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Environment artist Nick Duarte showed some of the things he did to build that amazing 3d version of Link’s iconic weapons.
Hi everyone, my name is Nick Duarte and currently I am an Environment Look Dev artist at BRON studios in Burnaby, BC working on a feature film called “Henchmen”. My duties on the film have been anything from environments, textures, lighting and matte painting, as well as minor character work and TD work. My artistic career began when I landed a job working at PopCap EA in Burnaby, BC on the original “Plants vs Zombies: Garden Warfare” as an environment artist (awesome first job). I was responsible for creating anything from props, structures, textures, LOD’s, as well as anything else needed within the Frostbite engine to complete an asset such as enlighten meshes (which controlled GI) and collision meshes. I have also worked on a couple hand-held/mobile LEGO games in which I was responsible for environments, textures, UI and the majority of the characters and vehicles.
The Master Sword
One of the reasons for starting these projects was because I have always been a huge fan of the Legend of Zelda series and I wanted to do something that would present these assets in a more realistic manner. Furthermore, it was a personal challenge for myself since I created the same shield in 2011 and I wanted to see how much I have improved over the years. Also seeing as how The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is coming out, I found this to be perfect timing. I really wanted to emphasize that these weapons have been used in battle for years and years (since they keep getting passed down with almost every iteration of the game).
They are usually shown in a cartoony fashion without real world materials, largely because that’s just Nintendos style choice, so I wanted to do something different, something I personally have not seen done before. Battle damage from sword slashes/clashes, to arrows denting the shield and weather elements affecting the materials, I really tried to think about events these may have gone through throughout their years of being passed down. I also decided to take some artistic liberties on the sword and shield yet keep them recognizable to the original assets we all know and love. I wasn’t interested in simply creating something that has been realized before.
It was actually simpler than you might think. The block-out of all the initial base meshes were done in Maya. I set up my crease edges and exported it out to zBrush where most of my detail work and sculpting were done. The details were done with a combination of hard surface brushes and custom alphas made from textures I found on the web.
When creating alphas to use on your objects, I found that using NDO to generate height maps from your textures works much better than simply converting your images to black and white for the height information. The outcome was less distorted and gave me a much more realistic height variance which felt more natural with respect to whatever material I was trying to emulate. Retopology was done simply using Topogun. It’s quick, simple and to the point. To bake out my maps I used the amazing baker from Marmoset Toolbag 3.
They have an awesome Autoloader that quickly sets up your scene and allows you to generate your maps quickly and easily. As far as texturing goes, I decided to use the Quixel Suite largely due to the fact I am familiar with how it works and it has an incredibly large and vast material library with hundreds of presets to get you started. It’s such a powerful tool which I believe is a bit underrated and doesn’t get the love it deserves! I will say, although Quixel and Substance both have so many presets to choose from to get you started, that doesn’t make it a one click solution I’ve found. You still need a great knowledge of how materials work and interact in the real world in order to develop custom materials that can work in any lighting situation and still be believable. I’m definitely still learning everyday and hopefully improving!
For the details on the high-poly sculpt, I would say the most challenging aspect was creating believable wear and tear (specifically battle damage) to the objects. It required a bunch of research before even starting the project as a whole. Many artists have said it and it holds true that the importance of research and reference cannot be underestimated. No fancy brushes or tools were used to create the damage. It was a combination of a few brushes such as dam standard, and a few polish brushes. The gold details on the scabbard were done with masks and then extracted as a separate SubTool. As stated previously when creating alphas to add micro detail I found that using NDO to generate height maps from your textures works much better than simply converting your images to black and white. That method tends to yield cleaner and more accurate results. I don’t know if there is a real “efficient way”, I think you just have to find a way that works for you and stick with it or develop it to better suit your needs. One method that might work for you might not work for someone else. One thing I would suggest is to play around with different brushes and see what each one does and how you can use it you suit your needs based on the current task. I would also recommend building your own custom zBrush alpha library, that way you have a reliable wealth of alphas which would help speed up your process on any future projects.
So the materials were all created using DDO. The huge material library and the ability to create and save custom materials to your own custom library greatly speed up the texturing process. In doing so, the time I saved actually texturing the objects was used to tweak the shaders to fit my needs. The viewer in Quixel Suite (3DO) made it easy for me to see all my materials and how they interact with each other. That played in integral role in making sure the materials I was creating all worked together and were believable for the back-story. I went back and forth between 3DO and Marmoset, since I knew my final renders were going to be done in Toolbag 3. The maps were all baked in Marmoset Toolbag 3. It has an awesome ability to paint skew maps, which in my case immensely helped with the bolts on the back of the shield for example. As you can see in the before and after images, before painting the skew maps the Normal map output had the bolts a bit offset. So all I had to do was paint black or white in order to instantly fix the issue. The final resulting Normal map was much better.
Before I even started the project I knew I had to go with Marmoset Toolbag 3 as my renderer of choice. It’s quick, easy, powerful and gives beautiful real-time renders quite quickly. It’s a great program to use especially when you are iterating and updating models and textures. It automatically updates, so for example if you add a decal in photoshop to your texture map, as soon as you save and switch back to marmoset you see the change instantly. I especially love using it for props and things I know I will be creating a turntable with. Toolbag 3 makes it so easy, it’s literally one click to set it up, then all you have to do is change how long you want the turntable to be and hit render. My light setup makes use of Marmosets IBL as well as a classic 3 point setup. I usually like to choose an environment light that works best, I then turn it down almost all the way just so it acts more of an ambient light rather than the main light source. I add as many child lights as needed using the skylight as a source, which kind of fills in all the dark areas of the assets. Dynamic lights were used for the 3 point light setup. I decided to go with spotlights because I knew I wanted to export a Marmoset Viewer file and at this time, Viewer doesn’t support point lights or directional lights. Since I was going for a more realistic take on these props I made use of the newly added Global Illumination that comes with the new Toolbag 3. It helped add those last finishing touches to my lighting.
Some of the most challenging aspects of this project were trying to create materials that were believable and worked well together. Also, making the battle damage convincing and work in unison with the textures proved to be tougher than expected. Like any Zelda fan, I am used to seeing these assets in a more stylized fashion, so getting it to be realistic while at the same time respecting and staying true to the original concepts was definitely a challenge, but far from difficult. Since all 3 props were created separately from each other I had to make sure they looked consistent to one another. Quixel made that easy since I was able to save custom materials, after I spent the time getting them right, and reuse them throughout the project.
There weren’t really any modeling challenges besides figuring out what details I wanted to leave to the normal maps and which ones I wanted to be geo and since These were designed to be potentially used in a next-gen game or perhaps a short film of sorts, I knew that most of the filigree would have to be modeled since they had the potential to be seen up close. I’d like to close off this interview by saying that I believe it is important to take your time and do significant research for your projects even if they seem like they would be a simple task. Gathering proper reference, doing research on the subject and taking time to create customize and save materials to a library for future use is of the utmost importance. All in all I wouldn’t worry about going too slow of not being fast enough. It’s also important to keep in mind, these programs such as Quixel or Substance aren’t meant to be a one click solution. You still must have sufficient knowledge of how materials work, how lights affect certain materials differently than others, etc. Study, observe, ask questions and most importantly, have fun and learn new things along the way, that’s what matters! These projects were done in about a 3 week period with however much time I had each night after work.