Hunter Mortenson talked about his stylized recreation of Barret from Final Fantasy VII with ZBrush, 3ds Max, and Substance Painter.
Hi, my name is Hunter Mortenson and I’m a character artist with a little over ten years experience in the game industry. I focus on stylized and/or hand-painted character art. I’m a self-taught artist that started learning 3D while in high school through art forums like polycount and the long dead cgchat.com. Most recently I worked in-house at Vigil Games as a character artist on Darksiders 2, but for the past few years I’ve made my living from the Dota 2 workshop on Steam and I’m currently also looking to expand into doing more freelance for some cool stylized projects.
Growing up I loved JRPGs like Final Fantasy 7, Xenogears, etc, so when I started learning 3D I was mostly doing fan arts of various Anime/Manga/JRPG characters. Doing stylized characters really is the type of work I enjoy the most. Back then normal mapping and sculpting wasn’t a thing yet, just good old fashioned hand-painted diffuse maps only. To this day, hand-painting the textures is still my favorite part of 3D, and I do a lot of painting on current gen characters as well. Although hand-painted textures aren’t so common anymore, even with stylized characters, I still find them one of, if not the most important part of the 3D art. Good textures can make a poor model look good and bad textures can make a good model look horrible. That being said, a solid sculpt is still extremely important for a high-quality normal mapped character.
I personally really like to match the concept or look of the original 2D art as much as possible on whatever I’m working on. If something looks cool enough in 2D that you’re going to recreate it in 3D, why would you make changes to the design? It tends to be a bit of a pet peeve of mine when I see a 3D artist credit someone for a concept they’re using, but then they went and changed a bunch of details. So I try to be pretty meticulous in matching every aspect I can when translating something to 3D (proportions, silhouette, colors, pose, etc). I spend a lot of time making sure I’m sticking to the concept and comparing shapes/proportions and not leaving anything “good enough” and pushing it until I can’t see anything off from the original. Even doing so you’ll likely end up with a few errors, or areas that could be improved when you look back at a project.
Barret Project: the Start
For this Barret project, I really like the look of the original Tetsuya Nomura illustration, and I was a little sad to see how watered down Barret had become in the screenshots from the FF7 Remake. So I wanted to try to nail that original look in current gen graphics as closely as I could while adding just a little bit of extra details for things like cloth texture and maybe some extra seams or stitching.
Modeling: ZBrush & 3ds Max
I started out by blocking in his main forms in ZBrush using DynaMesh, slowly working towards capturing his proportions as best as I could. For this model, I knew I would only be using it for presentation and portfolio purposes so I went ahead and sculpted him in a crouched pose to more easily match the concept. It wouldn’t work well for a character meant to be fully animated in a production environment, but it would be fine for minor rigging and posing and make it much easier to match the concept in a shorter time frame.
After I was happy with the loose proportions and feel of the model I started breaking pieces up into individual subtools. I did so using DynaMesh and ZRemesher, as I generally don’t do any retopo or basemeshes for sculpting unless I really have to. For most of the organic parts of the model, these will become my final sculpts. However, the metals and a few tricky clothing parts were modeled out in 3ds Max.
The gun-arm, bangle and metal waistband are all very simple but clean shapes so it was a quick job in 3ds Max to model them out, with a final pass in ZBrush to add the large-scale damage and wear. The worn look of the metals from the original concept is very specific and stylized, so I just did my best to sculpt those same shapes into the metals, and leave the high frequency detail of grunge and scratches to be done in texture. I also modeled the other metal bits such as the belt details, buttons, and necklace in Max. The jacket as well had a base mesh made in Max since it was a fairly complex shape with a uniform thickness, it was easier to keep it clean and correct by making a simple base mesh first. Finishing it by sculpting all the folds and details in ZBrush.
For the organic parts of the model, other than the jacket, everything was handled in ZBrush. The style of the original concept is pretty funky in many respects, so I just did my best to match the areas I could and tried to capture the “feel” of the areas I couldn’t reproduce as literally. The arms for instance in the original concept are a bit wacky anatomy-wise, so this is the area I had to take the most liberties to get something I was happy with. I tried to capture the feeling and loose proportions of his arms from the concept, with a more realistic anatomy. Aiming for something more like a street fighter look rather than actual realistic arms.
The pants and jacket had some pretty extreme stylized shapes in the way the folds are handled in the original concept. Some folds making sense more or less, with other folds not making a lot of sense. I wanted to capture that feeling and tried to reproduce the folds as close as I could in 3D. This was mostly just a lot of back and forth staring at the concept and tweaking the sculpted shapes until I felt they matched. Although looking back I see several areas that could’ve been pushed more or handled better!
The boots were modeled almost entirely in ZBrush as well. I had started making them in 3ds Max but decided it would be easier for me to just tackle in ZBrush. I have more experience in ZBrush than sub-division modeling and found sculpting the boot tread was easier than poly modeling it. I also handled the stitching in the boots in ZBrush using a brush alpha.
The face/hair provided a little bit of a challenge as I wasn’t sure how exactly I wanted to execute the hair/beard. I was torn between doing something purely sculpted or using hair cards. I think either option could have looked good, but in the end, I went with pure sculpting. I figured at some point I might want to try 3D printing the sculpt, and it would be nice to have the hair already sculpted. The only downside was I never did find a solution I was 100% happy with for the top flat part of his hair. It was a tricky area to handle because having it be fully spikey would’ve been really hard to make and very high poly for the game res, but having it flat and smooth was too stylized looking and didn’t match the rest of the look of the model. So I ended up with a subtle bumpy texture on top, which I think works ok… but could probably be improved on. Otherwise, the face was fairly straight forward, just a matter of following the concept closely and trying to interpret the shapes into 3D as logically as I could. Layering the sculpt over the concept in photoshop to compare proportions helped nail things down.
Working in Substance Painter
One of my goals for this project was to learn Substance Painter. I hadn’t realized how widespread the use of Substance was until recently and decided it was about time to check it out. It was a bit of effort trying to adapt my normal workflow to Substance, some things that are so easy and simple in Photoshop felt a bit convoluted to do in Substance. Overall though, the smart masks and smart materials from Substance, along with the ability to work on all the maps at once, was pretty cool.
I started out with basic smart materials included in Substance (I think I also downloaded a metal smart material from the Substance site). From there I did some heavy editing to the smart materials, removing what I didn’t need and adding more layers to achieve the look I wanted. I prefer to really emphasize the details from the sculpt so most of the model has some pretty heavy darkness applied in the cavities plus highlights on edges.
For clothes, I added various clothing textures to help sell the materials and get some variety in the different clothing pieces. One area this might have been handled better was the pants. The pattern is applied direction-ally over the UVs which meant the pattern didn’t perfectly follow the flow of cloth on the pants. In hindsight, UVing the legs straighter would’ve helped alleviate this issue. Although there may be a way to correct it in Substance as well… I had considered using a different material for the pants that had less directionality to it. In the end, I still preferred the horizontal lined look, similar to a corduroy, so even with the imperfection, I decided to keep it.
The metals were pretty fun to work on with Substance. I added a lot of darkness in the crevices where the damaged areas were, with a lot of highlights on the edges to really help pop the details and shapes. Most of the metals were newer and shinier, while still scratched and worn. The gun-arm however was kept a lot duller and even more worn looking. This is following how it appears in the concept, and tends to make sense as it would probably be a lot more likely to be older and more worn as it’s harder to replace because it’s part of his body. One unusual thing I did to the metal texture was adding vertical lines that are a bit ambiguous in their nature. They could be grime, wear, or even artifacts of the machining of these metal pieces. I really liked the lined shading look from the concept and wanted to add something similar to the metals texture, even if it wasn’t really a part of the “concept” as much as a part of the lineart style of Nomura’s illustration.
The skin texture was started in Substance, but I didn’t feel I had enough control (possibly my own lack of experience) so I quickly moved over to Photoshop for the rest of the skin work. Not a lot of painting was done for the skin or hair, just a small amount of soft coloring/lighting on major forms of the face and muscles to help define them. For the skin, I used gloss/specular shaders rather than metal/roughness which the rest of the model used. I found it was a little easier to control the look using this method as it gave me two maps to author and tweak rather than just roughness (since metalness was not necessary).
Overall, the project probably took several weeks to finish if I had been working on it consistently. I actually started this model over two years ago though, slowly working on it here or there until I decided to commit and finish it up recently. It was a fun project and a good way to get started in Substance Painter. Even if there are some areas I wish I had done a little differently or a bit better I’m pretty happy with the turnout and had fun making it!
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