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Have a look at the production tips of low poly 3d characters from Danette Beatty. With a simple combo of Maya and 3D Coat she managed to create some outstanding virtual heroes.
My name is Danette and I am a 3D artist from Houston, TX, though I’ve moved around quite a bit across the states. I am currently employed full time by Ustwo Games in London. I graduated this May from the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, with a Major in Game Art. You can see my art on my site here.
Immediately after graduating I moved out to Seattle in an attempt to be closer to the industry, but right before I moved out I ended up with a freelance position at Sirvo Studios working on characters for their new game Guildlings. I have also done some work with the talented Rebecca Cordingly on her adorable game Moblets.
I wanted to make art for games as soon as I realized that it was a career path I could take. I knew nothing about the logistics of how to make games, and I had never touched a 3d program before but games have always had a very large influence in my life.
Originally, I started my “daily doodles” (a drawing a day before 12am) in August of 2015 as a way to improve my drawing skills, which I had identified as a weakness of mine. I only did drawings at first, but then I started adding other genres of art to the mix as I went, including short personal comics, 2D animations, and 3D models. Developing these skills has helped massively improve my 3D art and color theory. My daily doodle campaign has also been a great way to market myself on social media. I had never been one to post before but it is especially important nowadays to get your art out there and seen, in order to get noticed.
Despite slowly feeling more confident in my drawing abilities, I still wasn’t exceptional at character design. I remember saving so many images of things I wanted to model when I felt I had the ability to do so. The first model I had chosen to do was a concept from Janice Chu called Toti. As I posted more on Twitter I got to know several artists’ work that I admired and I would pick out my favourite designs to adapt to 3D. This was an exercise in translating a 2D character into a 3D one and training how fast I could get something done, but I was also building relationships with people within the industry. Instead of doing fan art of popular characters, I was doing fan art of artists work that I admired and learning from it. I learned so much paying attention to every detail they drew and how I could best represent that character, and what made that character stand out to me and why.
I think what unites these characters is that they seem to have a cohesive look despite being concepted by completely different people. It’s really nice to be able to say that my 3D characters have a similar look about them, almost like my own 3D style. Each design has its own particular challenges when translating to 3D, and I was able to apply that new knowledge to the next character and get to learn how I specifically like to approach modeling.
When I was first starting out with these characters I wanted to really cut down the number of programs I was using to get to the finished product. For more complex characters I start with a generic base in Zbrush, but for simpler characters I prefer to keep all of the modeling in Maya. I use simple primitives and shapes to build the proportions of my characters and then retopologize them using my favourite tool ever: ‘Quad Draw’. I learned early on that my characters would require a good set of hands that could be reused, as well as a proper base body mesh. I made a body and hands separately, then in Maya I used Quad Draw to create a cleaner low poly mesh. The great thing about Quad Draw is that it allows you to draw on top of a high poly mesh and create the exact the poly flow that you want to have on your model while being particular about the shapes you’re making in order for the silhouette to look correct. I used the same base body on a lot of my human characters while modifying them appropriately to match the concepts, but sometimes I still need to start from scratch. Having a body base made a big difference in the amount of time it took me to finish the character, helping me focus on getting the smaller details right. Using Quad Draw on top of the base shapes that I made for the character was a much easier way for me to model props then to try to make them from scratch.
Going Low Poly
With low poly in particular, it’s most important to get the shapes and proportions of the characters correct. You want enough polygons to be able to have a clean silhouette, but you also want to make sure that you clean up the polygons that are unnecessary. Working with so few polygons means that each one needs to be relevant to how I want the character to look. Though having a lot of polygons these days doesn’t matter as much, I try to be as efficient as possible in using as little resources as possible.
The faces are definitely one of the main focuses of my characters, and I’ve appropriated a few tricks on how to approach faces from Twitter and other sources. One of the tricks is to model eyes as inset cavities, and use a floating textured plane for the pupil and highlight. I do this by making a sphere and shaping it the way I want the eye to look and sit in the face, and using the Boolean tool to cut the shape into the face. I then clean up the vertices around the eye merging together unnecessary ones and cleaning up the topology. Using a separate plane for the pupil and highlight in the eye, if done right, adds the illusion that that the eyes are following you as the character moves. You can see how I did the eyes on any of my characters on Sketchfab!
With Kiki I inverted the normals of the mouth, taking advantage of the polygons only being visible from the front, in order to create the illusion of thickness around the mouth when looked at at an angle. I modeled the face as I normally would, and made sure that the faces around the mouth matched up exactly how I wanted, then selected the faces I wanted to invert in order to see “into” the face. I then extruded into the head around the inverted normal faces of the mouth and created an enclosed space. Next, I created two objects, one for the red interior of the mouth and another for the tongue. I had to invert the normals of the red inner mouth as well in order to be able to see the tongue inside.
A lot of the colors that I used came from the concepts, but certain color choices needed to be made in order to adapt the characters into my 3D style. I always take a bit of artistic liberty with the colors and as long as the character had the same overall feel and proportions I don’t worry too much about the colors being exact. I learned a lot from the artist’s color choices in the images I was using as reference, and it certainly helped me along in making my own color choices later. I have folders of images that I use as color reference, but also all the painting I had been doing for my daily doodles came in handy. There’s no better way to learn what colors look good or have a certain feeling than to paint with them yourself and experiment.
With my 3D models specifically, I really enjoy using 3D Coat to paint directly on my model. I UV them in maya and bring them into 3D Coat and paint a base of each of the flat colors used in the concepts, color picking from the image. I normally paint at a resolution of 2048 so that I don’t have to worry about my painting not being sharp- you can always down res the texture later on if necessary. After I get the base down I start to paint in the lighting, being worried more with the overall look rather than trying to get lost in the little details. Once I reach a point that I’m happy with I start on the smaller details, but I add them in roughly. I use Photoshop to clean them up with some of the brushes I like to use (Kyle Webster’s Megapack) and take the whole thing back into 3D Coat for finishing touches. Usually that means playing with the different adjustment layers in order to create highlights and overlays to help the character get to a more finalized look.
Alternatively, for my flat colored characters I use vertex painting in Maya as an even better way to speed up the process. With this method, the character doesn’t require UVs in order to color. This takes out a very time consuming process, and it is a much faster way to get a character to a finished state. Usually when I begin my characters, I aim for the modeling and UVs to be done in the first day, and then the painting of textures and rigging/posing/final renders to be done in the second day depending on how complicated the character. Vertex colors allow me to get almost a completed look with minimal changes all in the first day of working. It is very liberating being able to create a piece of art so fast.
The best thing about working in low poly to me is that it takes away extra steps to the process of making a model and strips it down into only the essentials. I normally give myself a strict timeline to make my characters in order to keep up with my dailies so keeping it fast and simple is very important, this way that if something isn’t working you can easily change things. The process of focusing on the form and proportions of the character over the smaller details allow me to break up the process into manageable chunks. It’s always more intimidating to think of everything you need to finish in order to get a finished product, so I just take it one step at a time.