Miguel Nogueira shared his workflow of creating realistic cyberpunk shaman made with ZBrush and KeyShot.
Hello! My name is Miguel Nogueira and I am a concept designer, artist, thinker, former graffiti artist, ex-graphic designer, problem-solver, dreamer, and many other things! I studied Multimedia and Digital Arts at ESAD, a college in my home town here in Portugal. Currently, I’m working at Frictional Games, and I’ve been there since 2017. I freelanced for other small studios as well but it was at Frictional where I got my serious work experience. We’re now working on a new horror title and I’m contributing to pretty much anything ranging from monsters, prop design, and characters to level sketches, 2D art, and storyboards.
The essence of the project was in mixing some of my life experiences and topics I find exciting. Once I read an essay on cybernetics, reports by Wiener and his theories on the transmission of information between living beings and machines being identical (there’s a cycle of codification, de-codification, re-feeding, and learning). These theories attempt to understand the communication and control of the machine, living beings, and social groups from the analogies with electronic devices. In summary, they claim that what separates a man from a machine is a mere topic of semantics.
This was what sparked the interest in taking out my art tools and beginning to speculate about giving this idea a new kind of meaning. I imagined our world in the future where science, religion, and nature would coexist.
In this character design, our subject did not stop being spiritual. Even though she’s cyber-augmented, the subcultural clothes are just a form to express myself and it’s another topic I also happen to like.
Research and Sketching
Finding reference on the internet and sketching are the most fun part of the process for me. The more I draw and research the more I find about my characters. The deeper you dig for ideas, the higher is your chance to find something valuable!
I used a program called PureRef to organize my references and Photoshop for the sketches. It’s important to say that you can use any tool that lets you draw and collect reference. Think with your mind, not with software – creativity is not software-dependent!
I felt that exploring different sketches could be beneficial. I already had an image of Wicca in my mind – an urban witch who represents a video-game mage character, – but I didn’t want to grab that idea right away. I wanted to see if any other ideas would work better, this is why I started drawing different iterations of the character. I also shared screenshots with friends and asked them if the concept and story made sense. I wanted to make sure it was neither too wild and weird nor too boring and obvious.
Note that I didn’t look at any ready concept art and only stuck to researching real-world robotics, real fashion, and symbols.
Note: Drift, allow yourself to wander all around, experiment, forget what you think you know and design theories, be fearless.
Bonus Mood Sketches
I already stated that this was a labor of love and since I don’t set myself a time constraint, I like to do a series of mood sketches exploring the character’s personality. I like to think it influences the final result by allowing me to get to know the character better.
Sculpting in ZBrush
For the sculpting I use ZBrush, I love to play with its tools. It never feels like work and when this kind of energy drives the process, sometimes you get unexpected results.
I don’t usually use a lot of fancy brushes, just Сlay, Dam Standard, Trim, and Polish brushes which I believe are the default ones in ZBrush, plus some tech alpha maps to bring everything together.
The Clay brush is great to add forms without worrying about them too much. It allows you to make mistakes which is crucial to acquire any sort of skill you want to master. The Trim and Polish brushes are great for hard surface forms, while the Standard and Dam Standard ones are great to carve in some lines.
I usually take parts of the model and export them for a quick render, publish the work in progress on social media and send it to friends. This is useful for getting feedback about the general quality of the product. As soon as I show it to the public, I set the bar and the next images of the project should be better or just as good.
I’m not really an expert in Marvelous Designer but it’s the tool I use and it’s the fastest way to get clothes of good quality. The way it simulates folds is just too good to pass on, and it would have otherwise taken me a very long time to do the same in ZBrush. As always, I have my reference board open on a second monitor and I constantly nudge and push the garments here and there to make sure they both match my reference and my line sketch.
Rendering and Texturing
For rendering, I use Keyshot and its material graph to generate textures quickly without having to worry about UV maps or any other tool-related constraints. All I need to do is to import the model into the scene and start importing textures next.
Most of the time I already have a library of shaders I’ve previously made for other cyborg concepts, so it’s just a drag and drop process.
Illustrations aren’t really my thing, so naturally, I started with the illustration first to be able to relax later on when working on the turn around view (this is my comfort zone). I also wanted to get better at illustration, so it would be pointless to avoid working on my weaknesses and stick to what I already know. The scope of the project didn’t really shrink because of it but actually expanded as I wanted it to. It gave room for a different format of storytelling that wouldn’t be accessible via just a turn around view of the model.
It’s a mix of digital painting, photography, and Keyshot materials:
Adding accessories was the easiest part. The nose ring is just a torus with a sphere, same for the earplugs which are just a modified torus. The pouches and clothes were a mix of IMM ZBrush and Marvelous Designer. My idea was to improve the graphic read, hence adding tattoos played a huge part. The giant ‘X’ tattoo on the side of her head was also added because it gives a better graphic read and because it felt right. The latter is often a more important reason because when we’re doing artwork, the feeling of it has to be there.
My main concern was to add tech and hard surface elements without making the character look like just another cyborg. There’re a lot of great video games and movies with amazing visual languages but I wanted to go with it even further and explore the character more – piercings, tattoos, pouches, ragged clothes, anything to tell her story better. Does her jacket have ragged ends because it got stuck while she was chasing someone? Asking questions like this is a great thing to do in order to improve the design.
The edge wear and most of the texture work was done with a material graph inside Keyshot, plus I usually overlay a very subtle metal texture on top of the basic render to add some variety. I overlay different Labels, as you can see in the graph, they work like layers, and with each label added, I mask away some of it by using a curvature map. A curvature map finds all the edges and faces that turn within the mesh and separates them by colors. After that, I can mask away the curves I don’t want. To illustrate my point better, I’ve added a red. yellow and blue colors to each curvature. If I wanted to mask away the blue curves of the textures within the label and keep everything else, all I had to do was set it to black. If I wanted it to be visible, I’d set it to white, and if I wanted subtle masking, I could play with the greys. Looking at this now, I think I could have messed with the cutoff sliders a bit more to incorporate each curvature color better as the edge wear seems a bit too linear.
I usually start with very basic lighting in Keyshot which I then rework in Photoshop by adding textures, making adjustments to the lighting and so on. The pentagram was made as an experiment in Keyshot: I used a wire-frame shader, then tweaked it to make it emissive, and gave it the hologram kind of look. During the process, I kept checking the holograms on Google to make sure it was grounded on something, I was going to add a photo or just paint it but it turned out really easy in Keyshot. The most important part of this workflow is a simple paintover which helps to get rid of the 3D look.
The best way to make a character that stands out is to create something that reflects your personality. I really put my life into my works. When creating Wicca, I remembered some friends with the same style who reminded me of her. I also used to be a goth and wear dreadlocks, piercings, and tattoos. I’m trying to tell stories about myself and the people I know to reflect not only my spirit but also the spirit of my friends. And I think everyone has a unique story to tell.
This is really important because the market has a tendency to reward success, and success today might have different shapes from post-apocalyptic environment concepts to stylized cartoony colorful characters. It just depends on what’s hot at the moment. I see people trying to follow the trends. A stream of sales, books, game dev mentors and teachers confirm the ideology that the most desirable use of our talents is to employ them in designing colorful skins, loot box contents, hats, and other cosmetics, profile badges, impractical ‘sexy’ MMO armors – the things which are inessential in terms of artistic representation but get sold well. This doesn’t mean you should necessarily rebel against it, – just realize that commercial work is only what lets you pay the bills. Don’t let it become a thing that outshines your voice and your ideas.
Often times copying Syd Mead and whatever is popular on Artstation might bring your work some attention but the artwork which really stands out is the one where the artist is telling us something only he or she can tell, something personal that has the artist’s own signature.
Don’t be afraid to be yourself, resist whatever the market considers as successful, especially if you don’t feel doing it. Remember why you started this career in the first place. The work you produce today will create your future.