I really like how you've articulated your entire process. This was a very enriching read. A Well deserved feature!
Great article! Thanks for the awesome read.
Wow, this is so cool! Nice job!
Michael Butcher from NCsoft gave an interview about his amazing ‘Abomination‘ model. Talented character artist talked sculpting, working on wounds and boils and finishing the work with rendering and composing.
My name is Michael Butcher and I have been working in the games industry since 2011. I studied Game Art and Animation at Champlain College in Burlington, VT, where I learned a lot of valuable lessons that ignited my hunger for becoming a character artist. I didn’t get right into the industry after college and instead spent my first year like most people just trying to survive and pay rent while finding the time to build a portfolio that would help get me where I wanted to be. I always had the goal set to become a character artist, but I knew I would need to start wherever I could to get my foot in the door of the game industry. I got my first gig mostly by luck and friendship. I was a huge League of Legends fan/player in my younger years and one of my college friends had mingled with some Riot devs at a conference and passed my portfolio along unbeknownst to me. To my excitement I was contacted by a producer there for a contract gig concepting skins for League and things just picked up for me afterward. Since that first job I have worked at Turbine Inc. on Dungeons and Dragons Online and Infinite Crisis, Waystone Games at EA on Dawngate, and now NCsoft working on some unannounced projects. While I’ve established myself professionally, nowadays I’m mostly focused on trying to figure out what the next step is for me, and that mostly involves a lot of learning, but also allowing myself the freedom of expression in my non-professional work. I think the Abomination is the first piece where I’ve started to make steps towards the next level and I just want to keep pushing myself towards that goal, as ambiguous and amorphous as that is.
The Abomination model started like anything else I typically do in my spare time. It began simply as a speed-sculpt without any hard restrictions aside from not wanting to spend more than two hours on it. Obviously as the name implies the focus is less on a finished portfolio piece and more on practice and study; however, if I’m feeling really creative and digging the direction of a speed sculpt I’ll usually come back to it a couple of days later and see if I’m still enjoying it as much as the first time. For me, I already have enough structure and discipline in my daily work life that I don’t like coming home to force the same restrictions onto my personal work. For me, it’s play time and it allows me to stay fresh and creative. Admittedly there is always a positive and negative aspect to this. On the one hand it promotes good mental practice and behavior that can keep you from falling back on recycled ideas, but on the other hand, you never have a fully fleshed out character for your portfolio. This is why I’m juggling a number of projects at any given time, but finding the energy for it all is the biggest challenge.
Since this sculpt started out as a practice piece it didn’t really have a story or idea behind it. Instead, the piece just took on a story of it’s own as I kept building it up. I sort of imagined it as some kind of abomination/hell-beast that you would see in Diablo, charging through battle lines with no regard for either side and only seeking to satisfy it’s everlasting hunger for flesh. Since there isn’t any scale reference in the image, for imagination’s sake let’s assume the tongue is roughly 5 ft long, and I envisioned the creature using it as an extra appendage, like an elephant’s trunk, and wrapping the teeth around a person’s torso and swallowing them whole (or close to it). I didn’t have any reference for this in particular until I got to the detailing phase where I sought a lot of images to help guide me through to the end.
I simply started off with a sphere in ZBrush using dynamesh all along the way and insert spheres for all of the subtools. Insert sphere brush was really my best friend during this production. I initially sculpted with symmetry on, building up the primary and secondary forms using Clay Buildup, Standard, Dam Standard, and Move brushes. There’s no big secrets here in terms of process, just mostly hitting a good stride and falling into a work rhythm. I usually try to establish the brow and eye shape early so I can use Insert Sphere to drop in some eyes and build the face around them. I then typically work outward from there. The teeth were made with insert spheres and move/snakehook brushes and duplicating and moving with the transpose tools. The tongue was made similarly with an insert sphere and move brushes to push and pull the shape/silhouette. Wrinkles and folds (larger scale) were defined using standard and dam standard brushes, and I typically turn down the intensity for smoothing so I don’t completely lose the sharper cuts and details I like to add. As soon as I feel like I’m ready to start adding skin details like pores, wrinkles, wounds, and other imperfections I usually start to retool the base sculpt a bit with symmetry turned off. This isn’t always simply just using the move tool to change landmark positions, but also includes smoothing out and redefining previously established details across the sculpt so it doesn’t feel repetitive.
Wounds and Boils
Detailing was when reference became really important especially for the wounds and boils. I studied a lot of practical FX makeup images for the different types of wounds, and medical illustrations for skin diseases and malformations. I didn’t use any special alphas for creating the details beyond the different circle types with the standard brush, and the only other brush used a lot during this phase was once again the tireless dam standard. I think the most time consuming part of this sculpt was the wound details. Since I had invested the extra time into this piece and decided to turn a speed-sculpt into a final composite render those details became very important for the composition. I wanted to maintain a good balance of size and frequency as well as directionality in the cuts that would make them feel intentional and with purpose to help tell the story of the creature. I think this was more time consuming than any other portion of the process because I had gotten to a stage where so many other details were well refined that I didn’t want these additional wounds to become visual noise. I think out of the the twelve hours I worked on this piece (across several days) the wounds and compositing took the majority. It was a lot of noodling in those stages.
Rendering and Composing
I used a lot of the standard practices with BPR rendering similar to those you would find in Raf Grassetti’s rendering tutorials. I rendered out several layers for specular and lighting, my diffuse (polypaint), AO, shadow, and a couple of additional ones for the saliva, eyes, and teeth and composited them all in Photoshop. No great mystery here. Lot’s of masks, opacity adjustments, and layer styles. The only additional stuff I like to add myself are fake bloom FX and some photo grain, blur, and environment particles.
I wish I had something more inspiring to say on this, but sometimes it just comes down to feelings. For some it could be memories that trigger a burst of imagination like a nest of spider eggs birthing above you in your bunk-bed (yes, this happened when I was a kid…), being chased by a growling/slobbering dog, or having blood drawn at the doctors and cultivating abhorrence for needles. The latter two weren’t things that happened to me, but my point is that people have fear and often times that stems from childhood memories or things that have grown to make them uncomfortable. The most important thing for creating grotesque creatures is knowing what makes people uncomfortable and to try and trigger that fear or emotion. So I suppose understanding emotions is what you need to truly invoke someone’s sense of revulsion from a monster design and bring it to life.
Advice for Newbies
I would recommend to any beginners who want to get into character art or are currently exploring it to set goals for themselves with each piece they create. What do you want to get out of it? For me the Abomination piece started out as a speed sculpt, but it became a practice/study in tertiary skin details and wounds. I had never really done that before and wanted to learn something while pushing the visual fidelity of my work. Ask yourself what you would like to know or improve upon and set yourself on a path towards it. You won’t always end up with portfolio quality work, you won’t always be happy with the results, but the lessons you can take away from each new piece can only serve to help drive you forward and never backwards. So my biggest piece of advice is to cultivate a good attitude and give yourself credit even when you feel like you’ve failed because you most certainly will have learned something still. After you get over that hurtle it’s simply a matter of discipline and focus to learn the fundamentals and the software. While you’re doing all of that, just try to make sure you’re not sucking the fun out of your own personal work. Try not to make it a chore for yourself.