Concept Art in MODO: Working on Hard-Surface Design & Materials

Ajay Agrawal overviewed MODO, its tools for design and material production, internal renderer, and general workflow as well as gave some advice to those who want to learn the program.


My name is Ajay Agrawal and I currently work as a Concept Artist at Certain Affinity, a studio based in Austin, Texas, best known for their co-development work on Halo and Call of Duty. My job is primarily comprised of creating concepts for props and environments, the latter being the aspect I enjoy the most.

My short time in the industry has been an absolute blast so far, but I wasn’t always too sure about what I wanted to do in the art world. I was first introduced to digital and concept art during my sophomore year at Ringling College of Art and Design. After a bit of exploring, I made the formal decision to pursue a career in concept art while taking the Environment Design course at CG Master Academy the following summer. I graduated from college nearly 6 months ago, so I haven’t had the chance to work on too many projects, but I can promise some exciting new titles that Certain Affinity will announce soon.

Personal Art

First Impression of MODO

I was first introduced to MODO during my Environment Design class at CGMA around two years ago. Aaron Limonick, currently a concept artist at Naughty Dog, was teaching that class and he raved about the possibilities that Foundry’s software was capable of at the time. At first, I was amazed at how fast the user was able to create high fidelity meshes and export them for paintovers. However, after a little bit of use, I think the most appealing aspect of that program was the seamless transition between the internal render engine and 3D viewport. Not to mention the ability to quickly set up render passes such as Surface ID and Geometric Normal to make the paintover process super easy. 

MODO was also surprisingly easy to pick up and learn. The monthly subscription price tag wasn’t overly expensive either. Due to the simplicity of the UI, I was actually pretty proficient in the program after a day of use. 

Material Creation Process

MODO’s material creation tools and the internal renderer are a ton of fun to use. I usually start by gathering some reference including images of the material in different lighting situations and at different angles to judge the general specularity and bump/displacement. Once I have an idea of the color, specularity, roughness, etc. of the material, I’ll start experimenting with the values of those elements in the shader tree.

The UI that MODO has implemented here makes doing this super easy since each aspect of the material (such as luminescence and specularity) are all divided into very obvious categories. 

You can also add texture to a material using any high-resolution image as an image map. The same image (or a different one) can be used as a bump map to create surface irregularity. This is super useful if you don’t want to create UVs for the said mesh. The textures can be projected through a plane, cube, cylinder, etc. giving you a ton of flexibility to see what fits best. 

MODO also has the ability to layer materials. You can create rust, for example, by layering the rust material onto the existing one and restricting it to the crevices by parenting it under the occlusion shader. The possibilities here are endless.

Besides MODO, the only other 3D software solutions I use are Marvelous Designer and ZBrush. I feel like I’m naturally forced to focus on the overall design and function in MODO compared to a program like ZBrush. I can also get a better view of what my final image is going to look like because of the internal renderer, and so I spend a lot of time switching between the Render and Viewport tabs. The internal renderer also allows me to do a lot of quick renders for paintovers and sketch-overs to solidify the design. 

I briefly tried 3ds Max and found myself pulled back towards MODO because it lets me focus solely on the design rather than fighting with the program itself. 

One of the things that I appreciate most about MODO’s material creation program is that you don’t have to deal with a mess of nodes while editing your model. Each material can be named and applied to any mesh by pressing “M” and all changes can be made by simply increasing or decreasing values of the desired aspect (such as roughness or specularity). The materials are all organized in a list and can be easily accessed at any point.


My workflow in MODO has evolved a bit over time but it is still pretty simple. Just like with any project, I start by collecting a ton of reference and writing a small design brief along with a detailed mind map, a process I adopted from Mike Hill. Mike’s projects range from Call of Duty to Blade Runner, he has one of the best processes I’ve ever seen for nailing down the narrative and function of a design. I think it’s definitely worth the time to take a look at his Gumroad videos and YouTube lectures

I then proceed to create a small custom kitbash set of pieces that I can experiment with. I do this because I like to see a bit of detail and noise in models right off the bat, even if they’re in the block-out phase. It also really helps with scale and finding areas of rest in the design. 

The next step is a bit different depending on what kind of project I’m working on. If I’m working on an environment, I’ll start setting up the lighting and camera angle so I can get an idea of what I want the focal length, composition, etc. to be. The ability to quickly switch between the internal render engine and the 3D viewport is extremely useful here.

If I’m working on a mech, I’ll start grouping parts of the mech according to how those parts move (i.e. all meshes in the right lower arm will be grouped together). Those groups are then parented like a rig (i.e. right lower arm will be parented under the right upper arm, which goes under the shoulder).

I use MODO’s pivot points to set the point of rotation for each one of those groups.

Pivot points can be set to a specific position, the gimbal will appear where that point was set:

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I can then create an instance of the mech and move it aside and pose it using the pivot points.

From that point on, any changes you make to the unposed model will be reflected in the posed instance mesh. This really helps show whether the joints make sense, not to mention the fact that it shows the mech with a bit of personality instead of a boring T-pose. I picked this technique up from my friend and amazing concept artist Seokin Chung

During the detailing phase of the design process, MODO lets me copy single faces of the polygons and extrude them to create a brand new surface. This is super powerful and I spend a ton of time on this phase. It’s a really quick and efficient way to add noise and flow to your design. 

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I also like to use the Bevel tool. MODO’s Bevel tool is basically a combination of the Inset and Chamfer tools from the Autodesk programs. It is by far one of the most powerful parts of MODO and can be used for a variety of different scenarios. It’s such a fun and versatile tool that it’s also incredibly easy to go overboard with it.

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The process from here turns into a ton of fun. I can now start to play with values and colors. Again, the internal renderer is a godsend here. Once I’m happy with the lighting, color, and composition, I start setting up my render passes. My favorites are Surface ID, Geometric Normal, Ambient Occlusion, Shadow Density, and Direct Illumination. These are absolutely essential in my paintover process. The Surface ID is great for separating objects, Geometric Normal makes it super easy to select single surfaces of objects, Ambient Occlusion can add depth to any scene, and Direct Illumination is great for grouping shadows and lights. 

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External Tools

I haven’t created any tools of my own but I have bought and downloaded a ton of scripts including Vaughan Ling’s collection and Quadrelate. Implementing the use of those scripts has really sped up my workflow, especially ones like Boolean Subtract. Boolean Subtract is actually one of my favorites because it allows me to create complex shapes such as bolts and screws simply by creating the negative shape and pressing the shortcut keys. 

I also use Quadrelate quite a bit at work in order to work with CAD files and decimated Unreal models, both of which are triangulated. This tool helps make them workable with one simple keyboard shortcut. 

In addition, as I mentioned above, I like to use the ability to copy and paste single-faced polygons. I also use the Inset tool and Bevel tool, sometimes in combination with each other, to create rounded edges, concavities, and extrusions. The Bevel tool is, like I said above, one of MODO’s most powerful tools. 

Some other programs I like to use in tandem with MODO are ZBrush, Marvelous Designer, and Octane. Octane has a direct plugin and so that is probably the most compatible. However, with a bit of decimation in combination with the Quadrelate tool, ZBrush and Marvelous become quite compatible as well. MODO also has its own reduction tool for decimation which is an added bonus. 

Advice for Learners

I think that building a workflow will be a different experience for anyone who tries the program: you’ll try a bunch of stuff, model a ton of things, and then take bits and pieces of each experience and create something that works for you. I would start off by learning the basics of the program through free or paid tutorials, or just by exploring the tools yourself. Then, move on to modeling a few existing simple objects and work your way to objects with higher fidelity. You’ll start to find ways of modeling in MODO that work specifically for you, which you can then piece together for a full workflow. The best part about MODO is that a tool can be used for multiple purposes, and so the ways of using those tools can differ between people. For example, you could use the Bevel tool to extrude a face outward; or, you could do the same thing by copying and pasting a face, shrinking it, and using the Thicken tool to extrude, leaving you with the same shape as the previous method but with two different meshes (I personally like this because I can delete the second mesh without upsetting the topology if I feel like it doesn’t work).

Some people also like to work with MODO’s Mesh Fusion toolset, which is a slightly less destructive way of modeling (it works similar to ZBrush’s Live Boolean). I haven’t explored this side of MODO too much since I personally find it a bit slower. It’s still quite powerful and is also capable of having a workflow built around it.


MODO is incredibly easy to pick up. I’ve always felt like a lot of other programs give you a sort of spaceship to work with and expect you to figure out all of the controls, whereas MODO offers something a lot more simple and just as, if not more, powerful. Obviously, it’s probably smart to find some tutorials first (I recommend Vaughan Ling’s series) but it doesn’t take much time to familiarize yourself with the basics by yourself because the tools are pretty straight-forward. As far as polygon-modeling software is concerned, I’ve only ever used MODO and so I can’t speak to the changes you could expect when switching, but I can say that MODO has definitely made modeling a fun experience for me. Any person who tries the program will immediately notice how much the program has taken user experience into consideration. 

Ajay Agrawal, Concept Artist at Certain Affinity

Interview conducted by Ellie Harisova

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