An interview with Bernhard van der Horst about his marvelous ancient Kandarian Dagger.
Falling in love with 3D
I always used to draw and paint since I was little, but in my early 20s music making was all I cared about, naively thinking I can easily carve a career out of that by just making an occasional bit of music. And sending it to no one. And not playing live. I was reaching my late 20s, still doing random jobs I drifted into, and starting to panic, afraid that I’m going to end up doing these kind of jobs all my life if I didn’t get off my arse and start doing something. A friend recommended 3D modeling and animation, since I have done 2D animation in the past, so I started with Maya and the basics.
I first started learning via one of those official “Learning Autodesk Maya” books, and it was slow going. I then found Digital Tutors’ (now called Pluralsight) lessons to be a great kickstart. Subscribing was and is fairly cheap for an enormous amount of content. Nowadays whenever I need to learn something I just go to YouTube though.
The Kandarian Dagger
I started in Zbrush. My contractee, Dave Kann of Darkside Media, gave me a rough brief and free rein. It just needed to be oxidised bronze and ancient, somewhat nautically themed, featuring a Deep One, and ritualistic.
I started concepting in 3D, and wanted to make it fairly primitive looking. It would have been a better idea to have done this in 2D, in this instance, in my opinion, but no matter now. Dave provided some Google pics of ancient blades, I’ve lost the reference, but the following designs did not bear much, if any resemblance to them. I just went with my instincts.
The first draft looked like this. The blade was established, but the rest was vague and disproportionate.
Each piece was kept as a separate subtool, I had:
- Top round bit
- Central Faces
- Connecting part between those faces and the skulls beneath it
- The blade
I preferred this semi-modular way of working in this case, easily being able to change parts if needed.
I started with a 3dSphere for each piece. This was made back in February, so I cannot quite remember every detail of the workflow.
I mainly used the Clay brushes, Move, Standard, Dam standard and hPolish. For chipped edges I love to use a brush that’s not in the main menu, but tucked away under Brush – Trim – TrimSmoothBorder. It’s very similar to TrimDynamic.
For the central faces, I sculpted the first one with symmetry, then used Mirror and Weld on the Z-axis to duplicate one on the other side of it. If more sculpting was required I also turned on the Z axis in the Symmetry options to affect both faces the same way. Once happy I duplicated the subtool and used the Deformation palette to rotate it 90 degrees, and we end up with 4 faces all facing away from each other. At some point I should have dynameshed both subtools together to achieve better melding in the corners. At the time I thought it better to only have to manually retopologize one face later and then duplicate that. I later realised I could have dynameshed it into one four-face subtool anyway, and still only have to retopologise one side and copy that 3 times…
After a lot of guidance and feedback from Dave, I had this.
The central bit is roughly a symbolization of part of the story of Innsmouth (from The Shadow over Innsmouth by H.P. Lovecraft). The metamorphosis and interbreeding between the Deep Ones and the local townsfolk. But what are those snake-like guards? Why are they there? What’s up with the helix?
Again, Dave guides me more in the right direction with a rough drawing of what he wants. Without his design, this could have turned out pretty mediocre.
When in doubt, replace vague snakes with tentacles! Much more appropriate to the theme. The hilt also now represents a high priest of the Order of Dagon, with Dagon’s eye perched atop. Further sculpting refinements too. But things are still disproportionate. The hilt is way too small. I imagine the balance of this dagger must’ve been very poor.
After more refinements and scaling, I ended up with this, the final sculpt. I also polypainted in Zbrush using a lot of the “Mask by…” features in the Masking palette. This was before I had Substance Painter.
The great sculptor, James W Cain was also doing some work for our Darkside Media project on another character, and he showed us some renders he did of the dagger in Marmoset Toolbag and Arnold. It looked great, and I quickly realised I needed to step up to Substance Painter/ PBR as soon as possible.
I did start half-heartedly learning 3D in 2010, stopped in 2012 for 4 years due to certain life events, and then started taking it very seriously beginning 2016. Now all that time I painted in Zbrush…once exposed to Substance Painter I fell in love with texturing, and the program itself. I’ve never looked back.
Right, so after I finished the sculpt, I decimated the subtools and imported them into Maya, all still separate pieces just like the subtools. One by one I retopoed them using Maya’s Quad-draw, which is the best retopologizing tool I’ve used so far. Maybe there’s better out there – I’m still learning as I go. I ended up with around a 44k triangle count. For a game weapon that would be a bit high, but this is meant for a cinematic. As it’s for a cinematic, one could go much higher, but I think after a certain point it’s not really noticeable, and I do not want to work with millions of polygons in a UV sense. 44k is easy to manage, as if it is a game character. If it was for a game, a lot of polygons could have been reduced around the faces especially.
I then renamed everything so that Painter would bake correctly:
The high and low poly mesh names had to be exactly the same except for the suffix, for example, “hilt_high” and “hilt_low”, “guard_high” and “guard_low”, and so on. This way you can select, when baking in Painter, under the Common settings, I’d select Match – By Mesh Name. This means Substance will explode the object behind the scenes into the different objects, away from each other, so that no baking overlaps. This saves a lot of time, I think in the past one had to manually explode meshes in either Zbrush or Maya.
This dagger is meant to be ancient, and made of bronze. Bronze doesn’t rust, it oxidises (the green-with-a-hint-of blue bits), hence the overall colour scheme. I did a very bad thing, which was failure to use reference, something I always use nowadays.
My substance layers were as follows, from bottom to top (bear in mind this was after loads of switching layers about, seeing what worked for me and what didn’t)
I started with Substance’s Bronze Corroded Smart Mat. I tweaked it a lot, and removed some layers from that group, leaving only the base metal, made it rougher, and kept the curvature dust. Then I added the Zbrush Polypaint albedo map on a layer above that, at about 50% Normal opacity. This added a very slight variation to the overall tone.
Above that I have another Bronze Corroded Smart Mat, but kept all the layers included in that group, and added a paint layer to the oxydation mask. I then manually painted it to my liking.
Above this is yet ANOTHER Bronze Corroded Smart Material. This one had the more pronounced bright green oxidation, with stronger height maps, and alternate masks and manual painting. I could probably have used only one smart material overall, but at the time this worked for me. It achieved greater depth than simply slapping on a single smart material and tweaking that a bit. None of this was planned beforehand though, it naturally evolved as I merrily went along.
The final top layer is a hint of dirt, some rough dark brown with more manual mask editing fairly subtle.
Once I saved the layers out, it was simply a matter if importing into Marmoset Toolbag and lighting it. It ended up being part of a larger scene, some of which can be seen in the artstation pictures, though I’ve since refined the mat it is lying on and so on. It is posed in a certain room in a certain hotel.
Once we really get going on the production “on set”, things will be rendered via Arnold. But I can afford Toolbag, and it’s just great and easy to showcase stuff with, though I am looking forward to learning and rendering with Arnold.