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Designing Characters for a Puzzle Shooter in ZBrush and Substance

Aleksey Svischev has talked about designing characters for a canceled game Voices, shared the workflow in ZBrush, and explained how to combine realistic and stylized looks.


Hi! My name is Aleksey Svishev. I'm a self-taught 3D artist, mostly specializing in Character Art. I worked for a bunch of companies: 2 Dawn Games (Ravaged), Mail.ru (Skyforge), Axolot Games (Scrap Mechanic), Redbeet Interactive (Raft), Shapefarm (Samurai Jack: Battle Through Time), and recently I helped Neon Giant with an upcoming game The Ascent. And there were some more small indie studios and outsource companies that I helped with big projects. 

Currently, I work on a very funny and ambitious unannounced project as a Lead Character/Hard-Surface Artist.

Becoming a Character Artist

For several years at the beginning of my career, I worked as a 3D Generalist, it’s always great when you can do multiple jobs, make your own tileable textures for an environment or make a shader. So, during that time I learned several disciplines and since then, I could jump on different tasks to help with certain aspects of the game.

Funny that on my first big game project – Ravaged – a post-apocalyptic, first-person multiplayer shooter, I started as a Character Artist. I had to learn things like human anatomy, technical aspects, sculpting in ZBrush, baking maps, etc on the go. It was quite a stressful time. But looking back, I don't feel ashamed of my work. Unfortunately, you can't find it now on Steam anymore.

Since then I couldn't imagine another profession for me. I wanted to make characters. 

Watching movies, animated films, cartoons, and games of course, always inspired me. I'm a big fan of Blade Runner, True Detective, Warcraft, Diablo, Star Wars, Wales and Gromit, USSR cartoons, and anime series (Cowboy Bebop, Memories, Ghost in the Shell, Ghibli). You can say that this list is mixed and all over the place, but in my opinion, the variety of media you consume determines how versatile you are as an artist.

And there are a bunch of Character Artists that always inspired me: Vadim Bakhlychev, Vitaly Bulgarov, Rafael Grassetti, J. Hill, Adam Skutt, Cedric Peyravernay, Jonathan Fletcher, Jason Martin.

Characters for the Voices Project

Voices was an ambitious project, a first-person puzzle shooter with a hint of an immersive sim. I worked for Shapefarm and It was going to be their first big IP. 

The concepts were made by the talented Gabriele Pala. His style is very unique and more suited for animated films and it was challenging to transfer it to the 3D world. Of course, I had to adjust, rework and add elements from design and technical perspectives to make it work.

Creating Faces

Voices had quite an interesting mix of styles. It’s somewhere in between realism and a stylized look. We used the PBR approach but we didn't want to make faces too real in terms of skin details and textures. Instead of that, we tried to add a clay effect, you can see it clearly on the characters' hair, it should feel sculpted. For curly hair, I used a custom ZBrush Curve Brush. I just made a simple profile and added it as a new Insert Mesh Brush with a curve mode. Right now, I would rather use Blender's Curve tool, it’s much easier to control. To get that smooth clay look, I like to use the Remesh function in Zbrush, it just cleans mesh in general, and to add the clayish texture back I used Orb Extreme Polish brush from Orb’s brush collection.

I also like to use ZBrush as the final touch for some of my hard surface meshes, including weapons and vehicles. I put scratches, dents, welding seams, and beat-up edges in ZBrush. 

We experimented a lot with a style and at some point tried to add a painterly acrylic look to textures. In order to achieve a good result in the engine for the face, we had to step away from the PBR model and write our own shader that would support that paint feel. By the way, I found it easier to make old-school paint texture in 3D Coat, I guess it was just a habit. 

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Unreal Engine 4:

Clothing and Weapons

The first iteration of clothes was made in Marvelous Designer, but the more we discovered our style we knew that we need to keep that sculpted feel. MD clothes gave us a too realistic result. So I sculpted it in ZBrush. For seams details, I used one of the seams brush collections. On the concept, you can see that initially, the clothes were baggy, and the characters were older. But later, we decided that they should look like apprentices of a college or university. That's why we changed clothes to a uniform. Other than that, I used standard workflow to create clothes and hard surface parts. I used Maya to make hard surfaces (armor, weapons, vehicles) or base meshes for cloth.  


For clothes and hard surface elements, I used Substance Painter. Basically, it was standard PBR texturing, but I didn't rely a lot on procedural generators. Alongside generated masks, I did a lot of manual paintwork. You can see there are some brush strokes, shadows, and highlight details. There are no dark shadows from the AO Map or Cavity Map. Shadows and highlights have a color tint. It reminds me of an old-school texturing approach, where all light information was painted into the texture. And instead of the usual brown dust, I added aqua color, it added a little out-worldly feel.

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For character rendering, I used Marmoset Toolbag 3. I made poses and sculpted a puddle in ZBrush. Probably it is unusual, but I also like to compose scenes in ZBrush. 

The lighting setup itself is classic. I use one main source light that lights the entire scene and it is the brightest one. One backlight, that gives a nice rim around the objects. I also added additional portrait lights set up for each face. Basically, each face gets its own key light and fill light and brightens the shadow area. They are quite weak, so they do not overbright the faces.

I don't have the usual setup for camera and render settings, each time I play with settings, and usually, these experiments give me, as I call them, “cool accidents". Here you can see I used Hejl Tone Mapping and picked specific colors for Exposure, Contrast, and Contrast Center. Also, I played with Curves. There is no specific approach, tweak it until you like the picture. Treat it like a post-process for photo editing or video. You can go for warm tones for shadows and cold for highlights, pull up the lower end of a white curve line to give shadows a more faded look. Add Fog to the scene to add atmosphere.

Here are my render settings. I didn’t use Local Reflections, because sometimes it gives unpredictable results.

I used the same approach for all the other characters.


I think the most challenging part was to recreate the style from concept art and add something from myself. These were not your usual stylized visuals. I guess the style that Gabriel was based on is French graphic novels and comic books. And it was something that I’d never done before. The lines are not even, they are a little bit jagged. And take a closer look at statues or some other objects you will see the crosshatch detail in cavities, that comes from comic books.

In order to get better at making stylized characters, I would suggest practicing different schools of stylization. I mean, there are Pixar, Disney, French comic books, realism mixed art styles, and more. If you are a beginner, you still need to know the anatomy basics and look for references. After that, you will be comfortable stepping off the rules, or accentuate facial/body features where needed. 

I would encourage you to start with something that feels very simple in the beginning. Pick one of your favorite cartoon characters, let's say from Spongebob or Minions or Samurai Jack! And try to sculpt it. Sometimes, the most simple characters are the hardest ones to make. 

Another big part of improving your stylization skills is texturing. I would suggest practicing old-school texturing. You will get a better sense of color and lighting. You will know better what details and surface properties make materials look the way they look. You can add these techniques to your basic texturing arsenal. And keep Roughness and Metal Maps subtle. 

And keep up with technical aspects of creating stylized characters. For example, how to make hair. Here's a link to one of the best tutorials about hair making.

I watch a lot of sculpting videos on YouTube and look for different styles that I can try, don't be stuck with things you are comfortable with. I would also recommend checking out these artists to learn more about character creation: Borislav Kechashki, Eduardo Garcia, Elliot Mallon, Max Grecke, Amin Faramarzian, Maria Panfilova, and Aleksandr Nikonov.

Aleksey Svischev, Freelance 3D Artist

Interview conducted by Theodore Nikitin

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Comments 1

  • Radushinskyi Dmytro

    Great job! Thank you for the article!


    Radushinskyi Dmytro

    ·2 years ago·

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