Case Study
Frank, Last of the Chickenheads

Comic book artist Tony Wicks, was searching for a company that made action figures from comic book characters, as he was thinking of marketing a model Frank, the Last of the Chickenheads - a ninja chicken in a messed up world. Research led to the conclusion that any company who made these figures these days needs a digital file to work from, and so Frank was originally modelled in 3DS Max for this purpose. Plans for animating him for use on screensavers for comic book conventions etc. came later. Tony drew the blueprints (front back and side profiles) and handed them over for modelling.

This project presented a number of challenges, as Tony wanted the overall look of the character to be like A Scanner Darkly, more comic book than real life – add to this the feathery nature of the chap and there were some pretty unique problems to overcome.

it was decided to model Frank roughly in Max before importing him into ZBrush to give him more detail – a draft displacement map is shown below, however this was not used in the final model due to the memory hogging nature of displacement maps when it comes to rendering, as well as the fact that most of the detail would be hidden by clothes and feathers eventually. The final export from ZBrush was still a lot more detailed than the original model, however the subdivision was lowered in ZBrush to allow for a smaller polygon count in Max.

Polytools was used in this project for the first time and the results were cool – importing a highly detailed tunic into Max and then using Polytools’ polygon Snap feature enabled ‘tracing’ the high poly import and modelling all the folds accurately with the lowest polygon count possible.

Hair & Fur had previously been used on the Detroit Tiger, so the quirkiness of this modifier was well known (all the fur in one editable poly jumping to another poly when more than one piece of geometry in the same scene that has the Hair & Fur modifier is the most obvious and annoying example – the workaround being to groom models in separate files then merge them when you’re done).

For Frank’s feathers, it was decided to instance geometry into Hair & Fur instead of using the native hair – this worked well, although on reflection the opportunity was there (and really should have been taken) to lower the poly count of the master feather before working it into the scene.

A standard biped figure was used to rig and skin Frank, modifying the feet so that one of the toes faced backwards on each foot, as well as attaching an extra bone rig to the head to enable manipulation of the beak.

The most obvious problem with animating Frank became apparent when trying to make him walk – if you look at the blueprints you will see that his sword is sheathed at the front of his tunic. Whilst  this all looks very good, it renders it almost impossible for Frank to place one foot in front of the other, as his left leg will keep colliding with the sword – a quick bit of research on the internet later showed samurais to sheath their swords at their side.  Even then the sheaths look pretty cumbersome in combat, and you will notice in Kill Bill that in any of the action scenes featuring katanas, there is no visible sheath attached to any of the combatants (strange but true).

Frank has quite a repertoire of movements now, ranging from simple walk cycles through to complex martial arts combinations.  The problem of how to get him to actually unsheathe his sword was the latest stumbling block. The length of the sword and the length of Frank’s arms currently make it a physical impossibility for him to pull out the sword – the only way around this was to use two camera cuts...

Additional Imagery