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Modeling and Rendering Human Characters

Ray Shi showed how he sculpted and painted his amazing Claymore fan art. He also shared his full Marmoset Toolbag 3 setup, which helped to achieve this beautiful render.

Ray Shi showed how he sculpted and painted his amazing Claymore fan art. He also shared his full Marmoset Toolbag 3 setup, which helped to achieve this beautiful render.


Hey 80 Level, I’m Ray Shi. I’m a 3D artist working for Activision, and I’m currently residing in Shanghai, China. I previously worked for EA Sports in their Vancouver, Canada studio on the FIFA series, and I’m currently working on the Call of Duty series for Activision in their Shanghai studio. In between these two positions, I worked on several smaller mobile projects.


For the Claymore project, I wanted to create a female image that was tough yet feminine while remaining true to the original anime/manga design. It’s hard to say what my main inspiration was, but I’ve always appreciated a well-portrayed, kickass female character in any media. This work is hopefully just the start of a long series of projects that will have more characters that meet this criterion.

Character production

I searched Google for the character’s anime design and took several screenshots of that design for my reference. Furthermore, I simply went through other people’s work on ArtStation for the material that I wanted to use.

Typically, I start with a base mesh, which can be a combination of an old base mesh with some new sculpt or even a partially scanned material. I put them together with DynaMesh in ZBrush and make them proportionate. Then, I put them into Marvelous Designer to create the cloth material. I usually start the hard-surface shape in Maya and then put it into ZBrush for worn sculpt (if needed). For the face it’s just a matter of gathering references and sculpts.


To be honest, I veer away from too many emotions in the face because when done incorrectly it provides an unflattering appearance to any character. I sculpted a neutral emotion and raised the mouth corner a bit as well as tightened up the eyebrows on the low poly. There isn’t really a shortcut for face sculpting—I think it’s just a skill that grows with you as an artist, particularly as one becomes more experienced with sculpting and anatomy. Learning anatomy definitely helps one understand the shape of a character’s eyes and mouth, which is key for creating the illusion of likeness.


I followed Adam Skutt’s hair tutorial. I had the maps render out with XGen and Arnold and then hand-placed the cards. I think most people now agree that hand-placed cards are the best!

One thing to notice, though, is that I have the hair in layers. The first layer blocks in the shapes of the hair and another layer breaks it up. Finally, I decided to add another thin layer, which gave it that messy look. Definitely check out Adam Skutt’s tutorial—everything I’ve mentioned here he explains in much greater detail.


I used a very standard Substance Painter workflow. I baked normal and two AO maps from Marmoset Toolbag 3.0. In one AO, I have the entire model together; in the other, I have it separated. In Substance, I used the separated AO in the final texture where I multiplied some combined AO on materials, like cloth.

The curvature map I converted from Photoshop by using the Applied Image function with Red and Green Channel, while the other maps were converted from Substance Painter. After that, it was just applying material and mask tweaking in Substance.

Blood Splatters and Cuts

I found an interesting blood splatter alpha pack that I used as Projection/Brush alpha in Substance. I separated the blood splatter into two parts—the old and dried ones and the fresh blood splats. Cuts were a bit tricky. I first used ZRemesher on the cloth after finishing it up with Marvelous Designer. Next, I threw the remeshed mesh into Maya and hand made some cuts with traditional modeling tools. After, I ported it back into ZBrush and projected from the Marvelous Designer mesh while masking the ripped/cut area. Then, I simply sculpted them to look natural.


Clothing was done in Marvelous. It’s almost a skin-tight cloth, so nothing too fancy going on there! For the boots, I sculpted a rough shape from ZBrush and brought it into Maya. There I beveled the edges and sent it back into ZBrush to have a more solid edge. After that, I added some large cuts and worn parts. For the smaller ones, I just used Substance Painter.

Tine costs

I started this project in March but only spent an hour working on it every other day for the first two months. Upon entering my third month with this project, I started gaining momentum and spent more time with it, leading me to finish it at the end of that third month.

The best thing I learned from this project wasn’t something technical. Rather, it was something much more than that. For the longest time, I was unable to produce a finished personal work because I was prioritizing everything else in my life above my passion projects. Yet, when I finished this project, even when I knew it would be a big task and require months to accomplish, I felt really happy! I just hope all who are in a similar situation prioritize their love of 3D art and remember why they entered the industry in the first place.

I think this project can still use a lot of optimization. The metal parts need the least improvement while I’d like the facial texture to be much better. Further, I’d like the cloth wrinkle in addition to the torn strands on the cut areas to be optimized. Her hair could use some work toward the bottom, too. Also, I’d be more selective with my choice of splattered areas. Overall, this project was great practice and is a strong foundation for the rest of my upcoming projects.


Indeed, I can show you my Marmoset setup. A small chunk of my time at work involves rendering out characters and weapons in Marmoset for promotional and other uses.

I wouldn’t say this is a classic case of an HDRI lighting setup, but I typically set up the light from the HDRI. I always start with directional lights first to get a rough lighting direction. The light source should come from the HDRI so it produces more realistic effects. If one HDRI doesn’t work, simply try others. Because the HDRI in Marmoset doesn’t cast shadow—when you want to have a good lighting with shadows and contrasts—you should have a very low HDRI value and have most of the light coming from the directional/spotlight you created. Then, ensure your scene size is scaled appropriately and tweak the width of the light so it produces the desired hardness/softness of the shadow. If you want a specific, squarish looking reflection on some of your metal parts, changing the length of the light is generally a good option but not so much in this case.

Image one is a breakdown for normal lights—good ol’ warm and cool tone lighting. Image two is the scene I used for the final version, which contains some white directional lighting to highlight parts of the sword. I also added some omni light just to give the cap a rim. Note: I set the cape to cull back face so it wouldn’t block the rim light for the character. I set the omni lights distance to very low so it wouldn’t affect the character.

As for compositing, I used the Marmoset post for the final images. I come from a film background so I used Nuke for glow and color tuning in addition to some other effects.


Gwang Shi, 3D artist at Activision

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