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Crafting the Characters of Dishonored 2: A Detailed Guide and Strategy

Freelance 3D Artist Mihaela Dragan spoke about designing character models for Dishonored 2, focusing on head and skin texturing, UV layouts, and maintaining the unity of the visual style.

Introduction

Hello! My name is Mihaela Dragan (Morozan), shortly Miha. I’m a 3D Artist who has been working in the Entertainment Industry for 20+ years, getting through many types of production, projects, and styles, creating environment assets, props, characters, and creatures. I first started in movie production as a texturing artist for a TV series, after first learning the basics of 3D modeling and animation in a German studio. So basically, I started in movie production and also had the honor of working in the Hungarian National Film Studio for a bit. 

Afterward, for the next eight years, I worked in game production inside various studios in Budapest. In 2010, I moved back to my hometown in Romania and have worked as a 3D Freelance Artist ever since, mostly on AAA games. In these freelancing years, I had the chance to work for many of Don’t Nod’s great games including: “Remember Me,” “Life is Strange,” “Tell Me Why,” and “Banishers: Ghosts of New Eden,” and I also had the pleasure of working for Arkane’s “Dishonored 2” and “Deathloop.” One of my more recent collaborations was for “Dune Awakening”  — as a Creature Artist — and I also redesigned, modeled, and textured the Sandworm. 

I have a  Fine Arts and Design background, and I will always consider myself just an artist of our times among so many others like me. Game art is a good match for using these fundamental skills we inherit from this type of education. What I added was the willingness to learn, adapt, and persevere on the technical side too, a process that will go on for life.

Getting Involved in Dishonored 2

One of my former colleagues, Buliarca Cristian (an amazing artist!), from Don’t Nod, already had a professional relationship with Arkane. At the time, he was working for them for “Dishonored 2” characters. They needed extra help on character texturing and Cristi knew my skills since we were also colleagues in the High School of Arts. Arkane was looking for a hand-painting texturing artist, and painting/texturing in general was one of my strongest skills. So, he recommended me for the role and I was fortunately accepted.

Working for Arkane was wonderful. I liked their style, approach, level of skill, and implication. Everything was done as a craft, and I love and respect that. So, I am here to remember those times and talk about character texturing for “Dishonored 2” in general and my part in it. 

Texturing work done for Dishonored 2 (in-game assets rendered in Blender)

Character Creation

First of all, I will mention that all of us, the artists who worked for Dishonored 2, were under the guidance of the Art Guide and the technical specifications of the game. The Art Director Sébastien Mitton, JB Ferder (Assistant Art Director/Lead Character Artist), and artists like Florence Lapalu (Principal Character Artist) were the main figures leading the project direction. 

The starting point is understanding the style of the game, which was that of stylized realism, catching the essence of the figures and the world they lived in. It was about the non-generic, about the particular, about the story of the characters. As the Art Guide put it: “The characters are harsh! And we can read that on their faces!” and their harsh environment reflected on their bodies. For the modelers, this was a more difficult task I think. 

Texturing

The texturing was quite straightforward: following the technical workflow and then using the artistic eye for the clothes and just simply painting the skin and hair like a painter. Aside from the Art Guide, we also had to carefully observe the Concept Art that played a major role in texturing. The concept art was the main clue for texturing the tones and suggesting the personality of each character.

There were three categories for texturing: head, hair, and body. Each had its own baking, set of textures, and workflow, but fit within the same style of its world. From all these three, for the body,  only on the clothes/costumes,  using some textures (surface mimic scans) in the process of texturing was acceptable. The rest of the texturing had to be hand-painted and custom-made.

The software used for the whole process were: Maya, ZBrush, XNormal, Substance 3D Painter & Designer, and Photoshop. The body parts (without clothes) and the heads were sharing a base/average mesh as a starting point with good UVs. For each of the heads after their modeling, we would pin the edge borders and areas like the corner of the eyes and mouth and unfold/unwrap the UVs in Maya. This way, the UV layout was kept nice and homogeneous between all characters.

Head’s UVs examples

Texture baking was done in Substance 3D Designer (main maps) and in XNormal (the baking of ambient occlusion from Normal Map and the Polypaint made in ZBrush); Normal and Curvature Maps were added in the diffuse texture.

Example of Substance 3D Designer main textures baking

Of course, we also had a shared library of Arkane in-house Resources like tools, scripts, assets, brushes, effects, shaders, and templates to be used in production, for Maya, ZBrush, Substance 3D Painter & Designer, and Photoshop. Most of my colleagues were contributing to this library including myself, in my case, by creating custom-made skin decals, a set of hair brushes to be used in Substance 3D Painter, and SP skin templates according to skin complexions/race. 

Examples of custom Skin Decals

Hair brushes(patches) examples, created in ZBrush with Fiber meshes for Substance 3D Painter     

Part of those resources were also the eyes, lashes, teeth, and tongue. These were a bunch of “generic” assets and textures that completed the look of a character rather than giving it personality. The brows, beards, and hair were not generic but personalized for each character, according to the concept art and design of the character. 

Head and Skin Texturing

For the head and skin texturing in general, there was a very clear workflow for the texturing base, and the rest was like painting a portrait in 3D, adapting to the concept art and to the 3D model with the sculpted details. Both ZBrush poly painting and SP painting would follow roughly the same steps for this base skin texture (later, this part was replaced by the skin templates I mentioned above). Here is a short version of  the art direction for this base texturing of the skin for the ZBrush workflow: 

First, we loaded the color palette (from resources) for each character that we had to texture, just like a painter first laying down his colors to paint with. We would stick to that color palette for each type of skin/race and use only the colors in the palettes. This helped a lot for the unity of the visual style. Then we would paint using the colors in the exact order shown below:

The workflow from Substance 3D Painter is very similar to the skin base. Just that it goes in more detailed and all the layers are editable and ready to add details on top of it. These base skin files can be used, like I said, as templates for texturing other characters as well. Here is an example I did for the common characters: 

Other examples:

Painted diffuse examples for head & hair

So, the first layers mimic what the RBX technology and cross-polarized photography revealed in reality about the layers beneath our skin, representing vascularity and pigmentation. Suggesting this while painting layers with different brushes and opacity will form an organic look. The lips, nose, around eyes, and ears areas will be painted more red, being with a higher hemoglobin concentration. The forehead area and the cheekbones will have a bit of yellow tint added on top, because usually the skin is closer to the bone and cartilage. Around the eyes and temples we can have a bit of blue-green tints as well, because of the thin skin with vascularity underneath.

On top of the underneath layers, will be added the hues of the upper palette that correspond to each type of skin complexion. The skin hues change also according to the age, as well as the context of the character’s life. A good example of how the story is influencing the texturing is the character Grim Alex, who is the split personality of benevolent Doctor Alexandria Hypatia. While Hypatia is a generous and altruistic person, her mind and body are, at some times, taken over by Grim Alex, who forces her to kill. Therefore, her appearance is changing too. Here are both versions of the same character, topology, and UVs: 

Older or harsh skin is, of course, thicker and looser, and has more pigmentation, spots, veins, and moles while younger skin is more fleshy or firm on the bones. The wrinkles and other details on the face are also defined by the character’s traits and it’s environment, helping to decide if to add details such as tattoos, scars, bruises, makeup, et cetera. Details and colors not only follow the concept, but enhance the personality and story of the character.

On top of the painted textures, there was a valuable extra richness given by the nice details sculpted in ZBrush, by the modeler and baked on the Normal Map. These were the wrinkles, small realistic-like pores, and custom distinct exaggerated pores or scars, and some other bumps and asymmetry. And then, there was the Gloss Map that gave yet another layer of visual details, breaking the specular created by the Normal Map in a more organic way. We had a small workflow dedicated to the Gloss Map creation as well. Here is an example of a head texture set:

Both workflows, ZBrush PolyPaint and Substance 3D Painter painting, were followed up by one more texturing pass, a final stage of texturing in Photoshop — this is the same for the body and clothes. Speaking of Photoshop, there was a very strictly defined and organized structure of the PSD, with each category (head, hair, and body)  with its own particular structure according to the types of the final output of the textures.

Here is where we would be storing the final texturing results and would do the last editing and tweaks, just before exporting/saving the final textures for the game. While making the final adjustments in Photoshop, we could check the outcome of our models with the textures in Maya Viewport2, using dx11 custom shaders. Looking back at this process, we can see how workflows changed and evolved over time and make you wonder what will be next.

The Hair

The hair was clearly stylized, minimal in shape but more graphical due to the painted fibers. Simplified locks and different layers of length, as well as a few alpha locks/cards, added a touch of detail through transparency. For the brows and beard, the geometry was extracted from the head model, instead of alpha cards, so that it matches perfectly the topology. All hairs, beards, and brows were hand-painted, as well as the alpha/transparent masks. We had created different types of hair brushes, for the scalp and the locs, for the brows, for painting with depth, and ID for color variation and the suggestion of hair fibers. Here is an example of a hair set: 

The Body

For the body parts (other than the skin), we also had metalness, a well-organized ID Map, AO Norm, dust pass, sheen, Gloss Map, and Normal Map. The workflow was more focused on handling the right scale and right fiber textures for each material, and the level of dirt and detail. Since the patterns had to be present but not too much in the diffuse, we were relying on the shader for the fabric’s visual quality. The clothes and accessories of the models were meant to support and highlight the body/face.

One rule for texturing the body parts/clothes was to keep in mind that there is a gradient of brightness and dirt intensity from up to down, towards the ground materials become darker, dustier, and dirtier. We didn’t use procedural textures for the dirt, wear, stains, or sun bleach of the materials, but we would create our own textures, even if we used them via a file or generator. It had to be in line with the handmade touch, but also with the artistic style of adding details with intention. Here is an example of textures for the body category:

Full body textured character example

I am a Maya veteran, but as I said, we learn and adapt all of our lives. I am currently trying to get used to Blender as well, and creating these renders was part of this befriending. Still, these renders themselves are quite basic. I first tried to do them with Eevee, but I had issues and artifacts with the way it rendered the alpha transparency of the hair. I am sure there are workarounds, but I also liked much more how the subsurface was rendered in Cycles. So, I chose Cycles in the end. 

I wanted these renders, though basic,  to look as good as possible, without too much fuss or sophisticated setups. My main objective was to bring out and capitalize both the work that was done by the modeler, which was reflected in the Normal Map output, but also on the texturing work I did that made it complete.

Visually, I also tried to get these 3 types of tone intensity in my renders: bright, dark, and mid-intensity tones, sharp and soft, warm and cold colors, and light. As lighting, I used a Three-Point Lighting Setup, consisting of a spotlight as a main light (I gave it a very subtle orange tint), and 2 blue lights (a fill and a backlight) for complementarity, but also for an intentional accent of light in favor of the surface details or silhouette. But I must admit that on some of the characters, I used more ancient point/area lights to emphasize some particular wrinkles that were not lit enough or emphasized by the basic lights. I also added an HDRI to the world scene for a nicer input in the look of the render.

The most annoying problem I had was some wired “wireframe artifact” that happened in my renders, when the light was hitting the surface from some specific angles and this is part of the tweaks I did on them as post-production, along with smoothing out in just a few spots the angular silhouette of the low poly (though, I also added a 0.5 smooth modifier on top of my Low Poly in-game Mesh in Blender as well). So, that’s it. 

Blender Final Renders examples

Summary

About timing, that was relative to the task. While a skin polypaint in ZBrush would take around 2 hours for a head, in Substance 3D Painter a head painting would take a day or more, if you paint more variations with more types of details all neatly organized. It also depends on the character, like how complex it is. Some are really simple, but some need much more love. Hair took a lot of time in the beginning, because of researching, creating, and trying several types of brushes till we finally found the best fit for the style and an efficient workflow. The body textures took a few days each, because of the standard of quality and the many maps we had to handle. About challenges, it is always challenging when working for Arkane, not just “Dishonored 2”, and I like that because it makes you really want to give your best and not settle for less. 

Advice for the beginner character artist is, first, to trust that they will get better with time, practice, and study, and have the courage to engage in projects that are at the limit of their capacity to force them to grow faster.  “The Complete Guide to Anatomy” by Gottfried Bammes is a book I would recommend to beginners, along with Anatomy for Sculptors of course.

Try all kinds of materials as some of them might even be from another field like anthropology, biology, or evolution science like these examples: Evolution in Action: Natural History Through Spectacular Skeletons or Skulls: Die Faszinierende Schädel-Sammlung des Alan Dudley [Skulls: An Exploration of Alan Dudley’s Curious Collection].

Be curious. I myself am still learning. In my opinion, the fastest way to grow as a beginner is to have a mentor. Arkane recommended to us, while working on “Dishonored 2”,  the books on the sculpting of Phillipe Faraut and I think they are great. Sculpting and good photography will always be great resources for us. Rest knowledge about clean topology, learning the workflows and techniques from other more experienced artists,  and tools to make you more efficient are also important. All kinds of resources could be useful, from the old masters’s works, anatomy, photography, comic books, illustration books, and concept art, to observing the people on the street, or to 3D scanned data. But the question will be: Do you want to be a 3D character modeler or a 3D character artist? The answer has to show you what to look for. Both artistic and technical sides have to be taken care of.

Mihaela Dragan, 3D Artist

Interview conducted by Gloria Levine

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Comments 1

  • Anonymous user

    Awesome work ! Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience !

    0

    Anonymous user

    ·8 days ago·

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