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Realistic Character Art: Skin and Hair Shaders

Tsubasa Nakai briefly talked about his approach to character art, broke down the hair and skin shaders used in his project Iroha, and shared a few tutorials.


Hi, I'm Tsubasa Nakai, Creative Director at Marza Animation Planet in Japan. I started my career as a Generalist in 2001 and I have been working in the film,
game cinematics and commercials industry for nineteen years.

It was Toy Story that started my interest in the world of 3D art. I'm not good at
drawing, that's why CG was the best tool for me.


I think my skill level comes from the fact that I studied a lot of good tutorials. Many legendary artists share awesome tutorials on websites like 80 Level and ArtStation now. Modern people are blessed. When I started doing CG, I had to try it myself and find the answer.

Another important thing is to look at a lot of good artworks. If what you want to express is not good, the finished work won't look good either. It is important to have a trained eye that can judge what is good and we need to make an effort to achieve it.

My key skill is lighting. Modeling, texturing, and shading are important, but lighting is just as significant. I often see works ruined by bad lighting and I want people to understand how important lighting is.

Creating Characters

In my case, each character starts with a simple rough sketch. After that, I expand the image with more sketches and blockout in ZBrush. What I keep in mind when making characters is the impact of the first look. Put the most effort into the character's eyes and facial expressions so that you can feel the power of the artwork when looking at it.

And when it comes to detail, by adding subtle unevenness and wrinkles to the skin, you can emphasize the shades of light and create the feeling of soft skin.

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Working in UE4

It's easy to move to UE4 if you have knowledge of other renderers. The advantage of UE4 is that you can iterate on the shader and lighting many times since you can check the picture in real-time. Thanks to it, you can refine the picture quickly.

There are also many people who share various useful assets and shaders for UE4 and they are very powerful weapons for artists.

Hair and Skin Shaders

In the project Iroha, I used the skin shader made by Saurabh Jethani. It's great for adjusting roughness and normal maps for each zone and you can create skin detail with it. UE4 allows you to see and adjust the skin details interactively.

I set up hair in UE4 as well but its features have many problems right now. But the future strand-based hair will bring more expressiveness and become a standard. The future of real-time technology is really bright.

Hair shader:

Additional Tutorials

When working on the skin, I also referred to this article by Saurabh Jethani and it's really awesome. Nick Rutlinh's tutorial helped with the hair shader. And here're two more good resources:


I believe we will be able to handle more polycounts and high-res textures with real-time tools in the future. In the realm of expression, the scan-based workflow must be mainstream and everyone should be able to do it. I use many tools – Maya, ZBrush, UE4, Substance Painter, Mari, Marvelous Designer, Nuke, etc. I'm not particular about the software. CG is constantly evolving and it's important to find the best tools for your goals. So don't stop learning!

Tsubasa Nakai, Creative Director at Marza Animation Planet

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarevski

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