Aaron Hunwick shared the workflow behind the Giantstalker project, inspired by the World of Warcraft universe, discussed the grooming process, and told us how to achieve a more dramatic look.
Hey, I'm Aaron. I'm a 3D Artist from New Zealand currently living in London. I've always been passionate about creating realistic characters, especially in the fantasy or sci-fi genre.
I didn't go to school for 3D and am completely self-taught. I was first introduced to 3D modelling way back in 2003. The gaming forum I frequented had an art section where people were building 3D models and I was immediately hooked. I had some guidance from the members of the community which really helped me get started. I later went on to study graphic design at the Whanganui School of Design but afterwards decided that I would pursue a career in 3D instead.
I have around 12 years of experience in the industry. I started my career in 2009 working in the New Zealand video games industry. I then joined Weta Digital to work on the Hobbit Trilogy movies. Afterwards, I moved to London and found a new home at Framestore.
I currently work as a 3D Generalist for Framestore, this position has been great and allowed me to develop a very broad skill set. I'm often required to work in multiple disciplines, usually focusing on entire asset builds where I create a model and take it through texturing and look dev as well. I've worked on a huge amount of projects in the commercials and TV departments, some of the latest projects include The Boys, The Witcher, Bond – No Time To Die, and Alien Worlds.
The Orc Project
My character portfolio work was very outdated so I set out to build something difficult with a big scope. I also didn't want to shy away from learning new skills like grooming, even if it required me to spend a very long time on the project.
I decided on this Orc character because of my interest in the Blizzard universe. It's important to be passionate about the subject matter if you're serious about completing such a long project.
To help organize references, I use a program called PureRef. I usually gather a ton of references from artists that inspire me and real-world photos from surfaces I want to replicate, like armor, leather, and cloth. I also try to take my own reference photos when I have access to the object I want to build.
The first step was easy, I was quite familiar with the original design of the armor, having played World of Warcraft and gotten the armor set myself. I knew I wanted to reimagine the design from 2004 leaning towards realism and practicality over the usual extravagance depicted in the Blizzard universe. There was a lot of design work on my end, especially in the chest armor area which diverged the most from the original in-game armor. I also took inspiration from the Warcraft games, movies, and Blizzard cinematics.
The face went through a few iterations. I did an early initial sculpt in ZBrush which I wasn't very happy with. I later went back to revisit it, doing many more passes I was able to achieve the realistic look I was after. I think there are some god-like artists out there who nail everything close to the first time, but I find getting stuck in and doing as many passes as time allows really helps me produce the best results.
For the micro details, I used a Displacement Map I purchased from TextureXYZ as a base. I then sculpted a pass on top to work it in. I went for the Mari approach, keeping the finer details in textures instead of using ZBrush HD sculpting.
The expression was achieved with some help from my partner Marion Strunck. I filmed her making the expression and that helped me figure out the intricacies of the facial muscles for that pose.
There were a few main considerations with the body. She's an Orc "Giantstalker", so would have a more muscular physique than a human girl. I also wanted to ensure she wouldn't have ridiculous cleavage or anything super sexualised in her body which would counteract the design of the armor.
I gathered references of female bodybuilders to help in the sculpting process. Because she's very muscular, I had to take special care in how I made the anatomy as it's more visible and mistakes are harder to cover up.
The body base mesh was built from scratch in Maya, then sculpted in ZBrush. I prefer to build my own topology, over using or paying for someone else's base mesh, it's always good to practice.
The body build was reasonably straightforward. Even though it's mainly covered in armor, I made an effort to flesh out the proportions and muscles carefully to ensure the clothing fits well and looks natural.
For the outfit, I started with a simple low poly blockout in Maya. I prefer to explore shapes and flesh out designs in 3D instead of drawing my own concepts. When I was happy with the model in Maya, I moved into ZBrush for the final detail pass. I decided to sculpt a lot of the breakup and imperfections into the outfit by hand instead of relying on the texturing process entirely for detailing. This added an extra level of believability to the surfacing.
The skull on her chest was a part of the design where I decided to break away from the original look. I wanted it to feel more like a functional harness for the attachment of the pauldrons. This area, especially the skull, was really fun to work on because of the intricate elements.
The crossbow was another really interesting asset to build. Modeled in Maya, detailed in ZBrush, and textured in Substance 3D Painter. I checked out a lot of references from historic crossbows while also trying to bring in some of the elements seen in the Warcraft designs. I also built a rig so it can fire a bolt, but I wasn't able to showcase it yet in these renders.
The cloth relied on the main forms coming from simulations in Marvelous Designer. This software is amazing and I use it a lot to create realistic clothing. For topology, I used the wrap technique which is commonly used to get a good starting point out of Marvelous.
Adding a detail pass in ZBrush and cleaning up issues in the sim was the next step. Then combine this with a groom to add the fuzz and some micro details for the fabric, and you can get a very realistic look for the cloth.
For the hair and fur, I went for a less common approach and used Houdini, as I'm more familiar with the software from using it at my day job. This character had an insane amount of groom systems in the end, fur on the whole outfit and cape, hair, eyebrows, eyelashes, and peachfuzz on the head and body. Also, the cape, shirt, and pants had a groom to simulate some of the fibers you get on fabric.
I found it difficult to find tutorials on long hair grooming in Houdini, most were for XGen. Even so, I was able to adapt what I found for XGen into my workflow, and after a lot of trial and error, I came up with a decent result.
The half-shaved style was something I thought fit quite well with the character, but I also dabbled with some different styles, like dreadlocks and shorter hair.
For the fur, I did a lot of manual shaping of the guides, especially on the loincloth. This method is important to achieve a natural look, and if you try to do the guides with a more procedural approach, it is harder to get a good result.
I used Mari for all the skin textures. I really like the node-based workflow and the accuracy you can get from it. I used the procedural-driven approach to create the skin, using noise to mix in the different green hues. It was hard to balance and to get the SubSurface Scattering to feel natural and not too human-like, so being able to adjust the color on the fly really helps.
TextureXYZ scans were crucial to most of my workflow. The detail I was able to extract from them was very useful and I used it to drive the creation of the specular, micro displacement and masks for the skin.
For the outfit, I worked in Substance 3D Painter where you can easily create a lot of the masks and breakup necessary for complex surfaces, like metal and leather. For this character, there were so many different surfaces, that I split out as many masks and IDs as I could to get better control and tweak the final result in Arnold.
I also relied on Megascans textures to speed up some of the surface texturing. They have a great library and it's a really good starting point to tackle surfaces such as leather. It's not as simple as just applying the Megascans textures and you're done, there was a lot of work mixing and working in aging, wear and tear to the surfaces.
When I aim to create realistic surfaces, like dirty metal, I'll make sure to split out the separate surface qualities into their own shader, then layer them back together to get the final result. So the metal, dirt, and dust would often be separated. This ensures you don't have the metallic surfaces sharing the same specularity as a dielectric, and it gives a more realistic surface than just using a Metallic Map.
The rig was done by a friend of mine – Leo Schreiber. He made a very nice setup which helped me pose the character easily. For the face, I ended up sculpting a blend shape for the expression, then I went in and did some extra shot sculpting tweaks to correct some forms in the body. In the future, I'd really like to refine the rig and get her animated.
Arnold was used to light the character with a basic 3-light setup. I also set up a Nuke comp early on to add in some of the bloom effects and subtle color tweaks. Because the armor is so reflective, Nuke's glows really create that pop and help sell the armor as a realistic surface.
I went through a few ideas for the lighting. Even though some of the final renders look quite epic, the character is displayed more as an asset presentation than a fully completed work of art. I really wanted to present something that showed off all the work I put in, and often you can miss a lot if you just focus on 1 single shot. This also makes a lot of work because you have to refine the character from many different angles, not hiding anything on this one!
The strong Rim Light created contrast and contributed to the epic feel. I didn't want to overlight her and flatten out the armor because there's a lot of interesting details going on. You do see a lot of work that's been overlit and my personal preference was to have a more dramatic final look in this project.
This project was quite a long one in terms of timeframe. It was around a year in total, I was working on and off in my spare time. When I finished the body and armor, I had to teach myself to groom which was a big task. I ended up redoing the hairstyle many times trying to learn the best techniques in Houdini to achieve the look I wanted.
Keeping focus was also an interesting challenge, there's no clear tip here. I think for me, I just had this underlying goal to finish this piece for my portfolio and I was very determined to get it done. There were times when I was battling with the groom, that I thought I was going to have to compromise with a result less appealing than I wanted, but it just shows that if you have enough time to throw at a problem, you can overcome it.
If you're starting out as a character artist, my biggest tip would be to always be working on personal art. Unless you're lucky enough to land a job early on, where you only work on characters, it can be quite hard to gain the experience. Also, I think that studios really like to see your own work as it's a very clear indication of your skill. Often in big productions, you're only a little cog in the machine, and even though your work matters, it can be hard to say you're 100% responsible for any one thing.
You'll also need to be passionate and constantly learning because being a character artist in the industry is very competitive and there are so many amazingly talented artists out there.
Aaron Hunwick, 3D Generalist at Framestore
Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev
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