Thursday, April 2, 2015

Disco Worms Character Design

After trippin' a bit down memory lane, let's fast-forward to the (almost) present:

The project "Sunshine Barry and the Disco Worms" (produced by Radar Film in 2007/08) instantly appealed to me. The whole notion of a bunch of worms forming a band and playing disco music is inherently hilarious! I was initially hired just to do some storyboards, but quickly got sucked down the slippery slope of my own spinelessness. I just love disco music, and worms are... well, also quite interesting.

Early sketch of Barry and Tito by Teddy Kristiansen.
When I arrived on the project, preliminary sketches had already been done for most of the characters (by Kim Hagen and Teddy Kristiansen). And the main character, Barry - named after a famous falsetto-singing disco superstar who, according to a reliable source, refused to have one of his songs included in the movie's soundtrack because of a worm being named after him - had by then been modeled in 3D.

However, the 3D model still didn't have any facial expressions. But because of the tight production schedule, the animators were already starting up on the first sequence, which meant that they were forced to animate the basic body action with the pupils' movements as the only element of facial acting.

So I threw myself at the challenge of designing mouth and eye shapes for the existing Barry model. None of us really had too much experience with advanced 3D character setups, so we were sort of just learning on the fly. In retrospect it is clear that we went about it all wrong, building a series of fixed expressions instead of a more flexible kind of system like those used everywhere today. But hey, we got the job done.

These are some of the sketches indicating to the modelers how to build Barry's facial blendshapes (as you can see, I moved from drawing on paper to working on a Wacom Cintiq on this production).

Since this movie had a relatively limited budget (as is the case with all Danish film productions) we had no choice but to find a way to reuse as much as possible, especially of the quite labor-intensive work on the blendshapes. This was achieved by using Barry as a template for a number of other characters. 

Barry's Mom by Teddy K.
We reused his topology but transformed it by applying a "master blendshape" to create a different character. This way the new character would be born with all of Barry's features, which could be reused with only minor modifications.

For the female characters for example, we added eyelashes and adjusted the mouth shapes for fuller lips. Barry's Mom was made somewhat chubbier, and Gloria (the hottie and object of Barry's desire) slimmer. Of course we gave them different clothes and hairdos. Barry's Dad got some bags under his eyes, which were also shrunk a bit, a pair of glasses with a heavy frame, a mustache and a small potbelly under the business jacket.

Gloria, hair concept.
Barry's Dad, inspirational sketch.

Barry's Dad, notes for the modeler - in Danish :-P

Here are some of the final models, all spawned form the Barry character - modeled by Jimmy Levinsky and Casper Svane.

Barry's Mom
Barry's Dad

All the worms in the movie were essentially copies of Barry, using the same topology and blendshapes. The only exception was Barry's best friend Tito. He was, although also a worm, something of a special case due to his more voluminous nature. It was important that he looked enough like Barry to belong to the same species, but even so we soon gave up on the idea of a complete reuse.

The front and side views of the "technical" sketch below were placed in the background in the modeling software (Maya) as a guide for the modelers. Unlike the other worms, we didn't build Tito as a stick, realizing that he could never bend nicely that way. So he was built in a bent position.

Inspirational sketches of Tito.

"Technical" sketch for modeling Tito.

In the end, the only part which was reused from the Barry model was the eye section, which was reduced slightly while maintaining the same shape. For the mouth all new blendshapes had to be designed and modeled. Here's a selection of sketches for the modelers.

And here's the final model of Tito, my absolute favorite character in the movie.

Barry's best friend Tito.

Of course there were not only worms in the movie, but all sorts of insects that found themselves far superior to the worms (after all, the worms comprise the bottom of the food chain). And the insect above them all was none other than Tony Dean - a famous crooner beetle whose soothing voice, much to Barry's annoyance, could melt Gloria's heart.

Again, Tony's design was originally conceived by Teddy Kristiansen, then adapted for 3D by me and modeled by the German modeler Marcus Boos who joined the team midway through the production.

Inspirational sketch of Tony Dean by Teddy Kristiansen.

Tony Dean "technical" sketch for modeling.

As with Tito, we managed to reuse Barry's eye section for Tony Dean, using a "master blendshape" to pull the eyes slightly apart in order to give him a different feel. Due to Tony's unique design, blendshapes for the mouth of course had to be done from scratch. Here are some sketches to guide the modeler.

And here's the final model. I think he's quite a funny character.

Tony Dean model by Marcus Boos.

The rest of the insects, both secondary characters and crowds, were modeled through an elaborate system of reusable parts, with characters divided up into scalable heads and bodies which could be combined in many different ways. But that's another story...

Check out the official trailer for Sunshine Barry and the Disco Worms, produced by Radar Film (now Nice Ninja).


  1. I found a very questionable wikipedia page that mentions that there were 3 sunshine Barry and the Disco worms sequels. Can you confirm this

    1. the disco worms fandom wiki page has false information! hope this helps 5 years later <:)

  2. i wonder what species of insect is this character