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HelpTutorialsTips and tricks for character modelers

Tips and tricks for character modelers

You have a 3D model of your character from your animation, game or avatar and you want to bring it into the real world with 3D Printing? No problem! You may find that your existing models aren't always directly suitable for 3D printing, so we've prepared this tutorial especially for you.

It's is not a tutorial about character modeling – there are already plenty of those around on the web. Instead, we'll focus on tips and tricks for getting the best possible 3D printed result.

The Basics: Creating a Watertight Model

Of course, the first and foremost requirement for being able to 3D print your model is that it needs to be watertight.

I think it deserves some extra attention here because as a character modeler, you may be used to modeling only the visible parts. The back faces of props, clothes, eyes – all these are usually left out because they won't be visible when rendered anyway.

For 3D printing, every surface in your model needs to be closed. Even if two objects overlap or intersect, they both have to be closed. You'll make our printers cry if you don't.

In addition, the face normals of the object all need to point in the correct direction: outward of your object. We're using the direction of the face normals to determine what's the 'inside' and 'outside' of your object. Inside and outside mean 'printed material' and 'air' in our case. You'll need to pay extra attention to this if you create hollow parts. Again, always make sure the normals point towards the air, as in the following diagram:

For more information on this topic, please see our tutorials 'Fixing non-manifold models' and 'creating hollow objects'.

Using a rig to pose your model

(The following is based off Blender rigging)

You can use a rig to pose your model. Just don't use any extreme distortions - these can cause problems with your face normals when 'inside' faces are pushed to the outside.

As far as I can tell, manifold/watertight objects will stay manifold even when they're changed by a rig. If you start out with a printable model and then pose it with a rig it should remain printable.

Shapeways can also handle self-intersecting models to a reasonable degree, although coincident faces can sometimes become a problem. If our upload check rejects your model, re-pose it slightly and try again.

Finally, Shapeways can only handle model information – not rigs. You'll have to 'bake' the pose into the model before exporting it.

Make the arms and legs strong enough

I'm probably stating the obvious here but some parts of your model may have to endure some rather large forces. For example, creating a very fat (and heavy!) character on two very thin legs is a bad idea as they might just snap off under the weight. Check with the various material pages what the minimum thicknesses should be in the material you want to 3D print in.

But will it actually stand?

In your 3D software your model will always stand nicely on it's feet, but if you don't take care your REAL model might just keel over – you'll need to examine the location of your object's center of mass in relation to the size and location of the contact points with the floor.

If you're lucky, your 3D software may have some kind of physics simulation or center of mass calculator that you can use. If not, here's a trick I like to use:

Draw a curve around the contact points of your object with the floor. Next, take a look from the top of your model and see if the bulk of its mass fits inside this curve. If it does, it'll be pretty stable. If it doesn't then you may want to take some additional steps (see below).

Also take the shape of the contact area into account: it should be roughly circular.

Here's an example. Cornelius here has a big head and a fat tummy, but only two very tiny feet. The red area is the curve that I drew around his feet. In the image on the right you'll see that the contact area is very small compared to the entire character.

Making the base larger will make the model more stable.

The height of the object is also a factor: higher objects will be more unstable. Take another look at the position of your center of mass. Next, measure the average size of the contact area. A good rule of thumb is that these two sizes should be roughly the same. In the case of Cornelius, I estimate that the the center of mass is about at the height of his arms. This relates nicely to the size of the contact area so I'm still confident that this character is stable.

Examples of this method:

  • 'Petunia' here can stand, but as her mass is too far to the front, she turned out quite unstable.
  • 'Toon Hen' has nice big feet that are well placed with respect to the center of mass.

Adding a base for stability

Another approach is to add a base to your model. Again, make sure that the center of mass is well inside the base area (ideally at the center) to get the most stable solution.

A drawback of this solution is that a base will require additional material so it'll also raise the price of your object. Even a small base with a diameter of 5cm and a height of 2mm uses about 4cm3 of printing material.

While you're at it you can of course use the base in your design – add some floor details or the design's title to it!

Examples of this method:

  • 'What the Duck'
  • 'Ode to the Boogieman' is a nice example of a base that's integrated into the design of the model (see how the top-heavy head sticks WAY out of the model?)

Using props for stability

If your model allows it, you can also use props to give it stability. Maybe you can make your warrior lean on his sword or let a dinosaur's tail touch the ground.

Examples of this method:

Saving costs

Once your model uploads and Shapeways accepts your model, you'll see the prices in various materials. Here are some tips for making it fit in your budget:

1. Make your model hollow. You don't pay for what you don't print, so by removing the interior of your object you can slash the printing price.

A common method for making an object hollow is by extruding it inwards. This can cause sharp corners to push through the wall as indicated below. Smoothing out the inner wall usually solves this problem. The animation below illustrates this (thanks, DaddyMack!).


2. Make it smaller! Pricing is directly related to the volume of material printed, and volumes are the third power of the object's size. Make the object half the size and the volume will become an eighth!

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