Bringing Bricks to Life

Ever wonder what it takes to bring 3D characters to life? It can actually be a lot of work, bringing a character to life, especially if you want to make them appear realistic. It can be quite a process to add scratches, weathering, dents and even fingerprints to a small toy character.

While working on the upcoming short film, ‘Toy Cops’ our team at ‘The Vault’ spent countless hours on modelling, UV’ing, texturing, rigging, animating and rendering out the tiny brick toys to give them a realistic feel, while also giving them a “stop animated” look. We decided to share a bit of the process of creating these characters, to show everyone how intricate it actually can be.

Modelling & UV’ing

It all starts out with the basic model of the character. Using industry-standard modelling software (Maya), we use reference images from actual toys, which we meticulously recreate in 3D space. This process can take hours or days, depending on the complexity.

The next step is the tedious, yet an essential step of laying out the UV coordinates, which is just the process of mapping out how the 2D texture images are going to be applied to the model. For this project, we are using both Photoshop and MARI. Once completed, our artists submit their dailies through Shotgun, to be approved and sent to rigging.

Texturing / Materials

In order to get that realistic used plastic toy look, we had to make some cool bump, specular and metalness maps to go with our diffuse maps. Things like micro scratches, raised paint, reflective badges, buckles and even fingerprints, really add to the realism of the final render.

We decided to take a real hard look at what the real toys look like. One thing we noticed, is that when light hits the plastic, it glows through a bit. This is because the plastic is small and thin. Adding some Subsurface Scattering to all of our materials, really had an impact on the final look when the characters were being hit with direct light.


For the ‘Toy Cops’ film, all of the hero characters will be using the same rig. We wanted the faces to be animated real-time in Maya, using texture files and UDIM’s. We achieved this by cutting the UV’s in the face in half, then using Set Driven Keys to change the placement of the UV’s, based on character control dropdown menus. This allowed us to be able to control the mouth expressions (phonemes), but also have control over both eyes (open, closed, winking, etc). For a tutorial on how we achieved this process, please see the Tutorial we created.

In order to be able to quickly switch character faces, we used a VRaySwitchMTL node, which was plugged into each individual character face shaders. This allows us to switch character models, while retaining the facial animation. If you’re interested in seeing more about that, we also made a tutorial on doing that here.

We then used Set Driven Keys to turn on/off visibility on props (like hair, hats, etc.) that were parented to the mesh. For non-hero characters (like passerby’s, traffic and BG characters), we are developing a Golaem Crowd System.


Our friends from Chaos Group stepped in to support ‘The Vault’ with some VRay Next licenses. ‘Toy Cops’ is using VRay Next for all lighting and rendering, inside Maya. All of our shaders are using VRay Materials and all of the hero shaders have subsurface scattering enabled. This can add a bit to render time, but luckily VRay Next is fairly quick, and we have render farms to back us up when it comes to getting something completed really quickly.

From the beginning, we decided that we wanted our characters, props and sets to appear extremely small. This is why we are working in real world units, with the characters being only 4cm tall. This has an effect on lighting and depth of field, which gives them the appearance of being extremely small toys being shot with a macro lens.

For more information on the ‘Toy Cops’ project and what we are up to, check out the Toy Cops Project Page.