Realism in 3D Portraits: Tips & Tricks

Realism in 3D Portraits: Tips & Tricks

In this interview 3d artist Mao-Lin talked about his approach to the creation of realistic 3d models of human characters.

In this interview 3d artist Mao-Lin talked about his approach to the creation of realistic 3d models of human characters. Make sure to subscribe to his Instagram and visit his website. There’s a lot of very cool stuff posted there daily. 

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Mao-Lin has been a professional 3D artist in the VFX and video game industries since 2001, working as both a production artist and supervisor, with experience in Modeling, Lighting and Compositing and Look Dev.

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I was an early school dropout. During my time at school, however, I did develop a passion for film after watching Jurassic Park—it was the first movie I saw in theaters at the age of 14. It had such a big impact on my life that two years later I started to learn 3D art. I began reading 3D magazines and absorbed as many tutorials as I could. Like other people in the CGI industry, I started my career as a character artist at Triumph Studios, a Dutch game developer famous from the Age of Wonders series. I was the only artist at that time and had to produce more than 150 characters for Age of Wonders 2! Back then characters were basic since they ended up as 2D sprites with a maximum pixel size of 256.

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So back then it was all about simple polygon modeling in Maya. But, it was still a huge task to create and complete 150 characters who belonged to one of 13 races, which varied from Elves to Dragons. I was responsible for modeling/texturing/rigging/animation for this project that took two years—and this is how I came to know Maya very well!

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Around 2004, I made a minor career switch to movies and began work on my first feature, Around the World in 80 Days with Jackie Chan. It was a rare opportunity to work on a Hollywood production in Holland. Working on the movie’s environments was a big challenge but one that slowly trained me to become an expert in optimization and rending.

In 2007 I joined The Ambassadors, a startup company, as a core member of the team. Since then, The Ambassadors has grown and now is the biggest Post-Production VFX house in Holland. During my time there, I was responsible for the shading/lighting/rendering pipeline.

Fast forward to 2009 and I’m working once again in the video game industry! It was at this time that my passion for characters quickly came back to me. I also learned ZBrush so I could work as a character artist on Killzone 3.

Between 2011-2013 I kick started my freelance career, primarily as a Freelance Character Artist. Currently, I’m working at Cyborn as the CG Supervisor on the film Ploey.

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Realistic Modeling

My interest in characters started when I was seven years old and my family immigrated from China to The Netherlands. The world around me was so different from China that I drew more and more to process this big change in my life. This gave me a chance to pursue my talent and that’s when I realized I wanted to become an artist—and I’m still drawing and studying till this day!

I think making realistic humans is the ultimate challenge for a CG artist. Thanks to software like ZBrush/Mudbox and websites like it has gotten easier to create a realistic character. Yet, with ArtStation and every other website for sharing one’s work becoming increasingly popular, it also becomes harder to stand out as an artist.

I don’t want to copy characters or model celebrities. That would be too easy. So, in 2013, I spent two months researching and developing my own workflow to create realistic portraitures. My result is Alex – Portrait of a Young Woman. With this work, I experimented with different techniques to give myself maximum flexibility and control.

Coming up with a new face was the hardest part of this process. Sometimes we get blinded by spending too much time on the details so I had to train myself to be objective with my approach. I was very critical and also asked my wife to have a look so that I could have a non-artist’s POV about the project. Making this work was a very creative and enjoyable process—it’s something I’d recommend to anyone!


I start by collecting references and defining a clear goal. So for Alex I envisioned a naturally lit portrait of a young lady near a window. It’s very useful to set a personal goal so you won’t end up changing your style/mind throughout the production. I use my references mainly as references and sculpted everything by hand. This way I had control over the resolution of the textures/sculpt because it was all layered and didn’t originate from a photo source.

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To get the skin right I studied many different scanned 3D faces. I realized that facial skin is much rougher than you typically see in a rendering, which helped me quite a bit to understand how deep I should sculpt. Also, I set up lighting before I finalize the modeling, because the end product often looks different than it does in the rendering software, right? So setting up early studio light rigs is equally important to good modeling.


I really love Substance Painter and wish I had it in 2009! I remember doing much of what is now possible with Painter by hand during the production of Killzone 3. For skin, I start by polypainting the character to get a general feel of the skin in ZBrush. Then I move to Mudbox to layer out skin components. I don’t project photo sources on my models. Photo sources as textures, while providing instant realism, make you stick with the resolution of a camera. By reproducing each color layer and skin type, like the epidermis, veins and pimples, you theoretically have the opportunity to work with an infinite resolution.


There are several great hair softwares that one can use to create realistic-looking hair, including FiberMesh, XGen, Yeti, nHair and Shave and a Haircut. My favorite is XGen, which proves great for interactive grooming because at the end of the day, crafting realistic-looking hair is all about tools. XGen manages to offer a layered-base sculpting workflow, which is very similar to ZBrush’s FiberMesh. Currently, I think Arnold 5 has the best hair shaders. The key to realistic hair is using enough scattering to simulate the fluffy, lightweight fibre look we all know and understand to be human hair. Hair, when it’s blond, acts almost like a cloud volume. In contrast, dark hair has less diffuse and is less about scattering and more about getting the specular tint right.


In terms of shading, people tend to make the eyes’ sclera too light. A good rule of thumb that most artists disregard is subsurface scattering with the eyes. Without SSS, the eyes look too diffuse and lack an organic feel.

I often check my rendering per channel mode and compare the same value with real photographs to make sure the luminance level of my skin is more or less the same as the eyes. This only applies to people with light skin tones and not for individuals with dark skin tones.

Facial Animations

Recently I’ve been working on eye deformation since that really gives life to characters—I treat the eye itself as a character. My setup consists of the following:

  • Fleshy eye: The skin around the eye that follows the movement of the eye

  • Tear duct modeling and rigging: The tear line around the eye socket

  • Eye collision with eyelid: Having the eyeball deform the eyelid when the eye is closed

  • Sticky eyelids: When the eyes open but they won’t open linearly and they stick until they are fully open

  • Besides this setup, I also research and develop the best way to create wrinkles on faces with Blendshape and Simulated skin. The last one is interesting since you don’t need to create the blend shape and it will work on multiple characters. This means there is no need for tension maps and complex-shading networks to activate local displacement on wrinkles.

    Mao Lin Liao, Character Artist / Look Development

    Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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      Realism in 3D Portraits: Tips & Tricks