Aleksandr Maziura shared the production details of his short film made in UE4: concepts, character & asset modeling, face texturing, and weapon design.
Hello, my name is Aleksandr Maziura and I am a 3D artist. I wanted to make a small animated short quite for a while. First I planned to make it in a cyberpunk setting and 3+ min long. Yet after creating the first character, I understood that I couldn’t handle such a big project on my own at that moment, so I decided to make it smaller, like 1:30 min long, and change the setting to retro sci-fi inspired by Harry Harrison’s books Steel Rat and Deathworld. Those are very simple adventure novels like Indiana Jones but in a futuristic 60’s world. In my opinion, they are quite charming.
When the theme was set, I started to work on the storyboard.
This is the first draft of it that had some drawbacks. While I was chasing a game-trailer look I didn’t think out and explained the story. There were not enough shots to make it clear what was going on outside the action scene. In the next draft, it was fixed.
Concept & Modeling
The whole project started with the main character creation. To get the mood of the whole project I assembled a mood board. Here are the names of the artists whose works I used here: Marc Lee, Dan LuVisi, Yulin Li, Kael Ngu, Klaus Wittmann.
In the beginning, I used Boba Fett and Venom Snake as references and at some point even wanted to make my character with an eyepatch and bionic hand.
The backstory was set: it was an agile neutral-good character, an agent of a futuristic space sort-of-Interpol organization. The concept pipeline was the following:
This approach brought nice results but it took too much time. Design of the mechanical parts was simpler. I tried to make them look functional, and the functionality dictates silhouette and shape. First, I made a high-poly base ready for subdivision and started adding details in ZBrush or using Modo’s Mesh Fusion. It is a very powerful tool for hard surface boolean modeling. Then followed retopo and standard bakes.
With the radio, I tried a different approach using Modo’s booleans with rounded edge shader. The result was pretty quick and had an acceptable quality, however, this approach is not flexible at all. For example, the mesh is unsuitable for ZBrush or MeshFusion plus there were some artifacts at the angles less than 90 degrees.
The round edges can be baked in a normal map and moved to a texturing software solution.
When designing the helmet, I wanted the glass part to open and close in a visually meaningful way. I, therefore, needed to cut glass so that this part could open up and hide in the helmet. I created temporary bones, attached pieces and moved them around.
To make the seams of the cut geometry invisible when the glass part covers the face, I used a standard animation trick: 2 sets of glass, one fully closed and one cut, and switching their scale from 0 to 1 in one frame.
This trick has some issues, for example, I can’t apply any motion blur and I am pretty much limited with the frame rate due to the frames interpolation in UE4. I will talk about this later post. But the problems can be fixed in UE4 blueprints by using material Visibility Animation.
Finally, I made a high poly mesh. I will not expand on retopology, unwrapping and baking because there were no tricks as I didn’t really need to bother much about tris count, amount of texture sets and their sizes.
With textures, I used a stylized approach. It helped me to save some time and fit the overall visual style and mood. Usually, I bake all maps in Marmoset Toolbag 3, export them into Substance Painter and apply colors, masks, grunges, and generators there to get a desirable look. However, with the face a had more work to do, and there were many iterations of the face texturing.
I started with flat color and SSS, and the results were unacceptable.
Then I started to play around with baked maps and created albedo by hand. I’ used SSS on the face material (hair is masked). The result still required more intense skin tones.
After a few iterations and some help, the character’s face changed quite a bit:
It’s also very important to add some well-defined shadows and light reflection in the eyes. It adds so much life to the characters. For example, in the movies, the light is sometimes set in a special way just to make the reflection more visible
I wanted to make this movie look like some sort of a trailer with some gameplay. Using the first-person view, in this case, is much simpler, as I could cut the parts that would require more complex action animation. I only needed a detailed gun and hands.
This time I wanted to make a proper concept to speed the work up.
First, I used some references.
I had an idea of this knife-gun, so I explored it further.
Here another problem occurred: while I worked on silhouettes and details, I completely forgot about the functionality. When I started to model the gun, it just didn’t work, and I had to remodel it.
Again, the fundamental problem was still there and the gun didn’t work. There is a simple rule in the gun design which you should follow. You have two lines, a barrel and ammo ones, and the crossing of these lines is the place where the shells fly out from the gun.
Finally, the gun looked functional.
Also, I am a big fan of an in-game HUDs like in Dead Space, so I added some elements for a gun ammo visualization.
After all the tweaks I got the final result:
Working on this project was quite an adventure and a challenge. I am planning to another part of the breakdown focusing on rigging, animation, more concepting, music, and import/rendering in UE4 when I finish the next teaser video. Stay tuned!
You can also find much more information about the gun modeling for FPP games in Michał Kubas’ blog post.