Izabela Zelmanska & her Character Theater

Izabela Zelmanska & her Character Theater

Incredible character artist talked about the tools and techniques, that help her to bring her heroes to life.

The one and only Izabela Zelmanska (Blur Studio, Digic Pictures, Platige ImageBigpoint, Techland, The Astronauts) talked about the production of high-poly characters for games. She wrote about sculpting, painting, using Unreal Engine 4 and Substance Painter, and also discussed some tips, which you may find useful. She’s an amazing artist! AMAZING.


Hi, My name is Izabela Zelmanska and I am a character artist. I sculpt humans and creatures for games, movies and animations. I also do photogrammetry scanning using the multi-camera rig we built at home with my fiancee. I work full time at Techland Warsaw, and after hours I do freelance work – recently for Blur Studio, Digic Pictures, Platige Image and Bigpoint. Other higpoints of my recent career include work on ‘The Vanishing of Ethan Carter’ by the Astronauts, game that won many critics awards all over the world including Bafta 2015 award.

I was also involved in creation of main TV spot for BBC’s Sochi Winter Olympics broadcast, directed by Tomasz Baginski – this spot won numerous awards, including BAFTA as well. And then there are a number of projects that are still under NDA so unfortunately I cannot talk about them. I’ll just hint that among these hush-hush projects is one that involves bringing back to life (as hologram) a famous person that is no longer with us.





General Production Process

When creating a new character, first I do a rough idea visualisation – sometimes just in my head, sometimes on paper and sometimes straight in 3d software (the last one I do most frequently as it gives much me more insight). I often mix faces, body poses and clothing with my scans – having a scanning rig at home really helps. I often scan myself and pretty much anyone I manage to catch. I use scan data for base mesh which I heavily modify to suite particular needs. Some detail and features from scans are preserved, but lots of additional wrinkles and other features are sculpted in Zbrush.





Facial Features

I think the most import_ant aspect of my work is to imagine what this person/creature is like – not the looks but personality traits, emotions, mood. Am I creating a proud, and cocky rebel warrior? Or maybe melancholic hopeless romantic type? When I get these sorts of questions out of the way, it becomes so much easier to figure out the looks, the facial expression_, glimmer in the eyes etc. I think that the worst thing for a character design is to be generic. After the right idea is there, I start gathering reference imagery and start rough visualisation, and then I move to sculpting, usually mutilating face scans of myself or my friends .

Useful Tools

Most often I leave my sculpts raw, but when I do want some color and texture on them, I do that using combination of Zbrush, Photoshop, Mari and Substance Painter. For organic stuff I usually pick Zbrush and Mari, while for metal and other non-organic things I find Substance Painter absolutely essential. Photoshop helps me add finest detail and add finishing touches.





Unreal Engine 4

I have been using it at my previous work at The Astronauts so choosing it came natural to me. It’s not just familiarity though – I am not an expert in Unreal by a long shot but I like it for its simplicity and good lighting/shadowing quality out of the box. I am a bit of a shader-retard and learning comes along slooowly, but luckily I have big help at home – my fiancee has been actually working with Epic Games for many years and has a lot of experience with Unreal. I highly recommend having a fiancee like that!





My facial expression_ animations are so far based almost exclusively on morphing (blendshapes). I scan different facial expression_s, then clean up raw data in Zbrush and do retopology (tedious taks but I actually love this work, there must be something wrong with me haha). I then setup and animate morph targets in 3ds max and then it’s just a simple matter of import_ing it all into Unreal and not so simple matter of building shaders, including one with morphing normal maps to correspond with morphing geometry.

Not so long ago I wouldn’t bet on realtime engines but they have become so powerful now, with high quality lighting, shadowing, powerful shaders, and great antialiasing. Of course this is all thanks to clever tricks, simplifications and approximations so offline rendering will still offer ‘more true’ quality for some time, but the gap between these two worlds is now small enough to seriously consider realtime engines. Would you rather render each animation frame for 30 minutes (sometimes even 30 hours) or 30 milliseconds?

Building Up the Visual Look

I focus on no more than two or three character features that should literally pour out of every pore. I build all design around that – everything should revolve around those chosen features, including facial expression, body pose, clothing etc. Often in games you see characters that are too generic. Especially women – they may be physically pretty but you can’t really say anything else about them. They are like pretty children, proportional, symmetrical and devoid of character.

Nature hates symmetry and perfection. I definitely prefer flawed and full of character.

Nature hates symmetry and perfection. I definitely prefer flawed and full of character. I love actress Lisbeth Salander in ‘Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’, in games I loved concept art of the viking woman from ‘Viking: Battle for Asgard’ designed by Michael Kutsche. These women are anything but generic. When designing clothing and accessories, I tend to be practical – nothing that makes little sense but just looks cool. Distribution of color and detail is a topic in itself but the most import_ant thing for me is not to go overboard – less is more.





When designing creatures, I find inspiration in nature. Insects, reptiles, mammals – I study how function influences form – a predator animal usually has well developed leg muscles, sharp teeth etc. One of my recent designs, “Chimera” has features akin to rodents long tail, slim but muscular body, lots of small sharp teeth, etc. – you can tell the creature is agile, cunning and ferocious. This is all important from artistic standpoint but when designing characters for video games you can’t overlook other factors – design must conform to gameplay features, character must read well against game backgrounds, it’s silhouette should be distinct and easy to distinguish from other characters etc. Sometimes finding a compromise between artistic design and functionality is difficult and painful but if it was easy, I would probably be doing something else with my life. Easy is boring!

Izabela Zelmańska, Character artist





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