Alexander Chiveli shared the details of his stylized 3D character talking about the workflows in ZBrush, Substance Painter, and Marmoset Toolbag.
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My name is Alexander Chiveli, I currently live in Barcelona (Spain), but originally I'm from Zaragoza. I am a 3D artist who is in love with arts and learns new stuff day-by-day. I have a university education in Computers and Programming. The way I started doing 3D was with the crazy idea of making a video game with a friend of mine. In the beginning, I didn’t know what to do, and he told me to learn 3D. He said that the task would take me 2 years, more or less, and he was right!
After 2 years I felt that I needed to fly away from home, to start growing as a better artist in a professional environment such as Gameloft. They hired me as a Character Artist, and during 8 years there, I worked on several projects like The Adventures of Tintin (Character Artist), Asphalt 8: Airborne (Vehicle Artist), and Minion Rush (3D Artist). After that, I decided to move to Outfit7 where I work at the moment. I have learned pipelines for modeling, texturing, skinning, rigging, shading, and some animation basics. It was pretty good for me to start working with talented and self-motivated people around me. Today, I just think about growing as an artist little by little, jumping from one discipline to another, because everything is connected and for me, this is a good way to develop my artistic perception.
I always invest some time in looking for work from other artists. This time, a concept from Tooh Wu blew my mind. This character was part of a collection of nice drawings, I just took this one because I saw its possibilities in 3D. So my goal was to take his awesome concept and turn it into an AAA game character.
Sculpting the Body
For me, it is very important to differentiate two phases in my workflow. The first one is the messy phase where topology and rules are not important. In this phase, I pay attention to volume gestures, this is a more artistic and free phase.
Once I jump to the next phase, everything should fit more or less, and this is a production phase where you start to use much more technical knowledge cleaning all the parts of the character and reducing the number of polygons and the size of the files.
Also, this is not a linear process, so I jump from the first phase to the second and backward, every time.
First, I like to block all the proportions, pose, and gesture to get the feeling of the character, this phase is pretty dirty. I focus on having the number of pieces and a global structure of the character.
Once I get the feeling I like to start polishing the overall feeling and focusing on some pieces rebuilding them from the first level.
For the body, I like to start with proportions and gesture, and once I get them, I do a retopo to get more control over the shapes and a better surface for sculpting. I also do a proper set of polygroups.
For the face, the process is the same as for the rest: first always blocky stuff and then little by little I polish shapes and clean topology until I get the final look
During every step I take I like to do research of references, so I always end with a big collection of images that help me a lot.
In ZBrush, my favorite brushes are claybuildup, claytubes, and trim dynamic. I use those for blocking shapes very quickly. I also use a lot of damstandard to establish landmarks on the shapes and MAHcut brushes to reinforce shapes.
For the accessories and all the pieces that are not organic I work with ZModeler a lot, keeping a good topology base with proper flow and a minimum number of polygons to get more control over the shapes. Also, it's nice to crease the edges and activate the subdivision mode to see how the final shapes are taking form. I start with a pretty dirty mesh and just shape everything as I said before.
Retopology & UVs
For topology, I reuse the first ZBrush level as my starting point. Basically, I delete what I don't like and tweak that topology. I personally use 3D Coat, but any dedicated program is good for that.
For UVs, I use RizomUV which is one of the best software solutions for this task. I keep every set of pieces separated in textures based on their shading. For instance, armor and metal are one texture, cloth is another, and body is the third.
I like to use Substance Painter, and I work with specular instead of metalness because it is much easier for me to have more control over the color reflections.
When texturing the skin, I first started with normal skin tones and then covered the character with blood and different passes of AO, cavities, and some tonalities.
Inside Marmoset, I usee the SSS shader: in the scatter slot, I just use white value but in the alpha channel, I put a mask; that way I can blend in the lambert shading in more bloody places or decrease it in the parts where the skin is cleaner.
One thing I do a lot is to set up Marmoset and SP with the same HDRI image and background color. Then, I like to export my model from time to time to check how the textures look in Marmoset with Marmoset shaders.
This time, lightning for me was pretty straightforward because the character is quite illuminated so I used one main light to get the top illumination, then placed a strong rim light to give a nice white edge around the silhouette and finally two fill lights to push the weapons a little bit. And then some GI tweaks for pushing the values.
I also like to compose a gif where you can see different steps inside Marmoset like normal maps, adding color or shading, and lighting.
For the animation, I used a pretty basic rig with some bones in 3ds Max. My idle anims are something that I have to improve for sure... I like the final result in Marmoset so I render all the frames there and then put them together inside After Effects. I also create a Marmoset viewer file which I think is nice for checking the model. The only problem is that the render quality is not the same, but it is always nice to show the model this way.
I think that for modeling stylized characters, it is quite important to have clean topology because you have more control over the shapes and it is easier to have precision. For this kind of characters, the most important part is to stay very clean while you are modeling.
Also, you need to study a lot of concepts, and if you are missing information, search for references or whatever is useful for you.
For me, the main challenge is to respect what the initial artist did, so whenever I take a concept, I try to be as precise as I can just to respect every brushstroke of the artist who created this piece of art. In this case, it was Tooth Wu.
Also, it is quite important to enjoy what you are doing. To me the process is more important than the result, and if you enjoy the process everything is going to end better.
It is good to both look back to see the progress you are making and look forward to see the goals you want to achieve. Patience is a good partner.