Billy Lord talked about the game characters production pipeline: main points to consider and focus on, working on facial details and more!
My name is Billy Lord, I am the Character Artist at Arkane Studios in Austin, TX. I am originally from Lubbock, TX and have spent my whole life in the Lone Star State. I started my career in 2012 as a Texture Artist for a smaller mobile app development studio called Mirar. We worked on product visualization and accessibility apps like the Glasses.com Virtual Try On, where you could “try on” hundreds of brand name eyeglasses from the comfort of your home on an iPad. Although a great experience, I yearned to use my skills in the games industry. Luckily enough, former teacher and friend, Isaac Oster was doing some freelance for Liquid Development and pitched my name to the management. So I started burning the candle at both ends, working at Mirar by day and Liquid Development by night. It was a fun, albeit stressful time in my life and became a launching point for the next steps in my career.
After Mirar, I had the opportunity to start the character team at Cloud Imperium Games with a friend and mentor David Jennison. It was a maelstrom of ideas and techniques to help bring Chris Roberts‘ visions to life for Star Citizen. It was there I was exposed to some of the most cutting-edge techniques and tools that the industry had available, from facial scanning and motion capture to hair and cloth generation. More important for me were the lessons I would gain in my personal work. David helped me to better understand human facial anatomy and would give me sometimes daily feedback on my personal projects to help me improve. It is that for which I am most grateful to that studio.
After a couple of years, CIG decided it was best for them to move the character team to their studio in Manchester, England and though I was offered the opportunity to move with it, I declined. As fate would have it, Arkane Studios had a senior character artist opening to which I applied. After testing and interviewing, I was hired. This was a dream come true for me as I had always wanted to work under the Zenimax umbrella. It has been a great experience and we have since shipped PREY and PREY: Moon Crash.
Characters for Games Production
In my opinion, the two most important things when creating a character for a game would be silhouette and anatomy.
Most of the time during production, I am working from concepts so the silhouette needs to match or be improved for readability. Often, you see characters from very far away and the ability to know what/who they are is very important. Sometimes it can be the matter of life and death (for the player). Of course, there are other elements that assist in this, but just for the sake of addressing the models, the silhouette is crucial.
The next thing I worry about the most is the anatomy. I’m going to butcher the quote, but someone once said, if you want to make something fantastic, make it familiar. The takeaway from that is, your creature or character can be someone completely out of this world as long as the anatomy makes sense and looks familiar. My advice for a new character artist would be to study the anatomy of all kinds. Don’t rely on just human anatomy. Study animals, fish, insects, etc. As long as it suits the character, the anatomy will feel believable and thereby make your character believable.
My personal workflow starts with a sphere and Dynamesh in ZBrush. I like the stay pretty loose in the beginning and just get forms blocked out with masks, the move brush, and clay build-up. At first, as I said previously, I am just focused on silhouette and trying to get the general shapes I think are nice. I like to work with a matcap during this phase as opposed to one of the basic materials so I can toggle between lit and silhouette modes with the V key.
Once I am happy with the silhouette, I’ll switch to the basic material so I can move my light around as I sculpt. I think it’s important to see your forms not only from different angles but at different light angles. I think something important to remember is to keep it simple and understand that things are going to look bad until they suddenly don’t. Just stay the course and keep refining your forms and stick to your reference.
Sculpting the face is a lot like sculpting the body. Start loose and find the right proportions. If you are coming up with a character of your own creation, a way I like to work to experiment is to create large changes on different layers and then blend between them and use morph targets to get something I like.
Layers are my best friend when working with a face. I create them for almost everything. Little is worse than having to change a secondary form and having to destroy other parts because I couldn’t turn them off in a layer. If you are sculpting a likeness, reference is crucial! Find lots of references and stick to it. Never assume you know what they look like.
When it comes to brushes, I tend to stay pretty basic. In fact, like many artists, I only really use 4 or 5 brushes. Usually, I stick to move, clay tubes, standard, dam standard, and flatten.
Facial Details & Hair
When I make scars for characters, I treat them like any other skin element; they go on a separate layer. As far as accessories like glasses or jewelry, I tend to not have the foresight to make and keep a base library. I end up just making it as I need them, usually roughing them out in ZBrush and then making the final version in Maya.
I make my eyes in Maya and Photoshop out of two modified spheres. These I do keep and just adjust textures for them so I only have to build the geometry once.
For hair, I use XGen in Maya to get my textures and scalp cap if necessary. Once I have the textures created, I painstakingly place cards one by one until I get the look I want. I also like Ornatrix for a quicker, more procedural card placement; but I think that doing it by hand yields much more controlled and desirable results.
I usually like to start my character painting in ZBrush using Polypaint. As much as Substance Painter speeds things up with procedural generation, you lose that artistic touch. I know that I could have the best of both worlds, painting and procedural with Painter but I guess I am just used to doing it in Polypaint.
After my polypainting process is completed, then I usually go into Substance Painter and add some of those nice break-ups that you can get faster with generators. Things like fibers or vein breakup or freckles, etc.
When it comes to the little details that bring realism to characters (pores, spots, etc.) I use the same “mixed bag” approach. I always do my pores and skin details in ZBrush (a separate layer, of course) so I can control what goes where. Areas of the face stretch and contract differently, so using a pore generator would hardly do the trick.
I like to do the painting of age spots and defects procedurally in Painter and then mask out the places I don’t want them. It’s a nice way to get all the details without having to spend hours just on liver spots.
Characters Suitable for Games
When making a game character, a lot of things have to be taken into consideration, not just how cool the character looks. You have to work closely with tech artists and animators to make sure that things deform the way they expect, or in some cases, make sure that you can afford the rig for the character. Things like poly budgets and draw calls become a big consideration. If you have no budgetary constraints, then go nuts! Just make sure that you use good judgement on edge-flow and density and don’t go nuts with textures. No character needs 12, 4k maps. Okay, maybe some will but make sure that is in the budget.
For personal projects, I usually just use Toolbag. If I am trying to make something for an art test or trying to catch the attention of a studio, I’ll use whatever engine they use. I find they tend to respond pretty well to that.
Time vs. Quality
It is impossible to say how long it takes for a character since there are so many differing factors to each on. I will say though, I am less concerned with speed and more with quality. I find a lot of people on ArtStation or Polycount that brag about something being a “1 hour sculpt” or a “speed sculpt”, but honestly, I’d rather have a candidate that does great work than fast work. Obviously, both would be preferable, but focus on the quality and the speed will come with repetition. If you focus on speed, the quality may never get there. Just my opinion.
Billy Lord, Character Artist at Arkane Studios
Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev