Character Creation: Pushing Shapes to Extreme

Character Creation: Pushing Shapes to Extreme

We’ve talked with the amazing Tyler Palladino about the way he crafts, textures and renders his amazing characters.

We’ve talked with the amazing Tyler Palladino about the way he crafts, textures and renders his amazing characters.



I’m a 3D Character artist living in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I moved here from Pittsburgh a few years ago to work at MAKE, where we specialize in advertising, cinematics, and effects. I’ve worked on projects for companies like Hasbro, Intel, Adidas, and Best Buy on all manner of vehicles, props, and environments. I’m most interested, though, in character art. Ever since I started playing video games, I remember spending a majority of my time in character creators, obsessing over sliders and facial features. Now I’m doing that for a living!

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I find approaching each project differs greatly depending on if I work from concept or if I’m designing the character myself. In my personal work, I tend to emphasize the latter, as I really love taking my time to experiment with different looks for a character. This usually involves a lot of sketching in 2D, where I spend a lot of time doodling the character’s face, how they might emote, what features I want to exaggerate. For a character like ‘V’ I also sketched a lot of the world she lives in. What kind of car does she drive? Where might she visit? This informed how I design the body, shape language, clothing, etc. It helped me establish a visual vocabulary I could lean on when sculpting.

I’ve used a couple different methods for the blockout in the past. In a lot of cases, I’ll whip up a zSphere rig just for concept purposes. This allows me to get an idea of proportions early on, and in some cases provides a decent base mesh. The second method I’ll use is somewhat of a ‘Frankenstein’ method, where I’ll take bits and bobs of past projects and warp them into place with some aggressive pushing and pulling in Zbrush. A hand here, a torso there, etc. I like this method a lot as I’m usually able to salvage quite a bit of topology from past characters, saving time in the long run by working on both high and low poly simultaneously. All the while I’m cleaning up meshes by going back and forth from Zbrush to 3ds Max. 

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I like to say that my favorite sculpting brush is Snakehook. I love pushing shapes and silhouettes to the extreme and then working backward to get things looking a bit more believable. When doing personal work, I’ll usually craft a full base mesh with a decent amount of anatomy sculpted in before I move onto clothes. I am still learning, so even when anatomy is going to get covered up, I enjoy the extra practice. For a character like Yaht Xi I was really influenced by a mix of New York and Harajuku fashion and spent quite a bit of time fleshing out the design for the clothes. There were several different iterations here as I thought hard about the world I wanted the character to exist in. By the time I finalize the design, I usually have quite a bit of the mesh already in 3ds Max. Throughout the design process, I’m constructing a rough low poly alongside my high with the ZRemesh and GoZ features. I think this is one of the best facets of my personal pipeline, as I don’t hit the brick wall of retopology and unwrapping all at once. By doing it as I go, I save myself a tedious momentum killer on the backend.  


I end up doing a lot of experimentation with my materials from project to project. I bounce a lot of ideas for stylized PBR with my coworkers and colleagues, and a lot of things involve a fair bit of trial and error. Fortunately, Substance Painter is very conducive to experimentation. In most cases, I start with a default Substance material as a base, though I do have fun with their stylized smart materials. From there I usually bake a bit of top-down lighting into the base color using either a light or 3D generator. A bit of curvature here and there to accent certain points, with some hand painting to control the masks, and then a paint layer on top where I can touch up the color and roughness. This usually gives me something pretty solid that I can pass off for most pieces, and then I’ll add further complexity to the face or other important focal points.

I was lucky enough to see Magdelena Dadela’s excellent 2017 GDC talk on texturing the face in Substance Painter, and it really made me revisit my approach. In it, she emphasizes the importance of using reference and layering color. It really made me consider the importance of each layer of the skin, and their overall effect on the look of a face. I usually bring in a rough polypaint from Zbrush to Substance Painter, and blend it with the Face Skin smart material to start. I do however tend to turn off many of the pores and pocks this material adds by default, as I like to layer that kind of bump detail with more intention masking the variety of maps from Substance Source.

From there the process is as Magdelena lays out, layering reds, purples, and blues and representing veins and blood vessels. I add cartooniness using smart masks to get darker color in the cracks and crevices of the face. This adds contours and makes features pop. Roughness is also very important here, as highlights around the lids of the eyes or tear ducts, as well as the forehead and nose, can really bring a lot of life into a character. I usually spend a bit of time hand painting directly on the roughness map to get the desired effect.

Using Toolbag

I think my favorite part of Toolbag is the speed in which you can iterate on your lighting. Much of my past experience is in pre-rendering, where lighting a model tends to be a tedious process of tweaking a light, waiting for your render to come back, furrowing your brow, repeat. Marmoset gives me a lot more confidence in this department, as the results come so much quicker. The live updating of textures and mesh is also a huge time saver, as you can be tweaking your materials on one screen and viewing your final render on the other, post effects and all. As for my lighting technique, I usually start with a really basic 3-point setup, adding rim lights to draw the eye to a particular place, or angling a light in a certain way to showcase normal detail. This is quickly becoming one of my favorite parts of the process, as it’s incredibly satisfying to begin to formulate the look of your final images. It usually gives me the final burst of momentum I need to finish off the character.

Tyler Palladino, Character Artist at MAKE

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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    Character Creation: Pushing Shapes to Extreme