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3d artist Santhosh Koneru talked about the way he works with complex character development.
Hello, 80.lv! I’m Santhosh Koneru and I’m a 3D Generalist by trade working for BLUR Studios. I love storytelling, which drives me to create CG cinematics based on my own written stories. Fortunately, my friends and I share the same passion for storytelling, meaning we spend plenty of time after work and on the weekends collaborating on new and exciting projects! All of this extra time and work spent on storytelling has helped me to increase the scale of my productions and improve the way in which I convey my stories to audiences.
I’m originally from India, and I used to freelance as a Digital Matte Painter (DMP) and UI/UX designer. I also taught Photoshop tutorials on matte painting for various tutorial websites.
Over the years, I collaborated on some fascinating projects that combined different mediums of art. One such project was my collaboration with Paper Doll Militia. I was asked to create surreal digital environments for one of their aerial circus shows that demonstrated the fusion of digital technology and aerial gymnastics to narrate a story—this was the first performances of its kind!
Recently, I had the opportunity to work on compelling cinematic projects at BLUR Studios, like the cinematics for Nexon’s LawBreakers and Ubisoft’s Far Cry 5
I prefer photorealism over stylized character production, so I have a different approach toward getting quick results without compromising quality. I first scan the face of the actor with a digital camera, which consists of 120-200 photos, and generate the mesh in AgiSoft PhotoScan. Then I import that mesh into ZBrush and perform the necessary cleanup to the model. Once the cleanup is over, I import the decimated mesh into Maya and do retopology to the face/body using the Quad Draw Tool, which makes the mesh animation ready and the layout UVs primed for further texturing. After that, I bring the new mesh into ZBrush, project the details into it and export the displacement maps and a low-res version of the face mesh.
ZBrush is a very efficient tool for 3D concept work—both hard surface and organic. The default tools and brushes provided within the software are enough to get the job done. I have a custom UI for my workflow in ZBrush, which has all the necessary options within reach. My brushes palette contains Dam_Standard, Flatten, Move, hPolish, Trim Dynamic, Clay Tubes and Inflate. I find these brushes very useful for all kinds of work. But when it comes to sculpting rock, I prefer using my photogrammetry data to generate height maps as alphas.
Every tiny detail counts when working with photorealism. I prefer having a clear concept of the complete character before even beginning the model so that I know which parts of the body are exposed or covered with armor. But the same can’t be said for cinematics. In this case, I like to have the script along with the concept from the beginning to ensure I’m using my time and resources wisely. It doesn’t make sense to detail every part of the body if the majority of it will be covered in armor for the entirety of the script. This also applies while laying out UVs because if the screenplay calls for a tight closeup, the UVs should have enough resolution to hold up those important details that will be in focus.
Skin is a very delicate part of texturing! It’s a crucial step toward the success of a project because one will either make their character look and feel photorealistic or, if done incorrectly, completely ruin the work and effort behind modeling.
In recent years, we’ve gained access to the use of ultra hi-res scan data for texturing. One such example is texturing.xyz, which has a nice library of displacements and texture maps. But even before using these textures, it’s vital that we understand how subsurface scattering works on our body. This helps us understand why the subdermal and epidermal maps play a key role during shading and give life to the skin texture we paint.
Every renderer comes with its own subsurface shader, but there is a new open shader called AlShader that now comes default with Arnold (you can also download the V-Ray version from their website if you’re using V-Ray). This shader produces convincing results once the diffuse, subdermal and epidermal maps are plugged into it. And the best part of this shader? You won’t lose the detail of the skin like with V-Ray SSS!
I’ve previously noted my approach to skin (read above) but for photorealistic output I always use ultra hi-res images from 3D.SK or texturing.xyz. Different skin tones on the body and face help give a character some history—I define them in Mari. If I can’t find the right reference, then I ask someone with that skin tone to pose for me and get as many hi-res images of that person’s skin as possible. Otherwise, one could use a bunch of color correction nodes to get similar results, but it might not be of the same quality.
Making a character come alive through eyes
This is where I usually spend most of my time while modeling characters. No matter how good the lighting and texturing might be for the character, if the eyes and other facial features look artificial then the character will never win over the audience.
I use plenty of micro references when it comes to the eyes, nose and lips. I use biological diagrams to model an accurate eye ball and also rig it per its biological function while carefully sculpting micro details starting from the tear ducts to the edge of the eyelids. When it comes to animating a photorealistic character, every subtle movement in the skin has to be taken into account—we all are accustomed to the facial movements of other people and therefore can easily pinpoint the mistakes—even if it’s only a subtle, out-of-place movement.
I shoot myself from up close for reference and sculpt the blend shapes accordingly, but if I’m using a real actor as my basis for CG, then I shoot the actor from up close from three different angles to have a better view while sculpting blend shapes. Once we manage to add these subtleties to the face, it looks and feels alive!
Anything that I model I build for animation purposes. Characters generally have meshes that can be animated, but for armor I like to have my references and concepts with me.
I first collect any video references that are closest to my concept and model the armor or anything that goes on top of the body. Sometimes I might be in a situation where I have to go off the concept to make certain things functional—this is when a modeler has to think like a blacksmith while modeling armor. And for design influencing animation, I’d say it depends on the wants of the director. Sometimes, animation influences design, but if the director is very particular about the design then it can influence animation.
Thanks for reading about my work, 80.lv! Hope it was an informative and enjoyable read!