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Creating a Victorian-Age Adventurer in Maya, ZBrush & Substance

A Character Artist Mattia Migliorin has shared the workflow behind The Lost Hunter project, explained how the Victorian Age elements were set up, and discussed the things he learned at Vertex School.


Hi, my name is Mattia Migliorin, and I'm an aspiring 3D Character Artist from Italy who started his journey 5 years ago. After graduating from a high school of art in Italy, I wanted to combine my wish to create good pieces of art with one of my most important passions – videogames. So, starting as a self-taught artist, I joined a lot of workshops here in my country with the purpose to understand the world that is behind 3D production, and after years of studies of the bases of the most important 3d programs, I landed at the Vertex Online School, where I found my way as a 3D Character Artist.

Because of the high standards and competition that game industries and clients always have, I never tried looking for works and collaborations until these days. Another important reason was that as a self-taught artist I really needed a lot of time to study and understand all the pipelines and programs behind 3D production.

Studying at Vertex

My first meeting with Vertex Online School and with Marcin happened a bit randomly. Making my first steps as an aspiring 3D artist, I had no other way than to land on ArtStation, where I discovered a world of amazing artists and projects. Being part of that kind of artist and making really good projects was one of the most important goals that I had for my career, but I soon realized that as a self-taught artist, to achieve that kind of quality would require too much time looking at the improvements I gained over 3 years of studies, and yet I didn't know enough. The only thing that I knew was that with every single project I made, my satisfaction and wish to improve myself and my work were getting stronger.

So, I decided that it was time to join a school to improve my art, fill all the holes of my work and understand what I want as a 3D artist. Having a part-time job, it was really hard for me to find a reachable school in my country, it was then that I started to look for online schools and discovered the existence of Vertex, thanks to ArtStation. Studying at home seemed to be the perfect solution for me, so I started gathering information about the school. I discover that there was a mentor from CD Projekt Red at the school and it was a huge discovery for me. I've always been a big fan of The Witcher franchise and when I find out that the mentor was the amazing Marcin Klicki, the one who created all the 3D models for the creatures in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt I realized that I finally found the right school to be a part of.

The Lost Hunter Project

The Lost Hunter is the project I made for graduation at Vertex and is my greatest work so far. The time at the online school was separated into 3 different terms, during the first one we had to develop a simple prop, in the second one, the first character in order to understand much more about the pipeline behind making a proper character, and during the last one, the most important, making the final character with the help of a mentor, in this case, Marcin Klicki. For this project, I put everything I got and learned, and I spent a lot of time making it. All the design elements of the character are created by me and based on some games and movies that are a big part of my life.

One of the first lessons I learned with Marcin and the mentors at Vertex was that when you have to think about making a character, first of all, you have to create a background story for it. For my character, I decided to create some sort of a monster-hunter whose hunting ground should be a London-like city during the Victorian Age. With this idea in mind, I started looking for the reference and creating first blockouts for clothes and stuff that resembles the outfits of the era.

I wanted him to have a very long jacket and a big sword inspired a lot by characters like Dante from the Devil May Cry series and an attitude and general style (some sort of gothic style) from characters like Gabriel Belmont from the game Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. From this latter game, I came up with the idea to add a knight-style gauntlet for him, inspired by a work I found on ArtStation by the great artist Eric J Fitch. Thanks to the fact that the character was supposed to live during the age of industrialization and discovery, like the one during the Victorian Age in London, I came up with the idea to add a mechanic steampunk-style sword and some clothes from the period, entirely designed by me and inspired a lot by games like Bloodborne.

My personal skills in hand-painting and 2d concept art helped me a lot in defining the shapes and ideas of these first props. With the idea of the background always being in my mind, I decided to add a bag to the character, giving the idea that he is always to travel somewhere.

For the face, I wanted him to have the likeness of a British person, with the attitude of a nostalgic person, and for that, I decided to add to the character the likeness of Daniel Redcliff, who is an excellent British actor.

The final result that comes out is of a hunter that comes from a past of glory and love, traveling around the country remembering the old times, without knowing what will happen next and without caring too much about it.

Approach to Anatomy

After some lessons about general shapes and forms of the human body, I used a base mesh of a body with UVs on ZBrush and retouched it in order to obtain a mesomorph body. Then I had to make the blockouts of all the props and clothes of the character in a general way, just to have a first view of the general silhouette of him.

The first approach to the head that Marcin chose for us was to sculpt the skull of the face. This task was incredibly helpful, I would never have thought that the strong initial structure of the skull could be fundamental for a realistic face so much, I learned a lot from it. After finishing that, I had the objective to obtain the likeness of a real person, in this case, Daniel Redcliff. Ryan Kingslien was really helpful in sharing with us all the anatomy of it, from the name of all the processes of the face, skin fat, and muscles. During the course, Marcin gave us a lot of tips and tricks with ZBrush about sculpting the head, folds, and skin details, spending a lot of the time at the live sessions that we had together, he showed us his way of sculpting the main shapes of the body. One of the main lessons I remember from him is that no matter how much detail you put on your entire character, the face will be always the first thing that people will always check, it has to be the best part of your character.

Ryan Kingslien, who is a long veteran and expert in human anatomy, taught us a lot about proportions and details of the head, through the amazing artworks of one of his favorite Anatomy Artists, George Bridgeman. In my case, it was mind-blowing, especially for the study of the main basic shapes of the head. For the final touches, like skin details and pores, the teachers guided me with the help of the awesome XYZ Texture workflow, where, with the help of scans of a real human face, you project on the UVs of the head all his details at once, adding to him a super realistic feeling!

The Outfit and the Sword

Since I wanted my final character to be a big challenge for me, I decided to add a lot of props and clothes to it and see if I would be able to finish them in time. After sculpting the first blockout of the model in ZBrush, I focused my attention on hard-surface, especially the sword and the gauntlet. I decided to make the base shape in Maya with some basic modeling, using the blockout as a guide and reference to have more control over the initial shapes of the models, adding a lot of EdgeLoops, Bevels, and Extrusions so when I had to move them to ZBrush, I could add a lot of geometry without breaking the sharpness of the edges. This way of working helped me a lot for the next phase. This part took me around three weeks, especially the sword, because its design has been changing a lot during the production. After that, I exported the meshes from Maya to ZBrush, added a lot of geometry using SubDivisions, and started sculpting a lot of edge damages and scratches to add more realism.

Making the clothes was the biggest challenge because I had to work with one of my biggest weak points: Marvelous Designer. Marcin helped me a lot during this part, he is a real expert of MD and taught me a lot of shortcuts and ways to work with it.

I didn't have an idea on how to make the bag for my character and Marcin spent an hour of live session only to show me how to make a proper bag. First, by following the sewing pattern of a bag found on the Internet, he built the base shape of it. After that, he created a fat pillow, with the help of the Pressure value, and put it inside the bag, in order to make it feel more organic and realistic. For the jacket and clothes, I had to spend two weeks. One of the main challenges, in this case, was the problem of the intersection of layers of the many patterns I had to use for the shirt, jacket, pants, and the cover for the boots.

Marcin helped me a lot even in this case, by making out an avatar of only the shirt under the jacket, and then building it in a proper way. This workflow, repeated, and with a lot of freezing for the patterns, helped me a lot in recreating the right tension on the jacket. In the end, it came out really well! After that, the last thing that gave me a lot of trouble was making the glove for the right hand because of the small folds and dimensions of the glove. In that case, Marcin suggested importing an avatar of the hand 10 times bigger than the original, building the glove over it, and then exporting the glove 10 times smaller to ZBrush. It worked, as always.

After finishing the Marvelous Designer's phase, I imported all the meshes to ZBrush and started working on the main details, especially for decorations and damage, before moving to low poly. I had to move to Maya sometimes to make the models of the eyes, pins, and irons of the belts and jacket. For this part, Marcin showed us how to make some VDM brushes to add extra folds and realism to the clothes by sculpting a simple plane. In the end, it took me around 5 weeks to finish the high poly of this model.

Retopology and Unwrapping

One thing that is stuck in my head is the motto of the school regarding the making of the low poly: "Save on the straights, to spare on the curves". It helped me a lot during this process.

My way of working, especially regarding hard-surface, comes pretty handy when it comes to the low poly. When I work in ZBrush, I always keep the SubDivisions levels of all the meshes, just for the low poly. Some props like the sword and the gauntlet were already prepared for the UVs since I didn't use too much geometry while making them in Maya. For the face, I used a base mesh from ZBrush that already had UVs.

Making the lowpoly for the more organic and complex meshes, like the entire outfit, was the biggest challenge at this point. The mentors suggested exporting the clothes and belts from Marvelous Designer without thickness and then using the awesome Quad Draw tool in Maya, which allows creating the low poly mesh directly over the high poly mesh. That was an awesome idea. Without the thickness working on rebuilding the model for the lowpoly comes out pretty easy, fast, and, in my opinion, more fun.

After that, I just exported both the high and low of the clothes back to ZBrush in order to add the thickness to them following this process:

  • Morph target menu - store morph target
  • Deformation menu - inflate, scroll back a bit
  • Morph target menu - Create different mesh
  • Go to the new mesh - Display properties menu-Flip

With that done, I re-imported all the meshes to Maya to make the UVs. One of the main questions that I and all my classmates asked the mentors was as follows: "What is the limit of polygons that we can use to define a low poly?"

Marcin and Ryan had almost the same answer: "It doesn't matter so much, your model has to represent the best of what you can do." Especially for Marcin, technical stuff like the entire low poly phase must be the lesser time-wasting part of the character creation process.

Only by the end of this part, I understood the meaning of their words. In order to save some polygons, in the end, my model came out with some little deformations around it and that gave me a lot of trouble. That is another weak point I have to solve in my future projects.

Being done with the model, approaching the UV tiles was really difficult because of the lot of UV shells I made out of the model. In this case, Ryan Kingslien suggested starting from the huge UV shells, scaling them as huge as possible in the UV tile, and using their scale values as a reference for all the other UV shells in order to have almost the same pixels quality for all the visible parts of the model.

In the end, I had a lot of materials and textures to work on, something that I have to improve for my next projects, but I didn't have much time left to change the settings so I left them that way.

For the bakes of all the textures, we used the baking system of the amazing rendering program Marmoset Toolbag 4, which has a lot of options for customizing and controlling your bakes. Out of the model, I extracted the main maps like the Normal Map, ID Map, Curvature Map, Thickness Map, AO Map, and the World Normal Position Map.


For the texturing part, I used Substance 3D Painter. In the beginning, I had a general idea about the colors for the outfit and stuff, and my first approach to it was trying and testing. Marcin explained to us the idea of picking the main colors (usually a few colors) for the character first, in order to give it a tone. I wanted my character to have green as the main color, so I decided to put it on the jacket, the biggest model of the character, followed by different tones of brown, a common color for clothes in the Victorian period, for other parts like the boots and the sword. An important setting that we had to tweak was the color profile, in this case, I used the ACES color profile for Unreal Engine.

When I have to think about texturing a model or material, the mentors taught me to divide the creation into three different parts:

Base material: Normally, at the beginning of this process I like to use some of the base materials that Substance 3D Painter has in its collection, tweak them a bit in color, roughness, metalness, and height; with the help of some extra layers. For The Lost Hunter, I used a lot of Anchor Points during this part based on the height of some gothic alphas as decorations. 

Variations: at this point, in order to add some variations and unique forms, I had a lot of layers with different settings with the help of the maps that I baked; the Curvature Map and the Ambient Occlusion Map are the maps that I used often as a base for these effects. The effects that I add at this point are Color Variation, Roughness Variation, which is one of the most important variations to give a unique look to the materials, and some extra layers depending on the type of material, like stitching or extra decoration if needed.

At this point, the material looks like a brand new shiny material, like it was made a few minutes ago in real life. Then, comes the most important part of it.

Storytelling: At this part of the creation, I had to give a story to the model and the material I made it for. You have to start asking yourself questions like, for example regarding the sword: Does he use it often? How much time has passed since the creation of the sword? Does he take care of it? To answer those questions, I started imagining in my head all the adventures and travels that the sword had with the hunter, how many battles it was involved in, how much damage it takes over the battles, the weather it had to suffer, etc.

With this story in mind, I started adding a lot of damage to the sword using layers of height variation, scratches, and dirt, especially on the borders, the most fragile part and the first part beaten during a fight.

Regarding the leather, I had to think a lot about the properties and variations of the material in the real life. One of the common modifications to add to the material is the gradient variations. Thinking about the jacket, it had to be a lot under a bright sun and that changed a lot the properties of the leather, making it more opaque and desaturated on the parts upon the sun shines more often. While the parts that are hidden from the sun are usually the parts where dirt and dust are more often, giving the clothes a darker color and making them feel more solid and unique. Other common variations for this kind of material are folds, dirt, and border damage.

By following these steps, I was able to create all the different materials for this character. In order to be able to use these materials in Unreal Engine, I had to export the theme using the Unreal Engine material settings, which exported the Roughness, Metalness, and AO into one image, divided by the color profile (RGB), and the Albedo and Normal as separate maps.

Another important lesson I learned during the course was that before making material of any kind, be sure to make a lot of studies about the nature of the material you are going to make by collecting a lot of reference for it.


Making the hair was absolutely the most intense and difficult task of the entire character, mostly because I had the task to create a character for a game. I used the Hair Cards method. The first thing that you absolutely need when you have to make Hair Cards is tons and tons of patience. Making the entire hairstyle took me one month and a half. I used a workshop provided by the school by the great Hair specialist Johan Lithvall as a starting point. With this course, I learned a lot about making Hair Cards out of the XGen hair system in Maya, by baking some hair clumps on the cards with the help of xNormal, a small program for fast simple bakes.

But the most important thing that I learned from this workshop is Johan's way of making hair by dividing the work into layers:

  • The first layer, called the blockout, is the part where you take all the biggest clumps that you made, the ones that almost have no gaps and holes beneath them, and start developing the main body and form of the hairs, with the help of tons of modifiers in Maya. At this stage, I also made the braid by twisting the hair clumps a lot.
  • The second layer has the function to add depth, volume, and movement to the hairstyle by using some soft hair clumps with holes and gaps.
  • The third and the last layer adds the last and smallest clumps for the flyways and fills or pronounces the gaps of the hair in order to give a last realistic touch and variation to them, especially at the border of the hair at the top front of the scalp.

As I said before, arm yourself with patience, do not push things too much. Because of my impatience, at my first try, the hairstyle I made came out really bad, it took me some extra weeks to turn back and properly adjust them.

Lighting and Presentation

All the renders were made with the help of Marmoset Toolbag 4. My usual setup for lighting is based on the three-point method, with the color profile ACES (for Unreal Engine). In order to feel the character like part of an environment, and under the suggestion of the mentor, I changed a bit the color of the light with hot and cold colors at the opposite sides (like the main light, which is hot, and the secondary light, with a cold light blue color).

With the help of this program, I tweaked a lot of the properties of the skin material for the face, by adding SubSurface Scattering, which helps a lot, and working on the ambient occlusion with the help of a Cavity Map that I built from the XYZ workflow in ZBrush.

At this point, Photoshop revealed itself to be very useful. I used it a lot for the last tweaks and adjustments on the texture of the character. Marcin used it a lot too and showed me many effects that I could add to the face to make it feel more realistic, like using the ambient occlusion of it to add a more reddish color in the most darker parts or paint some blurred colors on the skin in order to recreate some little skin disease and deformation.

Done with that, I created tons of cameras for the final shots, and then I imported them all to Photoshop for the post-effects part. The post effects that I used quite a lot were the Depth of Field and the Vignette for almost every shot I made. Thanks to little knowledge of 2D painting, I added a lot of smoke effects by directly painting them, especially for the big posters of the character, in order to recreate a little feeling of an environment.


The entire course for me was a real revelation. Before enrolling in it, I didn't know anything about most of the amazing tools and stuff that we used during the entire pipeline of making a real-time model. Especially, I didn't know what I really wanted for my career as an artist. And right now, I realize that I enjoyed every single moment of making this character, and I want to challenge myself and my skills even more, creating better characters and projects every time. Marcin revealed himself to be an awesome mentor and artist, I learned a lot from his way of working and I think I could never thank him enough for that, especially for the tons of tips and tricks he taught me and my classmates. He's also a super supporter of his students even outside the course, through the different social media, and that is a huge support for someone who wants to start his career in the game industry.

I remember that one of the main questions that all of my classmates and I asked him was about chances to enter the game industry or find a job. In my case, I wanted to be a freelance artist, so I started asking him what could be the piece of advice to give to someone who wants to pursue that kind of career, and I remember him saying " You have to be part of the community, create connections and friendships with other artists from the world, by giving feedback to others that need it, share you work or other artist's work. Most of the time the job that you'll find comes from this kind of connection that you have with the others." That was a great piece of advice for me and I'll never forget that.

I'll also never forget the experience with the other mentor Ryan Kingslien, the Founder of the Vertex School, who helped me a lot during the entire schedule outside the classes with Marcin, and gave me a lot of advice and tips, especially for anatomy and skin. It was super helpful and even after the end of the course, he keeps helping me sometimes when he can, pushing me to improve my art.

I came out of this course with tons of knowledge about the work and what I want to do next. Words like "Skill is not mastery, is a process" or "the important thing about making a project is to be patient and see the improvements work after work" are stuck in my head. I still know what my lacks are in the process, and with that in my mind, I'll fill them and pursue the goal that my mentors gave to me: be a good Character Artist. And I'll never thank them enough for that.

Mattia Migliorin, 3D Character Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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