Three days into the project, it was time to begin modeling. As soon as we had a storyboard finished, it was easy to see exactly what we needed to build: about twenty men, two ships, and one island. I started out using my favorite modeling program, Lightwave 3D.
Fortunately, the characters are very simple and were built almost entirely out of primitives; the torso is a box stretched into a trapezoid, the neck is a cylinder, and the head is two spheres and a cylinder, topped with another cylinder. As in real life, all the details are simply flat texture maps. Also, our subjects have a shiny plastic finish, making them very well suited to 3D animation. I decided to stick with the rigid joints of the figures, and so we skipped an internal skeleton for deformation, and went with a simple joint hierarchy.
The only complex part of the texturing process was the faces. We decided early on to have animated features and lip-syncing, so all the facial image maps were separated into three layers; mouth, eyes, and eyebrows. In this animated gif you can see that by switching from one eye or eyebrow image to another, it is easy to animate simple expressions.
The mouths were a little more complicated because more images were needed. The mouth shapes, called phonemes, need to match phonetic sounds of the voice track to convincingly match the dialog. In addition to the smile and frown shapes, we had M-P-B, E, A-I, O, and U. Because our characters’ faces are so simple, we had to skip L and F-V; both of those phonemes require teeth. We also added a couple of extra “emotive” mouth shapes as well… and as many people have pointed out to me, “Arr” is a vital pirate phoneme.
The texture maps for the clothing were very easy to paint since there were ample reference materials on the internet, and that concluded the construction of the cast. Each actor is made up of only eight pieces, but the ships themselves would be far, far more complicate. Once again, the internet provided a resource of great value in MLcad.
When combined with the huge library of block types at Ldraw.org, MLcad is the ultimate building program. With unlimited parts at our disposal, it was quick work to assemble two ships, each consisting of several hundred blocks. As you can see, the process is very similar to building with real plastic pieces, only without the mess.
click to enlarge
Once both the frigate and the dreadnaught were completed, I used a few third-party Lscripts to import them into Lightwave’s Modeler. The rigging was built by me in Lightwave, since string and sail parts aren’t easy to do in MLcad, and also because I wanted to be able to animate them as they were being affected by the wind. I decided to create my backgrounds after I’d rendered the foreground elements, so I postponed the island construction until then. Next step: Animation.
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