Getting into 3D
I graduated from the Vinnytsia National Technical University and have a master's degree in Engineering but never had any art education.
At the same time, I always liked to draw and draft. CAD/CAM modeling was easy for me and as an engineer, I found a new hobby. I began to study 3D software for the gaming industry. In parallel, I have developed art skills, the basics of composition, anatomy, color theory, and others. So I'm self-taught.
My professional way started in 2016 with Skywind, a fan project in which I really wanted to participate since I am a big Morrowind fan. I have learned the basics and made my first 3D assets that got into the project. This inspired me very much and I wanted to change my kind of activity. I started working as a freelance artist.
Soon I was invited to one outsourcing company, Scythgames Studio. There, I have worked on such projects as Mafia 3, Wreckfest, Farming Simulator, etc. for companies such as 4A Games, 2K CZECH, GIANTS software, LKWD Lockwood, and others.
I was invited as a character artist to the next workplace in 2018. It was the OmniGames studio in which we have made RIFTERS AR, a multiplayer AR mobile shooter.
After that, I moved to the BeatShapers studio where I currently work as a character artist. I create stylized characters and facial animations.
I also work as a freelance artist and recently I have collaborated with Plarium Ukraine and others.
Why Stylized Art
Since childhood, I enjoyed video games, animation, and fantasy books. I remember the first time I saw Hayao Miyazaki's work “Spirited Away” - probably because of its richness of images, characters, and colors, I like stylized art so much now.
I really like the opportunity to experiment with the shapes, colors, silhouettes, images, and emotions of the characters. Stylization gives you full freedom for all this.
Woodland Spirits: About the Project
I started the Woodland Spirits project back in 2018 in collaboration with my friend and colleague Roman Guro. At the time, we just called this project “The BARD”.
In the past, Roman participated in the Riot Creative Contest 2017 and as part of the challenge created a wonderful concept fanart for League of Legends champion Bard, which inspired me for this work.
For me, this project was a kind of fun experiment during the off-hours. I wanted to make a character that could easily fit into the League of Legends game as one of the optional skins for Bard.
So I have realized that I would work within the technical limitations of the real-time engine. I studied how other League of Legends champions were made, and how the Riot artists worked with the shapes, silhouettes, and textures of their characters.
I was very inspired by the work of Daniel Orive and the champion Ornn in his performance, so he was chosen as a “quality reference”.
I need to mention that in 2018 I completed the character, but was not completely satisfied with the result and postponed the project until better times.
During the quarantine in 2020, I had free time and I decided to complete the work by redoing it from the high-poly stage.
The main goal has also changed, I decided to make a scene with several characters, to show their relationships, the magic of the environment, and the mystery of the moment. I did not go beyond the old technical limitations but changed the approach in creating textures and lookdev.
I always collect a big moodboard with references before starting the work. The best option for me is when I find a couple of references for each section of the work: anatomy and general forms, specific details, textures and materials, quality references, style references, etc.
I believe that the blockout phase is one of the most important steps in the work. Experimenting with large shapes and silhouettes, I need to imagine how the model will look in the end. I do not like to rush at this stage and don`t go into detail until all the general forms are completely fine with me.
In most cases, high-poly is done entirely in ZBrush. This is the set of brushes I use more often than others:
Before I expand on the pipeline, it must be said that I always start my personal works from scratch. Almost every time I experiment with the pipeline and change something during the process. This allows me to evaluate the efficiency of different approaches in practice and not to get bored.
My standard pipeline when modeling an object in ZBrush is:
- Raw blockout sculpt. I actively use Move and Transpose tools.
- Basic mesh. The elaboration of a draft of a more detailed form. At this stage, I often use DynaMesh and Sculptris Pro mode.
- Remesh. When I am completely satisfied with the shape and primary details, I make a new low-poly mesh with better topology using Zremesher. At this stage, I actively use the Zmodeler brush and Topology brush to create basic shapes for accessories or detalization elements. I also like to use the Extract tool on a masked surface. This allows me to quickly create new geometry in complex form.
- Sdiv mesh. After that, I increase the level of detalization to a certain SDiv value and make all the following changes to the Layers.
This makes my process very flexible. By manipulating the layers, at any time I can return to the basic form and reduce or increase the intensity of the details.
Almost all the elements of the model were created following this principle.
While working on the character’s body, the main task was to make Bard’s body look massive and heavy, but not overweight. For this, I used a lot of references for obese and athletic people, combining both types.
In general, stylized anatomy allows you to simplify and exaggerate many things. You can change and distort the forms, but the main task is to make it all look believable. At the same time, the individual parts should be anatomically correct.
Bard's hair became a real challenge for me. I wanted to make an interesting structure and silhouette. The hair should have looked good from the side, from behind, and in an isometric view. I tried to set the correct flow and created a cascading structure with pigtails going out of it.
Cutie spirits were a pleasant rest for me after the main stage. The main thing here was to avoid a lot of details. The simpler and clearer their shapes look, the nicer they will seem.
Export, Retopology, UVs, Bake
I found a very convenient and fast pipeline to prepare the model for retopology and baking. When my high-poly model is ready, I group the elements as they will be stitched on the low-poly taking into account the baking. I name the parts not to get confused. High-poly parts and low-poly parts should be named the same but with different suffixes _high and _low, respectively. This is an important point in the baking phase.
I make the model lighter with the Decimation Master, most often I use the standard settings. Next, I mark the mesh by splitting it into polygroups manually or simply by clicking autogroup. After that, I export the model for retopology and baking in .fbx format. It is important to enable the option Export polygroup as mats, as this will be our ID card. This process allows me to prepare a high-poly mesh in ZBrush right away for both retopology and baking.
I make retopology in Maya and use Maya and UV layout for UV unfolding. There is nothing special in my pipeline for these steps. Most often, I rest in a semi-meditative state, working on retopology and UVs, as this is a calm and simple mechanical work.
For Bard, I used a 2048 map for a character and 1024 for a weapon and pipe.
As one of the texturing options, I planned to try 100% hand-painted textures, so I packed UVs manually. I grouped objects and materials so that they were conveniently textured even on a 2D map.
For the scene, I used a 1024 map for land, stones, and all plants. And another 1024 map for fog and luminous elements. For baking maps from high-poly, I used Substance Painter.
For me, texturing is a very interesting process that can be approached in dozens of different ways. Bard textures and weapons were made completely in SP. For stylized characters, I like to use a pre-set light and bake the falling shadows into a color map. I used to do this in Maya or manually in Photoshop. But now SP allows you to set several fake light sources and flexibly configure their properties.
Usually, I start with the base material, choose a fill color or gradient, set a value for roughness and metallic. After that, I add more color variations and details in the “high” layer if needed. In the case of the mask, I added wood fibers.
Then, I work with color using the previously baked AO and curvature cards and highlight dark and light areas. Here, the main idea is not just to darken or brighten the base color, but also to shift the material in tone. So I often use dark red or dark blue colors for AO and pale orange for curvature.
When the base material is ready I add details. In the mask example, it is paint.
Then I add the material Baked Lighting Stylized. It is a very powerful tool that can greatly change your texture, - improve or ruin it. Here you always need to experiment and choose the settings depending on the situation.
Working with roughness and bump, I try to use realistic properties. The roughness map should be contrasting, this will allow you better notice the difference between the materials and improve the character's readability. I like to add Bump to the leather, skin, tissues, and so on. The main thing is not to overdo it. Try different settings and test them in different light scenarios.
In general, I suppose that for stylized textures, the most important thing is a variety of colors, the contrast in gloss and color, readability of materials, and low noise.
Making the Scene
I set myself a task of creating a fantasy magical atmosphere of the forest glade. Plus, I wanted to emphasize the characters' interactions and add cuteness and humor to the work.
Arrangement of the objects and scene assembly were done in Maya. There, I also created meshes for all plants, fireflies, smoke from the pipe, and godrays.
Swirling fog adds mystery and a good effect to the whole atmosphere. I made a fog mesh in ZBrush; I wanted it to curl at Bard`s feet and create some volume in the background and above the lake.
I made all the textures for the scene using the hand-painting method in Photoshop. When drawing a godray, I did a few brushstrokes and then applied directional blur with high values, this created long color streams.
At the setup stage, I experimented a lot and often changed the mesh and textures, so the Maya - Photoshop bundle turned out to be the fastest.
To highlight the characters and emphasize the shape of the large objects with a homogeneous texture, such as Bard's hair and Cuties' bodies I added a cel-shading effect in Maya. The wise Bard will tell you what to do:
For the final scene render, I selected Marmoset Toolbag. It is a very simple but powerful tool to perform the task.
I decided to make a night scene with atmospheric light. I started with a very weak ambient light from an HDRI map. To illuminate Bard, I used spotlight top key and front fill lights.
I also added omni lights to all objects that should glow: 3 spirits, magic lakes, pipe, stick, and bag with magic spheres. A strong light comes from a firefly to which one of the spirits reaches out with a stick. This light is warm, like the light from the pipe, and this allows me to create a contrast between the cool magic blue light and warm orange.
To create more focus, I also added a faint pink light to the flowers. In the source settings, I used a mask. This made the light less homogeneous and more vibrant.
Following this principle, I added some fill lights where I wanted more focus.
Here are some of my camera settings, the final scene, and materials.
For the camera, I used the Tone Mapping setting: Hejl and increased Exposure value which made the picture more saturated (deep color).
In general, I have enjoyed the project and learned a lot while working on it. Thanks a lot to everyone for their feedback and support, especially to my wife.