Modeling, Texturing and Animating a Hero Asset

Modeling, Texturing and Animating a Hero Asset

Marco Manola did a breakdown of the Fishing Crane model created for the final spring semester at Ringling with Maya, Substance Painter, and UE4.


Hello, my name is Marco Manola and I am a very recent Ringling College of Art & Design graduate with a Bachelor of Fine Art in Game Art Design. I am incredibly excited to make my first step into the industry.

I was born and raised in Oak Park, Illinois, and my immersion into the art world began at an incredibly young age. My father owns a fine art gallery and was charged with the childcare duties on Fridays. From the time I could hold my head up until I went off to pre-school, I spent every Friday surrounded by paintings. With art always on my mind, I went through my early school years doodling in my homework and test papers. In high school I became certain that a career in the art field was what I wanted – but what kind of career? I had always played around with clay and wire, making 3D creations and often doing short stop-animation films. This, alongside an obsession for video games, sparked an idea. My mom did some research and found Ringling College of Art & Design, one of the best schools for Game Art.

At the school, I got my feet wet by taking a short one-week intro to ZBrush class and met the instructor Martin Murphy. I could not have been more impressed by him and the school. He taught us everything we needed to know in a few short classes. I came back to Ringling the following summer for their Pre-college experience, a four-week program of intro classes taught by full-time faculty members. I stayed at the dorms and gained a college credit. I was sold on Ringling. During my first year at school, I honed my traditional art skills and knowledge. From then on, our program first headed into a plethora of advanced software I never in my life would have thought of using. Being around so many passionate and incredibly talented artists was unlike any experience I ever had. The school takes so much pride and accountability in preparing its students for a future in their selected industry. To ensure the best possible education they stock their rooster with longtime veterans of the industry and established artists, freshly removed from great studios. Each instructor brings their own set of experiences, skill sets, and knowledge.

Fishing Crane

Design Phase

The idea for the Fishing Crane started around the gameplay mechanic – the basic idea was to fulfill fish bait orders by catching multiple fish. The obvious way of catching fish with a net or fishing pole would not suffice, so I thought it would be fun if you could set some sort of a trap and move on to the next. The challenge of managing multiple traps at once would create interesting gameplay scenarios. I chose ‘Overcooked’ as my main gameplay inspiration. The chaotic style of the game is incredibly fun to me and I wanted to emulate some of that in my thesis. This idea also solved another major issue. At Ringling making a fun game is always the goal, but we always prioritize the visuals. A fishing pole as the main interaction throughout the game is not visually appealing. The fishing crane checked all my senior thesis requirements (to make an animated character or object) and made for a great portfolio piece.


When it came to conceptualizing the crane I started off by figuring out how it would work. I immediately referenced the crab fishermen from ‘Deadliest Catch’. I knew they used some sort of a crane to move their crab pots around so after digging around I came up with this image.

Once I saw this image I had something to start with. From there I created several silhouettes to figure out the basic proportions of my design. I went on and created six rough sketches of cranes from those silhouettes. After that, my peers and teacher voted on their favorites and I picked from there. This sketch went on to become the final illustration. I pulled a lot of reference from crab pot pullers and davit lifts. The engine was based on a Honda single cylinder engine.

First Drawings of Crane Concept

Final Concept Art for Fishing Crane

Modeling Phase

At the beginning of the modeling phase, I start with a simple block in, making sure not to get too invested in the model before perfecting the proportions. Once I believe it matches the concept art I like to import it into the editor and make sure it makes sense in the environment, the scale feels appropriate, and also how it looks in the game when you walk up to it.

This is essential to me because you can match the concept art perfectly but that does not account for how it looks up close from the player’s point of view. The number one thing to me that makes the modeling process go as smoothly as possible is well thought out concept art. This removes a lot of the guessing we have to do as 3D artists when starting a model.

The part that gave me the most difficulties was the engine. I began redesigning it from the original idea during the modeling process away for two reasons. I wanted to design an engine that was my own conception, and more importantly, I felt the engine in the drawing did not reflect the style of my game. I decided to make an older engine, similar to a motorcycle engine with a mixture of different parts that I felt were more complex and visually stimulating. The biggest difficulty was getting all those separate components welded together while also keeping the edge loops to a minimum. I really challenged myself with this asset to avoid meshes floating into each other and merge the verts to create the high fidelity look on all of the connection points. Some hard-surfacing tricks I used to help me through all of this are fairly straight forward.

Moved away from engine concept art to better match the style of my game

I use edit edge flow quite a bit, with (0.8) setting. This ensures all of my edges fall in line and avoid any shading issues. I draw out all the wires, tubing, and pipes with a curve tool, then extrude along them – this usually gives me the best result for getting intricate pipes. Lastly, I always finish a lot of my models by using either soft select and doing a little controlled destruction of the model or utilizing another powerful tool inside of Maya called lattice tool combined with soft selection. This really allows you to adjust a lot of verts on the fly. This is something I learned at Ringling. Professors are constantly warning us to avoid that ultra-milled, machine precision look you can get from Maya. To avoid this I always look for opportunities for sagging the model where gravity will take its effect and also adding areas of interest by showing a bit of wear and abuse. Age and batter your model to your desired liking and style.

Texturing Phase

The texturing of this asset solely happened in Substance Painter. One of my favorite software’s to use, it is really easy to make unique assets, with lots of storytelling in the texture maps. I like to begin by blocking in the base colors, simple roughness, and metallic values.

Once I get the colors to match my concept art I work my way from the biggest sections of the models to the smallest pieces. When approaching all the wear and tear I usually begin with a smart mask. From there, I almost always add a paint layer and clean up any noticeable tiling and then add my own unique touches to give the asset that extra bit of believability. One technique I often use is to add a lighter, desaturated color on top of the base color with one of the surface worn masks. This gives the model an aging look and great color variation.

In my opinion, each texture map is equally important, but my favorite one to work with is roughness. The way light interacts with an object is very important when working in 3D, and adding as much variation in the roughness can add a lot of visual interest.

Roughness Maps Inside of Substance Painter

Finally, while texturing, I always keep track of how many different types of materials I have going on. Too few will not be very interesting and too many can become a bit overwhelming to the viewer. It makes more sense that whoever constructed this would use similar metals and plastics throughout the construction. I always add my touch to the texturing, and never drop a smart mask on and leave it at that. They are powerful but should never be the only step. I like to clamp my metallics below (0.9) as I tend to notice that in a shadow a 100% metallic part becomes a bit too dark in UE4. Most importantly, make sure you always keep in mind what kind of age and environment this asset has been exposed too. Each asset should reflect the world it lives in, and for this, you can use the power of Painter to your advantage by adding highly detailed texture maps.

Final Asset Render

Animation Phase

This was my first time rigging a model all from scratch and without Mixamo, so I took my time and used all the wisdom from my instructor Jamie DeRuyter. The fact the model was almost all rigid made rigging fairly simple with deformers and skin weights. Once the rig was in place and my skin weight looking believable, it was time to get down to the animation.

Moving up and down was simple enough and almost all of my professors had begged me to make this engine ridiculously rumbly to give it extra character. Simply keying in a simple diagonal shuffle back and forth gave it a fairly convincing look. I had watched lots of videos of similar engines doing this sort of motion. At the last minute, I also remembered how my first car’s stick shift would wiggle when idling and thought it would be really funny to implement it. It would also make it easier for the player to spot the crane and know it is interactable. Getting the animations into Unreal and getting the skeleton set up was simple enough. I used this resource to figure out how to set up an animation blueprint as I had never done it before:


All the steps of my process are something I have figured out through trial and error as an artist, and as I continue to hone my skills I’m sure I will tweak them. My time at Ringling has taught me that one of the most valuable things an artist can have is a critique. Getting feedback from peers is invaluable and you should always seek out a second pair of eyes on your work. I have learned to never settle with the first design or iteration. Thanks for reading!

Marco Manola, Environment Artist – 3D Generalist

Interview conducted by Daria Loginova

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