Making Realistic & Stylized 3D Characters
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Making Realistic & Stylized 3D Characters
30 August, 2018
Character Art
Interview

Joao Baptista talked about working on stylized and realistic characters in ZBrush, Substance Painter & Designer, concepts, retopology, UVs and more.

Introduction

Hello, my name is Joao Baptista. I am a 3D Character Artist originally from Lisbon, Portugal. I grew up reading comic books and watching amazing 80s movies like Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Back to the Future, Die Hard, etc. By my early teens I started getting into video games and as result, I wanted to be involved in the entertainment industry.

Unfortunately, as I got older, fear of artistic poverty led me to choose a career that was deemed more secure and so I got a degree in Civil Engineering. Ironically, the crisis of 2008 turned the world upside down, and no one had a safe job back then. So I realized it was better to follow your passion – if you’re good, money will eventually follow.

Career

I tried to make it as an illustrator and a concept artist, and in 2014 I decided to apply just for fun to Gnomon. I never thought I would be accepted, but I was, and I started my classes in April of 2015.

I didn’t have any 3D background, so it was a bumpy ride, to say the least. But I discovered that in 3D art, I could mix art and math, two subjects I am very fond of. My engineering background definitely helped with the more technical parts of 3D.

After 2 years of hard work, I graduated at Gnomon and started interning at Blur. I was there for about 5 months. It was there that I first had my taste of working in a team and learning a pipeline. I also learned that just because I was done with school, I wasn’t done learning. Gnomon was a Maya based school, and Blur was a 3ds Max based studio, so I needed to learn it fast.

After Blur for another 5 months, I was at Pixomondo, and I’ve just recently finished a 4-month booking at Hammer Creative.

I hope one day to be able to work in great game studios like Blizzard, Naughty Dog, Sony Santa Monica, Respawn and others.

Choosing a Character Concept

Making a 3D character can take some time, so I make sure I choose concepts that I like and that have a certain personality. I also try to be objective and make characters that might appeal to a certain studio I’d like to apply to and that have something new that will force me to learn new stuff. I find that keeping my objectivity helps to prevent me from doing the same kind of character over and over again. I also ask my wife and a few close friends what they think of the concept before even deciding on doing it. It’s good to have a close group of friends that can steer you in a good direction and can give you feedback on your stuff, but ultimately it’s my decision on whether or not I’m going to make the character.

I try to jump around themes and styles. If I’ve done a fantasy character, I might do a sci-fi next, and a superhero after. I might be doing stylized characters, and then switch to more realistic ones.

I also have a few artists that I really love and I feel can do no wrong. They always inspire me. For example, I have done four pieces based on Bruce Timm so far, and I plan on doing more.

I like the idea of grabbing 2D sketches and making them game-ready. I try to be as faithful as I can to the sketch, make sure the anatomy works in 3D from all angles and then I love to go crazy and create different textures and materials for the character.

Sculpting a Character

My approach to the sculpts of the character differs significantly depending on what I am aiming for. I find that a realistic character has a more straightforward approach than a stylized one.

If I’m doing a realistic character, I might sculpt a new body from a sphere using DynaMesh or the new Sculptris Pro mode. If I just feel like moving on and start right away, I might use a base mesh. I also try to “cast” my character, find an actor that could play the character. This way it’s easy to find a real-life reference from various angles. The goal is not to get a likeness, but to see what works in the actor’s face, and then translate similar features to the character I’m sculpting.

Stylized characters can be more complicated. It is fairly common to underestimate them and their simple shapes, sometimes make them look deceptively easy. I normally sculpt these characters by mashing simple shapes together. Most of the time they’re simple spheres that I obtain by using the initialize menu of ZBrush with a cube. This way I have no poles on the spheres and they’re perfect to work with. This process of sculpting I learned from Leticia Reinaldo Gillett by taking her amazing Stylized Character class at Gnomon.

It’s also important to study the design choices of the concept artist: what lines are straight, what is curved, etc. To do this, I think it’s a good idea to not only analyze the piece we’re transposing to 3D but also other pieces by the artist as well. Finally, I also try to make my stylized pieces work anatomically. Even if the anatomy is not 100% realistic, there are things I pay attention to. Examples are the distance between shoulder and elbow and elbow and wrist, hand palm length and middle finger length, the presence of important bones on the face like the zygomatic bone, etc. So even when I’m doing stylized characters, I’m checking real-world anatomy.

Working on the Details

I like to add details that make sense in a character. In my high poly, I always try to sculpt seam lines – across the items of clothing, for example. That way I cut my UVs along those lines and the textures look more realistic.

My Demon Hunter had a lot more details than the original concept. I am a big fan of the Diablo franchise and I know the DH class very well, so I thought it would be a good idea to add other elements not present in the concept that would represent skills of the character. That’s why I added a knife and a few chakrams. I also added a half-cape, as it is something that is present in a lot of the gear in the game.

In the case of the Pirate Captain character, since there was a lot already established in the concept, I decided to focus more on the materials themselves than the elements of the character. I tried to have different cloth looks to contrast with metal accessories she is carrying.

Materials

For material creation, I primarily use Substance Painter and Designer. For realistic skin textures, I will use Mari in conjunction with TexturingXYZ maps.

I am a big fan of the PBR workflow, so I use it in all my projects. Even if I am doing a project that is going to be rendered in V-Ray, I can use Substance creatively and create simple VRayStdMaterial shader networks that can sometimes replace more complicated networks with Blend materials.

I love Painter, and the fact that it is so close to Photoshop made the transition very easy for me. You can texture a whole asset in it fairly quickly, and its library of smart materials and smart masks are great tutors for both the beginner and advanced users. I tend to use fill layers that I create and customize on the spot when I texture in Painter, however, and very rarely do I use their smart materials.

Lately, I have been using Substance Designer more than Painter. That’s where the real power lies, and I’ve used it to texture my latest projects. For my Sith Inquisitor, I created several different materials and used ID maps to texture the armor of the character. Designer also allows for the exposure of the nodes’ parameters, so you can make changes to the published substance later on in Painter, Unity, Unreal, etc. I’ve used it simply to change the colors of the Inquisitor armor, but I could have used it to change to different materials, level of dirt, level of damage, etc.

Using Designer also makes you think about texturing and look development more, and it will help you look beyond Painter’s smart materials. That way you won’t use the same gold armor everyone is using. Finally, recently SD got an option to use UDIMs and different texture maps, so now it’s easier to texture a whole character in it, regardless of the number of texture maps that the asset has.

Even Photoshop is part of my pipeline sometimes. Most of the Pirate Captain character was textured in Photoshop, with some handpainted details added in Painter afterward. I’ve been able to mimic the Photoshop texturing in Substance Designer, so lately I’ve been using just the one application.

Workflow

I prefer to start sculpting what is going to become my high poly and then retopo the meshes to create the low poly. I find it more intuitive that way. I like to focus on the shapes first. Topology should follow the shape, not the other way around. 

I start by blocking out all the major shapes in ZBrush until I have the same level of detail all over the character, then I detail each part a bit more until I again have the same level of detail. I keep on doing this until the high poly sculpt is done. It’s preferable to have an asset with everything at the same level than have a highly detailed head and a blocked out the body. Pretty much everything from my high poly is done in ZBrush. A lot of my shapes are obtained by masking the subtool underneath, extract, ZRemesher until the polycount is low, adjusting the verts and then divide and detail. ZBrush has a lot of tools that allow not only for organic sculpting but hard surface modeling as well. I try to stay in the same application as much as I can, to save time and because I’m lazy.

Lately, I’ve been trying to sculpt in a way that each subtool has different subgroups per material. That way you can polypaint the groups and use them as ID maps when baking. It pays to think ahead.

After that, I go to Maya, and all the “tech” work is done there. I start by retopologyzing the meshes to get my low poly. Game topology is significantly different from the film topology: since you have to focus on polycount budgets, you sometimes have to be more creative in order to follow the silhouette and make it a functional mesh. I focus on areas of deformation like face, fingers, wrists, elbows, knees, etc. and also try to keep curvature in important areas like face and eyes. I collapse edges where extra polygons are not going to make much of a difference to the silhouette. If I have a low polycount budget, I try to go lower and lower as I go from the head to the feet, but I try to make adjacent meshes have similar polycount density. I was once told that you should try to avoid having adjacent meshes either 50% denser or 50% less dense. Avoiding it makes your model look neat and polished, even before bakes, and it shows that you have a good grasp of topology.

After that, I move on to UVs. You should plan your layout depending on the way you’re going to texture. I find that it’s much smarter to UV a mesh according to the texturing software I’m going to use to make the software do most of the work for me. My UVs for Substance tend to be very different from my UVs for Mari, but that difference makes more sense in film-based work, where the same mesh might have UVs that span various UDIMs. In real-time assets, no matter how many texture sets you have, each whole mesh is only in one of them, not in various. I try to plan the number of texture maps my character is going to have beforehand, and then I pack the UVs by hand as neatly as I can.

Rendering

I normally use Marmoset Toolbag for the rendering of my characters. I like it because it’s easy to render turntables, show topology wireframes, and to export the viewer to ArtStation. Marmoset is a very easy tool to use and renders very high-quality images and turntables that I normally use in my reels. My setup in Marmoset is fairly simple, as I mostly just use its default shader and adapt to a Metal-Roughness PBR workflow with the texture maps previously created in Substance. I sometimes change the shader from Lambertian to SSS on the Diffusion tab when I want to use the shader on the skin. Sometimes, I also use MicroFiber to create a cloth look in certain meshes. Besides these basic setups, I use transparent shaders mainly for the eyes and hair cards.

Joao Baptista, 3D Character Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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