Hi everybody. My name is Francesco Baldini and I’m a 3D artist from Italy, currently looking for a job opportunity. My journey into the CGI world began 2 and a half years ago when I decided to attend a six-month master at a school called Bigrock Institute of Magic Technologies where I even had the opportunity to teach for a year. During that time, I supervised the training of the students, and that experience gave me a lot in terms of a better understanding of the internal team relations, how to manage them and how to give artistic critique due to the continued feedback exchanged between all the other teachers.
Right now, I’m working as a freelance artist under the guidance of Scott Eaton on a huge anatomy project.
LONY Walkman Cyber City Edition
LONY Walkman: Idea
While I was considering what to make - a piece for my portfolio that would also be a good exercise, - I came across a wonderful Military Radio tutorial by Simon Fuchs. After watching it I knew that I would love to do something similar, but with a personal touch. That's why I decided to make a different prop. Eventually, I ended up mixing two things I love: Music and Technology. In my childhood days, I used to hang around with my Walkman a lot, so I chose to create a sci-fi version of it.
“If you steal from one author, it’s plagiarism; if you steal from many, it’s research.”
— Wilson Mizner
As Austin Kleon likes to repeat this saying by Wilson Mizner in his book “Steal Like an Artist”, I can’t but say that the concept was a mixture of many references taken either from the real-life or the imaginary worlds of other artists. It's funny that my main two references for the modeling stage weren’t Walkmans at all - they were the MR 3000 Dual-Band Radio device by Joshua Cotter and the famous Gameboy from Nintendo.
Starting a project where you need to be both a concept artist and a 3D artist is not an easy task. I think that at least 80% of the final look is defined in the blockout phase so, I’ve learned not to rush and give the model all the love it needs in the first stage.
After the blockout, I refined the shapes until I had a "semi-high poly" which generally means a model with a definitive structure but all the elements are separated from each other so that we can still work on them later on in ZBrush.
Then, I merge together single-mesh parts and start to use booleans to create further details and give the right number of edges to the rounded corners/other geometry.
In the picture you can see that the bevels are missing - that’s because we will create them in ZBrush using the polish features (under the panel Tool>Deformation). Before making the bevels, it's essential to prepare the piece in Maya giving it quick UVs based on the hard edges and using them to create polygroups in ZBrush.
However, be careful with the very small details obtained with booleans directly in Maya. With this process, you can easily polish those tiny parts too much. Because of that, some parts of the model were booleaned in ZBrush after the aforementioned process to maintain the details and the right bevel width.
After completing the polish phase in ZBrush, we can decimate the mesh and export it back into Maya. There, we'll set all the normals to “Soften Edges”, call it a day and move to another piece.
The same process is repeated for all the remaining pieces. As a result, we have a definitive high poly. After giving all the separate parts proper names and materials, we'll have something like this:
For the low poly, we can use the base mesh we had before adding all the extra edges (or somewhere in-between that phase) and start combining parts together that will always be “locked” in their position with no animation whatsoever. This will save us some space in the next UV layout.
Furthermore, during this phase, we can use a material with a high specular value (like simple Blinn) which will allow us having control over the “bad gradients” that sometimes occur on the mesh surface (due to the wrong topology). In some cases, I can always add extra edges to contain the gradient in narrow areas.
Many bad gradients can be easily avoided by hardening some edges on the perimeter but I chose to add support edges near them instead. This allowed me to use softer edges and avoid bake artifacts (and remember: where there’s a hard edge there’s always a cut on the UV, but a cut on the UV does NOT always mean a hard edge).
Packing up the UVs with a correct layout is essential for a game artist, and it's even more important to align UV shells perfectly along the u- and v- axes avoiding oblique placement where possible. This is done for two main reasons:
- In Substance, we will need all the shells to follow a general direction for a simpler and faster orientation of the textures used accordingly to the type of material.
- Like any other image, the resulting textures are made by pixels lined vertically and horizontally. Oblique shell borders will significantly affect the quality of the image,
especially if it needs to be reduced in resolution manually or during a mipmap creation process.
For a hard-surface model, the best approach is to separate each side of every piece using Planar Projections based on the three axes on the selected faces. Then try to align the UVs and make each shell as square as possible using the Align features in the UV Toolkit (or your custom shortcuts). Do not be much concerned about some small stretching areas, - everything depends on what kind of material you want to use on every part of the model.
The first steps in Substance are always the most challenging ones.
“Where do I start? What kinds of materials are more suitable for this prop? What colors should I choose?”
Make a step back and start with the easiest thing: Base Colors.
For a start, a simple fill layer with a base roughness and a plain color is enough. It's easy and quick, but essential nevertheless for getting a quick feel of the model. If the base colors don’t convince your eyes, neither will do the materials, even those are the best materials you have ever made!
After this “concept” phase we can start to build up the real materials. As a guide in this process, I relied very much on the Wastelander Helmet Tutorial by Gianpietro Fabre.
First and foremost, if you have to make pretty big changes to the surface of the model with some strong normal maps or using the height channel pretty intensively, I suggest that you make these changes as soon as possible. It will allow you to see if everything has the right height values or understand that maybe, that huge crack in the middle of the surface is just too much for a poor Walkman. Moreover, after these height changes, you can add a normal layer in Pass-Through on top of the others and create a single anchor point that will be used in every mask editor from now on.
Back to colors, still relying on Gianpietro's tutorial, instead of using a simple plain color with a mask filled with procedurals as a base, I utilized real textures grabbed on Textures.com (base color – roughness – normal). I was quite lucky to have access to a huge number of images thanks to the prior teaching experience as at school, we had many pre-payed accounts on various resource websites.
After this base layer, I generally overlay it with another similar one (simple color or a real texture with procedural mask) to create a base breakup in the color and roughness channels. I don’t generally use the material view in these phases, instead, I pretty much always refer to the color and roughness views and use precise values.
Main Plastic Material: Breakdown
“To be aware of how the light interacts with the corners and surfaces of a model, we need to remember that a simple flat color is never a simple flat color, but a complex material made up by many various layers and aspects”.
That was what I usually said to my students. After the initials steps described above, every material has an equal base and each part is slightly different from the others.
But let's make things easier and see how I created the Plastic material.
The main difficulty was to achieve the right number and size of dots for emulating the typical plastic of a Gameboy, balancing multiple “dot layers” mostly in the roughness channel and keeping an eye on how the surface would respond to the shifting of the light, especially along the edges.
I have to admit, I cheated a little by adding a layer of dots with a metallic value. I did it to make everything a little rougher and avoid too shiny effect on the whole surface. It also helped me to make the dots on the surface stand out more even if the quality of the texture was a bit low. And here what it looks like in the areas that are not touched by the light:
Then there’re "age" layers used to break up the surface.
After the main wear layers are done, I add two more layers for bumps and scratches. Nothing fancy here, just put some love into masking and always remember that to get a great final result, you’ll always need to do a hand-painted pass.
The last steps would be classic Dirt (make sure to utilize an anchor point to make use of the previous cuts and bump spots), and some Liquid Stains on the surface to make the model look more realistic as if it's been used in different weather conditions.
Decals, Stickers, and Cassette Compartment
Making the decals was not very difficult. Again, the most “brainy” part was to think of how a decal would wear out with time. For the most part, the decals were made of a simple fill layer with color, roughness and a little bit of height masked with a variety of generators and paint layers (where I used fingerprints alphas).
For the placement of the alphas, I used fill layers in the mask and a planar projection without tiling, controlled directly in the 2D view (here is where you realize that it's worth spending a little more time on planning the layout of the UVs before texturing).
Making the labels was really fun! Here, I had to come up with something new that I didn't see in the tutorial, a completely personal touch.
Starting with a square, I managed to create some jagged edges getting the feeling of paper. Then, I wore it out with some scratches and general noise to get slight height variations in the end. Studying real-world references, I noticed that time-worn labels often have raised edges with a lighter color, so I decide to make a specific mask to recreate that effect, isolating the edges of the base label mask with a highpass filter. Finally, I made another specific mask for the small air bubbles that always appear on old stickers.
- Cassette Compartment
Similarly to the previous part, this part of the model was a very interesting thing to do and just like with the labels, it consists of a subsequent stratification of paint levels, fill levels, and different blend modes. See the full mask breakdown below:
- Final Touches
Thanks to Gianpietro’s tutorial, I discovered that for a nicer texture feeling, before finishing the work, you can make a passthrough paint layer on top of everything with some useful filters:
- MatFX HBAO: makes the AO "catch" the details added in the height channel during the texturing process.
- Sharpen: I found it FUNDAMENTAL for a nicer final texture.
- Color Balance - Color Correct – HSL Perceptive: if you see that some of the final colors don't work as you want them to.
After spending some time in Maya looking for a good placement of the Walkman, the Headphones, and the audio cable, I moved everything into Marmoset Toolbag.
There, I placed three simple lights combined with an HDRI downloaded for free from HDRHaven:
- 1 Directional as a Main
- 1 Spot as a Fill
- 1 Omni to create a nice highlight on the glass surface
I set the render quality to maximum (exporting 4k images) and set the “transparent” mode with no background because I wanted to make it later in Photoshop.
While I was following the presentation part of Simon Fuchs’s tutorial I got struck by the idea of presenting the Walkman as a real product made by the fake company LONY (clearly referring to Sony). For that, I decided to gather some billboard refs which helped me to visualize the layout.
Yet, the final result still missed some style for the product line “Cyber City Edition”. Luckily, I found a good tutorial on Youtube that solved that problem.
Final Thoughts and Credits
The Walkman project included all the aspects I love most in my work: concepting, modeling, texturing, and lighting. It was also one of my first fully completed projects, and I learned a lot in every aspect.
As I’m aiming to become a good all-round artist, with every new project I try to learn something new, follow different tutorials, apply unfamiliar techniques and push myself to the edge of the personal abilities. I want to thank all the artists who inspired me and made various tutorials that I heavily exploited during the project, especially these two:
I want to wrap up this article with a phrase that was like a guiding light for me during the project:
"NOTHING IS ORIGINAL."
Every time you feel stuck, find references. I understood that no one can know or remember everything, even a Senior Artist, so when you don’t know what to do, take a deep breath, watch something already made by someone else and make it your own way.