Convert a vector illustration into a 3D scene in Blender

Working on a lot of explainer animations I feel the need to keep things fresh. And with me, a lot of motion designers research new styles, looks, and feels. It’s fun and necessary to keep the creative juices flowing, to do just that I decided to convert a vector illustration to a 3d scene.

The change it makes when converting a vector illustration into a 3d scene is unfathomable. Your image immediately feels fresh and rejuvenated.
Having worked for a bunch of clients, I can tell you that 90% appreciate it when you offer them a new style. 

Where I’m from the ‘Kurzgesagt’ and ‘Motion design school’ styles are often used for smaller clients. Making every exception stand out even more. Immediately creating a unique brand experience. 

Exporting vector illustrations to Blender 3D

No matter how you approach this style you’re bound to find some very tasty results. In this case, I started with a traditional vector illustration in Illustrator. 
Using the SVG addon in blender it’s mega easy to extract your illustration from Illustrator and start working with it in Blender.

You might need to enable this in preferences, if it’s not there google for Blender SVG import or export.

It might be that you have to switch CSS properties to include presentation attributes, you can find those in the SVG export settings. Now, Blender should recognize the colors and made a material for each shape. SVG is the only vector type Blender can import in a 3D scene at the moment.

vector illustration into a 3D scene

This was a style/animation test, which in the end didn’t fit in with the edit. The contrast between real-life footage and animation was too stark for the client. The colors are direct opposites of the colors of their brand identity. 
I share this to show you something. It’s very easy to work in colors, shapes, and other elements of the brand identity into a style like this. Making it a highly adaptable and versatile style to have in your arsenal.

All the shapes were cleaned up where necessary. Give the shapes some depth by adding the proper offset in on one axis. Then using the solidify modifier or plain old extrusion we can give the shapes some thickness. In my opinion, this will create a pleasing effect.
I found it interesting during the development phase of this scene that some details were lost. The face and the pipes were cluttered so much that it reads as a spiderweb of tangents.

Taking advantage of 3D lighting capabilities

As demonstrated here, I experimented with blocking the background, by using a fill shape in between the face’s outlines.
When I made the fill a bit transparent, to show the pipes still behind it, I had to crank up the contrast. By darkening the new transparent layer, the silhouette was still readable and I was able to keep some slight transparency.
The contrast also directs the viewer’s eye to the face of the character. Which normally is a natural resting point for the eye.

For this animation test, I left out the facial animation. However when the client would accept this proposal we undoubtedly would come across a scenario where we had to animate the face.

If that should happen the face, but don’t forget about the hands, should be easy to read.

One thing to keep in mind is, although a scene might work as an illustration, the added complexity of a 3d scene can cause issues that need your attention.

Light, value variations, and color are the tools of an artist. A lighter has three objectives. The first goal is to direct the viewer’s eye. The viewer should focus on the important parts that move the story forward.
The second goal is the shaping of an object. A shadeless object could be perceived as flat, in some scenarios obscuring the shapes or silhouette. All animation, in some form or another, is based on realism. Therefore most illustrations/animations have some form of lighting to convey a hint of three-dimensionality
The third goal is to convey the mood of a scene/story using color and contrast.

Vector illustrations are usually flat, however, sometimes there is a bit of cell shading or grain arcing to accentuate the shadows and highlights.

As you can see, my vector illustrations didn’t have any vector shapes that should resemble either shadow or highlight. Obviously, because we use real lighting to bring that into the 3D scene.

Challenges of vector illustrations in a 3D scene

While this could save quite some time over modeling a full 3d character, we are still dealing with a relatively flat image. The illustration is extruded and placed in 3d space, but that only makes it 2,5D. I’m not a fan of the term either, but it’s the only way I can think of to describe it.
This style choice, like every new style, brings new difficulties to the table.

Animating this style could bring up some challenges. For instance, a 90-degree turn would reveal that the character is only displayed with the illusion of depth. In such a turn the front view would look very awkward. Because we exported a vector illustration and made a 3D scene out of it.
Also, face animation could prove to be challenging. In my case, the face was constructed of bezier curves. In this set up a rig would require a lot of bones to enable the animator the freedom he or she would need for a full facial animation.

Lucky I feel like I got at least one solution. I thought about this and came to the conclusion that using KeyMesh we should be able to get a stylized facial animation.
Because KeyMesh relies on object data, we should be able to draw a unique face and add that to the keyed object data. You could hand animate a sketch of your facial animation and copy the shapes over to KeyMesh.

If that sounds a bit too much, cause you or your team have a tight deadline, or the budget is not sufficient, you can always choose to animate a couple of different faces, for the key story moments. That way you keep the character alive and move the story along.

If that sounds interesting, let me know, cause I’m willing to make a video tutorial about how to do this.

That is in a nutshell how to change a 2D vector illustration into a 3D scene using Blender. Of course, you don’t have to use illustrator, model the shapes from planes if you like. Good luck to you all, share with me anything you make after being inspired by this post. Find me on Twitter on Instagram to do so.

As always stay creative!