Long life to Embark studio and its fabulous procedural artists dream team !
Tim Paauwe broke down his new stylized character created for Wild West Artstation challenge! Software used: ZBrush, Marmoset, Substance Painter and more.
Check the breakdown of the Allure here:
The Project Start
I started this project for the Wild West challenge on Artstation. This time I wanted to challenge myself and finish it on time instead of completing the work outside of the contest like I did with the Beyond Human contest and The Allure.
I really liked the concept because of how stylized everything was, the large body compared to the small head worked great together. It was a great exercise to train my proportion and observation skills. Something I looked out for this time was the clarity of the concept, and in this one, it was clear where things should be. The only thing missing from the concept was the back, where I had the freedom to fill in the blanks.
Planning is key in production, especially in a 10-week timeframe. Before I started anything in 3D I gathered a library of references to get a visually clear idea of what I wanted. PureRef is a great program for keeping references in a single file.
Working in ZBrush
A new challenge also meant a new approach. Something I’ve seen a lot of people do is starting off from spheres. I figured this was the easiest way to go as I could manipulate each superficial muscle very easily.
Before starting out I created a paint over on top of the concept showing were the main shapes go, where they intersect and how big they should be. This was a great reference point to start from.
Another thing I started using was Spotlight. This is great for always having the concept on my main screen rather than having to use my second monitor. As silly as it sounds, it really saves time to not move your head from one screen to the other.
WIP of the first week:
When I finished the main body and triple checked all the proportions, I converted everything except the head to a single dynamesh. I kept the head separated for easier sculpting later on. I created the clothing and props in Maya and some extracts in ZBrush, like the pants.
With all the base meshes ready I started to figure out the back part of the character. The sooner I did this the more time I had to experiment with different ideas. I found this cool picture of a girl carrying a dog while looking for references, so I carried this over into the design, having him carry a dog in a big mountaineering backpack. Maybe it was a puppy he found while hunting and decided to bring home for training.
A mountaineering backpack wasn’t really fitting the character’s lore and time period. Searching further on Google to see something fitting I found out that Native American women used a Seneca pack frame for carrying their babies. This was a perfect fit.
First WIP taken into ZBrush with the first pass on the dog:
About week 3 or 4, all the base meshes were done and the back was figured out. I was time to continue sculpting. The main tools I use for sculpting are pretty basic: a lot of Clay build up, HPolish, Dam Standard, and the Move tool. For polishing, I also use the orb cracks brush if needed.
The fur was a different story. While I used the same techniques, I also used a set of alphas to speed up the process. Doing this manually would’ve taken me hours while using alphas took me just a few minutes. I used alphas on everything that is fur-related, in different patterns to create diversity. This includes the bear fur on his arm, dog, fur pelt and the foxtail.
Once the sculpt is done it is time for the retopo stage. This is rather straightforward in TopoGun. In my case, it took a long time as I did most pieces separately. Of course, all the mirrored parts were retopo’ed half and mirrored over, I ended up having about 20 low poly meshes to bake.
I tried to keep everything as low as possible: the maximum budget for the contest was 100k triangles in total. Currently, my character is just below 40k. Using 100k for a stylized character seemed a bit overkill to me as a lot of details are basic shapes and could be baked down.
To keep a proper low poly flow I used terminating triangles to keep the overall silhouette smoother while the topology is low. Placing these triangles in the areas that don’t deform much is key. In this case, a rigger can still do his job rather than send the mesh back to the modeler for another pass on topology.
First pass on body/head topology:
I always use UVlayout for creating my UV shells, as I really like how easy it is to cut my seams on the mesh and it’s super fast at relaxing the UV shells. However, for very simple objects, Maya is becoming more useful than ever with the new UV toolkit and relaxing features. With UVing in Maya, I don’t have to export and reimport it. This saves me some valuable time.
I have been using Marmoset Toolbag for baking ever since it got baking features. It is an amazing tool! As Marmoset Toolbag supports quick loading, I only had to rename every mesh in Maya and export them into single files. The quickloader imports and creates all my baking groups automatically. The only things left to do were to adjust the offset of the cag and fix some skewing issues and baking was done very quickly.
Texturing in Photoshop
My main focus is to work in PBR, but this time I wanted to try a different approach as the deadline was closing in. I needed something simple but aesthetically pleasing and decided to go for a uniform material look, the one some popular games like Fortnite are using.
After choosing the style you want to go for, the main part that remains is the albedo map. I consider this the most important map in stylized texturing, the roughness and metalness maps are secondary and thus supplementary: they add towards the art style rather than making objects behave like their real counterparts.
Most of my time was spent in Photoshop and Marmoset rather than in Substance Painter. In Photoshop I mix my baked maps into a pretty dark grayscale texture and use it as a base to work from.
My grayscale base contains the following (in the order as shown in the GIF below):
- AO, as a base
- Green Channel from the object space normal map (fake lighting from the top)
- Curvature map
- Green channel from Position map (it gives a nice top to bottom gradient on the character)
- FaoGen map
Once the grayscale composition is done, I group the files and collapse the folder. From here I make selections and use the gradient tool to give each material selection a color. Below is the final result from Photoshop rendered in Marmoset.
First pass on albedo before moving to Substance Painter:
Substance Painter & Marmoset
After the base is done in Photoshop, I export everything into Substance Painter. Here I start giving every material a roughness and metalness value. This stage is in sync with Marmoset as I prefer an iterative workflow. When I export my textures from Substance Painter they are instantly updated into Marmoset, which is running on the other screen; as I already have a lighting setup finalized, it gives me a good base to judge my values and color from.
The key for the plastic look is to use full values rather than using textures in the roughness channel. This makes everything look uniform.
To break up the uniform look I gave every material a different value. The only material that breaks this rule is the skin, which has a noise map to create a nice speckle highlight in Marmoset.
Two sets of textures, both 4k resolution:
Final pass. Unlit albedo on the left. Roughness on the right:
To get a more stylized result I did not use the standard HDRI’s from Marmoset. Instead, I used a pack of fan-made HDRI’s from Overwatch. This creates a great base for stylized models, as the game itself is very stylized with complementary lighting. From here on I just added more point lights and directional lights, keeping a three-point lighting setup in mind.
Lighting setup in Marmoset:
A big help was to give all the lights a big width. This will result in the harsh lines from the casted shadows to be soft, as these harsh lines will only distract the viewer from the model. Adding global illumination and ambient occlusion is a great way to feel the model more settled in the scene.
The Biggest Challenge
My biggest challenge was the backpack and sculpting the dog, especially within 10 weeks when I kept in mind that I didn’t make the deadline in the previous contest, Beyond Human.
Making two characters plus figuring out the back of the character required good planning from the start and sticking to ideas. Experimenting with the ideas is definitely a great thing and losing a week or two on experiments didn’t hurt the overall progress, but as an artist, I was able to learn from my experience and mistakes. Embrace failure and if it doesn’t work out, scrap it.
I had this idea to implement a totem or a big totem pole like they have in the Warcraft series. I spent a weekend on creating variations and mixing ideas together to see if it would work.
Unfortunately, it was all just too chaotic and I decided to go back to my original idea: the Seneca pack frame and a bag, with maybe keeping some elements of the totem pole. However, those didn’t make it into the final design either as it wasn’t balancing out very well with the big tail on the left side. I kept the right side of the bag empty for an asymmetrical, non-cluttered look because the dog’s head is already a focal point on the right side.
Final result of the character and the backpack:
Thank you for taking the time to read through my progress! I hope my tips will help you in the future projects. If you are interested in seeing where it all started, here is the contest thread.