The head is the single most complicated challenge for an artist. Not only do you have to make an aesthetically appealing model, but there are tons of technical requirements that most artists don’t stop to think about. Learning how to model a head for animation the right way means knowing how to find the balance.
How to model a head for animation
This video covers the right way to think about character head modeling. Working from image reference, I illustrate how to create a technically solid mesh, while at the same time matching the likeness of the model (the images I used for reference are available here).
The main technical challenges
The topology of the head is crucial to proper function during animation. The crease around the mouth at the laugh line, the squinting in the eye area, both depend on topology that is structure to fit the face.
Defining the face are two main areas of animation: the eyes and the mouth. Both sets of features are controlled by radial muscles called sphincters. Like on your butt.
So our topology must agree with, and flow along, those radial muscles. And blending those three radial areas together is no walk in the park. But creating a proper blend is absolutely critical for learning to model a head for animation.
The main aesthetic challenge
Here’s the bad news: every human being on the planet (except possibly those with face blindness) are EXPERTS at facial recognition. There are parts of our brains devoted solely to analyzing faces and extracting data about mood and intention. In fact, the brain is so sensitive to faces, we seem them everywhere: clouds, pieces of bread, even here 🙂 .
This means you should plan on spending more time working on the face that the rest of your character combined. And precision is much more important – misplace a vert in the shoulder region by 6 inches, probably not a big deal. Misplace a vert on the face by a millimeter, and suddenly your likeness looks more like a cousin – or worse, a monkey!
Trying to model a head for animation is tough
We are agreed on that! Capturing the artistic likeness, while including the technical topology, is a lot like rubbing your belly and patting your head at the same time.
What I suggest to developing artists is to do one step at a time – so, finish a proper topology cage without trying to make it look like a head, and then editing after the fact to match your reference. Or, modeling and sculpting the head to look like your person, and then retopologizing to create good topology.
Either way, working to model a head for animation is difficult. It takes practice and dedication. So work through your early frustrations and setbacks, and eventually the right model will be done!