Espen Netland Jakobsen discussed the production details of the 3D character Goblin Knight: modeling the body and clothes, using XYZ textures with Mari, creating fur, and final scene setup.
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My name is Espen Netland Jakobsen. I am a character/creature modeler currently residing in Bergen, Norway. I have worked at places like Storm Studios, Qvisten Animation, and DNEG and contributed to titles like Avengers: Endgame, MIB: International, and Wonder Woman 1984.
I’d like to think that my creativity/geekiness appeared in me when I first saw LOTR: The Fellowship of the Ring for the first time in the cinema when I was ten years old. My mind was thoroughly blown and all I wanted to do was to recreate what I’d seen. So, I started drawing. My interest in art persevered, and when I was 19 years old, I started my BA in animation and digital art. That is where I really got into 3D. Since then I’ve constantly worked on personal projects on top of my current job to improve myself and become better as an artist.
Goblin Knight: Idea
Before I had any idea about what to create for my next project, I had two main goals: A) I wanted to do a realistic-looking character that would be presentable as a reel piece. That means proper topology and UV layout. B) Learn more about grooming. When I start on a new project, I always try to do something that I’m not wholly comfortable with. If you feel safe doing a project, it’s probably not worth doing.
I also decided that I did not want to design the model myself. Sure, the process is exciting and creative, but speaking for me, it takes a lot of hours to come up with something good. I wanted to skip that time-consuming part. As a fan of Even Amundsen’s work, and with his permission, I chose one of his concepts called “Goblin Knight”. Not only did it contain the thing that I wanted to learn more about, but also the subject that I wanted to maintain and improve – anatomy. Not to mention, it appealed to my love of armor, creatures, and fantasy.
Unless you have a photographic memory, I wouldn’t even start without collecting references. Even though I have a concept to work from, the first thing I do when starting on something new is to comb google and pinterest for references of all the elements in the piece; skin, wrinkles, eyes, mouth, teeth, leather, metal, cloth, hair, etc. Try to find pictures of the real thing. Using CG images as reference can be deceiving. When it comes to anatomy, I highly recommend the book/pdf “Anatomy for Sculptors”. If you can’t afford the book, they have a lot of good stuff on their ArtStation page. They break down the shape of the human body in a very clear and understandable way.
Modeling the Body
I always start with the blocking of the character in ZBrush. That means finding the scale, proportions of the head and body. Looking carefully at the concept, I tried to find the correct shapes in 3D. It’s worth mentioning that I don’t start from a sphere in ZBrush. To save time I reuse what I can from other projects. In this case, I used a scanned torso, the neck and the head from a previous project, and the hands from another project. I then stitch it all together with the Zmodeler tool using bridging. At this point, I don’t care about topology. I use sculptris pro, decimation, dynamesh, and zremesher to make it all fit together and add detail where I need it. Keep in mind, this is the primary shape pass.
For the tertiary details, I'll import the XYZ texture maps to ZBrush and use those as a guide to where I can add more wrinkles and pores. The final displacement is a blend between sculpted details and the XYZ textures. I’ll get into that later.
Modeling and Texturing the Costume
Modeling the costume was a bit more straightforward, simply because I was modeling it in the posed position. The costume modeling is also more tightly knit with texturing as I use height maps from Substance Painter to add detail to the surface.
Let’s take the leather belts as an example to explain my process as it’s mostly rinse and repeat on all of the pieces.
There might be better ways to do this and it might be old school but it’s the way I work best:
Poly modeling in Maya. For the leather belts, I simply use the “make live” function in Maya and polydraw the mesh around the area of the body I want the belt to be on. When I have a good single-sided shape, I use extrude, bevel, insert edge loop, and other tools to model it into a decent base mesh. I make sure I have enough edge loops so when the mesh subdivides at render time, the UVs aren’t warped or stretched.
After I’m happy with my ZBrush sculpt, I decimate the mesh with all the highpoly details and bring it back to Painter. That way Painter picks up all the details to use with smart masks. I also bake out a displacement map from ZBrush to use in Maya.
After that, it’s really just using a combination of smart materials and tweaking with noises and masks to get the look I want. I went back and forth between Maya and Painter to test render while texturing.
Texturing the Body
So now we come to the XYZ bit. I used the “Male 40s Multichannel Face #76” textures for the face. I also used one of the “male full arm” and “male palm hand” textures. This time I used Mari as it’s easier to paint across UDIMs there. The whole body has six UDIMs in total.
Hair and Fur
Now, this was something that I had done very little of before the project. I was somewhat nervous starting because the fur on the cape is part of the whole silhouette of the character. If I didn’t manage this, the whole piece would’ve been ruined. I really should’ve started out testing the grooming before I did anything else. But I was too excited about the modeling bit. However, thanks to the fantastic YouTube tutorials by Jesus Fernandez I managed to struggle my way through it using XGen in Maya.
I had one XGen description for the body, one for the animal pelt, and one for the costume. I started with baby steps making the short hairs on the animal pelt.
For the short hair, I used “groomable splines”. I found this method to be very agreeable since I could use brushes to lengthen, cut, and shape the direction of the hairs. This only worked on the short hairs though.
I had some problems as well. It could be just me being a noob, but it turns out that XGen is very finicky. I would lose connections for clumping and noise modifiers. Sometimes the collection wouldn’t load. Sometimes the masks that I had painted wouldn’t work. I actually redid the short hairs two times because they got messed up. I finally figured out that I only had to reload the point and map directory under the "setup maps” option in the modifier panel. They save themselves automagically. Lesson learned.
Final Scene, Lighting, and Post-Tweaks
The lighting setup is pretty basic. I used a skyDomeLight with an overcast HDRI from hdrihaven.com. I set down the intensity of the HDRI to about 0.6. This way I get a nice neutral ambient light. On top of that, I use area lights to set up a fill, rim, and key light. For some of the closer renders, I added a tiny extra light just to add a little more oomph on the face and in the eyes.
This is probably one of the more complex models I’ve created, simply because of all the little details and the grooming bit. It definitely did not go smoothly and I put it on the shelf several times. I tend to get tired of things pretty fast. Though I’m happy I finished it. It creates a sense of accomplishment, which is satisfying. I also came back from the project more comfortable with grooming and XGen instead of staying hesitant about it and finding a way around it all the time. That opens the door to creating models that are more complex in the future. All in all, I am pretty satisfied with the result.
Congratulations to you who managed to read through all of my ramblings, and I hope you got something out of it.