Austin Martin talks about approaching the ambitious 1420 Wolf project, explains how the incredibly realistic portrait of Matt Damon as an armed warrior was created from scratch without using scans or ready-made textures, and comments on the challenges of finding the time and motivation to work on personal projects.
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My name is Austin Martin and I'm a Senior Lead Character Artist with 15 years of game character development experience. I thrive on creating hyper-realistic characters giving that extra attention to detail (organic and hard-surface) driven by passion and motivation. I enjoy inspiring and supporting my team by sharing knowledge, troubleshooting, creative/technical direction in character creation.
I have a Bachelor of Science degree in Media Studies and have worked with companies like Supermassive Games, Ubisoft, and presently at Certain Affinity. I've worked on multiple original IP titles shipped on platforms such as PC, VR, and console with game engines like Gamebryo, Decima, Unreal Engine, and Dunia. To name a few of the many notable games that I've worked on are Bafta award-winning Until Dawn, Until Dawn: Rush of Blood, and the latest upcoming Far Cry 6 as a Lead Character Artist. I had the pleasure of creating the main villains on those games and other pivot characters, at the same time setting character benchmarks, managing/mentoring the character team, character pipeline development by working closely with other game production departments.
Creating 1420 Wolf
1420 Wolf was an ambitious character project with a backstory of intertwined fantasy and realism. The main goal was to create a complex character with a Hollywood celebrity Matt Damon in Unreal Engine 4, which encompassed numerous material variants and components that would be artistically cohesive. Eventually, this enabled me to learn and experiment, challenge and push my mental capacity and knowledge boundaries. Modeling in ZBrush, texturing In Substance Painter, hair grooming in XGen, custom facial/body rig/animation in Maya, dramatic lighting, materials, VFX, post-edit, final render in Unreal Engine 4 to portray the character's dark personality and trait. After finalizing the creative idea, I gathered as many references as possible for the medieval body armor, Matt Damon's head, hair, facial/camera animation, lighting, and post-process.
Achieving Anatomic Accuracy
For Matt Damon's likeness sculpt, firstly, I locked on a set of head reference images with similar age groups, camera FOV, and lighting for front, bottom-up nostril, shaved head, three-quarter, and profile views. Secondly, I focused on sculpting the underlying skull structure and facial landmarks with measurements, for example, the distance between the eyes, nose, and lips, etc. So that the face resembles the actor from all angles; I stayed away from directly tracing from an image since the camera perspective in ZBrush and the reference image would differ and that would affect the sculpt and facial anatomy when viewed from various points of view. Hence, I entirely entrusted my artistic vision by cross-checking and self-critiquing with a quick ZBrush screenshot paint overs in Photoshop! This exercise helped to take notes and improve my sculpt. I try to stick with primary and secondary forms of the face as long as possible by ironing out the facial fat layering in conjunction with muscle and bone.
Lastly, I add the tertiary forms like the wrinkles and pore detail. The pore detail is derived from a pre-made color map that fits my custom head topology/UV. All the baked maps are then exported into Substance Painter for texturing. Next, I spend time layering the face texture detail, i.e. facial zonal color tones, freckles, and dirt. All the maps from Roughness, SSS, Specular to Detail Masks maps are adjusted simultaneously and plugged into my Unreal custom skin shader. The secondary tileable pore detail normal maps are used as micro-roughness breakups to give the skin its oily nature. At the same time, the Subsurface Scattering map was tweaked along with Unreal's SSS skin profile.
Next for the hair, I wanted to use next-generation hair technology called Alembic Hair Cache. I used Maya's XGen for all the hair grooms, which by itself is a straightforward workflow that requires certain XGen principles to be followed; so that the groom and its maps work cohesively without any errors. The first step is to analyze the hairstyle with a Photoshop paint over on the hair reference image by dividing it into colored regions as each region specifies the flow, style, and hair clumps. This crucial step helps with the hair grooming planning/process. Once the final hair groom is complete, it is exported as an interactive groom from Maya into Unreal. I used my custom-made melanin-driven hair material (no textures) in Unreal Engine to achieve the final look for the hair, eyebrows, eyelashes, and stubble (short hair).
Creating the Armor
As a first step for the medieval body armor and face mask, I created a solid base body with accurate anatomical proportion (7 1/2 heads tall), which laid the solid foundation for the character's physique and posture. Secondly, I started the blockout in ZBrush as a DynaMesh sketch. This process gave me the ability to be flexible and explore my ideation by changing the form and silhouette without any restrictions. I chose to go with A-pose so that the shoulder is relaxed for a natural look. As soon as the blockout sketch was done, I cleaned the individual pieces with DynaMesh/ZRemesh workflow, which gave me a clean topology and enabled me to add complexity using ZModeler tools. It was a rinse and repeat process for all elements such as belts, straps, etc.
For bigger stitches, I created a custom Insert Mesh brush with the curve mode turned on. My subdivision level 1 was my low poly, which saved time on retopology. Since this is an in-game cinematic character, I was a little lenient with the polycount. But this could be further refined and optimized to meet the game production budget.
ZBrush was predominantly utilized for all modeling work and Maya was extensively used for UVs, XGen, rigging, animation and export into Unreal. All the maps were baked in Marmoset Toolbag while the texturing was done in Substance Painter for skin, fabric, and metals. Numerous leather material variations were achieved with a combination of Substance Painter base texturing, which were later combined with tileable detail maps inside Unreal Engine with my custom cloth material. The cloth material has a fuzz rim capability to mimic rough fabric with a minuscule hair surface. The main challenge was the complex cloth layering, but I simplified the layout with UV sets which was initially planned during the sculpt cleanup stage. Each UV set would occupy a region on the body, for example, the upper torso was divided into 3 regions.
Once the textured and groomed static version of the character was ready, I ventured to create a custom joint-based face rig and IK-driven body rig. I kept the rig/animation Maya files separate so each could be edited independently. Once the animation was finalized, I exported both the rig and animation as separate FBX files. Head and body rigs were separated because Alembic hair cache has a joint limit inside Unreal. Once imported into Unreal Engine, I assemble the head/body rig along with the geometry and Alembic hair into a character blueprint. After a prolonged challenge of trying to sync and blend the head/body animation, I was able to fulfill my vision by researching countless Unreal documentation to achieve the final result.
Lighting and Post-Processing
The character was lit with four rectangular lights and post-processing volume was used to adjust the LUTs (Look Up Table) with some colour correction. It could have been done as a post-render edit, but I kept the steps simple in Unreal Engine, and I was able to tweak the values on the fly. Unreal's Sequencer was used to create camera animation and character blueprint animation setup. It was evident from the start that I wanted the viewers to have a cinematic experience with storytelling cinematography. Sequencer gave me the freedom to add and edit camera angles and movements with ease. The final footage was a png image sequence rendered through Unreal Engine's Movie Render Queue.
The entire project was extremely complex from start to finish. There were many technical hurdles and dilemmas along the way, but all those experiences made me stronger to work even harder to find smart solutions by troubleshooting. It took me roughly four months to complete this project during my free time. At times, I stayed awake till 4 am, trying to finish the task and sleep for 4 hours before heading to my day job. Somehow I managed to stay motivated, and there were instances that I almost gave up. But perseverance is the key to success, and I gathered courage and confidence from my years of gaming experience with a motto that success comes to those who strive hard and work towards their everyday goal, as the saying goes, there is no gain without pain! It was crucial to overcoming negative/lethargic mindset with a positive attitude as I dreamt about the final grand moments where I would reveal my artwork to the world. These assertive psychological traits did help me to achieve the impossible. On the whole, it is very important to have that infectious thirst and enthusiasm to succeed, which in turn will help fuel any aspiration and conquer milestones in life!