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My name is Annabelle Sémaan, I am an aspiring character artist for video games from Laval, a suburb of the big city of Montreal, Canada. I graduated last year as a 3D artist from Collège de Bois-de-Boulogne and since then, worked on mastering the workflow to create real-time characters.
Surprise, surprise! As long as I can remember, I always loved playing video games. I recall my young self not having a game console at home and wanting to go to my friend’s house for the sole purpose of playing the Nintendo 64’s Pokemon Colosseum! Never though, did I imagine that I could have a career in the 3D industry since I always imagined the big entertainment company to be in the United States. It is by making it through the credits of Assassin’s Creed 3 that I discovered that Ubisoft had a studio in Montreal. Upon making that discovery, I did some research and let me tell you that I was pleasantly surprised when I saw the pool of video game companies in the same city. My mind was set, I wanted to be a 3D artist!
I went to college to study 3D as a generalist and discovered my love for character creation. Which did not come as a surprise to me because I always loved to draw characters. I believe that what really seduces me about it are the many ways to transmit a story and emotions, whether it be with facial expression, pose, cloth, textures etc.
Journey of a Character Artist
After graduating, I knew characters were my true passion, but considering the level of the industry and the skills I had at the time, I knew applying would be in vain. I was not going to give up though, I gave myself a year to achieve a level that I call worthy of the game industry. My first character, inspired by the movie “The Black Dahlia”, was quite simple in terms of design, but it did allow me to get comfortable with every step of my workflow. I knew that for my second character I had to push it further to get noticed, show everything I knew, and more!
The Punisher: Pre-Production
Having established that I wanted to showcase my hard-surface and organic modeling, as well as my texture skills, I started by gathering a bunch of images that really inspired me and photoshopped them together to create a concept. I adore the theme of survival and apocalypse. Somehow when I work towards that, I am always flowing with ideas, which I knew would be essential for this project, so I ran with it.
Note that at this point, I still had an open mind for any modification. The concept was just a great way to start for me.
While brainstorming and scavenging the net for references, I uncovered what the missing piece was to make this project stand out. Anywhere your eye lies on this character it had to scream what he had been through, where he had been, or who he fought. If you are living during an apocalypse, I don’t think you come out with no scratch, so I had to create assets that were damaged to represent that. Overall, that’s how “The Punisher” came to be.
What Makes a Character
Personally, I think the core to every character is its story. Everyone has one, no matter the background. I don’t think you have to create an entire storyline, but at least have your own interpretation of what’s going on.
This came in very handy when deciding which accessories were fundamental to the design. For instance, The Punisher is equipped with a teddy bear’s head. In my mind, if someone sees it, it won’t go unnoticed: How come a grown man is carrying a plushy? Did he kill a kid to acquire it? Did it belong to a child he knew? I have my own interpretation, but anyone is free to have their own.
I have decided to start from ZBrush’s SuperAverageMan from the LightBox, since in the game industry they often use base mesh. First, I worked on the proportions with the lowest subdivision on and eventually got up in resolution to add details.
The face is probably what I struggled with the most. During this whole process, I kept in close contact with some character artists to get their feedback whenever I lacked knowledge. One thing they did mention is that the face should be the main focus when rendering the final product. So I had to nail it, or else it would all fall apart. To do so, I studied more than anticipated the human skull, tried to get artist’s feedback and get familiar with simplified versions of the head.
I think that what stands out in his face are his eyes (based on Nicolas Cage). I had to make sure they were familiar. I once read that familiarity makes faces more appealing. Thus, maybe more believable?
Clothing and Accessories
To construct the clothing I started with a base which I did in Marvelous Designer. The difficult part about it was to have multiple layers of clothing and not have them be destroyed during the simulation.
So every time I would finish a piece, I would freeze it (Ctrl+K). Then when creating the garment on top, I would make sure to go in the simulation properties’ tab and add a layer. This way if a t-shirt has “1” in the layer properties and a jacket has “2”, the jacket will always be on top.
When I am satisfied with the result in MD I send the clothing in ZBrush to refine it.
When creating accessories, I think what's important is to give them personality. I also find that giving them a pattern helps a lot in making them more interesting.
I usually like to find pictures or texture to create my details with the noise editor because I find it makes everything more realistic than me trying to replicate what I see on an image. If I cannot find anything, that is when I will use brushes to create an effect.
Here is an instance where I used the noise editor to create cracks (Noise from the Lightbox). Using polygroups is a good way to have a lot of control.
Retopology is a pretty time-consuming step and it is not the most fun during a character’s production because it is mostly technical, and not creative.
When I create assets in ZBrush, I always try to have a clean topology from the beginning, so when it’s time to reduce the polycount, I can use my existing mesh as a base, and simply remove quads.
Step 1: I import in Maya my mesh with its lowest subdivision.
Step 2: I use the mesh that makes most of the silhouette and reduce its polycount as much as possible while also making sure it’s keeping its general shape.
Step 3: I modify the geometry so it takes into consideration the silhouette of the high poly (in this case, the piping)
Clothing Topology: Steps Using Zremesher
The clothing pieces exported from Marvelous Designer often don't have a game-ready topology. So I came up with a method directly in ZBrush using Zremesher.
1. I begin by making polygroups that will help the software create the topology that I want. This will also help with the second step when creating curves.
2. Using the Zremesher brush, I create loops on the model. I also click SHIFT+Mouse drag for the curve to snap on the polygroup's edge.
3. I paint in red the parts of the model that will require a little bit more quads.
4. Finally, I often don't have it right on the first try, but I use those settings in the Zremesher Tab. I play around with the settings until I am happy with the result.
Usually, what I get is pretty close to perfect, then I send it to Maya for further adjustments using quad draw.
Building Realistic Materials
The part I am always looking forward to is creating textures! In my eyes, that is the step where everything is brought to life. I came up with a few steps to slowly build the textures:
1. I associate every normal, AO, and (optional) height map that I previously baked to their material - to avoid constantly going back to searching files on my PC.
2. I put a general color (or material) on every mesh - to have a general idea of how everything looks and not end up with a festival of colors.
3- I use curvature map or height maps to enhance the pre-existing details (from the baked map).
4. Add detail while looking at references!
It is a lot of trial error, there are no secret recipes that I know of. It is all about training the eyes!
Choosing the Right Colors
To choose the colors that will make my character, I like to go back to my references. You can also use Photoshop and pixelate them to see what the main colors are!
Example with “The Punisher”:
Moreover, when I chose my colors, I made sure they were strategically placed to have contrast. Since there are multiple layers of clothing (coat, bulletproof vest, belts on torso) I had to make sure everything would read independently. To ensure that, I referred to the wheel of colors to choose contrast that facilitates differencing the different assets.
For instance, red and green are opposite, so the red belts on his torso can easily be seen in contrast to his green jacket.
To create the illusion of damage, there are a lot of observations involved.
I followed these basic points:
1. Whatever is on a higher level will catch more light
2. The darkest area will be close to the broken edge
Moreover, I would cheat this feeling in my textures by making the extremities of the highest surface lighter and a little bit less rough, and on the opposite, make the darkest area have more roughness.
Roughness would look something like that:
Oufff, this character was definitely made in the long run as it took me 4 months to complete it. I really had to push myself to do research and test things out as this was a personal project with no constant supervision. Whenever I was stuck though, I was happy to see artists ready to give me feedback whether it be through ArtStation or forums, although they owed me nothing! With all of my new knowledge, I am now excited about my future projects! See you then!