Course overview Course overview
Create polished characters for film and games
The objective of this class is to understand character creation for film and game cinematics in terms of a characters profile, and its ultimate purpose in a composition or narrative. Each week we will focus on a different aspect of character construction and explore the technical ways of assembling a final character. We will begin by analyzing and assessing various reference materials prior to initial sculpting. Then the class will dive into the fabrication of hard surface components, clothing, and other accessories needed to finish out/polish a high-poly asset. From there, the emphasis will then switch over to surfacing your character using advance painting and shading techniques. These will include look-development of skin, metal, and various other material shaders prior to outputting final renders. Finally, we will end the course with discussions on and demonstrations about color theory, render manipulation, and post processing.
Character Creation for Film/Cinematics WHAT YOU’LL LEARN
The more you know, the better.
Unleashing your creative potential
Pete is a Los Angeles based senior character artist with both video game and film experience. His skillset revolves around high to low poly modeling, texture painting and look development. He is currently working at Treyarch. His past work includes all of the titles Call of Duty: Black Ops franchise, James Bond: Quantum of Solace, Underworld: Evolution and Night at the Museum. His softwares of choice are Maya, Mudbox, Zbrush, Substance Painter, Marvelous Designer and Photoshop .
Character Creation for Film/Cinematics Student gallery
Winter TERM Registration
Oct 26, 2020 - Feb 1, 2021
Jorge Adnel Martin
Pete is very talented and has really helped me improve in the past weeks. I learned a lot and always provided very detailed explanations.
Pete is the best teacher I've ever had. I learned a lot in the Q&A sessions and his weekly feedback was very useful. There were things I've never done before this class, moments of frustration that I was able to solve thanks to his advice.
This course was excellent. I have been an environment artist for many years and learning more about the character pipeline was awesome. Character work is significantly different than environment work and the course was very challenging for me.
Learned how to use multichannel textures in Mudbox and also detailed clothing modeling. Also, Pete has a great eye and provided really positive and helpful critiques for submitted work.
It's been the best character class I've taken and I've taken many. Knows the material very well and sets the bar high which helps with my improvement.
Would definitely recommend this course to anyone that has a good experience with 3D Characters and wants to take their skills to an expert level.
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Sculpting and Painting CG Characters
Interview with Diego Rodriguez
Diego Rodriguez did an amazing breakdown of his awesome character study.
My name is Diego Rodriguez, I’m a 3D Character Artist and I’m currently building my portfolio. I want to share with you a little breakdown of the character I did for CGMA’s course Character creation for Films/Cinematics with Pete Zoppi. I was fascinated by the Mursi tribe so I decided to base my character on them as it was a great chance to study organic sculpting, hard surface modeling, and clothing. I focused on the upper body because I wanted to have enough time during the course to complete a final render in Arnold.
Reference and blockout
In my opinion, it’s really important to spend a few hours gathering references and planning your workflow. I usually do paintovers to analyze the approaches I could take while modeling as this helps to save some time later because you will know beforehand the challenges you will face. I avoid human references with makeup or heavily edited because they can lead to confusion while sculpting the shapes. For clothes I try to find sewing patterns similar to the pieces I need to model, it’s much easier to use them in Marvelous Designer instead of doing it by trial and error. I use Pureref to group my references into high-resolution images so I can easily navigate through them while working on the character.
One of the first things I learned at the course was how important is to create a blockout of your character. Even though I did a very quick blockout, it helped me quite a lot in the next stages because I already knew how I wanted to position the assets.
Sculpting the body
I tend to start with a base mesh in Zbrush. I always try to keep the mesh as low as possible because I‘m constantly changing forms and it’s very easy to do so using Move Brush. For sculpting, I use ClayBuildup, ClayTubes, and the alternative smooth brush with low intensity because I can create subtle organic shapes like muscles or landmarks. I also use the basic material as I can change my lights and adjust them to the references.
Sometimes I like to break the shapes a little by using Surface Noise, baking everything on a layer so I can change the opacity later. I keep it very subtle, just enough to create an organic feel.
Through the first classes, I learned to test my early sculpts with a skin shader to see how it works as the shapes may be softened in the render and it’s very easy to modify the sculpt at this stage.
Texturing the skin
I’ve used texturing xyz maps for the skin, it’s incredible the amount of detail you can get from them. I learned how to project them in Mudbox and how to use “Sculpt using maps” to create different layers for the secondary and tertiary details. This way it’s very easy to modify the intensity through the opacity or using amplify, mask, and smooth brushes.
After the displacement was ready I used a combination of polarized maps and hand painting to create the base color for the skin. I also used the displacement information to darken the pores.
I created the war paint in Substance Painter. Even though it’s not the best option for UDIMs it’s very easy to create this kind of texture. I exported a high subdivision level from the sculpt in fbx format into painter and I baked the maps so I was able to use smart masks and materials. After that, I created a paint texture with some color variation and in this group, I used a black mask with fill and paint layers to mask the zones I wanted the paint to be on. You can export this mask to use later in the shaders.
With all the maps ready I created two shaders, one for the skin and another one for the paint. I used the Mix shader with the mask I exported from Substance Painter to blend both of them.
Creating the skin was very challenging for me and thanks to the feedback Pete gave to me I was able to achieve a nice result. I needed various attempts until I was happy with the pore detailing and I also did some tests comparing the default Subsurface with the new randomwalk setting.
Modeling the assets
At this stage, it’s very important to have good references as it can save you a lot of work. For example, I found a tusk section which was very useful to create the horns. I traced the section in Maya using Curve tool and I used Loft to create the model. The best part of this workflow is that you can use the history to generate horns with different shapes very quickly. Finally, I used a bend modifier to create the final curved shape of the horn.
I chose to use curves for the ropes. I positioned the curve in Maya and I extruded it using a plane. It’s important that the geometry has an edge loop running through the center. Then I exported the mesh into ZBrush where I created two polygroups so I could use Frame mesh to select the central edge loop. Finally, using an IMM brush I created the rope.
To break the edges I did an XGen pass with small and thin hairs using noise modifiers.
For complex models like the AK, I always try to find references from different angles to use them in Maya. I start with basic geometry like cubes or cylinders and then I use Multi-Cut, Extrude, Bridge, etc to create the details. I went pretty high poly because I already knew it was going to be close to the camera in the final shot.
Texturing the assets
I exported high-resolution meshes into Substance Painter using FBX format and I baked the maps I needed to start using smart masks. You have to be careful using UDIMs in this software so it’s important to be organized with the UVs. I decided to group them based on materials.
I really enjoyed this stage because it’s very fun to create clean materials and start adding dirt, scratches, edge wear, etc. I learned that it’s important to think about how the objects were made and the abuse they went through so I could achieve more realism. I also added white paint to some of the assets because the body and the hands of my character were covered in paint.
Substance Source has really nice materials you can use as a base for your own textures. For example, I’ve used the rifle stock material in the AK.
Lighting and render
I spent a lot of time trying different lighting setups to see how everything was working. I usually try to avoid front lights as much as possible as they tend to create plain shapes. On the other hand, side lights emphasize the shapes of your model and can create more interesting compositions.
I edited the final render in Photoshop using Camera RAW where I overexposed the image a little bit using the highlights and reduced the saturation to get a more realistic result. I also added a little bit of gaussian blur and noise to avoid the crystal clear details you get in a 3D render.
I enjoyed the process of creating this character as I discovered new techniques I’ll definitely use in my workflow from now on. I hope you enjoyed this breakdown, don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions. You can get in touch with me through my website, Instagram (@artofdiego), or Facebook (diegorodriguez3d).
My experience with CGMA.
I think the best part of this course was getting feedback from a professional artist with years of experience like Pete. Even though the weekly content was great, I got the most out of the Q&A live sessions where he did some great demonstrations in real time and answered all the questions we got. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
How to Bring X-23 to 3D
Interview with Mingshun Zhu
Mingshun Zhu talked about the way he worked with the 3d character of X-23. A lovely take on a beloved version of a movie character, based on comic heroes.
My name is Mingshun Zhu. I am a recent graduate from Michigan State University, and I am working as a 3D character artist.
I started doing 3D modeling back in 2014, and I am mostly self-taught. My obsession with photorealism in storytelling leads me toward film production. Five months ago, I enrolled a course on CGMA called Character Creation for Film and Cinematics by Pete Zoppi, and I’d like to talk about the things I learned from this course.
I decided to create a character that is simple in design, so I have extra time to learn and digest. X-23 from the movie Logan was perfect for a short-term study because of the ideal complexation.
Start by gathering as many references as I can. I then filtered out most of the images and kept the one that has the best demonstration of features.
Instead of going straight into the hi-poly sculpting or clothes simulation, I took the advice from Pete to get the base mesh done first. Making low-poly base mesh helps to define the scale and topology of the model for both referencing and sculpting purpose.
Continue with face sculpting in ZBrush. I prefer to achieve the correct facial anatomy before I get into likeness sculpting. Here are a few tips I learned from Pete. While sculpting the face, don’t push too hard and don ‘t admit too fast; subtle changes make big differences; keep refining and iterating the face in different angles and spots, and avoid adding too much expression on the face. Also, be very cautious of the age, gender and weight to get the facial features right. For example, little girls tend to have rounder chin and jaws and are wider at the eyes.
Clothes are generated using Marvelous Designer (MD). I used the base mesh I created earlier to get a rough layout of panels.
Be thoughtful of the relationship between folds and animation. Depending on the pipeline, inappropriate folds might cause deformation issue in animation.
After the simulation, you can either choose to retopologize the mesh using the Zremesher function in ZBrush or manually resurface the mesh. In my case, I used Zremesher to get the base topology done and then build on top of it using Zmodeler.
Before you start texturing, it might be helpful to think about the type of shot that the character is being used in. Close up shot may require more detail on the character than medium shot does.
I used various scans from TexturingXYZ and Surface Mimic for skin and cloth projection in Mudbox. Photo scans grant you fast and good results, but there might be no transition between sculpted and projected details. Thus, you may need to add extra wrinkles and folds to tie everything together.
Skin shader is a combination of Vray Fast SSS2 skin shader and a reflective material. The additional reflective material helps to control the oil, wetness of the skin.
Clothes shader is very straightforward but with a little twist. At a glancing angle, cloth looks brighter, softer than its base color. I can fake the desired look by blending the base material with a smooth edge material. SamplerInfo node determines which part of the cloth is facing the camera and which part of the mesh is facing away from the camera.
Hair was done using XGen in Maya. Reference is the key. I set up the hair in three layers. The first layer encompasses the style and shape of the hair. The second layer has less volume and higher noise value. The third layer only has a few strands of hair, and I manually placed them in desired places. The second and third layer helps to make hair looks natural and lively, but it is incredibly challenging to get right.
I hope this article is helpful to you. I am glad to take the course because it helped me to speed up the learning process. If you are interested in learning more about character creation for films, you can consider taking the Character Creation for Film and Cinematics by Pete Zoppi on CGMA.
Mingshun Zhu, CG Artist
Intro to Character Creation for Cinematics
Interview with Kamal Eldin
Kamal Eldin, talked about his amazing character and showed a step-by-step clothing, hard-surface and prop workflows in Marvelous Designer, Maya, ZBrush.
Hello. My name is Kamal Eldin, I’m a 3D artist from Egypt and I’ve been working in the visual effects and animation industry for around 9 years. Lately, I’ve been involved more in Real-time production and VR/AR. But my heart is always with photorealism, wherever it is.
Character creation is something that’s almost an inside calling for me personally. I love to tell stories and characters are a powerful vessel to tell them. You can tell a story through your character’s hair, clothes, the weathering or the smoothness of her/his boots… that’s probably the reason why we are all doing it, I guess.
Start of the Project Templar
I saw the concept art for this character and immediately fell under its spell. It was designed by Thomas Dubief, his designs are unique. This one he called ‘Templar’ and you can easily tell it’s a post-apocalypse theme. It was amazing to see how a single image can tell a very detailed and nuanced story not only about the character it features but the entire world and the era that the character lives in.
It was clear that this world is very bizarre and abnormal, yet, somehow mildly familiar. Through the dust and weathering, you can see that some features are still recognizable… and you can see how sharp of a twist this world has taken and how that the transformation of it left its imprint on the character’s face, helmet, armor, boots and of course her outlandish primary weapon.
One unique feature in this design is the contrast or juxtaposition between the decay in the image and the innocence, almost rather pristine look of the petite girl who fitted herself into such an otherworldly outfit.
And this was a unique motive for me to do this character, as it’s a deviation from the overly veteran, super sexy female warrior visual style that is too common in VFX and games.
Based on this reading of the design, I realize that the challenge here would be authoring the materials and textures for the character and her props.
The most important element was the ambiguity of certain elements in the concept. And I had to make a choice, either to eliminate the ambiguity of these elements altogether by strictly defining the surface materials or carrying some of that ambiguity into the final image. I preferred the latter. It challenges the senses more, makes your eyes linger on the piece and thus to see her story imprinted on her. And staying true to the spirit of the concept was a plus for me.
Being an old vertex pusher, I prefer to begin the creation process with a rough poly block in Maya.
Here I get to work the stance, proportion, silhouette and quickly and early get a rough idea of how the entire piece would look like as a whole.
In this stage, I solve the relative placement of elements, composition, relative sizes of props, how many pieces my outfit would be, what can be modeled symmetrically in its early stages and what can’t, which pieces are going to be contiguous and which will be split. And splitting or combining meshes based on the type of material or the number of elements sharing the same displacement map.
After the Blocking stage is finished, I then take the geo further dividing them into 3 categories:
- Pieces that will be modeled in Marvelous Designer: these will be left as they are and will be replaced by new Topology.
- Pieces that won’t be designed in Marvelous: for these the block geo will be developed into further in Maya with animation topology to be later detailed in ZBrush.
- Elements that require no Displacement maps: will be through roughly modeled in Maya to finish.
Then I start developing each piece according to its category to the next phase in the relative software.
Notes on Surface Detailing
I also tend to break down surface detail into 3 main categories:
- Details with the same color of its underlying surface: these I do in ZBrush in the sculpting phase and bake in the displacement map.
- Surface details that are colored differently than the parent surface, for example, cloth stitches. Texturing for these is done in Substance Painter and I bake in a normal map to take advantage of the capability of multi-channel painting in SP. For each stroke, I can paint height along with its color and specular value in one shot. This is an advantage over ZBrush here as you don’t need to do a workaround to mask the height details in your ZBrush sculpt to be able to color them differently later.
- Face surface details and diffuse: These are done in Mari provided I have access to XYZ Displacement maps and get back to ZBrush for a unified displacement map.
Mari’s layer system and adjustment/Filters are robust, and its projection tools are far more superior than ZBrush. also, you can get along well with Mudbox for projection. I don’t prefer ZBrush for this task due to its lacking layer system.
The head is done based on one of 3d.sk images that I had for years – their model Kamilia. I picked her because she was giving this pristine and innocent look that I’m looking for. I wanted to go as far as I can from the typical veteran warrior look.
- Starting from a UVed base mesh and doing initial modeling in Maya to grab the basic likeness.
- Switching to ZBrush for more sculpting and getting as close to her likeness as possible.
- Finishing the sculpt and refining the UVs in Maya.
- Switching to Mari, Projecting and painting Diffuse and projecting XYZ Disp maps.
- Exporting the projected displacement map from Mari (surface XYZ map).
- Exporting the original Displacement map from ZBrush (Form sculpting map).
- Combining the two maps via a shader network in Maya. For that, I recommend reading this article.
Here are the combined maps in ZBrush brought only for preview:
The Suit: Marvelous Workflow
The clothing was done in Marvelous, using the base female body as an avatar. The girl is petite in size, but the suit was a bit buffy, so:
- First, I used some of the Marvelous Designer’s stock patterns as an underlying outfit, and I froze that, then I designed the suit patterns on top.
- I prefer exporting a Quadrangulated mesh from Marvelous, this saves me a step ahead so that I don’t have to ZRemesh in ZBrush and reproject.
- I process the exported Hi Poly mesh in ZBrush to define and maintain my cloth Seams and Edge Creases.
- Retopologized the mesh in Maya via Quad Draw.
- Created UVs for the suit and divide them into 2 UDIMs.
- Then projected the Hipoly details on the mesh in ZBrush.
- In the end, a manual detail pass was added on top in ZBrush.
- Now the mesh is ready for 32-bit displacement map extraction.
The Gloves & Boots
- These were poly modeled in Maya then detailed in ZBrush.
- Left and Right gloves share a displacement map sequence in 2 UDIM tiles, the same for boots.
- 32-bit Displacement maps extracted in ZBrush.
If you are confused, the helmet is actually a torn soccer ball. This is really when you get to appreciate the ingenuity of this design.
There is a nice video tutorial for their credit showing how to model a soccer ball, I used pretty much the same technique with a little twist:
- For the floating flaps of the ball, I used Bend and Twist deformers in Maya to introduce some wearing effects.
- ZBrush used for detailing. This is when I realized doing stitches in ZBrush is not a good option for me.
- One 32-bit Displacement extracted.
Don’t do stitching in ZBrush!
Most of the stitching was left to be done in Substance Painter. It resulted in two things:
- Saving me from over subdividing the mesh (you probably will have to go to 20+ million polys for each subtool to get well-defined stitches, which is a no-brainer for me and my machine)
- Giving easy control over the stitches’ color and material properties
Hard Surface & Props Workflow
The Weapon: Maya Workflow
- The weapon handle is curvy and for this, I used Nurbs curves and the Birail, loft tools to preserve the smoothness of the surface. However, If I’d do this again today, I’d turn to Moi3D to for doing this.
- The rest of the Weapon was poly modeled.
The Wicker Shield: Maya Workflow
One of the main elements in the concept is this wicker shield. This was done by drawing curves and generating paint effects tubes on them, this resulted in:
- Having seamless control over the size
- Easy to control the twisting angle on all the wicker strands in one go via the paint effects properties
- Have ready UVs for free
You can dissect the wicker shield in 3 components, for each you create a curve and then generate paint effects tubes on them:
- The outer Beam > This I started off from a torus.
- The Radial Rips > create curves for each radial rib and generate paint effect tube for all the curves.
- The Ring weave strands > each weave consists of 2 circular twisting strands; one strand goes on top the Radial Ribs in a sine wave manner and the other does the same but as the inverse of that sine wave. How’s that?
- First, I created all the strands flowing along the same sin wave over and beneath the Radial Beams, basically one curve and duplicating and offsetting it then generating tubes on them. Keep the pivot centered at the shield center.
- You can make all the tubes share one stroke via the paint effects menu >> Curve Utilities >> Attach Brush to Curves.
Adjust the Global scale – twist angle – Flatness – Brush width on the paint effects stroke attributes to adjust the shape of the strands.
- Then duplicate those tubes (not the curves) with the input graph on in duplicate special and just offset by translating them a bit away from their originals.
- Now if you invert scale vertically the newly duplicated tubes you will have the strands flowing in the opposite sine wave around the Radial Ribs.
- Now, you can manually cut curves and control their CVs to create tears and trims on the edges of the shield.
Grenades, Belt, Shells
All poly modeled in Maya. This is standard stuff, normal vertex pushing. I’m sort of a topology nerd.
Character Sculpt with Assets in ZBrush
Texturing in Substance Painter
My texturing package of choice is Substance Painter for non-skin elements. It helps a lot in saving time and you can easily see a live preview of the final image.
Substance works great for surface height details which vary in color from the parent surface. This character as mentioned before has multiple UDIMs, and as you can’t paint seamlessly across UDIMs in Painter. From the beginning, you have to choose wisely where to divide your UDIMs. But it’s not that of a hustle.
However, there is one note:
I get that Painter is procedural and hence it’s power, but you have to be really aware not to fall in the generic texture look that many painter users produce. The end results have some sort of a visual imprint that makes it easy to recognize a generic look of a texture and tell, oh that’s Substance Painter work.
To overcome this, let us do one thing – “Paint”:
- Put a paint layer on top of your stack and paint your additional details manually using various brushes and alphas.
- Use stencils, lots of stencils, either to paint color or edit the procedural masks that painter gets you.
Texture Export to V-Ray
I don’t use the presets, I rather prefer to export the maps and their masks separately and reassemble them manually in my shader network in Maya. This gives me maximum control over the look development process without the need to jump back and forth to Substance.
Sculpting with Light
The story is plain and simple, as for presentation I don’t use HDRIs that much.
Start with a simple 3-point light scenario:
- A key light: your high-intensity primary light, it defines your major light vs dark spaces.
- Add a fill light to slightly bring light to the dark side.
- A Rim light from behind the character to separate it from the background.
- Adding more lights to bring more brightness or specular effects to preferred areas.
To reach a successful light scheme, you should be aware that the final look is driven by the following parameters simultaneously:
- Light direction: move the light to define where the shadow falls and how its shape on the object.
- Light size: affects the intensity of the light and the softness of the shadow and the size of specular reflection. Small lights produce sharper highlights which may help define skin detail more.
- Light distance: affects the intensity and size of the shadow and its softness.
- Light intensity
Rendering the Character in V-Ray
Memory management can prove to be a real issue especially for a personal project at home with modest resources.
Due to the number of maps and their sizes, your ram might get overflooded and the rendering process would literally freeze as a result. The solution to this is the implementation of Tiled Tiff (.tx) Mipmapping or Tiled OpenEXR.
This is a process where you convert your textures into a grid of small tiles, so instead of fully loading a 300 MB map to memory, this map is divided into small tiles, each tile would be loaded in memory only on demand in rendering of a portion of the image, and then unloaded after finish, freeing the memory load for other tasks.
You can use nMakeTx tool to Mipmap your textures by converting them into .tx files, it works for V-ray as well.
For more info, explore these articles:
Luckily for Arnold users, in Maya, this is just a tick you place in the file node.
Eliminating White Speckles
During your render, you might encounter very bright dots that are stubborn to eliminate.
- Raising your samples is a start but not a total solution.
- Reducing your max ray intensity setting will help a lot but may not totally resolve all the points and it may cut away from the brightness values.
- Surprisingly I found that the type of Color Mapping method implemented, has a great deal in resolving white points, for me I choose HSV exponential or Intensity exponential as they work better preserving Hue and Saturation. Voila, all white points are gone!
Final Image and Post Effects
I really consider myself lucky to find people like Peter Zoppi, Satoshi Arakawa, Christian Bull and Chris Nichols at CGMA, who have helped me a lot to develop the skill and knowledge that I wanted. Their artistic and technical insight was deep and well-structured. Probably that most precious thing I learned with them is to know how to plan and analysis a project like this, manage my resources, design my workflow and select the right tools to bring my project or task to a finish. Also learning Mari was totally priceless with Chris Nichols. In the end getting comfortable with the wide toolset and techniques that are required today to do a realistic character was a milestone for me.
Creating Captain Blackbeard with Zbrush and V-Ray
Interview with Joaquin Cossio
Joaquin Cossio did a detailed breakdown of his Captain Blackbeard character he created as part of an online workshop.
Hi folks. First, thanks for stopping by! My name is Joaquin Cossio and I’ve been working as a 3D generalist for around 4 years. Recently I’ve been working as a 3D character artist for cinematics and games. I grew up in a little town on the outskirts of Montevideo, Uruguay, a little country located in South America. Once I graduated from high school, I wasn’t sure about my future, but when I discovered the 3D world I decided to start my career at a school called Bios. In my third year at Bios, I got my first professional job as a freelance 3D generalist for several local production houses. Working in a professional pipeline helped me to learn so much more. Over these years I discovered a tool called ZBrush which blew my mind and changed the way I did art. Two years later, I got my first project as a character artist at NIKO Post & Films. I had the opportunity to work in an amazing project for “NBA – Green Energy Team”. There I improved my character creation skills, especially in face modeling. Currently, I work as a freelance character artist for Plus Infinity Studios, a small Indie game company located in Colorado. I got a job there after finishing an online course at CGMA. Thanks to Pete Zoppi who recommended me although there were other amazing artists.
Once I decided to focus all my attention only on character creation, I knew that I had to improve my skills. After searching on the internet for a while, I found this cool course by Pete Zoppi (character creation for film/cinematic) at CGMA. It got my attention right away, not only because he was an amazing artist but also because I thought it was a great platform for studying. My main goal was to use all my knowledge from previous years and use it in a single character. Also, I found this course to be a good way to learn about the pipeline of big cinematic companies.
The first step, and I think is the most important one (at least at the beginning of any project), is to gather references. Usually, I spend one or two days in this stage, depending on the project. Looking for the good ones is a tough task. So, I use and recommend Pinterest because you can save everything in boards and come back to them any time. This way you don’t need to fill your hard drive with junk. After a specific concept or an idea catches my attention, I start to break it down in sections. Making your own references is an important point as well. If you have a chance to gather references from real life, it will be more useful than google research, for sure.
Used Black Sails as the main reference and another 3D references from other artists who inspire me.
Once you are happy with your references, it’s time to get your hands dirty. So, the first step is blockout, where you need to block the whole shape of the character without thinking through details. The idea is to get a good shape to start working with. At this point, we can even use base meshes to speed up the process but be sure to think how it will be used later.
This is probably the most important part of a character, so I spend most of the time working on it. I will try to explain most of the workflow to speed up the process and end up with a very detailed face.
First, I usually start with a base mesh, you can use your own or even download one from the Internet. It’s very important that the mesh contains the main loops and a relative low poly count, so you can work more efficiently (you can download my own base mesh for free on my website).
Second, think mainly on primary forms. I recommend spending more time on this part because it gives you the main shape of the face, also use symmetry at this point to accelerate the process. Try to follow references all the time, use anatomy books as a good source of inspiration.
Third, start by adding some asymmetry to your character, mainly on the points of attention, like eyes, nose, mouth, ears, this will make your character look more natural. What’s very important at this point is using layers. This will allow you to go back in case you want to change something, at the same time, it lets you use morphs to fix parts you want to modify.
Fourth, once you’re happy, you’re ready to sculpt secondary forms but the good thing is that you don’t need to sculpt it by hand because you have texturing xyz displacement maps. So now we need to export our model in a pretty high resolution to the software that you’ll use to project textures. In my case, it’s Mari but you can use Mudbox as well. The advantage of these maps is that they will give you a very detailed result pretty quickly. But I recommend you to check the tutorials from texturing xyz to get a better understanding of how these maps work and how to prepare them before projection.
Once the map is prepared we can import our model and start to project the displacement. I recommend working in the highest possible resolution your PC can handle. I used 4k maps, but it’s better to use resolutions over 8k, this way you can be sure that you maintain pay attention to the smallest details of the map.
Once finished, we go on to exporting the three channels separately. These contain secondary, tertiary and micro details, this way we can apply it as displacement information. In this case, I used ZBrush and as I said before, it’s very important to use layers with levels of detail, as shown in these pictures:
Next, we’ll see the character with all the maps applied and some other extra details that are specific for this character.
Detailing the assets
For clothing, I used Marvelous Designer. Added this amazing tool to my workflow changed it drastically. Now I can start with a pretty solid base and later, in ZBrush, only need to add secondary and tertiary forms. Speaking about that, let me outline a very short tutorial of how I export my mesh from MD to ZBrush. 1. First, select what you want to export. Just to keep it organized, it’s better to do it separately 2. Make sure that your particle distance is lower, around 5 to 10 is ok. 3. Go to file, export, obj (selected), save it 4. Once the export windows show up select multiple objects, “Thin” with “unfold UV cord” active and select “cm (DAZ Studio)” for the scale. Note: the scale depends on the 3D software that you are using, I always use the same setting for 3ds Max.
Once in ZBrush, import your model. As you can see, everything looks really ugly but don’t worry, we’ll fix it in a few steps 1. Make sure that your model has polygroups. If it doesn’t, you can do it very easy using autogroup in the polygroups panel, go to split panel and select “group split” 2. Go to the geometry panel and press zremesher, just leave it everything by default 3. In the same panel go to “EdgeLoop”, panel loops, select 2 in the edge loop slider, thickness 0.01, Polish 0, Bevel 0, Elevation -100 and hit the button Panel Loop. Boom, you have a beautiful shell, now just do a couple of subdivisions and repeat the same process for the rest.
Once it’s done, we are ready for add all the extra details, I used alphas from surface mimic for micro details.
On the other hand, for the Hat, I used a classical workflow. I created a simple model using of polygons and forms in 3ds Max, trying to follow the friendliest topology possible and always thinking that later I’ll apply a smooth modifier. Once our base is completed we proceed to create UVs, add some extra details in ZBrush if needed and export it to Substance Painter or Quixel. In the texturing process, you can play with different color variation, dirt, scratches, etc. These tools can handle a ton of details, so taking advantage of that we can use it to speed up the process. I used the same workflow for the rest of the assets.
When we’re creating a skin shader it’s very important to think on layers. Although new tools let us basically do it automatically, having knowledge of the process lets us understand the concept in a simple way. The challenge is always to achieve a realistic but pleasant aspect. The realistic doesn’t always look nice, for that, I recommend using different photographic illumination techniques, this way we’ll get more interesting results.
Basically, we only need to control the three main values of the material. “Ss density” defines the amount of scatter our model will get from ambient light (low values add more scatter), “sss mix” controls the mix between diffuse and sss material. Values close to 1 are defined as a material with scatter, “sss1 color” defines the scatter color, it changes depending on the skin tones. Playing with these three values we’ll achieve very interesting results.
We can see how the shader is created by applying the diffused color in the corresponding channel and using a variation of reddish skin color in the “ss2 color” slot. Adding more skin layers gives us more control over our final result, but the idea here is making it as simple as possible.
Hair is hands down one of the hardest parts of any character to work on. It’s always been a step that I’d sometimes decide to skip due to lack of knowledge. But in this case, I decided that the hair would be a very important part of the character because it’s a distinctive feature of his image.
I used Ornatrix for 3ds Max, which is not too easy to use, but once you get the hang of it, it becomes simpler. Anyways, this character took more than a week of work until I liked the result and the character was easy to pose. I used layers to design this character and when it came to working on the beard, I created two separate hair systems. One of them was the main form and the other was for “flyaways”, it let me get a more realistic result and was easier to control. In this same way, I created different layers of modifiers that allowed me to control clumping, frizz, curling, details, and shape.
The best way of presenting your character is to create a small story behind it, a reason why your character was created. It shows that the character has its place in space and time, lets people feel interested in our piece of art. It doesn’t have to be too complex, but it has to have a message.
It took me about a month to create this little story for the final render.
Lighting and Rendering
On the other hand, the illumination plays a very important role in the scene, since it defines the composition. In this case, I used a basic three-point technique, one warm main light (key light), one cold (fill light) and a rim light, also cold (back light). It’s important to play around with color values in post-production to draw more attention to the effect.
When it comes to posing a character, I recommend using simple rigging because it lets you get different pose variations without wasting time. I used CAT, a default rig of 3ds Max that’s very powerful and simple. We can use plugins that let you create skeletons automatically. We create the poses by references that show the situation that the character is in.
Without a doubt, I’ve learned many new techniques during the course. I understood many processes that I would skip before because I lacked knowledge. I learned that using high resolution maps lets you work on the smallest details and gives a big boost to your work, at the same time letting achieve incredible results quickly. Also, I learned new ways to create shaders, composition and illuminate a scene properly. I want to point out the incredible attention to details that Pete Zoppi has, thanks to that he makes your work evolve during the course.
I recommend people take this course if they want to make their workflow better and of course learn a ton of new tools.
Realistic Pharah Fanart
Interview with Serguei Krikalev
I’m Serguei Krikalev from Brazil, Rio de Janeiro, and I’m 30 years old. I work as a Character, Texture, and LookDev Artist. My main projects are in the advertisement segment in Brazil at IMGTV, 3Dar from Argentina, Ephere Inc., plus, I love to do personal projects.
Character modeling has always been my passion so I needed to learn something more professional, see how everything works in the environment production and how great studios work in that area. Peter Zoppi is a great instructor and he prepared me for what I needed such as building characters for an efficient deformation, UV mapping and its nuances, texturing, practical rigging for character presentation and others. It was simply sensational.
From the beginning, I wanted to do an appealing character. I started to do researches where I found the Pharah interpretation by the amazing artist Yi Sui and it was love at first sight. Her look caught my attention. I built a simple reference table (RefTable) as shown in the picture below.
In this work, I used a base mesh to gain time and only made the needed adjustments. The concept itself has already nice facial features so I only needed to put my touches based on a mix of other references. In the end, I always make a ZBrush render to see what I need to fix to improve and to finish my block out step.
The eyes construction is relatively simple, I used two geometries: one for iris/pupil and the other for the sclera, just like most artists do.
The main difference is perhaps in the textures and shader process. All my textures are made in Mari, at least for the organic pieces (I’m still integrating Substance into my pipeline) and with a big help of the Texturing XYZ maps I got amazing details. I made my Albedo/SSS color, displacement, and normal maps and exported them to Maya to make the LookDev. An important thing: Renderman is your SSS shader. It’s a bit complex to use at first but sometime later you will figure it out and never stop using it. A little tip: please, consider using the Non-Exponential mode at PxrSurface. For the blending between sclera and cornea, I used the PxrLayer Shader with a ramp to get the desired shape of the cornea. Everything has a simple approach and a lot of try and error.
Hair is always a challenge, but Ornatrix allows me to create it very easily. Actually, I’m an Ornatrix contributor and Beta tester from Ephere. The non-destructive and intuitive system driven by layers allows people with a minimum of knowledge in Photoshop to get awesome results in a very short time. Ephere has many new things under the hood. Worth a try.
Every artwork needs some planning and the hair part is not an exception. I start doing some annotations about the CG Hair I want to bring to life, put down things like frizz, clumps, hair shapes I’ll need and others observations related to it.
With the initial step done, I create scalp geo with UV ready to use as a base for my hair.
After that, I positioned the hair guides to fit the concept.
Here is one of my first render tests after adjusting my guides a bit.
As you can see hair takes time, so references and patience are the key elements here. Generally, I take a few days to finish hair and the results worth the time. Just remember, everything begins with good planning and collecting some references.
In 2018, before I took the course with Peter Zoppi, I finished another class at CGMA, Texturing for Film/Cinematics with Chris Nichols where I learned amazing techniques for texturing. So, when I came to the character course, I had a good background in this area and Peter only pushed up my skill.
My skin textures are made in Mari. In general, my first channel is the fine displacement because with it I can generate maps like cavity, specular, and use it as a channel mask for the albedo texture. I make simple projections for that and do some render tests to find possible problems and fix them.
When I am ok with the fine displacement, I go to my albedo maps using the same approach: projections and render tests. In this case, I did a mix of a simple color map done in ZBrush and my base projection in Mari to see how everything is going.
More adjustments for skin tone and some maps that do not depend on albedo.
This is the part of the project where you need a little bit of patience and observation. After some feedback, I saw that there was a certain need to bring the model a little closer to the original character of the game without losing the features of the concept. So, again, I collected more references for the original Pharah to compare some of the features and obtain the following result.
Marvelous Designer was a big help as always. The workflow is well known: first, we get the mesh in Marvelous, export it to ZBrush or Maya for retopology and transfer the attributes into Maya. The main trick here was in UVs thinking. Keep in mind the directions of the UV. This turns your life easier when handling the textures.
Here is my first pass after the retopo and some render tests for the material visualizer. Take a look at the borders and note that I need some work there.
For texturing this piece, I used Substance Painter. Here are my first texture pass and the render test. I made some annotations for render test, too.
And below is my final piece with the modeling fixed and texturing finished. You can see I inserted some wrinkles made in ZBrush to give a more realistic sense to the clothes.
Renderman is my renderer of choice. In version 22, Renderman was optimized so it is now extremely comfortable to use. Each version is more and more user-friendly.
Generally, all my render tests are made with low quality. This way I can improve some settings to see better what is happening with samples and antialiasing. Most of my shaders are layered and this is really helpful. Some lobes like specular and glossiness can be controlled with more freedom. Of course, good maps like showed above in the skin part help a lot, too. There is no secret in Renderman. Everything is well documented.
The skin is composed basically of three shaders layered by PxrLayeredSurface: one for the skin itself, one for the makeup (this allowed me to control the color and glossiness) and the other is for the tattoo. I always try to keep everything as simple as possible. Simple but effective. In one of the workshops from Disney, I learned: “Work smarter, not harder.”
Finally, here’s my lighting test:
Guys, I hope this was useful for some of you. See you next time!
Feel free to contact me for more details at:
Female Viking Production: Working on Clothes, Skin, Fur
Interview with Manu Herrador
I have been working in the video game industry for 7 years and I have been at several studios, such as MercurySteam, Virtual Toys, Playstark. I have had the great opportunity to work on such games as Metroid: Samus Returns, Spacelords, Agents: Biohunters, and Phineas and Ferb: Day of Doofenshmirtz among others.
Before starting my career as a 3D Artist, I worked as an illustrator and occasionally a comic artist. There was a time when I considered taking a turn in my career and began studying 3D modeling. A few months after finishing a Master of Animation and 3D modeling I had my first job at Freedom Factory Studios, working as an Environment Artist on the Kick-Ass 2 game.
Over the years and the projects, I changed my position to Character Artist.
In Search of Improvement
About a year ago I had the opportunity to stop working and take a few months off. I wanted to take advantage of this time to improve my skills and learn new methodologies. I found the Character Creation for Film/Cinematics course at CGMA, and it was a perfect way for me to improve because I wanted to develop a realistic character, away from the limitations that I had always encountered in the video game industry in terms of polycount, number and size of textures, etc.
I also wanted to practice anatomy, especially facial anatomy. To achieve it, I collected a multitude of references from both photographs of female faces and 3D models made by other artists that I thought were going to be useful to me. I also collected tons of references for the athletic body, clothing, armor, etc.
Viking: Initial Modeling
I started modeling the character from a base mesh that I usually use for my characters. First of all, I adjusted the proportions according to the concept and integrated all the elements of the model such as clothes, armor, hair, mace, etc.
Unlike in the video game workflow where at first you partly disregard clean topology in the high poly, this time I made the topology with the highest possible finish from the beginning as well as the mapping of the UVs that I did before exporting everything to ZBrush. Of course, there were several iterations between 3ds Max and ZBrush, since the volumes and shapes of the mesh were evolving and had to be readjusted sometimes.
Once I had the definitive blockout I began to sculpt all the fine details.
I dedicated most of my time to sculpting the face. In my opinion, it is the most important and distinctive part of a model.
I started shaping with DamStandart and Move brushes mainly, from a fairly low level of subdivision. As I was getting satisfied with the result, I leveled up and put more details like wrinkles and skin imperfections. After this first sculpting pass, I started working on the high-detail sculpting pass, in which I used several XYZ maps.
The method involved using the Spotlight tool, projecting all the details of these textures onto the mesh.
To be safe, I used several layers of detail, just in case I detailed the model too much, or if the details were very strong. If that happened, I could regulate it as I pleased and avoid wasting time redoing work.
Clothes: Sculpting & Texturing
Once all the sculpting work on the face and body was finished, it was time to work on the rest of the assets such as clothing.
For other characters that have pants, jackets or stuff like that, I normally would use Marvelous Designer. However, in this case, the clothes were not excessively complex, so I decided to work on them in ZBrush to advance quickly.
Since I already had a polished blockout of these objects, it didn't take long.
The only thing I did in this part of the process was to sculpt the wrinkles, some details like wear on the edges and little else. Most of the work would be done in the texturing part in Substance Painter, where I would put additional details like stitches as I have more control there.
To sculpt the metal parts of the armor I mainly use the Trim Dynamic brush and ClayTubes to give that eroded appearance to the metal. I also use DamStandard to make scratches.
Now, it's time for Substance Painter. For leather, I started by using a leather preset as a base. I modified it until I saw it worked well. After that, I gradually introduced new layers of wear and dirt to give it a more realistic appearance according to the character's story - she is a Viking warrior, and all the elements such as clothes, armor, etc. have to be dirty and worn out in battles. Some of these textures were generated using smart masks, others - made by hand to put all the details in the necessary places.
To texture the armor, I used a base metal material to which I added layers of dirt, rust, wear, and scratches. It had to look very worn out, dented and with many imperfections. I wanted to put a lot of emphasis on the dirt and have little glossiness so that it broke the shine and gave the armor a very interesting touch and dirty appearance.
For the footing, I wanted something that would fit the Viking atmosphere. I didn't want to spend too much time on this part, so I used resources that I had already collected before.
Once I rendered all the images I wanted, I imported them into Photoshop and worked a little on post-production by adjusting levels, saturation and adding elements such as embers, smoke, etc.
I knew that I had to differentiate the character's hair from the fur on the armor. The fur on the armor is more coarse, I imagine it belonging to some animal. It has to be thicker, dirty and matted. For shading, I used VRayHairNext hair material.
To texture the face, I again used the Spotlight in ZBrush to project a texture of a high-resolution female model.
With this, I had a base texture for the further development in Substance Painter. In SP, I corrected some parts and added details and tonal variety.
Before starting the shading, I set up a bit of lighting to see how the material works.
For skin shading, I used the VRayFastSSS2 material. I started from a Skin (Yellow) preset which roughly matched what I was looking for. Once I linked the maps of diffuse, normal, specular, glossiness scatter, etc. I began playing and adjusting values until I was happy with the result.
Preparing Final Renders
I didn't want the final renders to be in a T-pose, so I decided to give the model the same pose as in the concept. To do it quickly, I used ZBrush and the transpose tool.
Once I was happy with the pose, I exported the model to 3ds Max and prepared a new lighting set, the final one.
For the footing, I wanted something that would fit the Viking atmosphere. I didn't want to spend too much time on this part, so I used resources that I had already collected before.
Once I rendered all the images I wanted, I imported them into Photoshop and worked a little on post-production by adjusting levels, saturation and adding elements such as embers, smoke, etc.
Through the course, I have learned new methodologies and discovered things that I can take to my modeling workflow for games. When working on the model, I had to pay close attention to the level of detail because the course was for Cinematics and Movies, and in such characters, it is necessary to work hard on the details to achieve exceptional results.
Manu Herrador, Character Artist
Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev
Father Gascoigne: Cinematic Character Production
Interview with Charles Peckstadt
Halfway through my first year of IT studies I realized that programming wasn't really something I had a passion for. One of my friends was studying Digital Arts & Entertainment at the time, and looking more into it I realized this is something I could actually get excited about, as I always loved to draw. I enrolled the next year and that's how I got into 3D.
At Cyborn, I've worked on several commercial projects for apps and mini-collectibles as well as an animation movie (Dragon Rider, forthcoming 2020). Currently, I'm working on Hubris, a VR sci-fi game. I also teach Character Modeling in a one-year program for 3D artists at SyntraAB.
Speaking of personal projects, I just wrapped up an écorché study which I plan to use in another artwork.
I decided to take a course at CGMA because I wanted to push my skills further and take the time to make another personal piece. Skin shading was always something I was a bit intimidated by, so I wanted to take a class where this topic would be discussed. I've always preferred realistic stuff, so I decided that Character Creation for Cinematics course would be perfect for my needs. It's also pretty hard to get in touch with industry professionals like Pete Zoppi without having the feeling you're bothering them. By taking this course, I knew for certain I was going to get valuable feedback from the right person.
Father Gascoigne Bust
Choosing a Character
I'm a huge fan of everything connected with SoulsBorne, so after looking through some art books in search of a concept, I eventually settled on Gascoigne because he was not overly complex, had some nice details and allowed me to work on the full face, even though his eyes are covered with cloth. He's also the first SoulsBorne boss I fought which makes him more special to me.
When recreating the character, I tried to stay faithful to the game model and original concept but had to take some creative decisions because there was some difference between the two. Also, the game model is not super high res, so there were some things I had to establish for myself, like the material for the straps on his chest, for example.
Tools Used & Blockout Stage
The blockout was done in ZBrush, as it's super fast to lay down the basic forms and proportions of the character there. It's a good guideline for the clothes and how they lay on top of one another before jumping into Marvelous Designer. The face sculpt was also done in ZBrush, starting from a basemesh to save time, as it wasn't my goal to practice topology or basic head anatomy. For all basic hard-surface things, I used 3ds Max (sometimes, I make a quick blockout sculpt in ZBrush before jumping into Max, so I can retopo it there). I also use Max to lay out UVs. Maya is used for the scene assembly, shaders, and rendering. I also tried out some rigging for posing, but I have not fully fleshed it out as it's quite time-consuming. Often, it's best to just pose it with ZBrush Transpose Master or Maya's modeling/sculpting tools. The clothes were done in Marvelous Designer, except for some basic stuff like the hat and the shirt underneath, which I just quickly modeled in Max.
Below is the blockout mesh. The clothes are zremeshed after being dynameshed, so they're strictly placeholders. Other things like the straps on the chest and the necklace were modeled properly already at this stage because they are pretty basic and don't need a blockout mesh.
The face was a bit experimental. I tried to recreate what I could see in the concept and game references, but the picture wasn't very clear, so I decided to have some fun with it and do my own thing. Looking back at it, I maybe could have pushed some secondary shapes a bit further. I first modeled the neutral face and then used a blendshape to expose the teeth and make the character look angrier. It's nice to work with a blendshape because you can switch between the two versions at any time and try out different things to find what looks better.
The skin texture was made by following this awesome tutorial by Magdalena Dadela (the workflow consists of painting a large number of layers blended on top of each other):
It's a great way to combine the colors with your existing geo as you can use curvature maps to fill in the tiny pores and wrinkles. I also like to blend everything with some scanned face textures so it's not all hand-painted, but it's important to match your geometry details with the color, so don't overdo it and keep it subtle.
The clothes were laid out in Marvelous Designer and then sculpted on in ZBrush. I didn't really look up any patterns as it was a fairly straightforward coat. I just jumped in and started making patterns. When I settled on some basic simulation, I went into ZBrush. I was considering doing a manual retopo but in order to save some time, I used Zremesher with Keep Groups and Panel Loops to get decent topology.
For details, I added some folds and changed the ones I didn't like, then tried to break up the smooth edges so that the coat looked heavily used. The layer system is great for adding some smaller wrinkles and folds and still preserve control after that (although it's pretty buggy sometimes). I also used some cuts and scratches alphas to make the cloth look more worn. Maybe I went a little overboard with them, but they gave me some cool details to work with in Substance Painter.
I also used a torn fabric brush I purchased on ArtStation. It's pretty subtle in the final render but it gives some nice details to look at.
The look of the leather was established in Substance Painter as I have more control over everything there and can make faster iterations than doing everything on the model in ZBrush. I combined a lot of smart materials and selected the things I liked like specific dirt and wear or the basic leather pattern, and then painted on the masks to get a result that met my needs. After that, you can add more layers of color variation or details like stitches. It's also important to tweak the maps in your render engine, as it's not going to look exactly the same as in Substance Painter. It took quite some iterations to get it to look right, and the feedback provided by Pete was really helpful in that regard.
Presentation is usually done when you're getting finished with all the shaders and textures, and maybe already have a pose in mind. I blocked my lighting setup pretty early on and kind of stuck to that, but I wish I had done it differently. It's better to check if everything works in different lighting situations, so be sure to test your shaders and textures with multiple HDRIs. I didn't do that and as a result, if I now put my character in another scene, my shaders won't work well. I guess it was due to the deadlines that I thought of it as an unnecessary step, but I was very wrong and I'm regretting the decision pretty hard. Once again, be sure to test these things thoroughly.
Posing is another important aspect of your presentation. Characters in a T or A pose are very dull while a posed character looks a lot better straight away. It's the reason I haven't posted a full character yet and only showcased a bust.
It's really important to always keep the whole picture in mind and manage your time accordingly. After the course, I got a feeling that I spent too much time on sculpting little cloth details while not giving enough attention to the lookdev and lighting iterations. It's a tough balance to achieve, and you might fail in the beginning, so don't get demotivated if it happens. Look at it as a lesson and improve in your next project.
The biggest challenge was, as said before, managing the time according to the weekly submissions. I feel that if I'd spent more time on the project after my job and during the weekends, I could have gotten a better result. Finding a balance between my job and personal work is still something I have trouble with. The course made me realize this and taught me how to manage my time more appropriately.
The course also helped me enhance the workflow providing me with new tips and methods. There's a lot of valuable information in there, and Pete's feedback made the course absolutely worth it. Without him, I would never have noticed some things on my own, and I feel that I have a better artistic eye now. During the Q&A time, you could ask almost anything and Pete would provide an answer, be it related to the workflow or the industry. It was a very enjoyable and insightful experience overall.
For now, I've put this character aside to work on my écorché study because I sometimes need a little variation, especially when it comes to personal pieces. But I'm hoping ll be able to find the time to finish everything and come up with a cool pose for the render. Right now it looks like this:
Thank you for reading!
Charles Peckstadt, Character Artist
Interview conducted by Ellie Harisova
From Beauty to Beast: Face Transformation with Blendshapes
Interview with Rene Vidra
I started my career as a CG Artist in 2009 after graduating in Interactive Entertainment Design at the SAE Institute in Vienna. Back then, I had been working as a freelancer for several clients and projects, mostly in the fields of 3D Projection Mappings, Advertisement and Augmented Reality. Though I initially wanted to work as a concept artist, I discovered my passion for 3D very early.
For most of the projects, I was working as a generalist and functioned as a ‘problem-solving guy’, although I am specialized in rigging and animation.
Passion for Character Creation
I really love every aspect of creating a character but I didn’t have the opportunity to make them professionally yet, though I’m mainly interested in that field and want to improve my skills in that direction.
The workshop helped me a lot with my current job at that time, working as a Head Instructor for Game Art at the SAE Institue. I also participated in a similar workshop in 2015 with Sze Jones. It was a blast and I improved a lot during that time.
Mermaid: Initial Idea and Collecting References
There are actually a couple of reasons why I chose a mermaid for this course. Pete Zoppi recommended doing only a bust of a character for his workshop due to the amount of workload and the limited time. By creating a Mermaid, I felt pretty comfortable doing the whole character because I didn’t have to do any clothing. I also like the challenge of creating a really appealing and pretty female character.
The idea of doing a beast transformation came to my mind while collecting references and reading about the myths of mermaids.
It is very important to make your character outstanding and believable by giving it a short story beforehand instead of making all the decisions throughout the modeling and sculpting process. In my case, I wanted to have a young and innocent mermaid that turns into a wild beast the moment she is getting attacked or trapped.
By creating a reference sheet instead of just saving hundreds of different reference images, you can clarify in which direction you want to go and then stick to it.
It also helps to create several reference sheets for the different aspects of your character like clothing, haircut, specific body parts, etc.
To be able to rig and animate the face later on in Maya, it is important to have a clean topology. To save some time for the design process itself I started with a base mesh I’ve done before. I deleted the legs and modeled the base for a typical mermaid tail and added some fins for her upper body. It was a pretty straightforward process without any major complications. The hardest part was getting a feeling for an interesting shape and silhouette. A simple way to check the form of your character is to turn off the light in the 3D scene so you see only the silhouette and then rotate the camera around the character.
UDIMs are essential to get enough texture resolution. For the Mermaid, I decided to use 5 UDIMs, separated in the face, upper body, arms, tail, and fins.
Focusing on the Beauty of the Face
I decided to spend a lot of time on her face, focusing on the transformation into the beast. The main goal was to achieve a super-realistic face without losing a touch of style. I always tried to keep some kind of softness and saturation within the skin and texture.
In ZBrush, I mostly used standard brushes like the move tool to work on the general shape and of course, the DamStandard Brush to sculpt the main features of the face.
An important step to get realistic skin these days is to get sources of references and high-detail textures like the ones from texturing.xyz. I got one set from their website following Pete’s recommendation to use the ZWrap plugin workflow for projecting a plane to the face and bake the textures later on in xNormal - an awesome process to get highly detailed information to the face. You can check out this workflow in the tutorial section here.
Making the Transition between Body and Tail
Projecting reference photos onto the upper body could be done with several software packages like Mudbox, Mari, Substance Painter, and Spotlight within ZBrush. All of them do a pretty decent job, though every software has its strengths and weaknesses. In my case, I mainly used Spotlight to stay in one program.
One of the toughest parts of the production was her tail, as well as blending it with the upper body. I had several approaches to sculpting it in ZBrush. Unfortunately, I wasn’t happy with any of the results because I wanted to have a non-destructive solution to always be able to change the size of the mermaid’s scales afterward.
Therefore, I decided to solve it with texturing in Substance Painter. I chose a material called “Creature Scales” that I found online on Substance Share to get exactly the look that I wanted. For getting the best results, I created two layers and projected the material on the front and side via tri-planar projection. Afterward, I went on with blending those projections by using a Mask.
It took some time to get a good sense of the different sizes and the right transparency level of the scale layers, but it was an important factor for a good end result. After I grouped all of the different layers together, I created a final mask to paint in a smooth transition with a big soft brush.
Creation of the Teeth
To achieve realism for the face and later on for the beast mode, I also wanted to focus on the teeth to get the same level of quality as the skin texture.
My approach started with a texture projection. I did the sculpting afterward to have a general idea which brushes I could use and where I would add some details. In production, this method can save you a lot of time.
After building up a proper shader in V-Ray, it took some time and many renderings to get a nice result. Especially finding a good value for subsurface scattering is very important for a realistic look.
From Beauty to Beast: Using Blendshapes
My experience as a rigger over the last years helped me a lot to find a solution for the transition between the two states of the mermaid. I knew that a blendshape would be the easiest and fastest way to get the result I was looking for, due to the fact that blendshapes are just checking the movement of every vertex.
Usually, characters have some kind of clothing and, therefore, a separate head that can easily be duplicated for blendshapes. In this case, the mermaid was one single mesh, without any separations. Duplicating the whole mesh for every blendshape would cost a lot of performance and increase the file size. The proper solution was to separate the head from the body just for a moment. Then select the head and then the body. By combining them back together and merging the vertices, every vertex gets a new number, beginning with the vertices of the head. Now, I was able to duplicate the whole mesh and delete everything except the head without reordering the vertex numbers for the blendshape.
I exported the blendshape to ZBrush to modify and achieve the beast face. Using reference photos of angry people and studying the changes in their faces helped me a lot to get the final results.
Back in Maya, I added a blendshape node to the original Mermaid mesh and connected the Beast blendshape to it to make the transition possible. It is important to uncheck ‘check topology’ in the settings, due to the deleted face of the blendshape.
Adapting Textures and Shaders for the Beast Mode
To make the transformation really strong, I decided to take a different diffuse texture, add a blendshape for the teeth, and change the shader of the eyes.
I used Substance Painter again and utilized an HSV filter to adjust the saturation and hue value of my diffuse texture. Adding some extra features like veins and darker eye shadows helped a lot to make that beast texture really badass.
For the teeth, I went with the same approach and created a blendshape as well as new textures for the beast state.
To get dark eyeballs, I simply modified the refraction value of the shader for the outer eyeball geometry and changed the diffuse value to black.
Connecting Everything Together via Driven Keys
Now it was time to combine everything together and to create a simple control for the whole transformation. I used a simple NurbsCircle as a controller and built up a ‘range slider’ next to the mermaid’s face to control everything at once.
By using driven keys, I connected the blendshapes of the face and teeth to the NurbsController. The same procedure goes for the refraction value of the eyeball shader. The blending part of the textures was a bit more complex. By adding a BlendColor Node in the Node Editor, I could easily add another set of textures for the Mermaid's diffuse and displacement. Connecting that BlendColor node into the driven key system finished the whole setup.
Now, it was possible to pull the controller to the right and transform her into a beast. Of course, for a real facial rig, you would need to create many more blendshapes and controls, but for the workshop, I wanted to show the current progress and keep it as simple as possible.
Presentation: Preparing Final Renders
I already spent a ton of work on the character, so I wanted to do more than just some simple T-pose renderings. As a rigger, I felt it important to build up a complete rig that I could use for some animations later on. Finding an interesting pose and composition as well as doing a proper lighting setup can be a bit tedious. It is fascinating how much a character can change within another scene and lighting setup. Using some references again to choose a strong pose and composition led me to the following result. After rendering the final image, I did some post-production by adjusting the saturation, levels and adding minor details in Photoshop to achieve the final look.
CGMA Course: Feedback
I definitely recommend the course to other students. Pete Zoppi is an awesome instructor and did a great job by improving everyone’s work while keeping the motivation very high. His live feedback sessions were not only supportive but also inspiring to take your character to the next level.
Rene Vidra, CG Artist & Co-Founder of Utopiatree
Interview conducted by Ellie Harisova
Tommy Shelby Fan Art: Skin, Hair, and Fabrics Approach
Interview with Chung Jui Lee
Chung Jui Lee shared his approach to recreating the main character from the Peaky Blinders series during the CGMA course and discussed his skin creation workflow in ZBrush and Substance Painter, and hair generation in XGen.
Hello, my name is Chung Jui Lee. I’m currently working as a 3D Artist at IGG Inc. in California, United States. I’ve been working here for 2 years after I graduated from Savannah College of Art and Design.
I always loved to draw characters from a young age. At first, I tried Industrial Design during college, but most of the products I made turned out to be too cartoonish and character-like. Then I came to the U.S. to learn animation at SCAD and I’ve been modeling characters ever since.
I love learning new stuff, it helps me stay motivated and challenged. And I kept seeing lots of great artworks from the past students of this CGMA course. That’s when I decided to enroll and see what I can come up with.
Before this class, my portfolio mostly consisted of stylized characters. So, I thought it would be beneficial to add a realistic character to broaden my scope. My goals for this class were to understand the workflow of realistic character creation and to learn different software and tools along the way.
About the Character
Peaky Blinders was one of my favorite TV series, I love its aesthetic and the character of Thomas Shelby. And I thought Cillian Murphy has a very unique face that would be interesting to sculpt.
For me, this is a perfect subject for this course. The overall character is relatively clean and simple. I would be able to focus on pushing the quality and finishing it in 10 weeks.
For the reference, I used mostly from the show and some other amazing 3D arts as well for my quality goal.
I had a human base mesh that I can start sculpting from. After establishing the basic anatomy, I then exaggerated his distinctive features, like the squarish jaw, pronounced cheekbones, and his deep-set eyes. It’s always a good idea to start as a caricature first, then slowly reduce the intensity of exaggeration. I think this way is very effective to get the personality quickly.
Another important thing is to not go into details too fast. Focusing on the big shapes, proportion, and personality first. It will pay off in the long run.
For the clothes, I used Marvelous Designer with some detailing in ZBrush. The geometry is quite simple, just a couple loops around the parts that will deform and keep the rest straight and clean.
Before this class, I thought it would be time-consuming to produce realistic skin textures. But it was actually very straightforward and fast.
Here is my displacement map creation process: 1. Prepare the head mesh with efficient UVs → 2. Find the proper skin textures from Texturing XYZ → 3. Project the high-resolution maps onto the head mesh using Wrap 3D → 4. Clean up in Mudbox and Photoshop → 5. Sculpt additional details in ZBrush.
The same goes for color maps, I used a female head texture from the 3D Scan Store and overlaid the displacement map on top to match the detail. With some color adjustment and cleanup, I was able to produce high-quality skin textures in no time.
Creating Fabrics and Clothes Details
My process for the fabric textures: 1. Block out the color first to see the big picture → 2. Find appropriate fabric materials from Substance Source then modify it to my liking → 3. Procedurally create some damage and discoloration with the baked curvature and AO maps → 4. Manually paint final details to break up the procedural patterns → 5. Add fuzz with Xgen.
For the buttons, tie clip, and the pocket watch, I did the polygon modeling with Maya and used Substance Painter for texturing.
The hair was actually the most challenging part of the whole course for me! Even though Pete did an amazing demo on XGen interactive grooming, I had a hard time matching the hairstyle. I ended up using XGen core for the hair, I like its non-destructive workflow and the ability to control the clumping with guides.
My first step was placing the guides for the hair to follow. Then, I painted a region map to divide the long hair (top) and shaved hair (back and sides). I also had a density map for a smoother border transition. Once things were set up, I added the modifiers as the final step to shape the hair further. I used clump, cut, and noise modifiers for this case and just tried to match the reference as close as I could. I highly recommend Tom Newbury’s in-depth Xgen tutorial if anyone is interested.
As for the lighting, I always tried to find some good reference for outdoor, indoor, and studio lighting first. So, I would have a rough idea of what I want. I also did several HDRI lighting tests (Images are from HDRI Haven). For those, I just kept the SkyDome intensity as 1 without any other lights in the scene.
Once I found the HDRI I like, I added the 3 point lights system for fine-tuning. But I also tried to keep them integrated with the background. The key light is for sculpting the forms and emphasizing the character’s features. The rim light is for outlining the silhouette, hair, and also bringing out the SSS of the ears. Finally, I create some volumetric fog to add a bit of mood.
The biggest challenge is the entire workflow. I have to go back and forth with different software, and it can be very time-consuming. But Pete made it very organized and step-by-step, I understood the workflow quickly and benefited a lot from this iterative process. Also, I learned to be more patient for those dull but essential steps. Once I overcame those obstacles, the result was very rewarding and gave me a sense of accomplishment.
For my next project, I want to create a real-time character using the techniques and concepts I learned from this course. It would be fun!
Thanks for reading! Feel free to reach me at ArtStation or LinkedIn.
Chung Jui Lee, 3D Artist
Interview conducted by Ellie Harisova
Peruvian Woman: Creating Realistic Character Art
Interview with Neysha Castritius
Neysha Castritius talked about the production of a realistic female character made in Maya, ZBrush, and Marvelous Designer during her studies at CGMA.
Hi, my name is Neysha Castritius, I am 33 years old and I live in Germany. I learned the basics of 3D some years ago in the EAD academy in Peru. Some time afterward I visited the Cologne Game Lab in Germany where I did my bachelor of Arts in Digital Games. Today, I live in Cologne and work as a 3D artist freelancer, I have been involved mostly as an animator or modeler for different Indie game projects.
I have always enjoyed studying human anatomy by sketching and painting people in the past, particularly faces, however, mostly in a more autodidactic way. I have already done some courses at CGMA and I learned a lot with them, but they were about animation and rigging. I had the feeling that I really needed a boost to my 3D modeling skills since I wasn't moving forward anymore. So, I decided to take the course Character Creation for Film/Cinematics with Pete Zoppi given that it offers skills and techniques I wanted to learn faster and in a more professional way. And it was really worth it.
Peruvian Woman: Idea
The entire time, I had an idea of doing an older male character but end up deciding on doing a younger female character instead. I wanted to create a character with a Peruvian background since it is something that I haven't seen rendered in 3D that often, and of course also because I am ¾ Peruvian. I started by collecting a lot of references and then blocking her out in 2D and 3D. I wanted her to be a person from the mountains, with a mixture of traditional clothes and assets but with a rather simple look.
Modeling the Body
I used a human base mesh that I created some years ago. I separated the head/torso from the body and started sculpting it and reworking the proportions, often using the book ‘Anatomy for Sculptors’ recommended by our instructor. This time, while sculpting, I paid much more attention to details that I would have neglected in the past, like the ears or the shape of the head. After that, I started reworking the topology in order to have a nice and clean poly flow that would also be a good base for adding different facial expressions. For this process, I mostly used Maya and ZBrush. When I was happy with the base head, I added a subdivision level since my head was originally modeled for indie games and its polycount was too low. Then, I started breaking the symmetry, which is something I now find absolutely crucial but didn´t practice back in the day.
Substance Painter was mainly used to texture the clothes and accessories, it is great for quickly achieving very realistic results. But for the skin, I actually worked mostly in Mudbox and ZBrush – Mudbox for the painting and ZBrush for the sculpting. As a base for the displacement map, I used XYZ textures which are amazing. Then, I customized some alphas for the pores and added all little wrinkles with the Dam Standard brush or some alphas from Texturing XYZ. The scar was also easily sculpted in ZBrush.
The eye area was the one that gave me the most trouble since the base I got from Texturing XYZ didn't really match, so I spent some time working with alphas and smoothing it to make it blend correctly with the rest of the face. The base coloring texture came from 3D Scan Store, it was a great time-saver although the skin looked too uniform and unicolored. I added a lot of little veins and red and yellow patches to make the skin look more alive. A wonderful reference for the color and skin structure was Daniel Boschung's Face Cartography website. I studied the skin there extensively and had it always opened while I was painting or sculpting.
Raw base from Texturing XYZ:
Creating realistic eyes was something I always had trouble doing, especially because I have mostly worked for video games, and depending on the project, there can be a lot of limitations. However, for this type of project Pete Zoppi showed us a wonderful method to create realistic eyes. The eye is divided into 5 parts:
- The sclera that can have the tear duct attached to it, it has a mixed shader for the color and the cornea.
- The shader and the placement of the iris behind the drop-like form of the cornea, it also gives that volumetric look to the eye.
- The pupil is actually a face-inverted sphere with a hole, with the aim to look black when you look through the iris.
- The iris wrinkles were sculpted in ZBrush and the color was hand-painted with a multiply layer of the displacement map on top of it.
- And finally, a mesh is modeled around the opening of the eye, to create that wet line look.
This was my first time using XGen for the hair. I used XGen Interactive Groom for everything except for the braid which was made using XGen Core. I was surprised by how moldable the hair could be and how much the entire process felt like sculpting.
Nevertheless, I ended up starting the head hair from scratch like 3 times, the same for the eyebrows. I guess I needed some time to understand the logic behind the software but also to understand what the details that make it look more realistic are. I would say in my case, having small loose hairs and breaking the hairline made the most of the difference.
Marvelous Designer is an amazing tool to create clothes. I used it pretty early in the project, already in the blockout phase. The details for the knitted pattern of the sweater were a real challenge. Luckily, I had a sweater like that one at home so I could closely examine it and then recreate the pattern in Maya with a tiling technique. Once the modeling was finished, I imported the mesh into ZBrush and I extracted from there what would be the displacement map and AO. After getting the tiling texture for the knitted pattern and rearranging the UVs, it was then easy to work with it in Marvelous Designer. In Maya, the clothes have an XGen fur layer on top, to help break the silhouette and let the fabric look more like cotton.
Preparing the Renders
The rendering process was for sure the most time-consuming part of the creation of this character. Each render took between 8 to 10 hours. I used Arnold in Maya. The lighting was a combination of HDR images from HDRI Haven together with some Area lights to enhance the main light sources coming from the HDR images. I tried out many different settings, some would look very nice while others were rather boring. I tried to look out for contrast and rim lights if possible. I let the HDR images decide for the color tones mostly.
I would say my attempt at making this character look like a person from the Andes caused going back and forth the most. Since most of my anatomy books and references are more leaned towards a Caucasian look, I was ending up making her look more European than South-American for a long time during the project. Pete Zoppi helped me with analyzing some pictures and gave me valuable tips on how to make her look the way I intended.
There are so many lessons that I learned from this course, artistically and technically, in such a short period of time. I think that the methods for using Texturing XYZ were for me one of the most beneficial takeaways, and also the ways to create the eyes and hair. The course was tough due to the amount of new information but really worth it! And next, I am planning to create an old man!