Hello! My name’s Sean Ferreira, a former language educator (English, French, and Portuguese for 10+ years), traditional drawing instructor (5+ years), and musician.
I've decided to learn how to use 3D tools in order to have a wider array of possibilities in creating what's inside my mind. As a video game lover, I've naturally veered towards the creation of real-time characters, to which I intend to dedicate most of my professional time from now on.
If I could say in a nutshell what the most important thing in designing a 3D character is, it would surely be... Fundamentals. And this will always be the case, be it in 3D, 2D, or any other visual medium.
I'm sure you've been told the same thing over and over. Wonder why?
One simply can't sculpt a believable arm if one doesn't know what an arm is made of and how it works. You wouldn't trust a surgeon who hasn't done his biology homework, would you?
It all comes down to understanding the foundation of what you do and putting in the work. Countless hours of work. The hardest part is getting started, getting to work. Once you're there, you'll keep at it. But you've got to get to it.
Anyway. I truly hope this article will enlighten you somehow!
Asra Of Yerevan is my latest 3D character, which I’m about to break down to you in 6 short steps:
Step #1 - 2D Researches.
In a typical production environment, the very first step towards the creation of a game-ready character is designing its concept.
This is the time where almost everything is still possible in terms of creativity, but it’s also the most defining one since the following steps down the line of production will depend heavily on this one. This means that one might want to make sure that the concept illustrates a clear and convincing idea before moving on to the 3D realm.
I’m a big fan of Dark Fantasy, so I knew from the get-go that that’s where I was heading with this project. Defining the epoch and genre at this point is extremely important since it tells you what type of character yours will be and what type of materials they’ll wear and carry.
As I’d done a few male characters before, I felt the need to do a female one this time, and I knew I wanted her to be someone nobody would want to mess with.
She had to look mysterious, discrete, and menacing. I spent a good amount of time researching and looking for as many references as I needed to help me develop the gist of my character.
I was heavily inspired by the worlds of The Witcher, Diablo, Dark Souls, and other titles alike.
Even though I didn’t polish my initial 2D sketches until my fingers fell off, I managed to get just enough information to move on to the next step.
Step #2 - 3D Sculpting.
Once I had a pretty good idea of my concept, I started sculpting its main forms using ZBrush.
At this stage, I’m still flexible regarding the volumes and shapes of the character, always searching for a good flow of the lines that connect each element present in the overall design, thus creating a fluid interaction of all objects in the scene.
Understanding the principles of design (rule of 3, contrast, proportion, balance, etc.) is key in order to give a solid and appealing look to your character.
Another art fundamental that you definitely should not turn a blind eye to is anatomy. I’m sure you’ve heard this before.
Trust me. You’d better not mess this one up, which can easily happen and be noticed by the more trained eyes. This applies to sculpting (proportions and structure) as well as posing (gesture). I, for one, am an anatomy geek, so to me, this point is definitely a crucial one, especially when it comes down to creating high-end AAA characters. Every detail counts, so make sure you keep your anatomy skills sharp.
I'm a traditional drawing instructor as well, and I do figure drawings on a regular basis. The more I practice and learn with this medium, the smoother my 3D sculpting gets.
The image below is a typical anatomy study I regularly do. I try to understand forms and shapes in 2D using traditional tools. This helps me with the transition to the 3D ones, even though both mediums are independent from each other.
I also like understanding what's underneath the skin and how our bodies work as much as possible, so I take notice of muscle names, origins, and insertions. But that's a personal choice. Many great 3D artists can produce amazing results without all this geeky stuff.
So I highly suggest studying anatomy in 2D as a complement to your 3D skills, as it sharpens your eyes through a more graphic lens, besides allowing you to do many more quick sketches during each practice time. In this case, go for quantity over quality. Go for mileage.
Step #3 - Retopology and UV Mapping.
Most beginner’s nightmare!
Retopology isn’t all that mean. It’s all about simplifying your character’s mesh as well as wrapping it all up in as fewer separate objects as possible in order to make your character light enough to be used in a game engine, which nowadays means something between 100K and 200k tris, or more for a main AAA character.
I use the Quad Draw tool in Maya for this task, like in most studios, but it’s ultimately a personal choice.
Quads and triangles are the polygons to go for this type of workflow. Yes, triangles. They are fine as long as they’re well placed, meaning not too close to a severe distortion zone. The same applies to stars.
You should be fine as long as your retopology looks even and as straight as possible. This will help riggers down the line. Also, some areas of your character might need more resolution, such as the face, so you can go ahead and add some edge loops where you want it to look less faceted, thus also preserving the structure of the high-poly sculpture.
As far as UVs are concerned, my goal is to straighten each shell as much as I can while simultaneously avoiding texture deformations. In other words, resolution is the name of the game here. Bigger shells mean more texture resolution, so make sure you find the balance that your character needs.
Another trick you might want to use in order to save space in the UV frames and get more resolution out of the shells is symmetry. Most elements of your characters are composed of two horizontal and vertical sides, so some of them can actually be mirrored.
This allows you to use the exact same space in your UV frame for two superposed shells. Even if you lose the details from one of the sides, once the character is in-game, it can hardly, if ever be noticed, and you'll have gotten twice as much resolution.
Step #4 - Hair Cards.
I decided to use XGen to create the hair strands of my character, as I knew I could get good results out of it.
Lots of references were used here, both real and 3D ones. This is the time where patience is your most important resource, especially while placing the cards. Also, you might want to sculpt a simple placeholder for the hair in ZBrush in order to have an approximate idea of the volume and silhouette that you want before moving on to actually creating the final hair.
Once I had all my XGen strands, I exported their geometry and baked the maps in xNormal (albedo, AO, cavity, and alpha). I tweaked the albedo map in Photoshop just so I had the color tones I wanted.
The eyelashes, eyebrows, fur, and feathers were sculpted in ZBrush using fibermesh. I then baked them the same way I did for the hair strands.
You might have noticed that the polycount of the cards isn’t very light. That’s because I aimed for quality above anything.
Also, since this was a personal project, I could literally do whatever I wanted. But of course, things aren’t the same in a production context.
Step #5 - Texturing.
Now, this is a very fun one!
Texturing is definitely my favorite step in creating a 3D character. You can literally paint and sculpt at the same time! It doesn't get better than this. Or perhaps it will in the future.
I did all my textures in Substance 3D Painter, along with Marmoset Toolbag 4 and its Ray Tracing technology, to see all the models in a proper lighting setup.
As one might be able to tell, I'm fond of details. I pay very close attention to them and try my best to interpret the real look of things into 3D. It's both a challenging and very instructive exercise.
Another piece of advice I can give is: start simple. That might actually apply to everything art-related.
When it comes down to texturing, make sure the base layer of your material is well established from the get-go, before adding thousands and thousands of layers of fine details.
Set up your channels (roughness, metalness, height, normal, etc.) as best as you can, first and foremost. If this step is nailed, everything else afterward becomes much easier, and you'll have avoided a strong headache.
Also, you don't want your character to look like it's just come out of the factory, unless it's supposed to, of course. It's got to tell you what it's been through. Damages, dirt, dust... Playing with the roughness channel is a quick way to add some interesting breakup to the clean aspect of your surfaces.
Imagine a sword that's been used to cut a poor man's limb off. It's going to have some blood on it, so make sure you down that roughness bar a notch. Think of possible substances that might stain your materials and how they would react with each other. That'll definitely make a big difference and add an extra layer of quality to your final work.
Step #6 - Lighting Setup.
In Marmoset Toolbag 4, I created a few different lighting setups for different purposes. I knew I needed a main setup to show the character in its entirety, another one for dramatic/cinematic renders, and another one for the mug shot.
It's super important that your renders don't look flat. This means that one should be able to tell where the light is coming from.
Adjust the light so that you can have both shadow and light areas well defined.
Also, you don't have to show every aspect of your character in every shot. Look for soft, hard, and lost edges.
It is also very important to play around with shadow shapes. Look for design in the shadows.
Well... I guess this is it. For now.
I for one have learned a lot through this project and had the immense privilege of receiving feedback from one of the top 3D artists in the industry, Igor Catto.
Big thanks to Game Art Blog for inviting me to write this article for the 3D community, and to every single person who's constantly helped me becoming a better artist.
To me, this is just the beginning. I'm just getting started and it's been super fun! Can't wait to learn more and more!
Let me know if you have any questions or feedback. You can find me on:
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