How to Make 3D Sprites
By Jack Gerard
Sprites are images, usually of single characters or objects, that are used in animation, particle effects, games and other programs. Though sprites are often thought of as two-dimensional animated images such as those used in 8- and 16-bit video games, three-dimensional animated sprites exist as well. Though a 3D model is required to make a 3D sprite, the animation of the sprite differs from other forms of 3D animation; rendered images of the model in different poses are used to create the sprite animation instead of using the model itself.
Create a model of the character or object you wish to make a sprite of, saving the model mesh once it has been created and textured. If you wish to use a premade model to create your sprite, open the saved model file in your modeling program.
Add bones to the model's mesh if your modeling program supports bone animation. Incorporate motion limits if desired to keep the bones from moving the mesh in directions other than those you will use in your animation. Save the model again once the bones have been added and attached to the mesh.
Pose your model so that it is in the position you want it in for the first frame of your sprite animation. The pose should be a relatively neutral pose that the sprite can return to at the end of the animation cycle so that the sprite animation doesn't skip or appear choppy if played multiple times in a loop.
Create a render of your 3D scene, saving the rendered image to your computer. The background of your render should be black, white or another solid color that can be easily removed or made transparent using image editing software.
Adjust the pose of your model slightly, taking care to only move the portions of the model that are being animated instead of moving the entire model mesh. Once the model is posed the way you want it for the second frame of your animation, create another render and save it with a different file name than the first rendered image.
Continue making adjustments to your model and rendering the new poses to make a full sequence of images for the sprite's animation. By the end of the animation sequence the model should have returned to the same position it was in when you made your first rendered image.
Close your modeling program. Launch your image editing program, and open the individual render images you created of your model.
Convert the background layer of each image into an editable layer; then select the background of each image using a wand or selection tool, and press the "Del" or "Delete" key on your keyboard to remove the background color from the images.
Save the images in a format such as .gif that supports background transparency. This ensures that only the image of your rendered model to appear in each frame of your sprite.
Close the image editing program, and open the animation or game creation program you're using to create your sprite. Create a new image if using an animation program, or open the game you wish to add the sprite to and access the sprite or character editor if using a game creation program.
Add your rendered images to the animation or game creation program one at a time in the order that they were created. Preview the sprite animation once the images have been added, adjusting the timing between images as needed to make animation that flows smoothly. Save your animated 3D sprite.
- By beginning and ending your animation on the same neutral pose, additional sprite animations can be created later that start from the same neutral pose; this allows for a variety of actions within a game or longer animated sequences that flow naturally from one to the next.
- Never move the entire mesh of the model you're rendering, even if the animation you're creating involves motions such as running or falling. The game engine or animation program your sprite is used in should move the model for you. This prevents jerky sprite animations or sprites that become out of sync with where the game or animation program thinks they are located.
Born in West Virginia, Jack Gerard now lives in Kentucky. A writer and editor with more than 10 years of experience, he has written both articles and poetry for publication in magazines and online. A former nationally ranked sport fencer, Gerard also spent several years as a fencing coach and trainer.