James Chan did a breakdown of his realistic character made during CGMA course Next Gen Character Creation: hair, skin texture, clothes, rendering, and more.
I’m a character artist and I’ve been working in the VFX/animation industry for about 8 years now. I’m originally from New York City and grew up inspired by Looney Tunes, Disney Animated Films, and Pixar movies. Those things probably led me to pursue animation and film as a career.
After graduating in 2010, I spent a few years 3D modeling for TV commercials in New York. Then in 2014, I joined Sony Pictures Imageworks and got to work on movies like Spider-man: Homecoming, Hotel Transylvania 3, Ghostbusters, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, and The Angry Birds Movie. I recently started working at Mr. X Toronto as a Character/Creature Artist.
CGMA Course: Goals
After 3 years at Sony Imageworks, I started to consider jumping into the games industry. I was browsing Adam Skutt’s ArtStation and found out about his CGMA course Next Gen Character Creation. I had been a fan of Adam’s work since seeing his characters in The Order: 1886. I love the skin detail he’s able to capture in his textures and materials. So if there was anyone I wanted to learn about game characters from, it was Adam.
I had several goals for the CGMA course:
- Understand low-resolution game topology, which is a bit different from high-resolution subdivide-able geometry in a film.
- Improve my skills in ZBrush, Marvelous Designer, Substance Painter, and Marmoset Toolbag. At Imageworks, modelers mostly use Maya and Mudbox so I was out of practice.
- Improve my texturing skills since Game Artists are expected to model AND texture. I only modeled at Sony so this was a weakness I had to address.
- Produce a portfolio piece that could help me secure work as a game character artist.
Choosing a Character
I noticed a lot of my characters were male and stylized so I went into the course wanting to do a realistic female. I recommend every artist try to tackle projects that will teach them something new. Adam gave us a lot of freedom to choose what character we made. When he asked us to find a concept for homework, I literally just searched in Google “cool sci-fi woman” or something along those lines and found Heo’s awesome design!
First Approach to a Realistic Female Model
Sculpting women is more difficult than sculpting men because your margin of error is smaller. However, this character’s face is based on my favorite actress, Judy Greer, so I was quite familiar with her face already and enjoyed sculpting it. For reference, I would gather a bunch of images together in Photoshop and arrange them by angle, from front to side. That way, I didn’t need a million different photos on my screen and I could flip them horizontally to get the opposite angle.
A lot of the realism is achieved by displacement maps from texturing.xyz. There are a lot of tutorials on applying those maps, but I recommend Salim Ijabli and Jonas Skoog‘s ones since they only need Mari and ZBrush. What’s important to remember is that Texturing.xyz alone is usually not enough to get the best results. I would recommend at least one surface noise pass in ZBrush before you apply the displacements. And if you want the utmost realism, you’ll still have to mix in some hand-sculpted wrinkles, blemishes, and pores.
Clothes & Accessories
The clothing is done mostly in Marvelous Designer. Skin-tight outfits don’t benefit too much from Marvelous Designer since there isn’t much to simulate, but the program was still useful for the subtle folds on the jacket and sleeves. The toughest part was retopologizing all the folds and wrinkles into a low-res mesh, which I did with Maya’s Quad Draw. Thankfully, it didn’t need to be all quads, since triangles are okay for real-time meshes.
As for all the accessories and details, I approached them as individual mini-projects. Each day I committed to finishing just one item: a boot, a glove, a belt, and so on. The real problem is trying to bake the normal maps since there are so many overlapping or intersecting parts. Marmoset Toolbag and Knald are great for this because they allow you to organize your bake into separate groups. So even though the pants and belt intersect, their normals can be baked onto the same map without any projection problems.
I followed Adam Skutt’s technique of making hair cards, which can be found on his gumroad. The basic gist is that you make small planes in Maya and grow XGen Hair from those planes. Then you do an Arnold render from the front view to get the Hair Texture. You need different kinds of hairs to give you variation in length, thinness, or type (like eyelashes, eyebrows, stubble, etc.). As for the cards, I just manually placed them. Before this project, I had never used XGen, rendered with Arnold, or ever placed hair cards.
I was going for a light and soft “modern bob” hairstyle. That hairstyle involves a lot of hair strips that split up the outer surface and makes the hair feel light, which lends itself nicely to haircards! It really helps to include fly-away hairs or singular hairs that messily come off the head to add some realism. To finish it off, you have to surround your hair with a sphere and then project the normals onto your hair cards so they don’t look too much like cards (check the end of this tutorial). I’d also recommend giving your hair a bit of subsurface scattering in the render.
For the materials, I leaned heavily on Substance Painter’s default materials and adjusted them as needed. For instance, most of the leather is based on the ‘Leather Bag’ material and the metallic parts were “Cobalt Pure” or “Aluminum Brushed Worn”. Combining so many different materials onto a single texture sheet normally requires laboriously hand-painting masks to separate the leather, cloth, and metal. Thankfully, Substance Painter can bake ID maps based on polygroups in ZBrush. So just organize your materials into polygroups in ZBrush, export the decimated hi-res mesh, bake the ID map in Substance Painter, and isolate your materials. Very useful!
The skin texture is entirely hand-painted. I followed Magdalena Dadela‘s tutorial about painting skin textures with Substance Painter (see the video below). It involves using Painter’s “Dirt 1” and “Spots” Brushes to paint redness, freckles, and moles.
I also recommend looking at texturing.xyz’s cross-polarized photos. The pictures on the site are a great reference for how the skin looks without highlights and shadows, which is perfect for albedo maps. Finally, I recommend making a cavity map in ZBrush to target the pores and give them a reddish hue.
Rendering was done in Marmoset Toolbag, which was a new tool for me. Navigating all of Marmoset Toolbag’s options was probably the most difficult part of the entire course. In fact, I still don’t know what a lot of the settings do. I’ll call attention to the most important tips for lookdeving, lighting, and rendering a character in Marmoset Toolbag:
- Group your lighting setups so you get specific lighting for different camera angles and poses.
- Use many cameras and lock them into position when you find a good angle.
- Increase the width of your lights to get smoother shadows. Shadows will be jagged if you don’t.
- Set the Environment light in a Marmoset Toolbag scene to be very low. It looks really fake so rely on your own lighting setup.
- When lighting, don’t go too crazy with getting specular highlights on everything. Sometimes less is more.
I believe the most difficult challenges during this project were the ones I placed on myself. I happened to be wrapping up two other characters at the same time I was working on this character for Adam’s course. As a result, I fell behind during the class and didn’t actually finish this character until about 3 months after the course had ended!
Before this, I always felt I could learn everything by myself through video tutorials. I was skeptical of workshops like CGMA, but this course changed my mind. Getting to see a pro like Adam go through his entire workflow, from beginning to end, showed me so much that I didn’t know. Also, the weekly schedule and your fellow students keep you motivated to reach the next milestone of your project. I would highly recommend this CGMA course to other character artists.