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Learn what is Look Development

When it comes to digital production for animated movies and games, one of the most essential production processes focuses on how to add stylistic yet accurate details to your digital assets – from the characters to the environment and objects that will be in the animated feature. That process is known as Look Development and this article will give you an in-depth review of the process and what it entails.

What is Look Development?

Look development is the process of giving the final appearance or style to art production, like a video game or animated movie. Look development is essentially about “developing the look” of the characters, assets, and scenarios included in the production. 

The main purpose of this process is to create a consistent look and style for your characters, environments and props throughout a film or video game to give you an idea of how they will look on screen. Essentially, look development helps give to models in an animated feature the final look and feel concept artists had initially established for the whole production.

Differences between Look Development in 2D and 3D

Modern animated features come in different varieties, one of which is the medium – 2D and 3D. Because of the differences in medium, the look development process also differs in both cases. Below, we are going to analyze the various elements of differences between look development in 2D and 3D digital art.

  • Production

The look development production process varies depending on if the digital art is on a 2D or 3D medium. The look development process in 2D digital art uses digital programs and is more related to concept art. Basically, establishes the general style for the designing of props, characters, environments and other assets that will make the animated film or game.

With 3D digital art on the other hand, the look development process is more focused on texturing, rendering and shading. The goal of look development here is to determine rendering choices and stylized digital designs. The goal is to match as much as possible the style established by the concept artist during the pre-production process.

  • Development Phase
Image by PowerProduction Software

The look development process happens at different stages depending on if the production is in 2D or 3D. If the production is set to be in 2D, look development will be carried out in the earlier stages of the production process, while the concept artists are still in the process of creating of concept art. This is because the concept artists designing the digital assets – characters, environments, and props – typically work in 2D and effecting look development in that stage, while they are still at work will make it easier to translate the style and look to the final production.

On the other hand, for a 3D production, like in a 3D animated movie or a video game, the look development process is pushed to a further stage of the production process. It is typically carried out during the texturing and lighting of the environments, characters and other assets. In 3D productions here, the essence of look development is to capture and translate to the 3D models the style created during the concept art phase in the beginning of the production.

  • Visual Realism

If you are after more detailed concept art with realistic visuals, working on 3D mediums typically produces better results than what you would get on 2D mediums. For instance, character look development on 3D art assets covers more details including skin, hair/fur, and clothing. This also depends on the type of characters the animated movie or game will need. Creating realistic characters will be a more time-consuming process as you will need to pay more attention to the fine details of digital art. 

For stylized characters on the other hand, the job becomes easier as you can simply use a layered shader to represent skin or clothing. If you are creating a character based on a real-life person, then you would have to capture the face of the person in question via a scanning light stage. This will serve as a reference that will help you create an accurate digital double. 

On the other hand, if it is a fictional character not based on a real person, then the production artist can experiment with ready-made options like texturing.xyz. Apart from character look development, there’s also environment and object look development. Typically, look development for environment and objects is a lot easier and more accommodating than character look development.

Which software do you need for 2D Look Development

There are quite a number of digital art software that you can use for look development in 2D digital art. These digital design software are used for the chief purpose of creating high detailed digital art, be it digital paintings or concept art. Below, we are going to briefly go through the industry tested software used for 2D look  development by most digital artists.

  • Adobe Photoshop

Adobe Photoshop is the most commonly used digital arts software. From beginner artists to professional digital artists, Photoshop is the industry standard for everyone. The feature rich software comes with a ton of filters, brushes and painting tools. It is supported on Mac and Windows Operating Systems and comes with a monthly subscription.

  • Krita

Krita is especially good for digital artists who are into illustrations, cartoons and concept arts. It is compatible with Mac, Windows, Linux operating systems. Apart from the fact that it’s free, the software supports PSD files which will allow you move your art between Photoshop and Krita with ease.

  • Clip Paint Studio

If you are on a budget but you still want a great digital art software, then Clip Paint Studio is a cheaper alternative to Photoshop. The software is optimized for producing comic books and manga artwork. Clip Paint Studio is supported on both Mac and Windows Operating Systems.

Which software do you need for 3D Look Development?

Art by Christian Justamante Jacobs

While digital painting programs can make do for 2D look development software, digital content creation software are better for 3D look development. The software for 3D digital art are typically more advanced and complex than what is used for 2D art. Software like Autodesk Maya, Autodesk 3DS Max and Cinema 4D are the industry standard software for 3D digital arts used in most studios.

  • Autodesk Maya

Autodesk Maya is 3D simulation, modelling, and rendering software. The program is great for creating realistic effects and shaping 3D objects. It comes with a variety of engaging and intuitive modelling tools that you can use to bring create worlds and bring your characters to life in the look development process. Maya is compatible with Windows, Mac and Linux Operating Systems.

  • Autodesk 3DS Max

Also from Autodesk is 3DS Max. This software enables 3D rendering and modelling for animated films and games. 3DS Max  comes with a robust design tool kit with various rendering and animated tools motion graphics artists can use to define and shape detailed characters, environments and props. If you want to create compelling virtual reality experiences with 3D arts, then use 3DS Max®. The software is supported in Windows OS.

  • Cinema 4D

Cinema 4D is an intuitive and versatile design software every digital artist should have in their collection. Cinema 4D is compatible with both Windows and Mac Operating Systems.

While the above mentioned software are good, they are nonetheless digital content creation software not created specifically for look development. If you want digital design software that will put you on par with professional digital artists and animators in the industry, then you might be more interested in the programs that are specially created for look development and designed to accommodate quick iteration, a common feature in the look development process. Software such as Clarisse, Katana and Keyshot come highly recommended.

Once you are done with the look development, the assets will need to be rendered first so that artist can get a good idea of what will give the best end product. For the rendering process, there are two software to use: Autodesk Arnold and Chaos Group V-Ray.

  • Autodesk Arnold

Arnold is an advanced 3D rendering and animation software specially created to for visual effects production. Because of how advanced this software is, it can only be purchased by educational institutions who own a license. Professional artists and students who want to use the program will have to access it by purchasing another Autodesk developed software which comes with the Arnold package, typically Maya or 3DS Max.

  • Chaos Group V-Ray

V-Ray is a biased-render software engine by Chaos Group. The application is used for visualizations and computer graphics and is designed to be used as a plug-in for third-party 3D digital arts software applications. Maya, 3DS Max and Cinema 4D are some of the 3D applications supported by V-Ray.

Which skills do you need for 2d and 3d Look Development

Now, as with anything, having great tools to do the job can only make it easier but it can not get the job done. What gets the job done is your ability to do the job, in essence, your skills. That said, the skills needed for 2D and 3D look development do not differ that much.

As a 2D digital artist, being a skilled graphics artist is not enough. This is mainly because the concept surrounding 2D art is quite repetitive so your ability to do the job wouldn’t matter as much as your ability to bring in new ideas that will transform a regular concept to amazing 2D digital arts. So for aspiring and beginner 2D artists, as important as it is to work on your craftsmanship, you must also develop the ability to sharpen your creativity for incredible ideas on how to develop different variations of the same concept.

While the art of look development might be relatively straightforward in 2D arts, it is a lot more complicated and technical in the 3D medium. This complexity arises from the fact that the process of look development in 3D arts uses multiple applications which are also more complex and advanced than the average 2D digital design software. There are also unique processes involved in 3D look development such as optimizing renders and developing material presets using procedural nodes or image textures.

Material presets are usually created to represent assets like dust, rock and wood which do not have any particular specifications. Creating material presets that will produce visually realistic effects can be a difficult skill to master especially for digital artists who are just starting out in production. Nonetheless, it is a skill that can help you craft mind blowing art that will leave everyone impressed.

All in all, as a 2D or 3D digital artist, in your work, the most important thing is to aim for a balance between harnessing your creativity and crafting visually realistic arts. Pairing your technical and creative techniques with the right digital design software can help you create impressive pieces that will enhance your portfolio as a digital artist.


In all, look development is a bridge between the concept artist working in 2D and the final 3D models used for the final product. And regardless of the medium, the whole point of look development is to set the final style of the production. 

However, as exciting and rewarding as it can be to see your story begin to fall into place as your model takes shape, it is important to understand that look development can be a daunting and iterative process. This means that you may have to keep revising a particular look until you find that perfect style that suits your creative sense and fits the style of the production as a whole.

Nonetheless, knowing that you are a crucial part of a process that will contribute to the final look of a production should bring you enough satisfaction.

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