Tips on Creating Hero Props

Material artist Johnny Malcolm shared some techniques he used to create an amazing set of textures for his stylized hero prop.


It’s great to be back! I’ve been keeping busy since we last spoke for sure. I’m still splitting my time between teaching at Think Tank Training Center and working on an unannounced project at Next Level Games as the studio’s Material Artist.


I used to spend tons of time sculpting but because of the nature of my work now I end up putting a lot of energy into substance designer. My workflow typically is to sculpt just primary and secondary forms and let all my texture work handle all of the small fiddly bits and high-frequency detail. With this project, I was looking to spend the time to really sculpt everything out and get as much material definition out of the model as possible before I began texturing. I ended up picking this wonderful concept by Elodie Mondoloni, whose work you can check out here.

I like to start with a quick base model set up for subdivision in Maya. This helps me keep stuff cleaner and sharper rather than starting in ZBrush with dynamesh. Only once I have it in ZBrush and subdivided a few times do I then dynamesh it to weld the parts together and then Zremesh it to get a clean base to work on.

For sculpting, I pretty much stick to a few core brushes. Standard and Claybuildup for 90% of the work defining the forms. TrimSmoothBorder for flattening/cutting and Hipolish for tightening everything up. I’ll use the orbcrack brush for some of the cracks and slices and very occasionally pinch for some small surface details.

Another thing I’ do a lot is use custom Insertmesh brushes to quickly duplicate repeated shapes across the surface. In this case I used it for both the tentacle suckers and the stone scales near the sword’s hilt. 


Well, the credit for the color scheme has to go to Elodie as it’s her design. To keep things cohesive on my end I just make sure to not treat each individual element as a separate part and instead think of it as one continuous piece. I try not to work on any elements completely on their own without any context. At the end of my painting, I lay a gradient map (in this case driven by a position map but could be anything you would like) over top of everything on something like a 20-30% opacity. This acts as a final “dry brush wash” and helps to sort of tie everything together right at the end.


I usually like to use a material-based approach where I just work on each material as its own entity and then blend them all with a color-ID map or hand-drawn masks. In this case, there were few enough materials (and some were very simple) that I could justify it all living in one graph. The caustic effect is very easy to do. It’s an edge detect off a tile generator to get the initial pattern and then it’s mostly just warped a few times to break the effect up. It’s simple but gives you a lot of easily accessed options if you wanted to maybe animate it on a separate mesh or something cool. I threw this together with a flipbook in the emissive channel in unreal. The flipbook is created by rendering out different emissive masks where I’ve just tweaked the base noise per frame.

To be honest you could use this in a modern next-gen title as is, especially if it’s a 1st or 3rd person action-adventure title. It’s only using 4 1K textures plus one more 512 Emissive, and it’s about 20k verts. If you wanted to chunk it down I would probably remove the supporting geometry on the tentacle suckers and scales. Even doing that would bring the vert countdown by half. Other than that I could also do the same to the larger cracks and move them exclusively to the normal map.

Johnny Malcolm Game Artist

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev

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