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Hard-Surface Modeling & Material Tips

Tomi Väisänen gave a talk on how he approaches modeling and texturing complex mechanisms and machinery.

Tomi Väisänen gave a talk on how he approaches modeling and texturing complex mechanisms and machinery.


Hello! My name is Tomi Väisänen, I’m a 32 years old 3D artist from Finland living in Helsinki and currently working at Wargaming. I have 7 years of experience in this industry and I have been working on a variety of different stuff from the marketing of industrial robotics and Finnish advertisement industry to concept art for various movies overseas and Ubisoft Redlynx.

I bet you have heard the same story multiple times: a kid playing video games and drawing all the time, etc. so I won’t expand on it. For me, it was the same.

After my mandatory one-year military service, I applied to Military academy and Art school but decided to give art school a shot and see if I’m fit to civilian life. So I ended up going to Lahti Institute of design and studying multimedia production. After 3 years of school, I ended up working full time and never bothered to graduate since I find graduation from art school worthless and because there was so little useful education in the field of 3D. Therefore, I’m basically self-taught in this matter.

Art Style

I have been always fascinated by complex and overly-detailed imaginary. Back when I was a kid, I loved to draw ridiculously detailed images, whatever it was. I could easily spend hours and hours just to make sure that I’m happy with the tiniest bit of detail. That, of course, is directly translated to my way of doing 3D modeling because the framework is already done. In that regard, my style just kind of came naturally. Of course, it evolved within years and I think nowadays I can focus easily on the more important stuff like silhouettes and layouts, rather than just going all into the details.

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How the Projects Start

Usually, I start by blocking out stuff in 3ds Max by using standard primitives just to block simple forms and dimensions. After quick blockout I might take a screenshot and do dirty overpaint in Photoshop. Overpaint is not always required if I’m confident enough to keep pushing it in 3D. It’s an extremely messy process.

Before any polygon or brushstroke, I have an idea of the image or design in my head for a while. I rarely start doing stuff randomly, but rather try to visualize the idea in my thoughts. I find it easier to think this idea through a couple of times before doing it. It may sound strange, and it probably is but I have this huge urge to constantly know what I am doing, otherwise, I’m lost and it’s hard to get anything done.

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Approach to Modeling Machinery

By far the biggest trick of creating a complicated mechanism and machinery in 3D is trying to understand it: how the forms flow, where the details are, what structure supports what, where the weight is, what kind of joints are presented etc. I’m not an engineer by any means but I still want to get the illusion right.

A good way to approach the hard-surface designs is to analyze how the model is assembled and how one can take it apart. Back when I  was doing marketing videos and prints for companies that manufacture industrial robots, I learned quite a bit about the way these machines work in real life.

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In modeling, I shifted more or less towards boolean-based CAD modeling. When you’re thinking about the geometry from the beginning, it messes with your brain, so much at first, I dictate myself to the design choices, and if needed, I retopo afterward. As for the modeling techniques, I think there’s nothing really special in my workflow, no fancy scripts or tools, just standard brute force. I always start with a blockout model and refine it as I go.

Approach to Materials

My darkest secret is that I absolutely hate UV-mapping and baking and I try to avoid it at all cost. Of course, in the case of game art stuff, it’s kind of necessary. But when doing my personal artwork, I try to cut corners, avoid all the non-creative stuff and simply focus on design and art itself. 90% of the time I use procedural texturing with tiled textures and triplanar mapping. I have a huge library of self-built procedural grunge masks, different noisy textures, Material presets and what not so the texturing part is fast and fun. And I always like to stay a bit experimental trying out new ways. If triplanar mapping causes some errors in texturing, I simply overpaint it in Photoshop.

Also, even if I constantly watch reference from the real world, I’m not that eager to produce photorealistic results, but rather have that “close enough” feeling in my materials.

When rendering metals, it’s great to think about the whole process “in layers”. There’s a bottom layer with a shiny metal base with all the marks left from manufacturing. Next goes a paint layer with all the damages and details. Masking this stuff with ambient occlusion gives the impression of wear. And finally, there’s all the rest: rust added on top of it, leaked oil, dirt gathered in corners, etc. Most of the time I do these layers with procedural masking as well, but sometimes it’s necessary to do the work by hand. Vertex color is still a valid tool!

Believable Hard-Surface Design

When it comes to mechanical design, we can usually get pretty far by just giving the impression that something works. Mechanisms and contraptions can be quite insane but if they give at least a small hint of something real, it’s easier to sell the design. For example, in the case of character joints, you already have so-called “hard limits” and know how much and in which direction something can bend. This knowledge will affect the design and help achieve some realism.

Rendering Software

For rendering, Corona became my weapon of choice a couple of years ago. Back then I was using mainly V-Ray for most of the projects and I was fed up with all the settings and optimization. At that time GPU rendering wasn’t really a thing yet.

Eventually, I found out this new render engine called Corona, gave it a shot and holy damn, it blew my mind. First time ever I could actually see what’s going on in the interactive rendering when I was modifying my materials. I just couldn’t stand the “change settings and test render” mentality because it was hard for me to see all the subtle changes. Corona works for me because it’s easy and fast to use.

Today there is a lot of different render engines to choose from, so whatever works for you and is easiest to learn will probaply do the trick. I have stuck with Corona just because I’m familiar with it, and maybe because I’m too lazy to learn a new one.

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Advice for Learners

3D is a big fish, and there are tons of stuff to learn and endless amount of mistakes to be made.

What I would recommend the beginners is modeling the stuff that is interesting or appealing to you. Nothing kills motivation faster than having to do something you don’t like. Also, it’s important to keep your projects small at first in order to achieve small victories. 3D can be quite overwhelming, so it’s important to focus on certain aspects of it at a time.

Tomi Väisänen, 3D Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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Comments 1

  • Anonymous user

    Tomi, i think your creativity is genius, thank you!


    Anonymous user

    ·4 years ago·

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