Laura Beach did a huge breakdown of one of her recent projects and shared her approach to creating hard-surface materials, cloth simulation, and facial features.
In case you missed it
Learn more about character production
I’m Laura Beach, a Character Artist from the UK. I have over 3 years of experience working in the games industry, initially at Rare during an internship and then at Sumo Digital. I’ve worked on a few projects in that time including ‘Sea of Thieves’, ‘Team Sonic Racing’, and ‘Crackdown 3’. Before that, I studied at Bournemouth University on their Computer Animation Arts course. I’m not exactly sure when or why I decided I wanted to work in games as a character artist but I’ve been making art and playing video games since I was little, so I guess my love of both of those things came together to fuel my pursuing this career path as it does for most people I should think.
About the Female Knight Project
I like to be constantly learning things, so with each new project, I start I want to have at least one area that is less familiar to me or to find a way to push the quality of my work and challenge myself to make something that is better than what I’ve made previously. In this case, I really enjoy making armour but I hadn’t made an armoured female character before or more ornate armour requiring sculpting rather than modelling, so I wanted to start a project that would allow me to tackle those things. I’m always collecting concepts and 3d work from other artists that inspire me, and I realised a lot of what I had collected was of the same ilk; female fantasy characters with elongated, heroic proportions, small delicate faces, flowing cloth, and shiny metal armour. I think the aesthetic is especially popular in South Korea as the majority of images I had collected were from South Korean concept artists. Hyunjoong’s concept contained everything I wanted to work on at the time and stood out to me because of the design on the cuirass and the pauldron and that he’d gone to the trouble of making an orthographic back view (which is always appreciated). The work of the YCF school in China has been very popular this past year, and I noticed some of their work was utilizing other South Korean concept art. I think the quality of the 3d characters coming from their students has been really stand-out, especially for this type of character, so I tried to keep their work in mind as a threshold for what I should be aiming for in my final piece.
Usually, there’s some amount of interpretation needed by the 3D artist with translating the 2D image into 3D but Hyunjoong’s concept was so well-rendered that it took a lot of the guess-work out of it for me. There were some areas of the armour that I could have gone further and created a different design, but whenever I did I found myself wanting to pull it back to looking more like the concept so for the most part I just tried to faithfully recreate what was there.
Blockout and High Poly
I block out the forms very simply and quickly. I often use the same simple female base mesh and move the facial features around first, until it is proportionally similar to the concept. Then I’ll use this as a base for most of the other pieces, masking off sections of the mesh and extracting, then Z-remeshing and moving the polys around until they are sitting in the correct place and the form matches the concept. I use negative space and the distance and angles of meshes against their neighboring meshes to check my proportions and shapes are correct but, in this case, I thankfully also had an orthographic image to utilize. This allowed me to check everything from the back view by placing the concept behind ZBrush and using see-through mode and checking it directly.
All of the fabric except the collar were simulated in Marvelous. The process was pretty straightforward, I don’t usually find it necessary to use real-world sewing patterns as a reference, I just start with simple shapes and iterate my pattern based on how it simulates on the model. I work from the lowest layer so that each subsequent layer could properly interact with what was beneath it. In this case, I started with the skirt and made sure it looked how I wanted it before freezing it and moving onto the layer above. I also made sure to create patterns for the belts and to bring in any blockout pieces of armor as props for the cloth to simulate against. For the skirt, I wanted it to be pulled down correctly as if the leather trim on the bottom was attached to it so I made a pattern for the leather border and sewed them together even though I would later recreate the leather piece properly in ZBrush. Sometimes, I would bring in ZBrush meshes as garments rather than props, as that allows you to designate a number for the layer, which can help prevent the cloth from simulation from getting confused when creating multiple meshes on top of one another. Here I brought in the cuirass and placed it as layer 1 to sit above the skirt but below everything else.
All of my cloth gets adjusted in ZBrush with finer details and wrinkles that I just don’t seem to be able to achieve in Marvelous alone. Often times, where smaller details like memory folds or subtle wrinkles are needed, I will drag wrinkle alphas over my mesh with different sizes on separate layers, until I achieve something, which reads like my intended material. For the mantle and loose bit of cloth, I added the look of hidden stitches with the dam standard brush like you would find on woolen cloaks. I also added in any small wrinkles that would be created along seams.
Hard Surface Armour
I then start to model the more complex armor pieces with Zmodeller. Again, I keep it simple and low poly and non-destructive by using dynamic subdivs and creases to preview how the mesh will look, when it is subdivided. I keep it like this until the very end of the high-poly process, literally, until I am ready to bake my low poly just in case I want to remodel anything with Zmodeller.
For this project, I discovered how good Sculptris Pro is. In the past, I’ve either felt that I had to model everything on my armour if I wanted it to stay clean (which requires a good deal of planning) or where that would be too complex or the level of detail required is too high, I would use dynamesh to sculpt my detail. The downside to that is my poly count would rapidly become insane, and it always bothered me to have a crazy amount of polys in more planar areas of a mesh, where it was unnecessary. I used Sculptris Pro a lot on the armour, as it allowed me to block out the main structure of my armour with Zmodeller so that it looked clean and smooth and then add more complex sculptural designs on top of that without the polycount becoming insane or messing up the smooth look of the planar parts.
For me, the face is always important, and achieving a likeness to the concept was definitely one of my main goals. Her face needed to look youthful and plump cheeked without looking like a child. I like that the character wasn’t given a tiny little nose like so many other concepts of characters like this one. I think it makes the face more interesting. I wanted the face to be simple, soft and stylized but not to the point of looking anime. I found reference images that contained certain features that I could see in the concept and used them to inform my sculpt. I didn’t sculpt wrinkles or skin folds as that level of detail is unnecessary for this type of character, and I used XYZ displacement to create the pore details along with some other alphas.
Even though this character is wearing armor, I figured she didn’t look like she’d seen battle before. Her armor at least looks fairly pristine and unused in the concept, her cloth clean and intact. However, I wanted to ensure there was at least some subtle breakup in color variation in the final textures to avoid it feeling too new and boring, especially, since the cloth is pretty much just all one shade of blue. To me, the details on the borders of the mantle and longer skirt piece read like hidden stitches in wool, so I downloaded Braided wool from Substance Source and Wool Woven Grey and couldn’t decide, which had the best normal/height detail so I combined them both as my base. I hadn’t sculpted finer creases for the mantle, so I added some in Substance Painter by layering varying sizes of the Creased procedural, blurred, at low opacity until it added just enough information to be more interesting without being too descriptive. I created some masks and combined them with procedurals and hand painting to then add some subtle darkening and sun bleaching to the fabric as well as some slight hue shifts. I added some variation in the height by scattering Messy Fibers combined with another procedural to break that up and lastly layered up some procedural spots in a lighter color to help it look more woolen. The skirt base is Cotton Blend Shirt but is then built up in much the same way.
For the metal, I probably created around 10 different iterations of it as I couldn’t seem to get it looking how I wanted. In the end, I used the Iron Raw Damaged as my base and then added various procedural grunge and dirt layers on top to break up the roughness. I wanted to make sure I had small patches of shinier areas on my metal that would catch the light in the final presentation so I made sure that the final combination of all the grunge layers had that sort of look to it in the end. I wanted to make sure there would be plenty of variation and breakup whilst maintaining a shiny metal look. On top of this, I added layers of shinier edgewear, which I painted out here and there to reduce the uniformity of it and some rougher dirt in the cavities and around the details to help pick them out. I also utilized anchor points for the pauldron, as I decided the bottom area looked too plain but didn’t want to go back to the high-poly sculpt. I painted some height layers, which I then referenced in the dirt and edgewear layers using anchor points, and I think it looks much the same as it would have if I’d sculpted it.
There are 4 or 5 different pieces of leather for this character, but they mostly follow the process below utilizing a simple base with just normal/height information, a separate base color, some darkening and variation and then hand-painted edgewear and details. For the example below, I borrowed the base of a different piece of leather and adjusted the colors, so it didn’t look like the same bit of leather. I wanted the edges to look like unfinished leather, so I used the Turned Leather material from Source as a base for that with adjustments made to it and referenced it in a procedural creases layer. I tried to keep my details subtle and infrequent so I went in and painted out a lot of the creases and added tears and splits to the leather.
I bought an XYZ texture to use and spent some time cleaning it up for both the diffuse and displacement; painting out the eyelashes, eyebrows and stray hairs around the face. I then edited the diffuse in Photoshop to try to make it а closer match the skin tone in the concept, which is really quite pale. Once I had the diffuse applied to my mesh, I used some of the procedural layers found inside the built-in skin material in Substance Painter to break up the texture. I then painted some subtle, neutral makeup and evened out the skin tone. I did remove a lot of detail from the XYZ albedo, which is a shame, but for these sorts of characters have quite stylized skin. It is often kept looking fairly unblemished and perfected, so it was right for what I was aiming for.
Rendering and Lighting Setup
Crushed Velvet Material
One thing I wanted in my final piece was a crushed velvet tunic. I hadn’t gone all out and sculpted a velvety look on my high poly, but I had downloaded the velvet iridescence material from Substance Source to use in my texturing not realizing it doesn’t work properly in Substance Painter, but I applied it anyway. When I brought it into Marmoset, it didn’t read like velvet at all and didn’t even look the same as how it had in Painter. I figured I needed something to control the way light passes over the mesh. I took the smart material into Substance Designer to look at the individual components that I was missing in Painter. One of the textures had a lot of blocky variation in it and, so I brought it into Painter and tiled it the number of times I felt would work for crushed velvet and exported it to use as my anisotropic mask. I made the material really shiny and offset the second anisotropic by just enough for some areas to read as smooth and shiny and the other parts to look broken up and patchy. I feel it does look like velvet even though it certainly is not physically accurate. If you don’t have access to Substance Source, you could recreate it yourself by making a tiled texture with blocky, contrasty, haphazard shapes.
I set up my materials quite early on in Marmoset during the texturing process and would check how my textures look under different lighting conditions every time I made major changes to my textures. A lot of my materials are straightforward or created with help from the many great tutorials out there. I used this tutorial a lot for setting up the hair and eye materials by Vadim Sorici.
My lighting setup is pretty simple. It’s composed of bright key light to help pick out the shine of the armor. A fill light to soften the shadows, a rim light for the hair and some other rim lights to pick out areas of the silhouette. I also used a fairly neutral sky preset on a low brightness to act as another subtle fill light.