Designing League of Legends' Katarina Arcane-Style in ZBrush & Maya

Ningxuan Yuan showed the working process behind the Katarina project, discussed how the blades were made, and explained how they achieved the Arcane style.

Introduction

Hi! My name is Ningxuan Yuan, I am a graduate student of EAE at the University of Utah majoring in technical art.

My sculpture foundation comes from my undergraduate study. My undergraduate major is Sculpture of Fine Art, so I have been making clay, stone, and metal sculptures for the past few years. Although we do not learn digital modeling except ZBrush, these experiences have also improved my ability to make 3D objects.

I got into 3D art because I fell in love with Overwatch in 2017. After learning the background of its production, I was deeply moved by the game makers' love for the game. This is where my dream started. I hope I can participate in the game production in order to make good works with love.

So I came to the EAE to study in August this year. Before that, I had never used traditional 3D model software such as Maya. Instead, I used ZBrush to do all the work related to 3D. My projects from 2019 to 2021 were almost all 2D and board games (some of the following are GGJ teamwork). 

Those previous experiences are meant to tell beginning character artists that you should not be afraid of making mistakes, I am not an experienced character artist either. I also made a lot of mistakes in the process of making characters. Only by constantly revising and redoing, I got the final satisfactory result, and that is the reward. If you feel that you are unfamiliar with character modeling, just try to make one. When you finish, you can really learn a lot.

My projects (2019-2021)

My first character model (2019)

A game made in EAE’s rapid prototyping class recently (November 2022). I am responsible for part of the environment art and assets making

Ghibli-style studying: 3D real-time rendering (August 2022)

The Katarina Project

My original intention for doing this portrait was to learn more about character modeling. I had only made a character on ZBrush once before, so I thought it was very challenging to make a whole character and I could learn a lot from it.

When deciding what style to do, I immediately thought of Arcane because I love it so much! Its art was unbelievably amazing and I love its portrayal of various female characters, they were all very unique and charming. After I found the character design of Jinx and V on ArtStation, I had several simple starting points:

  • Make a lovely female character.
  • Render her in the way the Arcane does (multi-view of a head and full portraits, etc.)

I struggled over whether to make Poppy, Samira, or Katarina and finally decided to make Katarina (I like her red hair and spicy personality so much). 

First, I reread her heroic story to make sure that there was no deviation in understanding her character. Then I searched for Katarina's official setting as well as Arcane’s official setting sets on the internet, focusing on how Arcane represents skin/metal/leather materials. The former is for making the character's equipment precisely, and the latter is for preparing for making textures. After finding these references, I did not immediately start modeling but made a simple draft drawing. This step is to get familiar with Arcane's painting techniques and point out the direction for my future production. (I highly recommend that you practice after observation. Only by practice can you understand and absorb knowledge)

Original draft

Head & Face

I used Maya and ZBrush for the face modeling. First, I created a basic female human model in Maya. In this step, I didn’t need to make it perfect because I prefer to put it into ZBrush again and adjust the outline/details (I do not need to do subdivision in this step). I might redo this step several times. And when I am happy with the result, I will put it back in Maya again.

In the second step, I did all basic models of the cloth/armor/jewelry in Maya, then saved them as low poly and beveled edges of the hard surface object to get prepared for high poly.  

Finally, I put all models into ZBrush and made the high poly model. For the face, I think a significant part to make the character more Arcane-like is to make their face more interesting. To be specific, when I observe an Arcane character I can notice that no one's face is symmetrical. This asymmetry is obvious and also represents the character, which is different from the subtle asymmetry of real people. For example, a melee hero who lives underground like V will have more scars on her face than a ranged hero who lives in the upper class like Caitlyn. At the same time, from the perspective of the character, V is more impulsive (not sure if this is an appropriate adjective), so her face will be more asymmetrical than Caitlyn's. Following what I observed, I add more changes to my model’s face.

The high poly version. Applying the subdivision level well in ZBrush will help a lot, and I skip the retopology step by using it

The hair is based on the particle system in Blender, I learned it from the tutorial made by Lightning Boy Studio, I highly recommended everyone who is interested in stylized art watch these tutorials, they are really inspiring. They explained the hair-making progress in great detail so I won’t explain too much here. 

Particle settings

Hair shader in Blender

Clothes and Weapons

I used the same process for both the clothes and blades: Maya (low poly) → ZBrush (high poly) → Maya (adjust the model and unwrap) → Substance 3D Painter (texturing). Because Katrina's clothes are tight and close to hard surface, which means that they will not change greatly with the action in the subsequent animation, I don't need to use software like Marvelous Designer.

As for the blade, it is the first part that I completed. After more than a week of character modeling, I was not sure whether I could make a satisfactory result. So I paused improving the character model, quickly modeled the blade, and tried to paint the texture for it. I regard it as a small exercise before making the character texture, which also gives me some confidence to continue to make it.

I carefully studied the metal expression method of Arcane and found some commonalities, such as adding a light or really dark color at the edge to express thickness, making the strokes clean and clear, adding some warm colors to the dark part (near the light-dark boundary), and adding some cool colors to the light part, etc.

My first attempt was very unsuccessful. I tried to start with details, and the light-dark relationship became a mess.

Failed attempt

So I deleted this version and repainted it from scratch. This time I thought about the light-dark relationships first and then went into the details.

Final texture of blade

Tip: Making the gap between the leather belts on the handle is very simple. I added a channel with only the base color and height map and added the mask shown in the picture below.

Unwrapping

As for retopology, because the large shape of my initial Maya model was relatively precise, only the details need to be added and adjusted in ZBrush. I export the low subdivision level model in ZBrush as the low poly model and export the high subdivision level model as the high poly model. They are perfectly matched. Then I just unwrap everything little by little in Maya.

Texturing

It is a completely hand-painted texture, so the difference in materials is actually due to the difference in painting methods. In my painting process, I only use Substance 3D Painter's base soft brush. My way of application is to adjust its flow and stroke opacity according to my needs. For example, I want my brush to be harder so I make the flow value higher. And if I need to overlay colors, I will turn down the stroke opacity of the brush. Generally speaking, it is very similar to the experience of drawing with markers in reality.

My method of skin painting is to leave only two parts (light and dark) and then add subtle color changes in each of the parts. Don't make the contrast too obvious and don't make it too smooth. I would repeat trying until I found the result I liked.

Also, don't forget the importance of rendering. In my experience, there is a color difference between any software, so I tend to set the rendered scene after the basic color is filled, import the current texture to see the effect, and modify the color according to the rendering software. This process can be repeated many times. After each part is drawn, reimport it into the rendering engine. Don't finish painting in Substance 3D Painter then import it into render software, later the adjustment time will be really painful.

Rendering

In Blender, I used direction light that shines on the face as the main light source, which will reduce the number of shadows and better match the feeling of hand-painting in Arcane. Then I added other two direct lights as fill lights. Several point lights were placed in the part where I wanted to have a hair rim light. Some things to note:

  • Ensure the overall shadow is not too messy so some lights can be set to not generate shadows.
  • Make the strokes clear on the texture when adjusting the light.

Light settings

Background color settings, it will also influence the whole color

Conclusion

It took me one month to finish everything. My biggest challenge actually comes from not being familiar with the process, which makes me have no confidence in most of the production. I was suffering for a day about how the mouth bag inside the character is modeled. I wasted time confused because I do not know the correct sequence of the character model process. Because I did not consider the animation part at the beginning, I made some mistakes in the modeling step. These inexperiences made me rework the project many, many times. But I really appreciate my persistence in solving these problems. After I was done, I learned so much and got confidence in character modeling.

My advice to beginning artists is to try it! Don't be afraid to start by worrying about mistakes or imperfections. Watching more tutorials will not improve your skills a lot, but making as many mistakes as possible and fixing them will make work much easier later. Another tip is that if you are tired of the work you are doing and want to give up, try to finish a small part first, such as a weapon or a decoration. A small part that looks good will give you the confidence to persist.

Ningxuan Yuan, 3D Artist

Interview conducted by Theodore McKenzie

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Comments 1

  • Anonymous user

    Wow lovely!

    0

    Anonymous user

    ·18 days ago·

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