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Designing Soviet Era-Inspired Characters and Clothes

Shao Chen discussed the workflow behind the soldier models, inspired by the WW2 era, and their clothes, explained the transition from Props Artist to Character Artist, and talked about skills he's updated studying at Vertex School.


My name is Shao Chen. I recently graduated from Vertex School’s 9-month Game Art Program where I focused on Character Art. Prior to starting at Vertex, I had never made a full character before.

When I started learning ZBrush in 2019, I watched Ryan Kingslien’s video about human anatomy. I decided to take a deep look and saw some incredible student works from Vertex School. I wanted to be like one of them and land a job in VFX and work on films.

Switching from Weapon to Character Art

I grew up drawing still-life and portraits with traditional mediums, such as pencils and charcoal. I liked creating both props and characters even after I went full digital.

My Vertex School mentors Ryan and Marcin both said I should focus on one thing at a time since I’m a beginner. I followed the instruction, but I knew I wanted to do characters in the end. Creating props is as essential as making organic human forms in the overall character creation pipeline. After learning and practicing making props for a few projects. I started creating military characters based on research and historical photos.

Soldier Models

The reason I went for soldier characters was that I study war history in my spare time and I like to go deep on every aspect. From equipment design, tactics to strategy and impact, I can see the reflection of a nation through the design and functions of their weapons, uniforms, and vehicles, etc. Russian design tends to be simple, practical, and durable.

Most of my characters are Soviet soldiers from WW2 because I admire their bravery in a long bloody fight for the destiny of their homeland.

Whenever I need to create a new prop or character, I know what I want to make. I will spend plenty of time gathering visual references and researching records. One of my primary sources is called Osprey Publishing. They always have excellent illustrations from other artists to explain every military branch and its division in almost every major war. After viewing the artist’s interpretation, I will do my research on photos and records for comparison. Equipment had many variations during wartime. It will take a bit of time to come to a conclusion about what was used in history and what I can choose in that range. 

Studying at Vertex School

I was in Vertex’s character art program for nine months. Their lecture is fast-paced and straight to the point. The nine-month length was divided into three terms. We spent the first term creating any prop we chose. In the second term, we get to make a character for the first time. We get to work on one more character in our final term but at a much higher standard.

Personalized one-on-one meetings were added on a weekly basis. I get to meet Marcin and Ryan every week. Their teachings are effective and flexible. I learned 3D fundamentals and advanced knowledge to create three projects in 9 months with Vertex while studying full-time in college. It was time manageable because Vertex can work around your schedule.


My workflow is quite simple. I would start with research first. Once I figure out what clothes I’m making. I will try to retrieve the sewing pattern for it. I will block out the base shape in Maya so I can see the size ratio then I will use real sewing patterns as my reference to create garments in Marvelous Designer.

Once the cloth simulation is done. I will take it back to Maya, remesh, and create thickness. In the next step, I will export the geometry to ZBrush to create SubDivisions, and add tertiary details like stitches. At this point, Marcin said the clothes are only halfway done. There are details that can be sculpted by hands. Things such as memory folds can be added by using alphas. Mirco fabric details can be added by using displacements.

In my humble opinion, I think finding good references is extremely important when recreating historical military uniforms. My reference finding includes field trips like go browsing in Army Surplus and War Museums. It is essential to study the fabric materials, redraw the sewing pattern when needed (in a situation when I can’t find the original sewing pattern), and how military usage affects the clothes’ form and texture over time. Material, sewing, aging are the three things that will affect how folds look in real life. Of course, I’m only a beginner at making fabrics so my method might only apply to me. 

Willem Dafoe Portrait

It was hard to mimic likeness for someone who was relatively new to sculpting. Fortunately, Ryan and Marcin prepared me well in the foundation studies of human anatomy. I was able to finish sculpting the likeness in three weeks under their supervision.

I think the keys to likeness are complex. First, I need to establish a strong understanding of facial anatomy. Second, I need to be aware of the target have differences in reference pictures caused by aging, lighting, makeup, health, lenses, and weather. Third, I think communicating with mentors can significantly increase my efficiency. We could always use a fresh set of eyes after staring at a face sculpt for an entire day. Last but not least, I think practicing sketching and sculpting, whenever you can, is the most important key to likeness. 

Approach to Texturing

I like browsing in the Army Surplus store, military museum, and local gun range. The best way to study materials is to see them and feel them with your eyes and hands. Taking pictures for texture reference is also something I would recommend. Understanding the attributes of different leather, fabric, metal, and wood takes a long time so the quickest way to observe and mimic them is to analyze them closely in person and make your own reference pictures for later use.

For skin, I used the XYZ ZWrap workflow. On the Willem Dafoe character. I used skin texture maps from both the 3D Scan Store and the XYZ store. I mixed a total of five different person’s base colors and Displacement Map data. Blending skin texture from multiple people gives me a wide range for customizing an ideal skin type. Substance 3D Painter and Mari also give me the ability to paint the skin in real-time. Depends on the renderer I’m using. Lighting and shading for the skin often take as long as making the texture.

Things Learned at Vertex School

Vertex changed me as an artist completely. I was able to adapt several digital workflows after 9 months of studying and practicing under Ryan, Marcin, and other instructors’ guidance. I was a lost rookie before I found Vertex, now I’m still an apprentice but no longer feeling lost.

Vertex made me realize that workflow tends to change all the time. I have to be a critical thinker to optimize and change workflow for the need of production. It’s like solving puzzles which means I have to think outside of the box. In other words, I have to continue learning to strengthen my knowledge in 3D so I know how to adjust my workflow to handle tight deadlines in the industry in the near future.

I enjoyed my time with Marcin very much. He is very humble and patient in front of students. His way of teaching is also very encouraging. A lot of cool features he showed me in ZBrush and Marvelous Designer are still benefiting me.

I think the most memorable conversation I had with Marcin was about recreating military uniforms. My old method was to follow the sewing pattern exactly so I can recreate the exact look. For that, I spent plenty of time matching the look like a copycat. Marcin suggests I pursue final visuals instead of focusing way too much on historical accuracy. We are artists, not historians. It is important to follow historical evidence as references but if minor adjustments could enhance the final image, I should modify the uniforms for better results. I totally agree with him on that one. That conversation echos in my head whenever I work on fabrics.

Future Plans

My primary plan is to finish college by June. I’m currently working on organizing my portfolio and sending out resumes. Ryan helped me with mock interviews and cover letters. I have a good feeling about my incoming job hunting.

I think I should spend more time on texturing and grooming. Hair is essential in character art and I definitely need to practice grooming as much as I practice sculpting.

My current career goal is to work for Blur Studio. Working on professional VFX projects is one of my dreams in life. I know it won’t be easy to get there but I’m working hard towards my goal since day one I entered Vertex’s program. 

Shao Chen, 3D Character Artist

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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