Creating a Stylized Character in ZBrush, Maya, and Substance Painter

Introduction

Hi, my name is Yulia Sokolova, I’m a 2D/3D Character Artist working in game development. In this tutorial I’d like to demonstrate my pipeline for creating a real-time Samurai character, based on the original concept by Kati Sarin S. I’ll be using a wide range of software, such as ZBrush, Maya, Substance Painter, and Marmoset.

Creating a stylized character in ZBrush, Maya, and Substance Painter

References and mood board

When I started out this project, I already had a clear idea of what I was going to make (thanks to the concept by Kati) and how it would look in terms of style and color. But in any case, I needed to find some useful references for the anatomy and especially for the clothes, since I was a bit concerned about the kimono with all its complex folds. I didn’t want to use any cloth simulation package like Marvelous Designer as I wanted to keep things simple, but I needed to realize how the folds are formed; how and where the cloth is stretching. I usually use Pinterest and Google to collect any kind of images that I might need. I drag and drop everything into PureRef, creating multiple mood boards for every new project.

References and mood board in PureRef

The important thing here is not to give up. Use your references, find weak spots and fix them. At some point, the model will start looking better and better, just keep going

Blocking out in ZBrush

I didn’t have any deadlines for this project as I was making it for my portfolio, so I was free from any boundaries and I decided not to use any readymade base meshes. I started my block out from a dynameshed sphere and was adding more spheres for the arms, legs and everything else, using the Insert Sphere Brush. This way, I was able to play with shapes and proportions while practicing the anatomy.

Starting out from scratch is always a challenge, because at the beginning everything looks messy and not appealing at all. The important thing here is not to give up. Use your references, find weak spots and fix them. At some point, the model will start looking better and better, just keep going.

I’m using the most basic tools during the block out stage. Those are the Move Brush, Clay Buildup Brush, Dam Standard Brush, Pinch, and Inflate. Apart from that, I’m using masks and polygroups and trying to keep the topology as low as possible so that it’s easier to manipulate the shapes and move the things around.

Blocking out in ZBrush

Sculpting clothes in ZBrush

I duplicate the body mesh to block out the skin-tight clothes, such as this garment. I simply select the desired part with the Select Lasso tool and then Delete Hidden to get rid of the unneeded geometry. I can make some parts thicker by using the ZModeler tool with its Extrude function that can be applied to separate polys or polygroup islands.

Sculpting clothes in ZBrush

Modeling a Kimono in ZBrush

The process of modeling the bulky clothes, such as this kimono, is pretty much the same at the beginning. I’m making the initial block out either from the body mesh or using the Topology Brush to draw out the silhouette right on the body mesh as well.

Then I’m using the Move Brush to pull the mesh, extending the sleeves and the bottom part until I have a nicely defined silhouette. Notice that at this step I’m still working on the lowest subdivision. Once I’m happy with the silhouette, I add thickness using the Panel Loops. You can find them in the EdgeLoop tab which is located in the Geometry menu. I’m also creasing the edges so that everything remains sharp enough when I’ll be adding more Subdivisions.

Finally, I’m using the Orb_Cracks brush by Michael Vicente (Orb) to create stylized folds. This part is fun and challenging at the same time as I need to keep a balance between large, medium, and small details without going too much into realism. I try to keep the folds as simple as I can, constantly referring to the mood board of the images that I collected earlier.

Modeling a kimono in ZBrush

Polypainting in ZBrush

Sometimes this step may be a waste of time when working with tight deadlines, but for the personal projects, I prefer to add colors to my characters in ZBrush to see how it works altogether. I won’t be exporting these colors or utilizing them further as textures, but I really enjoy using the Polypaint function for the initial color blockout as it is very fast and convenient. Just switch your Brush to the RGB mode and move the control sliders to adjust the opacity, intensity, and softness of your strokes.

Polypainting in ZBrush

Retopology in Maya

Maya is my tool of choice for retopology. I also use it for hard surface modeling and UV mapping, too, as it is much easier to be able to do everything in one program without having to jump between various packages.

Before I start making a low-poly, I decimate everything in ZBrush since Maya is a bit slow when handling millions of polygons. I also uncheck the Export Sub Groups button in ZBrush so that it doesn’t convert every polygroup into a separate piece of geometry.

After importing a high-poly object into Maya, I enable the Make Live feature in the control panel on top to convert the object into a Live Surface. Now I can create a new geometry on top of it, using the Quad Draw function from the Modeling Toolkit menu.

Retopology in Maya

Exploding the mesh for baking

Before taking my model to Substance Painter, I use an old trick in Maya that would help me to avoid errors in shadows when baking. I create a simple two-frame animation and separate all the overlapping parts of the mesh (don’t forget to do it for both the high-poly and the low-poly versions of your character, so that they have the same position!). I press S on the keyboard to save this position of the objects on the timeline. This way I have one keyframe for the combined mesh and another keyframe for the separate pieces.

Exploding the mesh for baking

Baking and texturing in Substance Painter

After setting up a new file with Metallic-Roughness template in Substance Painter, I bake all the maps on the exploded version of the mesh and then I replace it with the combined one in Edit > Project Configuration.

I toggle through all the maps to check if everything is clean and then start texturing. This is my favorite step (along with sculpting the high-poly) as it gives a lot of creative freedom. Substance Painter has dozens of tools and features that are great for both realistic and stylized textures. In this project, I use its PBR functions as I want to play with the dynamic lighting and have my materials look more like their real-life references (i.e. I’m using a Weave texture for the cloth, Metallic/Roughness parameters for metal parts and so on).

I’m using a lot of Fill Layers with masks which make the painting process much more flexible as I can easily adjust the colors and other layer parameters for each element.

Baking and texturing in Substance Painter

Posing and rigging in Maya

Sometimes I pose my models in ZBrush using the Transpose Master. However, this time I am concerned about the skin weights and textures since I am making a real-time model which is supposed to be animated. So I decide to set up a simple rig in Maya just for posing and presentation purposes. The HumanIK feature in Maya allows you to bind a ready-made skeleton to your mesh. If you want to try something simple, check out this rigging tutorial by 3dEx, it is easy to follow.

Posing and rigging in Maya

Final presentation in Marmoset Toolbag

When all the textures are ready and exported, I take everything into Marmoset Toolbag. I enjoy rendering in this program, because it handles low poly and high poly meshes smoothly, rendering both at high speed and in real time.

I adjust the shaders, set the lights and check how everything looks altogether. I use a set of cameras for the full-body and close-up scenes of my model, this helps to show it from all angles and build a balanced composition.

If you’d like to know more about the in-depth process of rendering in Marmoset, check out my article at the Marmoset website where I show my settings step by step. You can also do all the post-processing and color-correction work right in the Toolbag, but I prefer Photoshop as I can also place some additional elements on the background to make the image look more eye-catching and complete.

This is pretty much it for my process of a stylized character creation! I hope you’ve discovered some useful tips and tricks that might be helpful for your future projects. Thank you for reading!

Final presentation in Marmoset Toolbag

Samurai stylized character real-time model

Fetching comments...

Post a comment