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How Elden Ring's Blaidd Was Recreated in 3D With Unreal Engine 5

Konrad Hetko has shared with us a fascinating recreation of Blaidd from Elden Ring, as well as told us how ornaments on Blaidd's Armor were made in ZBrush, Blender, Substance 3D Painter, and Unreal Engine 5.

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Hello! My name is Konrad Hetko. Although I've been working as an on-site Character Artist for just over two years, my journey with character art actually began more than 5 years ago. Currently, I'm part of the team at Teyon, where we're developing the latest game which is Robocop: Rogue City. 

Why Blaidd? 

I've recently delved into soul-like games, and Elden Ring had a profound impact on me. I was completely captivated by its brilliant storytelling. I've played through the game almost three times and watched numerous materials discussing its lore and theories. It's hands down the best game I've ever played. Blaidd's story resonated with me the most, he's a deeply layered and tragic character. However, I won't dive into spoilers here. 

I felt a strong desire to create a tribute for this character. Additionally, it provided a perfect opportunity for me to hone my skills. I don't have much experience working with non-human characters and hard-surface armors. So, I figured this would be the ideal model for my learning. 

Blocking Out Low-Poly and Zbrush Export 

During the armor creation, I experimented with various methods to create intricate hard surface shapes, like shoulder plates or kneepads. I even dabbled with Plasticity, which seemed ideal for such forms, offering simultaneous export of both high and low-poly models. However, years of being accustomed to polygon-based modeling made it challenging for me to transition to CAD-style modeling. In the end, I chose to stick with my tried-and-true methods. I especially favor the approach of using creases. With this, we don't have to fret about perfect topology for subdivision, nor struggle with pinches and similar challenges that come with traditional subdiv modeling. Additionally, it ensures no issues arise in ZBrush due to overly dense bevels and a lack of topology for sculpting elsewhere. It's a quick and efficient process. Whenever a sharper bevel is required, it's simply a matter of adjusting the crease value, allowing for flexible control. Then, I export this high-poly model into ZBrush, where I use "Reconstruct Subdiv" to revert to the low-poly from Blender, retaining all resolution levels (and preserved bevels) within a single subtool. After this step, the model is primed for further work.

Low-Poly with creases -> High-Poly:

Reconstructed Low-Poly in ZBrush:

Ornaments On Blaidd's Armor

When it comes to the intricate details of Blaidd's armor, I sculpted every single one by hand. I didn't rely on any alphas or brushes. Initially, I thought these ornaments would merely serve as a subtle "noise" to add detail. However, the more I studied my references, the clearer it became that there was a specific pattern that couldn't be replicated with ready-made alphas. Moreover, almost every armor plate featured a unique design. Admittedly, I didn't have high-resolution texture references, so much of the ornamentation was my interpretation of the original. One key observation that stood out to me was that many of the patterns echoed a tree motif. This became the central theme I emphasized in my fan art. For instance, the arm plates start with a root design, transitioning into the tree trunk and culminating with tree crowns, all while being adorned with supplementary embellishments. This tree pattern is most evident on the armor's front, where two "sirens" grasp a tree trunk. Above the semi-circle on either side, you can see trees with deep-reaching roots. Below the neck, there's a prominent tree design with its trunk and roots as well. I tried to maintain a similar pattern throughout the rest of the armor.

The process of sculpting the ornaments involved the use of a mask brush and a high setting for the "lazy radius", ensuring all brush strokes were smooth. I'd then refine the ends of the ornament, giving them sharp terminations. Once the mask on a plate was completed, I utilized the Inflate Balloon tool from the Deformations panel, afterwards I would polish them a bit with a pinch brush. Once satisfied with the final look, I'd move on to the next plate. Making those gave me a lot of fun!

Ornamentals extrusion with deformation:

In addition to the regular ornaments, Blaidd's armor also features bas-reliefs, notably the "siren" figures on the front. My approach here was distinct. I wanted these to possess a  more pronounced three-dimensional depth and detail. For this, I opted to use the exceptionally handy tool introduced in ZBrush 2022, called Bas Relief. For more information about the Bas Relief option, I invite you to Michael Pavlovich's video.

I began with a quick sculpt in a separate Ztool. It didn't need to be flawless, as I was aware that much of the detail and minor imperfections would be lost during the projection onto the armor. I then employed the Make Bas Relief function from the Alpha panel, converting my prior sculpt into a VDM brush. Finally, I applied this VDM brush directly onto the armor. 

Making Bas Relief on the front plate:

The final intricate ornamental element I tackled was the gold brooch. For this, masking and sculpting didn't seem like the right approach, primarily due to its complex borders. So, I decided to start by crafting a base using curves in Blender. After that foundation was set, I transitioned to ZBrush, where I leveraged the Project Bas Relief function to transfer these shapes onto a flattened cube. This technique gave me the bas-relief effect I was aiming for. The raw curve version was too stereoscopic. With the base in place, I was able to further sculpt details and refine the overall shape. Once satisfied, I exported the sculpt to TopoGun 3 for a quick retopology session, cutting out any unnecessary background elements. With this step  completed, the model was primed and ready for texturing

Process of brooch creation:

Wear and Tear: Capturing the Battle-Hardened Look of Blaidd's Armor 

Blaidd wore his armor for many years, so it wouldn't be pristine. When aiming to capture the authentic look of battle-worn armor, it's beneficial to seek out reference images. Specifically, the dents on these armors have a distinct appearance. I recommend looking at photos from knightly brotherhoods and buhurts to get a feel for how armor truly wears over time and through battles. A lot of those details will be added in the texturing stage, but sculpting forms need to be adjusted as well. My go-to brush for achieving this worn metallic effect is undoubtedly the HardPolish Brush. It produces a pleasing metallic texture and indentations on both flat surfaces and the edges of the model. For deeper dents and cuts, I usually start by applying one of the alphas I've purchased and then refine the shapes using the HardPolish Brush to give them that battle-hardened finish.

Before and after applying wear and tear:

Bridging the Gap Between Man and Wolf: Sculpting Blaidd's Face 

Blaidd, being half-wolf, prominently displays this through his facial features. However, upon closely examining him in the game, I couldn't help but notice that his anatomy isn't entirely animalistic. The area around the eyes, the cheekbone, and the brow ridge seemed more human than wolf. I aimed to capture this unique blend in my sculpture. I began with a base model of a dog available within ZBrush. But a dog is not a wolf, so this model demanded significant modifications and creative experimentation to attain the desired form.

Process of face sculpting:

In the meantime, I also did a quick rig for Blaidd. It wasn't too complicated. I took the base available from Metahuman and then transferred the weights from that skeleton to the Blaidd character. After that, a quick skin fix and he was ready for simple posing.

Texture Magic: Bringing Blaidd's Armor to Life in Substance Painter 

One of my favorite aspects of 3D graphics is undoubtedly texturing. All the models I previously transferred to ZBrush and reconstructed their subdivisions can now serve as my low-poly models. However, since my goal wasn't to create the most optimized model possible, in most cases, I used the level 2 subdivisions. The high-poly model needed optimization before exporting so that both my computer and Substance 3D Painter could handle it (the entire model had over 500 million vertices). To make it workable outside ZBrush, I employed the built-in Decimation Master plugin to reduce unnecessary geometry while preserving the requisite detail. This action reduced the high-poly down to just slightly above 50 million vertices which was quite satisfactory. I laid out the UV in Blender, aided by the Zen UV and UVPackmaster3 add-ons. They aren't mandatory but do speed up the process considerably. After these steps, I transitioned to Substance 3D Painter.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the texturing process revolves around the armor. For my base layer, I'm quite fond of the Metal Smart Materials pack by JRO. After applying the material, I tweaked its parameters a bit, and the harmony between it and the sculpture was immediately evident. Yet, relying solely on smart materials is seldom sufficient. In subsequent layers, I introduced more variation in color and Roughness and added extra scratches, imbuing the armor with a richer character. My next step was aimed to highlight the details of the embellishments. Leveraging a previously baked Curvature Map, I brightened and reduced roughness on the edges of decorations, achieving a pop-out effect for the ornaments.

To conclude the process, I added a layer of rust. Given that Blaidd had worn this armor for years, it's logical to assume it encountered varied weather conditions, and there isn't always an opportunity to maintain one's gear meticulously. While painting this layer, I tried to identify the areas most susceptible to metal corrosion. For masking, I utilized Curvature and  Ambient Occlusion textures, and further hand-painted certain regions, creating rust streaks in specific spots. 

Armor texturing phases:

Texture Channels:

XGen Haircraft: Breaking Down the Fur 

For the fur detailing, I opted for a workflow centered around XGen and the groom files in Unreal Engine 5. I've been working with haircards for a long time and wanted to hone my skills with XGen. 

I'm using XGen Legacy. I've once tried switching to Interactive Grooms, but the old method feels more intuitive to me. I'll start with the short fur on the muzzle. To swiftly layout guides and set the proper flow for the hairs, I decided to explore a workflow showcased by Omar Hesham in his video tutorial:

This approach hasn't always been perfect for me, but we'll delve into that later. For laying out multiple guides for short fur, it was perfect. Naturally, I draw guides only on one side and then mirror them onto the other. The only deviation I made from the workflow shown in the video is that after converting to curves, I used the rebuild option to smooth the curves and equalize the number of CV Points.

Curves to Guides in XGen:

I like to segment each larger portion of fur into distinct descriptions. That's why my groom is divided into: 

  • Short fur on the muzzle
  • Long fur on the head
  • Hair in the ears
  • Eyebrows
  • Whiskers 

With the longer fur, I encountered an issue with the aforementioned workflow. Once the curves are rotated, they flatten, which means the hair didn't settle well on the uniquely shaped head. As a result, I decided to discard that method and set up the guides manually. 

XGen Guides and Groom: 

Unfortunately, I can't go through each modifier and explain its use or rationale because this article would become excessively long. However, I can briefly explain my approach to fur and hair creation. 

I typically utilize the following modifiers:

  1. Clumping. Clumping is my favorite modifier. It allows hairs to bundle together into clumps. I typically apply this several times. The initial clumping often utilizes guides generated from the groom's main guides, which ensures a pleasant hair flow from the get-go. I then use it once or twice more, each time increasing the density of generated guides, and layering the hair. Meanwhile, I adjust parameters like the clumping curve, noise, or offset. For each of them (as with every modifier), I draw a mask. This mask provides randomness regarding which hairs are affected by the specific modifier, adding a natural touch and unruliness.
  2. Cut. The Cut modifier ensures that random hairs are cut by a pseudo-random value declared in the rand (x1.x2) function. This means a random amount of hair will be shortened by values between x1 and x2. This offers a great naturalness to hair tips.
  3. Noise. Noise is another modifier I like to use several times, stacking it like layers. Initially, I use a noise modifier to provide a subtle texture to the hair, masking it so that not all hairs are affected. In the end, I add noise meant to create fly-aways, those unruly, singular hairs. I significantly increase the magnitude and set the percentage of hairs to be affected by the modifier, usually around 5%. For creating an expression for this, there's an excellent tutorial by Jesus Fernandez which you might want to check out:

Example of mask map for clumping:

Example of modifier list for long fur on the head:

For the coat's fur, I followed similar criteria. Some parts of the fur, which didn't need to be too detailed – I'm primarily referring to the fur on the back of the coat and on the inner side – were created using the workflow presented by Omar. However, the fur around the collar was arranged manually. 

Presentation Of The Model 

The last stage is the presentation of the model. In my opinion, this is definitely one of the most critical stages in the entire process of creating a portfolio piece. Even the best model, if poorly presented, will not grab attention and will lose much in reception. I opted for Unreal Engine 5 using path tracing. Mostly out of curiosity, as I had never had a chance to play with this feature before. And I must admit...It's worth it. Although Lumen doesn't look bad at all, I much prefer the path-tracing version (I had to thicken the fur to make it look good in path-tracing; that's why the hair strands are so wide in the Lumen version). 

Lumen vs Pathtracing:

The scene is quite simple. I wanted to capture the atmosphere of the Three Sisters region and the dominant blue color. On the scene, there are five lights ensuring proper illumination for Blaidd. I always strive to have a dominant Key light from one side, which will highlight the details from the sculpture and textures, a fill light that fills the shadows ensuring no loss of detail, and a rim light that "pulls out" the character from the background. However, the typical three-point lighting often makes the model look artificial; that's why here the rim light is softer and casts smooth shadows. I wanted to achieve cinematic shots in this scene as if they were taken from an Elden Ring cinematic.

The Three Sisters Scene:

In the next scene, I decided to get a bit more adventurous. I took advantage of the fact that I had previously rigged Blaidd and slightly changed his pose. I placed the moon and the background far behind him. This scene is not as natural as the previous one, but here I wanted the render to be eye-catching. I tried to convey through the pose and composition that Blaidd guards Ranni, symbolized by the moon. This scene has more lights, which are more aggressive than those in the previous scene (as many as 4 lights illuminate the moon alone).

Cinematic Scene:

The subsequent scenes mainly serve as presentations; one without a background with ordinary white lights aiming to showcase details drawn out by sharp shadows. The last one presents the entire model in a very aesthetic manner. The even lighting, mainly due to the white background, beautifully showcases the model as a whole. You can find such portrait scenes in the package published by Epic GamesMetaHuman Lighting Presets.

Presentation scene:

Tips For Other Artists 

Something that might help artists create works for their portfolio is doing what excites you. The problem that often happens to me and, from what I know, other artists, is getting bored with the project they are currently working on. This isn't surprising considering such a  project can take from several to dozens of hours. I personally recommend creating fan art of characters that you are currently fascinated with. Excited about a new series, game, or book?  Start working on a character while you are still watching/playing/reading, this way you'll frequently feel the urge to sit down and work on it.  

Also, look for your weaknesses and choose models that will be the most challenging for you.  This way, you learn the most. It's nice to focus on elements you already know and feel comfortable with (I had it with faces), but when you overcome it and do something entirely different, you'll feel super satisfied. 

Konrad Hetko, 3D Character Artist

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