amount of characters. 13 in total. More than any other Blender Open Movie before. And most of them are main characters.
What we repeatedly did wrong and taught us a hard truth is:
You have to work on all major characters at the same time!
To make sure the art style & designs of the characters, props & environments are consistent and work together.
Any time we focused our efforts on one character or left others behind, the whole lineup suffered. This happened to the two female characters especially.
So my advice is to regularly check & discuss the character progress not by looking at individual characters, but by comparing the entire lineup.
Even if the characters have wildly different shape language and proportions (maybe especially then), you need to compare them. They all have to belong in the same world after all.
A lot of things happen during the character creation. Once you roughly have the designs approved it’s finally time to polish them.
One of the tasks tied to this are Expression and Pose tests.
These will be massively helpful, not just in making absolutely sure that your characters can perform in the movie, but also to create a style guide for the next departments or artists.
At this point you will be aware of all the things that went into the design. You’ll have worked on these characters for months. The retopology, rigging, animation, shading & grooming also need to know!
So gather notes during the sculpting process and create a style guide:
Then it’s finally time to create a handover. Clean up your files. Make sure everything is ready for the next person to work on.
And give them all the important notes yourself, or preferably to the art director, or both.