Safwen Laabidi / Creating a realtime character for facial animation

Hello! my name is Safwen Laabidi. I'm a self-taught CG artist I worked for 12 years as a freelancer mostly on characters for games and cinematics also working as a lead modeler and the responsibility for research and development at D-tek studio, handling Louis Vuitton luxury products specialize in sculpting & texturing complicated hard surface modeling and photorealistic rendering. As part-time I teach character creation for games at Net-Info.

What is your personal approach and how are you connected to texturing?

My main job is character creation. I have to come up with solutions to facilitate my workflow and at the same time deliver high-quality characters with all the textures ready to be integrated into the engine or rendered for cinematics. We all know that games and films have different workflow but overall besides the micro details and udims pretty much the same at least for me. I use substance a lot along with scanned  textures that provides you with everything you need as a base I’m a fan polypainting so I usually use the base texture as the first iteration and then start on making the model look close to what the client wanted, of course, I try always to keep the workflow non-destructive for future use if needed.

On your artistic journey, from the start until today, did you find other artists that inspired you, or still provide you the will to keep looking over the horizon?

At first, I struggled a lot where I come from we don’t have that many artists so I didn’t meet anybody that has the same passion as I did at first. I started making random 3d stuff with no specific focus like cars houses interior some assets but characters never I was really bad at making them and then I discovered Artsation. I couldn’t believe how many talented artists in the world and one of those artists is Vitaly Bulgarov, Glauco Longhi, Rafael Grasseti, Ian Spriggs and many others the quality of my work changed radically after seeing how much love they and focus they put in their artwork. Every day I see stunning art that makes me want to push myself and be better, help others, and motivate aspirant Artists to do the same.

What is a typical/representative day for you?

My day starts off by checking my mailbox, If I have a new task, or need to do some RnD for the studio. After that, I check if any of my co-workers would need some help and if I have free time I can keep working on my personal art which is one of the most important things for you to grow as an artist.

When I get off work, I go home or to the gym, you have to find the balance in your life or you won’t be able to continue this kind of career path.

Are there still challenges you face in your art today?

I will always face challenges, that’s what’s interesting about the kind of work. I learn new things every day, but for me one of the most challenging parts is anatomy. I’m still exploring new ways to go about creating the most realistic yet artistic characters.

Today I’m facing a new challenge and that is animation. Recently I started working on a character, she will be fully animated with all the dynamic part moving in real time. This is new for me but in the same time exciting to see the final result. Challenges are how you know you’re evolving as an Artist.

Breakdown : how to create a face for facial animation

Part 1: Creating the face
The most common workflow known is starting from a sphere. In our industry that will change and it depends on the pipeline of your company, starting from a sphere is not a good idea. If you’re making this character for a game in a studio, usually you’ll have a base mesh with the correct topology. That will make the rigger’s job easier. In my case, I started from a sphere because this is a personal work and the goal is to learn. I’m not tied by a deadline. I started to block out the main forms after I have the correct proportions and general silhouette I zremesh. Now that I have a cleaner mesh, I start the primary details after that I do the retopology using zsphere.


Part 2: Modeling the mouth interior.

One of the most important parts in the face when animating is the interior of the mouth. If you don’t make that, your character will have unrealistic expression and when he starts talking you can see the back of the head and that’s a problem. So after the retopology, I export the face to 3ds max to create the inside. I use shift to move to extrude from the lip edge loop until I cover the entire mouth.
The actual teeth you have to model a base mesh to have a guideline.

Part 3 : Modeling unwrapping and texturing the eyes.

Usually modeling the eyes will be pretty close to how the eyes looks in real life. You would model 3 or 2 separate geometry to simulate the sclera and the iris but for this, I made the eyes based on the digital human project provided by epic games.

One very important thing is that you need to follow the exact uvs that epic game did in their example to have the shader working properly in unreal engine.

Don’t be confused when you see how weird the eyes look inside your 3d package 3ds max, maya , blender... As long as you follow the same geometry shape, uv placement and scale (uv scale) it will look fine in unreal.

Part 4 : Projection raw Textures to the face.

First thing I did before texturing and uvs was to make a blend shape for the face with both eyes closed. The reason is when she will blink her eyes in the animation would have some details on her eyelid.
Since texturing XYZ multichannel maps have the eyes already closed with all those awesome veins and imperfections, I took advantage of that by closing the eyes and made the uvs accordingly. Then exported the mesh to zbrush to project add the textures using Jeremy’s workflow and zwrap.
One thing I did differently is that I bent the plane in 3ds max to make the job easier for zwrap. I did the projection of all the maps inside max.

I did all this with her eyes closed to have realistic looking eyelid when blinking.

Parts 5 : Detailing raw maps in substance painter.

I skipped the phase of how to add displacement because texturing xyz website has a pretty decent tutorial on how to do that. I personally learned a lot so I suggest you check it out.

Now for the texturing in Substance. Before I exported the maps to substance. I fixed some of the error in photoshop just to have a clean texture with no eyelashes or hair cover using the clone tools and some small color correction. I only worked on the base color in Substance, the reason for that is I wanted to extract the roughness and ambient occlusion from the normal map in unreal engine. That way if i have wrinkle maps it will update the roughness in real-time. The last thing I did was to add the transformation effect so I can lerp it in unreal later when I export the animation.

Parts 6: Preparing morph targets/Blendshapes.

Making blendshapes is a very tedious yet necessary task just like retopology . The more you spend time on it the better result you’ll get. In my case, I use two types. The main morph targets and the corrective morph targets.

Note : Morph targets is the same as blendshapes it just depends on which software you use

I start off by exporting the face to zbrush to make the FACS. One thing that can help you make good believable expression is this book called (Anatomy of Facial Expression).

Now that I have the model in Zbrush, I can start making blendshapes. Depending on which technique you’re using for facial capture, the number of expressions will change. I’m using Facecap app for the iPhone X so I have to make about 51. You don’t have to create all of them just create whatever suit you’re animation needs the missing ones won’t be animated.

To create a blendshape I use the sculpting tool in zbrush with the symmetry on. That way I don’t have to do both sides separately. All I have to do is store a morph target so when I finish the sculpting I remove the added deformation on one side using the morph brush. After that, I export the expression to 3ds max and then invert the process to the other side and so on.

Important note: To get the animation from the app to work on your custom model, you need to give the blendshapes you created the same naming convention as the model from the faceapp. Here you can find everything you need to know (

Part 7: Recording the animation and exporting it.

To record the animation all you need is the iPhoneX and the face cap app.
Make sure the lighting in your room or the studio is bright enough to pick up all of your head also avoid facial hair.
For more information, you can click on the button and check all the necessary option on this website (
Also if you want another alternative you can use the livelink and Ar kit from epic games. This is a link for more info (

After you finish the recording you just click on the share recording button then you can mail it to yourself. You’ll get 2 files one .wav file and FBX file that you can import to any of your favorite 3d packages.
As long as you have the same naming convention in the same order you’ll get the animation to work very easily.

Part 8: importing the animation into Unreal.

After the record completed and emailed the file to me, I downloaded the fbx file and I gave the file to my friend to transfer the animation because they didn’t find a solution for 3ds max yet. Since I don’t have a Maya license but my friend does so I gave him the character file and the FBX recording to retarget the animation and export it back again so I can import it into Unreal.

To get your animation working in unreal is very simple all you have to do is click the import button and check all the necessary option in the importer as you can see below in the screengrab.

The shader I made was pretty simple I didn’t want to complicate things for better performance. I took the sss profile from digital human character and used it the rest is all mine.

To create the effect of her face changing with the correct blendshape. First, I need to go to Substance painter and start painting manually with the help of some veins alpha I found online and not to mention the utility map from the multichannel pack.

Now to create the effect and make follow certain blendshapes you need to get the animation curve of that specific expression my case I took the Jaw Open. To access to the anime curve you open the animation window and you’ll find show anime curve.
After that, you click on the blend shape you want to follow and activate the material and copy the same name for example ( jaw open ) and you go to your material and lerp whatever you want with the scalar parameter. The most important thing is that you name the ( scalar parameter )  ( jaw open ) you can copy and paste to make sure it’s the same.
I did the same thing to the eyes when she turns her eyes become brighter using the emissive channel.

What is the place of TexturingXYZ maps in your usual workflows? Which softwares do you use? Any tips for aspiring or professional artists?

Since I saw the multichannel pack pretty much all my characters used texturing xyz. In the future, I’m going to buy the fabric and fold pack to fit that into my workflow.

The software I use are ZBrush, 3ds max, Substance painter and designer, marvelous designer, unreal engine & Vray.
For those who are using the texturing xyz maps stop rushing your work to get to the detailing phase make sure your main form is correct to get the anatomy, structure and the general silhouette, then add the maps that way your work will be complete.

How did you first learned about TexturingXYZ? Did you have any specific reaction to it?

At first, I heard about this from a friend talking about characters and general pipeline. I went online to check it out I couldn’t believe the amount of details and control you have with each channel and that paved the way for me to change my entire workflow.

How do you picture the industry in 5 years? Do you feel any tendencies or boundaries that could exist?

From what I’ve seen so far everything is going real-time and procedural nobody wants to redo work that can be fixed with just a click so I really think even films and animation will go full real-time not sure when but sure it will be the only boundaries is that of your imagination.

Would you like to add anything to this interview.

I would like to thank my mom, my wife, and my friends who supported me and believed that I can do what others think I couldn’t. Special thanks to the Texturingxyz team for making our life easier and let us focus on the Artistic side of texturing.
We would like to thank Safwen for his work and helpful contribution.
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