Making a Sci-Fi Tank from Scratch in Maya & Substance 3D Painter

Mohamed Abdelbaki has told us about the workflow behind the Sci-Fi Tank project, talked about the challenges of combining different machines, and emphasized the importance of orthographs.


Mohamed Abdelbaki is an exceptional, multitalented Environment and 3D Artist who has made contributions to the biggest game titles of recent years. These globally recognized releases include Call of Duty: Vanguard (2021), Marvel’s Avengers (2020) and its expansion pack Marvel’s Avengers: Black Panther – War for Wakanda (2021), and War to the Core. Mr. Abdelbaki stands out as one of the few artists capable of diversifying his work across a broad range of subject matter while also keeping the quality bar of work very high. His skillset includes High/Low Poly Modeling, Digital Sculpting, Hard-Surface Modeling, Texturing & Shading, Material Creation, Optimization, Lighting, and Photogrammetry.

Mr. Abdelbaki was highly sought after on these blockbuster projects because of his skills and technical abilities. He has worked with leading artists in the field. Among them, Damon Wilson-Hart, Lead Environment Artist at High Moon Studios with over 20 years of experience in the games industry and multiple Call of Duty titles shipped; Marquis Houghton, Senior Environment Artist at High Moon Studios with nearly 12 years of experience in the games industry; and Jeremy Hollingsworth, Lead Hard Surface Artist at Osso VR whose experience spans several industries including film, games, and technology. Mohamed has also supported the next generation of artists: he was a guest speaker at Gnomon School of Visual Effects & Games during the Environment for Games class, where he shared his industry experience in the game development field, experience working in AAA games as an Environment Artist, his personal Art work and advice on getting a job in the industry.

This project is a high poly 3D Model of a futuristic sci-fi tank I designed a few years ago back when my specialization was geared towards concept art. High poly means a high polygonal count of a 3D model, while low poly is the opposite. High poly contains a lot more details in the model but will render more slowly. It is therefore used in films, cinematics and is also used as a detailed version of a game asset. 

I’ve found that my background in concept art has given me a strong sense of form, design, color, and composition and expanded my skills as a modeler. It’s been useful in being able to refine a concept as I model, fleshing out the design, and finding solutions in 3D to design problems that might not always arise in 2D. I was responsible for all aspects of the project including concept design, modeling, texturing, shading, and lighting, which I will be covering in this article.


With any good design, we first start from a 2D silhouette trying to establish an iconic shape. The main purpose of this design was to visualize some kind of futuristic tank. It would be similar to the M1 Abrams but larger in size and utilizing 3 turrets, one primary and two secondary ones. Think it of like having a battleship cannon mounted on top of a tank. I started by looking at a mixture of references ranging from tanks, battleships, ATVs, and construction vehicles. Any good design will have a good balance of big, medium, and small shapes while also having primarily two shapes dominate the design. In this case, they are mostly squares with some triangles in certain areas, circles are only used for the wheels. After the silhouettes, I did several thumbnail drawings trying to get some kind of 3D interpretation of the main silhouette. 

Variation is key in establishing a good design, sometimes you hit the mark within the first 2-3 sketches, other times it takes a few iterations before you find the one you like. Eventually, I did a proper perspective drawing of the chosen design followed by a paintover. I initially kept the design on the shelf for quite some time. After getting some feedback on it, I went back and did a revised version, editing the proportions and making the design more streamlined.


During the modeling process, you will start with your main concept and expand your reference to more and more subject matter.

For modeling vehicles, it’s usually helpful to have orthographs. Since it’s a concept image, I drew a top and side view orthos and began to block in the design trying to keep the same proportions and figuring out what the 3D form actually is based on the concept painting. Once the blockout is done, I then begin to properly model each area piece by piece. The tank is fairly geometric in shape, so for modeling, I mostly start with either a box or cylinder for most parts. In this stage, it’s important to be continuously looking at everything: the photo ref to model realistic-looking parts, the orthos as a proportion guide, and the concept making sure that as you model, you don’t lose the overall feeling that was in the concept. 

I’d say the most challenging part of the design was probably figuring out how the tank connects to the front wheels and tracks. In my concept, it was merely an indication of some kind of cylindrical piece that works in 2D but not in 3D. The color-coded illustration represents what I’m thinking about as I model. I understand that I need to have something that connects the body to the wheels and treads which move forward in addition to having something to hold up the tread armor over that. Neither of these was really explained in my original painting. 

Again, this is where looking at references is key. Eventually, I combined the suspension system and front arms of an ATV which then connect to a side bracket piece of a SnowTrax ATV. These are similar to regular ATV-type vehicles but are designed for snow hence they have tracks on the side instead of wheels. Looking at this type of reference was very useful as it really helped fill in all the gaps on how the pieces can connect together and how the side bracket piece, for example, connects to each of the large tank wheels. 

On a side note, it’s also important to convey a sense of scale to the viewer, you do that by adding a human element to the vehicle. In this case, it would be the handlebars soldiers would use to pull themselves up to the top of the tank and reach the hatch.

Glass Materials 

For glass materials, I set up each V-Ray glass material with a slight difference between the reflection and refraction color. This is to try and get a similar look to the reference where the glass has a slight shift in color.

In my reference, there’s some kind of electronic sensors behind the glass plate. To achieve this look, I simply used an image texture of some electronics projected onto a simple geo plane behind the glass plate. Since the material for the glass is somewhat opaque, you mostly need to indicate something is inside with a texture rather than model everything. 

Finally, using a V-Ray blend material I have the purple glass as the base and blend over a sand-colored fairly flat material using a hand-painted alpha mask to create the effect of dust around the corners of the glass. 


For texturing, the main challenge was to achieve the same visual look as the tank’s painted surface. It’s a bit tricky as the paint is fairly matt in general, yet depending on how the light hits it there’s a lot of roughness variation. I started with a steel tank smart material from Substance 3D Painter as a base that already had a grunge-like roughness pattern. From there, I overlay some fill layers each with a slightly different tan color and roughness value to create both color and roughness variation. 

Once the first pass was done, I decided the surface looked too clean. Using a single texture image of a scuffed up and dirty tank surface that had a lot of rust in it, I did some projection painting on the main body of the tank to give it a much more weathered and used look.  

The remainder of the texturing process is fairly straightforward: adding metal edge wear in areas that make sense, adding markings and graphics to create visual interest and give the design more character. I also made sure to add a grease effect where the hinge joints are for the mechanical arms referencing the way it looks on construction vehicles where a lot of grease and dirt accumulate in the hinges of the vehicle’s arm. 


Overall, this was a very useful project to complete. I realized that my initial concept while having a generally good silhouette also lacked clarity in certain areas. Working in 3D has definitely resulted in me learning to take a more analytical approach to my designs. As always, the two go hand in hand: art direction and 3D production modeling are both as important when making any asset. Finding good references whether online or taking pictures yourself is always key while modeling and will usually answer a lot of questions that may arise. I always like to think that a concept is there just for the overall idea/shape and then it’s grounded in reality by you trying to match the reference you have. I hope you enjoyed this breakdown and found some useful tips on either design or 3D techniques.

Mohamed Abdelbaki, 3D Environment Artist

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Comments 1

  • Anonymous user

    the model is cool, but the browning as an auxiliary machine gun is no longer good.  He is already 90 years old.  It's time to choose something different.


    Anonymous user

    ·a year ago·

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