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Making of 'Mules Gold'

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Date Added: 22nd June 2009
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Part 1 - Characters: By Neil Parkinson


I had designed the original cigar smoking character for a short college project. I never thought too much about the character till I was putting together an animation portfolio whilst freelancing in London, I had drawn a model sheet for it and a friend really picked up on it. It kind of snowballed from there and I kept refining the design and coming up with further characters (Fig.01).

Fig. 01

Having worked with Lee for several years on projects at Electronic Arts UK, we decided to pool resources on a joint venture outside of work. I already had two cowboy characters built, so we came up with a Western short film idea. Knowing how long these things take we thought we would work towards small goals. The first was this teaser image.


The characters featured are Smokey Joe (right) and Rattlesnake Jack (left).

Rattlesnake Jack was very heavily influenced by Clint Eastwood in Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns. For Smokey Joe I had Robert Mitchum in mind with the long, droopy, hangdog features. The most important element was having the characters look like they were worn weathered and lived in - in particular Rattlesnake Jack; I gave him big crow's feet next to his eyes to suggest he had been squinting at the sun in the desert, I also gave him a scar across one eye that suggest he has a history beyond the scene being depicted.

The characters already existed in some form before we started this image. They had been built mainly to be animated and so they didn't really bear up under close scrutiny in a static image. Jack had a long duster that was rigged with bones. However, this didn't pose or read well in the shot so I decided to re-model his upper torso with more detail but without the long coat tails. Joe was very basic so I decided to add more detail into him for the shot, in particular clothing folds.
When modelling I always use the Poly subdiv proxy tool in Maya. I have the subdiv setting at just 1 to keep the model from getting too heavy early on.

I always start with the head. I will model all the features and even sort out the UV mapping with the Proxy still attached. I will then use the lower poly proxy as a base to create the blend shapes. This saves me from having to move a lot of verts around and keeps the mesh quite smooth (Fig.02).

Fig. 02

Once all the blend shapes are created on the low poly mesh I will create blend shapes from the higher poly one and once this is done I can delete history on the head and delete the low poly mesh (I always keep a backup file with the proxy still attached in case I need to create more blend shapes). At this point I add hard edges to the mesh in places such as the creases, although I'm careful not to change any verts in the mesh.

These characters were built to be animated, so I did a full set of blend shapes to enable lip synch animation. I also have bones in the face for the brows to help in reducing the amount of blends needed. Because of the size of Jack's Cigar I had to model the displaced flesh into the blend shapes (Fig.03).

Fig. 03

When modelling the body of the characters I model the character in a T-pose for easier rigging (Fig.04).

Fig. 04

As mentioned, I use the subdiv proxy tool. I use this to get the basic form built, as well as higher level detail, such as belts and clothing. I then delete the history and model straight onto the high poly mesh. At this point I will be adding details such as cloth folds and seams (Fig.05).

Fig. 05

Because of the high level of detail in the models there wasn't the need to put loads of additional information in the textures. And because they were to be animated, any painted creases and shadows would stretch and look strange in the rendered frames. I kept the textures simple, only putting in a slight indication of material such as leather or linen. The rest of the look was created via the addition of specular and bump maps (Fig.06).

Fig. 06

continued on next page >

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