Introducing Custom Bones and Animated Accessories
Hello, I’m Tom Breuer. I’ve worked as a freelance 3D designer since 2014, specializing in character and game-based applications. To realize my artistic visions, I mostly use Blender and Unity. I began my journey into 3D art in 2010 when I had to create a digital model of an excavation site for my presentations. What started out as an extracurricular activity quickly became my way of telling stories. The following year, I began my studies in communication design.
After graduation, I taught courses in Blender and character design as an adjunct professor and worked for an events company as a lead artist guiding and coordinating an internal and external team of 3D experts. I also work freelance, producing 3D printable digital cosplay costumes based on popular video game characters. Nevertheless, my true fascination is with animated characters and the stories they represent. Staying true to my mantra, “Little worlds of our own”, I started making 3D creatures and telling their stories with brief animations a few years ago. You can view my characters in their natural habitats here.
When creating a new character, I think about:
What would this character want most in life and what would drive this character?
For example, a turtle that wants to get from point A to point B quickly. Or an ostrich that really wants to fly even when it naturally can’t. My next step is to brainstorm what this character needs to do or have in order to achieve its goal.
I usually only use Blender and Substance Painter for my workflow, but for this project I will also integrate Reallusion Character Creator (CC) and iClone to grasp their benefits.
In Blender, I start with the line tool and begin building the silhouette of the real animal. This way I can play with actual shapes and not lose sight of the reference drawing. I keep on rearranging the body parts until I like the overall shape.
There aren’t any fixed rules for my modeling process. I just pay close attention to the silhouette and go from there. I keep the mass of the ostrich body resembling a triangle pointing upwards and the only element that disrupts this flow is the backpack it is carrying.
Immediately after the character is modeled, I export it to Substance Painter. I start by creating different regions on the model by assigning different materials: metal, plastic, fabric, etc. Then I switch to the Diffuse layer to focus on the coloring.
For each color, I add three layers with a main, highlight, and shadow color. I blend these three layers using masks starting from the ambient occlusion, edges, and normal direction of the surface. Here I work mostly with soft gradients.
When I’m happy with the model and textures, I proceed with the animation process. I start by using the AccuRig module inside the Character Creator.
Once rigged, I check the automatic skin-weights using example animations provided by Character Creator. And I use the skin weight tools to blur and refine wherever needed.
Adding Custom Bones
In the next step, I import the rigged ostrich into Blender. Here, I adjust the bones and add new custom bones. I do this, so I can animate the facial animation with these added bones. I also add new more bones in the neck to allow for smoother movement. Finally, I rework the skin-weights of my character and adjust it to the new custom bones.
Skin Weight Transfer
With the skin-weights completed, I still need to process the spacesuit accordingly. For this, I use the Data Transfer modifier which allows me to transfer skin weight data from the neck model to the space suit.
Adding More Bones
After importing the ostrich with its custom bones via the Blender plugin into Character Creator, I start to edit the facial expressions. To do this, I first have to mark the character as “Humanoid” by clicking on Modify > Characterization. There, I add the extra bones that were appended in Blender. Once I have added all the bones I need, I can activate the HumanIK system to have them accessible to Character Creator and iClone.
Making Facial Expressions
I export the figure from Character Creator to Blender as FBX again, but I select the Blender with Face Expression option to have it generate morphs for facial animation.
The morphs are conveniently named and keyframed, so it’s easy to see which facial expression is being activated in Blender. With this, I can adjust the facial expressions of the ostrich frame by frame while conserving keyframes. Since I placed several bones on the face in advance, I can now use them quickly to adjust facial expressions and create all the expressions I need to make my character talk and emote.
In the last step, I export the animated model again as FBX and switch back to Character Creator. Inside the Facial Expression window, I import the created FBX frame sequence (If this is not done, only the morphs will be used and bone animation will be ignored). After this, the facial expressions can be tested with sliders and different animations provided in the Content Manager.
Animating Dynamic Accessories
At this point, I will add the Spring bones and Cloth elements in Character Creator. For this, I select my model and click the Modifier > Spring Bones button. With the window open, I mark the bones I want as Spring bones and set the weight, strength, and bounce attributes accordingly (the wings and the flag on the backpack for example).
For the neck, I use cloth simulation to enhance the animations with the use of a texture based on the UV of the cloth object (in black and white) that marks areas for simulation. This texture is added via the Edit Weight Map window.
With this setup, I can concentrate on the main animation and let iClone handle the dynamic simulations.
Now I switch to iClone to work on the first clip where I usually start with the main idle animation. But, what kind of continuous animation does the character actually need? For me, it’s not so much about one specific animation that reveals everything about our character, rather it’s about getting a feel for the character’s personality and way of moving.
Starting from the first frame, I pose the character with Edit Motion Layer, and copy this frame to the end of the clip. In the middle of the clip I add a contrapose that should maximize the counter motion. In between the keyframes, I’ll add more and more “interference keys” that distort the direct path between the start and middle key.
For the following animations, I copy the finished idle animation and add an Animation layer so that the idle animation still plays while I move the character to new positions. This saves me a lot of time because I only have to animate the extra movements. Here, you can see the different animations all based on the idle animation:
Initially I had wanted to animate the front shield using spring bones, but due to the strong movements, I decided to use bone animation instead. But before moving the front shield, I had to animate the figure to see how it would adapt to the movements of the body. Then I looked for the extreme movements within the animation sequence and rotated the front shield accordingly. For this, I use the Edit Motion Layer window as I did before for the body animation, but this time in FK mode, because I want to access non-humanoid bones.
Animation Clips & AccuLips
I thought of the inner monologue of the ostrich character and how it would be along the lines of “Why did I become an astronaut?”. First, I use AccuLips to get the timing down for the animation. For those who aren’t familiar, AccuLips is a powerful animation tool that can map spoken or written words onto an animated face. Individual faces can display emotions by using a plethora of available options.
I use the sound recording from Vincent Fallow who lended a voice to the ostrich, giving him a wonderful personality. AccuLips converts this audio track and adds a Viseme layer that shows the spoken words and lip animations inside the timeline window. This allows the audio recording to playback during animation. For the base motion I use the “Emote” pack from iClone’s embedded library, which is then refined and customized with my own animations. I put four clips in a row and play with the timing by cutting, stretching, and mixing the clips together until they match to the audio track.
Once I’m happy with the main movements I start to refine the animation by adding a layer to each clip and adding more animation to emphasize the character’s personality. Finally, I add an Expression layer where Face Puppet can be used to go beyond just using AccuLips.
When I’m happy with the animations, I export the whole file to Blender, render the scene with Eevee, and export to Sketchfab.
Reallusion Character Creator and iClone provide supportive features and make for wonderful additions to my workflow. Lastly, I have become especially fond of the AccuLips system as it allows direct conversion of text and sound recordings into editable lip-sync animations.
Free Download :
• Blender-Character Animation Pipeline
▪ CC/iC Blender Tools (addon installed in Blender) https://github.com/soupday/cc_blender_tools
▪ CC4 Blender Pipeline Tool Plugin (addon installed in Character Creator 4) https://github.com/soupday/CC4-Blender-Tools-Plugin
▪ CC AccuRIG (the auto-rig tool is included in Character Creator 4) https://www.reallusion.com/character-creator/auto-rig.html
Learn more :
▪ Sketchfab: https://sketchfab.com/TomBreuer
▪ ArtStation: https://www.artstation.com/flyingillustration
▪ Twitter: https://twitter.com/flyingillu
▪ Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/flyingillustration/
▪ Twitter: https://twitter.com/vincentfallow
▪ Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/vincentfallow/
• Reallusion https://www.reallusion.com/