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Stylizing Toons: Chapter 1 - Concept and Modeling

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Date Added: 3rd February 2012
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Take a sneaky peak into the first chapter of one of 3DTotal's groundbreaking eBooks in this short sample tutorial. If you would like to build upon what you learn in the following article or if you would like to continue to follow this tutorial you can purchase the full eBook in the 3DTotal shop.


I am really glad to be invited to create this tutorial. Cartoon characters are by far my favorite subject, so it is a pleasure to write this for you. More than writing a step by step tutorial my objective is to teach you a process in which you can contribute with your own creativity and customize the character to your liking. After finishing this tutorial you should be ready to create your own characters.

It would be easier to supply you with a front and side view to use as a modeling reference, but I am not going to do that. We will start with an idea of a character and develop it along the way. Today's tools allow us to explore and study our concept whilst modeling and we are going to take advantage of that. We will be sketching in 3D and my favorite tool for that is ZBrush.

But that doesn't mean that we will pick up a sphere and model the full character from it. We will start by creating a very simple mesh with a topological base that will allow us to develop the model without a lot of trouble. For that we have to predict some of the pitfalls that we might face. We have to study our subject a bit before starting in order to understand its anatomy and particular features, which should be present in the base mesh.

For our animal character I have picked the kangaroo. (Fig.A) It's an animal with unique characteristics: it hops around, uses its tail for support, has funny proportions and is known for its boxing skills. As I had never modeled a kangaroo, the first step was to gather some information about it. I have searched the internet for kangaroo's photos, drawings and skeletons. Then I have started to draw some kangaroos while using the photos for reference. It is the best way to understand their anatomy, because you have to think about it while drawing, and the more you draw the more you know the subject. Sketching the subject's skeleton is also a great way to understand its structure. If your objective is to rig and animate the character, sketching the skeleton is a must. (Fig.B)

Fig. A
Fig. B

Kangaroos have got very powerful legs, with massive thighs, long leg bones and big feet. Most of their body mass is on the lower part of the body. Their arms look quite feeble, but the shoulder area is stronger and projected forward. The snout is long as well as their ears. The tail is thick and a lot of the time is used for support, such as when they are fighting and thrust their feet forward while standing on their tails! (Fig.C)

Fig. C

It is very important to be aware of these characteristics because they define the animal. Our challenge is to turn this charming animal into a cartoon.

What is a Cartoon?

What makes an animal character a cartoon rather than realistic?

Stylization - Cartoons are simple and clear in form with an immediately recognizable silhouette. The introduction of clear geometric shapes and sharp angles versus curved lines are part of the cartoon language. Also, complex forms like hair and fur tend to be reduced to masses or shapes (Warner Brothers cartoons are a great example of this).

Exaggeration - Extreme deformations or caricature contribute to stylization and humor, as well as to defining the personality of the character. We all know the stereotypes of the big headed scientist and the broad shouldered warrior.

Humor - I would say humor is what differentiates cartoons from action comics. Light humor, nonsense or sarcasm are all part of the cartoon universe. All dictionary definitions that I have found for "cartoon" mention humor as a defining characteristic.
Human characteristics - In cartoons we expect the character to inherit human characteristics, not only in terms of expression but also in their anatomy. Sometimes parts of the animal anatomy are fully altered, for example making both eyes face forward when the animal has eyes on the side of its head or giving human hands to mice and ducks, like Walt Disney did.

Color code - Cartoons' color code is usually very direct and saturated. These are characteristics that made the process of inking and coloring in traditional animation a lot easier, as each frame had to be painted individually and it is a lot more difficult to keep color and form consistency with multiple color gradients.

Attitude - Any character without personality is a dead character. His personality is transmitted to the viewer by the silhouette and the attitude, pose and facial expression. Make your character alive!


I have created a first character sketch to give me a reference through the modeling process (Fig.D), but it will be adjusted along the way in order to meet all the criteria defined above.

Fig. D

In this first chapter we will start by modeling the character starting in 3DS Max and continuing the exploration of form in ZBrush, trying to achieve the Stylization, Exaggeration and Human characteristics.

We will start by creating a low polygon mesh in 3DSMax using a box and polygon modeling tools.

continued on next page >

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Readers Comments (Newest on Top)
Mario Luz on Thu, 21 June 2012 10:36am
Fantastic tutorial, i really can follow step by step and see the results. many thanks ( Obrigado Jose Silva, abrado do Porto)
Joicy on Fri, 10 February 2012 2:25am
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