How to create cartoon characters in Cinema 4D

With the advent of mobile games and indie video games, there's been a big influx of illustrators and animators getting into 3D art. This has created a trend of cel shaded objects in 3D space, bringing a whole new aesthetic, depth and dimension to 2D-style art. Thanks to this trend, a feature in Cinema 4D that has existed for years is now seeing a resurgence.

Using Cinema 4D's powerful Sketch and Toon module, you can transform your 3D artwork into a cartoon-like illustration with just a few clicks of a button. The flexibility of the Sketch and Toon module lets you experiment with different 2D cel shading styles and have it react to lights in your scene.

Building designs or characters in 3D gives you greater flexibility, as you can simply rotate the object in 3D to turn the face, rather than using complex rigs. Simple things like this makes Cinema 4D a powerful app not only for 3D artists, but for 2D illustrators and animators as well.

Download the files for this tutorial, and follow these steps to create an illustrative 2D-style cartoon character in Cinema 4D.

01. Add cel shader

Just use the Luminance channel to avoid diffuse shading (click the arrows icon to enlarge this image)

Begin by creating a new material to create the cartoon texture. Turn off both the Color and Reflectance channels. We'll be using the Luminance channel because we don't want any type of diffuse shading. We're looking for nice flat shading for our model. Navigate to loading the cel shader into the Luminance channel.

02. Choose your cel shading colours

Set up the colour gradients you'll need (click the arrows icon to enlarge this image)

The cel shader works by using a gradient to apply materials across the surface of your object. The more you move a colour's gradient knot to the right, the more of that colour will be represented on your model. You can add or remove colour chips to get the colour combination you like, whether tritone, duotone, or any other combination.

03. Create a light

Use Infinite Light to get the right look (click the arrows icon to enlarge this image)

Let's create an Infinite Light with Hard Shadows enabled for a cartoonish directional light and sharp shadows. Infinite Lights act like a massive light source, such as the sun. To change the direction that the light is being cast, all you have to do is rotate the Infinite Light.

04. Use lights to drive cel shading

Uncheck Camera to control how the light drives the cel shading (click the arrows icon to enlarge this image)

By default, the cel shader uses the camera or your default view as the point of the light source (Camera box checked on). To be able to use a light in your scene as the cel shader light source and to accept shadows, you just need to uncheck Camera and check on Lights as well as Shadows. Now you have total control over how the light is driving the cel shading across your object.

05. Experiment with gradient interpolation

Different types of gradient interpolation can deliver interesting results (click the arrows icon to enlarge this image)

By using the different types of gradient interpolation by clicking on the arrow next to Diffuse, you can adjust how each colour blends into another one, and also discover some interesting stylised diffuse shading beyond just using no smoothing between each colour. For example, try adding contrast by spacing some knots closer together than others.

06. Add stylised grain

Activate the Bump channel to further stylise your cel shading (click the arrows icon to enlarge this image)

You can further stylise the look of your cel shading by using the Use Bump feature to add some grain. First of all, you must activate the Bump channel and load up a noise shader. Smaller noises work best for fine grain.

07. Use Bump

Try different Bump strengths and noise types (click the arrows icon to enlarge this image)

For the Bump channel to act upon the cel shader, click the Use Bump checkbox. You'll see the Bump channel breaking up the cel shader and adding stylised grain to your material. Experiment with the Bump strength in the Bump channel as well as different noise types.

08. Render settings

Avoid the Gauss filter, as it'll ruin your image's sharpness (click the arrows icon to enlarge this image)

When rendering out cartoon shaded objects, it's important to maintain a sharp, vector-like quality to renders, especially if you plan to composite the image in After Effects with vector layers. Typically you would render out using the Gauss (Animation) filter because it prevents flickering for some animation, but it also blurs your image. To maintain image sharpness, choose filters such as Cubic (Still Image) or Sinc.

This article was originally published in issue 227 of 3D World, the world's best-selling magazine for CG artists – packed with expert tutorials, inspiration and reviews. Buy issue 227 here or subscribe to 3D World here.

Related articles:

Thank you for reading 5 articles this month* Join now for unlimited access

Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1

*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription

Join now for unlimited access

Try first month for just £1 / $1 / €1

EJ Hassenfratz is an Emmy Award-winning freelance 3D designer and tutorial artist based out of Denver, Colorado. Over his career he has worked with numerous big-name brands including Apple, Microsoft, and Comcast. He also runs a company dedicated to helping people master Cinema 4D.