Hec: I’m Hector Moran, from Mexico but I live in Austria. I go by Hec and SculptorHec online and I’m a freelance character artist. I do character art for video games, cinematics, toys, collectibles, and miniatures… lots and lots of miniatures. I’ve contributed to games like League of Legends and Fortnite, cinematics for Legend of Solgard, Hasbro and Schleich toys in Germany, and more. In recent years, I also made collectible statues for THQ and other clients.
I started working on 3D print characters back in 2009 with Kingdom Death. Since then my client list has grown thanks to the impact that KD had in the miniatures industry. I had lots of gigs from Relic Knights to the Mega Man board game, and more recently I made the full roster of 37 miniatures for Street Fighter and a set of 22 minis for Ghostbusters/Men In Black: Ectoterrestrial Invasion.
Darksiders: The Forbidden Landone was one of several projects I’ve been involved in this year. Since I was going to be involved in more than one project at the start of 2019 and Darksiders needed all the miniatures sculpted by early April, I went ahead and assembled a small team of sculptors that would help me complete the project in time. Alejandro Castiblanco and Leander Pokorny were the two core members that I recruited. When the deadline got tighter than we expected, I called up Alexander Eibler and Marco Garcia to assist us further with some of the remaining spill-work.
AC: My name is Alejandro Castiblanco. I’m a multimedia engineer from Colombia living in Mexico, currently working as a freelance 3D artist and modeling teacher. I make 3D art for games, cinematics, collectibles, and miniatures.
I’ve been working in the 3D industry since 2008. In 2016, I became a full-time freelancer and worked for companies like Estudio Shout, JesusFC, Magnetic Dreams, and others. During that same time, I became more involved in collectibles and miniatures for brands like THQ and Gaya Entertainment as well as collaborations, mostly with Hec.
Darksiders is one of the more recent projects we did together. It was ambitious and full of challenges but we pulled it off thanks to great team effort.
Leo: My name is Leander Pokorny but most people call me Leo. I’m from Austria. I graduated from the SAE Institue in Vienna in 2017 and spent my time as a freelance illustrator and graphic designer until I got the chance to work on Darksiders: The Forbidden Land. I have been working with Hector on a smaller minis project before but The Forbidden Land was my first time contributing to a well-known franchise. It was also a personal shift in focus from 2D to 3D.
Building a Career as a Miniature Sculptor
Hec: When it comes to 3D, I love being able to play in different art styles. Each style is a different language and I like being as fluent as possible in all these languages. I enjoy getting a piece of amazing concept art from my clients and being asked to match it, to do it justice. I used to do more 2D art earlier in my career, and for that, I have my own art style, but in 3D I enjoy being a chameleon and moving around in different styles. That’s the job and if you get good enough at it, clients will keep coming.
Kingdom Death was one of my first minis jobs. It was a side gig that I took up while having a full-time job. To be honest, I only took it because the concept art was really nice. Adam Poots, the creator of KD, found me on DeviantArt back in 2009 and messaged me there. DeviantArt is not a relevant platform for freelancers any more, but back then, I was still using it as part of my ongoing strategy of building an online presence. Playing the online presence and social media game is part of the deal, and that’s basically how I’ve been freelancing for seven years with a growing list of clients.
In such an industry, you might have to start with the work you can get. Whenever I could take a job for money with stuff that was less fun or interesting, I did it, though I didn’t add it to my portfolio. In my Artstation portfolio, you can find all the gigs that I enjoyed. Since I’m a part-time teacher I do save old works there to show the students my progression and improvement. I don’t like to pretend that I was always good by only showing my best projects.
AC: Stylization is something that I have been exploring and it continues to interest me. I find it really cool and challenging at the same time. It allows bending many anatomy and realism rules to provide something visually striking. Darksiders is one of those examples where you have to work with weird shapes and interesting curves often creating humanoid and demonic creatures.
I used to work in a 3D printing company where I had to create bobblehead bodies for real-time scanned faces as well as sculpting and doing full-body 3D scans for ceramic powder printing. Once I decided to start working on my own, it was a bit complicated. I took on many small gigs in order to provide for my family and keep things going. As I improved my portfolio, more brands and people started paying attention to my work. Hec also invited me to collaborate on some of his miniature and collectible projects. Some of the more recent ones will become public soon.
Leo: Coming from a 2D background, I’ve always enjoyed the physicality of canvas and acrylic paint or a sketchbook and coal. Thanks to 3D printing digital artwork can make the transition from intangible images on a computer screen to something you can touch and hold in your hands. It’s incredibly satisfying seeing your ideas become a reality that you can paint, put on a shelf or play with since that’s what minis are mostly intended for.
As mentioned earlier, Darksiders: The Forbidden Land was one of my first miniature projects and I enjoyed working on it a lot. Hector’s infectious passion for minis has definitely left a mark on me and I intend to further specialize in this field now that I have a better understanding of the creative process behind it.
Workflow for Miniatures
Hec: The main stages of building a miniature for me are mostly about matching the concept art. My workflow consists of building a T-pose model with all the main pieces in place, clothing, armor, weapons, etc. The T model can be fairly detailed, but I don’t overspend time on clothing wrinkles and so on, because those are always heavily affected by the pose. I have several little guidelines that I’ve tried and tested until some became rules like keeping closed meshes. In games and general CG stuff, people like to keep open meshes or double-sided meshes for clothing. I do that a bit differently from the start by capping sleeves on clothing and closing my meshes as much as possible so that they’re watertight for printability later. Detailing must be bold and exaggerated, especially for smaller-scale stuff. Crevices and cavities need to be carved deep, belts and straps need to be twice or four times thicker than you might make them for games or animation.
AC: When I worked at a 3D printing company, I remember they asked me to avoid holes. Now, I also notice how important it is to pay more attention to thin parts or details that could fade out if the figurine is small.
Leo: Coming in as relative beginner I needed some time to learn how to balance the artistic side of sculpting with the pragmatic “will this be printable?”-mentality. I’m certainly not an expert yet but I’ve heard the phrases “make this thicker”, “scale these up”, “carve that deeper” and “no undercuts” more often than I can count. So that’s probably a good starting point if you’re new to sculpting minis.
A Base Mesh or a Model from Scratch?
Hec: After seven years of freelancing, I have my own library of assets and base bodies. When it came to Street Fighter I used every trick in my arsenal and every asset in my library. The good thing was that the male and female characters have a pretty consistent art style, so I was able to turn Ryu into Ken, Ken into Dan, and so on. Clothing and hair wigs also got reused and re-purposed a lot in that project. SF has around seven characters wearing a Karate Gi, so I recycled and modified it for Akuma, Ryu, Ken, Dan, Makoto, Evil Ryu, and Violent Ken. Darksiders was a bit different. When it came to the horsemen, I used some of my base bodies and heavily modified them to match the proportions of War, Death, and Fury.
Strife was provided by THQ as a usable high-res sculpt by Brian Jones. With the same sculpt I did the posing and print prep for the collectible figure that will ship out with the Special edition of Darksiders: Genesis. That was the only asset that was provided in that state. All other assets were either not provided at all or provided in outdated game resolution meshes, so I had to rebuild and kit-bash them to complete my own T model.
The Jailer was built from scratch based on the original concept and game screenshots. The same for the Wraith and Swarm. As for optimization, we only do it at the end in the form of several rounds of Decimation Master before exporting the STL. We also use the Boolean functions in ZBrush a lot in the final stages. Cuts and Keys were done by the factory that manufactured the final pieces.
AC: Like Hec, I prefer having my own library to kit-bash from to save some time, especially for hard surface pieces, basic stuff for clothes like buttons, zippers, and so on.
In other cases, the tasks can vary. Sometimes, I will work entirely from scratch or will be provided with a game asset or character parts. Of course, I must keep in mind some rules for details to be printable like closing the gaps and big holes, making thicker areas, reusing pieces from my library or recreating parts by using tools like decimation, remesh, Zmodeler and other handy features in ZBrush.
In Darksiders, I was responsible for the female zombie, Phantom General, and Phantom Guard. They were built from scratch based on some concept art but mainly on in-game screenshots. Obviously, the phantoms share a base body.
Leo: One thing I’ve learned rather quickly is that you can never be quite sure what you get to work with. You might get a fairly recent game model which can function as a solid basis for the project after some cleaning or you might even get a fully functioning base body. But there are also scenarios when you’ve got nothing to work with except for some gameplay footage you took on your Playstation.
Since the reference material you work with might drastically vary in quality it is important to know how to build things from scratch if necessary. When working on the Darksiders project Hector could have easily given Alejandro and me some base bodies for the zombies to speed things up. However, he wanted us to take our time and practice proportions and anatomy instead of skipping that step by re-purposing one of his older works. This approach paid off only a couple of weeks later when I was tasked with sculpting the “Fleshburster”, an extremely obese yet muscular character which isn’t a very common body shape.
Hec: Usually, you don’t have to do any painting or texturing for miniatures, because for 3D artists the job ends in turning in an untextured, decimated sculpt. However, there are a few board games out there that offer or include pre-painted minis. These are pretty far in quality and detail from what a pro painter can do, but since I worked on the Mega Man board game I started testing out colored renders of my miniatures. This escalated to Street Fighter where Jasco Games wanted to try out pre-painted figures. When THQ saw what I did with Street Fighter, they decided to try something like that as well. Because of that escalation, I’ve now worked on several projects that included pre-painting and made polypainted renders in Keyshot. These served as portfolio renders and painting guides for production.
AC: For some parts, we had to create quick UVs for more flexibility in Keyshot. This lets you have full color renders that can be used as portfolio pieces, painting guides or marketing images for the client.
Leo: If you are familiar with 2D digital painting then 3D painting in ZBrush is pretty straightforward. There are some functions that will speed up the painting process quite a bit, like various forms of masking to isolate specific areas you want to paint or by exporting the results to Photoshop for adjustments ZBrush isn’t incapable of. Coming from a 2D background, polypainting was one of my favorite parts of production so I spent quite a bit of time on it. Given the limitation of 3D color printing, one could argue I might even have overspent some time doing the painting. Still, the results turned out to be really presentable Keyshot renders and I like to think that somewhere out there a Darksiders fan will use them as a reference to custom paint his/her minis.
Hec: For me, the progression has been fairly gradual and I’ve had seven years to get more and more comfortable with building usable T models quickly. I’ve been able to practice and learn anatomy, posing and composition and by now some of it comes easy through the sheer amount of experience. I have several tricks and workflows that I’ve picked up and I try to pass those on to the people that I mentor or work with. Sometimes, while working with other people on projects like these I realize how many things I’ve figured out on my own or learned from places like ZBrushCentral that are just a regular part of the process now.
AC: The challenging part for me is posing. You need to have some harmony to the movement and composition, and also pay close attention to shapes and silhouettes. Of course, anatomy is part of the challenge here and it is something that I have to keep practicing more and more to get better results.
Leo: Generally speaking, I’d say it’s all about analyzing your workflow and trying to speed things up if you see room for improvement. If you use a certain function or feature a lot you should try to memorize its respective hotkey or add it to a shelf for quick select. This might only save a couple of seconds here and there but those add up quickly. There’s a reason why Hector was able to do about two-thirds of the characters during the Darksiders project even though five people were involved in the production overall.