Hazel Webster shared her approach to the Youjo Senki fanart project made in ZBrush and Substance Painter.
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Hey! I'm Hazel, I'm a character artist specializing in games, the place my passion has always lived in!
I'm entirely self-taught so I have a less standard story. I didn't go to any colleges, art schools, or programmes to study. Ever since the first moment I played a 3D video game (the original Ratchet & Clank on PS2), my whole world suddenly expanded and I quickly became obsessed with the potential of games as an art form and the processes behind how they're made. I downloaded a copy of Blender 2.46 back when I was 10 years old after trying some other freeware 3D apps and finding them less than practical. About a year later I'd fallen in with some metaverse platforms floating around at the time. Long story short, people wanted to buy the things I made and so from ages 11-16 I spent all of my free time away from school honing my skills and offering my services to companies that would then sell products and assets to the user base! This forced me to be constantly adaptable and proactive in my approach while competing with others in the market, but it's absolutely not the environment for everyone. If school works for you, more power to you!
Inspiration can be intoxicating. Sometimes it's great and sometimes it will vanish out from under you mid-project just to leave you high and dry. So it's often good with personal projects to ensure you're prepared and not just acting out of a whim. This was an older presentation for the character with a more natural video-gamey style so my goal was to stick as faithfully to the concept as possible while still making her instantly recognizable as Tanya, if grown-up a little.
Modeling the Character
When starting a character like this I always make sure to capture the likeness of the face first and foremost. This is the focal point and if it doesn't communicate clearly to the audience who this is and what the project is about, then it doesn't matter how flashy your texturing techniques are.
It cannot be understated how important good references are. I grabbed Den's concept and surrounded it with pictures of everything from Tanya's anime appearance to military flight suits to that meme of the little girl with the evil smile watching the house burn. My approach is always to start from realism as your baseline set of rules and then ask yourself from there which rules you need to bend or break in order to tell your story and set your tone. Tanya has a cute/psychopathic duality so it was important to me to get some clean, sharp angles and aggressive shape language in there alongside the cuter rounded baby-fat features. The hair then just follows this same logic. I start laying down some volumes and focus on where those shapes take me.
When I'm sure the likeness is communicated well, I move on to blocking out the whole body and ensuring the shape language backs up that story. What we do is highly technical... and just like with illustration, it's all too easy to be too 'zoomed in' and miss the bigger picture if you're not careful – and that can result in everything ending up all wonky the moment you zoom back out.
It's good to get this stage in as early as possible. Just get some spheres in there and start pulling and pushing them into the right shapes. Focus on the weight and flow of the silhouette as much as the volume. ZBrush has an awesome tool, Transpose Master. I use it similarly to Liquify in Photoshop - just hit the button, squish things around until you're more on-target, then automatically revert it to individual subtools with your updated changes. I use this almost as much as I tweak the subtools individually at this early stage.
Once I'm happy with the overall read of a character, I focus down on the detail work. Add in all the belts and buckles and bags. Most of this I can do comfortably in ZBrush. Her rifle for example didn't take more than an afternoon with some good old Primitive Cylinders... but sometimes it's just faster to get a quality result by hopping into your 3D app, blocking out the shapes, and importing them into ZBrush for fine-tuning as I did with the metal plating on her boots. Whatever gets the results!
When I'm done with the sculpt, retopology is up next. I break up the sculpt into different pieces to retopologize them individually with a mixture of 3D Coat, sometimes using ZBrush's own retopo tools as a springboard, and then putting those finished pieces back together in whatever 3D package I'm using at the time. This part is mostly in the planning, some choices just make animation and rigging far harder than it needs to be.
These days I use Substance Painter for my texture workflow. Once again I always refer to realism first and stylize from there. As an example, I asked a close friend who had spent time in the military to give some feedback on the textiles that are used in these kinds of uniforms. He sent back some pictures and after 5 minutes and a noise generator we arrived pretty quickly at something we felt was a good match. I don't know much about guns so I spent a little time researching unconventional or unused german rifles, watching how they're designed and disassembled to fully understand the variety of shapes and mechanisms I was looking at in the original concept. Having a strong, internalized visual library is invaluable but the world will always be so much bigger than your experiences. Everybody around you knows something you don't so take advantage of that and always ask questions.
Everybody knows characters like Sherlock Holmes – people who can use their skills of observation to notice small details and solve the case, like how wear and tear or the absence of it may indicate some kind of story or motive or event. I think good texturing can be a lot like that but in reverse. Tanya hates war, but she loves winning. She's ruthlessly efficient and after being on the front lines she's anxious whenever her rifle isn't in pristine condition. It would have been fun and easy for me to dirty up the rifle, but it would run counter to what makes Tanya Tanya. Instead of the mud and dirt staining her uniform, there is a subtle layer of fingerprints on the varnished wood and cold metals where she would be holding it. Along with it, there are entrenched scratches in the metalwork caused by the repeated action of the rifle bolt being drawn back – these details tell the story of a rifle that's seen a lot action, but is still kept in pristine condition by its owner.
Once I'm happy with the textures, I move over to Marmoset and start experimenting with presentation. I like to start with standard three-point lighting setup and then fine-tune from there to enhance the mood I'm after. It's a tricky balance between the interplay of light and shadow that creates a mood and ensuring that the model is still reading well. Especially for 3D artists, it's important not to obfuscate the quality of our sculpture in a portfolio piece.
The pose is really important too. Any animator can tell you just how much body language is used to convey the person inside. Tanya's patriotism only goes so far as it gets her what she wants. Her salute isn't militaristic at all, rather it's just plain mocking from a sense of superiority over her enemies. If I'm doing my job right with the presentation then you shouldn't need to have seen the show to reach some of these conclusions but those who have will get it instantly.
One of the main things that help ground a character in the audience's mind is the subtle imperfections and distortions you get in a real camera that are often absent in rendering. Take the time to experiment with subtle lens distortion as an example. The dirt, dust, and fingerprints on that lens and other small imperfections in the image help it feel more naturalistic. It's seriously impressive how much you can achieve by just breaking up the mathematical perfection computers give us by nature.
Fusing Objective and Subjective Realities
Speaking of the main rules I follow when creating characters, I think it starts just by taking the time to remember what this is all in the service of – a good character design, be it in live-action or comic books or toys, is able to quickly and accurately convey who that person is, what they're about and maybe most importantly how you should feel about them. As a 3D artist, I think it's important not to lose who the character is by being too focused on the technical craft behind translating it into 3D. 3D art is often super technical! But the public usually never sees that. I think we need to occasionally step back and take the time to remember that we're ultimately creating products for an audience. Art is all about creating emotions in people and an audience loves great characters precisely because they can relate and get emotionally attached to them!
Similarly, stylized art is often set up in conversation as a direct opposition to realism via the realm of fantasy but I think that's not the full truth. What we typically describe as realism is maybe more aptly described by 'Objective Reality' or some similar words – it's the world seen as literal objects, measured strictly by light bouncing off or being absorbed by the surfaces of objects before finding their way into the lens of a camera. It's an objective, mathematical truth that exists with or without humans to observe it. Stylized art is often more about a literal representation of the subjective experiences people have of the world. Take a game like Psychonauts for example; people's subjective neuroses, demons, and mental illnesses are rendered in literal, blunt, and unwavering detail. These subjects are all real things that exist out there in the world. There is nothing magical about them. However, a digital camera can never directly observe them the way the mind does. This is why 'Cartoony' is often a misleading and frustrating descriptor here. It's the same reason we all understand and relate to Emojis even if we don't use them ourselves. Stylized art has a long and storied history going back long before even the Impressionist movement and has the potential to be more relatable and universal by giving us the tools to make these abstract concepts manifest in a way we can all understand and project ourselves onto. To quote Tim Schafer, "What's the color of the sky in your world?"
The main challenge with stylized art for me is to figure out where that balance is between the Objective and Subjective realities in order to best communicate the feelings I'm after. Realism is easy to get sucked into, like a black hole of detailing. Nature is a relaxing guide to follow but if stylized art is your goal, make sure you're remembering what it is you're ultimately trying to capture at the end of the day. A more weathered belt buckle probably isn't it.