Number 14: Hard-Surface Character Production Guide

Number 14: Hard-Surface Character Production Guide

Krissana Kochsila did a detailed breakdown of his hard-surface character, Number 14, discussed the inspiration and the background story of the character, shared his approach to modeling, texturing, and clothes creating, and gave some advice for character artists.

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Introduction

Hi everyone, I’m Krissana Kochsila. Currently, I live and work in Bangkok as Lead Artist for Tap4fun Thailand. I graduated from Sripatum University in Bangkok focusing on 3D Animation. I started my career in Singapore working on the multi-media company that gave me a chance to work in many areas. Then I decided to move back to BKK and shift my focus to game development. In the past 7 years, I have been working on 3D character art and other related areas such as Character VFX and Character Animation.

There are so many tools and approaches that character artists use nowadays to create their 3D characters, and here is the breakdown process of my personal project “Number 14” I hope you guys enjoy and find it helpful.

Inspiration for the Project 

I started working on high poly for this character a while ago, then I was busy at work for around 2 years before finally came back to finish him.

To create a character, I always start with the context/universe or the world that character is living in because it helps give reasons to design and define why the character looks or become what he is. Having the universe story or theme settled also significantly supports making the background story for each character complete and meaningful.

“It's far-future Earth in the middle of a conflict that information and technology are the most important resource”.

After I got the universe settled, I start listing down elements that I would like to play with.

  • Special agent or Special force.
  • Utility armor that focuses on stealth operation.
  • Customizable Character.
  • Flexible and agile.

I really enjoy working with characters that have stories. It helps driving my imagination and keep me hyped with the project through all the processes. When I was working on this character, I gradually build up his characteristic and his background story that is cohesive with the universe that he live in.

“He is a highly trained soldier both physical and mental from a famous Academy. He is the product of advanced warfare. Will be the only dispatch for important missions such as protect VIP, search and destroy, secure package or spy for information. He is determined, patient, practical and always gets the job done.”

With all this information, it helps me imagine a picture of him and directs me to a clear goal. 

Sculpting 

The first thing is the art style and anatomy. I want to create a character that is still based on realistic human but exaggerate some areas that make him more heroic, wider the chest and shoulder, also smaller the head. Tweaking these areas will make him look bigger and stronger than a normal human. 

As you could see on these images, I start with rough anatomy sculpt just enough to hit the proportion that I would like to achieve. Then, I did a quick 2D sketch on top to see the vibe of this character. After that, I continue designing him in ZBrush.

  1. Quick base anatomy sculpt in ZBrush, then do a rough sketch on top in Photoshop
  •  Special agent or Special force.
  • Utility armor that focuses on stealth operation.
  • Customizable Character.
  • Flexible and agile.

2. Continue designing in ZBrush using mask, extract, and sculpting.

Suit Approach 

In ZBrush, there are many ways to create these armor pieces, but here is the breakdown process I used back then.

  1. Mask the area where I want to create an armor piece.
  2. Then using the extract tool with preferred thickness value to create a new mesh.
  3. I cut those bumping borders out with “TrimCurve” or “ClipCurve”. If some angle is too difficult to achieve by TrimCurve, but Clipcurve will just push the surface and won't give you new polygroup.
  4. Now, this is a bit more fun part, I start to dynamesh the piece with “Polish” feature enabled. Then sculpting the piece with “TrimDynamic” and  “hPolish” brush.

 This process is fast and fun for me because I could focus only the design part no need to worry about the topology but this way will make your scene heavier because we don't have a lower subdivision but if you have a strong PC, this shouldn't be your problem.

4.1 If you don't want to sculpt, you could use “Zremesher” with “Keep Group” and “Detect Edge” enabled. It could help achieve a similar result with a lower subdivision to keep your scene smooth. 

4.2 “Panel Loops” is also useful for this kind of layer armor.

Functionality is something that I always keep in mind when designing his armor. All these elements need to have a reason why it has been made like that. Of course, it's a made-up armor, it's not real equipment that we will use in our lives, but if we put some purpose to these details, it will help make the character more believable, and it's super fun to let your imagination flow.

I always consider how the character is going to move when he got animated. Articulation areas are very important. These areas should not be blocked by hard-surface pieces, otherwise, it will be bizarre to see those metal pieces got to bend or twist when the character move. In short, all articulation areas should be manufactured by soft material.

For the detail on the armor, I used a combination of hand-sculpt and custom alpha brushes. Some brushes I made myself but I also bought alpha textures online, then import into ZBrush to create these custom tools.

  • Hand sculpts on the organic parts such as cloth folds.
  • Custom brushes use on detailing the hard-surface. 

Here are examples of how I use some of those custom brushes. I will upload them to my Artstation. Feel free to grab and play with them.

Actually, my ZBrush Project file got corrupted, and I lost almost everything. The progress that disappeared was around 2 - 3 weeks of the work. I was very frustrated but I did try again to re-create and finally finish the armor. It's kind of a happy accident because while I was working on the armor again, I saw that the first version was too fat.

Old version that I lost

New Version

This character needs to be flexible and agile but still deadly in close-quarter combat, I chose a pistol and sword but the normal sword would be too unwieldy and slow him down, so I made it portable. Then, I did give him a utility vest that suits his mission.

Topology is another area that I invest a lot of my time in, I really hated it but I want the best result that I could achieve, so I push myself through it. I tried to catch all the details and angles and also made sure that articulation and face areas have enough edge loop/polygon to support his movement during the animation and facial expression. But for those hard-surface objects that don't need to be bend, I did optimize them as much as possible as you could see on these images and total polycount for all these assets is 63k triangles.

Which piece will be what material was already planned since the designing process, but I still gave some flexibility to myself with the color ID that prepared in ZBrush.

  1. Since all these elements of the armor are separated, I did auto-generate polygroup for all of them using “Auto groups”
  2. Then use “Polypaint From Polygroups”
  3. After the color ID is baked, I just assign matt and use “mask with color selection” and keep select the area that I want to assign each material. There are Pros and Cons for this method though.

Cons:

  • There is no way to categorize these colors ID ie. All Kevlar area will have different color IDs which means I have to select multiples color IDs just to assign 1 material, but it’s just 1 click per piece still very fast to get it done.

Pros:

  • I have the flexibility to customize, try more ideas, mix different combinations as I want by just selecting the color ID of that specific piece that I want to change.
  • Saves time during fill color in ZBrush when trying to summarize color ID for a specific material in Zbrush definitely, it is useful but, in terms of time spent, might take too long and difficult to foresee the result. To do it in ZBrush and try to imagine the final result might be tricky in some cases. With my method, you will see the result of these material combinations right away in Substance Painter if it works or not and, if it doesn’t work, you can try new combination in Substance Painter, no need to go back to ZBrush to refill these color IDs >>Re-export>> Re-bake that is real pain!. With this method, I could avoid all these back-and-forth’s and speed up my workflow.

Texturing

In the beginning, I had a clear vision about the looks of the materials that I wanted to achieve. I wanted this armor to made from several types of advance materials that have a similar look with Steel, Kevlar, Cloth, Gold, and Rubber. 

I start with creating these smart materials in Substance Painter, then gradually assign them into each color ID. For these details, I use an alpha stamp and paint on a mask for the final touch.

An example image of the Smart Matt. Overall, I try not to put too much noise on those matts to avoid realistic looks and because the level of detail was already in control during the high poly process, only Hexel and Cloth Matt that have micro-detail because it would take too much polygon to get those small fabric look in ZBrush.

As you could see, these matt look flat and simple, I didn't use any fancy technic, It was done by Metallic, Roughness, and Base Color parameter in Painter with Occlusion and Curvature maps on top.

How the armor will bend/twist or what kind of sound it will produce started to be more clear now with all those material assigned.

Sculpting the face that visualizes the character's personality is challenging but it's a great exercise. It took me several takes to be happy with the first version but after looking at him for a while I start to feel this face is not accurate to what I’ve planned to achieve.

Then, I went back to tweaking High Poly >>> Low Poly >>> Texture until I got the final version as you could see here. I still really like the 1st version though, but this version is more accurate to his characteristics.

“He is a highly trained soldier both physical and mental from a famous Academy. He is the product of advanced warfare. Will be the only dispatch for important missions such as protect VIP, search and destroy, secure package or spy for information. He is determined, patient, practical and always gets the job done.”

Posing and Facial Expression

Needless to say how important posing is for presenting your characters. I always consider these points when I pose any character:

  • Who is he/she?
  • What is his Role/Job/Purpose?
  • What action he would do when he performs his job?
  • How he would react to some specific situations?
  1. First, I chose a combat stance to show that he is well educated in martial arts and close quarter combat.
  2. Secondly, I chose to draw a gun action, I’m thinking about when the negotiation goes wrong and needs to be resolve by violence.
  3. The facial expression I did base on his personality, for this case, I chose an intense face for combat pose and confident smile when idle.

Lighting

This is another very important process for presenting your hard work. This could help boost the quality of your works by miles If it’s well-executed. I chose Marmoset Toolbag to present this character because it’s super fast and well-rounded for character presentation in real-time. 

I used a combination of Main Light, Fill Light and Rim Light for this presentation.

The lighting setting is almost the same across all poses, the only position of some light is different just to avoid making some poses too dark or the face got hidden in the shadow.

Overall Challenges and Advice

I would say the most difficult part for me is the character's face. To get the face that you have in mind and display the character personality as you could see it, took me 2 takes and, with the 1st version, I went all the way until rendering to realize that is not exactly what I want. 

Another area is the armor. What challenging about this area is that I did the design on the fly in ZBrush, many back-and-forth’s, try this, try that and end up spending a bit too much time on it but still, this is super fun, and I’m very happy with the result.                                    To be honest, my works still have many areas to improve but one thing that I found very useful in my experience is to know a bit about everything is very useful. For instance, when you know how to animate or pose the character, this will give you ideas on how the character should be rigged >> knowing how to rig the character will give you ideas of how wireframe/topology of the character should be layout and so on.

I would like to use this opportunity to say thank you to these project Crysis, Metal Gear, Ghost in the Shell, Street Fighter, Overwatch, Gear of War, Blade Runner for giving me the inspiration to create this character and big thanks to 80 Level for contacting me for this interview.

Krissana Kochsila, Character Artist 

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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    Number 14: Hard-Surface Character Production Guide