Tips On Character Building

Tips On Character Building

Dave Hansan did an overview of his fantastic elf character. Here’s a full breakdown of sculpting, texturing and rendering.

Dave Hansan did an overview of his fantastic elf character. Here’s a full breakdown of sculpting, texturing and rendering.


Hi! I’m Dave Hansan and thank you for having me! I am a Character Artist from Chicago, currently working in Los Angeles. I started my run in the game industry in 2010 as a tester in multiple studios in Chicago working on games like Mortal Kombat and Tony Hawk. During that time I built up my connections and art portfolio for about a year before a great local studio by the name of Iron Galaxy gave me a shot at art. I took my first art job on an Xbox Kinect game called “Wreckateer” where I did world building, VFX, UI and really anything that we needed.

Being on an art team of 3 people this was kind of how it was for a while. After 3 years of working on a bunch of random ports doing UI,VFX and some prop modeling that came through the studio ( Street Fighter: Third Strike, Darkstalkers: Ressurection, Batman: Arkham Origins to name a few) we got our first big AAA game where I’d be in charge of making my first 3d characters for a game called Killer Instinct. The IP was previously under development by a studio named Double Helix and after they were purchased by Amazon the next in line was us! To be able to work on a game that you actually already have been playing competitively in tournaments was an unreal feeling for me.

I have grown up playing fighting games competitively and in tournaments for years (mainly Street Fighter) and avidly remember going to arcades to play that game the year it was released so it was a huge honor. After completing KI Season 2 I was referred by a friend and asked if I’d be interested in doing Environment Art for Sony Santa Monica Studio on the upcoming God of War. So naturally my answer was “hell yes”. Even though I’d be making a switch I couldn’t pass up an offer to work at one of the best studios in the world. During my time on God of War I was working really hard on improving my character art skills outside of work and getting so much help from the amazing character team there! They really pushed me to be the artist I am today and I’m seriously greatful! I just finished up my work on God of War and have accepted at offer to create characters for the VR studio Survios which I just started in December! I’m already working on my own characters and I’m really excited to see where this takes me as an artist!


The Hunter

The Hunter project was started initially because I was watching Jon Troy Nickel’s streams a lot and followed his work pretty closely as it was something I really wanted to achieve someday. He had been working on a character named Yellow Star which came from a concept by the artist Deadman.

Sculpt by Jon Troy Nickel

After looking more into Deadman’s other designs I fell in love with the style as well as vast variety he had created! I landed on a concept he did of a Hunter and a Vampire. And being that I was just playing a lot of Bloodbourne at the time I naturally was very attracted to that design. My goal for this project was to take a concept to completion. From High res sculpt to in game model with clean topology and posed to be viewable in Marmoset Viewer. So I posted a comment on Deadman’s piece and asked if I could sculpt it to which he said yes! I obtained his email and began working with him on it asking him for some feedback along the way as well as some questions I had about the design. He was extremely nice about it all!

Original Concept by Deadman

Early version of The Hunter with paintovers by Deadman to help me understand the hat


For this project and most others, I have a few base meshes I start from. I will usually create a base mesh in Make Human. Although I have made some nice base meshes by hand before, the ones you get out of making human seem to have pretty good topology. For this one I just made a pretty basic female in there and exported it. I made a few adjustments to that mesh and scaled the eyes a bit just to give a more stylized look. First thing I usually do when I import the basemesh is start to mask out areas so that I can poly group them. Usually, I’ll make groups for areas that might get in the way when I’m trying to focus on one specific part. So the head, the arms, the legs, hands and the bottom jaw. Doing this early on is going to save you a lot of headaches later. Also you’ll notice the topology on this basemesh is kind of angling in weird directions in some areas so I usually will go through and finesse it until it’s all nice a straight with good edge flow.

Usually the first thing I do when I start making these characters is try and nail down the proportions. I actually had some trouble doing that with this character because her proportions in the concept were very extreme. Things like really long legs, large hips and tiny waist. So trying to find a nice balance for that and making it look good with real anatomy was kind of challenging at first. Sculpting things like the hands I don’t usually like doing so I usually will make one finger and duplicate it and position them so that when I reproject the basemesh they don’t have an issue. For the face I was looking at a lot of reference of things like Street Fighter, Overwatch, and League of Legends when finding the style I wanted.

I usually like to start out by building out the base forms of the face at a very low subdivision level. Then use clay tubes and smooth brushes in tandem to really get that clean look. At this point I’ll usually start pushing the larger volumes of the face as well with the standard brush at a low intensity. Then I’ll usually lightly graze the surface with trim dynamic to sort of cut in the harder plane changes sort of like I’m shaving the surfaces away. After that step I usually come in with h-polish to clean up those edges. Most of my work is done at very low subdivisions. I usually never move up unless I reach a point that I cannot do any more detail on that level. This helps avoid the wobbly look you might see in stuff sculpted in higher resolutions.


For the clothing the way I created most pieces was the same. Usually I’d mask off the area on the mesh that I wanted to extract from then extract and clean it up. I usually do that to a point that makes it easy to retopo but not all the time will I completely finish the sculpt before doing that. It really depends on the piece. For instance this jacket I only worked it about 70% before doing retopo. After the mesh has nice final topology I will break symmetry and start to sculpt all the nice details on it.


For accessories like armor or weapons I will usually build all of that directly in Maya with basic poly modeling. For more organic shapes that I like to move and shape I will usually go about that with a standard retopo pipeline. An example of that would be the gloves, leather supports and the shoulder armor. After I’m finished with the retopo I bring those back in and start to damage them and detail them.

Some pieces I will start in Maya just to get some geo to work on then play with shapes so much that I will need to do manual retopo afterward. Just pick and choose your battles. This Axe was an example of a piece started in Maya then moved so much then retopologized afterward.

When it comes to painting characters like this I usually don’t go very crazy at all. I just want to be able to read it in ZBrush while I’m working and then really push it after bakes are done. For something like a face and skin I will start with a good base color fill. I will then pick a color for areas where more reds would be visible in the face and lightly fill those areas building them up gradually. Then finally add any makeup like eyeshadow or eyeliner etc.

When I’m preparing to texture the full character I usually like to break it into more manageable pieces. I do this by selecting all the objects with the same material type and combining them. For instance here I did: “Skin, Metal, Leather, Shiny Leather”. You can choose any materials that are most prominent on your model. Also there will always be some stragglers that don’t really fit into those categories. For those just use your best judgment. Once I have all my parts separated I start to assign Maya materials to them so that when I import to Substance it can identify each section. This makes texturing in Substance more manageable and faster on its performance.

For the pose I had this idea in my head to do something more dynamic than the pose he had in the concept. I initially started with something simple but I wasn’t satisfied with the way it was looking. Felt very weak to me so I ditched it.

To me the concept was never going to be cannon. I knew from the start I really wanted to see this character in action showing off how badass she can be and I wanted the pose to reflect that. I was looking for something where she would be using that axe from the concept but not just a sexy pose. I knew I wanted her to use that cool axe and attacking in some way. So then I came up with the idea of a graveyard and maybe her jumping off of something and swinging the axe. I remembered I had a painting I did 10 years ago of a girl in a graveyard and I used that as inspiration for lighting and feel of the scene. I remember having this cool lamp in the middle of it and that sort of drove the idea for me more. I also wanted to justify a really dramatic lighting environment while still being dark, so that lamp worked out really well in the end.

For rendering, I generally always use Marmoset Toolbag. I have been using it since version 1 and pretty much it’s the only one I’m truly comfortable working in. I set up only a few lights and all of them had to be directional because Marmoset Viewer does not work with Omni lights currently. Usually, I give them a rounded large shape depending on how I want the surfaces to react. For this, I wanted it to feel soft so that was a good workflow. For materials, I didn’t do anything too crazy because Substance did all that work for me already. I just export the textures and they are usually pretty close. I chose to work with a spec, gloss workflow here but on more recent projects I only use metal, rough now.

Thank you so much for having me it was really fun to go back and reflect on this stuff actually. When you’re in the zone on a piece you really don’t stop to think about the reasoning for some of these things you just sort of do it and keep moving. I didn’t get to cover everything but it would take me years! Haha. I really hope this was informative to some and hope to see more of these awesome interviews in the future!

Dave Hansan, Character Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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Comments 1

  • zhabinskiy

    Thanks for the article, Dave and Kirill. It is so helpful and inspiring



    ·a year ago·

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Tips On Character Building