Dmitry Radushinsky talked about his approach to the project The Elder: redesign, modeling, retopology, animation, cinematic presentation setup in Marmoset Toolbag, and more.
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Greetings! My name is Dmitry Radushinsky, I am a freelance 3D artist, animator, and filmmaker from Ukraine.
In this article, I would like to share my thoughts and experience in creating a 3D character with a cinematic presentation in Marmoset Toolbag.
The Elder: Inspiration
I am a huge fan of Souls aesthetic and dark fantasy. When I saw one of Oz To's artworks, I was amazed by the originality of the character, elaborate detailing that highlights the spirit, a story behind the character, and general mood. His choppy armor parts, helmet with visor parts ripped out, long silver beard, and giant proportions still give me chills.
Reference, Redesign and Modeling
Since most of the details and armor parts are not visible in the original artwork, I searched for some references. My main goal was to find a good reference for the medieval knight without a skirt. For the chest armor, I used the Berserk armor from the original manga as my main reference – it was a perfect plate-mail skirtless piece, – and Eridin sets from The Witcher 3 as a second reference.
There were several versions of the armor created before the final one. Main shapes and the overall atmosphere were taken from the original art piece by Oz To, and the rest was inspired by the Berserk armor, Slave Knight Gael (and other Souls guys), Eridin, and real medieval armor.
Eventually, the model of the original helmet did not fit in with other parts, so I decided to redesign it too. As a reference, I used medieval crowns and interesting helmet shapes. Still, I wanted a helmet that represented the character’s story, so I made ripped-out parts and redesigned eyeholes in accordance with the Berserk helmet.
While redesigning, my main goal was to create a believable model, showing the character through the shape proportions and detailing.
I modeled most of the stuff in ZBrush using ZModeler, setting crease on edges to 2/3 and dividing it to high poly with smooth edges (basic workflow). Some parts, such as cloak and pants, were made in Marvelous Designer, others were made in Maya.
After the base model was done, I started to sculpt ornaments using an ornament pack. Here, the harmony of shapes was my guideline. After that, I started damaging the armor using trim dynamic, dam standard, orb cracks, and some damage packs. I dynameshed highly damaged parts and ripped-out parts using clipping tools and standard brushes.
For the low poly, I used low divided meshes where it was possible, did manual retopology where needed, and, since it was my personal project, used decimation for hard damaged and ornament parts to save time.
Decimation has its own pros and cons. While it is very fast in production and provides a great shape replication with a low number of polys, decimation still has bad topology for animation and bad shading in some cases (which can be fixed with cleaning and adding supporting edges), and it takes a long time to clean up the UVs.
My overall goal was to create voluminous shapes as quickly as possible, with a better silhouette and details working in close-up shots. In some cases, decimation is a way to go, in others, it is not. You can try it yourself and decide whether it is worth using it or not. One thing I should mention is that unwrapping complex decimated shapes is horrible.
Speaking of the polycount, the sword is 19k tris, and the character – 80k tris.
UVs and Baking
The UV stage was a pretty basic manual process. Some parts have more pixel density for better texture quality. Also, it is good to straighten your shells for better normal map baking and to simplify the texturing process. Since my character has a lot of non-symmetrical parts (for a more realistic look), I decided to use 3 texture sets for the character and 2 for the weapon. Each one is in 4k, for better close-up quality.
I baked normal maps, AO + concavity, curvature + convexity maps (you can check out Dmitry Danylenko’s article for great baking tips) in Marmoset. It is a powerful and fast baker with great features. It also has quality tools for fixing bad baking results quickly, flexible cages, and more. You can speed up your baking process by automatically creating bake groups, just follow the instructions in the official Marmoset documentation.
I started by gathering references for the overall look. My visual goal was something between For Honor and Dark Souls/Bloodborne. Realistic, but still visually eloquent materials.
While texturing, I was trying to keep it clean, choosing generators and maps wisely to get the best result. I made most of the materials from scratch, sometimes using some parts from Substance Painter's database (which was a great help).
The most important part of PBR texturing is the understanding of each layer and it is there (and analyzing the reference, of course). A good texture requires both – good understanding of material creation and wisely gathered reference, but it is important to experiment and have fun. The fabric material was my favorite part to work with. I used a royal fabric with a golden pattern, washed out and ripped to wrap around the sword handle and scabbard. Those details really emphasized authenticity.
The beard is one of the details that distinguish this knight from thousands of similar boys, so it was important for me to make it look good. I used the beard of Slave Knight Gael and some realistic long beards for reference. I made a texture with different types of locks of hair (using XGen and Arnold). Then I modeled the beard, placing the hair cards manually, trying to maintain shape and realistic details.
I am not 100% happy with the final result, it is messy in some parts and could have been cleaner, but it still looks fine to me. If you are interested in doing something similar, you can follow Adam Skutt’s real-time hair creation tutorial.
I was always inspired by both cinematics and real-time animation, so in this project, I have tried to combine both.
To breathe life into the character, I made a rig based on Advanced Skeleton (it is a perfect solution for fast quality rigs) + custom bones structure for the beard, cloak, and scabbard with the sword. Rigging is a very important part of animation – the better and cleaner your rig, the easier it will be to animate it, so I spent some time making everything work well.
Before animation, I defined some poses and made a video reference to be sure about the timing. I decided to focus on pulling out the sword and two idle animations and combining them flawlessly. While animating, I was focused on the overall weight and mood. It was hard to make the character walk in such big sabatons and to pull out that huge sword, but I made it work with some duct tape and hope. After polishing the animation, I baked all the bones and parented geo, cleaned it up, and exported FBX to Marmoset.
Marmoset Scene Setup
I started with setting up materials, ground, and lights and set the fog to black for a deeper look.
There are around 30 lights in the scene; each one is used for some angles or shots. Mostly, I used spot lights, plus a few directional and omni lights for specific highlights. Different types of lights (Key, Rim, Fill, etc.) have their own purpose, and combining them properly will give you the look you want to achieve. I highly recommend doing some research on light setups to better understand the subject, because it is extremely important for presenting your works. In my piece, I used some green back lights to emphasize the character's silhouette and details, dramatic top-down key lights as the main source, and side fill lights for a softer look and detail visibility.
Use your lighting and composition to direct the viewer's eye and remember about the guiding lines.
Cameras were animated mostly in Maya, some of them (in some quarter-orbit shots, for example) inside of Marmoset. Mostly, I didn’t have an exact script, so I took as many cool shots as I could to combine them later into a cinematic. I used standard HQ render setup for Marmoset (HQ shadows, GI, etc.) and exported my footage as PNG sequences with a transparent background where I needed it. 25x AA was a good compromise between speed and quality, so I stick to it.
I composed all the shots in After Effects, added motion blur, animated fog, smoke dust, and sparkles. I used Davinci Resolve for the final editing, color grading, and sound effects. I have spent some time working on SFX because sounds are very important for overall perception, they deliver a certain mood and information about the setting, materials, and actions. The main purpose of the final editing was to immerse the viewer into the flow state and transmit the general mood.
Remember that is not an easy task to create projects like this. You need to gain a huge amount of knowledge and even a larger amount of practice, remaking things when you have to and being focused on your main goal. Sometimes, you really need to push yourself forward, constantly trying to go further. I remade and redesigned some stuff a lot until I was pleased with the result. This kind of work sometimes might be extremely hard for both physical and mental health, so keep calm, stay strong, and do not forget to rest. Remember to keep information and tasks structured. Trello works great for me, definitely worth trying. Do not give up and take your time.
I hope this breakdown was somehow helpful to you. Good luck.