Character Design: Modeling for 3D Animation

Enough of this old-hat, hand-drawn two-dimensional nonsense! Lets dial it ahead 100 years into the 21st century and talk about 3D character art!

In this blog post, we will look at what it takes to create a successful 3D representation of a 2D hand drawn character. The purpose of this post is not to teach you how to model, only to give pointers and suggestions to artists looking to successfully translate a 2D character drawing into a 3D environment.

In the blog entries leading up to this one, you have learned about doing your research ahead of time and designing your character around what you learned. You should have an idea of the size of each part of the body and how they move based on your model sheets. All of this ground work is 100% necessary before even stepping one foot into the 3D environment. It is a lot easier to draw an idea out on paper than it is to go into a 3D space and wing it. In other words, make sure you have done your homework first and get to know your 2D character in three dimensions before you move into 3D! It will save you a lot of time and extra work in the long run.

Begin Your 3D Model with 2D Drawings

You should always start your character model (or any other model, for that matter) by importing orthographic views of your character into the camera views. A front and side view are almost always necessary and a top view can often be helpful as well.

Screen Shot 2017-03-22 at 10.13.32 PMScreen Shot 2017-03-22 at 10.13.05 PM

The drawings should be aligned so that the center of the character will be located at the origin. Use the grid lines to also help you ensure that the character will be built proportionally. In Dippy’s case, he is three heads high, so you will see where he is scaled to the third grid line.

Default Pose

A character should always be modeled in default pose. This is typically referred to as a rested position, with the character’s arms and other appendages (tails, hair, etc.) extended straight out from their body and a bored expression on their face. This will make the rigging process much easier and allow the character to bend and deform better. Never, ever, ever model a character in a posed position. This will limit all of your future uses of this model to only one pose! In other words, it will be completely useless!

A few basic modeling tips as you are blocking in your model:

  • The geometry on the chest should look like a cape that is draping over and around the shoulders.
  • The geometry around the eyes should loop around the entire eye, creating a socket.
  • Keep all of your polygons 4-sided quads for the best deformation. Don’t leave any irregular sided polygons.
  • Add additional polygons around areas that need to bend a lot, such as elbows, knees, fingers, toes, neck, back, tail, etc. Don’t try to do too much with too little!

In addition, keep in mind all the things that your character needs to be able to do. For instance, Dippy’s elbow bends in two different directions, depending on what he is doing. In his rested position, his elbows are inverse and folded at his sides against his body like a real duck. When he is using his wings, they sometimes bend like a human’s in this way. This means that Dippy requires additional geometry around the middle part of his wing in order to bend both directions. He will also need to have modified feathers, which can act like fingers.

3D Dippy Orthographic Views

Not all 2D features translate well to 3D

Sometimes you have to do a little creative thinking to figure out how to make it work! In the case of Dippy, he was originally drawn for Flash animation, which is a very, very flat graphic style. His beak was much less defined in his original Flash format.

Dippy Duck

To translate this into 3D, we had to create more definition to the beak and then add a toon shader in the texturing phase to keep the graphic look Flash creates.


One of my favorite examples of a successful 2D trick not translating well to 3D is none other than Mickey Mouse, specifically when it came to his ears. The problem here, is that Mickey’s ears are gyroscopic, meaning they are designed to “float” around on his head so that they are always facing the viewer no matter what direction his head turns. This is one of the very unique design elements that Disney used to add to the character’s appeal and recognition.

Mickey Turnaround

It’s a very successful 2-dimensional trick of the eye, but it unfortunately did not translate well into a 3D space. Disney has made several revisions to 3D Mickey over the years and had a lot of trouble translating this complex 2D concept to the 3D world. The more recent Mickey 3D attempts have been more successful at capturing this iconic design element.

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As you can see, moving from a 2D to 3D environment often requires lots of creative problem solving!

When your model is complete, render a complete turnaround of your character. Set up a few lights and show off your work!

Next, it is time to move on to the next steps of texturing and rigging your character. More on that in a later blog post!

Schmitty out.