Real Time Character Modeling Tutorial

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Nov 30, 2006

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1.x, 2.x, 3.x, 4.x, 5.x, 6.x, 7.x


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Below is a short tutorial showing the method I use when modelling a real time character. This approach can also be adopted when creating subdivision surface models. I hope some of you find it informative and useful.

A summary of the key points that this tutorial will cover:
* Start with good reference material and use as much as you can.
* Using your reference as an image plane, block out the rough shape of the character using cylinders.
* When adding finer details make sure to follow the muscle lines strictly.
* You must end up with a nice clean model, symmetrical where possible.
* Try and keep to a grid system, this will give you a neat model to work with, and result in better deformation.
* Do not put polygons where they are not needed, even if this is a high-resolution model.
* Check the edges on your character thoroughly. Make sure they are flipped the correct way, what you need to avoid is faces collapsing in onto each other when the model is animated.
* Adjust the character to its final binding pose.

Reference Material

The most important thing you should do before any modelling happens is stock up on your reference materials. This could be scanned, drawn, grabbed from a video, DVD or anything just make sure you have lots of it. Ideally you should have turn a rounds of the character, if these don't exist then use the rest of the images you have collected to generate your own.

The ideal turn a round should contain a front view, side view (left & right if possible), rear view and a three quarter view. You should have both full body and a head close up. As well as these you should also have a decent facial expression sheet, showing as many emotions as possible, not only will this be useful when modelling the head but it will give the animator a good guide to work from when generating facial blend shapes.

                                   Example Model Sheet                                Example Facial Expression Sheet

As well as your basic character sheets you should ideally have a colour sheet too. This will be used later when you start to texture your model.

Note: It is really important that you have this reference material. You may as well be modelling with your eyes closed if you don't use anything to base your model on.

Trying to model without preparation will result in you having to tweak the final mesh for weeks on end until you or your lead are happy with it. At the very least you should have something scanned in and used as an image plane to get the proportions correct.

Starting Out

Before starting to build your character you should first make sure you have your turn around scanned in and at the ready. The front and side view should be imported into Maya and used as image planes to guide you.

You should also find out as much about the character as possible -

* Is it an in game model or will it be used in pre-rendered cut scenes?
* You will need a rough polygon count limit.
* Finger amount. Will it have full fingers or a mitten type hand with no fingers?
* Facial detail, will the characters face need to animate to show emotions and talk?

Another point to consider is how many levels of detail are required. If I am to generate a character, which has four levels of detail, I find the best way to work is to model the highest version first. Once this is done you can then generate the lower versions from this simply by removing polygons, it is allot easier to remove polygons and detail from a character than it is to add them. Also working in this order assures you that the lower Lod`s (levels of detail) will match the highest perfectly.

To aid with this guide I will model a character myself and show you the process step by step. I have decided on a character I am to produce so I have spent some time gathering various pieces of reference material. I could not find a suitable model sheet so I have drawn out a rough one myself, I shall use this to generate the general shape and proportions of the model.

My Rough Turn Around

General Shape

Now you can start to build the character but don't rush in and try to build it a bit at a time, try to fill out the whole shape first as this will help you to get the proportions correct.

Limbs and Torso

Start by creating three cylinders. Set the height to 8, subdivision axis to 8 and the subdivision height to 10, (this can differ depending on the poly count restrictions on the character, although it is easier to remove polygons later than to try and add them.)

Rotate, translate and scale the cylinders to position them in the correct place corresponding to the left leg, left arm and torso but try to keep a row of vertices lying on the elbow and knee. We only need to model one half of the body as it can be mirrored later to produce the right hand side.

Note: It will make scaling the vertices easier if you do not freeze the transforms on the cylinders!

Using these cylinders, and keeping them as quads, view from the side and scale/move the vertices horizontally until the shape of the cylinder roughly fits the leg in the image plane.

Next switch to the front view and do the same, adjusting them to fit the general shape.

For the arm look from the front and scale the vertices to fit the shape of the reference image.

Next do the same from the side view. If your model sheet has its character drawn with the arms out to the side you will probably need to use some other reference material to adjust the vertices from the top view.

The torso cylinder needs to be split into two, the left side and the right side. Delete the right side, as we only need to work with the left for now. Also delete any cap faces on all the cylinders if you haven't done already. Doing as you have already done with the leg, using the front and side views scale/move the vertices horizontally to get the rough shape of the torso.

You should now have a clean, grid style mesh that fits the general shape of the left hand side of your character, but it's missing a head, foot and a hand...


Sep 23, 2009
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mast mast............

Really very usefull.....

I like it.... to much

View Namo Kun's profile
Oct 13, 2009
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this tutorial is usefull for likes of me for lessons
thanx a bunch

Oct 26, 2009
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good work

View Chumba Wumba's profile
Oct 27, 2009
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There are a few passages not very clear to me...

1: what tool is to be used to combine the arm,torso and the leg? with combine i get a single mesh but the edges and the parts are still different objects, and if i use boolean -> unions the meshes disappear.

2: in the part where i should map the lines with hard edges i can't get what should i do.. i'm quite a newbie and i don't know how to map without using a split polygons for every hard edge.

Can someone explain a little more deeply these passages?
Tnx in advance :)

View Dave G's profile
Oct 30, 2009
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This is great, tyvm!

View Sea D's profile
Nov 22, 2009
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Great tutorial thanks!

just one thing- I only vaguelly remember how to set hard edges in maya, could you advise me on how to do this step in a bit more detail? :)


Jan 07, 2010
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great tutorial, to answer Chumba, to combine the two polygons you should shift click them both select mesh>combine. they will become one polygon where you can then merge the verts because merging verts can only happen with the same polygon

Apr 24, 2010
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Awesome Tut!

Apr 28, 2010
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thank u sir

May 06, 2010
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Awesome thanks!!
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<param name="height" value="184">

May 23, 2010
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too many tris on the model.

Jun 18, 2010
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How do I weld the vertices together?

Sep 12, 2010
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Really great very simple but triangles is a fail, but this tut is so fast metod to model body thanks

Sep 28, 2010
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Is there any high-res reference?

View divya tanwar's profile
Sep 29, 2010
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Sir ,
I liked this character modeling , bcoz it makes our modeling more easier .
I'm having problem in modeling Taj Mahal in 3d Maya . So can u send me the tutorial of modeling Taj Mahal , as sone as posibble

Oct 15, 2010
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Great tutorial. Not worried about the tris, that's something easily fixable after the model is completed.

Thanks for putting this up!

Nov 21, 2010
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i am a beginner of maya, i would like to know how you place the picture into the maya programme. Can i do it the same for a dog, as i am trying to model a dog using maya.

Dec 05, 2010
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Thanks a lot sir.Great Tut!Very helpful.

Dec 16, 2010
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very great thanks for this tutorial it's very useful for me.

thanks again

May 31, 2011
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toooo .....................much

i like it ........................

Jan 05, 2011
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anyone know how to actually join the vertices together???? u forgot to mention that bit!!

Feb 08, 2011
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I missed my classes in animation institue.. thanx for the tutorial buddy :)

I am starting to model it rite now... :D

Feb 26, 2011
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Anyone mind telling me how the hell he duplicated the whole right side of the body onto the left! I've tried to duplicate it too but when I try rotating it, it rotates and the back part faces forward. How can I just flip it?

Feb 28, 2011
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where have the pictures gone? They were still here yesterday ... :-\ this is worth nothing without pictures .-\

Feb 28, 2011
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@EdgElite: after you duplicated it, change the x-scale from 1.000 to -1.000

Mar 20, 2011
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Kevin, Try changing https:// to http:// then the images are there.

View sidkeepmenheart's profile
Apr 10, 2011
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really its very usefull

View Ronald Reed-Diaz's profile
Feb 06, 2012
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saying that I'm impressed, just doesn't express the gratitude or the appreciation that I am feeling at this moment. Very helpful, I will mention your help when I put my first models up.

Apr 23, 2012
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Yes, this was helpful enough. Thanks a lot this is the first time I've logged in into this website and am looking forward to know some more people who could guide me in this field as I'm very new to this field.... Thanks much appreciated....

May 27, 2012
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To answer some questions I saw in the comments:
To merge vertices you have to be in polygon modelling tab and go to (Edit Polygons-Merge)
A way to get rid of small triangles that don't impact the meshes surface too much is to select all three vertices and(Edit mesh- Merge to centre) only on smaller tri's though otherwise it could lead to more tri's if done on bigger faces.

To setup a new image plane you can do the following:
1. Go to (View - Image Plane - Import Image)
And edit its position and size in its attributes

2. Go to (Create - Polygon Primitives - Plane) scale the plane up a bit and hold down the right click button then go to (Assign New Material - Lambert) then in material attributes go to color and click on the white and black square next to color and click on "File" and the select an image to import . Then scale your plane to match the original images proportions.


Jul 15, 2012
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Hi there, I'm working through this tutorial now but all the image links seem to be broken, is there any way to see the images you've posted to go along side this tutorial?

Many Thanks


Oct 08, 2012
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Hi! I seem to be having the same issues with broken images as Cristina.
I would love to be able to reference this again!

Jun 17, 2013
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Really useful... other character modeling tutorials I have seen on the web is not like this... useful for me, a Maya beginner

Jan 14, 2014
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I accidentally gave it 3 stars when it deserves 5. Anyone know how to change the unintentional vote?

Great tutorial/reference!

View Winter_maiden's profile
Sep 22, 2014
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how did you make the hair??

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