Echo is the main character in this film of the same name. She is meant to be extremely different to everything around her and everyone else in the film with the exception of her mother. Creating her character, as a result, was a really exciting challenge.
There are some underlying symbols when it comes to character design in the form of squares, triangles, and spheres. Each primitive shape denotes a specific feeling in the character it creates, therefore thoughtful design lends itself to really thinking about the basic shapes a character is made up of. With Echo, this was one of the factors at the forefront of my mind.
In character design, this is what those shapes can mean, but by no means is this a final list:
Squares: strength, stability, clumsiness, protection
Triangles: aggressive, dynamic, harsh, evil, cunning
Spheres: soft, squishy, approachable, friendly
With this in mind, where would stars fit into the equation?
Echo is meant to come from space and the stars, therefore I wanted her silhouette to have a star shape with the triangles in the form being more rounded edges to help show the softness Echo is meant to be, compared to how aggressive triangles can see in silhouette. The final result is somewhere in the middle.
Echo's horns and hair were meant to act like a secondary star, but when you stretch her out in a T-pose she also has very pointy ends to also showcase that star shape. Her body, however, is very round and blobby like that of a baby. As stated before, the softer forms help offset the harder triangles and don't read as "devil" compared to what it could easily have been. The triangles also don't end in completely pointed shapes.
If you're interested specifically in character design, one of the places I turned to when I started working was a really amazing course by Jonah Lobe over on pluralsight titled "An Immortal Design". It goes over the basic shapes I mentioned earlier as well as the process behind character design.
Once I have an idea of what she looked like on a concept stage, I jumped immediately into 3D and sculpted forms. Echo went through a couple of different variations after the initial concept when I went from 2D to 3D Sculpting. At first she looked like this:
But as I worked on refining the forms and figuring out what all of the pieces were meant to be made of (hair vs. skin vs. clothes), the concept finalized itself in a very organic way.
What majorly changed between the two were her ears, the softness of the horns, and the hair turning into pigtails instead of one mass shape. The face, as a result, looks more inviting and--oddly--human, even without the nose.
Echo has come a long way, hasn't she? At this point I felt that I could do more work in Maya as I switched to the retopology phase. I use Zbrush as a way to block out organic forms easier, though when it came to Echo's hair I actually modeled that in Maya instead due to the ability to manipulate the points using the final topology. Additionally, as I worked on the hair, I added bangs to help give Echo more of a child-like hairstyle. Choosing what kind of bangs I wanted was a simple case of exploring.
The middle part didn't work quite as well with her center horn as I had hoped. Having no bangs at all now made her look bald since she had pigtails. The side part now allowed for the hair to wrap around the horns while simultaneously giving a more child-like appearance. Here you will also see that earrings have been added. In hispanic cultures, it is very common for kids to have their ears pierced right after birth, therefore having pearl earrings or any sort of small earring isn't unheard of. In the greater context of the film, this is a key detail.
On to the next step!
Echo's color palette takes from the colors of galaxies and nebulas. With this in mind, I played around with blue variations as well as using stars as freckles across her face. There is even a little bit of emissive in some of the star freckles. As far as texturing the hair went, I laid out my hair UVs purposely to take advantage of a gradient to help break up the hair's forms. Playing around with the UVs and how I wanted the color to look ultimately really helped sell the sculpted hair.
One quick cheat I love doing for things like sculpted hair is adding an anisotropic noise map into the height channel on a layer in Substance Painter. Because of how I laid out my UVs for the hair, the map takes the straight lines and morphs them to give the idea of depth and shape. This is a great way to hit the ground running and adjust any specific hairs manually.
There's some more pictures on my twitter
Overall, I got really happy with the textures towards the end as I kept noodling with the colors and breaking them up. It was halfway through textures that I also decided to add clothes to all characters, therefore Echo's star pattern on her body became overalls that will be seen in a later blog post.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON CHARACTER DESIGN
Echo is the main character of this film, therefore getting her look right was crucial to not only the overall appeal of the film but also how much the audience would relate to Echo. Once I got later into rigging and setting up her facial expressions I came to really love the believability of her expressions. The emphasis on the blues and purples will really make her stand out from her more natural toned classmates and the classroom as a whole, but the real test will be when I start putting everything together. What's important here, though, is that this is not "locked-in final" just yet--there will be updates and tweaks as I go from texturing in Substance Painter to adjusting materials in Unreal to take advantage of sub surface scattering.