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Real-Time Character in 3D


Hi, my name is Zhuyaj and I’m originally from the Bay Area, California. Currently, I’m a character concept artist at Turtle Rock Studios. I went to school for Illustration and Fine arts and pursued concept art in the game industry in 2011. I’ve always wanted to make a game myself but thought that I was a poor designer/painter so I opted for art school to sharpened that aspect first. Although I’ve barely scratched the surface of the 2D realm, I feel that there is some light of confidence in jumping into the world of 3D and finally doing what I’ve always dreamed of.

Start of the Project

As a word of warning, when I decided to take CGMA’s Next-Gen Character art class taught by Adam Skutt, I had no clue what I was doing as it was my first ever 3D character, and learning every app from scratch was a brain killer! All I knew was that I wanted to do fan art of the classic survival horror RPG released in 1998 by Squaresoft, Parasite Eve. However, it would have to be re-imagined in the current next-gen realistic style.

In the game Parasite Eve, you play as Aya Brea, a rookie cop in the NYPD who fights off a viral mutation that spreads across NYC. While I looked for a current real-life replacement for Aya, I researched current detective shows that portrayed a confident young female detective:

After gathering dozens of inspiration reference, I started the concept art. I made sure to take elements that I wanted such as the bomber jacket and jeans, and detective badge and a gun holster. Among the changes in the design was the badge necklace, plus I gave her an inner hoodie:

I made the concept mainly for mood and feel rather than likeness, and I ended up making the final character a bit older.

First Steps in ZBrush & Mari

In ZBrush, I started off with a low poly base mesh that would match the concept’s proportion and body type.

Next, Adam recommended that we do a ZBrush quick sculpt of how our clothes would look/fit on the body before going into Marvelous Designer:

As for the clothing parts, I did quite a bit of reference research to find the parts that I needed. It was mainly doing the proper research on the specific piece of pattern and then I started right away in Marvelous.

Exporting from Marvelous to ZBrush

The only issue I had was connected with exporting from Marvelous Designer. Due to the issues I had when merging and ZRemeshing, I used a method shared by character artist Yuri Alexander. He imports separate adjacent parts and thickens them by groups. Then he merges them all at the end.

By week 3, I had imported the simulated clothing from Marvelous into ZBrush. The inner parts of the hoodie which aren’t seen were deleted since they were unnecessary.

Head Hunting

Because this is a 10-week course that requires learning new programs, Adam asked us to aim only at getting the bust done. However, I was spending about 8 hours a day after work on this character, and even then I finished only by the 11th week!

To get the likeness I gathered tons of reference of the actress I chose, Lauren German. I didn’t want a 100% likeness, so I decided to omit certain features like the lips, jaw etc.

I divided the head refs into frontals, three quarters, and profiles:

Base Sculpt.

With pore details.

In Mari, I used XYZ displacement pores projection. There’s a ton of tutorials on dividing 3 main pore displacements into RGB channels in Photoshop, then project painting them onto the model in Mari. Afterward, you just export 3 Mari displacements back into ZBrush as layers, that way you can find the perfect balance in blending.

Hair Creation

For the hair, I followed Adam Skutt’s tutorial on real-time hair which you can find here: Realtime Hair Tutorial. The process starts off with generating Xgen hair in Maya for texture. As for the polyhairs, they consist of 4 layers of polyhairs in ZBrush. This was probably the most tedious task in terms of time. It took about 4 days hand placing each poly hair in ZBrush.

A quick Photoshop concept sketch to imagine the hair direction:

As I said, the most tedious task was placing hairs by hand and I felt like an idiot when I found out there were plugins in Maya that could do it for you… But I suppose there’s some love in it when you do it by hand.

In terms of heaviness, I wanted the hair to look good in final render so I had two low and dense poly cards.


For texturing, I used Substance Painter. Painter already has a decent library of materials that I can use for everyday mundane fabrics and hard-surface so I did not invent any fancy custom materials. I just used the premade materials and played with the variables to get what I wanted:

Basically, I used the method of making ID maps and then applying materials to each segment across all my garment parts. This jacket gif is a good example since it has several ID separations and Painter works really well with dropping in custom materials.

In terms of getting the final render to look a certain way (for example, the jacket), make sure to have metalness turned on plus anisotropic setting like you would for the hair. It allows you to mess with the reflections there and you can get some nice sheen.

Painting the Face

For the face, I started off with XYZ albedo map projection in Mari then took it into Substance for final hand-painting.

I painted the head specifically quite a bit because it’s a lot more complex than the garments, making sure that I get the main hierarchy of color relationships on their proper face parts and of course, some brush speckle for detail. I like to bake the normals and AO in ZBrush rather than doing a bake/export batch in Painter like with the garments. In the end, this gives me more control and subtlety of the face due to higher-res textures like 16k.

PBR Materials

The skin shader material was a tough one to get right, especially as it was my first time using Marmoset and trying to figure how everything works. It took many iterations of scaling the figure size in Marmoset and tweaking the variables in the shader plus post-processing to get to a decent look and feel.

I’ve attached some images of the settings I used for marmoset materials:

Rendering & Lighting

For my final composite renders, I made a screen capture in Marmoset with the rendering settings cranked up to the maximum. As for lighting, I went with the classic single spotlight with two supporting rim lights behind. I wanted the final mood to be dark and horror/thriller-like so I chose a proper skylight that would support that.

Attached image shows some settings for Marmoset lights and skin shaders:


I had a blast in the class creating this character and learning all the new programs and pipelines. It is definitely a step up in terms of time-management and technical side when comparing it to 2D art. I love that I can basically teach myself anything if I look for the proper tutorial and ask the right people. The only issue is that everyone has their own way of doing and approaching every step so it just shows how vast the field is. I believe I lost about a week of work because I couldn’t solve certain technical issues, but things like that are a part of the pipeline heartaches.

To be honest, I like that PBR pipeline is getting more artist-friendly these days and I hope to see it advance even further. When I was researching what tutorials could help me in creating this character, I found Frank Tzeng’s likeness tutorial on Gumroad which helped me a lot with sculpting. Simply watching him sculpt was all I needed to be a bit more confident with the human forms. As a character art beginner, I am still learning and gathering knowledge so I don’t have enough resources to share.

Thanks for taking a look and I hope you won’t be harsh on it! It’s my first introduction to 3D after all. You can reach out to me regarding any questions as well as 2D art since that is my expertise.

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