Realistic Character Production: Tips and Tricks

Ryan Blake did an amazing breakdown of his beautiful 3d character study, talking about modeling texturing and post-effects.


My name is Ryan Blake and I am a 3D Artist from Chicago. In the past, I worked at Phosphor Games on titles such as Horn, Man Of Steel, Heroes Reborn and WWE: Immortals. Currently, I am the Art Lead at Level Ex in Chicago where we just launched Gastro Ex, a surgical game for doctors.


A couple years back I came across Derek Stenning’s book, Born in Concrete The EK series.

I loved the design of the oversized helmets and the expressions the characters were giving. I was super inspired but due to a busy production schedule I wasn’t  able to commit to making anything for a year or so.

When things changed, I couldn’t wait to get started. I knew that I wanted to make one of Derek’s characters  but I didn’t have a specific one in mind. There were things I enjoyed from each concept so I started circling things I liked from each piece.

I knew that I wanted my next project  to be a realtime character, rigged and posed in Marmoset Toolbag.

In addition to that, I wanted to experiment baking my maps in MT3. Previously I used Substance Painter for baking and was curious as to what the competition was like.

I also wanted to try texturing a human face in Substance Painter. On previous projects my workflow for face texturing has varied. Sometimes I use Mari, and other times I just polypainted/ projected textures in ZBrush.

Lastly, I wanted to use learn XGen in Maya to create realtime hair.


For the body, I started using an old female base mesh from a previous project. The boots, gloves, and other clothing accessories were created using the Extract Tool in Zbrush. When I was happy with the shape, I used Zremesher to get something that was more suitable for sculpting. During this phase I wasn’t worried about polycount or the topology of the model. I focused on form and the overall shape of the character.

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When I started developing the jumpsuit, I noticed it was lacking in detail. I didn’t want the suit to be one solid leather material  – it looked to plain. I liked the foundation but I wanted more types of leather and fabrics to work together.  I decided have some fun by masking out different shapes and patterns in Zbrush. Eventually I found something that worked for me. I then carried this design style to the boots and gloves.

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The stitching on the body was made using Jonas Ronnegard‘s stitch pack. Its an excellent brush pack and saves a lot of time. The piping on the jumpsuit was made using the IMM Curve Brush. I tried to sculpt it in at first but it was a giant mess. The IMM piping gave me clean lines, and clearly defined Mat IDs when it came time to bake textures.

The helmet was the most difficult process by far.

Derek had multiple helmet designs in his book, some being more detail than others. I knew I wanted to do a realistic helmet, one that functions, can open/close and move when the character does. I wanted to have it fit the character’s head so I spent as much time on the inside as I did on the outside.

The helmet basically started as a Sphere in Zbrush. I used the Extract Tool to try and match the larger forms I was seeing in the concept art. Once I got the shapes right, I exported it back to Maya so I could start placing smaller objects. The goal was to make sure the inside cavity could fit the head as well as all the fabric padding, ear pads, wires, etc.

There was a lot of back and forth between Maya and Zbrush but when forms started to feel right, I sent everything back to Maya for retopology.

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The helmet ended up being its own Ztool since the amount of subtools I had to manage was overwhelming.


The look of the face was important to me. I wanted the character to appear as though  she was in space longer than she should have been. I think the addition of the dirt, cuts, and blemishes to her face help this feeling.

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This was my first attempt at texturing a face in Substance Painter so it took some experimenting. Essentially it’s a layering process. There is a flat base color for skin followed by multiple noise layers which give skin color variation. Those layers have masks so I could pick and choose where I wanted texture detail to be. The makeup and freckles are in another layer group. The eyebrows are on another, followed by the cut and dirt layers.


It’s very easy to get a cluttered Substance file. It is important to stay organized and try to think of the simplest way to texture something.

I had multiple substance files for this project. The Head, Helmet, Space Suit, and the Orb were all in their own files. Its keeps your brain focused on the task at hand. Spend time organizing your scene and setting up proper Mat IDs. I recommending giving everything its own custom color for Mat IDs, even if you think they may share the same material. Things end up changing and you get way more customization and freedom to modify things individually.

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Toolbag for baking is great. I can organize things in groups and I get more customization over how those meshes are named, organized and baked. The downside is that you  have to bring all those meshes into Painter and re-assign each one versus having Painter do it for you.

Toolbag 3 baking was something I wanted to try for this project and I’m glad I did. I ended up presenting in Toolbag 3 so I got an early preview of my model. This allowed me to make  sure the maps looked good, that there were no artifacts on the mesh, and let me tinker with the scene before I started the detailed texture process.

Final render

For the close up scenes, I wanted to try to show what this character might be feeling. She is in space, cold, and feels like giving up hope. Closing her eyes really brought the scene and feeling together. To get the look I wanted I started by turning the Sky Brightness to 0. I wanted to start off with a complete pitch black scene. I put a couple blue tinted lights inside the helmet to replicate a space helmet but also to illuminate and showcase her face.

In the distance is a bright “Spot” light to replicate maybe a moon or a large ship shining its lights.


One of the challenges I was facing was “mental mesh overload.” I would open up Zbrush and see my WIP helmet, suit, head, cables, orb and it was overwhelming. I would spend 20 minutes fixing something only to be distracted by something else. I wasn’t able to focus because i wanted to work on everything. So split the Helmet, head, and body into 3 separate Ztools. When I was in the helmet Ztool, I was able to focus and make solid progress. That helped me to focus on the task as hand as opposed to getting distracted by seeing everything at once.

Another challenge was knowing when to stop. Because I was working on this only a couple hours a week at most, I could only make small dents. I kept wanting to fiddle with parameters and was making little progress.

When working on personal projects, it’s important to remember the goal and know when to put a fork it in. It’s easy to get lost in a project that ends up taking way too long to finish since there is no due date from a client.

Hair is a good example of that, it takes a lot of time. I would have loved to spend another couple weeks on hair to get it to look right. XGen is an extremely powerful tool and I will definitely be using it to create hair in the future but it’s a very iterative process and it takes time to get right.

I learned what I wanted to and moved on.

Ryan Blake, Art Lead at Level Ex

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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