Added by on 2013-09-09

Tips & Tricks related to Facial Modeling for Animated Productions by Sergi Caballer Garcia

Facial modeling and topology is something that has always caught my attention. I like to focus on the artistic point of view, including the interpretation of shapes & volume, but also work hard to describe a concrete volume with the kind of topology that will make it possible to maximize the deformation and flexibility that the animators may desire.

This side of our work is something that has lost relevance in the learning curves of new modelers, since the massive implementation of sculpting software has allowed them to focus on the artistic side and avoid all of the headaches that topology might bring to volumes and, ultimately, to model deformations. Of course, focusing on shapes and volumes allows us to quickly improve our model and to obtain quality results quickly, but we have to assume that, if it isn’t a production model, we will probably not retopologize it, so we’re always going to avoid topology.

Those are the reasons that pushed me to start this kind of topological library that I hope will be useful for those modelers who are looking for facial topology references and who are also interested in taking a general look at the entire process of completing a cartoon head ready for animation.

I usually work with Maya, but all of the steps and methods showed on these timelapses are the same ones you’ll find in other packages, such as split, insertEdgeLoop, extrude, merge, sculpt, etc., so you shouldn’t have any trouble following the videos. So let’s get started!

Blocking Topology: The goals at this point are to define the character’s overall volume and to make the main topological areas ready to add more topology in the next step or to send it to our sculpting software.

I like to start modeling from a cube instead of from any other kind of primitive to avoid unnecessary poles and extra divisions at the beginning. With a 2x2x2-resolution cube, it is very easy to separate the upper & lower; front & back parts of the head, and with just a few extrusions and divisions, to get all of the main areas of the face, such as the jaw, neck, nasolabial area, brow and eye socket areas, ears, etc.

I always model my characters with their lips and eyelids closed, as this will let me keep the same number of divisions coming from the upper lip/eyelid to the lower. Later it will make the labor of shape modeling or facial rigging easier because each part will begin its movement from the same initial point.

During this first modeling pass, I like to leave the eyelid area not 100% defined, as far as topology. The main goal in this area at this point is to collect all the loops coming from the surrounding areas, letting them flow to their homologues. This method guarantees the continuity of the topology through the area, and will let me decide in the future what kind of solution I will use to finish this area, a standard eyelid solution or a Pixar eyelid solution. In the future I will try to cover this topic in another article from the point of view of shape modeling.

Finally, I like to colorize the different topological main areas of the face to improve their visualization for future work. Also, you may notice that I have tried to put all of the pole vertices (vertices which connect more than 4 edges) on the same edge ring surrounding each main area. This topology organization allows me, if necessary, to reuse these areas coming from the different characters that I have modeled with the same topology organization.

Final Topology: Added all required topology to achieve nice, fleshy, sliding skin, as well as wrinkles & folds for the character’s future expressions and facial deformations.

It’s time to move from the rough to the final topology model with all of the information required for future facial deformations, such as Blend Shapes or facial rig. As I mentioned in the beginning, this process could be done using any digital sculpting application and leaving retopo for later. However, with this example I prefer to add all of this topology by hand and, at the same time, to keep the focus on volume so as to make it more obvious where more detail is needed. In another article at some point in the future, I would like to talk more in-depth about topology, the main areas of facial topology, and the relationship of these with facial deformation, so I think it could be useful to add all of this detail showing the color scheme that differentiates the distinct main areas of topology.

Very often I work on the eyelid area as a separate low-resolution piece due to the amount of density required. I usually work with half of the final resolution required in this area, so before I attach this piece to the rest of the head, I apply a mesh smooth operation to get the full density required on the mesh to match with the loops coming from the surrounding areas.

One of the areas to which I apply the most changes during this episode is the neck area, where topology varies from a simple cylinder to a reorganized mesh in order to achieve rich and believable neck deformations where the sternocleidomastoid and trapezius muscles should appear. This work may not be necessary with stylized characters, but in this case, given the proportions and details of the design, all this new neck topology is going to be very useful to give the character added appeal.

Final Modeling: Wax on, right hand. Wax off, left hand. Wax on, wax off. Breathe in through the nose, and out through mouth. Wax on, wax off…

As you know, this is a kind of mesh created for animation which needs to have all necessary topology to get nice facial deformations, so the high density of mesh on the model could be a headache when attempting to maintain clean and smooth shapes. Due to all of this, the final modeling is probably the step that is going to take the most time, by far, when compared with the other two steps, as this last step involves the artistic side of the work while at the same time requiring that you continue to pay attention to the flow of the final mesh.

During this process I usually do a lot of work with deformers such as lattice, soft selections, and Sculpt Geometry Tool, as well as deformations on the mesh using direct vertex manipulation in normal mode. All of these tools let me focus on the volumes and shapes, and if necessary, they allow me to modify the mesh at the vertex level to fix or improve the flow of the topology.

All of the elements of the face, such as eyelashes or brows, should have the same topology structure as the surface behind them in order to get nice deformations coming from the face rig without any extra work. So a good time to make them is when you have finished all of the rest of the work on the face. This means that you have an easy way to extract those elements from the mesh of the head, keeping the same amount of divisions. Finally, hair modeling is something that is hugely dependent on the production workflow, because it could be as easy as polygon hair, flat cards with hair painted with color and opacity, or just real hair. My choice in this case was a technique that will let me decide in the future if I prefer to paint textures or to use all of those curves as a guide for a real hair solution. With this technique, I’ll only need to create different NURBS surface levels over the whole head. All of these layers are made using three NURBS curves groups to create a loft surface between them. This method allows me direct control over the hair surfaces with just manipulation of the curve CVs. – Sergi Caballer Garcia

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  • Guy

    Love it ! thanks a lot this is great.

    • Sergi Caballer

      Thanks! 😉

  • Moustafa Shaheen

    thank you for the tutorial

    • Sergi Caballer

      Thanks Moustafa! 😉

  • John Scerri

    Your too awesome :) Just epic… I learned a lot watching your tutorial. Thanks!!
    Just a small question if I may. Are the eyebrows separate from the face?

    • Sergi Caballer

      Hi John, thanks for your words! I’m glad you like it! :)
      The eye brows are a separated piece from the face, but I keep the same vertical divisions than the surface below. Later, it will helps to transfer facial’s deformation to the eyebrows just with a simple wrapDeformer with an excellent results. 😉

      • John Scerri

        O.. ok I got it! Thanks a lot and keep up the great job! Looking forward to see more of your work.

  • Stephen James Davidson

    It looks like the topology from happydrome – great stuff

    • Sergi Caballer

      Thanks Stephen!

  • Demetrius McClain

    I have problems modeling the eyelids. The timelapse is moving too fast for me to catch. Is it possible for you to forward me a realtime video of the eyelid modeling?

    • Sergi Caballer

      Hi Demetrius,
      unfortunately this is just a screen capture every 5 sec, so there is no video to reproduce in slow-motion :(

      • Demetrius McClain

        Thanks for your reply Sergi. I believe I’ve found a solution. However
        tedious. LOL. I have to say your tutorial is by far superior to all
        others. I truly wished it was recorded at real time and made available
        for purchase. I’m sure you’d make a small fortune on it alone.

        • Sergi Caballer

          Thank for your words Demetrius! I really appreciate them!

  • Great!
    Never liked modeling because of the cumbersome organic part.

    But this surely gave me a reason for another try.

    • Sergi Caballer

      Thanks! I’m glad you like it!

  • a

    what a beautiful model

    • Sergi Caballer


  • Mélina Auer

    Hello, I really think your work is amazing ! I see that the face is mirrored whan you are modeling it, what are you using for that please? Thanks !

    • Sergi Caballer

      Thanks Mélina! To model with the mirror, I use to create a duplicate special, with the instance option enabled, and the X scale to -1.

  • chillibibi

    Really fantastic work and a great 3D modelling guide

    • Sergi Caballer


  • Yuliana Salazar

    you’re amazing!!

  • Thanks for the tips, really interesting and usefull

  • Ye Eun Anna Lee


  • David Young

    It amazes me how some people think that a time lapse at 4x speed is going to do much to show someone how to build a model. Then I look in the comments section and see people saying awesome and thanks for the tips. This is my opinion and I will leave you with my thoughts. This is more about showing off your skills than it is helping others understand the process. If anyone gets anything out of these time lapses it’s because they already know what you are doing. Not because the time lapse is useful as a teaching tool. Again this is just my opinion.

    • Ludwig Geerman

      Hi David, Everyone always have an opinion of some sort. That’s the nature of us all. For me personally being a digital kid, I know i can’t learn from a 4x speed time laps. Logically, I stitch these 3 video here in Screenflow, and slow it down almost to a frame by frame speed. So it shouldn’t amaze anyone how we learn from this, we just find a way if we really try!

    • 3Rton

      I’ll give you a tip mate slow down the video and follow step by step : 3

    • D2K

      It’s really more about the quality than the quantity. If you don’t already have a basic foundation in 3D modeling step-by-step tutorial still might be too complex for a novice. They may be able to copy what you are doing, but they have no idea why they are doing it which means they aren’t learning.

      If you already have a basic knowledge of modeling but are still at a low novice level, you can get some use out of a timelapse video as long as you slow it down.

      It annoys me also when people send more time showing off what they can do rather than how they did it, but I try to salvage any useful tidbits that I can.

  • Gord Taylor

    There’s a lot to be said for Box Modelling. Getting my hands on Zbrush led me away from it for awhile and now find myself back. I do both really. Both have advantages. And David Young: I’m not a big fan of Speed modeling vids myself. Usually I ignore them as ‘show-off’ vids. I agree with your comments overall. It’s still nice to see box modelers at work though but yeah, they generally aren’t much good as tutorials.

  • Daniel Abdulla

    please upload it’s slow version