Making Of 'Deep Water Marine'
The first thing I needed to do was to pre-plan my project. This was important because my main focus was on my character modelling reel, and so I wanted to make the image work from all angles and be able to move. With these goals in mind, I firstly needed to create a rough concept drawing. I used a lot of references and research materials, which I found from the Internet and books, and watching documentaries was also useful. I left the concept (Fig.01) rough and simple, so that I had the freedom to modify it later on.
The first thing I do when creating a model is to prioritise the function and reason behind the work. That's why I focused on the effective line flow of the mesh in this piece. Evenly spaced polygons are your best bet! I don't use special techniques when I'm modelling, and since I wanted to animate this character, I had to start out with a neutral pose first of all so that I could then move it with my bone rig.
My model was separated into 3-4 parts (Fig.02). The first part was the deformable organic geometries, like the head, body, hand, and flippers; second was the diving suit and equipment; third were the additional accessories, such as the gun, etc. The key was to keep things simple and organised.
Once I was satisfied with certain details, I started to UV-unwrap my character. Basically, I grouped four different materials, so I unwrapped them separately (Fig.03). I used both native XSI unwrap and Roadkill. Roadkill is a freeware that you can get from this website: http://www.pullin-shapes.co.uk/page8.htm. Basically, it can unwrap your model automatically by just selecting the cutting points, and I use this as my XSI plug-in.
At this stage, I needed to take my model into ZBrush for further detailing. I didn't want to sculpt all the geometry I had; I only sculpted the parts that were worth being sculpted, in particular the deformable or soft parts (Fig.04). In ZBrush, I used an elastic brush to create wrinkles on the diving suit. The deformation in the tools option, such as inflate, was very useful in creating some symmetrical and non-organic shapes. It was important to pay attention to balance of the details; I didn't want to concentrate in just one area. I imported the diving suit's hard armour so that I could preview the overall look, when necessary.
With regards to the head (Fig.05), this was one of the crucial parts of this piece; the head of your characters will most likely become the main focus of expression, and so with this in mind I had to use references for my character. In my case, I used a Hollywood actor's face as my reference. I used different alpha and drag brushes to create the pores on the face, and you can even create custom alpha brushes for this task! I used Zmapper to create the normal map, after I was finished with the sculpting.
From ZBrush to XSI
Once I'd finished the ZBrush sculpt, I could then start extracting the normal map, using Zmapper, and the displacement map using Displacement Exporter. You can search the ZBrush website for a guide to using these tools - you will find it quite informative and detailed! I used a new low poly mesh that I modified from ZBrush, replacing the old low poly mesh. The reason for this was that, with the more accurate low poly silhouette, I could gain more accurate displacement and normal map renders. When I was applying both the normal map and displacement map, I always made sure to use tangent (Properties > Tangent) in the object properties, and I also made sure not to forget to freeze the model after applying tangent (Fig.06).
With regards to displacement (Fig.07), I made a way to optimise the displacement render. (My friend helped me to create a tutorial for this - the video can be found on his website at: http://darkvertex.com/tutorials/fasterdisplacement/). Depending on your object size, max disp. may vary; don't hesitate to test the numbers for something more than 10 - use your artistic eye! If it appears to be "blobby" then it means you've used way too much; if you don't see anything in the render then that means it's too low! We can see the rendering results in Fig.08.
Because I followed the previous steps in a specific order, I had the advantage at this stage. I was actually able to recycle the normal map that I created (or displacement), to create the colour map and specular map - and I could even correct/add more detail in the normal map itself (Fig.09)! With crazy bump, you can easily convert the normal map into a high frequency diffuse map (Fig.10). I used this map in Photoshop as an overlay layer, enabling me to get instant details. I always make sure my Photoshop layers are organised into groups, as this makes it easier for me to make changes or to add additional paint. I also use a Photoshop file for each material (Fig.11, Fig.12, Fig.13, Fig.14 & Fig.15).
Rigging, Posing & Animating
As previously planned, at this point I needed to setup the bones and the weight of the character, but I didn't want to use rigging that was too complex (Fig.16). Everything was simple as far as animating and posing went! Since my character didn't have too many polygons, it was easy to rig and animate him. As long as the rig is well organised, it will be fun to play with!
Rendering & Lighting
At this stage, I rendered my character in my favourite pose. Basically, I separated the renders into three passes: colour, occlusion and volumetric light. By separating these renders I could adjust the final compositing, either in After Effects or Photoshop.
The lighting technique itself was pretty simple. First of all I adjusted the key light, rim light and other light using a directional light, with the shadow only appearing on the key light (Fig.17). I also needed light to come from his weapon, as well as a flash light mounted onto his armour.
After my test renders and several adjustments, I had the final look of my character. I then took it into Photoshop for the final adjustments where I added the background, which I played with by experimenting with the colours and the mood. I love to create a stylish look, just like comic cover illustrations. I tried to search for free textures, like those from cgtextures.com, to achieve caustic dust effects on the background. After several adjustments and mixing layers, I finally achieved the end result (Fig.18).
Don't be afraid to play with colour style and materials! I always keep myself open to playing with the style of my work, as long as it looks natural, with a balanced composition, and is comfortable on the eyes.