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After high-school I had odd-jobs - graphic design, sandwich artist, security at a retirement home - while practicing 3D full-time and taking a few small 3D contracts. My first real “break” into videogame art was about 6 or 7 years ago on Homefront: the Revolution, also my first AAA title.
I continued to take AAA game contracts for a few years. My daughter was young and contract work came with the benefit of being home with her, so I wasn’t in a rush to change things up, but when the opportunity to work for Sony’s Bend Studio came around I had to take it – game development for my favorite company in a quiet mountain town? I have been at Bend Studio for 4 years now in my first ‘in-house’ position. As different as it is from contract work, I absolutely love it.
Approach to Characters
I don’t usually start a sculpt with any absolutes in mind, it’s a lot easier to figure out what is going to be important after I’ve started, and usually, I latch onto something fairly quickly - sometimes it's proportion and shape or body language, sometimes it’s just mechanical anatomy or likeness.
I did a sculpt of the rapper POS from Doomtree, whose music I find inspiring. I thought it was a mechanical exercise in likeness and high-res detail. About halfway into the likeness I found a picture of him at a concert smiling at the crowd and squinting into the sun, and then I decided it would be a better piece if it was more about emotion or place and time. I skipped the high-res detail and didn’t worry about the likeness as much, and went just for the expression and emotion. My Ghost in the Shell piece was more mechanical, focused on the styling of the shoes and the folds in the jacket.
For the Bangarang character I quickly latched onto proportions and shapes, and tried to exaggerate everything vertically, and then made it about the sort of fiction that surrounds a cyberpunk character, bringing detail and extra elements in at the end to support that.
Bangarang: Development of the Idea
I start with sketching usually, and that’s how this piece started. The concept came out naturally as I threw things at it, just sculpting to find shapes. The artificial arms emerged first as replacements for her human arms, but as I started coming up with a padded-shoulder coat, I liked the idea of the mech-arms originating from there instead of replacing her arms. Once you find a starting point that you like, everything else is just in support of that. Eventually, I was left with a character design I liked, and a pose I didn’t.
Joel Mandish is a phenomenal concept artist here at Sony Bend. I told him I was having some trouble with a pose, and he kindly agreed to help. He did a paintover of what I had, some additional elements, and after a few conversations this piece ended up where it is now. Having that second pair of eyes was incredibly helpful.
The sculpt is super standard, no special brushes or workflow, just sculpting with clay brushes mostly. I prefer not to sculpt in an A-pose so I break symmetry as soon as possible and work that way for a majority of the project, except for the face.
Once I have a rough draft of the clothing with shapes and proportions the way I like, I work them up in Marvelous Designer and simulate them on the body. In this case, that meant also having a tube version of the mech-arms to simulate the cross-hatched cloth around.
As far as the tools are concerned, the only kink to my workflow is ZWrap, which I absolutely love. I tend to sculpt everything dynamesh, so being able to quickly wrap a basemesh to that means no fiddling with topology, UVs, doing projections or otherwise doing anything technical to reach the finished state. I also used ZWrap to help mirror the tattoo arm across her body, so I wouldn’t have to paint a second tattoo for the other arm, which is mostly hidden anyways.
Everything in the texture/shader/render process was pretty basic. I kept the number of materials to a minimum by reusing when possible, for the sake of laziness as much as anything. I wanted a light level of dirt so I did some basic polypainting in ZBrush, not color, just masks.
There are typically two shaders for everything, one clean, one dirty, and the B/W masks just to blend between them.
I didn’t know another way to do it, or the ways I did know or have seen weren’t going to result in what I wanted. So I grabbed a handful of images, threw them into Photoshop, and moved them around on the UVs to suit my general blockout - this was the skull, the butterfly, the roses, and the lettering. I took these into ZBrush as masks and added the shading by hand-painting the values. It took a few tries.
The tattoo (I found) was all about depth. It looked better when I could see the skin fading through, even in the darkest spots. It required a lot of balance and multiple repaints to figure that out. In the end, I hand-tweaked the black/white tattoo mask in Photoshop to blend with the skin in the render better.
Preparing the Renders
Nothing tricky to do here, too. The character is simple, with bigger shapes and very little noise.
The lighting is simple to match – I used an HDRI map with one bright key light and one broad fill light. The magenta disk behind the character is the backlight, and there is some environmental fog to help bleed that magenta color across the scene. On top of this, I used a separate monochrome HDRI map set to only cast reflective/specular light in a warm color, to help break up the metal and skin.
The shaders are similar. Metal is just a basic metal with a slightly higher roughness to broaden the highlights, and I purposefully left out any dings, scratches or other wear to keep the overall noise level down. The cloth has a Fresnel effect to highlight the edges in a very non-PBR way, as well as a light bump-map to break up the surface. I painted the cloth with dirt on the raised edges to get a color change. The skin is broken into the body and head (and the seam is hidden with a choker). The face was given an extra specular layer to make her look a little shinier/more oily, and the body was given the tattoo in a simple multiply layer.
The biggest challenge that was new to me, and also revealed a weakness in my skillset, was the tattoos. I’m not a good 2D artist but I wanted to do something elaborate and full-on. What I’ve seen a lot is that CG tattoos are either Photoshop filtered images slapped together, projections of actual tattoos that the artists repurpose (steal) and have no hand in authoring, or a collection of smaller tattoos alpha’d in like stickers that lack a cohesive whole.
That left hand-painting a tattoo. I used ZBrush/polypaint. It took me several attempts and several days to work it out, but it became my favorite part of the whole process.