Thursday, May 26, 2011

Dissecting the Avatar

Q: What do an onion, a wedding cake, and a Second Life avatar have in common?
A: They all have layers!

Your avatar consists of many layers. Some are mandatory…you can’t leave home without them. Some are optional. Together, they combine to create your appearance. Let’s have a look, shall we? Scalpel! Retractors!

Shape. Your shape establishes the “broad outlines” of your avatar – your size, proportions, and body and facial contours. Shape is adjusted with the Appearance sliders (unless the shape you are wearing is “no modify”.)

Skin Layer. This layer determines, to a large extent, how “realistic” you look. It provides fine shading and the appearance of contours to the face and body. Skins are created (like most layers) by painting on a template in a program like Adobe Photoshop. You can get free skin templates and have a go at creating your own custom skin; you can find good quality freebie skins; or you can spend a considerable amount on really nice commercial skins (good ones can cost $L1,000 or more each, and you will generally want a pack of several to give you some makeup choices).

Skins are usually No Modify, so you cannot adjust the tone or the makeup, only put on a different skin. There are a very few exceptions to that. Celestial Studios, for example, makes a skin that’s semi-transparent so you can adjust the skin tone and lip color with the Appearance sliders within a limited range.  (EDIT:  I just found out that Celestial Studios is no more.  Darn it, another great creator gone.)

Especially around the eyes and lips, shape and skin combine to create the overall look. You will often need to tweak your shape after getting a new skin to look your best. Some skins and shapes just don’t work well together at all…so always try the free demos provided by skin stores before you spend your money. Some stores sell both the skin and a shape designed especially for it in a package deal.

Eyes. This is a texture for your eyes. They can be extremely realistic, or you can wear slitted cat eyes, or glowing red demon eyes if you want.

Hair. Even though most of us wear a sort of wig, an attachable hairstyle made out of prims, you also must wear a system hair layer. One that has the hair sliders set to zero to make you bald is included with your prim hairstyle, and will probably be called “baldie”, “bald head”, or “eyebrow shaper”…because the hair’s appearance sliders also control eyebrow shape. If you’re visiting a very crowded and laggy area, it’s courteous to take off your lag-inducing prim hair and wear a simple system hairstyle.

All of the above layers – shape, skin, eyes, and hair – are mandatory. You can’t take them off, you can only replace them with another shape, skin, eyes, or hair item.

Physics Layer. This is a new addition, as of Viewer 2.6. The physics layer can’t be seen directly. It controls how much “jiggle” your breasts, belly, and butt have. Like your shape, it’s adjusted with sliders in the Appearance menu. For gosh sakes, go easy on them! It’s easy to give yourself so much freedom of movement that you’ll poke your eye out with your own nipple. The Phoenix viewer team has released some user-developed physics settings that are available free on the SLMarketplace. I suggest using these as a starting point.

Next come the clothing layers. We’ll work from the inside out. Each subsequent layer can cover up part or all of the previous layer, just as you would with real world clothes.
Like skin, textures for clothing layers are created by painting on templates with Photoshop or another paint program.

Tattoo Layer. This is another new Viewer 2 feature. The tattoo layer can be used for much more than just tattoos. I have seen tattoos for oiled skin, pubic hair, eyeshadow, lipstick, and even lips slightly parted to show teeth! This gives you more flexibility in your makeup choices than just changing one skin for another…but there is a drawback when using some third party viewers. You can only wear ONE tattoo layer item at a time. So, if you want to put on some bright red lipstick, you’ll lose that smokey eyeshadow look.  This doesn't apply to the official Viewer 2.  With that viewer, you can wear multiple things on any given clothing layer with the "Add More" option.

Undershirt and Underpants Layers. These are most often used for your undies. But very often, pants will come with a version on the underpants layer as well as one on the pants layer. The underwear version is handy because it tucks invisibly inside your boots.

Either the pants or underpants layer can be used for creating skintight miniskirts. The space between the legs is filled in with one or two prims to create the illusion of a tight skirt.

Stocking Layer. Can be used for anything from tube socks to thigh highs. Sometimes used for long boot tops. Often used to provide toenail color.

Glove Layer. Used for gloves, of course…but also very often used for nail color. “Glove nails” are not as crisp and detailed as attachable prim nails, but they are also care-free. Prim nails can become detached by certain animations that clench your hands or spread your fingers.

Shirt and Pants Layers. Shirts and pants are adjustable for length with the appearance sliders (unless the maker has made them No Modify). Pants should not be set to 100% length. If you do, they tend to develop an ugly looking “flap” at the very bottom. Set them to 98-99%. A special sort of pants called “glitch pants” are usually included with prim skirts. When you walk or sit, your legs will poke through a skirt, because the fabric of the skirt doesn’t have “collision detection”…it doesn’t drape over your body. So the maker of the skirt provides pants in the same color, to give the illusion of the skirt draping over your legs.

Jacket Layer. Generally used for sweaters, coats, jackets, or any type of outerwear. This layer goes farther down the body than the shirt layer. Besides the usual uses, this layer is also used to create high-waisted pant tops. SL pants are cut so low that without this work-around, most fashions wind up having the bare midriff look.

Lots of better-quality clothes come with “layer options”…for example, a top might have a version on the undershirt, shirt, and jacket layers. This gives you more flexibility in mixing and matching items.

Skirt Layer. Some people don’t like “system skirts” that use this layer. It floats a little way out from your body, which can make your hips and butt look fat. I like system skirts, though. I simply have a version of my shape with slightly skinnier hips and butt to compensate. Skirts can also be used for the lower parts of long coats.

Shoe Layer. The shoe layer is used to reshape your foot to fit attachable prim shoes. It’s not mandatory, like shape or skin, but you should always wear the shoe base that comes with your shoes.

It would take a long time if all of these layers had to be rendered every time you looked at someone, and so SL automatically “bakes” the textures into one composite texture that can be displayed much faster. If you are having problems rezzing your avatar (you look like a cloud or a ball of mist), one of the first things to try is “rebake” your textures with the shortcut CTRL+ALT+R.

Next time we’ll talk about the “icing on the cake”…prim attachments.


  1. Some of you may have had trouble posting comments. If you did, please try again...I changed a setting that might help.

  2. It works! It works! :) Oh, and thank you for the descriptions. I do love that tattoo layer. :)