Recreating a Realistic Air Force Pilot Helmet in Maya and Mari

Recreating a Realistic Air Force Pilot Helmet in Maya and Mari

Gonzalo Marroquin talked in detail about modeling and texturing a realistic WW2 RAF Helmet.

Introduction

Hello there! My name is Gonzalo Marroquin and I am from a city called Monterrey in Mexico. I currently live in Vancouver, Canada. I have a great passion for creating 3D art and trying to make things look as realistic as I can.

I came to Canada to pursue my goal of working in the film and television industry as a Modeler and Texture Artist. Ever since I was a kid I had immense interest in creating stuff, I always had a fascination for video games, movies, drawing, legos, painting miniature figures from Warhammer and reading fantasy and sci-fi books.

Back in my home country I used to be a Motion and Graphic Designer, it was a good way to start growing in a creative industry but it was never my big goal.

Since I recently changed my career from being a graphic designer to a 3D artist, I still haven’t had the pleasure to work in the film, television, or game industry. I just graduated from Think Tank and I am very excited to put into practice what I have learned. In Mexico, I used to do mainly graphic and motion design and also had the opportunity to participate in a couple of game jams.

Education

Back in Mexico, I studied at a school of design called CEDIM. There, I studied graphic design and built a good art foundation as well as was introduced to 3D software solutions like Maya, ZBrush, and Blender. I started to get very interested in these programs and wanted to learn more. I also began taking classes online from different schools to try to learn on my own but I knew that if I wanted to get further I would have to look for something else.

That is when I found Think Tank Training Centre, their curriculum and student demo reels seemed exactly what I needed. Think Tank ended up being a great learning experience and taught me what I needed to go further in my education as a CG artist. 

Learning about 3D

I remember watching a video on Youtube of an orc being sculpted in a very old version of ZBrush. I was completely absorbed by the process and the great details it had. Because of this, I downloaded one software which I think was a trial version of 3ds Max. I was just a kid, I remember trying to model an orc like the one I had seen, but I was not even close. I completely forgot about it and started to do more 2D stuff. Many years later, I was reintroduced to 3D in college and I have been very passionate about it ever since.

As I started to grow up and learned that I could actually make a career as an artist I started to work towards that goal. In Mexico at the moment, there are not as many opportunities in this field but I chose to start as a designer because I believed it could be a good start to begin creating a good art foundation.

What Inspires Me?

Movies and video games. If I had to mention a movie and a videogame it would be of course Lord of the Rings trilogy and God of War.

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RAF Helmet: Goals and Reference

Back at Think Tank, I had the opportunity to have a great mentor, Reilly Lohr, who helped me choose the right project. I had several options for assets but in the end, we decided the helmet was the best one due to the variety of materials and textures it had. It seemed that it would be a nice challenge trying to replicate them, and it was.

Since I started to have an interest in 3D, one of my goals has been to learn how to make realistic things. For some reason, I feel very attracted to the idea of exploring ways to imitate reality. I found the references of the helmet in a historic online store called IMA. They sell military antiques, and they have fantastic close-up pictures of many awesome pieces. I found very good references for the helmet there which helped me a lot when trying to create the details. My end goal was to try to make it as close as possible to the reference and make it look realistic.

Finding good references and using them to build the base model with the correct proportions and primary shapes is, I believe, one of the most important steps. I do my best to find all the images that I can from different angles. But I mainly work with two side images, one back image and a frontal one. Before getting them to Maya, I bring these four images to Photoshop and align them correctly, just to make sure I get all the angles right and I have no issues when modeling from different planes.

Modeling

As I mentioned, I started by importing the image planes that have already been edited in Photoshop. I take some time to place them correctly in Maya and make sure different pieces of the helmet in the images align correctly from different angles. I also imported a base mesh of the head to start building the helmet around it. It’s very important to get all the primary shapes correctly regarding proportion and position. They need to look right from all angles, this will be the foundation of the whole project. In this part, it is good to start to plan ahead and see what is going to be modeled, sculpted, or textured. I add all the parts of the helmet in the blockout, even the smallest ones, in very simple shapes. They will be guidelines for the rest of the process. Before getting to ZBrush, it’s good to try to model as much as possible in Maya.

In ZBrush, I mainly worked on the cap and the leather part of the goggles. I tried to replicate the reference as much as could. At that moment, I didn't care about the topology of the cap and used dynamesh to freely create the necessary shapes I needed. I don't try to do anything very detailed at this point because I will still have to retopologize and project it. In this part, I made the sharp folds where all the stitches were going to be. I made an alpha for this in Photoshop. Later on, in Mari, I added the stitches. One important point is to exaggerate the details or folds or whatever you are doing in ZBrush because once you put textures on it they tend to be less noticeable. This can also be done in the displacement properties later on.

Tools

I always keep it very simple when it comes to tools, both in Maya and ZBrush. For this specific project, the use of quad draw was very important. What I did was to make the base mesh of the head Live and then use the quad draw tool to build the helmet around it. It was a great tool to get the primary shape of the cap. Most of the things I did at the beginning were symmetrical, it makes things easier. Later on in the project, I break all the symmetry as much as possible but in subtle ways. It makes a big difference.

In ZBrush, the main brushes that I use are Standard, Dam Standard, Clay Buildup, Clay Tubes, and Move. I think with these brushes you can do almost anything. Sometimes to do specific things I use other brushes like Trim Dynamic, Snake Hook, Inflate, and hPolish. 

Modeling Straps and Small Elements

I modeled the straps using curves in Maya. I'd create a CV Curve from a specific plane with the shape of a strap. Then I would go to perspective and place it exactly as I want it to be using the Move Tool with Soft Selection sometimes activated. After that, I would create a plane with the width and length of the strap and extrude with the curve. Before extruding I use the Rebuild tool on the curve with the desired spans to have an even topology on the whole strap. I used the same process to create the cables.

A lot of the small pieces around the helmet were made from the base shape of the helmet. What I did was to duplicate the polygons where a small piece should be and then work with those polygons to create the desired shape. This method helped me to keep the piece aligned and flowing correctly with the main object.

Micro Details

I would say that 90% of the micro details were done in Mari using a combination of Displacement Maps and Bump Maps. I think Mari can get you way further with micro details. For more specific things like the folds in the leather cap, I used ZBrush, and to break a lot of the symmetry in subtle ways in the whole piece I simply used the Move tool.

UVs

It’s important to place the seams in strategic places so that you don't have as many issues with texturing. But, I must say that I don’t really think they have to be perfect and I try not to waste too much time on them. If something is wrong with them, nowadays they can be fixed easily with triplanars or axis projections when texturing.

The UV part is very straightforward and it is not that complicated to do UVs with today’s fantastic tools. I only used Maya for this step. The amount of UDIMs you are going to use depends on how close and how detailed you want your textures to be. For the helmet, I used a total of 32 UDIMs. It’s important to separate your UDIMs in a way that would allow you to select your objects and materials easily later in Mari.

For creating UVs, I mainly use the tools in the next order: I use normal based projection, then I start to make the cuts in the right places, then just hit Unfold, Optimize, and it’s done. Of course, I check if it's looking fine in the viewport with a checkerboard texture on the object, then use the Layout option and tweak the parameters a little bit to get the results I want. After that, I use Orient Shells and Orient Edges to put everything straight, correctly aligned, and nice. 

Topology

I always try to do the topology of the whole object correctly from the beginning so that I don't have to try to find problems and fix stuff later on. I try to make the topology flow and keep in mind that I have to model the object as if it was going to be rigged and animated. As a result, I try to make it as clean as possible. I avoid doing triangles and completely avoid faces with more than 4 sides. In more complex or organic pieces, I might have to retopologize and create a better edge flow, – for this, my favorite tool is the quad draw tool in Maya. It is such a good tool it feels like I am cheating.

The tricky part of the helmet regarding topology was the leather cap. I had to retopologize it and make the edge flow correctly along the stitches path so that I could make those parts with a higher density and have well-defined stitches when sculpting and displacing them.

Texturing in Mari

I started to learn Mari at Think Tank. It is an amazing and powerful software solution with a crazy good projection tool. I mainly use nodes for texturing instead of layers. I like it more and I think it helps me keep things more organized and clean. I try to get as many textures as I can, then I start to discard the ones that I decide are not going to be needed. Then I grade them in Photoshop and use the match color tool to replicate the color of the specific texture I am trying to do. Grading the textures is so important and useful, here is a video from FlippedNormals that explains it very well:

Leather Material

The leather was one of the trickiest materials but also the most fun. I gathered as much reference as I could from old objects with worn leather like couches, chairs, caps, briefcases, boots, belts, etc. Then I took them to Photoshop to clean them, get the parts that I liked, and grade them. After that, I made two versions of each one – one tileable and in the other, I would try to keep the interesting parts of the texture and use the whole image to project in Mari. With all this ready, I got them into Mari and started experimenting by combining them utilizing my baked maps from Substance Painter, masks, and decals. At this point, I also started rendering in Maya with V-Ray to have an idea of how things were looking. I used around five different layers of different kinds of leather on the cap and I added and subtracted them until getting the desired look.

Node Graph Setup

From the beginning, I start to organize my Node Graph. I like to keep things as clean as possible so that I can go back to certain details whenever I want without having to play detective. I separate my 4 channels: Diffuse, Reflection, Glossines and Bump. I also create a backdrop for all my utilities which are the maps created in Substance Painter, ZBrush, and Mari: Curvature, AO, Displacements, Cavity, World Space Normals, ID, Position and Thickness. 

I create another backdrop for my textures like Tiled textures, Axis Projections, and Tri-Planar projections. In this backdrop, I play a bit with combining textures and getting them ready, I connect them to a Radio Transmitter at the end so that they are ready-to-use once I start to texture.

I create another backdrop for my isolation masks. In this one, I isolate all of my objects separately so that I can work easier with each one of them. It helps me to keep things more organized. Here I also connect each mask to a Radio Transmitter node so that I can later use them with a Radio Node.

One more backdrop is created for the Vray Material connected with my four channels.

I separate all of my objects in different backdrops from left to right to work with each one of them separately, This also allows me to identify them faster and bake them when I am done with them. I am sure there are better ways out there but this is how I like to work and it allows me to find specific objects very fast.

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Imperfections

Most of the time I use textures with many imperfections and rather than adding the imperfection I remove them from the asset. If there are any very specific ones, I end up making them with decals. Most of the imperfections were done during the texturing stage in Mari rather during modeling or sculpting.

Colors

The colors of the asset are the same as in my reference and I try to match all the colors of the textures and the reference in Photoshop before importing them to Mari. It’s way easier and faster rather than trying to match up things inside Mari. The last and smaller tweaks are made inside Mari or Maya once I start to render and test how everything is looking.

Roughness

The way I approach roughness/glossiness is very straightforward. I always do my diffuse first, then duplicate all the nodes, and change the colors to white and black in each node. For the other textures within the diffuse, I use the node luminosity to take out the color. After that, I start tweaking the values and removing and adding textures to which look better and closer to the reference. I never just duplicate and desaturate the diffuse. It’s important to play with the values and add new textures or remove the ones that are not helping.

Smart Masks

I didn’t use any generators or smart masks. Most of the things were done manually. The maps that I baked in Substance, ZBrush and Mari were very useful when trying to isolate or create specific looks in combination with my textures. I used a couple of filters in Mari and Photoshop, mainly just to blur and sharpen some textures or maps. 

Straps, Metal Pieces, Glass

The straps and the fabric cables took me a while. It was just trial and error, I kept rendering different combinations to see what looked good. In the end, I managed to use the right textures. And by mixing bump maps and displacement maps I got the look that I was trying to get. I also used Xgen for the filaments or loose threads.

With the rivets or small metal pieces like the buttons, it was pretty simple. It was usually just projecting some nice textures of metals and rust. And if it had paint, I just made sure not to treat it as if it was a metal or it would look weird.

The glass texture was mostly done in Maya by using a Vray Blend Material with my glass as a base and dirt on top. I then used a mask to take off the dirt in the places I didn’t want it to be. In Mari, I mainly worked with the glossiness using a couple of procedurals and masking things in and out.

Using Unconventional Textures

Always have a reference beside you, always try to replicate what you see and be open to using textures that don't make any sense. Don’t stick to the idea that if you are doing plastic, you can only use plastic textures. I used a couple of rock, wood, concrete, and moss textures on different parts of my helmet. By tweaking them in Photoshop and Mari and using them properly, you can achieve a certain look easier. The tape on the cable in the back of the helmet was made with a wood texture. The round rough plastic part in the mouthpiece was done using concrete textures.

Challenges

The leather cap was the most challenging one. I used many different types of textures and I put them on top of each other and experimented with them until I started to get the results I wanted. It took many tries to start getting results. Putting the stitches and creating the textures of the inner part of the helmet was also a bit complicated but fun to do. I made the stitches with the stitches brush in Mari and there is a displacement and bump map on top of the leather.

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Presentation

I used a 3-point lighting setup with a studio HDRI. I rigged the tube in the mouthpiece of the helmet so that I could put it on top of the table and start playing with the composition of the scene.

I didn't plan to add the passport, photo, book, and medals to the scene but in the end, I thought they were a nice addition to create a simple story.

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For rendering, I only used VRay for Maya and mostly used the node editor within Maya.

I barely did any post-production, I tried to get it out of Vray as precisely as possible. But I did use Nuke for adding ZDepth, noise, and minor color corrections.

Working on Realistic Models

Something that I think is very important is to always get as much reference as possible and have it by your side. Experiment with different types of textures and combine them in Photoshop and Mari until you start getting something that looks like the reference. It’s important to take breaks once in a while so that you could come back with fresh eyes, notice mistakes, and see what you can do to improve the asset. I always export and render the model every time I make considerable changes in my textures just to make sure I am on the correct path.

Gonzalo Marroquin, Junior CG Artist specialized in Modeling and Texturing for Film and Television

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

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