Creating 3D characters used to be the domain of a select few that could afford the software, the time, and the tedious nature of creation from sculpting to skinning. The longer you go back in 3D time the worse it was but no one knew any better so we plodded along tweaking envelopes and vertices in a process that could take days at best to weeks at worse or even on average. Now a functional 3D character can be created within hours of conception depending on the platform the character is developed for.
Reallusion's iClone with its Character Creator pipeline is now in its second generation with improved tools and features and is just such a rapid development platform. Coming into its seventh generation iClone has matured into a powerful animation tool that works for beginners to pros. Those animations need characters and the Character Creator pipeline fills those needs for many of us.
The pipeline itself consists of your favorite 3D application such as Maya, Max, Blender and their cousins. Something that can model and rig bones for animation. Though the main modeling for my pipeline involves zBrush and Marvelous Designer but they are not capable of rigging. Both are used to create clothes but neither are used to texture them. That is where Substance Painter comes into play. I use it to paint the textures and some projected modeling features such as detail work that would be too vertex intensive for any 3D engine to handle. 3D Coat is another painting application and so is zBrush for that matter. As you see most of this is user preference.
When it's all done... the clothing and the accessories... you can pull it all back into your sculpting application for major or minor tweaks if needed on individual meshes via a simple swap out with 3DXchange. If the boots don't fit right or the skin is poking through the shirt you correct those and swap out that single mesh item instead of having to deal with the entire character, clothing, and accessories. This last process is really the icing on the cake as creative people are never satisfied with their work. There are always tweaks to be made and this pipeline just begs you to make them. No excuses here.
Your custom character is based on a mesh provided by Character Creator (CC). This mesh can be morphed within CC before export and the rigging can be copied in your 3D application saving hours of tedious work. When in CC you can decide age, weight, body type, body tone as well as lots of custom sliders made by the community for sale in the marketplace. You can combine sliders and make your own morphs from existing morphs or import new morph meshes for custom morphs. All this is done before you export you character mesh for sculpting. After that it's up to whatever your skills and 3D application can accomplish. If you are altering the character mesh then you must stay within the confines of the original mesh polycount. If you are making separate items like clothing and armor then you can make at whatever density or polycount you desire.
The character I created for this article was taken from concept art and my imagination. From the original mesh in Character Creator to the final import into iClone there were no snags or work arounds. In fact, I don't believe any cursing was involved as far I can remember. This was a pleasant experience all the way through the pipeline. In my case the specific pipeline applications are Studio Max, zBrush, Marvelous Designer, Substance Painter, 3DXchange Pipeline, Character Creator and iClone.
Your pipeline may contain more or less as you don't need everything in my pipeline to make clothing or create a character. Some of the apps while appearing redundant do certain things better than others as Max, Maya, Blender and C4D are full-fledged 3D apps. Marvelous Designer on the other hand is limited to pattern based clothing and zBrush is a great sculpt and paint tool in itself.
Production pipelines have been around a long time and tend to evolve as they mature. We've gone from applications that were one shot affairs in a closed pipeline to be able to bring in just about any 3D tool in our toolbox. Interoperability features like zBrush's GoZ allows us to jump from one app straight into the other with no exporting or importing. Reallusion's end of the pipeline is all push button interaction between iClone, Character Creator and 3DXchange for seamless transitioning. Once again Reallusion has provided us with the tools to create and animate. In fact... about the only thing the folks at Reallusion aren't doing for us is the actual work of our animation projects! Maybe on the next upgrade... it wouldn't surprise me.
M.D. McCallum, aka WarLord is an international award winning commercial graphics artist, 3D animator, published author, project director and webmaster with a freelance career that spans over 20 years. M.D. is currently working on VR projects and characters. You can learn more about MD at his website.