Shayleen Hulbert talked about her stylized character based on Cardcaptor Sakura manga series: sculpting, texturing, eye production, presentation, and more.
My name is Shayleen Hulbert and I’m a character artist that has been working in the game industry for almost four years.
I studied game art at De Montfort University for 3 years but I was a terrible student, falling behind the others in my class. It wasn’t until I graduated four and a half years ago that I started learning 3D art. Since then I have worked on The Trail, Heroes of the Storm and Spyro Reignited. Most recently I was the principal Character artist for Variable State‘s new unannounced title (keep your eyes out for this one!)
Way Into Game Industry
Once I graduated I felt pretty lost. I didn’t have very good grades and I didn’t know a lot about 3D modeling or design. I knew the basics but that was about as far as it went. After graduating I worked in a bar for almost a year, applying to every game art generalist position I could. It was a hard year of repeated rejections, and unfortunately like a lot of people I gave up on trying to make it into the industry. At the time I was very active on LinkedIn art groups. I was contacted spontaneously by the art director for 22Cans asking me to come in for an interview as he liked my personal illustrations. I got a job where they believed in my potential. From there I started learning 3D modeling and found my love for the discipline.
Cardcaptors has always been a childhood favorite for me. I have been a huge anime fan since I was in my early teens and I fell in love with the unique fashion from the show, it was an easy choice to work on my favorite design.
Referencing is incredibly important and shouldn’t be a step you skip! I gathered references from the anime, manga, cosplays and promotional illustrations to stitch together in my mind how each element was constructed and built together. I don’t like to use only the concept and illustration as my sole guide, I will research real-life examples of the elements I need. For example, I referenced how real-life latex vests were constructed for the top of the dress, umbrellas, wigs cosplayers had made for Sakura, shoes with paneling I liked and different brands of headphones. This helped me to ground the design in reality even for a stylised piece.
In terms of style, I took inspiration from other 3D artists that had tackled a more modern anime look. I wanted something cute, youthful and appealing to anime and non-anime fans alike that strongly displayed its roots. I love Chang-Gon Shin’s Gwendolyn fan art, his work has been stuck in my head for years and he inspired me to make something similar for Sakura but with my own twist. If you haven’t seen that piece I urge you to right now!
For the sculpt – and for most designs in general – I set two simple stylistic rules for myself: to keep a strong readable silhouette and to use clean and clear shape language. It doesn’t sound like much but having a strict, simple rule set helps me to answer most questions I have during development.
For example, Sakura has a very strong hourglass shape – with her shoulder pads and skirt – so anything that distracted from that silhouette was removed or simplified. All of the strong lines in her design point to and frame her face to hold the viewer’s eye. Think of character design like a painting, everything you do should have balance and be there to assist your focal point, for characters, more often than not it will be the face.
Sculpting tips I have for creating clothing are really very simple. I will extract a mask from the body, quickly dynamesh that, roughly paint in folds (using references), retopo the new geometry as low as I can, refine the folds and claypolish. Spending the time to manually retopo clothing is worth the time for stylised characters because it makes it much easier to control large primary shapes the lower the geo is.
I’m not a very technical person. I can’t build shaders or mastermind sneaky tricks to solve complex visual tasks. Often for me, the quickest dirtiest way to solve a problem is the best so the eyes are actually very simple! They are built up of two alpha planes sitting above the iris between the eye and the cornea. The planes are just alphas with an emissive applied, then I made a colored specular for the iris where I placed random flecks and spots. This meant that as the light moved around the scene, it would pick up flecks of light and color on the eye with minimal effort.
One of the most impactful things that I have learnt personally in my career is that you don’t always need a complex technical answer to a visual problem, you can still achieve great results with the basics.
For texturing, my usual tool of choice would have to be Quixel. Their material library is far superior than most I’ve seen in other tools in my opinion and I really enjoy that it’s hosted inside of Photoshop. Photoshop is an environment I’m very comfortable in so it made it an easy sell for me.
I approach texturing the same as I do with sculpting. Planning and referencing is incredibly important if you want to have a clear cohesive visual. I preplan what materials I want to replicate and how they will be balanced across the design – I don’t want everything to have the same specular values so I like to play with the contrast here – I plan all of my color palettes so I have the strongest possible base to work from so I’m not finding myself asking questions late into the process.
After this, I apply colored gradients all over the design. Large sweeping gradients across the skirt, at the end of appendages like the arms, legs and then smaller elements like the pauldrons. This introduces a soft and natural amount of color variation into your design so it doesn’t look flat and dull in brighter lit environments. I’ll add soft contact gradients between elements so that they look like they are touching rather than hovering above each other as often the pieces will look disconnected and flat. Yes, you could use an AO to get a somewhat similar result but I like to have a lot of control over this process so I can have complete control over the feel of the whole piece.
After this, it’s all about the small but impactful tweaks. Polish takes up 80% of the texturing time for me; I’ll add elements like branding, clothing seams, stitching, wear and tear, color variation, freckles, impurities, gloss and specular break up. These are small things you can apply to really push your work from the norm. It may seem tedious at times but more than worth it.
3D-Coat is a little bit of an unsung hero in my opinion. It’s a very powerful tool and I only use it for a fraction of what it can do. Mostly just retop and texturing. In terms of Sakura, I used 3D-Coat for retopology, texturing her hair and any hand painted touches on her face and eyes.
With Sakura having a magical girl setting it meant I really wanted to push the drama of my presentation by conveying a romantic magical atmosphere that the show has. I may be repeating myself here but it’s all about the references. I looked at stills from the show, cosplay photography and fan art for my inspiration and just duplicated the key elements I liked as best as I could.
Marmoset Toolbag is an incredible tool with some amazing resources on how to simply light a character on their website. I make sure to reference simple 3-point light setups and then play with effects like bloom and colored rim-lighting to best represent my references. Pink rim lighting, bloom, and embers are my signature at this point and I can’t make a piece without them!
The biggest challenge for me was the textures. Keeping a balance of realistic material definition in a stylised context can be tough. Going too far into realism is a constant risk so you have to practice a lot of self-control when applying things like wear and tear. Adding these elements into your textures while keeping it cohesive with your stylised model is always a struggle but with time and practice, you learn where to stop.
For Sakura, I really wanted the whole outfit to look like it was custom made for her – this included props too – so there was a challenge in how I would handle the branding and signature design choices that her friend Tomoyo would have made when creating her clothing. Designs on her dress and pauldrons to visually tie them together and the logos on her shoes, dress and headphones really helped to sell this narrative.
You need to have a clear idea of the story you want to tell with your character, keep that concept vivid in your mind as it will inform every decision you need to make.
Shayleen Hulbert, Character Artist
Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev
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