3D Avatars Making of: Meeting with Anh Tu MAI, Art Director

Avatars are elaborate creations that originate from a “simple” 2D design or even a short textual briefing… and end up as sophisticated 3D animated characters. These avatars are defined by many artistic attributes: their graphic style, their animations, their looks, their emotions…

Sample images from the video « making of » of BBVA’s avatar Nathalie.


Today, I invite you to explore the 3D animation studio of Cantoche, with explanations from Cantoche Art DirectorAnh Tu MAI.


With a solid background in Visual Effects for the cinema / advertising / clips Industry, Anh Tu is the Artistic Director of Cantoche.

Anh Tu worked for 6 years as a CG artist and then Supervisor at BUF Company. He collaborated on feature films by Luc Besson, Vincenzo Natali, and the Wachowski brothers. He joined Cantoche in 2009 to manage the Artistic Department of the company for 2D and CG projects.

Hi Anh Tu, can you tell us what your definition of an Avatar is?

An Avatar is a full character. He is characterized by a physical appearance, a personality, a style of behavior and also a “role.” I thus have to understand in detail all these points before beginning the creation. His style can be realistic, cartoonish, or between both; its age, sex, skin color, face, hairstyle… everything is to be defined; he can have a very classic  style of dress or, on the other hand, can wear a spacesuit… the only limit is our imagination! His general appearance is going to give insights on the image that we want to give to this character.

His clothes and their colors, his facial and body expressions, or even his outline… will participate in defining his existence and perceived personality by making him friendly, serious, joyful, strict, modern, and so on…

Finally, the way he moves will be an additional clue to his character and must be coherent with his mission statement.

This last production stage is very important because it gives all its credibility to the virtual character to whom we are bringing life.

Can you explain what the main steps are to creating a new avatar “from scratch?”

There are 5 steps to follow to achieve the creation:

The design research phase

As soon as we have gathered a clear understanding of the type of avatar we have to create (age, gender, skin color, clothing style, graphic style) we dash into the design research phase.

If the creation is to be in a realistic style, we mostly rely on photos and make an “identikit picture” by gathering small pieces of real models. This is not only true for his face, skin and hair but also for his whole look including clothes, shoes and even accessories. On-line catalogs, models, magazines… everything can be a source of inspiration for us!

If the creation is to be in a cartoonish style, we ask our character designers to propose sketches and drawings of what the avatar could look like. At this stage, several tracks are explored and we refine the process step-by-step until we get a final design which satisfies everybody. Finally, the character designer produces a series of reference drawings which will be used for the 3D modeling. We often refer to this as the “character’s Bible.”

The avatar modeling

This is the stage when we create the character in 3D, at last! Based on the character’s Bible and by using 3D modeling software, our graphic designers produce the 3D structure of the character. A certain interpretation due to the passage from a 2D drawing or a photograph into a three-dimensional object is inevitable; and it is the graphic designer’s job to make this transformation in harmony with the character’s intended style and identity. His mission is to achieve a 3D model that will be even more finalized and real that the 2D original creation.

Facial expressions creation

The face is initially modeled with a neutral expression. It is then necessary to provide the avatar with a bank of expressions which will be useful for him: enjoyment, sadness, anger, etc. … Next we add the various shapes of his mouth (we call them “visemes”) to allow him to speak: in, E, I, O, U, M, etc. …


The avatar’s animation

A 3D animator now works on the avatar’s behavior and body animations.

Firstly, the artist inserts the 3D model  “skeleton” to the character that will allow manipulating him such as a puppet. After that, the 3D animator creates a series of simple or complex movements that the avatar will be capable of executing: gestures in various directions, arms movements to accompany his speech and emotional reactions, etc… all his body language is created here. The choice of these movements depends strongly on the role that the avatar will have to play. He surely will not behave the same way, should he embody a TV anchor or a sportsman for instance!

Exporting the avatar, ready for screen play!

Once the avatar’s shape and animations are validated, the avatar is ready for export. What is amazing with Cantoche technology is that the exported-avatar file is able to execute scenarios based on scripts. This means that with the help of very simple scripting tools, anybody can write a scenario for the avatar and give him his mission on a web site or a training course.

The scenarios are published in video or Adobe Flash formats.


How long does it take to create a new Avatar?

It requires roughly 3 months to create a brand new character from scratch, these 3 months can be divided in 3 parts: 1/3 for the design, 1/3 for the 3D modeling and 1/3 for the animation work.

Each step requires a certain number of validations or feedback from the clients and this explains how the time it takes to create a new avatar can vary a lot.

We can also adapt some existing characters from our gallery to fit specific customer needs. The production cycle is much shorter, the most complicated part in this case is to discuss and decide “which” customizations should be made !

What technologies are you working with?

Our 3D studio works with 3D modeling tools from the market. These 3D software tools are those used by all 3D specialists around the globe for movies and special effects. All the 3D data that we create is then exported to our proprietary format, Living Actor™.. The Living Actor™ format makes it possible for our clients, partners and project team to use these virtual characters and their animations and behavior banks in various situations for e-learning, assistance, marketing, and communication projects.

The avatars are scripted with our scripting tools: Living Actor™ Flash, Living Actor™ Presenter, Living Actor™ Video.

All these tools are developed by our R&D Department. Living Actor™ is a patented technology.

So tell me, what is the big difference between a Living Actor™ avatar and a DreamWorks or PIXAR 3D character?

Living Actor™ Avatars play the roles of virtual presenters or “virtual actors” (which is indeed very similar to Pixar’s or DreamWorks characters), but unlike the others our avatars are interactive and often embedded within contents or applications that are created completely by our customers. On the contrary, Pixar and DreamWorks studios produce whole 3D scenes that include the 3D characters but also many other elements, that are exported exclusively as movies. Their production cycles… and budgets are very (very very ) different as well !

In fact, the main difference is that anybody is able to create their own movie with a Living Actor™ avatar. All of our 3D characters can be interchanged at any time in the script, and that makes our solution very flexible and scalable.


Back to the real world after this immersion in 3D creations! Thank you Ahn Tu.

3D Avatars are more and more present in advertisements, movies and even major brands’ websites. Stay tuned for article focusing on one of the most world-famous brand characters who celebrated its 100th anniversary a few years back.

And you, what do you think makes a virtual character more real?

Talk to you soon!


This post is also available in: French