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Creating CGI: Computer-Generated Influencers

Creator Reyme Husaini sitting across Ava, the virtual fashion influencer he created.

Photo: Courtesy of Reyme Husaini.

With recent advances in 3D software, the technology needed to create virtual humans is cheaper and more accessible today, says Yan Ling Ng, founder of fashion technology company Lily & Lou. With free software and YouTube tutorials aplenty, it seems like anyone can start making (and leveraging on) these virtual humans. 

We speak to a few creators and catch up with visual effects artist and program director Patrick Woo Ker Yang, 44, to learn how virtual people are made from scratch - and if just anyone can make them. 

MARKET RESEARCH

Before getting knee-deep into the technical work, artists start with planning what their virtual person will look like. To decide on Ava’s look, creator Reyme Husaini surveyed people on what they thought an ideal influencer should look like. He picked out their preferences on everything from skin colour and height, down to details on face structure and the type of eyebrow. 

 

Not everyone does such thorough market research though. “It depends on what I like,” laughs Ng. “We choose a face like how we would cast a model,” she adds, “and see what fits the brand best.”

DIFFICULTY: 3/5

3D MODELLING

Making a virtual 3D model is not unlike playing with clay, says Woo. Using 3D software, creators can mould basic shapes like spheres, cylinders or boxes into whatever they want. A rectangular box can be sculpted into a torso and a primitive cube can easily become a hand or foot. To save time, creators can even start off with base models of already proportionately shaped humans and simply sculpt expressions or change the size. 

 

According to him, there’s plenty of 3D software to go around to get this done, from industry-grade thousand-dollar tools like Cinema 4D and Maya, to free, open-source options like Blender. “Sculpting software bridges digital with traditional art,” Woo says, “it’s like holding something in your hand.”

DIFFICULTY: 3/5

TEXTURING 

Many people wish they had fewer wrinkles, but creators actually add them to virtual people to make them more realistic, alongside other textures like skin, fingernails and pores. These are usually pre-scanned 2D images that are applied to the 3D model. “If you want an orange peel man, you’ll apply an orange peel texture,” Woo says. 

 

It’s more than a drag-and-drop, though, with problems like distortion and streaking to worry about. To get around this, Woo explains, “You have to open up the 3D surface like skinning a tiger. Once it’s flat, spots on the 3D surface are given a coordinate that matches the 2D map.” It’s a tedious process, but this way, textures can be applied very precisely. 

 

At this stage, creators also use complex surfacing techniques to control shininess, grittiness and reflection of the textures. “It’s like painting,” Woo says, “to a science”.

DIFFICULTY: 4/5

texture model.png

Applying textures on a model involves opening up the surface and aligning it with a 2D image.

Photo: User Igor Grinchesku on Github.

ENVIRONMENT

In lieu of physically going down to locations to shoot, creators of virtual people can pose their models with digital backgrounds like photographs. Rigging, or giving the model a skeleton, allows the creator to put the virtual person in various poses without having to start 3D modelling all over again. 

 

Of course, the poses have to match the background and lighting perfectly, which can also take a long time. “Software knows nothing about physicality or gravity, so you might have to make many edits to the sculpting,” Woo adds.

DIFFICULTY: 4/5

RENDERING

For a Microsoft Word document, saving a piece of work can be as simple as hitting “Save As”. But when it comes to 3D work, it takes much longer. “A high quality render takes about six to eight hours,” Woo says.

 

"It pushes computers to the limit,” he adds. “An old computer or a MacBook Pro can handle it,” he says, “though you can expect it to chug along over the weekend or take up to three days.”

DIFFICULTY: 2/5

PERSONALITY

Once the pictures are ready to be posted, there’s one more ingredient - a unique personality that’ll draw followers in. For Rae, her creators gave her a young skater-girl persona which has proven to be popular. As fashion influencer Sherry Kuhara, a long-time follower of Rae, says, “I love that she’s young, stylish and very chic.” 

 

Apart from looks, Husani also envisioned Ava’s personality from the get-go. “Ava is someone who’s nice and also very controversial,” Husani says. “She’s very pro-LGBT, very pro-colour, all for women’s rights and not afraid to say things.” That reflects on Ava’s Instagram page, with her showing up at Pink Dot events, hashtagging #mentalhealthawareness on her selfies, and highlighting events like International Migrants Day in her posts.

DIFFICULTY: 2.5/5

VERDICT

OVERALL DIFFICULTY: 3.5/5

“A skilled artist would be able to create a virtual person in under two weeks if he spends at least six hours every day working on the character,” Woo concludes. On the other hand, an unskilled person might take three to four years to master the skills from scratch. 

 

That said, he acknowledges that with the wide variety of free tools and downloadable presets available online today, starting from zero is the exception and not the rule. “There are models out there complete with textures and rigs for purchase,” he says. It’s also a myth that only people with a few thousand dollars to spare can create virtual people. “Cost-wise, it can be from nothing, just costing your time,” Woo adds, “even models that are gotten for free can be quite detailed.”

 

These aids can easily shorten the time needed for newcomers to make their debut. Case in point: Shavonne Wong, the founder of Gen V Agency, taught herself the software and managed to create three usable virtual models within a year. 

For those aspiring to create virtual influencers, perhaps honing the ability in branding and storytelling is more important than creating the most technically perfect virtual influencers. “That’s why even completely stylised virtual beings can gain followers,” Woo notes, referring to non-human virtual influencers like GEICO Gecko and Eugene the World Record Egg. “As long as you are able to immerse the audience, the quality and the integrity of the aesthetics are secondary.”