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Wow, the YouTube video was released in November. How have I never seen it before? I've probably watched it three times in the past hour. It's an absolutely amazing production. What was the budget for this?
Character artist Alessando Baldasseroni, who worked on content for titles like Elder Scrolls: Online, Batman: Arkham Origins, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, Far Cry 3, Fable 3, Mass Effect 2, Halo Wars, Dante’s Inferno, discussed his approach to creation of high-quality models. The artist gave a breakdown of his production pipeline and shared some useful tricks.
I’m a self-taught 3d artist born and raised in Milan (Italy). As for my studies I have a degree in Science of Information and a few years of Math university (which I didn’t finish). All I know and I use in production of 3d stuff comes from years of practice first by myself at home and then in the studios I worked for. Samples of my character modeling work can be seen in several recent game cinematics, movies and commercials such as: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Thor: The Dark World, Deadpool, Elder Scrolls: Online, Batman: Arkham Origins, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, Far Cry 3, Fable 3, Mass Effect 2, Halo Wars, Dante’s Inferno, NFL on Fox, Goldfish Crackers and many more. I’ve been working at Blur Studio for almost 8 years, most of them as Lead Character Artist, before that I had worked at Milestone, a game developer in Milan. I’m currently working as a senior character artist at Riot Games in their cinematic department.
My general pipeline usually starts from a 2d concept art or, when that is not available for any reason, with a bunch of different references that are supposed to convey an idea of the character’s personality, costume and mood. Collecting references has become a fundamental part of my job. The most accurate and exhaustive is the work I do early in terms of collecting references, the less work I do after to figure out specific elements and in general it speeds up the process a lot and helps me to foresee potential issues in the development of a character.I use a pretty neat tool specific for collecting references which is called Pureref that allows me to collect resources from online and offline locations and have them stored in one single file. I used it all the time for my recent projects. After this reference stage I start blocking, either using pre existing base meshes in 3ds Max or in Zbrush. It’s very rare , unless I have to work on an imaginary creature, that I start completely from a scratch, at least for the base mesh. Usually in the first steps there are tons of back and forth between my 3d polymodeling application (3ds Max) and Zbrush . The short-term goal is to establish the right proportions and block out most of the elements of my character. It’s some sort of rough assembling stage but it’s probably the most important because main forms and proportions are the foundation of anything that follows after. What follows after is pretty straightforward in terms of pipeline. Once all the elements have been modeled and I have a good feeling that topology won’t change too much I start detailing in Zbrush, adding all the creamy surface details and hi-res sculpting . Then comes laying out the UVs, which I usually do in Zbrush, just being sure the seams are placed strategically in areas, as hidden as possible . I can always tweak seams in 3d painting programs like Mari, but it is always good not to have them in very exposed areas. Texturing and shading are done with a combination of Mari for projection painting/seam fixing and Photoshop. Recently i’ve started using Substance Painter, but mainly for edge wearing mask extraction, where it excels in my opinion. Shading and texturing is the stage where I usually do tons of render tests in 3ds Max and Vray to calibrate my shaders and make them, generally speaking, as much realistic as possible.
As I mentioned I use Mari for most of my texturing work these days . I do very little painting from the scratch, most of the time I work with manipulation of photorealistic base textures . The beauty of Mari is that the whole texturing of one character can live on one single file and the Photoshop layer structure is incredibly intuitive, which gives the most seamless transition when exporting in PSD to Photoshop. This allows me to texture directly on the 3d parts, export and plug the result in my Vray shaders….do a render test and then tweak back again accordingly. This is the essence of my texturing pipeline. When it comes to edge wearing, I either project scratch masks in Mari on a base of curvature edge mapping, or use Substance Painter to get a result faster.
Usually the sample stills of my characters have little to none post-production. Most of them are used as a sample of how characters look in basic lighting conditions and to get approvals from clients. So it’d be a bit deceiving to show something for approval that relies on a lot of post-production . Usually the post-production on sample stills for a show is just about a little levels tweaks and some vignette which I usually achieve fast in Magic Bullet. The lighting on those characters in those sample stills is based on HDRI images in different lighting conditions and occasionally I turn on a rim light in the back of the characters. When it comes to personal illustration it is a totally different matter and I heavily rely on Photoshop post production which includes tweaking of colors through masking areas of clown passes, level adjustments, blooming….tons of overpainting and chromatic aberration. All finalized to get a better readability, emphasizing areas of focus and making a pleasant grading.
Doing observation and collecting references is definitely a step in the right direction . In terms of character art, what I would never grow tired to recommend is to focus on primary forms first and move on details only when you are sure you are in a good spot with that . High detailing sculpting programs allow you to put noisy details very quickly and there’s a tendency to overload characters with that sacrificing readability and harmony . So sometimes it is very useful to make a step back and spend most of the time developing solid primary volumes and proportions . If you work with concepts, constantly comparing your 3d model render with the concept in Photoshop, even overlaying one on top of the other is a way to see how much your interpretation or adaptation differs from the original material. If this is done early enough it allows you to tweak things in a timely manner and don’t propagate mistakes till the very end when is too late. Presentation is also very important in terms of polishing your sample stills, learning a high end render and spending some time learning realistic shaders is a way these day to go that extra mile to distinguish yourself from the mass of people doing character art for no more than a hobby. And yes….lot of practice of course.