Weapon Art: Reference Study & Hard-Surface Modeling

Dmytro Butenko gave an interesting talk on the weapon design, hard-surface modeling, and texturing and talked about the production of Helsing crossbow for Metro Exodus.


Hello. Originally I am from a small town called Obukhiv, located close to Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine.

For me, it all started probably just like for everyone who got into 2D and 3D art in the game industry, from my deep love for video games. And probably like everyone else, in my younger age, I’ve spent countless hours playing games. My general interest in art started during school times when I made my first drawings in my textbooks. Then it was college (not game art related) that made probably the biggest impact when my teacher introduced me to this fascinating world of 3D art on the internet. Starting from that time I was totally consumed by the idea that it is possible to create digital worlds on my own. I was totally invested in 3D art and I’ve read every piece of information I could get my hands on at the time. Naturally, spending more time on the subject I’ve started realizing that I want to do this professionally.

I’ve quit college and spent 4 months working on my portfolio to help me pursue my newly formed dream to become a game artist. Fortunately enough, after applying to several places, I’ve got a job at the company Noble Empire as a weapon artist working on the Gun Disassembly 2 project. It was a dream coming true – making my own models, with all the complicated mechanisms that worked in a real game engine! I felt I was in the right place doing things I love, and I soon realized I gravitate the most to the hard-surface modeling and weapons.

Importance of Studying Mechanisms & Functions

As I see it, the biggest problem with hard-surface modeling is the lack of understanding of a particular object function and purpose. This also applies to every art form: most beginners spend from little to no time studying asset they are about to recreate and just try to copy its form. As it is impossible to create a realistic – hence believable – human body without the knowledge of anatomy, it’s impossible to create a believable weapon, vehicle or device without a basic understanding of its function at least. With every single asset I need to create, it usually starts from learning about this particular object or similar assets. I take my time studying the subject and when I am happy with all the information I was able to collect I get to work.

Hard-Surface Modeling Workflow

When I started working with 3D, it was all about subdivision modeling. It was not only about the creation of the form, and it was a challenge to avoid any surface artifacts and bugs caused by a bad polygonal distribution and edge flows. It’s much more streamlined nowadays, as you can use mixed modeling techniques combining CAD software with traditional sub-D modeling and ZBrush. Almost all studios I’ve ever worked with had a pipeline Maya + ZBrush + Substance Painter. For personal work, the majority of modeling is done in Fusion 360. The amount of freedom and flexibility CAD software gives is simply too good to pass by. But, the most important thing is not the type or the name of the software solution you are using, but how you use it to your best advantage. At the end of the day, it’s only a tool that you operate to achieve the goal. As for now, I stand by the idea that you use what suits you the most. I am always looking for new options and at the same time trying to minimize the number of tools I use.

Insulating Tape

The question I am asked the most lately (unfortunately, not about hard-surface), is about that insulating tape I’ve used nearly on every single weapon I’ve made for Metro Exodus. It was done in Maya, and as happy as I am with the result at the time, I am not really sure I used the most effective way to do this. But it did the job for me. It was easy and didn’t require any additional software. My way of thinking about that was, as I’ve mentioned before, trying to apply real-life electrical tape behavior and replicate it in Maya. The decision was to use Wrap modifier because of the “Sticky” effect it gives. After a few tests, I understood it was just what I needed. Here’s the video of the process:

Texturing in 3D Coat

3D Coat is probably the most extraordinary software solution I’ve had to work in. It’s really your Swiss Army knife in the world of 3D applications. You can do everything in it – modeling (voxel sculpting), retopology, UV and per pixel texturing. In my experience, it’s a wonderful tool for texturing. You can create complex smart materials, use different options in projecting materials on a model (box mapping, camera mapping, UV mapping, etc.) Camera mapping is probably my favorite and most utilized one. The way you can, for example, project welding material on the model surface looks simply amazing. A good friend of mine who I’ve worked on Metro Exodus with (by the way, he taught me all the ninja tricks and magic in 3D Coat) made a great video of the described process. You should check it out if you want to have an idea of how weapon texturing was done for the project (see the video below). We just developed great 3D smart material bases and shared them with each other to get the art styles match. And this saved us a lot of time and gave us really stunning results with a quick drag-and-drop texturing system in 3D Coat.

Welding video by Oleksandr Pavlenko (Principal Artist at 4A Games):

Concepting for Helsing Crossbow

It happens that in the team concept artists are sometimes occupied by other important tasks, so you start working out some ideas by yourself. Having a good, detailed technical task created by a Lead Technical Designer Andrii Verpakhovskyi helps a lot. That was the case when I received a task to create Helsing crossbow for Metro Exodus which was based on the previous version of crossbow made for Metro Last Light. It had a well-recognized and established design, however, the new version had a slightly different place in gameplay and had to be designed from the ground up, partly due to absolutely new attachment functionality.

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It all starts with collecting references. It was important for us to maintain visual authenticity and similarity to the original design. Every Metro fan knew that those bicycle parts were a backbone of Helsing and there was no way around it. I had the form and it was all about the function now. Loading mechanism, bolt feed, string design. The most challenging task was to link everything in one loading motion as it needs to be a single connected functional system that does three main things – bolt loading/rotation, prod tensioning, and cocking. The bolt magazine was based on a spinning top mechanism. The crossbow cocking is done by pivot joint rotation of a stock that serves the multi-functional purpose of, well, a charger. The stock cocking motion also tensions the prod with hook type rods transforming the rotational motion into a linear one.

My guess is that only a small percentage of players noticed full functionality of the described mechanism. We expected it, but did it anyway, because it was the way we approached weapons design. Working on it was a blast. Only after the functional part was tested and approved to work as intended, I came back to shaping form and general art style. Blocking out the model was done just in time for a concept artist to be able to start his work. Ilya Tolmachev (a well-known art director who worked on S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and created his own project Cradle) was responsible for shaping final visual art style utilizing the greybox and painting over it. After the concept was complete, it was my job to finalize the high poly model.

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All weapons and devices I’ve done for Metro Exodus were modeled 50% in Maya and 50% polished in ZBrush. Maya was utilized for modeling and ZBrush for finalizing the model to make it ready for the normal map baking.

Carefully Studying Reference

A most important part of texturing for me is collecting all possible references I need to achieve the desired result. It starts with planning, compiling ref-list, and deciding how many and what kind of materials I will use. I always try to have a good variety of damaged and worn materials so I can have different options and good understating of how particular materials behave.

I have this rule that made all the difference for me: I study every interesting material and reference for 10 minutes or so. It might sound crazy, but it makes all the difference between looking and seeing. I suggest doing this experiment. The image above is a good example. Let me ask you a few questions now. When you looked at it first, have you noticed small fibers on the metal or tiny dust parts? About 3-4 recognizable color hues of metal, from yellow and brown to blue and purple? What caused this tint? Was it oil used on this mechanical part or is it natural oxidation caused by aging, or maybe both? How about all those small dents on the upper part of the image on the cylindrical shape and how they are layered with scratches and yellow and brown stains? And look at these beautifully milled bevels, how they are polished on convexes and have darker colors in concaves. What about color, gloss and specular variety caused by oil and dirt distribution with different thickness?

If you haven’t noticed a few things I’ve described, don’t get upset because it actually means that you function just fine. You see, this is how our brain works by nature. At first, we determine basic shapes and colors, and only after this crucial information is processed and you spent some time studying the object, you start noticing other smaller details. You probably heard the expression “from general to specific” – this is it. The more you spend, the more you get.

Approach to Rendering

For rendering game models I generally use Marmoset Toolbag, and Octane Render for non-game stuff. I approach rendering the same way I do with my texturing: gathering and studying references first. I try to find examples of best-staged photos done by professionals that spend a lot of effort on creating these shots. Not only can you get great ideas on how to present your work, but you can learn a lot from them, even if you are trying to replicate or emulate particular sets. After studying other people’s work and trying to make yours look as good as you can, you learn things that will help you to develop your own style in the future. I simply adore the works by Stickman and Ashes to Ashes Photography. This photo, in particular, inspired me to recreate similar silhouette shot for Tikhar gun I made for Metro Exodus.

If you want to up your render skills to a new level, I would strongly suggest trying real-time photography by yourself. You don’t need some crazy camera rig for studying, phone cameras are powerful enough nowadays. Just try to make different types of shots with different perspectives and environments. This can help you improve the understating of lightning and composition and teach you to apply your skills in rendering.

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Recommendations for Weapon Artists

I strongly suggest checking out Forgotten Weapons on YouTube. For me, it’s the best weapon-related channel with excellent history lessons and detailed explanation of gun mechanical operation. And of course, do your daily 80 Level reading. It’s a great source of interesting interviews and making-offs. Peace!

Dmytro Butenko, Senior Weapon Artist at Ubisoft Toronto

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

Take a look at Quixel’s collection of scratched metal that will add realism to your weapons:


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Comments 1

  • Simon

    Thanks for doing the breakdown, I really enjoyed Metro Exodus!



    ·4 years ago·

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