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Marie-Michelle Pepin showed the way she created her latest 3d stylized characters.
Hello 80lv! My name is Marie-Michelle Pepin, and I’m a French-Canadian character artist. I’ve been working in the video game industry for about six years now. I began my career in Quebec and then moved to Montreal, where I started freelancing a little over three years ago. You might have seen my work in XCOM2, Total War Rome II, Skylanders and Tacoma to name a few.
Working as a freelancer
I’ve been incredibly lucky with my freelance experience thus far. I’ve worked with a bunch of incredible people and teams—I definitely feel blessed.
Freelancing is really intimidating at first, especially building up a good client base. I believe freelancers need a very strong portfolio, which will appeal to a large range of studios and other potential clients. While some artists attempt to appeal to a specific studio by mimicking their style, freelancers need to cover a much wider scope with their work.
Limiting oneself to a specific style or type of game might lower one’s potential pool of clients. After that, it’s all about consistently delivering high-quality work, maintaining a professional attitude and developing a lot of discipline.
A happy client usually comes back for future projects, and a happy client may also refer one to other studios and friends—it’s a small industry and word of mouth travels quickly! Put simply, work hard to keep a positive reputation. I find most of my new clients through word of mouth, friends, colleagues and professional contacts within the industry, social media and so on.
I’m not much of a character designer myself. As a result, I generally tend to work on existing characters from a variety of games. Often, I’ll pick characters who inspire me or work on characters from games that I love; however, as an artist, I do intentionally pick a character/design for other, more specific reasons. For example, back in 2013, I worked on Ellie from Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us to practice likenesses and realistic texturing. Much in the same way, I worked on Jinx to practice stylized character design, which also turned into an opportunity for me to express my “own” style with a unique interpretation of the character. More recently, I picked Shiva because I wanted to work with concept art that was a bit more open to my own interpretation, thereby forcing myself to make decisions about the style, design and textures of the overall piece. Lastly, I wanted to challenge myself by working with something in the hair department. And oh boy, Shiva’s hair sure was a challenge!
Some people like to jump straight into ZBrush with a lot of DynaMesh and rough blocking—that’s not really my technique. I enjoy working with proper base meshes—even if they’re sometimes a bit rudimentary—because I don’t like fighting against bad topology while sculpting. It’s critical to begin with a good idea of the proportion and style of the silhouette when working on characters. It’s rather easy to overlook the silhouette and overall readability by jumping straight into micro detailing but that’s not what really ‘’makes’’ an appealing character.
It’s a shame to see so many amazingly detailed sculpts of characters that lack proper proportions, anatomy or design. Despite all those beautiful details, these characters are just a waste of time and resources if the entire “ensemble” doesn’t work!
It’s a saying we frequently repeat in the industry but your work—whether it be a character, prop or environment—needs to tell a story. It’s that small attention to detail that brings about storytelling elements that ultimately make a character come to life or feel flat. Sometimes, it’s about following a clear art direction, focusing on the uniformity of subtle details that makes a difference in giving a character personality. Constantly be asking yourself questions about your character throughout the entire production process.
There’s a very technical side to working in game development. Unfortunately, it’s something a lot of people find unappealing and have tried to push to the side (I did the same when I had just left school).
While I can be a victim of this attitude myself sometimes, it’s important to be mindful of proper techniques, which involves making your colleagues (rigger and animator, tech artist) aware of the specific requirements needed across your team and the overall project.
Animation, deformation and technical constraint need to be accounted for from the beginning—technical artists, riggers and animators should be like your best buds! Make sure to communicate with your team and confirm your choices and decisions with them—they will be the ones suffering later if you fail to communicate.
In my case, I rarely design a character from scratch so the facial features are already in place. However, properly understanding facial anatomy is definitely useful when sculpting faces—or the whole character as a matter of fact!
A good principle to learn is the planes of the face. There’s a ton of available information about this online, and I’d highly recommend people check it out. Honestly, it helps breaks down the face into easy-to-understand structures as well as explains the planar change of the head in a simple fashion. It’s really easy to get lost when sculpting a face, especially at the beginning. Going back over those references really helped me make sense of everything involving facial features.
It’s hard to go into specifics here as each project and engine have their own specific requirement when handling skin and skin shaders. Since game art is rendered in real time, skin shaders are usually much easier to deal with, more simple and can be adjusted in real time, which makes it very quick to tweak and play with.
PBR and more realistic skin shaders use to scare a lot of people working on stylized stuff because they felt that PBR would take away the possibility for artists to have fun with textures and that everything would need to look hyper-realistic. In my opinion, PBR has been a welcome change in terms of consistency and hasn’t interfered with our ability to have fun with art direction or textures. As a matter of fact, I haven’t stopped painting my skin textures by hand, and I don’t think I ever will!
While I do import my mesh in engine and ensure that everything visually looks as I intended (making sure nothing explodes, too), as a freelancer I’m typically not responsible for doing more in-depth tests on the characters, establishing texture or polycount limit and so forth.
Those limits and guidelines are usually set by a lead/technical artist or just someone a lot smarter than I am. I do make sure to follow said guidelines and optimize my work whenever possible, or when it’s requested by the smart people.
Thanks, 80lv for talking about my work! I hope you had as much fun reading about my project as I did making it in the first place!