It's rare that a 3D model will start in the 3D application, it's actually just the opposite. Most 3D models begin their life on paper as 2D reference. This could be anything from photo reference, or conceptual drawings for the 3D modelers to use when creating the asset or character. The latter is what we'll be discussing in this article, also known as the model sheet.
The model sheet is a 3D artist's best friend, and serves many purposes, the main being a great source of reference, as well as a sort of style guide. When working in a game or movie pipeline, a model sheet is key for eliminating re-works. And as we all know re-works mean more money spent on the project.
Simply just telling a 3D artist what a character should look like is not going to be enough, this leaves a large amount of room for interpretation on the 3D artist's side, and often can result in a final 3D model that is drastically different from what was explained by the artist.
Interpretation should not be confused with creative freedom, because it's still up to the 3D modeler to know what will work better in the 3D environment. An artist explaining that the character has a large nose could end up being greatly skewed down the pipeline and a large nose in the 3D artists mind could be a massive exaggeration of what was actually intended.
Some productions will handle thousands of assets and making sure all of them conform is essential. Could you imagine what the cast of Toy Story would look like if each modeler took on a character with their own interpretation? Sure, it might be entertaining but the lack of consistency would have led to some serious problems throughout the entire creation of the film: models that don't match in size, Buzz with a giant head and baggy suit and so on.
In a basic sense, the model sheet is what a concept artist will hand off to a modeler to have him or her recreate an asset or character in 3D space. Model sheets tend to have three different views to help the modeler see all aspects of what they will be creating.
Like any plan, these details outline what the modeler will need to do to bring the asset to life in 3D without losing anything in the interpretation process. While a basic model sheet is typically three othrographic views that the 3D modeler will often bring into the 3D application to basically trace the form and shape of.
This isn't what it's limited to. A great model sheet will include the typical orthographic views, but can also include things like different poses for the character, as well as detailed designs of the wardrobe.
How it Helps Modelers
One of the biggest benefits of a model sheet for 3D modelers is the fact that it greatly speeds up the modeling process. Great model sheets will eliminate any guessing on the 3D artists side, and allow them to quickly block in the mesh, following exactly along with the model sheet, and ultimately bringing the vision to life, from 2D concepts, to the final 3D mesh.
Working on a production, a model sheet is a luxury you'll probably have, as in any pipeline, a model sheet is something you'll receive on nearly every model. However, if you're a student studying character modeling, and you don't have the benefit of receiving a model sheet from someone before you in the pipeline, you still need to spend the time to create one.
Spending the time to draw up the orthographic views will help you tremendously during the modeling process. You don't necessarily have to be an excellent artist to make a decent model sheet, just something you'll be able to study, and use as a guide inside the 3D application.
Another great approach is to find real-life reference, and use those as a model sheet. Being able to build your 3D model off of something that is anatomically correct is a must. While we all think we know how people look, it's nearly impossible to create a convincing model straight from memory.
Another important aspect of the model sheet which we kind of touched on previously is the fact that you can bring it directly into the 3D application to use almost as tracing material. It's vital that you don't think of using a model sheet as cheating in some way, because it's not.
Simply having your model sheet on a separate monitor is not enough, because you want to get the final 3D model as close as possible to what the concept artist had created, and the only way to do this is to create the 3D mesh directly on top of the model sheet.
Creating the Model Sheet
If you're a concept artist creating a model sheet to pass down the pipeline to the 3D Artist then there are a few things you need to remember so that you create the best possible model sheet that will be of best use to the modeler.
The first is probably an obvious one, and that is clear and concise details. You don't want your model sheet to look "sketchy" at all in nature, meaning lots of quick and rough lines that make up the character's form. The sketching process should be something done in the conceptual phase.
When it comes to the model sheet, you want precise lines that clearly make up the character. The same goes for anything the character is wearing, whether it's a belt, holster, body armor, glove, etc.
The 3D modeler shouldn't have to guess at all what was trying to be drawn, it should be completely clear. For instance, if a character is wearing chest armor it should be easy to read. You don't want the modeler to be confused if it's actually an added on piece of armor, or part of the character's vest. This can also be clearly explained through detail notes.
It's also important to work in layers when creating the model sheet, start with the base, and build off of that. The character's body, then the clothes, then the armor, and so on. This will make it easier for the 3D modeler to see the various pieces that make up the character.
You also want to make sure that everything is consistent, as their is typically a front, side and back view you want to ensure that it truly looks like the character is turned, and not as if there are three completely different characters drawn.
Model sheets are a vital part of any 3D production, having a great model sheet will speed up the overall process, and ensure that there is no confusing between the design and concept team and the 3D artists that create the final asset. If you want to learn more about model sheets watch the Drawing Character Model Sheets in Photoshop tutorial.