3d artist Elliot Sharp talked about the way he uses Modo, Substance Designer and Quixel to build incredible virtual firearms.
We are excited to present our interview with Elliot Sharp – an incredibly talented 3d artist, who visualizes various weapons. In this post, he talks about his techniques, the tools he uses and talks about some of the ways he handles materials and light. For modeling, Elliot uses Modo, not 3ds Max, as most people do. Read more in the article.
My name is Elliot Sharp and I’m a 3D artist at a small product design and art outsourcing firm in the US called MFZ | House of Design. Most of my personal 3D history is in product design, but I made the jump over to working on in-game assets in 2014. I’m thankful for my history in product design, and I think it taught me a significant amount about what it means to create something that’s functional.
I went to college for a business degree, but when I finished, I knew I had to pursue my passion for creating things. I worked hard after school to learn the fundamentals of design, hard surface and organic modeling techniques, and a variety of modern 3D asset production pipelines. I fully believe that you can do whatever you set your mind to, so long as you dedicate yourself. These days I do mostly hard surface work, and I’m constantly challenging myself to find creative new ways to make better models.
I find firearms to be a wonderful subject to model for a few reasons. On some level, they represent danger as well as safety, (depending on which side of the barrel you’re on) and this dichotomy inherently makes them interesting objects. I think one of the most important things you can do when modeling any weapon is to tell that weapon’s story, and that’s a process that starts in your concept and ends with solid texturing and material creation. Not every weapon has to look like it just came out of a dumpster, but the individuality you give your guns is usually their defining factor.
Something to keep in mind when designing your own weapons is to make sure that they communicate their function through their form, and that they can be visually understood. This is something that films have traditionally done well with through kit-bashing, and as 3D artists I think the more we study the shape language inherent in these real-world techniques, the better our digital designs become. There are shapes people instantly recognize as a gun, and capitalizing on that in a creative way makes for great work. When we look at a classic design like Deckard’s pistol in Blade Runner, it instantly reads as a believable futuristic sidearm because of its size, material composition, and the forms used in creating the overall weapon. Designing with these elements in mind: Usable scale, interesting material breakup, and making sure your shapes communicate “gun” will do more for your artwork than just about anything else.
I used 3ds Max from 2008 until 2014 when I decided to give MODO a try. I had been following some of Tor Frick’s work, and I was really impressed with what I was seeing from the program. I’ve been hooked ever since. Its tools out of the box are great and fast, and its capacity for addon scripts, macros, and context aware keybinds makes it one of the fastest and most fluid modeling experiences on the market. MODO is very much a program that becomes “what you make of it”, so you do have to put in some time and effort tailoring it to your preferences. However, doing so can yield pretty high speed returns in your everyday work if you invest the time.
With that being said, when I approach a new weapon, I like to do a quick silhouette sketch on paper with a COPIC neutral gray marker and a fine tip pen to get my overall shape worked out. With guns, just as anything else, it’s best to get your block out going before you really start refining down shapes. I will sometimes use ZBrush in creating secondary detail on guns, but almost never in the boolean workflow that has become somewhat popular recently. In my opinion, modeling your high poly with your low poly in mind with traditional sub-d methods is still the fastest and most controllable workflow.
We have such good tools for this aspect of the creation process these days. This is one of those steps where having good UVs will save you quite a bit of time, so spend the time to pack them well and logically. As far as planning out your texturing goes, I really try to build up my textures in the same way they occur physically. So for metal, this might look like a base metal material, light scratching and nicking on top of that, rust on top of the scratching, then dirt and grime as the top most layer. This way of thinking, however small, can really help you nail some realistic looks because it replicates the way metal will age in reality. We are starting to see cool techniques like dynamic material layering, so it’s going to be a good head start to get thinking this way now.
Both Quixel Suite and Substance Painter have incredibly sophisticated tools for making sure your masks meet your needs perfectly. The ability to paint out masks in both 2D and 3D is a huge advantage and time saver when you’re really trying to replicate a certain detail pattern. I’ll often start with some sort of pre-generated mask using certain map and model parameters, but afterwards I really get in there and scrub on the masks with custom brushes. You can get just about any result you’re looking for by starting with some variant of cavity map or ambient occlusion mask, and then painting by hand from there. Masks based on your baked maps have the ability to really realistically get in the cracks, softly roll over edges, or fill crevices, so try and leverage that by breaking up the mask with your own brushes afterwards.
I strongly encourage lots of custom painting on your masks, and it will get you away from that “auto generated” look that these texturing programs can be notorious for.
I really try to think of Quixel DDO as just an advanced layer manager. I don’t often use the base materials that ship with the program, and when I do, I’ll delete all of the additional layers that come with a material. For instance, if I’m using a default DDO steel material, I’ll remove the rust and dust and discoloration that come in as layers on top of the steel when you apply the material. I’ll add those things back with custom masks in the future, but I like to work with the most basic material definition first.
I really enjoy making my own photo based textures with photos from my DSLR, and Knald is amazing for this. It seems not too many people are using Knald, but I highly recommend it, it can do some pretty incredible things in a short amount of time. It’s then very easy to integrate the maps I generate from Knald into Quixel SUITE and save them as my own preset.
Other than that, I simply enjoy having the traditional Photoshop tools at my disposal with the added functionality of Quixel SUITE.
This goes back to the idea that you should really “build up” when working on your materials. Whether it’s organic or metallic, there is going to be a physical hierarchy to the way that the detail exists in the real world, and replicating that to the best of your ability will always yield the best result. Always work from reference, your memory will lie to you about how something looks, so always have multiple photos of whatever you’re trying to create pulled up at all times.
With that in mind, I’ll often have 3 to 4 layers of color and roughness breakup per base material type. These will be very slight variations in color and roughness values for the base material distributed across a mask that I generate from a photo alpha mask or from the ambient occlusion and curvature maps. This gives especially good results in metals, and makes everything you build up on top of the base metal material look even more convincing. My recent shields on ArtStation display this technique very prevalently.
Modern game engines have really incredible options for shader and material creation. Often these lighting elements can be created with just an emissive map and some bloom post-effects in engine, but there are some really amazing ways to handle effects in engine these days. Planning what parts of your model will have special effects is essential from the very start of the asset creation process, because you’ll want to plan ahead in your implementation. It can be good to read the documentation and play around with post-effects and shader creation in your engine of choice before you start working on a model so you can get a better idea of what it’s going to take to get your design looking its best in game.
Adding the Patterns and Text to the Object’s Texture
Planning my finished look before I start working in 3D is a pretty big part of the process for me, so I’ll usually have a pretty good idea of what text or additional normal detail is going to be added to a model before I’m even done with the high poly. NDO in the Quixel SUITE is unrivaled for accomplishing this. The granular control for each layer in your stack is pretty impressive, and you can get the exact look you’re going for. Because the layer stack can be preserved inside of NDO with a new base normal map injected, I really think the need for floating geometry as a time saver has been dramatically reduced. This is of course, not true if you have to modify your UVs, but it does support injection of a re-baked normal map on an unmodified UV sheet. Also, the normal map you get after a run through NDO can be sent through Knald for an incredibly realistic ambient occlusion map and curvature map. These generated maps can also be combined with a traditionally baked ambient occlusion or curvature map to get even more accurate detail in your final maps.