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I think this is a cool technique that I ought to share. Useful technique for a lot of different levels. Mesh deform is a great, fun tool that I would encourage beginning Blender users to try out. (Great for other stuff too, like fitting clothes.)
So making shapekeys is a pain for a couple of different reasons. One is that it can be difficult. Another is that it kind of freezes your mesh, since once you start making shapekeys, it gets harder to apply modifiers. Shapekeys are just irritatingly destructive.
But what I've started doing is using mesh deform instead. I can put shapekeys on the meshes I use to deform (or heck even rig them, that can be fine too) and then I don't have to worry as much about my main mesh.
It's also a lot easier to make shapekeys for simpler models-- and the meshes I use to deform my model are simpler models. They're simple enough that I can weight paint them manually with broad, messy strokes if I want to rig them.
Notice a few things. One is that I have a render preview window open. If I make a new shapekey on my deformer and pin it, the 3D render will show the effects of the shapekey + deform on my model-- *even if I switch to numpad '/' local view so I can see what I'm doing better in my edit window!
The other thing to notice is the modifier panel. I've got my mesh deform limited by a vertex group, and before I run the mesh, I'm running that vertex group through a custom curve, so I can tune how it blends into non-deformed face. Well, in this pic, I didn't need to do that, but it can be very useful-- you can make a much wider area of influence for your mesh deform and still tune it in an intuitive way.
Then, after my mesh deform, I have a corrective smooth. Great thing for keeping your shapekeys from going crazy. Because I have a mirror modifier on, I'm correcting from bind coords rather than original coords.
When I make a shapekey I like, the next thing to do is to see how far I can take it-- raise the min to -10, the max to 10, and see where it breaks, make a "new shapekey from mix" for each to rescale it.
For the final model, when I want to write the shapekeys, I tune the vertex weights and corrective smooth for each shapekey indviidually, then shift-d duplicate my face, alt-c mesh from curve (writes all modifiers) and move it to a new layer. When I have all my shapekey versions made, I can join those meshes as shapes to my base model. But I don't have to do that just yet. I can leave the shapekeys on the deformer and keep playing with my face, not worried about modifiers, not worried about adding verts or anything else.
If you're just doing this in Blender, you don't have to write your shapekeys, you can leave them on the deformer. Rig your deformer to your armature and create a vertex group that's the inverse of your mesh deform vertex group to limit your armature.
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