Freelance modeller and texture artist Oliver Atton-Higgins gave a little breakdown of his amazing 3d model of Link from The Legend of Zelda, based on the concept art by Mike Yamada. It’s an intricate project with a lot of sculpted details, some amazing lighting and great texture work.
My name is Oliver Atton-Higgins. Born and bred in South Wales, UK, I attended the University of Glamorgan where I completed a degree in Computer Animation in 2010. After leaving university, I started working at a Dinamo Productions in the valleys, where I worked on a variety of animated and VFX heavy TV shows, including ‘Iconicles’, ‘Abadas’ and ‘Story of Wales’. After leaving Dinamo, I moonlighted as a part-time university tutor for Games Art and Computer Animation courses, before starting work at Living Data; a small app development studio in Cardiff. During my time there, I worked on a variety of smartphone apps. Right now, London is my home, where I work as a freelance modeller/texture artist; most recently working on the upcoming Wombles TV series reboot.
Link was based on a sketch by Mike Yamada.
He’s a Production Designer at Disney Animation, whose work I would highly recommend browsing. Being a big Zelda fan, when I happened across his drawing it really took my eye; I liked how Link had been re-imagined so well in this great Disney/Mary Blair cartoony kind of style, whilst retaining the essence of Link’s character. Having always been enamoured of Disney animation, with this project I wanted to create a model who wouldn’t look out of place in one of their films.
To begin with, I approached the modelling in Maya. With the original sketch on an image plane, I tried to block out a neutral pose, keeping the proportions in mind at all times. Following this, I exported him into Zbrush, subsequently adding some subtle muscle, mass and form where possible without compromising his style. After that, I retopologised his body, keeping the poly count as low as possible; my computer can be pretty slow at times and it’s easy for things to get unmanageable. I like to have all this done before I begin modelling clothes; I find it gives me a great foundation to work on. This done, I generated the clothes by extruding geometry from his body and sculpting it in Zbrush. The topology of the clothing was either inherited from his body, or automated with Zremesher; I find it usually gives me great results where precision is not necessarily required. Some parts, like his braces, hair and hat, were done in Maya. The sword and shield were modelled exclusively in Maya, separate from the character.
The shield actually was one area where I deviated slightly from the original design; I tried to model the sketch as it was, but I felt it didn’t work in 3D. After looking at other interpretations of the Hylian shield, I decided to add more depth with insets and handles. This also gave me an opportunity to mix up the materials somewhat, though admittedly it’s hard to see that when it’s attached to his back! The design on the front was inspired by it’s look in ‘Spirit Tracks’; purely because I liked the subdued colour scheme and felt it better matched the humble non-master sword.
Balancing the aesthetic with a believable form is definitely the main difficulty in creating a character like this; for me at least. Most of Link’s quandaries revolved around the translation of this fairly loose 2D drawing into a 3D model that could work from all angles, whilst maintaining the appeal and essence of the original artwork. As a 3D artist, I also find it difficult avoiding the temptation to add realistic proportions to every bit of work; sometimes you just have to rein yourself in and remember that a character like this only works because of his graphic, stylised form. I also found it difficult giving him emotion. I like to look at characters and feel like there is something behind the eyes; get a sense of what they are feeling. If this doesn’t happen then I know more work is needed. I’ve never been great at establishing this, so to learn that skill and see such a nice outcome to the project was very rewarding for me.
Building the Materials
As for the materials, they were all set up in Maya, with maps generated from Zbrush, Photoshop and Substance Painter. For his clothes, I layered normal maps sculpted in Zbrush with tileable fabric textures; this allowed me to sculpt folds, seams etc. whilst having an additional level of detail when zooming in. Some elements, such as the leather straps used tileable textures with additional detail and elements such as stitches, modelled in. His skin is a simple fast ss skin shader, with a hand painted texture map for the face. Usually I would pay more attention to the rest of the body; particularly the hands, but it wasn’t really needed here. His sword and shield were textured together in Substance Painter, with the shield decals added in Photoshop before being translated to Maya. I like to keep a nice balance of materials of varying qualities in every model I do, so you will see a lot of very diffuse cloth material, but also a nice balance of waxy, shiny and reflective leathers, brass and steel materials. I find this helps keep the model interesting and grounded.
For this render, the lighting exists mainly to show off the model and make him look appealing, in keeping with the original sketch. To this end, I actually just used a simple 3 point lighting setup. Although I usually use HDRI/image based lighting techniques, for Link, none of them seemed to make him ‘pop’ in the same way. I found tweaking and moving this simple light setup to give the most appealing results whilst keeping the render time short. I think the best way to light these cartoony characters is always to keep it simple, and always have a strong mood and composition in mind. If your scene isn’t appealing and conveying an emotion, then it’s not doing it’s job. Simple things like using lights to create a shine in your characters eyes, for example, can have a huge affect on it’s appeal. I can’t tell you how long i spent rotating and moving the lights until his eyes looked just right, or I got a good shine on his sword. When your lighting comes together your model just gets that ‘sheen’. That’s when you know it works!
Creating Stylised Characters
As a 3D artist, sometimes there is a temptation to add endless detail to a model especially with the tools like Zbrush and similar programs have to offer, but with stylised characters particularly you need to be able to step back and think; ‘is this detail really necessary’? For this model in particular, he had a strong, bold, graphic design and too much detail may have been potentially distracting and not in keeping with the spirit of the source material. At the same time, 3D gives us such a wealth of material and lighting options to explore; these can really be utilised to give us a sense of realism and depth that was never available before and should definitely be exploited.
When creating a stylised character, the key word is appeal. I think you must always have a strong, appealing design, and always keep the design in front of you. As yourself, what makes this character appealing? What are their strongest features? What mood or emotions is this character feeling? As with any character animated or real, the eyes are always the key to capturing their emotion, so make sure you spend time to get these right, as well as the facial area around them. Posing and expression is very important; if we can feel the weight and emotion of a character, it is a lot easier to accept their exaggerated visual style. I would also say, if something isn’t working or your character doesn’t quite ‘pop’, don’t be afraid to share your work and ask for another opinion. Go back to the drawing board and look at your design, study other similar designs and examine what makes them work. Once you’ve established that and you can apply it to your own work, you’ll start creating characters who look like they’re ready to jump out the screen. It’s difficult, and rare, but once you hit that sweet spot, it’s endlessly rewarding!