Hi Elliott, This is a great breakdown and very generous in sharing your process and insights, you came a long way from the vending machine days!
Are you planning on releasing the UE4 project to the public? Or only builds? I'd love to play around with it in the editor if possible!
Check out Valentin Erbuke from Gnomon, talking about some of his amazing character projects.
I make art to entertain. I am passionate about stunning visual effects and seeing realistic characters come to life on screen. My goal when I make an image is to convey mood and to create an emotional response from my audience. There is nothing I enjoy more seeing people’s reaction to my work.
Before becoming a 3D artist, I was a technical person and I approached my first 3D application as a new technical tool. I didn’t know I would fall in love with it. A friend of mine motivated me to make a full CG short movie and it allowed me to experiment a lot and developed my passion for the job I am now pursuing. I then moved to France to study first video games, then movie production. When I decided to leave France, it took me a bit of time to decide to take the leap and travel halfway around the world to continue my education and hone my skills. I have been attending Gnomon for about a year and a half now, and it has been of the best experience of my life. Being able to learn from professionals working in Hollywood is an incredible opportunity. Working closely with Max Dayan, Louie Tucci, and Miguel Ortega helped me develop modeling and sculpting skills. It has also improved my critical thinking and look development!
When I choose a concept to work from, I am committing to a 10-week engagement with the painting. I choose very carefully an image that produces a strong emotional response from me, and I try to stick to it as much as I can. I see 3D as a way to add depth to the concept through a different medium. It also allows you to navigate in the magical universe the concept artist created. I obviously try as much as I can to improve the concept and add my own personality to it. The final goal is always to have the best picture you can create. When I look at my images, I follow a checklist. Does it tell a story, what action or inaction is the character doing, is the lighting enhancing the story. I pay special attention to the composition and how it serves the other major component of my image.
When I model, I mostly start everything in Maya. I want to be able to address topology usually early on as having UVs and a clean flow helps with sculpting. Especially for objects such as cloths or characters. Also, some objects will not need sculpting. For really high-frequency detail I rely mostly on texturing packages such as Mari or Substance Painter to displace my models. For characters, I created my own basemesh in ZBrush then retopologized in Maya and I always start from there. I never keep subdivision levels for my meshes as I don’t want my characters to look alike or share physical traits.
Using Maya and Zbrush is extremely facilitated by the FBX import and export plugin. that allows me to work with multiple objects with ease, conserving my UVs. Organizing assets in a UDIM workflow allows you to use ZBrush to bake your cavity and other auxiliaries maps across entire groups.
Storytelling. Every stroke has a purpose to tell the story I am trying to convey. Of course, there are happy accidents, but I sculpt with an end goal. I find numerous resources to help make the process seamless. I like using a lot of real world reference as I want the audience to believe in what I have to show, so it has to be grounded in a believable reality. As I was working on the old man, I was looking for as much information possible on how skin changes color as it ages, how the weight of the skin affects the shapes throughout the years, and so on. This is also applicable to every object in the scene, an old man cannot have the beautiful and shiny hair as a healthy young man. This helps enhance believability, realism but also storytelling, as each individual aspect shows the kind of life my character has gone through.
It is really easy to mess up the consistency of the quality on a human face. I believe scale is extremely important to get right. Having a wrong scale is going to give the impression the model is too big or made of plastic. Every single pore matters. I like strengthening them by having the pore displacement darkening and saturating the skin and driving the glossiness too. Using the displacement to modify my other textures helps me keep the skin sharp and clean, and avoid a noisy look that too much information and bump is going to give you. Human skin is a smooth surface and having too much, or again, at the wrong scale, is going to make it really noisy. Scan data, used properly, really helps to tackle the texturing process. The most important part would be the shading, as the textures need to be adjusted based on the angle at which they face the camera. I plan on coming up with a thorough guide on how I approach realistic shading approximation and make use of my own scripts to better the process. I do a lot of back and forth figuring out my maps and doing tests renders. I am looking for things to improve and how I want my maps to drive my shader. I keep an eye on how the light rolls on the surface, and I am not afraid to go back to ZBrush to improve the forms if they need to.
Texturing.xyz provides incredibly accurate scanned skin data. It is a must to achieve realism. Their product contains huge unfolded maps that are extracted from real human beings.
With a little bit of tweaking and balancing, usually done in Nuke to ensure the accuracy of their textures, I am allowed to focus on less technical aspects of the creation and enhances my workflow. Their textures can be combined with the displacement extracted from ZBrush to overlay on your diffuse if I need to break up the skin even more. Their micro displacement sort of replaces the micro-faceting of the glossiness map and once the strength of the displacement is figured out, it helps with the shading.
Daniel Edery’s character texturing class was a great way to understand what it took to be a character artist working on some of the biggest Hollywood production of the year. His class covered in-depth all the fundamentals required for a character to be brought to life on a big screen. The importance of good UVs, tackling the huge task that is the SSS, etc.… He provided us with amazing industry insights as well as an entire walkthrough making a realistic character from model to finish. His class was also structured to include weekly critiques where he would paint over everyone’s work to direct their attention to things that needed to be addressed. My old man was the work I did during his class at Gnomon, and he helped me push it beyond my limits.
Lighting is so important! However well made the assets are, lighting is the final deal breaker to any composition. There is so much that can be done with the lighting, changing up the mood, adding a dramatic feel to your image, showing emotions or hiding someone’s intent. I am not confident enough to play too much with colors when I render, so I try as much as possible to keep my lighting realistic. In order to do so, I keep my lights temperature in Kelvin and their intensities in watts measured off real life lights.
When I light my scenes, I like driving the audience eye with directionality. I also frame my emotions with the shapes and negative shapes created by the lights and shadows, and lastly, I help define my shapes with smooth contrast. When I am happy with my lighting I will save the render, and do a first compositing pass, to merge all the separated elements together and if I want to, address my colors to strengthen the story and the mood. When I was satisfied with every aspect of my piece, I try to approach like a photographer would and color composite it slightly to enhance it one very last time. Et voilà!
My main advice would be, work on the story of your character. You don’t want to create another “just” cool character that has no backstory or motivation of any kind. If someone asked you what is the favorite food of your character or what time does he usually goes to bed at, you need to be able to answer and to justify your answers. That is the train of thought a successful character artist should have. A character needs to feel real for the audience to develop an emotional bond with them. Same goes for his costume and props. If your character is a cowboy and has a gun that he puts in a holster, and you put more wear and tear in one side or the other of the gun, you are indicating to your audience whether your cowboy is a lefty or not.
Anatomy is vital to making any character or even fantastic creature feel real and functional. There is always something that can be improved by learning more anatomy. And when your knowledge of anatomy is deep enough, step away from 3D models and anatomy tools and look at real humans and try to understand how skin affects the display of the anatomy, how fat pockets work and so on. Being able to tell a story is key, and there is only so much story an ecorche can tell. Ask a lot of critiques and never give up. Harsh criticism is worth taking as long as it has a point and makes sense.
Lastly, is to always stay curious. There is always something new, something interesting out there, that even might not be related to anything that you are doing. However, you can fuel yourself from it and make it your own. Bring that part of your world to your work and make it special, personal, and challenging.