Creating Virtual Guys (and Dolls) in Georgia

While scenic and lighting design has benefited enormously from the advent of 3D software, it has been difficult for costumers and makeup artists to obtain the same results for preliminary work. This is due to the more complex nature of costuming, where the real-world physics of fabric has been, until recently, more difficult to capture without high-end modeling programs that require a computer the size of a small refrigerator.

However, as computers grow in sophistication and power, there are now off-the-shelf programs that excel at servicing the needs of costumers and makeup designers as well as the rest of the production team. Surprisingly, once the essentials are mastered, the learning curve for these programs is not steep: By implementing only a few basic steps and a bit of imagination, a design can be easily captured and studied. These 3D representations can subsequently be integrated into other aspects of the overall design, thus providing the design team with a working look at the entire production.

The Software

My own work in virtual costuming has led me to software called Poser, published by Curious Labs. A human figure software, it comes with a stock library of various figures (adults, children, animals, some rather spectacular robots, and “woodies,” those art school tools used to mimic the human form) and basic clothing pieces (shoes, shirts, skirts, pants). One builds up an image by starting with the figure in what is called the “Leonardo” pose (legs together, arms outstretched), adding clothing, then posing the figure, right down to manipulating the various finger segments. In version 5, it has grown from an admittedly toy program to one with surprising sophistication and power, including strand-by-strand hair generation and cloth dynamics, all with computer requirements well within most mass-market machines, including laptops. Even version 4 (the one I currently use) allows surprisingly beautiful results.

Like anything else, Poser's success has spawned a series of clones. Some are currently in development, such as DAZ Studio, while others have been around for a while, such as 3DMe. But Poser also benefits from a rabidly supportive user base, which has created literally thousands of garments, props, and hair pieces for use within the program. These range from fantasy and sci-fi to historically accurate wardrobes. The following case study, while not coming close to showing Poser's full capabilities, does demonstrate how a basic model can become a starting point for an entire production.

The Show

One of my regular clients is Washington County High School in Sandersville, GA, which is roughly 3,500 miles from my studio in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. We collaborate over the Internet (using the same process described in “Designing Online: The Web as a Sketchpad” in ED February 2001), and it's been remarkably successful for everyone involved. While work for them is done on a pro bono basis, it allows me a working laboratory to experiment as a scenic designer and, on occasion, I get to stretch things a bit by providing them with costume work as well.

This past fall, Washington County was producing a 45-minute version of Guys and Dolls for the Georgia State One-Act Play Competition. After discussions with Scott Price, the director, it was decided that the costuming should follow the approach used in the film Dick Tracy: bright, flat colors that would quickly underscore the relationships between the four main characters. The men would wear stylized war-era suits and hats, while the women would be seen in period day dresses with short sleeves and knee-length skirts, layered in such a way that the Hot Box costumes wouldn't require a full change (as a rule, you don't get dressing rooms at competitions like this). In addition, the chorus and principals wore coordinated wardrobes of wildly contrasting hues, compared to the somber dark blues, grays, and muted violets used for the Mission folk and the police.

The Process

Poser provides, as a stock mesh, a man in a standard business suit, perfect for my initial studies. Finding a fedora hat prop was a simple online search that took roughly a quarter-hour — I've bookmarked approximately 200 websites of Poser-related material, with sub-categories for “period clothing,” “household props,” “industrials,” and the like. Invariably, I find myself distracted and wind up downloading another 20-30 pieces to archive while searching for something else, but that too is one of the joys of this program's user base (even as it's resulted in a collection of no less than 55 CDs of archived material).

Once the hat was found and installed into the program, I used a combination of the texture map for the business man (something akin to a sewing pattern but with all pieces on one sheet) and Poser's ability to import colors and textures into specific areas (such as jacket, pants, tie), we were able to quickly set up the look of the men's ensemble in literally minutes. The women's street attire was put together just as quickly, using in this case a transparency map to delete the forearm sections of the sleeves of a 40s-era outfit, while the glitter trim on Hot Box dancers' pants and the sequined fabric on the blouses were painted into the texture map, then applied to the mesh. The beauty of this technique is that using a combination of textures and transparencies gives a basic dress, for example, a staggeringly wide variety of looks just by selective virtual tailoring. If specific fabrics needed to be studied, these were scanned and then tiled across the map to replicate the fabric's repeat pattern. Because these are 3D models, the costumes can then be studied from any angle and under a variety of lighting conditions. The models can also be imported into the software used for the scenery to see how both work in concert, a process that proved very useful during Guys' preproduction.

The rendered images were then put on a web page for the project where Scott and his team could study them. At one point, changes to the Hot Box girls were made literally within minutes as Scott's feedback was incorporated into the design and then re-sent via e-mail for approval during the same telephone conversation.

The End Product

After design approvals, commercial sewing patterns (found by using a search engine to locate the websites for companies such as Simplicity or Vogue) were then chosen and approved by using an online catalogue. Once the patterns were all confirmed, the sewing team — the good ladies of Sandersville — was off and running. Because the kids in the production wanted to surprise me, I didn't see the final work until opening night, and it was thrilling to see it onstage. As my friend Jim Lindsey pointed out, “it looked like a crayon box exploded onstage” — exactly the effect we wanted.

Although not applicable in this production, character makeup can be just as easily studied: A prototype design is painted onto the face template, then applied to the mesh. As before, these can then be studied under close-to-real conditions, depending on how accurately the lighting is replicated. Finally, if time and budget allow, all of these elements can be combined into an animated film to create a complete previsualization of a scene, with full blocking, speech, music, and choreography.

As wondrous as this all sounds, there are limitations to this kind of technology. The figures themselves, at this point in their development, are not perfect: Extreme poses tend to shatter the elbows and knees into a mass of polygons, although that can be corrected in post-imaging work. Poser and similar software use a standard, quasi-ideal body type, and adapting that to show someone who is, for example, overweight, can be a challenge. Further, unless one is an adept modeler (or knows someone who is), replicating a particular garment detail in 3D may be frustrating if not impossible. Still, for day-to-day work and initial studies, you'll find this a very useful tool.

For those who keep score of such things, Washington County took second at State this year but managed to pick up individual awards for two of the leads and Best Costumes. We're already thinking about next year's entry — perhaps Company, perhaps Two Gentlemen of Verona. Nothing's been decided yet, but my virtual clothing library is ready for whatever Scott decides to throw at me.

For more info on the software and this project, check out these websites:

Poser portfolio:

Theatre design portfolio:

Poser and 3D character-related resources: