Vincent Ménier talked about character art, his toolset, stylized texturing workflow, and gave advice to character artists looking for a job in the industry.
Hey there! My name is Vincent, and I'm a character artist from France, currently working in London. In the last few years, I've had the opportunity to work on a wide range of projects from IP based collectibles to mobile games, cinematics and more recently PC/Console games including Fortnite last year and an unannounced MMORPG we're currently developing at CCP Games.
I got into 3D art by pure chance. Originally, I went to study business, but I quickly felt that the education model wasn't what I was looking for. By the time I quit, it was too late in the school year to register for most traditional education paths, but I remembered a VFX school that caught my eye a couple of months back. I had always been passionate about games and movies so why not? I literally harassed them on the phone for several days before they agreed to give me a test as well as an interview. I passed, meaning "they were happy to take my money" and so the journey began!
Character Art: Important Aspects
First and foremost, I think a good character has a story to tell. The internet is full of expertly executed 3D models which no one remembers because they were devoid of meaning. Sometimes, I think the simplest character, even with average execution, can resonate strongly with people if it conveys genuine emotion. Badass_warrior_#2497 and Sexy_Elf_#7843 will only get a couple of quick likes and soon be forgotten.
Beyond that, I'd say all the usual aspects apply. Whether it's a strong silhouette, a striking color palette, dramatic lighting or powerful composition, all of these contribute to making a character appealing and memorable. Unless you’re looking at the work of a world-class artist, I'd argue execution is probably the last thing that will keep an audience's attention. I personally feel a character is a failure if all people have to say about it is "oh, that's well done."
Tools being only tools, I'd say my opinion here will be fairly subjective. ZBrush is still king when it comes to organic modeling and fluid workflows. Many artists are very competent at using it for hard surface modeling as well, but my advice is to pair it with a traditional poly-modeling package such as Maya/Max/Modo. Recently, Blender also started making a lot of noise. It looks very promising and I think I’ll put some time aside to dig further into it. I will say I am glad to see some healthy competition. My hope is that it can shake the 3D giants who've grown a little rusty. Now, if you’re a hard-surface specialist, Fusion 360 and Moi3D seem to be the way to go. As for 3D Coat, I am no expert as I don’t use it a lot beyond hand painted texturing, but I've seen several concept artists do some magic with it.
In the end, what I find inspiring is that you don't necessarily require expertise in many software to create fantastic characters. That should be the main takeaway here. You only need a simple combo like ZBrush + Substance Painter + Marmoset in order to reach outstanding results. Check out Magdalena Dadela's recent studies, for example.
I know this will sound counter-intuitive, but I generally tend to stay in ZBrush as much as I can. Even when it's not the absolute best tool for the task at hand. In short, I've found I don't deal very well with breaking my flow by jumping from software to software. I try to stay focused and keep my current line of thought running, even if that means I'll end up brute-forcing certain tasks instead of doing things “the smart way”. In the end, It usually takes just as much time if not less.
Still, there are times where I'll need to get out of ZBrush for a variety of reasons, often complexity or project related. Usually, that'll be Maya for some tricky hard surface modeling or Marvelous Designer if I'm doing complex, realistic clothing.
For stylized character texturing, my first color pass relies on a gradient map that is assembled from the various bakes I generate using my high poly mesh. I picked up this trick from one of Marc Brunet's tutorials and later saw it used in a variety of productions (take a guess!). Using this black and white gradient map, you then overlay color gradients for each material on your character. Depending on your character's complexity, this first pass might take a while, but it'll give you a solid foundation to build upon. I try to do it as fast as possible since this is still far from the end result.
After the first color pass, I do a quick material pass where I add Fill layers that exclusively affect the roughness and metalness channels of each individual material. Adding material definition early on improves the global image and makes it easier to read.
Then, I try to step away from the character for at least a few hours. That way, when I get back, I can have a fresh look at the overall color blocking. I usually find that I have to make some much-needed adjustments. Indeed, it's impossible to evaluate colors in isolation and is therefore important to observe how they relate and impact each other.
Beyond that point, I'll try playing with more fancy materials, add effects layers and start painting manually on top of everything.
Beyond the traditional, and ever valid, answer of saying "focus on the fundamentals such as anatomy!" there is one key thing that is missing from every young character artist’s toolkit: Business sense! The general lack of understanding of how business works in this career path, or the fear of it, does more damage then we think.
In the current state of the industry, characters are some of the most valuable and outsourced assets. Look at games like League of Legends, Fortnite or Overwatch. Where do players spend money on these games? That's right: characters! And given the sheer volume of character skins these games are shipping every year, character artists are called upon more than ever. These days, any decent character artist with a little bit of online visibility is likely to get approached. One would argue that sounds like a great thing! More demand means a more stable revenue stream and why not higher rates? The issue here is that a lot of "clients" are well aware that the younger artists are often clueless about rates, don't understand or read their contracts and are terrified of saying no by fear of getting "blacklisted".
Recently, there have been reports of students being hired to work on AAA titles, pressured to work 14 hours a day and getting paid less than an average studio rate. Worse than that, they had contracts stipulating they were not allowed to show any of their work and take credit for it. It’s unacceptable!
So how do we avoid this as an art community? Well, the first thing is to educate ourselves. Stop watching ZBrush tutorials for a second and learn how to read a contract. Don't be afraid to ask if you don't know or don't understand. Learn about freelance rates. As a freelancer, you should charge roughly double what you'd earn in a studio. Why? Because you have no job security and have to pay for your own office space, hardware, software, accounting, marketing, health care, holidays, etc. It’s not a luxury. It's standard. Also, don't charge lower because you live in a cheaper country! If you work for a company that makes big bucks in the US, then charge at a US rate! Undercutting the whole market will only drive prices down for everyone else in the end, you included.
Learn to say no and to turn down bad offers. It is so easy to fall in the trap of saying yes to everything and becoming overwhelmed by the weight of bad deals. Saying no doesn't make you a bad person! It's an everyday business. Unless you're absolutely starving, (in which case it's probably better to take some odd jobs) one good client is always going to be better than five bad ones! Quality over quantity. Sooner than later, your portfolio will shine with great work, and you'll be able to pick the projects you like and charge higher rates for your services. Art is a luxury in life. It shouldn't be cheap. Your work has value, and if you want other people to respect what you do, then the first step is to respect it yourself :)