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Learn more about character art
My name is Jose Mario Villafranca Mendoza and I am from Tegucigalpa, Honduras. I recently moved to the UK to find work opportunities in the video game industry. Though I fell in love with games and films as a young child, it was at the university where my journey in the 3D world began.
I got some of the fundamental knowledge of working in 3D by meeting and collaborating with people interested in producing sci-fi indie short films. In my free time, I was constantly watching tutorials, getting inspired by the work shared on platforms like CGSociety and ArtStation and doing personal work, dreaming to break into the industry one day.
I began to take classes offered for character artists at Game Art Institute where instructors would focus on real-time character creation and give instant feedback on assignments. These were incredible experiences for me, as I got to learn from and talk to incredibly talented people who I admired professionally while also learning from creative fellow students with whom I kept contact. Since then, I've constantly shared my personal projects in my ArtStation portfolio.
Street Samurai: Idea
The Cyberpunk theme is something I've thought about for quite some time. The aesthetic language of a futuristic world personally appeals to me as it contains infinite mixtures between metals and organic materials. Plus I'm one of those nerds who live for sci-fi literature and films: my father used to own a library and several collections of Science Fiction masterpieces that I read voraciously in my teenage years.
At the same time, my purpose was to add a portfolio piece that showcased my skills in creating high-quality 3D characters for games. Seeing the “Street Samurai” inside a game would be truly a dream come true!
I really didn't have much of a concept to start with but rather an idea. As a result, I put together a couple of images to create a moodboard keeping two main objectives in mind: practice facial anatomy and do hard-surface prosthetics.
- Face: I had been watching the series “Catch 22” and felt that Christopher Abbott´s likeness would be great to use as a reference to practice my facial anatomy skills.
- Body and Arm Prosthetics: this is when the sci-fi aspect of the character began to take form, taking main inspiration from “Cyberpunk 2077”, “Deus Ex”, “Alita: Battle Angel” and punk rock clothing and hairstyling.
This was the most important part for me and also the one that took the longest. Sculpting a face needs knowledge of anatomy and one article isn't enough to explain that, so we'll keep it simple.
I normally use one of the base meshes ZBrush comes with, called Nickz_humanMaleAverage. It's got good topology and UVs so when retopo time came I got less work to do. As for the sculpting, I normally take measurements from my photo reference and mark them up in Photoshop noting the distance between each bony landmark, and slowly sculpt them out in ZBrush. For detailing, there are several brush packs you can buy. I used Pablo Munoz’s skin brushes pack to make all my pores, wrinkles, and other detailing.
I spent much time on texturing, too. First, I started adding basic skin colors and masking each of them out using different brushes. Then, I added color variation which is key - a lot of reds, blues, and purples. I even sampled color from a face scan of mine I took some time ago. For the roughness map, I used the ambient occlusion and cavity maps to mask out the areas with high and low roughness and added a hand-painted pass on the cheeks, nose, and forehead to have low roughness in those areas.
When I feel the textures are decent enough I take things into Marmoset Toolbag to test them out. I set up basic lighting and then started making iterations on the texture until I was happy with the results.
This is the part I've been asked about the most. I used a pretty simple way to create it, and it let me make several iterations very quickly.
When I was happy with the body shape I masked out the rest of the body so I could focus on the part I was interested in working on within ZBrush. Then I started sketching on it using the Dam Standard brush. I created simple lines at first to design the segments of the arm and how it would all fit together as a prosthetic.
Next, I started sculpting out all the segments and started defining shapes. This is a very crude sculpt but works for our purposes. We just want to know where all the edges and objects will be, so we can later refine them in Maya.
I imported the arm into Maya and made it a live object. I used the Quad Draw to block out every segment individually. By the end of this step, I had 40+ separate pieces that I later imported back into ZBrush.
In ZBrush, I masked and created polygroups on each of the segments, and later creased polygroups to preserve all the edges.
Lastly, after subdivision, I added several alphas to add extra detail. I particularly use one of Jonas Ronnegard’s hard-surface alpha packs which I really like.
For the arm texturing in Substance Painter, I used basic metal materials and added some grunge maps for the roughness. For some parts, I added some procedural height but that's about it.
I spent some time figuring out the best way to do the denim jacket because I really wanted it to stand out. I tried several things but in the end, I found a simpler way of doing it while also getting good results.
I started out in Marvelous Designer which is a wonderful tool. I searched online and very quickly found a free sewing pattern that fit my purposes. I sketched it out and then modified things in Marvelous as I felt necessary. I tried not to spend much time there because Marvelous is very fun to use and you can get lost for hours there. Many details can be added later in ZBrush.
In ZBrush, I started tweaking and adjusting things further. I added more wrinkles and buttonholes. The wrinkles and the rest of the detailing were made mostly using the standard brush and later the pinch brush to get sharper folds.
During texturing, I tried out several materials and hand-made tileable textures, but in the end, I found a material that comes with Substance called Fabric Denim Material and it worked perfectly. I modified it a bit, then added a light-colored layer masked with the Metal edge wear generator which I softened out so that the mask wasn't so harsh and gave it that old weathered look.
In Marmoset Toolbag
Once I got everything into Marmoset Toolbag, I started setting up the lighting and created a key light, a fill light, and a rim light. Also, the sky preset was set to Tokyo Takeshita. I tested out several different configurations and found the one I liked the most.
A tip for setting up your lights is to adjust your light width. By doing this, you control how soft or hard your shadows are, and also how tight and broad your specular reflections are. Another thing to have in mind regarding skin material is to always have the correct scale for your scene. You can check this by enabling the scale reference in the render settings.
Adding an idle animation was an extra step that actually brought my character to life and so far, it was the easiest step of all.
Mixamo is a great and free tool that is extremely easy to use, as long as you have your character set up correctly. You just have to upload your character, choose an animation loop from the gallery and then download it. There are several options for download. And as soon as you get it, just pop it into Marmoset and you’re done!