Hard-Surface Modeling and Texturing Complex Mechanisms

Hard-Surface Modeling and Texturing Complex Mechanisms

David Letondor talked about modeling realistic watches for production and creating robotic projects including Reckoning for League of Legends.

Introduction

Hi, my name is David Letondor, I'm a freelance Hard-Surface Artist from France and also a trainer at a French CG school.

I have always been interested in the production of video games but back in the days, it was quite inaccessible for me. I discovered Maya 6.5 PLE when I was studying mechanical engineering and I  immediately fell in love with it. In fact, my studies were quite boring, and I realized I could do something less technical and maybe get a job related to games or cars. So I started to learn the software in my free time. At first, I was attracted by all the different aspects of CG from modeling to rendering, but unfortunately, my computer was very bad and modeling was the less painful thing to do on it. Therefore, I focused on modeling and of course, one of the first things I tried to create was a car. 

As a 3D artist, I got my first job at Sitio where I worked on various architectural and industrial projects, then I moved to Le Truc studio mainly working with Swiss watch brands. My daily job was focused on hard-surface modeling in 3ds Max and ZBrush. I was also freelancing on the side and 7 years later became a full-time freelancer. As a freelance artist, I had the opportunity to work in various fields such as VFX, automotive, games and 3D printing.

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Modeling: Mechanisms vs Characters

The approaches to creating watches, cars, and characters are very different. For example, Swiss manufacturers usually have a particular design in mind or already existing models. They have their own vision of the product, everything is very codified and adding new ideas to the project is not that simple. 

Just like with cars, modeling watches can be super challenging - if your mesh has a small pinch or a bump, the render will not look good. I personally learned a lot about the process by doing subdivision modeling every day.

Very technical mechanisms take much time to model and I never start from ZBrush when building watches (except for some parts like the bracelet or ornaments). To be more productive and save time, I put effort into looking for scripts and add-ons to automate tedious tasks. Scriptspot.com is a great resource for that.

Characters let you express artistic skills and give you more freedom. ZBrush has become an unavoidable tool for modelers - I personally like to use it to roughly express my ideas and block out my characters there. Yet, most of the time the process ends up looking the same - retopo/subd modeling just like with watches. 

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Robotic Projects

The way I approach my robotic projects is quite simple. I start with a rough concept using Dynamesh in ZBrush and create the shape and a nice-looking silhouette with different variations. Then, I use ZRemesher and jump into Max or Blender for a nice Subd retopology. I don't try to stick to one software - I do use ZRemesher as much as I can for smoothing the surface but the results are not always as great as I expect, so I use the ZRemeshed pieces as a guide for my new retopology. Of course, I can use ZModeler but I don’t really like it, so I prefer to move to a different program where I feel comfortable and have full control over the flow of the topology.

I also try to kitbash parts from the old projects - it saves a lot of time especially if they already have their UVs laid out. Sometimes, I like to build new pieces from them. When modeling, split your meshes according to the structure of their real-life analogs - this will help you in assigning materials without forcing you or your team to create a ton of masks. When the modeling is done and approved by the client, I take some time to clean my scene, take a big breath and start UVing.

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If the model is intended to be used for 3D printing, I smooth my surface by using ZRemesher (it quite good for that purpose) or use low poly retopology and add crease for sharpening angles. I don’t care about beveling tiny angles because 3D printers will smooth these sharp edges for me. 

When concepting, there are also some rules I try to follow based on something that our brain can easily recognize... I mean anatomy! Anatomy is everywhere, you see it every day. Anatomy is natural, and I always try to put into my models something that reminds me of it.

Another important thing is to not overkill the model with many tiny details just for the sake of showing my modeling skills. I try to lead the eye, not to confuse it. There is a certain balance you need to find, and this part is very difficult. 

Remember Mies van der Rohe's saying: “Less is More”.

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Watches

Watch manufacturers usually send poor CAD models, sometimes with broken geometry and sharp angles. From that, the different pieces are remodeled with traditional polygonal subdivision approach. When remodeling, you can add some slight deformations to fit the reality because, in real life, many pieces are made by hand. This also allows changing the way the reflections and specular will appear by enhancing the important parts of the watch.

Each watch is unique, so, unfortunately, there are very few parts that can be reused in each project. However, if I see a repeating piece I immediately save it in my kitbash library for the future. I also use displacement maps for small details.  

Additionally, there are always some parts you need to sculpt in ZBrush - they take way more time than usual mechanical pieces but they are always the most fun to work on.

Texturing

When working on the Project Reckoning for League of Legends, I received a concept design that also contained a rough color chart and I used it as the main reference for texturing. I created all my UDIMs according to the concept, then used Substance Painter for all the texturing of the main robot. The materials in the game are quite stylized so I mainly used internal procedural maps and manually added some dirt and micro scratches to break up the masks. Finally, Brunch Studio did a bit of retouching to fit the art direction of the game

Advice

As a character modeler, I also try to find a good balance between the artistic and technical sides (the latter involves different aspects of our tools). To save time, use the tools you’re comfortable with. To provide high-quality results - simply practice a lot. Stay open and take the time to communicate with your teammates or other artists who can comment on your personal work. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes as you’ll learn a lot from them and get better after each fail. Try to stay motivated when you are working on a long project - to do that, you can put off your project from time to time and do something easy and enjoyable.

And finally, the most important part is to love what you do!

I really hope you've learned something from this article. Thank you for reading!


David Letondor, Hard-Surface Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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The big scratches and damaged parts were sculpted in ZBrush and baked as a displacement map. Wear and micro scratches were generated in Substance Painter.  

If you’re working on still images, there's another way of adding scratches without using Substance Painter and UVs. You need to create your main material, then create another one which is pure metal, then put both into the blend material and use a VRay Triplanar scratches texture for blending the pure metal with your base material. However, for more control, I like to use the Composite node as it gives me the possibility to have many layers. With it, I put inside different texture maps for scratches. If you need some wear on the edge, create a layer with a VRayDirt, set the occluded color to white and unoccluded color to black and put a texture or a noise into the radius slot to control the look of the wear. You can also put a procedural noise into the mask slot of the layer to control the look of the wear even more.

Advice

As a character modeler, I also try to find a good balance between the artistic and technical sides (the latter involves different aspects of our tools). To save time, use the tools you’re comfortable with. To provide high-quality results - simply practice a lot. Stay open and take the time to communicate with your teammates or other artists who can comment on your personal work. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes as you’ll learn a lot from them and get better after each fail. Try to stay motivated when you are working on a long project - to do that, you can put off your project from time to time and do something easy and enjoyable.

And finally, the most important part is to love what you do!

I really hope you've learned something from this article. Thank you for reading!


David Letondor, Hard-Surface Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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    Hard-Surface Modeling and Texturing Complex Mechanisms