Patrick Sutton shared a bunch of personal techniques for creating and presenting 3D weapons and discussed how amateur artists can improve their weapon design skills.
In case you missed it
Read our previous interview with Patrick
My name is Patrick Sutton, and I'm the Lead Vehicle and Weapon Artist at C77 Entertainment in Bellevue, Washington. Since the last interview, I moved on from 343 to do an in-house stint as a contractor at Valve working on Half-Life: Alyx, and then joined C77.
Weapon Design: Amateur vs. Pro
I think the thing that distinguishes an amateur and a professional weapon artist can be complicated. There are quite a few very skilled amateur weapon artists (or artists who do other things, like I have; I've been an environment artist for most of my career). Something that I lacked in the past (and even failed an interview over!) was thinking about how fictional weapons would animate to be most interesting. I did an art test and while my weapon looked good, I had made nothing interesting for the reload animation to take advantage of; the part that would be reloaded simply detached.
When it comes to fictional designs, something that I believe separates an amateur from a pro is thinking about the first-person view. I think a lot of designs are pretty flat; you want to have things facing the player and things that catch the light in interesting ways so that it's not totally flat. This is something that is good for design in general - increasing the number of planes that light can hit allows you to get good value contrast regardless of the facing of the weapon with respect to lights. The thing you can do is to increase the complexity of the silhouette. You don't want to do this everywhere, but having one or two things pop can be really nice.
Black Ops 4 is an example of a game with a fantastic design for the first person.
Notice how in the image of the shotgun there's a nice silhouette pop from the charging handle, and there is a lot of depth from things facing in other directions than sideways. We have strong AO from the folded up stock, and the cuts in the front create strong value contrast. In the second image, you can see that there are planes that face the player and are angled from the side, just below the rear sights. This creates interest by breaking up the specular highlight along the side of the weapon. The deep cuts in the side also accomplish this. There's also some nice silhouette stuff from the sights and the charging handle.
Renewing Old Projects
I recently decided to present a bunch of old projects with new textures because I have a huge pile of things I've made for various projects but never released. For the VR project Hotdogs, Horseshoes, and Handgrenades I've made about 15 guns and 10 attachments; of those, I picked 7 to render. My friends are always yelling at me to post my work, so I finally decided to actually do it. The new textures are because I've significantly improved at texturing since I made the models. This is especially true of the SG-552, which is actually almost 10 years old.
Advice: Use Correct Measurements and Booleans
If I were to share some tricks for modeling guns, I would say collect hundreds of reference photos and use good measuring techniques. One really nice thing about guns is that barrels are round. Since circles have a constant diameter, you know how wide the barrel is because of how tall it is, so you can use 3/4 photos to measure the width of a weapon to a high degree of precision. Other known dimensions are the length and the dimensions of the cartridges, which you can basically always find on Wikipedia. I see a lot of weapons that are too fat, or more often too thin, and collecting more reference material and doing some measuring would solve that problem.
When it comes to modeling, I don't really use any special plugins. One technique I use heavily is booleans. They're wonderful for both real-life and fictional designs because you can always change your mind about shapes until the very end. When doing real weapons, it allows you to correct mistakes, and when doing fictional ones it allows you to continue to iterate on shapes long after you've started them, which you can't do if you model them straight.
I don't do subdivision modeling anymore because I've been doing it for like 15 years and I'm sick of it. Instead, I do a very high res blockout, and then split the work. I make a high poly by adding chamfers and using face-weighted normals, and I make the low poly by reducing the blockout. One tool that really helps with that is MESHmachine, which is a plug-in for Blender. It has a million of nice features, but what I use for making the game-res mesh is the reduction/increase of bevel spans.
Texturing in Substance Painter
I texture my weapons in Substance Painter only. I think Designer rules but for my purposes, I think it is best suited to mass-producing textures for assets. I like to take my learnings from each weapon and apply them to the next, so doing things by hand allows me to keep growing.
I study surfaces closely - texture (bumpy? smooth? striated? etc.), roughness, and more - wear patterns, discoloration, etc. I add imperfections in a number of ways, but generally, it's using a nice overlay with either a good amount of empty space or masking an overlay with another to create empty space. Imperfections are by their nature unique and inconsistent, so it's best to avoid a consistent look. I do some details by hand - oil stains around moving parts are a good example of this. Mask builder is another good way to do imperfections. My materials are a Frankenstein of various things; stuff from previous projects, bits and pieces snagged from other people's stuff, though most of my materials are my own. This ensures that I have a unique, personal look.
For wear and tear, I make heavy use of generators. Always use custom grunge that you've made yourself. The default Painter grunges aren't very good, and you get more control by setting up your own. Metal edge wear is a great generator for all sorts of stuff. I use it for all materials, metal or otherwise. Anywhere I need edge wear, I always mask it off with another overlay, so that it's not consistent across the whole model. Mask builder is great too. I use it to do discoloration and roughness changes on edges. Because you can blend multiple overlays and work more strongly with curvature and AO than you can with metal edges, it's often better for edge details that aren't harsh damage. An example of where I used a mask builder would be the slight sun bleaching on the plastic of the SG-552.
Rendering weapons is like rendering anything else. You want to use lights, shadows, and specular to create a form that is easily readable by the eye and which shows off the materials well. When I light stuff, I try to get a whole range of values, and I try to differentiate them by facing. If you think of your object as if it was a cube, imagine each side of the cube has a different value.
This is how I render models for maximum readability. This means that you can't use a behind-the-shoulder light like you would have on a camera flash. That will flatten the whole model and kill any sense of depth. Another huge thing is taking advantage of specular highlights to pop out plane changes. I use that as a secondary value contrast source, behind facing. Specular highlights also bring out textured surfaces better and show off roughness variation.
When it comes to emphasis, you always want a hierarchy. This means that if you want to plan your hotspots, plan one large, one medium, and one small. I use a 70-20-10 distribution for that sort of thing. On most guns that means a major plane, a secondary plane, and a rimlight. In the first image of the SG-552 on Artstation, the ejection port is the major highlight because it's brightest, though it's a medium form. The secondary highlight is a darker one that you can see spanning the whole weapon, from the back of the receiver to the front of the foregrip. The tertiary 10% sized detail is the rim light.
I like to pick angles that are interesting and dynamic. This means having diagonals, angles that aren't straight on (though I've seen quite a few renders in other's posts that have side + top views, those are pretty cool!), and angles that allow you to emphasize specular highlights. I like to have my speculars fade on a gradient from one side of the model to another. This isn't something you can do when your model is viewed from a straight-on angle.