Pouria Roshan talks about the challenges of reimagining popular cartoon characters, explains how the scanning for the true-to-life version of Buttercup was performed, and shares some tips on texturing the characters to make sure they look good after rendering in Unreal Engine.
My name is Pouria Roshan. The main focus of my career is 3D character art and I am currently a Lead 3D Character Artist at Streamline Studios in Malaysia.
In my second year of studying robotics engineering at the university, I finally decided to change my course and study arts and media. I put a great deal of thought into that decision. A big change like that was something I could not afford to undo.
When I was seventeen, I moved out of my home country, Iran, and came to Malaysia. I then invested two years of my life into studying engineering. It is safe to say the reason why I did not consider pursuing arts professionally from the beginning had more to do with what I thought a "safe" career would be rather than what I was passionate about.
Growing up, I was always drawing and painting, and once I got my first computer, I started creating digital art, simple video games, animation, and short VFX films. When I looked back at my life and truly understood what would get me excited about my day, every day for the rest of my life, I knew a career in the creative industry was the correct choice for me.
I studied Animation and Visual Effects at Multimedia University in Malaysia. After graduation, I stepped into the industry as a 3D Animator and a 3D Artist in an animation company.
My skills up to that point were mainly focused on the animation and VFX industries. However, by then I knew I wanted to get into game production. So I used all of my time outside my working hours to learn and practice the tools and workflows used in the games industry.
About two years later, I entered the games industry as a 3D Character Artist at Streamline Studios in Malaysia, and fast forward to today I am the Lead 3D Character Artist here. Some of the titles I have had the opportunity of contributing to are Street Fighter V: Champion Edition, Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, Torchlight III, Beyond a Steel Sky, Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow, Bake ‘n Switch, and MisBits.
Every day in my career, I see game art and technical art getting more and more interconnected. As someone in this industry who sees the inevitable application of game technology in many other facets of our lives in the near future, I cannot underestimate the value of knowing the technology on top of having the required artistic skills.
One of the technical sides of this industry that I am most passionate about is 3D scanning. I wanted to create a scan-based character, and I wanted to do the 3D scanning myself. So I started my research on tools and methods that would allow me to achieve my goals with a limited budget.
I tried photogrammetry and I also tried purchasing low-cost 3D scanning hardware. In both cases, the results were below my expectations. There was something else that I tried that surprised me with its efficiency as well as its high-quality results, and that was using my phone as the scanner.
The application I personally found most fitting to my needs was Scandy Pro, which utilizes iPhone/iPad’s camera technology in order to do the 3D scanning.
When I was doing my research, Apple still had not introduced LiDAR technology in its devices, but Scandy Pro could use iPhone/iPad’s front-facing True Depth camera to do the scanning. The challenge with that is that the screen of your device has to face the subject that is being scanned. Luckily, Scandy Pro allows you to use a second device as a mirror. This way, you can see the screen of your scanning device on the second one.
A limitation I had to overcome was the amount of surface I could scan in one go. Capturing a full person with high precision requires more power than my iPhone or iPad could handle. So my solution was to scan different body parts such as the head, limbs, and torso separately and combine them later to create the full character.
After finding a 3D scanning solution, it was time for me to implement what I had learned into an actual project. I had a secondary goal in mind as well. I wanted to spend the modeling time saved by 3D scanning on designing the character and polishing the presentation. That was my way of balancing the tech and the art for this project.
I wanted to do a fanart, but at the same time, I wanted the source character to leave a lot of room for creativity. Immediately the Powerpuff Girls came to my mind. Their simple yet solid designs and their nuanced personalities meant I could start from an outline and still have a lot of freedom for the design. On top of that, I had just the friend who could be a perfect reference for Buttercup.
I mainly gathered my references from Pinterest. I created a board, and I would regularly add new images to it throughout the project. This helped provide the inspiration for my redesign of Buttercup as well as the design of the environment and the lighting.
In her original design, Buttercup is mainly made up of circles and triangles. Those simple shapes help communicate her personality visually, and in my process of redesigning her, I had to respect those elements and stay true to them. I remained mindful of that even when I wanted to design a weapon for her.
I tried to have some fun with her pins and stickers, so I incorporated some Easter eggs from the show and from the real life into their designs. Those are various things ranging from a can of Whoopass (the original ingredient used in the creation of the girls, which was later changed to Chemical X because it was deemed inappropriate for the show’s target audience) to encrypted messages, some of which took me days to make.
I had some ideas of what type of outfit would work best for her design, so when it came to the scanning day, we went with a hoodie and a pair of shorts. I scanned the sleeves, shorts, head, torso, hand, and leg separately, and I also scanned a boot and a fanny pack to go with her outfit.
I would say the most challenging piece to scan was the hand. Once you rotate from the palm or back of the hand to the sides, the visible surface area gets too thin for the scanner to find enough recognizable tracking. My solution was to have my friend wear a scrunchie on her forearm. The scrunchie had just the right amount of details and shape consistency to better help the device track the hand.
My general suggestion is to be extremely patient while scanning. Avoid sudden movements or else the tracking fails. Try to move as slowly as possible so when you get a tracking error you can easily move back a little to your previous position for the tracker to correctly find the subject again.
After the scanning was done, I brought all the pieces together in ZBrush and cleaned up the mesh. During that process, I took some artistic liberties to achieve the visual goals I had in mind for her. I carefully added subtle stylization to her features to reduce the uncanny valley-ness of the final result. I continued with a quick sculpt of her hair and her guitar. I also sketched out some colors in ZBrush using Polypaint.
My modeling process was nothing out of the ordinary. I dynameshed the separate pieces that needed to be connected together in ZBrush. Then I cleaned up the scans, sculpted the organic pieces that were not included in the scan, and finally retopologized the model in Maya.
For hard surface modeling, such as her guitar, I did most of the work in Maya and only moved to ZBrush to add smaller details such as the scratches and imperfections. However, many details, such as the stickers and blood, were added during texturing in Substance Painter.
Working on the Skin and Adding the Little Details
For her skin pores, I conformed a Texturing.xyz map onto her face in ZBrush using the ZWrap plugin, and then I baked/transferred the Texturing.xyz maps onto her low-poly head mesh. In ZBrush, I applied the projected Displacement map to her high-poly sculpt.
Next, I cleaned up the results and manually added skin details to areas that were not in the original Texturing.xyz map. At this point, I began testing the head’s mesh and textures inside Unreal Engine. For her skin shader, I started with the materials from the Digital Humans sample project from Unreal Engine and customized the material based on my needs. In my experience, to achieve good-looking skin pores in Unreal Engine, the pores need to be exaggerated in the sculpt.
For the color map of her skin, I photographed the friend I scanned and I manually projected the photos onto the mesh in Substance Painter. All of the extra details, such as her scars, bruises, and war paint were added in Substance Painter.
I added most of the details of her clothes in Substance Painter instead of sculpting them. This was extremely helpful as it allowed me to try out various ideas quickly, and it also allowed me to design new details that I originally did not have in mind.
Recreating the Iconic Buttercup Hairstyle
Creating Buttercup’s hair was a big challenge, mainly because if not done right, the hairstyle I had in mind for her could very easily make her look silly. I also wanted her hair to maintain a recognizable silhouette from all angles. To ensure all my requirements are met, I manually placed all of her hair cards.
I created the texture maps of her hair in FiberShop. FiberShop allowed me to create clumps of hair quickly and very easily export all the texture maps I needed to use in Unreal Engine.
I rendered Buttercup in Unreal Engine 4 with ray-traced lighting. I mainly used point lights and rectangular lights, and the post-process settings were nothing special. Just some color correction, vignette, dirt mask, grain, and some subtle amount of chromatic aberration and bloom.
The only thing I customized was the grain, and for that, I recreated the material Joe Garth made for Quixel’s Rebirth short. This material allowed me to only have grain in the darker parts of the image, which helped me achieve a more realistic final result.
The full video was edited inside Unreal Engine like a cutscene. This way I could check the flow of the video, adjust the camera angles and the length of each shot with ease. The animation of all of the lights, such as the Buttercup neon sign was done with Unreal Engine’s sequencer.
I wanted the music for this project to be tailor-made. Early on during the video editing, I used a placeholder track that felt close enough to what I had in mind for the actual music. Once the editing of the video was 90% done, I approached a talented musician Carlos Rey (Blue Cheese Sound) for the creation of the sound and music. He regularly provided updates of the track and when it was needed I would update the editing to match his music. We also had Ricardo Gil who played the guitars for the track. I really enjoyed the collaboration and it was one of the more fun parts of the project.
For me, the most challenging part of this project was finding the time to work on it. Having a full-time job and the responsibilities that I have meant that to finish this work, I had to make sacrifices and really plan out how I spend my personal time. My advice for everyone is to be very mindful of your physical and mental health as it can sometimes be easy to neglect our health when we are too focused on doing something we are passionate about.
Another challenge with personal projects that can take a long time to complete is the continuous motivation they require. I believe the trick is to create what you truly care about. Make sure you have clear visual goals for what you want to achieve because once you can see the goal you are walking towards, every step forward can be rewarding enough to motivate you to take the next step.
Make sure to constantly improve your basic skills, understanding of anatomy, and aesthetics. Make it a part of your daily routine to look at good art and study it to train your eyes. Push yourself to reach the standards of the artists and studios you look up to and always try to stay ahead of the curve when it comes to technology and the new tools that can assist you in your work.