Arystan Aubakir has shared the workflow behind the Ekko project, explained how they set up the character's iconic hairstyle, and discussed the advantages of hard-surface modeling in Maya.
Hi. My name is Arystan, I'm a 3D Stylized Character Artist. I like stylization, but I plan to learn realism in character modeling in the future. I'm currently working as a freelancer and trying to find a job in game dev studios (no results so far, alas). I got into 3D after a year of working as a Concept Artist in an architectural environment, starting with learning Maya. I have a little over two years of 3D experience.
I’m still in the process of learning 3D and I don't think it will end yet, since there is always something that can be learned in 3D. However, I learned the basics of modeling from tutorials on YouTube in about 15 months. I've also analyzed a lot of other artists' work on ArtStation, highlighting and adopting certain ways of sculpting, texturing, and rendering. If you're new to 3D, I recommend checking out the ArtStation trends more often. There's a lot of cool work posted there every day from great artists with different styles.
References and Goals
I started working on Ekko right after the Warrior project, my previous character in the portfolio. One of the reasons to start the project was to make a character with a full pipeline, from blockout to rigging and rendering. I also wanted to improve my stylization skill and create a project in the vein of Overwatch characters.
When choosing a new character, I noticed an awesome concept from Hicham Habchi that suited my style perfectly. Plus, after Arcane, Ekko has become one of my favorite characters in this show.
Face and Hair
My character sculpting workflow begins with a selection of references. Usually, it’s from 20 to 30 2D and 3D images that are close to my style. All of this helps me in the sculpting process and finding forms of stylization. This is especially evident in the anatomy and clothing. Then the blockout phase begins. In the blockout, it is very important to find the basic shapes of the character, this gives me the opportunity to define the stylistics of the character.
For the head reference, I used footage from Arcane, and then changed the basic facial features to a more adult version afterward. I, like many people, became familiar with Ekko after the series from Riot Games & Fortiche. So, when sculpting the face, I relied on Ekko's appearance from Arcane. I got the eye outline from there as well, but I'm thinking of redoing the eyes when I get to the texture stage.
The hair was probably the hardest part of creating the character. It took me over 8 hours to create and sculpt Ekko's hair. Hair has very complex shapes and is arranged in a chaotic order. After the main blockout, I decided to give depth and variety to the hair strands with the Slash2 brush.
The Clothes and the Sword
Sculpting a stylized character's clothing requires the artist to be diligent and understand how the clothing should look in the stylization. When working on Ekko, it was very important for me to show the folds, seams, and shape of the pants correctly. I did most of the pleats with Orb_Cracks, DamStandart, Pinch. Orb_Cracks is very good at giving the basic crease shape. After that, it's easy to tweak the creases with DamStandart and Pinch.
While working on characters, I always make blockouts of hard-surface objects in Maya. And I advise you to do the same too. Because in Maya hard-surface modeling is done faster and easier than in ZBrush. It only takes 10-20 minutes, depending on the details. Then the blockout can be exported to ZBrush and start detailing by adding subdivs. I did the basic details of the Ekko sword with Flatten, Orb_Cracks, Clay. These brushes are great for adding damage, cracks, and indentations to the surface. I applied the same algorithm to the capsule that Ekko wears on his back.
At the moment Ekko has no full textures with UV unfold, and I painted him with Polypaint with some mini details of dirt, dust, and paint in the rendering. When painting the character, it's important to stick to the sequence: T-pose sculpt – paint with symmetry – posing. This will save a lot of time.
To paint Ekko, I took the colors from the Hicham Habchi concept but added a bit more saturation and different gradients. In the game Project L, the characters have a shader similar to simplified 2D art, so in my version of Ekko, the final result will be very different from what's shown in the game.
I use Marmoset Toolbag 4 to render my characters. The MT4 perfectly pulls heavy high poly models and shows amazing rendering in real-time.
Creating a scene for rendering always starts with setting up the camera, its resolution, color correction, additional effects, and positioning. After that, we need to set up the lights. I have a few of them: a fill light on the front, key light on the top, and three rim lights on the back and sides. Then I add a Shadow catcher for the desired shadows on the floor.