UPDATE: Version 3 complete. This article was originally written for version 2.
For my first major project, I chose to experiment with a generic anime girl. The subject matter has a huge amount of references and visual memes for easy concepting and allows for diverse styles. We'll call her Maiko.
Below is a summary of the techniques used in Maiko's creation, and some links to more in depth tutorials. These methods have worked for me, but I am fairly new to Blender and am still constantly learning.
When learning, I was often following tutorials that showed how to do very specific things, but did not necessarily explain how it all actually worked. This made it difficult to understand the bigger picture. So, my goal is to provide more context and information. I will not be covering how to use basic tools and features, but rather what to do with them to get working results.
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The base body was generated in MakeHuman Alpha 8. Despite this being an anime character, I decided to follow realistic proportions and leave the stylization to the materials and Freestyle. She has idealized proportions—slightly larger eyes and longer legs than an average person—but they are within the realm of real humans.
I chose a close fitting bodysuit for the outfit partly because it is appropriate for the subject matter, and partly because it is easy to make and weight paint. The suit was copied off the base body, then retopologized where necessary. The weights were also copied, and then adjusted as needed. The outfit is not particularly complex, and required no advanced techniques to model.
I have written a three part guide on how to make functional topology for a similar outfit, and transfer and adjust the body's weights.
Part 1: Creating the Base Bodysuit
Polygonal hair is important to capture an anime style, and also necessary when working with Freestyle as it does not operate well on particle hair. However, the styling tools for particle hair are very powerful and convenient. I created her hair first as particles, styled it, then converted it to curves. The curves were then extruded, beveled and converted to mesh. Further tweaks were made at the mesh level. This may seem like a long form way to do it, but it can be much easier than trying to build it from a mesh in the first place.
Shader and Lighting
We are accustomed to anime and toon styles using two or three tone shading. The stylization created by them is a key part of the medium. But these shading styles came about due to limitations on hand drawing. Would anime ever have been two tone if it hadn't been hand drawn from the start?
I wanted to keep the artistic stylization, but with a computer calculating everything, there was no reason to keep the limitations. I experimented with mixing both Toon and regular Diffuse shaders to capture the hard-edged shadows and specular we are used to in toon styles, but also get the high quality gradients and subtle details that Cycles (and fresnel) allow.
Part 2: The Maiko Shader Group
Freestyle is part of the Blender Internal render engine, but you are able to render only the lines, leaving you free to composite them over Cycles renders (or anything else.) I used several different line sets and styles with object groups limiting them to their proper places. It was necessary to exclude marked faces in areas to avoid certain problems, and there's still some areas that aren't entirely clean.