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Creating a Sci-Fi Weapon in ZBrush, 3ds Max & Substance 3D Painter

Sandro Bonfanti has shared his workflow behind the Alien Gun project, explained how to maintain a good resolution and quality in the textures, and spoke about how to achieve a feel of action while creating visual effects.


Hello! My name is Sandro Bonfanti, I'm 23 years old, I'm from Amposta, Spain and I'm a Hard Surface Artist. A couple of years ago, I finished my Bachelor's Degree in 3D Content creation at CEV Barcelona.

My first contact with the video game industry was through Gameloft, working for Disney Speedstorm as Environment / Prop Artist. The experience was unique: I learned a lot of technical aspects about how to approach a new production from scratch. Later on, I wanted to make the jump to a AAA project and started working as a 3D Artist for Ubisoft for the title Rainbow Six Siege. Currently, I am dedicating my time to the development of my personal portfolio and improving techniques focused on Hard Surface.

Alien Gun Project

I had long wanted to make a weapon with an unconventional look and function. When I saw Longque Chen's concept, I thought of recreating that same idea, but in 3D. The first step was to analyze and understand in depth what the artist wanted to express with his original work: silhouette, functional and logical aspects.

The main feature of the dual-weapon is that it features three types of projectiles followed by three different animations: a green and yellowish energy blade, a red laser blaster, and an orange shot.

To visualize the concept, I created a PureRef with all the necessary images to put the idea into context. During the process, I realized that the internal parts of the concept were not visible, and I decided to base it on the structure of a thermoelectric reactor.


One of the most important things and the one which takes up most of the time in a project is the creation of the geometric shapes. That's why I always start with blocking first, defining the whole model piece by piece until I get a silhouette that fits the shape of the concept. In my case, I advanced the model from left to right starting with the barrel.

Once the blocking was ready, I proceeded to the advanced blocking, with a higher geometry. It is here where we start to outline the details. This step is fundamental since it will help to maintain a base ready to start with the high poly.

First of all, the order must be maintained. For this reason, throughout this process, it is necessary to rename each one of the pieces and assign a material by colors that will serve to separate the model by the number of sets. In my case, three sets were necessary.

It is necessary to take into account which parts will have symmetry since in this way more space is optimized in the UVs and texel density is gained. Later, with the symmetry modifier, the initial figure will be formed again.

Not leaving tedious work to the end will help maintain an optimal production rate.

High Poly

For high poly, I usually use support loops with a new editable poly layer, which allows me more versatility in removing it and returning to the advanced blocking state.

In the final polishing, OpenSubdiv is applied. This modifier helps to maintain a smoother and more uniform bevel.

Another point to highlight is the use of floaters, which help to define the object with more detail without the need to work in such a destructive way in the advanced blocking. It tends to work very well on flat surfaces, avoiding artifacts on the normal map.

To model a high poly, focus on achieving an optimal result no matter how many support loops are applied, as long as pinching in the mesh is avoided.

A quick and easy way to identify such artifacts is to apply materials in the model that have a high specular.

To apply organic details to the model, I used ZBrush. In the bandages, I used a cloth alpha that I applied in the surface modifier adapting the scale and depth to reach the level of detail I wanted. In some parts of the model, I used the Chisel brush to draw grooves that appeared in the concept, since traditional modeling in 3ds Max would have been more complex.

Low Poly

The reason why I like to work with 3ds Max is that you can organize the project by layers using any kind of modifier. I usually use advanced blocking, adjusting some vertices with Target Weld to start with a good base. In this case, as the model is complex and has many internal parts, the topology density seems to be higher. Besides, I have respected some booleans and screws whose result in the final model was nice. The idea was to keep a functional object that would look interesting in the portfolio, although it could be perfectly applied in a video game.

Once the UVs have been made, the symmetry modifier is applied to the parts that require it, which will complete the whole model. Remember to move one unit in the pieces that have symmetry – this will avoid problems in the baking.


To maintain a good resolution and quality in the textures, it is important to optimize to the maximum the space of the UVs. The cuts are made manually in 3Ds Max – this way, I make sure I can hide them better. In some internal and less visible parts, I reduce the scale, so that I get more texel density, usable in the parts of greater exposure. For this gun, I used two 2 k texture maps and 1k per meter texel density.

I always like to keep order and direction in the shells. For this, I use the RizomUV tool, with which I pack them. I used to do it manually, but with highly complex objects it is better not to waste so much time.


Before starting with baking, it is necessary to apply the smoothing groups on the model, to avoid gradients in the normal map. An easy and effective way is to use the TexTools tool and choose the option "Smoothing Groups from UV Shells".

Be careful! In my case, creating a gun with symmetry in several pieces, you have to correct the smoothing group at the point where it is generated. It is enough to put the same group number.

In this case, I have used Marmoset Toolbag for baking, although other times I use Substance 3D Painter. To get a good quality of maps, I recommend doubling the resolution of the final textures. In my case, I have set 8K.

In the AO map properties, I recommend removing the Two-Sided option if the model has floating parts, since the shading will be painted on the bottom surface, and we don't want this to happen.

The Floor Occlusion adds additional shading in the lower areas of the model, adding more depth and volume. Later, it could be reduced in the texturing program if necessary.

Ignore Groups will help to maintain a uniform AO between different baking groups. In my case, I had to move the animated parts and some internal parts so that they would not be affected by the shading.

I recommend taking a look at this tutorial by Joe Wilson, in which he shows several general baking specifications in the Marmoset Toolbag that are key to obtaining a professional result.


Before I start texturing, I consider what kind of materials will define my model. For this reason, it is highly recommended to delimit solid references first.

To create the textures, I start with a new scene using the Preview Sphere template. I disable all filters and effects to leave the material blank. To get a realistic result, I usually apply a base color followed by a couple of light and dark color variations. I also add different levels of roughness, such as height microdetails and single macro details.

The exercise of moving away from the screen to contemplate the whole composition is highly recommended, as it helps to clarify the main idea.

Afterward, the sphere can be converted as a smart material and brought into the main scene of the model.

I have made some details in Photoshop and imported them as alphas to have more precise control of their position, color, and roughness. I have also created some decals that appeared in the concept as shown in the picture.

At the end of each set, I like to add the sharpen modifier with a very low value to finish defining the overall detail of the textures.


In this process, I basically changed the pivot point of the animated parts, which I used as the main gear. In 3ds Max, the way to animate by frames is quite simple: add a frame and activate the Autokey in the initial pose, move the frame slider to the desired point and make the movement. In my case, I only had to use the rotation gizmo on all the pieces of the weapon.


When I saw the effects of the projectiles, I decided to combine 3D and some retouching with Photoshop. Since this part of the model is more visual than technical, if it were applicable for video games, it would be done with sprites – this way, a much lower load of textures and geometry would be achieved.

Once the effect was modeled, I made the UVs of the general sword and I added an emission material with transparency in Substance 3D Painter.

For the final touches, I imported the rendering from Marmoset Toolbag to Photoshop. The intention was to give a little more action to each of the projectiles with sparks, smoke, and manual touches with the brush. Very interesting effects with black backgrounds can be found at Photobash. To apply them, make sure that the layer is in Screen mode so that the effect blends well with the main image.


This is the moment when you have to demonstrate and visualize all the hours of work in one or several images. In my case, I wanted two types of renders: one that could tell a story, and a more technical one. Let's start with the technical one.

The first step is to change the FOV of the camera. To maintain a more general focus on the gun, I preferred to set it to a value of 10.

In order to show a good silhouette of the gun, I used three types of rim light: one-directional and two spots to provide a more global illumination. To finish giving volume, I put a fill light to illuminate the weapon in general, two key lights to create contrast in the shadows, and an overlight to define a little more the silhouette at the top of the model. The detail light is optional; in my case, it adds very interesting reflections on the golden material of the energy charger.

To move around the space, I assigned a different camera. This way, it was not necessary to move the fixed frame of the main render. I recommend this tutorial by Emre Karabacak. Although it is for Marmoset Toolbag 3, the lighting basics are applicable for new versions as well.

I felt that the gun with a black background was too formal; I wanted to present the context of a story in which everyone could interpret what they wanted.

The importance of this render is its composition. I used a rocky material from the Quixel Megascans library and adapted its texture into a plane. The model was animated with the Energy Blade position. I moved the animation a few seconds so that the weapon was half open as if it was broken. The energy chargers are buried to the surface to distract attention from other parts of the model. Being a dual weapon, I tried repeating the model in the same scene. The result was interesting.


This is the first time I have made a weapon of this magnitude based on a fictitious concept, and the truth is that I have really enjoyed the process. The project has helped me to improve many technical aspects of hard surface modeling, texturing, baking, and rendering.  

Never stop learning: there are many resources available, and they are becoming more and more accessible to everyone. Let nothing and no one cut your wings!

Thank you very much to the platform for trusting me. I hope this article can help other artists to discover new aspects of this exciting world.

If you have any questions or comments, you can contact me through this email, or send me a direct message on ArtStation, LinkedIn, or Instagram.

Sandro Bonfanti, 3D Hard Surface Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Burton

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