Long life to Embark studio and its fabulous procedural artists dream team !
Jeroen Backx shared his amazing story, where he an amazing book in Zbrush, including a reimagining of family coat of arms.
Thank you so much for your interest. I already used to frequent 80.lv and I’m truly humbled that you found my work to be cool enough to merit an interview. This is awesome!
My name is Jeroen Backx, I’m a 36-year-old guy from the Netherlands. I have worked in the games industry for about 11 years now. I started experimenting with 3d a couple of years before that. I always had an interest in video games and loved drawing and using computers since an early age. Since working with 3d I have always regarded myself as a generalist as I love to learn new software and I tend to get bored with doing the same stuff over and over. Being a tinkerer with all this juicy software is great fun although it takes attention away from really developing as an artist. I feel like I only started to develop my fundamentals since a couple of years.
In 2007 I started at Playlogic in the Netherlands, working on an Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 game called Fairytale Fights. This wasn’t a huge success so in 2010 the studio was closed. From that point on I did freelance work for about three years. I was able to make some contributions to Bioshock Infinite and Starwars Kinect through a 3rd party outsourcing studio.
Then in 2013, I was invited to start at Sticky Studios in Utrecht where I’ve recently become the Art Director. We typically focus on making small promotional games for movie franchises on mobile platforms for clients such as Warner Brothers, Paramount, Fox interactive, and so on. Our projects are created in Unity and take about 3 to 4 months to complete so we do a couple of these each year. This is nice because we don’t really have to work on a single franchise for years on end. Of course, this also means we never really get to take a deep dive into character or world building. We only have about 12 artists in our studio and while we have some specialists (animation, UI, character art) being a generalist in our studio turns out to be very useful.
Lineage started almost immediately after I had found a way to settle my grief my fathers passing. Grief made way for a sense of gratitude to my parents and family. I was able to become an artist because they always encouraged my creativity. My mother still likes to paint with watercolors and my father was a skilled oil painter who tried to paint in the style of old Dutch masters. He never achieved true success although many in my family have a “real Bart Backx“ hanging on their wall. I still plan to take detailed photographs of all his paintings and make an online archive of his best work. Anyway, I felt like dedicating a project to him and my thoughts went to an old photocopy of the Coat of Arms of our family. My father had copied that from a book my uncle used to have, that uncle, unfortunately, lent it to someone and never got it back, this happened somewhere back in the seventies.
The only thing we were left with was that blurry faded photocopy. Nonetheless, I was always fascinated by that image even as a kid. The reason I chose to do this as a project in dedication to my father was that I felt like I owe my existence and profession to him and my ancestors before him. He was the one who saved that photocopy and also I thought it’s just really cool to have a kickass Coat of Arms belonging to your family. So I had my topic and some reference. I then hopped online and tried to search for references to the original book in hopes of being able to buy it somewhere secondhand. I could not find the book for sale itself but I found something almost as good: detailed color scans of the book and the coat of arms. This was the first time I saw it in color! This sealed the deal for me and I hopped into Zbrush almost right away!
My mother did recently find a secondhand copy of the book online although it was too expensive to buy. It was written early last century and the family tree dates back to the sixteenth century!
The coat of arms
Except for the helmet, the coat of arms was made entirely in Zbrush. I traced the reference by creating planes and deforming them to match the reference. I extruded these and used some basic brushes like Trim dynamic, Clay brushes, Dam standard and Soft polish to achieve the results you see. I didn’t use any fancy tricks to get a quick result, it was just a lot of manual labor although identifying which parts were mirrored helped a lot. The biggest challenge was to figure out how the shapes would look in 3d, how they overlap and how to keep a nice flow going. I gained a great respect for the original design while working on it. It translated into 3d very well but it still took a lot of refinement.
I also discovered that dynamesh is not so convenient when trying to work with shapes that are rather flat. It turned out that using ZRemesh instead enabled me to keep the backfaces open, allowing me to only worry about the front facing sides. Other than that, just the amount of effort it took was quite a challenge. I spent quite some evenings on the sculpt.
The knight and the lion
The lion was made similarly to the rest of the sculpt which was relatively easy. The helmet was a whole different challenge. I started by trying to mimic the helmet from the reference but I felt like I couldn’t make it look good or match it very well. Instead of worrying too much about that I took it as an opportunity to personalize the design a little bit. I looked up some cool medieval knight references and combined aspects to come up with a design my own. That turned out to be the only piece I needed to model in 3ds Max as the shape was too complex for me to quickly create in Zbrush. The recent boolean tools would’ve made it a lot easier however. The final challenge was to place the helmet in the correct location. You may not be able to tell but it is quite skewed to blend it naturally on to the book without it protruding out too much.
Many of the items you named are done the old-fashioned way. Mostly subdiv modeling in 3ds Max. The book was entirely modeled and baked in Max. A lot of people seem to be obsessed with idea of doing everything in Zbrush but I just can’t get quick crispy hard-edge results in there even with the Zmodeler toolset. I like it, but using 3ds Max is just more comfortable and fast paced for me. I love modeling in 3ds Max as it offers a ton of clever tricks made possible by combining modifiers in the modifier stack. I mentioned subdiv modeling but I rarely spam edge-loops, I often make use of smoothing groups combined with two layers of subdivision, the first one keeps hard edges based on smoothing groups while the second disregards these resulting in a smooth beveled edge look. I also make a lot of use of spline shapes as I love the procedural approach these allow you to take. I do a lot with sweep, loft, profile beveling and using the shell modifier on mesh surfaces to quickly generate thickness.
I also make a lot of use of instanced geometry. The tree thread pattern is just a single piece repeating itself and tiling perfectly on to itself.
The metal material on the coat of arms was done in Substance Designer as I wanted to have complete control over every detail of it. I then painted the colors in Substance Painter. The book was entirely done in Substance Painter. I made sure to make the roughness and metallic contrast between metal, fabric, paper, leather, and dirt very pronounced. I try to keep diffuse and normal subtle but roughness and metallic maps are allowed to have some punch to them. That makes everything in the final images really stand out.
I appreciate that you like the look of the pages, those are actually the most simple as I just put a layer with a photo texture of the side of an old book there. Long live textures.com, although that is the only part that is textured with photo textures.
Substance Painter is amazing. I could not have gotten a similar result just using Photoshop. But of course it is just a tool, it still takes a lot of effort and some insight to create convincing materials and to bring everything together between the book and the coat of arms. Because I wanted to have the coat of arms to be the primary focus I started by creating a material in Substance Designer before bringing it into Painter. That way I would not be depending too much on photo textures or pre-existing material presets.
I have used many different approaches to render my projects throughout the years. There was a period where I rendered in Vray using linear colors and composited using Nuke. That gave incredible results but the process is quite complex and I don’t feel the extra time and effort invested makes up for it. I then tried to use Unreal 4 for a while as I thought it would be appropriate to showcase game-ready 3d assets in a real-time 3d environment. I still hold this to be true but I’ve discovered that Toolbag is just much more convenient. The render tools such as sharpen, DOF, Vignetting, Noise, Bloom, and so on deliver a fantastic end result. I don’t even need to do any touchups in photoshop! It’s almost like you’re editing photos in Lightroom, I love it.
For lighting, I usually like to start with an appropriate HDR as a base after which I will add a primary light and some fill and backlights if the scene requires it. The lighting in this scene was specifically made to provide pretty intense reflections.