I really like how you've articulated your entire process. This was a very enriching read. A Well deserved feature!
Great article! Thanks for the awesome read.
Wow, this is so cool! Nice job!
Adam Nield did a breakdown of his assets with intricate ornaments made for Artstation’s Feudal Japan challenge. Software used: ZBrush, Maya, Substance Tools.
Before I started working on Japanese assets I’ve mostly been doing my own thing such as traveling here and there. In the most recent few months, however, I’ve been working on freelance projects for various marketplaces and people. My latest project was a Motel pack I made in UE4, as well as 1976 Dodge Van which I traveled in this summer (by the way, if anyone knows where this vehicle is now, do let me know! I miss it a lot!)
These last two projects really helped me understand where my strengths lie. I label myself as an environment and vehicle artist. I realize you’re supposed to pick one, especially in AAA scenarios – but I seriously enjoy both aspects of each discipline so I thought I might as well say that.
The last three assets I’ve made are for Artstation’s Feudal Japan challenge. I went into the project not really sure what I was going to create as Eastern designs aren’t something I usually enjoy making. I really wanted to avoid traditional Japanese tropes like Shogun armor, Katanas and so forth. There were a few ideas from the concept stage of the competition I liked, but when it came to it I wanted to differentiate myself from the rest of the submissions so I tried to be unique and individual with the pieces I created.
The Hand Mortar originated from Jens Fiedler’s concept. His submission page had some explorations into a bubble/fish-shaped design I liked more than the final piece. I’ll go more into the production of this asset later on. Make sure to check Jens’ submission page as his concept inspired me the most.
Here are the links to all my Japanese assets:
If you want to see various production shots for this project, I documented the entire thing on the Artstation submission here. This page has tons of WIP images even from the very initial concept stage with beautiful concept models.
Working on Ornamental Elements
I’ll start with the Boleadoras. Simply put those ornaments were created using an alpha pack by JRO Tools. It contained various alphas which are great for sculpting or painting details with.
One of the things I wanted to avoid when using a pack like this was looking like I’d used an alpha pack. I started concepting with them in Photoshop trying to come up with a shape that was both appealing and original as well as incorporated traditional Japanese designs. This took quite a bit of time going back and forth from ZBrush, Photoshop and sometimes Maya to finally get a design I was happy with.
Early Concepts were intricate but still too western for the Japanese themes. (Right) The final alpha mask used in ZBrush:
The final alpha mask used in ZBrush:
Various different designs that were tried:
Eventually, I found something that clicked. The hardest part about this stage of the project was trying to find a way to cleanly deform the shape. If I projected on a sphere there were awkward projection angles that wouldn’t look great in the final product.
While subtle, the awkward projected angles would have impacted the overall end quality:
The workaround for this was to project it flat and deform it in Maya afterward using bend deformers across the whole shape.
The alpha being projected in ZBrush. A lot of cleanups was done after the initial projection:
The deformation in Maya. This helped alleviate the projection errors from working on a sphere:
As for the ornate features on the Koi Mortar, that was a lot more straightforward.
The original high poly whisker meshes:
I first modeled one individual whisker and placed it above the mouth line of the mortar. After doing that I traced a CV curve along its mouth and then attached it to a motion path. I duplicated it and placed it along the mouth until they were all roughly where they needed to be. Afterward, I went in by hand and adjusted them where required. In the final model, they are baked down onto a double sided plane with an alpha channel to maintain a low polycount.
The motion path and a single whisker:
(Left) The duplicated whiskers. (Right) The final game resolution whiskers with an alpha map:
Matchlock Hand Mortar Details
The entire front section of the Matchlock Hand Mortar was a huge learning process for me. I’m a hard surface artist but semi-organic hard surface absolutely ruin me. I wanted to work out a process of creating shapes like this that I might be able to use in the future (short of learning ZBrush even further). The way it was created was to first make all the shapes manually in Maya and have them floating as individual meshes. This gave me much more creative control within the knowledge I already knew, without spending months learning a new piece of software solution and pipeline.
The first step of the high poly mesh. Various aspects are fairly dirtily made, but the tradeoff for the time wasn’t worth focusing on for things that won’t matter further down the line. I was focusing purely on visuals at this point:
The mesh after being dynameshed and various other fixes added afterward:
After being happy with the overall forms, I took it into ZBrush and dynameshed the whole thing. This process took a considerable amount of time as I was still trying to understand different parts of ZBrush while trying to maintain a level of artistic quality I was happy with.
I actually had 4-5 different attempts at this phase, as parts of the process were causing issues later on down the line. Small things such as crevices between the scales creating huge holes in the dynameshed shape.
After various attempts I finally ended at a point I was comfortable moving on with.
The final ZBrush sculpt. This was still only half of the weapon done:
After bringing it into Maya I completed the rest of the forms using traditional sub-d modeling processes. Pretty straightforward stuff.
The high poly stock:
The completed high poly, without whiskers:
Moving on to the next step which was making a low-resolution mesh.
Hands down the hardest or most tedious part of this asset was definitely retopologizing the low poly. I’ll let this image do the talking for how painful it was. I used Maya’s quad draw tool to do the whole process though. It’s gotten quite cumbersome in recent updates, so something a bit more streamlined like TopoGun or 3D-Coat might be a better choice in the future. Sometimes you have to trudge through the boring parts before you can start having fun.
The excruciating process of retopologizing the scales. Careful planning was made to ensure it flowed correctly into the next row. Luckily, the mesh was 90% symmetrical:
The final triangulated low poly which makes up over half of the entire object’s polycount (I also think I lost the quadrangulated mesh):
I believe that the final polycount of just under 21k for the entire object is quite a nice achievement for this asset, especially given the intricacies involved with it.
I’ll be very straightforward with how I created the ivory material for the Boleadoras. I used the asset library from Substance Source and brought it into Substance Painter to edit further. The base material for this was entirely done by Allegorithmic. This, as well as Substance Share, are the first two places I’ll check to see if anyone has a good starting point for materials.
I’m not ashamed to use resources like this as it only helps to speed up the process. I like to think of the end result more than trying to do everything myself. If something can help me achieve it faster, sometimes with better results than I could make myself, I’m most certainly going to use it.
I won’t go into specifics about my lighting setups, as I don’t think I’m confident enough on my lighting skills to speak about that. I will say, however, that my biggest inspiration was physically going to a museum. I went to the British Museum in London, as they had a Japan exhibit and I found a piece of artwork that really inspired my lighting for this project. It’s funny, I was taking pictures of the box it’s presented in, not the actual artwork.
The reference for the lighting in the museum images.
If I could give any advice in general for lighting though, it’d mostly be to try and use real work examples as your base. Reference for lighting is just as important as a reference for any other part of the pipeline.
Depending on the complexity, each piece took me several weeks or several days. The longest asset took around a week and a half (which was the Mortar). The shortest was the Opium Pipe which only took a few days. Admittedly, I don’t have a healthy work pattern at the moment, which is something I want to try and fix.
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