Yasmin Down talked about the modern interpretation of characters Hiro and Greymon from Digimon World.
My name is Yasmin Down, and I am a Lecturer of Games Art at Bolton University in the UK. For the Retrogasm competition this year, I decided to take on a project that I have always wanted to do, and it grew from a small moodboard to a working demo in UE4!
In this article, I will explain some of my thought processes whilst creating this scene, as well as giving a shoutout to my good friend Matt Jackson who is the programmer on the UE4 project! I will also be covering some of the tips and techniques I used in the creation of this project.
The Original Project
As I mentioned before, this project began as my entry for Retrogasm 2019. I have always loved Digimon World, and I am surprised it never got a remake. I wanted to create something that I knew I would love to see in a Digimon game. The key thing I wanted to achieve here was a more “movie-esque” quality feel to the characters, whilst keeping them recognizably themselves. And so, without further ado, let’s get started!
PROJECT 1 – HIRO
Gathering Initial Reference
Step one was to gather initial reference. I say initial reference, because I gather reference throughout each stage of the project, not just at the beginning. At the time, I had a loose idea of what I wanted but it wasn’t really solidified in my mind. My reference gathering was just a way for me to get the idea to feel more solid in my mind and also to allow me to make the characters feel more grounded in reality. If I made them off the top of my head, things wouldn’t look quite right and so it was important to get everything I needed here.
The official art of the original character was very… ’90s is all I can say! To my eye at least, it didn’t really look very appealing, so I had the challenge of not only bringing an old character to the modern era but also keeping him recognizable as the original character. A huge part of that comes from the clothing choices of course, but another part of that was also in the overall silhouette of the character. I began the project by straying too far from the original “feel”, and the project was headed off to a bad start!
Whilst the character LOOKED like the original Hiro, he just wasn’t FEELING like him. I only ended up doing one concept in this project as I felt that I had enough to go off, even if I changed the final body proportions.
The next stage was to begin sculpting. As I mentioned before, the initial direction my project was heading was a very bad one, and Hiro was just looking “noodly”.
I got some feedback on the initial sculpt and decided it didn’t really feel Digimon at all. A key element of Digimon is the chunkiness of the characters, and I really hadn’t captured that well. So, I went back to the sculpt and reworked it into something much better!
Even though everything is blocked in, it already felt much more Digimon, and I knew I was finally headed in the right direction.
Quick Tip! My Sculpting Process
My sculpting process involves making a terrible base sculpt for the entire body (no clothing), manually retopologizing, and then bringing back into ZBrush for refining. Sure, the retopology might be a bit of a pain to do manually, especially so early on in the sculpting stage, but by doing so, you have ultimate control over your shapes, which is fantastic for problem areas such as the eyes and mouth! Also, by properly retopologizing the whole body, it makes extracting tighter clothing with almost perfect topology an absolute breeze, thus saving time in the long run.
The retopologized base head in ZBrush... a pain to do, but it saves so much headache later on down the line!
The original full retopologized body. You don’t see most of this, it’s purely for the purpose of extracting easy clothing bases that I can use later, as well as allowing me ultimate control over where I want my hard and soft edges to be on the model (e.g. around the eyes).
The hat was an interesting one, and I made various attempts to get it looking good, but only one method worked ultimately. I ended up using Nanomesh to generate smaller meshes over the whole hat surface. It didn’t work perfectly, but for the purpose of texture baking, it was great!
Originally, I tried to do something like this below, but it looked naff and didn’t have the detail that I really wanted in the character. Hand-sculpting was not an option here.
Using Nanomesh, I ended up with something like this:
Hooray! Not perfect, but it looks like what it needed to look like and that was great. If I disable Nanomesh on some of the objects, you can better see how it was done. The hat was split into four parts – the “bowl” base, the “bowl” raised parts, the hat rim base and the hat rim raised parts. This was once again sculpted in ZBrush as a rough base, retopologized manually in 3D Coat, and then fixed up in Maya.
Here is the brush shape I used for my Nanomesh:
Hat Text and Hard Surface Areas
I am one of those people who are terrible at hard-surface modeling in ZBrush, so I do all my modeling in Maya first and only bring it into ZBrush for dents, damage, and any other detail that can’t be done in Substance Painter later on.
If you take a look at the Maya files I use during a project, they are an absolute mess full of experiments, clothing extractions and bits of modeling here and there. Below, the main Maya scene used for Hiro during the development of his model:
As you can see, it’s a mess! But I love to keep all of the WIP files in this Maya scene because you have no idea when you might need to grab something again.
And so, this brings us on to the hat text creation. It was simple enough – I downloaded a Digimon Font, used the text creation tool in Maya, and applied a bend modifier to it to get it around the hat. I knew It was going to be baked into the final sculpt and didn’t need to be 3D, so I, fortunately, didn’t need to clean up the nasty topology!
The hard surface objects were pretty standard. I had two versions (unfortunately, I have lost the original unoptimized version). One would be a quaded version to import into ZBrush for a bit of sculpting, and the other would be the one that would be baked onto:
Hiro has three texture sets: his actual body/head/clothing, his eyes and the decal images on his Digivice. The body texture is 4k since there is so much detail there. The others are much smaller since they didn’t need to be so detailed.
A number one key to good texturing is to first get your texel density correct. I ensure that this is correct before I even begin to think about moving on. If you have a part of the model that is tiny on your UV map compared to the rest of the model, it will be blurry and that’s not good if it is a large part of the model! If you preview the mesh with a chequered texture, you can see that the texel density is consistent across the model as the squares are the same size:
Fortunately, Maya has a really handy tool that makes doing this an absolute breeze. I do all my unwrapping in Maya since the tools are really good.
First, I make sure only one of my shells are the size I want them to be in my UV editor:
Next, you open up the UV Toolkit and find “Texel Density” under the “Tools” tab.
Make sure you have the UVs of the correctly scaled shell selected and hit “Get”. Then, select all the objects in your scene that you want to be on the same texture map and hit “set”. Instant texel density fix!
I then use Maya’s layout option to get them all positioned properly, manually fixing up any UV shells I don’t like.
Texturing was pretty standard. This was done in Substance Painter, plus, I used some materials from Substance Share with some tweaking. The really interesting bits come from the eye creation, but I will cover that in the next section.
One problem I see a lot in texturing is that people apply dirt all willy-nilly over the model, without actually thinking about where the dirt might actually be in real life. For example, on Hiro, I wanted to make his jeans a bit dirty, but I didn’t want it all over. Realistically, he would probably have dirt on his knees as I assumed he might crawl somewhere during his adventures. It would have been silly to put dirt all over. It’s good to think of a little story for whatever you’re texturing and go from there.
Another issue I had was with the actual baking. Above, you can see an error between the legs. This had to be manually painted out in Photoshop later since it couldn't be fixed in Substance.
For the shoes, I had to plan ahead during my UV stage as I was aware that there needed to be a chequered texture, and it had to be straight. As a result, the UV unwrap had to be done in a way where a tiled texture could simply be applied:
This meant no diagonal positioning of this UV shell!
To create eyes, I used a method adapted from Peter Zoppi’s technique.
I still bake the textures as he does in his tutorial and use a parallax map for the distortion effect inside the eyeball, but I just create a cartoony-style texture instead. It works really well!
With / Without Parallax:
The eyes also have SSS enabled for a softer look.
To create the reflection in the eyes, I put two spotlights in the scene pointed directly at the eyes. This allows me to control the intensity of the reflection without having to mess around with the skylight.
Overall, I have a very basic lighting setup that only uses spotlights since I can get a really nice and soft looking effect that way. I have a blue backlight, the two eyeball lights and a distant front light with an orange tint. There is also fog in the scene to create some nice volumetric lighting.
Finally, depth of field adds a very cinematic effect to the scene:
I also changed the post effect on the camera to Filmic to push this effect further:
And finally, I end up with this render!
PROJECT 2 – GREYMON
This section won’t be nearly as long as the other section because most of the steps taken were the same as they were for Hiro. The only bit I want to cover here is the data effect as I have received many questions on how it was achieved.
The Data Effect
The data effect took a couple of trial and error attempts to get right, but I finally managed it by using the UVs of the low poly model itself. It worked really well as Digimon are data made up of polygons, so why not use that to my advantage?
First, I got the low poly model into Maya, opened up the UV editor and exported the unwrapped model.
I then went to Image - UV Snapshot and saved it as a 4K texture.
I then took this saved UV map into Photoshop and created an alpha from it:
If I were to apply this to the model in Marmoset in its current state, the whole mesh would become wireframe, so I needed to block in the areas in white where I wanted the actual mesh to show through. Fortunately, this was easy because of Substance Painter!
All I did was import this alpha into Painter and then paint in the areas I wanted to show through. The model ended up looking like this in Painter:
I kept my base texture color white so I could change the green color on the fly within Marmoset. Here is my texture setup in Marmoset for Greymon’s alpha:
If you look closely, you can see that my emissive map only covers the areas that are in the wireframe. This means that when I tint the color, only the wireframe areas will change, and the rest of the body will remain the same.
In the future, the alpha of the data may have to be a larger texture size as I found that upon closer inspection it began to pixelate. This is an idea for future projects!
Everything else on Greymon was pretty much the same process as it was on Hiro, except I really wanted the skin texture to look realistic and cartoony at the same time. I used a frog texture as a base from the Substance Share store and modified it to look like what I wanted.
My textures in Substance always look a bit naff because I never use Substance as the final platform to test my textures. Before I begin to texture, I set the Marmoset scene up because realistically, it doesn’t matter what the texture looks like in Substance as long as it looks great in the end result. Substance is not the final output for this.
So, my bit of advice here (for stylized models at least) is to not spend ages and ages on the sculpt. So many people I see make a wonderful sculpt but end up ruining it with a bad render and lighting setup. If you can do it in Substance, don’t bother putting it in the sculpt. There’s not much point. My Greymon sculpt was smooth and clean, all the damage was added afterward:
I am pleased that I managed to create this project in a month, but there are a few things I am not happy with of course! One being Hiro’s face. I still feel something is off in his face, and I think it may be because I had sculpted the original model with the mouth wide open. I also need to work more on skin texturing, so this will be an area to focus on in the future.
I was also not happy with Greymon’s mouth interior and the rim of his eyes, as something funny happened there and they now catch light in a really bad way in Marmoset at certain angles. I will need to come up with a better way to do these areas.
I also realized that I needed to test my render scene on multiple monitors, as I was using a nice, bright 4k monitor for my primary development work. However, when I viewed the art on another monitor, I could barely see a thing. Oops! It is definitely worth testing on as many screens as you can.
Future Steps (Playable Demo)
The project has ended up becoming an actual small remake of the original Digimon World! I am creating this with Matt Jackson, who is the programmer. We are only recreating the first two or three “zones” as a small tech demo. You can see two of the zones in the following video:
The Digimon are assets from the official games at the moment, but they will be replaced later on as I create more Digimon for it. You can, however, see the current state of the game here. We are really trying to get the feel of the original game across, whilst modernizing it. I am also rigging and animating the characters I create, as shown below:
By actually rigging, animating and using your characters in an engine, it shows that they are functional as well as looking nice. Of course, it is much better to get a specialized rigger/animator to do the other bits for you.
Here is a WIP sculpt of a new Digimon: