The making of 'Kroenen'
Sergey Romanenko takes us through the creation of his interpretation of the classic Hellboy character, Kroenen...
The character was designed as an entry to the Comicon Challenge 2014. It was my first experience of taking part in such an event, and my sole purpose was to just level up my skills. I learned about this contest only 2 weeks after it started and spent the whole 2 weeks selecting a character. There are too many comic books out there for just one person!
I ended up with Kroenen of the Hellboy universe. He's not a mere mortal – he's a German WWI vet, resurrected with a dark ritual. He hides his visage behind a mask, and his body behind metal gear, which maintains the remains of his life force in the effectively dead body.
Kroenen is known for his love of melee armaments, but, as the contest conditions demanded to alter the character's outfit with the author's own design, I decided to add an addiction to flight and pyromania to his melee obsession. It was an interesting touch, and the steam-punk elements of his outfit were literally screaming to be transferred onto the all-new rocket backpack.
After studying a ton of references and taking a couple of concept drawing lessons, I started creating the first sketches. After wasting several hours, my only outcome was a collage in Photoshop and a simplistic 3ds Max model. Anyway, I'd developed an idea of adding the backpack to the outfit design, and later upgraded that with the Reich eagle wings and the flamethrower control system on Kroenen's arm.
I won't describe every modeling stage, because there are tons of lessons on this topic and it honestly didn't require a lot of skill – mostly time. In this tutorial, I'll just focus on what really matters.
I used the Human ZBuilder plug-in to create the character's body. It's a very simple and handy plug-in, which allows the creation of anything between a male, a female and an ape (well, just a humanoid with an adequate topology) by simply moving the sliders.
Modeling the outfit
The next stage was modeling the base mesh of the character's outfit in 3ds Max, and then exporting it into ZBrush and finishing the model. The model was significantly different after the sculpting process: a lot of imported details were modified and some created in ZBrush from scratch. Below you can see several sculpting stages.
During the sculpting process, the model constantly traveled from DynaMesh to ZRemesher and back, occasionally being modified in the ShadowBox. I used the Clip Curve brushes and the Panel Loops frequently, as well.
Retopology and unwrap
Commencing the work, I decided to create a mid-poly model and to texture it by baking, so the next thing was to determine if I wanted to do the re-topology manually or with the ZRemesher. My character worked well with the high detail, and I couldn't afford wasting too much time on applying polygons to the model by hand due to the tight deadline, so I ended up experimenting with the ZRemesher.
After wasting 3 days on experiments, I was greatly disappointed with my decision: the result was quite decent, but it would bring a lot of problems with the unwrap and skin. So I finally opened the model with TopoGun and began the hard work. To my great surprise, it was much less time-consuming than expected. All in all, TopoGun, with further adjustment with the 3ds Max, equaled a great result.
I then performed the unwrap with the UVLayout. I divided the model into 5 texture zones: head, torso, legs, backpack and a separate cloak texture.
I baked the maps using xNormal. The contest conditions allowed using an unlimited quantity of polygons and textures with any resolution, so I decided to use the 2,048 ? 2,048 textures. To correctly bake every element, I had to split the character into 59 parts. Normal, AO, curvature, vertex colors, objectspace, which equaled 295 textures in total.
Of course, manually baking so many textures would consume a huge amount of time, so I used my cunning. I loaded all the high-poly and low-poly elements into the xNormal, and then selected the required pairs, made all the adjustments, applied the maps, chose the name and save path, calculated the ray distance, and then saved my settings in the settings and examples tab, and saved the file into the separate folder for each of the 59 pairs.
Then I used Total Commander to find the xnormal.exe and pressed Ctrl+Shift+Enter: the file added to the command prompt below the Total Commander window. I repeated the same process with each of the 59 XML xNormal settings files, which also added to the command prompt. Next, I put the cursor into the end of the prompt, pressed Enter, and voila! xNormal baked all the selected pairs and saved the textures in the selected paths!
Next, in Photoshop, I gathered all the required textures within the one texture atlas they belonged to, using the File > Scripts > Load Files into the Stack function. Therefore, if I needed all the head textures (which included the textures for hat, visor, breath pipe and the head itself) I selected these textures using the script and loaded them into one document as different layers, and, since I bake into PNG, I didn't have to get rid of the background – all I had to do was merge all the layers, and the texture was ready! By the way, I also used the cavity texture, which I got from the normal with the nDo2.
This is my favorite part. My main reference with texturing was the DOTA 2 Character Color texture Guide with slight modifications. First, I built the layers and folders hierarchy in order (bottom to top), working through color, textures, AO, FX, light, correct and helpers. To clarify:
• COLOR – contains the layers created with the Solid Color, allowing me to change their color anytime
• TEXTURES – material textures (metal, skin, fabric, scratches)
• AO – the ambient occlusion maps, added with the Multiply setting
• FX – contains the detail maps, cavity and curvature, blended with the Overlay
• LIGHT – a diffusive texture requires light for an additional volume. I used the light from the Green channel of the Objectspace. The folder Blending type is set to Soft Light, the contained textures are set to Screen, and, if the light is too dim, I can fill the top layer of this folder with gray color with R90 G90 B90 screen settings, and, varying the alpha, I can get rid of the excessive darkness
• CORRECT – I created 3 layers in this folder: Overlay, Multiply and Color, and then I used them to add light, shadow, or correct the color
• HELPERS – contains the scanning and the color selection mask
Of course, I could have added some more scratches, dirt and damage, but the contest rules demanded that I present the character in the brand new, shiny armor, and so I did.
That's how I do my diffusive texture; the specular map is much simpler to do, provided that I base it on the diffusive, removing AO, light, and correct folders. I added an extra contrast using the curvature maps, stacking them as much as needed to receive the required effect. The blending type was Overlay.
Rigging and visualization
Since the deadline was drawing near, I decided to use the regular 3ds Max biped as a skeleton. After that, I configured a simplistic skin only using the Envelopes, chose the character's stance and adjusted the skin accordingly.
I rendered with the Marmoset Toolbag 2. I had only used it as a model viewer before, and I was eager to learn more about its possibilities. This program is quite easy and intuitive, and generally is a great interactive render, somewhat resembling a game engine. So, after placing my character into a certain stance and loading the model into Marmoset, I started configuring the lighting and materials. By my design, the character is shown at the moment of take-off, grasping the ignition handle – backpack engines are warmed-up and ready to start.
The lighting had a cold and warm contrast. The scene featured 3 lighting sources and HDRI: 1 cold filling light with casting shadows (moonlight) and 2 and 3 were the bright, warm light sources: the backpack nozzles and working engine. HDRI was used as a counter source.
The fire and the smoke were a montage from images from the internet, further retouched with several Photoshop brushes.
I used the Overlay, Multiply and Color correction layers to finish the character. Using a brush, I adjusted some light and shadows and strengthened the rocket backpack engine heat reflexes.