Sasha Bernert wrote a step-by-step guide to creating stylized PBR guns in ZBrush, Maya, and Substance Painter and shared a few useful tutorials.
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Helo! I'm Sasha Bernert, currently a 3D Environment Artist at Spiderling Games working on the game Besiege.
I'm entirely self-taught, so you'll see a bunch of my favorite tutorials sprinkled in the article!
I love all things – Realistic, Stylized, and Handpainted, – and so the art direction for my Stylized Weapons was meant to combine bits of all three art styles and challenge me on every step of the production.
Reference and Design
I believe reference to be the most important step of working in 3D, and so I begin every project by gathering reference. I mostly use Google, ArtStation, and Sketchfab and sometimes search for photographs or game screenshots.
I organize images in PureRef by category like modeling, sculpting, and texturing, which allows me to only view the necessary reference at a given step.
Taking the habit of studying your reference carefully and finding specific images every time you are stuck is a great way to avoid going back and forth and doing Ctrl-Z a lot; this also means that gathering reference is continuous, and not only done at the beginning.
I wanted the design of the Stylized Weapons to tell a story about the world these props live in and asked myself how the gunsmith created them, what sort of engineering was put into it, who used these guns... They had to communicate an era, a civilization, and a universe, which is part of worldbuilding.
In these two weapons, the story is mainly told by design, but also by the choice of materials, shape language, damage and dirt, details, etc.
Concepts and sketches are very helpful to start designing quickly if you have the skills to make them. I was more comfortable sketching in 3D so I started blocking out some gun shapes and designs.
For faster exploration and iteration, I keep my geometry simple and dirty, and go from Big shapes > Medium shapes > Small shapes, to not get caught up in details too early. When creating these designs, I mainly kept in mind mechanism (is it functional? believable?), identity (shape language, common details), aesthetics (is it visually pleasing? is the silhouette recognizable?), and gameplay (view angle, crosshair, animation).
The workflow I used for modeling the guns was Lowpoly > Rough Highpoly > Sculpt Highpoly > Final Lowpoly.
I start by taking my rough blockout and retopologize it to a clean lowpoly model, with fewer pieces, minimum geometry, and good edge flow.
This base lowpoly will be used to make a simple highpoly through subdivision and the final lowpoly, which might need a few changes after finishing the high.
Now we bring the highpoly into ZBrush for sculpting where I have a ton of tips to share. Starting with the interface, making the UI comfortable is important to build up speed and make the experience more enjoyable. I've assembled mine to make the best use of space with the tools I use the most (you can customize it by going into Preferences > Config > Enable Customize).
Furthermore, I changed the orange accent color to white (Preferences > IColors) and removed the viewport background gradient (Draw > Range).
To start sculpting on the highpoly base, we have to make the geometry sculptable. I mainly use DynaMesh (sometimes ZRmesher) and adjust the edges with Polish, ClayPolish, and Divides if needed.
I've given you the tools I use to sculpt, but it would be difficult to show you how to use them in a single article. Instead, I'd like to share with you a couple of fantastic tutorials created by very inspiring artists that have shaped my workflow.
I know that UVs seem boring, not creative, and tedious. My unwrapping workflow aims to fix that by making the process very quick, thinking about UVs creatively, and getting a better result which either increases performance or improves texture resolution.
I've grown to love doing UVs in Maya, and I believe it's because I've built my own workflow through experience. I encourage you to build your own and hopefully it will lead to making the process less boring.
I start by identifying which areas I want to mirror. In most cases, I can delete half of the mesh, since I won't need to UV the other half. I will also identify the areas of the model the player won't see and set them aside to spend less time and space on their UVs. For guns, the top-facing planes in the FPS view are very visible, and so I wanted to make them unique.
In Maya, to avoid errors and problems, I always make sure the model has deleted history and frozen transforms. My core workflow is to Cut > Unfold > Orient > Layout, while also using Stack Shells, Texel Density, Match UVs, and Straighten UVs tools when necessary.
The Gnomon Workshop has a great Intoduction to Unwrapping in Maya, which was my personal starting point for appreciating UVs.
I do my baking and texturing inside Substance Painter, as I like having both of these processes in the same place for speed. Thankfully, baking in Substance is very simple, although having a clean bake is another story. Baking problems occur in the meshes used, and so I often go back and forth between my 3D package and Substance to fix topology, mesh, and UV issues that come up. This takes a while; though you will predict and recognize these issues with experience, and get clean bakes significantly faster.
The only baking parameters I commonly change in Substance is disabling the ID and Thickness map (I generally never use them) and setting the resolution and anti-aliasing (2048*2048 at 2x is my default).
My texturing workflow usually follows the same frame, which is Fill > Edges > Cavities/AO > Variation > Lighting/Gradients > Roughness. However, finding the right ideas and colors took a lot of studying of reference.
- Variation, dirt, and damage can make the model more believable and appealing.
- For stylized textures, edges require a lot of attention. Don't use a simple curvature map; use detailed masks, multiple layers, and break up edges.
- Gradients and lighting are important for clarity and leading the eye (top to bottom is a common gradient, using the 3D Linear Gradient generator)
- Roughness is very important; you should build your roughness map just like your color map.
Over time, I've got to experiment with all kinds of procedurals, generators, filters, and techniques. Most are self-explanatory, but some can have obscure uses. The 3D Distance generator can be used to fake lighting in a precise spot, the World Space Normals generator can fake directional lighting, the Blur Slope filter can stylize any mask thrown at it, and the HSL filter can change a material's colors very quickly. I encourage people to try them out as they've completely changed my workflow.
Color Theory can be applied to pick materials/colors. Good color combinations are essential to make good looking textures. This video by Andrew Price gives a good overview of what Color Theory is:
Lighting and Rendering
Rendering in Marmoset is really fast and straightforward for prop renders.
If you're new to Marmoset Toolbag, Daniel Thiger has a great introduction to making renders in Marmoset.
For lighting, I keep it simple and start with 3-point lighting, and experiment to see what works. In this case, I used a neutral white key light, strong blue rim lights, and a very subtle warm fill light. It is very much about bringing the best out of your model; here I took special care to make my roughness really shine with the position of my lights, I outlined the silhouette with rim lights, and led the eye with light falloffs.
I also like to bring my renders into Photoshop, to have better control over lighting, colors, and post-processing (although you can do most of this in-render).
There are a lot of settings and effects to keep in mind, so here are some tips when approaching them for prop renders.
- Global Illumination: For stylized models, I set the brightness high enough so that my darkest areas aren't completely black.
- Ambient Occlusion: Whether it's in your material or render, or both, AO is essential. Experiment with intensity and size until it looks natural and grounded.
- Shadows: They aren't always sharp, and softening them can improve your lighting (you can blur your shadows using the Width slider in the Light parameters in Marmoset).
- Focal Length: It can emphasize scale and proportions in different ways; match it with your intention.
- Bloom: It should be present, but not eye-catching. Use it to enhance your highlights.
- Sharpening: It can be used to make textures crisper, as long as it's not too strong.
- Vignette: Framing your image is important, but not always necessary. If it fits your render, you can use it.
- Tonemapping: Play around with colors, contrast, and your values. I like using color lookup tables, curves, and levels.
- Depth of Field, Chromatic Aberration, and Grain: Useful for cinematic/realistic looks. DOF and CA can also help frame your image.
- Fog: Use it to bring depth or color into the image.
- Background: Background is a lot of experimentation, but something that always works for me is a flat 10-20% black.
In summary, here are some of the things I've learned throughout doing art and applied to the Stylized Weapons:
- References are core to every step of the process and will help get you unstuck. Gather them, study them, and use them.
- Design should be coherent with its world, through the choice of materials, shape language, damage and dirt, details, etc.
- Modeling and Sculpting are done from big to small shapes and rely on design.
- Texturing stylized assets requires paying attention to edges, variation, gradients, colors, and roughness. Combining the best from handpainted and realistic texturing techniques will get you the furthest.
- Lighting and Rendering are where you actually make your prop look good. Use 3-point lighting if you don't know where to begin, and explore settings, effects, and post-processing.