How to Build a Great Alien Character?
Ryan Love

Sr. Environment Artist at Bioware

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How to Build a Great Alien Character?
12 October, 2016

Environment artist Ryan Love, who has contributed his art to titles like Mass Effect 3, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Sleeping Dogs, talked about his hobby. Ryan is a true master of alien designs, who knows how to come up with a unique idea for a new project. In our little interview the artist discussed his approach to building ideas and talked about modeling intricate helmets and sci-fi characters. 



Hello, my name is Ryan Love, I currently work as an senior environment artist in the video game industry but I love to design and developed my own characters and concepts in my spare time. I went to school for Fine Arts back in 1998, after that I took a short computer animation course and started working on my portfolio every chance I could. I eventually got a job in the video game industry and have been working on games for the last 15 years. I’ve worked at some great companies on some really fun projects including: Bioware (Mass Effect 3 and Dragon: Age Inquisition), United Front Games (Sleeping Dogs) Threewave (Ghostbusters and Army of Two) and Dice (Battlefield Vietnam).  I’ve been an environment artist on all of these projects.

Space Theme

I’ve always had a fascination with space and I always loved space movies and anything NASA related as a kid.  I grew up watching shows and movies like Cosmos, Star Wars, Star Trek, and BSG to name a few. The idea of infinite empty space always scared me so I like to imagine the universe filled with aliens and teeming with life instead. I’ve always loved the idea that every species on earth could have an intelligent evolved version somewhere out in the universe. I like to imagine what intelligent evolved versions of animals might look like and also what kind of technology they might have.



I love technology and the idea of it protecting us and helping humans. I’ve also been inspired by a lot of other artists that make amazing mechs and suits and wanted to give my own spin on helmet and suit design.  I would say my helmets are just abstract streams of consciousness laid onto the form of a helmet or sci-fi suit. I think a helmet works well because you can focus areas of detail and have areas of rest like the visor. Also I enjoy creating contrasting materials and surfaces. I love technology and the VR/augmented future we seem to be heading in. I think the idea of the helmet and other head gear being part of the VR experience is really interesting. It’s like the start of man merging with machine!



Building Ideas 

Nature, Insects and animals are a great source of inspiration. Old stereo and audio tech and old computers are also a great source of small parts and details. Cars, racing gear, biking equipment, medical equipment, NASA technology and the amazing things SpaceX are making are all good places to draw ideas from. I think you need to constantly be filling your creative bank account by having different and new experiences and continually learning new things.



Sculpting Details

I think it’s important when working with a high amount of detail to spend most of your time getting the proportions and a good rough idea sketched in first. If you start immediately adding details you will lose control over the mesh and have a lot of trouble making changes or fixing proportions. “Stay as low poly as you can for as long as you can” was a really good piece of advice I’ve heard for 3D sculpting. IMM brushes are a great way to add details when you’ve got overall form down. Zbrush has a good base library and you can easily create your own. It’s a very quick way to add the small details at the end of a sculpt like screws and small vents. Most of my helmets start the same, as a very rough sketch. I then continue to refine the sketch and eventually break it apart into pieces, these pieces can become contrasting elements when materials are applied. I further detail each piece then refine the model with IMM brushes, small details and surface noise etc.



I do most of my rendering and material creation and application in Keyshot.  Most of my lighting setups are very simple. I tend to use a simple 3 point light setup with an HDRI image to illuminate the dark areas of the image and give the reflections the feel I want. I spend a lot of time tuning materials and do a lot of renders before I’m happy with the final result, I’ve done 50-100 renders of a helmet before I’m happy sometimes. Endlessly tweaking things can get a bit out of hand, you have to know when to put the tablet down.


What would you say makes an alien design great? What is the first thing you should think about? 

That’s a tough question, I think it really depends on the kind of alien you are going to make. If you are going to make an alien based on anatomy with muscles and bones then studying nature and animals that already exist is a really good way to come up with ideas for good aliens. Deep sea creatures are already so alien looking. There are a lot of really strange and amazing creatures on earth that look really alien like.  It’s also important if your alien is supposed to be intelligent for it to have things that humans look for to convey emotion. Eyes, a mouth, or appendages like hands can be so expressive. Fingers or small appendages can easily convey the idea the alien could manipulate or create technology. I think part of a good alien design is getting the viewer to believe it could really exist and even if they don’t believe it, the form itself isn’t too far from something we have seen before.





Ryan Love, Sr. Environment Artist at Bioware

Interview conducted by Artyom Sergeev

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