Andrei-Mihai Bejan shared his workflow behind the Elden Malone project, gave a few tips on how to improve your texturing, and discussed the importance of lighting in creating and showcasing a character.
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Hi. My name is Andrei-Mihai Bejan and I’m a Romanian Character Artist. My art journey started pretty early in life, I’ve gone to an art school since fifth grade, continued on this path in high school and then I graduated from Bucharest National University of Arts, Graphic arts department.
I tried various things over the years and experimented with different mediums, going from wanting to be a graphic designer to later discovering that I could do concept art or illustration for the entertainment industry. I was fascinated by the idea that I could earn money doing art for movies or video games. In my sophomore year of university, I discovered ZBrush and after spending just a few days exploring the software, it felt like I found the thing that I always wanted to do.
So, since then I’ve been pursuing a career as a Character Artist, focusing on creating realistic characters. I worked on projects such as Mafia: Definitive Edition, Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, Scavengers, Dissolution, and a few others.
I always try to find some time to work on my personal projects as well and in the past two years, the thing that I was most interested in creating were real humans. I am a very curious person and I love to learn new things, experiment with new tools, and try different techniques, so with every project I do, I usually try something that I haven’t done before and I like to challenge myself in order to improve and grow.
Today, I will present you a breakdown of my latest personal project, a fanart of the rapper Post Malone reimagined in the Elden Ring universe.
I usually have a basic idea of what I want to do before starting a project. If I don’t have the exact image in mind, there’s still a theme, universe, period of time, or something I want to explore and I will start by searching for a concept. In this case, it was easier because I knew from the get-go what I wanted to do.
Post Malone released his newest album and he appeared on Hot Ones where he talked about how much he enjoyed Elden Ring, so I thought it would be cool to portray him as part of that universe, wearing the Raging Wolf Armor. I also knew he’s a big Magic the Gathering fan, so why not go even crazier and add the Black Lotus card signed by Christopher Rush on his neck.
So, when I had the idea set in stone, I went on the internet and started collecting references. I like to gather a lot of images in order to better understand how the forms look and how certain things are constructed and it usually makes my life easier when I start modeling. I use a free software called PureRef for organizing and here are a couple of images I’ve mostly relied on:
Then, I moved to ZBrush. I usually start with the likeness because it is the most challenging and demanding part. I used a free base mesh provided by 3D Scan Store. I do so because the model already has good topology and UVs, and I will later use 3D Scan Store’s HD Displacement Maps for adding the pores. This way there’s no need to do any wrapping or baking and it speeds up the process a lot.
I like to divide my sculpting process into 3 phases:
- Primary forms – This stage consists of creating a blockout where I focus on getting the right proportions and silhouette, and having a good read of the face from a distance. I check the distances between the features of the face (nose, eyes, mouth, etc.) and try to get as close as I can to the resemblance of the subject. At this point, I work on the lowest or second lowest subdivision level only because it’s a lot easier to move things around and do it smoothly. I don’t need more resolution considering I’m not adding any detail yet. I also like to create a rough blockout of the hair and eyes, which contribute to the likeness.
- Secondary forms – When I have the big shapes in place, I increase the subdivision level and I start working on the secondary shapes. I focus on getting the anatomy right, putting the bony landmarks in there, and adding all the subtle plane changes. At this stage, I heavily use my references (the close-up images I have are very handy) and I’m constantly rotating and zooming the mesh so I get the correct look of the volumes. When you’re doing a likeness, everything must be in the perfect place, otherwise, the resemblance wouldn’t be there even if you nail the anatomy. I mostly used the basic brushes: Move, Smooth, Standard, Clay, and Clay buildup and I like to go a bit heavy-handed initially. Before moving to the next stage, I would do a polish pass in order to have a clean surface ready for the details.
- Tertiary forms – For the pores, I used the 16k HD displacement maps I mentioned above. They are my go-to when I’m doing the pores because they’re very easy to use and the quality is very high, but you can achieve amazing results with Texturing XYZ as well (even hand-sculpting, but it takes a lot more time). I always use layers to add details. I like to separate every step on a layer, so if I don’t like something I can easily scrap it and redo it without affecting the rest. I can also play with the intensity of each layer. After applying the displacement map, I will clean up the areas where it doesn’t look good and I will hand-sculpt more fine details: adding the small wrinkles and creases using DamStandard and Slash brushes and other small things such as pimples, moles, scratches, etc. This stage takes some time, but all of the details will make your model look more unique and believable.
I continue to create the armor and accessories, following the same approach I used for the face, working from large to small. I prefer to do the hard surface pieces in ZBrush. I rarely use Maya for modeling because I don't like switching between software programs.
There are multiple ways to achieve the same result, but in the end, it comes down to what's more convenient for you. I use either ZModeler (which is similar to modeling in Maya or similar software) or, for very complex pieces, I use Dynamesh to get the basic shape, then I ZRemesh it, add creases, and subdivide it for a clean result. After that, I'll add small details, preferably on a separate layer. A tip: Unlike with the face, where I added pores and other small details in ZBrush, it's easier to add fine details later during the texturing stage.
For the eyes, I modeled the basic shapes in Maya and I created the UVs afterward.
I sculpted the iris by hand in ZBrush following my references, but you can also use scan data from Texturing XYZ or ZBrush’s Spotlight to project a photo for faster results.
In order to create a realistic eye we need a few meshes: iris, cornea, caruncle, and an additional geometry to fake the wet line of the eye.
When the high poly was done, I started cleaning up the topology where was needed. Considering I wasn’t intending to do a production-ready model, I mostly used ZRemesh and adjusted the geometry afterward with ZModeler or Maya. After that, I exported them to Maya where I unwrapped everything and I created the UV layouts in Rizom. I imported the UVed pieces back into ZBrush where I exported all the maps I needed in order to start texturing: Normal, Displacement, Ambient Occlusion, and Cavity at 8k resolution.
I imported everything into Substance 3D Painter but divided the character into different scenes in order to run the software smoothly because after adding a lot of layers it can become quite laggy. So, I separated them in this way: one scene for the head, one scene for armor and accessories, and another scene for the eyes. Before diving into each individual piece, I will share with you a few general tips to keep in mind when texturing:
- Firstly, I like to analyze the model to figure out which materials I need to create and I will gather a few high-resolution references, and especially close-ups where you can see all the fine details. You don’t need to mimic them exactly, there’s room for adding your own artistic touch, but it’s important that you never improvise or work blindly if you want to achieve realistic results.
- Substance 3D Painter comes with some great smart materials, generators, etc. (and there are much more on the internet). Dragging and dropping those and calling it done wouldn’t look right. There's nothing wrong with using them, but consider them a building block. In order to achieve realistic and good-looking materials, you need to go in there and add your own layers and details. Hand painting is also very important. As much as I love using procedurals, it’s still necessary to take your time and add certain details manually, so we don’t have everything randomly placed.
- Another important thing is avoiding pristine-looking materials. Even if they should be in a clean state, you can still add some subtle imperfections and dirt/dust in order to make them more interesting.
- Try to keep everything organized and named properly. I know it’s hard, but this would make it easier for you to navigate through layers when you want to change things. And if we talk about an asset made for a client, there’s a big chance someone else will open your scene in the future.
Texturing is one of my favorite stages because I can finally see the character taking shape and have a peek at how it would look in the end. I also love storytelling and here’s the place where every stain, tear, or scratch would tell something about the character.
Let’s now start with the head and I will explain how I created the skin material. The HD Displacement Maps I bought from 3D Scan Store come with 16k Albedo maps, so I used that as a base in order to speed up my process. Then I cleaned up the areas I didn’t like and applied some color corrections layers to match the skin color of my subject. At this point, you could use this cleaned-up Albedo map and you will get great results, but I like to make it look more unique and interesting by adding a lot more color variations and small details.
After the base color is finished, I created the additional maps I needed: Roughness and Specular. I like to keep those pretty simple, there’s no need to go crazy with them. For the roughness, I started with a base value of 0.45 (something between 0.45-0.5 is best for skin) and then I painted the front of the nose, lips, and eyelids with a lower value (those areas should be shinier) and finalize it with a few noises to break up the surface. I did the same for the Specular map. Another important rule to follow when painting the roughness and base color is to never leave a flat surface, always try to add some variations to make it more interesting.
Then, that I had a good skin material, I needed to create the tattoos which in this case cover a big part of the face. One of the biggest goals and challenges of this project was creating realistic and natural-looking tattoos.
I started by searching for references and, believe me, it took me a couple of hours to find pictures with most of them. Then I created alphas for each tattoo in Photoshop. For some of them it was pretty easy, but considering some tattoos were in areas covered by hair, I had to improvise and draw them from my imagination following the snippets I could see in the images. I imported the alphas in Substance 3D Painter and I started to apply them on different paint layers in the mask, so I could easily remove or modify them if I didn’t place them in the right spot. I chose a dark green-blue color for the base.
Most of the alphas were only a linework of the tattoo, so after I had all the tattoos in place, I added a new layer in the mask where I painted the shading. I then added a new one where I removed some of the color by using a low-opacity dirt brush to create some breakup. It allowed us to also see the color of the skin underneath. I added a layer to create some color variation and another one to mimic the tattoo bleeding (they don’t have a perfect edge and there’s always a soft gradient), an important detail for achieving a realistic tattoo. I did the same for the red-colored tattoos.
Here’s the final result of the skin with the tattoos, and all the maps:
For the iris, I used a similar approach to the skin, but I haven’t started with a scan base. I mostly handpainted everything using a dirt brush following my references, and used some procedural textures here and there.
On the cornea, the most difficult part was creating the veins. For the smaller ones, I used procedural textures and a few alphas. Then I hand-painted the big ones, so here’s the final result:
Moving onto the armor and accessories, I started by establishing the base color and roughness-metallic values of each material. I tried to match them as best as I could to the screenshots I found from the game. I usually prefer to create all the materials myself, but sometimes I take advantage of the existing smart materials and I steal 1-2 layers to make certain things faster. For the cloth, I used a tileable texture in order to create the pattern.
Another important thing: even if multiple pieces are made from the same material, it’s good to create some subtle hue/tone shifts. Let’s take as an example the dark armor. I used the same material everywhere, but in order to make these little pieces stand out more from the rest and create a separation between elements, I added a new layer on top to make them a lighter color.
Then I started adding a bunch of color and roughness variations to break up the flat surfaces and add more interest.
To further enhance the shirt, I used a tileable memory folds Normal map that I had. It’s a subtle effect, but it adds some interesting breakups to the surface.
I was lucky enough to find a good-resolution image of the Black Lotus MTG card, so I projected it. I separated the signature for more control and I created a black and white mask that helped me a lot to add some extra detail.
And now the part I like the most – adding wear and tear, small imperfections, discoloration, dirt, dust, and rust. I used a combination of generators, tileable textures, and hand painting. There are a few things to keep in mind here.
First thing is to add them only where it makes sense, not randomly. For example, you wouldn’t add scratches in areas covered or protected by another object. Adding too much damage and dirt is not good because everything will become too noisy and it would be hard to read the forms. It’s important to keep a balance between noisy and rest areas, and it will create a nice contrast. Also, don’t go too extreme with the height information.
I used XGen in Maya to create all the hair and fibers. I like to separate everything into different descriptions for more control, so I would have a description for the main hair, one for the beard, one for the eyebrows, and so on.
Remember the rough blockout we made for the hair in ZBrush? Now we can import it in here and use it for placing the guides and for checking the silhouette. I toggle XRay on it so that I could easily see the guides.
When placing the guides, it is important to get the right flow, so this is why reference is key here.
Then it all comes down to adding modifiers and painting different maps in order to achieve the desired look. One of the most important maps you need to paint every time is the density mask. It controls the hair density across the surface. In my case, the hair in the top part is longer and thinner on the sides, so I spent some time working on it to get the look I wanted.
The modifiers I always use are clumping, cut, noise, and coil. The default values wouldn’t give you the look you want, so it’s a lot of back and forth trying different values until you find the right result. In some cases, I painted a custom map or used a procedural texture to have the effect of the modifier visible only in certain areas, not everywhere.
Lighting and Presentation
This is one of the most important stages of the process because here you can make your character shine. Despite its importance, it’s often overlooked. A character with a strong and compelling presentation will stand out even if the asset is not perfect. And it works the other way around as well, you can have the best-crafted piece but if the presentation is lazy it would become dull and boring.
After spending so much time modeling, texturing, and all the rest, we don’t have much energy and motivation left for this phase, but believe me it will make a huge difference and with minimal effort, you can transform a good piece into an outstanding one.
Before diving into lighting, I went back to ZBrush and I posed my character using Transpose Master. I went for a simple pose. All I did was to rotate the head and the eyes slightly and it already looks more natural and realistic compared to the lifeless look I had before.
Lighting plays a big role in the storytelling of the character, so the reference is key here in order to create a good setup for showcasing your character. It’s important to create not only an atmosphere that emphasizes all the materials we made in the texture stage but also one that fits the general theme and look of the character. It’s a vast topic, but if you want to get better at it I would suggest learning some basic photography.
Things such as camera lenses, composition, and color theory are crucial for creating great presentations. I’m a film aficionado and I developed a keen interest in cinematography in the past years. Analyzing some of my favorite cinematographers' work (Vittorio Storaro, Emanuel Lubezki, Roger Deakins, Christopher Doyle, etc.) and trying to understand how they use camera movement, lighting, and color to portray certain situations and emotions is fascinating and I think it helped me a lot to achieve cinematic looking renders.
When it comes to how I do the lighting, it’s pretty simple and straightforward. I usually use a Skydome light where I plug an HDRI. Polyhaven has some great ones which are also very high-res. Then I will create Area lights and play with the scale, rotation, and position until I find the desired look. I try to find the best balance between light and shadow, so I don’t end up with an overexposed or very dark image. I like to keep it simple and not use too many lights. I add extra lights only when it’s necessary for achieving a certain look, but usually, the classic setup of a key light, a fill light (I usually use the HDRI as a fill), and one or two rim lights will give you great results. And experiment a lot!
I wanted to recreate a medieval atmosphere, so I used as a reference a lot of paintings from the Renaissance and Baroque, from some of my favorite painters such as Caravaggio and Rembrandt. I think you can notice how much I love this stage considering I’ve done 12 different lighting setups. It’s not necessary but I usually do multiple setups for my personal projects because I like to explore and see which one works the best in the end. I liked 3 and 4 the most, so I decided to use both of them for rendering this character.
At this stage, all I needed to do is render a few images from different angles. I used Arnold as my rendering engine. It takes a lot of time to render in it, but it’s totally worth it considering the quality you can achieve with a very simple setup. I rendered a few different passes so I can use them for post-processing, and I exported the images as 32bits EXR files which store all the passes in one place.
Then I moved into Photoshop where I further enhanced the renders: I added a blurry background, did some color-grading, used some adjustment layers to control the contrast, exposure, and saturation, and finalized them by adding small things such as dust particles and film grain( for example I wanted to have more noise than I usually like in order to convey the old medieval period).
All these made a huge difference and made my images look more cinematic, realistic, and believable. Here you can see the render straight out of Arnold (on the left ) and the post-processed image (on the right):
We reached the finish line and I want to thank all of you for taking the time to read this article!
I hope you found it helpful and I must say there are a lot more things to share about the workflow behind creating a character like this. I recorded the entire process from the reference gathering stage to the final renders and organized it into a 21 hours long masterclass which you can find exclusively on Wingfox following this link.
Besides the pre-recorded videos, where I will present you in detail my workflow, covering both the artistic and technical side of making it, you will get access to a private Discord group where you can ask me anything, submit your WIPs and I will give feedback and assist you through the journey of making your own amazing pieces.
Andrei-Mihai Bejan, 3D Character Artist
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