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3d artists and illustrator Tek Tan talked about his approach to character creation. He’s building seductive high-poly models with Maya, Substance Painter and Zbrush. Read about his full workflow, production details and learn some painting tips.
My name is Tek Tan, I currently reside in a country called Brunei. I am a part-time freelance illustrator and a full-time researcher in a university. I have done several illustrations for a comic book called Crimson Legends, I have done several online trading card game illustrations and am currently helping two American based clients building their intellectual property.
Production of the 3d Models
When producing 3D models, I have to go through several phases. The first phase is the most important – concept. The concept phase is where I conduct researches to create a blueprint for my 3D model. I always try to satisfy these 6 characteristics when designing: (1) a good combination, composition and arrangements of objects with big bold shapes and small intricate details, (2) visually unique and not generic, (3) unity – every items or clothing on a character needs to look like they belonged to that said character and belonged to the world he/she lives in. (4) Good functionality. (5) The design of an object needs to show components and characteristics similar to its real life counterparts. (6) The design needs to have a bit of a cultural background, be it Japanese, European, Medieval, African etc.
After the design is finished, and if it is a hard-surface object, I will proceed to model the design in Maya. I will use ZBrush instead if it is an organic object. After the modeling is done, it will be retopologized in Topogun, after that I will arrange and flatten the UVs in Maya. I will then bake my Normal, Occlusion and Cavity maps in xNormal. Next, I will proceed to using Substance Painter to color the meshes. I use Metallic and Roughness maps instead of Specular and Gloss maps, as the former is easier to deal with. After coloring, I will organize my maps in folders and render them along with their meshes in Marmoset Toolbag 2 – just to make sure that all the maps produce the results that I wanted, if not, I will tweak them in Photoshop. After I am happy with the maps, I will start rigging my models, pose them afterwards and present the models again in Marmoset Toolbag 2.
When making my ladies, the utmost important aspect is the sense of elegance, and then the anatomy. I would spend about 3 months on and off sculpting the body mesh in ZBrush. Since the body is the most important mesh of all the meshes I model, it will be retopologized, UVed, baked and colored the last. One artist that I tried desperately to emulate is Eugene Fokin – his models always have that sense of great elegance. I am also very obsessed with intricate details, I would sculpt little bumps on the skin and even fold lines, unfortunately, they do not show up very well when being baked into a 4096 square resolution Normal map. Intensive researches are also required when coloring the skins of my characters. There are many different orange tones with subtle variances that needs to be projected onto my models.
Creating the Face
I’ve always believed that every single feature (except the ears) on a woman’s face can determine whether she will look pretty or not. The characteristics that I always would want to have on my characters are: double eyelids, narrow nose, narrow cheekbones, darker tones around the eyes, lips with moderate thickness and thin eyebrows.
The characteristics that I will always avoid are: overly short or long forehead, forehead that are too protruded, wide cheekbones, chubby face, pointy chins or no chins at all, overly narrow jaw, short nose (vertically), thick lips, bushy eyebrows, eyebrows that are too close together, small eyes and thick necks.
It is important to try and make your female models pretty even when she is bald.
Another thing that I will always avoid is over-detailing the face and neglecting the body, as that will cause the character to look unnatural. A character’s body needs to have the same or more amount of details than the face.
Also, proportion is key when creating good looking female faces. Take a picture of a good looking person, move her nose slightly up, or move her mouth slightly down. The said person will look unpleasant and note that you had done nothing but tweaked the proportions.
Building the Materials
The best way in my opinion to build materials for human character models is to start off with a very well sculpted mesh, a well retopologized model and a nicely baked normal, occlusion and cavity maps. After I have all the said requirements, I will proceed to color the model in Substance Painter. I will paint the Base-Color first. It is important to know that different parts of the body have different tones of orange. Also, make sure you are painting in the colors, not shadows. Areas such as the elbows and knees has a much darker red-ish orange, while the palm will have a lighter yellowish orange. Some characters have freckles and you need to paint them onto your model too. I try not to over-detail the face and neglect the body.
The body needs to be given even more attention than the face. Birth marks and scars are important as well. Some people have dead skin crusts on their body as well, if you can convey that, it’ll be great. After the Base Color is done (taking about 2 days), I will proceed to make the Roughness map for the body. I prefer using Roughness and Metallic map instead of Gloss and Specular maps because the former one is much simpler to deal with. Metallic map is either ‘on’ or ‘off’ there is nothing in between unlike Specular maps. From experiences, Specular maps is bad for conveying metal, so might as well just use Metallic maps for everything. As for the Roughness map, I will paint them manually with black and white colors in Substance Painter. There are areas on the body that is more reflective than the other. The inside of a lower eyelid and lips are highly reflective compared to the forehead. Knuckles are also more reflective than the rest of the hand. Sub-Surface-Scattering is also important when creating skin materials. There Sub-Surface-Scattering capability can be turned on in Marmoset Toolbag. I use highly saturated mid-value red for the color of its palette. Marmoset Toolbag also has a Translucency capability but I do not use it.
Quoting the great man Iain McCaig, ‘the secret to life is Contrast’. I really love putting my characters in a dark room and lit her considerably with a bright light. When I lit my characters, I try not to create symmetry, I will always lit my characters from the side and never right in the middle. Additionally, I would often put the light source above the head – creating a cast shadow of the eyebrow ridge onto the eyes – making the color tone around the eyes very dark, it gives the character a certain kind of deep personality and story.
When I lit my characters, I always make sure that the light is never saturated more than the environment. I also avoid having the light being a different color than the surroundings. If the surroundings are blue, then the light needs to be blue (but different types of blue is allowed). The only lighting situation where the surroundings will have a different color than the light is if you want to create a fiery feel. In this situation, the environment will need to be red and the light will need to be bright low saturated yellow – very similar to fire or lava, the dimmer it is, the more red it gets.
Simplicity is important – I often try to lit my character with only one light. Having two light source in a scene to me feels unnatural.
Having Bloom effects is important, it blurs the boundary between two surfaces, giving your character a natural look. Bloom effects exist in real life as well, therefore it is crucial.
Your character also needs to look good even before being lit. Adjusting the Ambient Occlusion’s strength and size can help you achieve that.
I like rendering my models in Marmoset Toolbag, it think it is easy to use and it creates that sense of realism in your model. When building my scene in the program, I make sure I use a Sky that doesn’t have drastic light and darkness differences. I want to be able to control the lighting and darkness myself. In my opinion, the best Sky to use is the ‘Indoor Flourescent’.
Outstanding Character Design
A good character design needs to be iconic like Superman and Batman. Your character needs to be identifiable when seen from both short, long distances, and in a crowd. It also needs to be easily identifiable in silhouette form. The way to achieve this, in my opinion, is to have good composition of objects of big and small shapes (like a cape and a belt buckle). Good character needs not to look generic as well. If you are trying to make a realistic character, functionality is very important. Having a scantily clad female soldier who needs to fight a war is a bad design, although most audiences will like that kind of design.
Another aspect of a good character design is that it needs to be rooted in reality, the way a character moves and interacts with others needs to look and feel realistic. Even if you are designing animal characters like the ones in Zootopia.
Outfits and weapons need to be realistic as well, it is important to acknowledge that a real shirts have folds, buttons and sew-lines. These components need to be transferred into your design. One last thing about having a good design is that it needs real life cultural references. Cultures all over the world has been existing for thousands of years, they are filled with their own unique aesthetics. Incorporating an existing culture in your design will help you produce a better product rather than trying to invent a whole new culture.
When making a good character that works well within an environment, I will suggest going back to real life. If you are creating a character that lives in a video game sewer level, then it will be good to do some real life research, look at what a person working in a sewer will look like, sound like or smell like. What are the characteristics of them? What do they do? How much money do they earn? How do they move around the sewer? What tools do they use? Once you’ve acquired these knowledge, you can transfer what you know into your design.
I think the most important tool is definitely a main program where you put everything together. I personally use Maya and there are friends who use Blender and 3dsMax. Maya and ZBrush for me are the most important tools. ZBrush is a tool that can help you make organic subjects very efficiently. Maya on the other hand is extremely versatile, and I spend about 70% of my time on it when building characters. Maya can help me retopologize, manage UVs, rig and animate.