Monday, 23 May 2016

The Design Doll program: a FREE human model reference for artists

http://terawell.net/terawell/
I learned about Design Doll from deviantART member MariamTiarko. Somebody (namely Terawell) created powerful software that allows artists to shape and pose their own digital model to use as reference.

When it comes to matching the quality of established manga-ka, a good understanding of human anatomy is critical. As an anime artist, I hoard references. My skills have improved, but I lack the knowledge and discipline of seasoned pros, so decent references are indisposable guides.

If my How to Draw Manga books don’t have the poses or costumes or techniques I need, I go to Google. But, everything in Google Images is copyrighted, so extra effort’s needed to find relevant references in the public domain. Sometimes, I stop being lazy and get my camera. If I can scrape the necessities together, the resulting reference is way more helpful than any Google Image and, since I made it myself, way more fulfilling. If the picture I want to draw involves flying or leaping, however, my camera’s no good without a trampoline or wind machine. Is Design Doll the perfect modern solution?

Cautious web surfers have every reason to be suspicious, but the free version of Design Doll has been on my desktop for nearly a year. I bought a new laptop during that time and downloaded Design Doll, for free, again. Truth be told, if it weren’t for MariamTiarko’s endorsement (she’s a fellow Beyblade fan I’ve known online for years), I may have needed more convincing.

The main pages of Terawell’s Design Doll website are defaulted to perfect English. When you view their Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Disclaimer pages, however, you’ll see Japanese text. There’s even blurred Japanese script on one of the big splash images on the landing page.

I had no idea that Terawell was founded in Japan until I wrote this post. Suddenly, the ease of moulding figures to suit anime proportions makes sense. The only surprising thing is how easy it is to get Design Doll on your computer. You don’t have to be in Japan, you don’t need to worry about shipping and you don’t even have to pay.

I have no other information on Terawell, because I know very little Japanese. I did, however, stumble upon a Japanese Wiki for Design Doll.

The features available for the free version and paid version of Design Doll can be compared on Terawell’s official website. Terawell are being very generous with their free version, which isn’t a trial that’s going to expire. I can keep using the software and there are no hidden costs.

When it comes to shaping and posing the model, I’m in exactly the same playing field as users who have paid. I’m free to “morph” my model’s physique to fit the build of any character type. I can control lighting and shadow. I can create a group of models to interact with one another in the same scene. What happens when I want to leave the playing field, though?

There’s no Save button in Design Doll’s free version. Terawell let you build, play with and even take pictures of your own character, but when playtime’s over, that character’s gone until you decide to build it again.

The absence of a Save button means that you have to get the reference you want before it’s time to shutdown your PC. The goal is the reference – not the perfect model. Free users have access to all of Design Doll’s “morph” features, but as someone with a busy work schedule, it wouldn’t be worth my time to fuss over these features. Only paying users have the luxury to refine and keep their models for the next reference shoot.

As a free user with little time to spare, I’ve gotten used to building models that are rough round the edges. I pull together a character’s general body structure and spend most of my time positioning it to fit the image in my head. Once I’ve finalised the pose, I use Design Doll’s Export Image function to take pictures of my model from as many useful and interesting angles as possible. When I’m 100% happy with the references I’ve saved, I can close the Design Doll program.

I count Design Doll as part of my hoard of references. It’s an additional tool that hasn’t replaced my How to Draw Manga books, camera or even Google Images. If I owned the paid version, I don’t think this would be any different. I treat the models I shape and pose as bases to guide me – not, god forbid, to trace over. They’re skeletons that need fleshing out by artists, and an artist can’t do that convincingly without some skill.

When it came to drawing ‘Time with the Spirit in the Glass Bottle’, I used the models I made in Design Doll to anchor my early drafts. I find it quicker to get the right pose in Design Doll, because it’s easier to see if a stance or limb placement doesn’t look natural. It’s much faster to tweak and experiment with a digital model than a hand-drawn sketch (mine can get so messy, I end up confusing myself).

Drawing characters interacting in a group is something I find challenging. It takes a long time to plan the scene freehand when I need to factor in height (more difficult if there’s a mix of standing and seated characters) and think about body parts that are going to be hidden from view (but need to be sketched to help produce a convincing picture).

Design Doll removed these frustrations when I used it to plan the composition of ‘Time with Snow White and Rose Red’:

There’s a difference between moving a puppet and bringing a puppet to life. Terawell understood this, so they made a "pose creation" tutorial that asks you to consider things like centre of gravity and weight and balance of the body. To make great references in Design Doll, you first have to master striking perfect poses for your model. If you find this learning curve a tad too steep, consider buying Design Doll’s paid version.

http://doll-a.net/terawell/
Terawell have launched Doll-Atelier, a public online gallery full of ready-made, posing digital models. A paying user is free to import these models for use in Design Doll, be it for non-commercial or commercial purposes.

Having used Design Doll for nearly a year, I can see the appeal of the paid version. Without a Save button, I can’t make the most of the powerful tools at my fingertips. I love the idea of sculpting perfect models of my original characters and using them again and again to help me draw. The Doll-Atelier gallery is also a cool idea, and though I can’t imagine using it much (I’d feel funny about using another artist’s pose when I have the ability to make one myself), I like the idea of experienced artists sharing their posing models and I like the idea of rookie artists using those models to improve their skills.

I think Design Doll will be very useful to the right kind of artist. It can help rookies draw the human body more accurately and enable more experienced artists to create wild poses that’d be difficult to capture in real life with a camera.
http://terawell.net/terawell/?page_id=60
The only negative thing I can say about Design Doll is that I, personally, find the “morphing” tools hard to understand. You have a big range of options to choose from, which means there are big possibilities for the look of your model, but (maybe I have untrained eyes) some of the options seem to produce very similar effects.


I still look at certain thumbnails and can’t say for sure what they’d do to the model. I play around with all the sliders and max them out, but besides a subtle rise in the chest or slimming of the legs, I honestly can’t tell how the model’s changed or why I'd seek to make the change. My guess is that to get the best out of “morphs”, you have to use them alongside the “scale tag”, which changes the size (length and thickness) of the model and its limbs.

As I mentioned, I don’t fuss over the look of my models, because I'm using Design Doll's free version. I therefore haven't taken pains to learn how to use the "morph" tools expertly, but I'm not sure if studying will help me understand why some "morphs" are so subtle (why can't I see the difference between a number 50 blend and a number 100 blend...?).

One way or the other, I'm very happy to have access to such a helpful, fun and sophisticated reference tool. I encourage you to make up your own mind about Design Doll.