AMC Romania team did a breakdown of its real-time non-playable character, Paramedic, discussed modeling in ZBrush, texturing in Substance Painter, and shared the approach to details.
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About the Company
AMC Romania is a 100% Romanian family-owned business founded in early 2000 in Bucharest, Romania.
Cristina & Marcel Neamtu, the two founders, currently running the business, have started their business dreaming about launching their first video game. And this was happening at a time when video games demos were presented to producers only on CDs in a market still in transition following the switch in 1990s Eastern European economies. And if the dream of launching their own video game is still a dream today, during the next 20 years after the first steps of their business, the company focus took a significant turn by becoming a real regional pioneer in the area of 3D Art for video games.
AMC Romania nowadays is an established art creation studio, contributing to titles such as the "Call of Duty" series, "World of Tanks", Witcher III, Terminator Salvation, Tron, "Spiderman", “DeadRising”, “TestDriveUnlimited” and many more. We are now a bunch of talented people, united by a higher goal: to make an impact and contribute to the wellbeing of the industry.
The Biggest Challenges
We are lucky to be working in a field that has (so far) been less impacted than others.
The realities we face in our market are mostly the same during these tough times, with the new challenge of setting up remote working conditions for our colleagues.
One of the more essential matters (even before the current events) is finding qualified artists to take on for our ever-increasing scope of projects. There is an absolute lack of formal 3D schools in Romania, so for the past years, we have developed partnerships with various art colleges where we teach pro-bono 3d art courses.
We also collaborate with other European organizations with the scope of shaping the next generation of 3D Artists as a community. This is a higher goal we aim for and hope you'll have good news from us soon on this matter.
Inspiration and References
The character we are presenting was created by Ovidiu Bejan, a very passionate and talented Character Artist, who is also our rock-star (literally), during a training program we organized for our characters department. The pose was made by Andrei Bradu and rendering by Dragos Casian.
We wanted to create a game-ready NPC (non-playable-character), inspired by reality, one human being with a particular function in the world, a paramedic. So the main idea was to describe something distinctive visually and aesthetically, embedded in the real world. The things we worked on are connected and imply many aspects as below:
- colors, materials, and the relation between them had to be straightforward and easily readable.
- regarding the way materials for clothes and skin were handled: texture and colors for skin correspond to a young person, there are visible signs of usage for clothes, wrinkling for face, weathering, and folds for cloth materials;
- the medium and small details: there are many objects owned in the paramedic field, such as pieces of clothing like pockets, boots, laces, labels, and overall seams;
- silhouette, face expression, and posing should tell about the attitude of the person in this field of work. We tried to suggest that she's new in the field, by her "a-little-bit-worried" look;
- the overall artistic work relied more on sculpting and painting by hand rather than simulators, especially for the hair and for the way cloth materials behave;
All of these are inspired by specific references like pictures of real-life paramedics and their world.
The model is meant to be game-ready, pushed a bit further as it has a pose and rendering conditions for the actual presentation, it's a 26k tris in-game geometry (retopo from a 50M high detail ZBrush model).
The ZBrush model had a real human body digital scan as a starting point, modified and artistically speculated to match the needs as for proportions and body features, arranged in the game-initial-pose. The face is inspired by library photos of a real-life person, digitally sculpted to aim for resemblance. The expression is "a-bit-worried" like, not meant to be neutral, as we believe that it has to project a hint of something specific even at this point.
Working on the Hair
The hair cards are somewhat a compromise in polycount, trying to obtain the best results using the least of the geometry budget and resources. So the solution was to have the hair sculpted by hand in the ZBrush model and use the power of a normal map for a detailed definition of the hair follicles. It's artistically better as a process, in this case, giving more control than, for example, a version of fiber mesh simulated hair which tends to get noisy in the normal map texture. The silhouette of the head and hair is then improved with individual alpha hairs mapped on geometry cards, detail meant to improve on what usually happens with mid-low geometry in the hair area.
Working on the Clothes
For the clothes, there are a couple of techniques involved here, for example, the way materials folds behave. The sculpting approach is a combination of real-life references and artistic speculation. The decision, again, was not to use cloth simulators and to concentrate on the hand-made part of the process. After the primary sculpting, some details were added so that materials look like they were used and weathered, with tools like alphas processed from photos of sharp folds and specific sculpt brushes, some of them having nothing to do with folds but serving the same purpose in the end. Some specific brushes were used for seams and all of the above for the high model sculpting. The clothing elements are inspired by real-life paramedic costumes, like the multi-pocket vest and medical kit. This is an excellent artistic opportunity to use color and materials contrast for visual effect as well as to give a sense of authenticity and realism
Substance Painter Workflow
Substance Painter was used for the texture, with custom smart materials for fabric fibers distinguishable between themselves and other worn plastic or metal materials. For a discrete presence of details, gritty mask brushes for scratches, dust, and mud were applied. The little touches of detail are significant in the ensemble, to be appealing not only from far away but close-up as well.
The face texture and material of skin were also approached with hand painting in Substance Painter, then adding the volume details with custom brushes and alpha generated pores on the skin, sculpted in the high res model. Some subtle procedurals and gradients in color and roughness aim for the skin to look natural. One of the secrets is to use warm color tones in the red to the yellow range and contrast them very gently with cooler ones to create some kind of "blood-flow-map" of the skin. Substance Painter's power of masks based on bakes generated from the high res sculpted details was essential for the whole project though, not only skin.
Getting the Details into the Materials from Geometry
There are two ways to obtain details often used in combination: the first is volume-based, detailed sculpting on the high-res model and transferring those details in pixel information through a process called "baking", the second has more of a "texture-color" nature, and it is easier to do with Substance Painter. It consists of adding texture features over as well as generate other fast, useful maps based on the information we have from the first process. Some volume details matter in Substance Painter also, for example, fabric fibers with scale, amount, direction and orientation, and many more parameters, more comfortable to work with here.
As an overall view - the asset is meant to be an exercise in creating a realtime NPC character typically found in current-gen games. I think the first visual impression is the most important: we see a non-fictional character, somewhat mundane, being a part of the emergency medical services/paramedic division. She is supposed to be very new in the field (face expression and neat outfit). The source of inspiration is from the real world, so the face, clothes, and accessories were made using genuine references, also to give a sense of familiarity. The use of color and materials is also critical, sharp contrasts are better read at a distance and more comfortable to identify in the game.
For high resolution modeling the approach of the entire asset was handmade sculpting. I tried not to use cloth simulations or hair generators as it's handy, liberating, and fun to speculate how textiles or hair behave in the real world. The baked hair base helps the overall polycount (26k tris), which would have been much larger if alpha geometry cards were used. There is some alpha texturing involved, for eyelashes and hair flyaways to enrich the general silhouette and add a bit of fine detail.
We created the character for training purposes, so we only tested for regular technical matters (like topology, UV stretches, geometry gaps/intersections, etc.). On the other hand, when our work is for a partner project, we follow a rigorous process of benchmarking and calibrating, depending on the project's workflow (like calibrating the PBR values for their engine, fitting a custom rig, scene setup, etc.) We try to be predictable in terms of the pipeline and as creative as possible when it comes to giving personality to a character. Hope you like it as much as we enjoyed creating it!