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Hi Elliott, This is a great breakdown and very generous in sharing your process and insights, you came a long way from the vending machine days!
Are you planning on releasing the UE4 project to the public? Or only builds? I'd love to play around with it in the editor if possible!
A little talk from David Kong on the production of awesome 3d character with the help of Marvelous Designer, Zbrush and Maya.
My name is David Kong and I’m a 3D student at Future Games in Stockholm, Sweden. Since I started studying 3D in 2014 I’ve always had a passion for making characters, and in this article, I’ll go through how I made my latest work “The Dark Wraith”.
My main goal with this project was to make a character with a lot of hard surface gear because I wanted to improve how I work with different software’s simultaneously. And since I’ve always wanted to make a cool looking fantasy knight, this was the perfect opportunity.
I decided to go for a dynamic and frightening scene, and my main inspirations for the knight was a mix of Artorias from the Dark Souls games and the Ring Wraiths from the Lord of the Rings franchise.
He needed to have a solid base of metal armor with a mysterious hooded cloak, since I wanted to practice making cloth with Marvelous Designer. I gathered lots of references from medieval, fantasy and realistic knights. This helped me understand the complexity of the armor better. As for the horse, I played with the idea of having it either “flaming evil” or more towards a normal looking horse in a slightly bad condition.
Since the horse is bigger than the rider, it takes up more screen space, so I couldn’t just leave the horse naked with a saddle. Design wise it looked much more appealing if the horse also had got some gear on to be prepared for battle and shared some of the design language of the knight.
Sculpting the horse was a great opportunity to practice my anatomy knowledge. Because of that, I sculpted it from scratch in Zbrush, starting with just a sphere to force myself to better understand its shapes. When I was happy with the high poly sculpt, I used ZRemesher to get my low poly/game asset. Afterwards I spent some time to improve the topology in Maya before proceeding to texturing.
Throughout the process, I try to keep asking myself how I can improve my efficiency. “How is this going to be viewed in the end? Do I need to sculpt this tiny scratch? Can I get the same effect when I texture the piece later and get away with it?” For this reason, I didn’t sculpt any hair/fur details on the horse in Zbrush. All those details were generated by a fur material in Substance Painter to save time.
It’s good practice to try everything in every different software you’re using, so you can learn their strengths and how to combine them in the most time efficient way.
To create the shapes of the horse’s armor pieces I used Quad-Draw in Maya on top of the horse, and that I then extruded for the right thickness. Building the armor this way, it helps you to get the mesh to fit nicely. I constantly previewed my work in Marmoset Toolbag which helps to get an overall look of the model while also giving a satisfying feeling of getting things done.
The black cloak on the character was simulated in Marvelous Designer. I wanted to make a heavy cloak that covered his shoulders and elbows, and make it dynamic and seem like it’s in motion to give life and movement to the scene. This was simulated after I placed the character on the horse to have the cloth smoothly being placed on the horse back. Once I was happy with the simulation I exported it to ZBrush to finalize the draping and sculpt some more interesting folds that I felt were missing. Once I was happy with the folds I Zremeshed it to a lower polycount and baked it.
I knew from the beginning that I wanted a horse rider, charging in a dynamic pose, riding with the wind. To get it right, I had to experiment a bit to convey the right mood. The biggest challenge was to maintain a great silhouette from all angles.
These are some of the iterations I made of the posing. In the top left I went for a diving approach with much weight on the front, but it didn’t feel dramatic enough. I went on to have the horse in a jumping/rearing stance to make it look more majestic. For my final iteration, I had the knight lean forward to be more caught in the movement, and did some last tweaking on the horse’s legs and head.
The character was roughly 80% made in Maya. However, some pieces were to be sculpted in ZBrush (mostly big cracks). I used the human male base mesh from ZBrush to get an idea of the proportions of the character. Once in Maya, I started out by quad-drawing the armor pieces on the body (same method I used for the horse). I went straight for mid-poly, speeding up my workflow tremendously. From there on I used Substance Painter to preview how the model would look with basic metal textures.
I tried to be keep a modular mindset and modeled a few pieces that I duplicated and used elsewhere on the body that made sense. Understanding how to work in this way, and always keeping in mind where to take shortcuts, made it possible to make big progress in a short amount of time.
The challenge when creating the hard surface objects was to get it to deform nicely when they are being posed and put into a context. I used the masking tool in Zbrush to pose them together. Since the parts are all stacked upon each other it can be tricky to get around every angle, for this I selected meshes by polygroups to easier isolate the part that I wanted to mask out.
This part was the most tedious, but since this was not to be put into a pipeline production, it was faster than rigging the characters.
Substance Painter is a great program to work with different masks/materials.
First I bake out the Curvature and Ambient Occlusion maps for my masks and smart materials to work properly. I used the Armor Rust smart-material for the base metal, and then experimented with different smart-masks to get the desired dirt complexity around the edges and valleys. For the metal armor pieces, I blended different materials to get the desired look. Applying Smart-materials is a great way to get your textures on the right track!
As for the cloth, I tried different patterns with the Base Fabric materials. By adding a weave-procedural texture to the fill layer, I could easily play around with the subtle noise patterns by adjusting the UV scale and height. This will help the fabric threads to pop slightly in variety.
To texture the horse, I started with painting in Zbrush. I then used the polypaint information from the highpoly by baking out the vertex colors in Substance Painter. I could easily apply that Color-Id map to a fill layer.
This gave me a solid foundation of the colors. I personally find it more appealing to paint organic stuff in ZBrush before finalizing it in Substance Painter.
When starting with the lighting I knew that I wanted a cold blue-ish rim light and a warmer fill light focused on the front. This would help me capture some of the spookiness from the wraith. My main reference was from the first Lord of the Rings movie, when the wraith chases the hobbits through the woods. The lighting and atmosphere in that the scene is incredibly beautiful and spooky. Personally, I tend to lean towards a more dramatic lighting setup as I think that this is a cool way of showing your stuff, while keeping a bit of mystery.
I used three different directional lights. A strong blue-ish rim light, a warmer fill light in front/side of the horse and a cold weak top light, this was for the rim light to pop out more since I didn’t want to light up the entire scene too much.
I used a HDRI preset light scene to be able to adjust the overall brightness and keep all the directional lights parented to that source, this gives me better control and an easier way to move around the light sources.
Using these techniques I was able to have the wraith riding with the moonlight on its back, and towards a warmer campfire that would help fill up the coldness. This also broke up the color variety in the entire scene to get the atmosphere more interesting.
When rendering, it’s very helpful if you have thought about a “final shot” that will be most representative of the entire work. In this instance, I wanted my main shot to be slightly below the horse, so I could embrace its fierce action.
To add effect and volume, it helped to put in dirt/leaf splashes where the movement is. This also increases the atmosphere of the action. Depending on what you’re rendering, the field of view can help the scene to be more powerful. I worked with the value of around 60 which helped to make the horse more feel intriguing, especially when taking a shot below it and having it stare into the camera.
For final touches; adjust the brightness/contrast, put in some grain by only a few percent and add a smooth vignette to increase the dark mood. The depth of field is one of the most powerful ways to achieve that final touch. Play around with the blurriness so that your work truly pops out. This will also help the eyes to focus on what’s relevant.
My advice to get better results is to constantly compare yourself with all the professionals out there. Observe what they’re doing, try it yourself and never miss a chance to improve your workflow and learn how to be more effective.
I hope this was helpful, and I myself will continue improving on making cool characters!