Erin Zaneski: Tasks for a Modern Character Artist
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Erin Zaneski: Tasks for a Modern Character Artist
29 July, 2016
Interview

Erin Zaneski from Insomniac Games, who has contributed her art to games like Sunset Overdrive, Ratchet & Clank PS4, Edge of Nowhere, Feral Rites, and Song of the Deep, discussed the tasks of modern character artists and her projects for Insomniac titles.

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Introduction

I’m Erin Zaneski, a 3-D Character Artist who stays busy by working at Insomniac Games and soaking in the sun in Los Angeles. I studied Game Development at the Savannah College of Art and Design, and my current position at Insomniac is my first job in the game industry! I’ve been with Insomniac for almost three years now, contributing character art to Sunset Overdrive, Ratchet & Clank PS4, Edge of Nowhere, Feral Rites, and Song of the Deep.

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Character Creation 

My general approach to character creation is very analytical. I spend some time preparing for each character that I create, first analyzing the concept art and planning out how to best build the character to function well within the entire game production. I gather a big folder of reference images and sometimes even draw parts of a character on paper, just to familiarize myself with the shapes. Before beginning to model, I think about how every element of a character’s biology and costume would function in real life, so that the shapes will fit together and make sense physically. Before laying out UVs and baking textures, I carefully consider how to most efficiently break the character into different materials and reduce the number of shaders it requires to render.

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ErinZaneski_ShivHelix_WIP

I prefer swapping between Maya and ZBrush for modeling and sculpting, Topogun for retopologizing, Maya and UVLayout for creating UV maps, XNormal for baking texture maps, and Photoshop for painting textures. I have also recently begun experimenting with Substance Painter for baking and texturing, and I’ve used Marvelous Designer simulations as a starting point for sculpting clothing and wrinkle maps.

Working on Player Heads and Clothing Customization for Sunset Overdrive

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It was definitely a unique challenge for the entire character team to synchronize to create the clothing customization system for Sunset Overdrive, which includes hundreds of different items! Fortunately, we had a lot of help from our rigging team, who created a script to morph the clothing items onto all four different player body types. However, every piece still needed tweaking by an artist afterwards to totally eliminate clipping problems. We spent quite a bit of time at the end of production, just checking and re-checking that all of our costume pieces, heads, and hair options fit within specific boundaries and worked well together.

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Seamless Spherical Textures and the Planetary Atmosphere Shader

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The giant menu-screen planets in Ratchet & Clank, with their seamless spherical textures and planetary atmosphere materials, were a somewhat intimidating task for me at first, so I’m very glad that you enjoy their final look! As a character artist, I had never attempted to create perfectly seamless textures on such a grand scale before. They needed to be high-resolution, because I knew that these planets would cover nearly all of the screen space in the pause menus. To create the seamless spheres, I used the Polar Coordinates distortion filter in Photoshop and a lot of painting masks to blend between images.

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Again using an analytical, real-world approach to creating stylized art, I tried to make the fantastical planets as believable as possible. If you wait and watch closely, you can even see the clouds very slowly moving across the surface of the planets. Each planet also has an atmosphere with a unique rate of rotation, density, and reflectiveness, appropriate to how I imagine that planet’s environment would be if it were real.

Slimy and Squishy Characters

We use a physically-based rendering system at Insomniac, so the enemies in Ratchet & Clank are great examples of how artists can use a “realistic” rendering scheme to create highly stylized art. You can play around with the PBR specular and gloss values to create slimy materials that belong in a fantasy world, but still look believable, because they are based on a system that more-or-less accurately represents the way that surfaces react to light in the real world.

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ErinZaneski_PufferFish_WIP

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For the “squishy” R&C characters, organic enemies and NPCs, I painted masks to control a colored sub-surface scattering effect. I masked out hard, opaque parts like shells, teeth, and claws, but let the SSS effect shine through thinner areas of skin like ears, hands, or membranes. This translucency gives way more life to the creatures’ skin, making them feel like they are made of organic matter.
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I also overlayed detail normal maps to different areas of the characters, controlled by mask textures, to add tertiary-level details with a high texel density. These detail maps helped to create various types of organic surfaces, such as the wet, squishy, frog-like skin of the Alien Spitter.

The last key to creating gooey shaders for R&C creatures is colored specular reflections. Colored specular maps really add a lot of playfulness to the characters, and they are a big part of the overall art style of the modern Ratchet & Clank.

Important Elements

First of all: less is more. Less detail, handled in a thoughtful, intentional way, can create a much more beautiful, clean piece of art than packing every available surface with details would do. Too much fine detail on a character, whether sculpted into the normal map or painted into other textures, can create confusing visuals that distract from a character’s overall performance. An artist should only include enough information as is necessary to create a believable character.

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Any character artist for games needs to keep in mind a consideration for how the work you do fits into the entire game production. Remember that your model needs not only to look awesome, but it must also appear as if it belongs in the game’s universe, have good topology for proper animation, and be efficient enough to be rendered in real-time alongside millions of other polygons and effects.

One last bit of advice: do not forget that all the principles of visual art that come together to make an oil painting, marble sculpture, or graphic design successful can also be applied to 3-D game characters. Practice both creating and appreciating traditional forms of art, and use what you learn when building digital artwork for games.

ErinZaneski_VirtualDog_WIP

The best guidance that I can give to beginning artists is to NOT attempt to create “great art” right away! No one becomes a great artist without spending a lot of time and a lot of effort. Instead be open-minded, learn from as many different sources as you can, and do not be afraid to make plenty of mistakes along the way. Strive to make progress, not perfection! Just continue making art, studying the work of others, and practicing new techniques — with perseverance, your artwork will become better over time.

Erin Zaneski, 3-D Character Artist

Interview conducted by Artyom Sergeev

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