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Creating a Video Game Character in ZBrush & Marvelous Designer

Julen Laboria shared the workflow behind the Ellis Johnson character, discussed the creation of the face and the body, and gave some tips to fellow Character Artists.


My name is Julen Laboria, I’m a character artist and I currently work as an intern 3D Artist at Herobeat Studios. I started learning 3D in February of 2020. Due to the beginning of lockdown in Spain, I got an opportunity to keep learning and improve my skills in 3D. In the same year, I started a course in video game design in EADR.

In May 2021 I participated in a course challenge organized by Libel Academy. It turned out to be a game-changing experience, as I won a prize for the character I created, which provided me the opportunity to do a course on creating characters for AAA games.

Getting Started

I started designing Ellis Johnson in the summer. I had to apply for an internship, so I created this character and offered it to video games companies. Herobeat Studios was my first choice and, surprisingly, I got them interested in me and my project as well.

I wanted Ellis to have a tough and confident look, but at the same time, I felt like she should make an impression of a good person. The first woman that crossed my mind was Kristen Stewart, so I decided to use her as a reference to Ellis Johnson’s face. Then I started looking for references to the clothes Ellis would use and ended up taking them from Roanna Peroz’s illustration.

The Face and the Body

I started sculpting by making a sphere in ZBrush. I kept in mind that I didn’t want Ellis to look 100% like Kristen, I wanted her to have her own essence. So, I gave myself the freedom to change some facial features in order to separate my character from the references.

For the body, I started appending spheres, giving them the size I wanted, and started to sculpt trying to be as close to the reference as possible. I kept fixing the body during the project.

Clothing and Footwear

For the jacket and the rest of the clothing, I used Marvelous Designer. I took the references to the sewing patterns on Google. Then I just had to experiment with what I already had: moving lines, points, changing curves, or adding them until, eventually, I had a result that I was satisfied with. For better quality, I refined the clothes in ZBrush.

In the images below, you can see the step-by-step process of how I did the shoulders black part. It’s a technique that’s really helpful and I use it a lot.

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For the footwear, I looked for some images of boots in different angles and put them in PureRef. Using opacity in PureRef and camera lock in ZBrush, I started to sculpt the main shape with the images in front. Having finished the main shape, I used Full Opacity and On the Side in PureRef, and started adding details. For the sole, I used the technique I explained before. The laces are made with the Curve brush, duplicated a few times, and adjusted.


For the hair, in Photoshop, I did a sketch of the strands type that I needed and adjusted the way the hair would be laid out in the UVs. Then, in Maya, I created planes and put them in the place they should go according to the sketch I did before. With each plane, I created an XGen description and added modifiers.

After that, I rendered the Maps I needed (Alpha, Base Color, etc.) and when that was finished I created a square plane, put the base color image there, and started to cut every hair strand to make each hair card. When I had all the hair strands in their own plane, I imported them to ZBrush. Then I put the Alpha in the ZBrush cards, and, picking the hairs I needed I started putting them in the head using masking, rotating tool, and elastic move. I did 3 layers of hair: the first one was the densest, the second one was also a dense layer but with more quality, and the third layer was the details.


For the texturing, it's crucial to work with Marmoset open in order to monitor changes you do in the texture. Also, it's important to separate elements and materials using masks. This way you can keep everything organized. For instance, you can separate pants from a belt and the rest of the items, even though they are in the same UV and material. 

Besides, in each layer, you can put a base material and start texturing from there, putting generators and painting some things. A really important tip on learning how to texture is to spend spare time watching tutorials, replicating what they do, and then, modifying things to learn how they work. This way, when you do your own project, you will know how to do the things you need and get rid of the fear of experimenting.

Keep in mind that in the case of the skin, you need to use SubSurface Scattering in Marmoset. What you see in Substance 3D Painter is very different from the final result, therefore, it’s important to monitor the changes on Marmoset.

Rendering and Lighting

For the rendering, I searched for HDRIs on the internet to find one that would make the character look good. Then I imported it on Marmoset and reduced its brightness considerably. Next, I clicked in random places of the HDRI to create lights in order to recreate the HDRI with the lights of Marmoset. This way the render looks better than using the lights of the HDRI. 

If the lights appear outside, you have to put them inside “Sky” again, and after that, you can adjust the level of brightness. Working on my character, I reduced the brightness a lot in order to put lights by myself and used the HDRI just to help with the lighting a little. Besides, I put a light behind the character because I like the white outline that appears due to it. Then, for the other lights, I just tried various combinations till, finally, I had one that I was satisfied with. 

In the end, I had to tweak the post-processing options in Marmoset (you can find them by clicking on the Camera). I changed the field of view and put it to 25. In the distortion panel, I tweaked the Chromatic Aberration a little, then I sharpened it a bit and put a Vignette effect.

The Main Challenges

In total, it took me around two months to finish the character. There were a lot of challenges, but I think the hardest things I had to do were the hair, as it was the first time I was doing it with hair cards and it was really difficult to place them correctly. Another hardest part was the skin because trying to achieve a realistic skin is really hard when you do it by hand.

I hope I helped someone with describing the process of designing a character and sharing my thoughts. For other Character Artists who may read this, I'd like to advise you to set a goal, have fun while you're trying to achieve it – this way you'll go far. Don't worry, if you need to do things over and over to achieve your goals, it will be worth it, I promise. 

Julen Laboria, Character Artist

Interview conducted by Theodore Nikitin

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