CREATE A DETAILED FANTASY CHARACTER
Arno Schmitz walks you through the steps of designing a character worthy of a leading role in a next-gen video game
The goal of this project was to take a character I’ve been doodling during my high school and college years and recreate it to the best of my current abilities. Very similar to how Marvel takes existing comic book characters and evolves their design to be worthy of cinema by reimagining all the details and thinking about the functionality of the outfit. If you decide to use a concept that is not your own, be sure to credit the original artist.
The technical specifications for this project are a guess from a few years back of what I’d imagine next-gen would be. That means very clean and quite detailed game meshes that still use normal maps. An offline renderer was used to have access to raytracing. That turned out to be a very accurate prediction since that is achievable on this generation of consoles. Many 4K textures are used to texture the main elements of the character, and Xgen is used in favour of hair cards since this method looks more realistic.
So this tutorial will be a journey to learn how to make a real-time cinematic character at the most cutting edge of technology.
A lot of the offline rendering techniques like raytracing can be done in real-time engines now. So, for example, a character like this would be perfect for a short movie made in Unreal or Unity.
01 EXPLORE DESIGN CHOICES IN 2D
From working at a AAA game company you realise that iterating in 3D is very costly. For this reason, before undertaking a big challenge make sure you have a solid concept to base your project on. In this case the aim was to recreate a character I often sketched in high school. Whenever you spot areas that could be upgraded during the modelling phase, do some sketches or paintovers first.
02 BLOCK-IN THE CHARACTER
At this stage your goal is to quickly get an accurate representation of your character. Apply some shaders close to the right colour and specular response. This will help to get a good impression of your model at an early stage.
First focus on the big shapes, then continuously refine the shapes by adding secondary detail. When adding more detail, try to build on your previous big shape decisions, instead of changing them.
This scene will serve as a hub for your progress and will continuously be updated.
03 CHECK FOR ANY ARTICULATION PROBLEMS
Before investing any effort into making an intricate model, it is best to do a sanity check by articulating the character through a bunch of extreme poses. This is called a ROM (Range of Motion).
Arno Schmitz is the principal character artist at Guerrilla Games, currently working on Horizon Forbidden West. Previously he worked on Horizon Zero Dawn and Killzone Shadow Fall. www.artstation.com/arno
For this character, after doing the ROM, the armour plates had to be adjusted. The shoulder plates now have a lip so the spikes have enough clearance when the arms are raised. The bracer is now segmented to allow forearm rotation. The back of the cuirass is now separated so there is enough mobility for the final pose where he is crouched forward.
04 CREASE THOSE EDGES
To block out the armour I used poly modelling. Maya’s crease edges are used to control the form and flow of subdivision, ensuring the hard edges stay well defined.
Use smooth preview to see how the mesh will behave when subdivided. Once finished, subdivide in Maya and export to your sculpting package.
During modelling, work with two subdivision levels. But for export, four subdivisions works better. This will result in a crisper edge. In the sculpting package, you can reconstruct your levels and add two extra without creasing. This gives a nice little highlight on the corners.
05 DEVELOP A CONSISTENT TECHNIQUE
When sculpting the armour it’s all about adding surface definition. Since this character has a lot of armour a process was developed to stay consistent. Keep notes of your brush settings for each stage.
This process starts by denting the surface using the inflate brush. Always use the same brush size and intensity across objects.
This process repeats three times, each time using a smaller and less intense brush. We’re emulating a blacksmith hammering hard with a big hammer, and then switching to
progressively smaller tools and a lighter touch to do the finishing.
06 ADD BATTLE DAMAGE
Make sure to scrape every hard edge on the surface to avoid that perfect clean-edged factory look. Think about where there could be damage and add more scraping. For example, the shoulder plates rub against each other, causing more wear. Finally, the scratches are added. For this, it is encouraged to make a custom alpha. In this way the scratches are unique to your character. This one was made in Maya. Add a few generic passes using the scatter function on your brush. Later, add more specific scratches, trying to tell a story of where the armour got hit.
07 USE PHOTOGRAMMETRY
Very specific horizontal wrinkles were required to sell the sense of articulation and the fact that the vest is pressed against the character’s stomach by the amour. Creating fabric in Marvelous Designer can give very realistic results. However, in this case, it was quite time-consuming to reach that specific wrinkle pattern.
So the final result was achieved by taking just eight pictures of the backside of a winter jacket. It had exactly the required wrinkles. The result from the photogrammetry was converted into an alpha to be used inside Zbrush.
08 PLAY TO MARVELOUS DESIGNER’S STRENGTHS
A big part of this character was the long skirt that went all the way to the ankles. Marvelous Designer played a crucial role in getting the folds believable. My best tip is: if you keep the particle distance and pattern the same, you don’t change the vertex ID. This allows you to export multiple versions with different shapes, amounts of wrinkles, or presets. In your sculpting program, you import all these versions on different layers and cherry-pick the best wrinkles from each version.
09 START THE FACE EARLY, FINISH LAST
For anything you consider challenging on your model my advice is: start early, finish last. Because the face is the most subjective part of the character it got by far the most attention. This starts at the block-in stage where the topology is locked (this will become important during the rigging stage).
Since it’s difficult to gauge progress on something this subjective, employ long breaks where you work on other parts of the character to come back with fresh eyes and find new issues that need improvement. For example, it’s easy to make the scalp too big without the hair.
10 THE CRAFT OF GAME MESH MODELLING
Building game meshes with animation in mind can be intricate. Generally, you want to put the polygons in the silhouette and curved surfaces, while keeping inner and flat surfaces as optimised as possible. This needs to be balanced with the needs of rigging/ animations. Notice how the flow of the polygons mainly follows the direction of the objects themselves and how the points line up around borders. Examples are the top of the leather belt, and the brass trim with the underlying fabric.
11 MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR UV SPACE
Prioritise filling the UV space as much as possible over a bit of distortion. Texturing in 3D
painting software packages makes distortion not that much of an issue.
When using tiling details pay attention to your UV direction since it will reveal itself in the final texture. Distortion is also more of an issue in these areas.
Use tiling textures to repeat textures as much as possible. As an example: all the generic belts are textured by this one little sheet on the right.
12 MAKE A STITCH BRUSH
Instead of sculpting every little detail, which requires a very high polygon density that can affect performance, small features like stitches can be added directly in the texture during surfacing.
Therefore this simple stitch brush was created in Photoshop with a big spacing amount and some angle jitter. This can be easily recreated in Mudbox or Substance Painter.
Instead of only bumping the stitch out, also bump the surroundings in a bit. This makes the stitch sit well in the material.
In Zbrush, the leather and fabric just have the seam lines and small tension wrinkles sculpted in.
13 MODEL TILEABLE FILIGREE
To really sell the time period and fantasy aspect of the character, filigree was added to his clothing. To get the shine just right, model a section of straight filigree. This can be used as a tileable trim to quickly populate the required areas with very detailed filigree.
In the end, the trims got baked down to the underlying texture so that some custom touches like little hairs coming in between the filigree could be added.
The areas in the ZTL already had the interaction wrinkles sculpted in, so there would be some interaction between the filigree and the underlying fabric.
14 START LOOK DEVELOPMENT
When you have all the game meshes and bakes collected, assign shaders with approximately the right values.
Once you are happy with those flat colours, you can start texturing the character. You can confidently move forward knowing that the flat colours are roughly the average of your textures.
I alternate between three light setups: a dark studio, outdoor with direct sunlight, and a bright studio. This way you can check the materials under different lighting conditions. This is crucial for reflective materials such as armour. Using just one light scenario could result in you tweaking the maps to be less physically correct.
15 TEXTURE PROCEDURALLY USING SUBSTANCE PAINTER
Just like developing a reproducible set of steps to sculpt the armour consistently, procedural texturing uses the same mindset. The dark metal, brass and light metal all have their own layer stacks.
To make materials unique to your armour or character, blend multiple existing smart materials. On top,
add custom tileable textures and layer masks to make it truly your own. Plus, all materials receive the same pass of grunge and dirt to tie the materials together.
16 ADD FINE DETAIL
Decide at the beginning of your project what details you want to sculpt and which you want to handle in the texture. You will always reach a point where you can’t get the resolution needed from the highest subdivision. At this point, it’s more effective to create details in the texture.
In my case, all micro details are handled using Substance Painter – leathers, fabrics, metals, rust, and skin pores. These normal map details are then blended with the bakes from the high-poly objects, creating a far more convincing normal map that is consistent with the albedo, reflectance, and roughness maps.
17 ADD WEAR IN PHOTOSHOP
Many tileable textures are used to get the structure of the weaving correct. Layers of noise and clouds are added at different tiling rates. Using screen mode you can also add a few tileables with little hairs and dust shot on a black background, again at different tiling rates than the weave.
To sell the age of the material it’s important to add imperfections. Notice that most borders have been faded a little due to wear, and areas that are protruding most have received substantially more damage over time.
18 SKIN TONES
Shift the tone in areas of the face. Notice the yellow forehead, purple lips, reddish cheeks and blueish eyes. Grossly simplified: the closer blood-carrying veins are underneath the skin, the redder the area. In the beard area hairs are forming underneath the skin, reducing the amount of red scatter. As a final touch, tint your cavity map red and fade it into the albedo to tie your sculpted detail into the texture.
19 USE MARMOSET TO ITERATE QUICKLY
Checking small texture updates in the offline renderer proved to be
very time consuming, due to large amounts of glossy reflections and big area lights; small WIP renders could easily take 20min.
With Marmoset being a great real-time renderer with high-end PBR materials, you can create a scene where you can preview your texturing in Marmoset. You can simply save your progress in Photoshop and it will update immediately in Marmoset, giving you quick and responsive feedback.
20 KEEP TRACK OF YOUR PROGRESS
As a continuation of the look-dev phase, it’s a good idea to create a scene with a consistent camera angle to track your progress.
Once a week, make renders of every lighting condition and compare progress against the week before. This way you see if you need
to course correct. You will also get a better sense of your trajectory.
When reviewing the week’s progress ask yourself two things: have the changes of the last week been positive, and what is currently the worst part of the image?
The answers serve to guide your priorities for the upcoming week.
21 FOCUS YOUR EFFORT
It’s important to not present your character in a vacuum. Having them interact with a pedestal or some type of environment can really ground the character in the world and can also be a great opportunity for storytelling.
This doesn’t mean you have to get side-tracked. Making an environment to present your character can take a substantial part of your project’s time. I would advise looking at sites like
Megascans where you can get highend scan data. Or shoot something yourself using photogrammetry techniques. That way you can have an environment that matches the quality and style of your character relatively quickly.
Use crease edges on your proxy to show borders even during weight painting
22 RIG WHEN CREATING MULTIPLE POSES
When generating multiple poses I prefer to fully rig my characters, as this will make it quicker to iterate. The skeleton itself is straightforward – numerous helper joints are added to make sure the armour moves correctly with the body while staying rigid (stretching armour used to be more common in games, but has become less acceptable).
All the cloth is simulated by ncloth to get the correct deformation. When working with ncloth keep the bind pose at frame
0 and put the actual pose later in the timeline. Usually, you will need 100 frames or more in order for the cloth to settle.
23 USE PROXY GEOMETRY TO SKIN
For skinning this character heavy use was made of the toolbox created by Perry Leijten. It can be downloaded for free here: https:// gumroad.com/peerke.
My go-to workflow is to create very simple and low-res proxy geometry, skinning it using Perry’s Skinning Tools. You can then transfer this skinning information to the more complex mesh in worldspace. After that you can use Perry’s Skinning Tools to refine the skin and smooth out any kinks.
Having vertices matched perfectly between the armour and fabric helps a lot at this stage to create solid-looking deformation without intersections or gaps.
24 TRACE YOUR HAIR BLOCKOUT
Hair is a complex topic, so let’s break it down into some manageable steps.
Make a blockout in Zbrush capturing the big volumes and hair direction as if you were sculpting for a collectible. Then draw the guide curves directly on the model by making the sculpt live. After that, you still need to do plenty of tweaking in Xgen to avoid intersections of the various hair clumps, but at least you have a solid base to work from.
25 RIG THE FACE WITH BLENDSHAPES
The face only uses joints to articulate the jaw and eyeballs. The rest is all done with blendshapes. This gives a great amount of artistic control and requires less technical knowledge. All these blendshapes are connected to a nice user interface for ease of use.
The expression sculpts try to follow the FACS (Facial Action Coding System) as much as possible. Here you try to isolate expressions to their individual muscle movements. Sculpt symmetrical expressions and later use masking techniques to break them into their left and right counterpart. Use a mirror as an additional reference when sculpting.
26 POSING AND COMPOSITION
As mentioned in the introduction, the goal is to reimagine an old character. The most successful drawing was the base for the pose and composition. This is a fun way to track your progress as an artist.
For this process, take pictures in the desired pose as reference. For this pose, the theory of centre of gravity played an important role. It had to look dramatic, but he shouldn’t be falling forward. In this case, a ‘Dutch angle’ is employed, which means tilting the camera so the horizon line is no longer parallel with the border of the frame.
27 WORK ONE LIGHT AT A TIME
Rembrandt or Caravaggio are sources of inspiration when it comes to lighting. Usually, their work is quite dark and has one clear light direction. Build your scene up light by light, not adding more than necessary. I don’t touch light colour, just the direction, intensity, and size.
Render out little 640 x 640 renders of each light. Then do
a mini composite in Photoshop where you can determine the intensity and colour of each light. In a linear workflow, you can simply take the values from Photoshop back into Maya for a 1 to 1 match.
28 ASSEMBLE BIG RENDERS USING TILES
My main renders are usually aimed for poster size, around 15.000 pixels on the shortest edge. To achieve this without crashing your PC, create an array of cameras and use ‘Pre Scale’ and ‘Film Translate’ to render the character piece by piece.
It’s smart to keep important areas like the face in one single tile. Keep roughly 5 to 10 per cent of overlap in between each tile. The amount of overlap is controlled by the ‘Post Scale’. You can assemble these pieces in Photoshop like a puzzle. Use gradients in the areas of overlap for a seamless transition.
29 COMPOSITE IN 32BIT
Work in Photoshop’s 32bit mode for as long as possible. In this mode, Photoshop’s colours behave similarly to your 3D package if you set up a correct linear workflow. This allows you to add layers of light and ambient occlusion as if still working in your renderer.
In this mode, your colours can also go beyond a brightness value of one. This gives a much more realistic effect once you start blurring or adding dark elements to your scene like fog or vignettes. Instead of grey smudges, it reveals all the details in your highlights.
30 ADD THE FINISHING TOUCHES
When finishing, take all the rendered layers and assemble them. A good way to create lots of depth is by adding atmosphere using your rendered depth pass as a mask.
Emulate the focal point and peripheral vision of the human eye by using a lens blur and depth of field in a subtle way. This will help to guide the viewer and is important if the character is quite detailed. Consider skipping this for big prints.
Colour correction is the final touch to achieve your desired mood. My personal preference for this is to use the Camera Raw filter in Photoshop. •