3D Artist

Master Maya characters in 20 steps

Tips & Tutorials
Steve Holmes

Discover the key techniques behind creating stunning cartoon characters using Maya and Mudbox

Master Maya characters in 20 steps

Our thanks to Carlos Ortega Elizalde for this tutorial. For more of his excellent work, head to carlosortega.prosite.com.

This tutorial first appeared in issue 80 of 3D Artist.

This tutorial covers a basic workflow used for creating a female cartoon pin-up, it covers areas such as a basic way to start a model and important ones such as creating hair.

While there are tons of different methods, here we show you a quick and flexible way to define a hairstyle without worrying too much about technical aspects so you can focus more on the shape, silhouette and other creative aspects.

We will work with Maya, Mudbox and Photoshop, but most of the technical aspects and all of the artistic parts can be done in any other equivalent software.

Master Maya characters in 20 steps

Step 01 – Model the head

Master Maya characters in 20 steps

Starting with a 4×4 plane we start by creating the edge loops that will become the main areas of the face, such as the eyes, mouth and nose. The eye sockets are just circular extrusions and the mouth consists of two circular extrusions: an outer one going around the mouth up to the nose bridge area, and an inner extrusion that will become the mouth and lips. At this point it is useful to have a sphere to serve as an eye placeholder – it will also help us to build and define the eye sockets around it.

Step 02 – Close the head

Master Maya characters in 20 steps

By extruding the border edges of the sides and the bottom of the head we will get the polygon flow that will define the jawline. Now extrude the edges of the sides and the top to the back of the head, this will leave room at the bottom to extrude the neck. You can close the head by extruding the edges of the back and merging the vertices to the top of the head – just think of the shape as a smoothed cube. Then extrude the hole in the bottom of the head to create the neck. Using the Sculpt tool, smooth the new edges to get a round shape.

Step 03 – Model the nose and ear

Master Maya characters in 20 steps

We create the nose by adding a face loop in the nose area. The ear is modelled in parts, starting with a simple row of polygons shaped as a spiral section. We don’t need a fully detailed ear for this character – modelling a simple, suggestive antihelix and the inner ear is enough to get believable cartoon ear. By deleting some faces on the head and leaving the same amount of edges in the hole and in the ear border, we can attach it to the head using a Bridge operation.

Step 04 – Build the torso

Master Maya characters in 20 steps

The main shape of the torso is basically a cylinder. With a few divisions we start to block the base of the neck, the shoulders, the waist and the hips. With those areas defined it’s easy to start adding divisions to the rest of the piece, as well as extruding the shoulders. The breast area is just a section of a 8×8 sphere attached in the front, slightly below the shoulder’s height. We close the bottom area by creating a bridge with the central edges in the front and back, this will leave the holes for attaching the legs later.

Step 05 – Build the arms, legs and feet

Master Maya characters in 20 steps

The arms and legs are cylinders too, but with the edges extruded. The main areas and widths that we want to define here for the arm are the biceps, elbow, forearm and wrist; and for the leg the width of the thigh, knee, calf and ankle. For both parts always check from both views to get the desired shape. Once we have those sections blocked we can start detailing by adding more divisions. The foot in this case is created by closing the bottom of the leg and extruding the front faces, we don’t need toes since our character will have shoes.

Step 06 – Model the hands

Master Maya characters in 20 steps

Starting with a cylinder we create a base finger. The palm can be started from a cube with enough divisions for attaching fingers later. It can come in handy too, when adding the skin, to leave space between each finger. Duplicate the finger and place them around the palm, scaling each one to its proper size. Then attach each finger to the palm, using a Bridge or the Merge Vertex Tool. The base topology is really basic, so focus more on avoiding a blocky shape by sculpting or tweaking vertices using a soft selection.

Step 07 – Merge the pieces together

Master Maya characters in 20 steps

Attach all the limbs to the torso, and smooth out the joins if needed. Add some clavicle detail on the body since it is a part of the body that will not be fully covered by cloth. For the final eyes we start with a sphere, extruding and sculpting the bulge on the front that is useful to catch highlights pleasantly. The iris and pupil is just a concave disc placed inside the outer eye, by using a transparency map it will enable us to see through the cornea inside the iris.

Step 08 – Make the dress

Master Maya characters in 20 steps

We create the dress by using a duplicate of the body, this way we will make sure it will fit with no major effort. The upper part of the dress uses the geometry of the waist up to the shoulders, and the skirt itself will come out of the hips’ geometry. Once extracted, we need to get rid of the breast details and close the dress more naturally. The cloth extension is just an extrusion of the bottom half of the dress, going back and up to connect to the opposite side of the dress at the hip’s height.

Step 09 – Add the skirt and accessories

Master Maya characters in 20 steps

The skirt is created in two parts, the folds can be easily created by using a cylinder and pulling out vertices to create the folds. After extruding and shaping the bottom part of the skirt attach it to the hip’s geometry that was previously extracted from the body. The shoes are created using geometry from the feet, and then building them around the foot. For things like earrings and hair ornaments, model the elements and then combine them to create each accessory, this adds a consistent style by having repeating patterns across the model.

Step 10 – Build the hairstyle

Master Maya characters in 20 steps

The hair here is divided into two parts – one covers the skull and the other is formed of long strands in the back. For the calvaria we can start with a sphere and delete the poles to easily get the basic strand shapes coming from the forehead to the back of the head. Keeping the topology as grid patches is pretty useful for converting later to a Maya hair system. For the long strands of hair in the back draw the main shapes using CV curves. Then, build eight blocks of hair by extruding a circular plane along the curves.

Step 11 – Detail the hairstyle

Master Maya characters in 20 steps

Use the taper and twist functions in the Extrude options and sculpt the resulting mesh to get variations in volume and shape. Now extract the curves that will serve as guides for the hair. Select the Edge Loop and go to Modify>Convert>Polygon Edges To Curve. You will need to do this for all the necessary curves. There are free scripts on Creative Crash that can automate this process. Too many curves can lead to a heavy system and too few curves can force you to grow wider clumps with lots of hair to fill the gaps, and this will hence lose the silhouette of your hairstyle.

Step 12 – Finish the hairstyle

Master Maya characters in 20 steps

Next step is creating two hair systems, one for the head and another for the long strands. Select the head curves and go to nDynamics>Hair>Assign Hair System, then assign a PaintFX brush to Hair. Now you can adjust the clumps’ width and shape, hair thinning, number and width of hairs per clump, and hair shading. Keeping the original mesh of the hair without deleting history in the curves lets you modify the polymesh directly to tweak the hair and transfer those changes to the hair system. By default the hair gets dynamic properties, and you can change it to static for a still image like this.

Step 13 – UVs and texturing

Master Maya characters in 20 steps

The improved unfold tools in Maya will let you unfold the body and cloth meshes easily, one UV tile per material will work great for this model. Moving to Mudbox, paint the textures of the character. You can start with a skin colour base and add yellow, orange and pink tones in the nose and ear areas, and purple tones in the eyes. Using references is a good way to know where those tones suit better. Now paint more maps such as a deep Scatter, Specular and Glossiness map. We will plug those to our skin material.

Step 14 – Pose the model

Master Maya characters in 20 steps

Create a basic skeleton in Maya, drawing the joints from the hips up to the tip of the head, then legs and arms. Using the Snap to Projected Center feature will enable you to easily create the joints in tricky areas such as inside the arms and fingers. We bind the skeleton to the main mesh using the Heat Map option and Quaternion method, and since it is a skinny character this option works well by default. We can then skin the clothes and copy the influence of the body to the dress.

Step 15 – Detail the model

Master Maya characters in 20 steps

Once posed, send the character and dress to Mudbox for detailing to fix the weighting and volume loss for a more natural bending in the elbows, fingers, neck and knees. We subdivide the dress a couple of times, sculpt the foldings in the fabric and fix interpenetrations between elements. Most of the silhouettes of the objects were solved with pure polygon modelling, so at this point, bake some normal maps of the cloth to get all the folding details. Then export all the elements with one level of subdivision to save some render time and avoid the use of displacements.

Step 16 – Lay out the scene

Master Maya characters in 20 steps

To complement the scene we will add some natural elements that will suit the atmosphere and colour palette. We will add a simple terrain which we can sculpt and detail in Mudbox. The tree can be quickly created in ZBrush – we don’t need to overdetail the model, since the whole feel of the scene is smooth and more like a fake set rather than a realistic scenario. To fill the ground with details we use the Paint Geometry Tool which you can find in Maya Bonus Tools 2015. Its ease of use will let you quickly grow some plants and throw some rocks on the ground.

Step 17 – Materials in mental ray

Master Maya characters in 20 steps

This scene uses the mia-material-X, the misss-fast_skin shader and blinn materials. It is useful to start playing with the Scale Conversion option on the skin shader to make it work, since the shader will depend of the size of your object. Plug the textures and be sure to gamma-correct each texture or work your scene with the Color Management option. The fabric material uses some ramps to define transparency and colour, so that it gets more transparent and is at a glancing angle. Use glossy refractions objects, which will become blurred when seen through the fabric.

Step 18 – Lighting

Master Maya characters in 20 steps

The light rig consists of four lights: key light, (spotlight) which gets most of the volumes and defines the main source of light; backlight (spotlight) to get some highlights on the hair on the left side; bounce light (arealight) to fill black areas; and environment light (IBL), which is set to a very low value – it fills the whole scene and casts reflections on the objects with a free blurred HDRI.

Step 19 – Rendering

Master Maya characters in 20 steps

The scene is rendered with mental ray and Final Gather. For large resolution renders like this, it’s useful to bake a Final Gather map at a lower resolution and then freeze it to save some render time. By default the skin shader takes into account the resolution of your scene to compute its light maps, be aware of this when doing large tests or final renders. For the same reason, we will render the scenario and the character in separate render layers using a 32-bit EXR format.

Step 20 – Finish the image

Some useful layers to render during image compositing are a good set of masks, a depth pass and in some cases a normal pass. In Photoshop, use the depth pass, and add atmospheric elements such as fog and depth of field (using the Lens Blur filter). The masks are useful for adjusting the colour or exposure of different elements without struggling with selections. We can create light effects by painting with soft brushes and setting layers to a Screen or Add mode. The dust particles are just brushes with high scatter values and different blur settings for a feeling of depth.

  • Omar Dezz

    where do i get the full tutorial including the model

  • Usama Sarwar

    Please make a full tut of the process