I made the Stego Soldier as part of an assignment in my stylized creation class.
Since I already really liked creating stylized characters, I wanted to challenge myself with a bigger character, which has both soft and hard surface elements to have a really cool piece for my portfolio at the end!
Big shoutout to the fantastic concept art of Nicola Saviori.
- ZBrush – Blockout, Sculpting, Posing
- Maya – Hard Surface Blockout, Retopology, UV Unwrapping
- Substance Painter – Baking, Texturing
- Unreal Engine 5 – Rendering
- Photoshop – Special effects and Post Processing
Reference & Inspiration
Next to the concept art, I was looking at similar characters as well as stylized anatomy examples for reference.
For this character, I needed a clear idea of humanoid muscle groups to get the character’s bulky physique and silhouette just right.
However, the biggest inspirations for this character are the characters from Crash Bandicoot. The shapes and textures are an especially perfect fit for the Stego Soldier!
Blockout – Character & Clothing
For this project, I started blocking out the body of the character from a sphere in ZBrush. While working on the blockout, I kept the mesh on a low subdivision level to have full control over the shapes and silhouettes of the character. Once I got the blockout for the body done, I also added blockout meshes for the clothing.
The way I tackled the clothes was relatively straightforward, similar to the body. Instead of spheres, I used a bunch of tubes and curve brushes for the belts. For the jacket, I first mask out the shape of the jacket on the body.
Then I extracted a mesh from the mask. At this point, the mesh is pretty messy and difficult to work with. To get a clean topology, I simply dynameshed all polygroups together and used the ZRemesher to generate a decent base mesh.
At the end, I deleted some faces at the top of the mesh to make room for the backplates of the dinosaur.
Speaking of those backplates, they were probably the trickiest part of the blockout: A dynamic hard surface shape with multiple holes.
Modelling them would take too long, but sculpting them will result in blobby edges. So, what do?
Here’s a quick rundown of how I approached it.
Blockout – Props
For all hard surface props, such as the gun, the bullets, and the belt buckles, I have used a slightly different approach. Instead of fiddling around with the ZModeler inside ZBrush, I quickly blocked them out in Maya.
This way I have more control over the geometry, which is both faster and saves me some time in the retopology phase.
I imported my blockout from ZBrush into Maya to use it as a scale and position reference.
Then, I modelled all hard surface meshes. Once done, I imported all new meshes back into ZBrush.
Now that we have all the blockout meshes, we can start sculpting!
Sculpting – Character & Clothing
My personal favourite part! Sculpting stylized characters is all about clean shapes, edge control and a clear silhouette. During the whole sculpting process, I kept coming back to adjust the silhouette of the character.
The move, standard, pinch and hPolish/trim brushes are almost everything I use.
Each shape should also have some thickness to it, to give it a feeling of weight.
Before going into detail, I make sure it looks crisp and readable. Something to keep in mind when working on the high poly sculpt is that I don’t want any unnatural-looking clipping meshes.
For example, in the blockout, I used multiple spheres to block out the head and arms of the dinosaur.
Now, before adding detail, I dynamesh all spheres together into one solid mesh. What we want is a clean transition with a highlighted line in the fold of the skin.
When sculpting, it is also important to think about the material definition, this is where the detailing comes into play! Is it a hard, boney material? Give it crisp edges and some scratches! Cloth? Smoother curves and some seams!
Just keep in mind to not overdo it. Often only a few stretches or dents do the trick to hint at the material. Orb brushes are my go-to brushes for details.
But keep in mind, Silhouette is key!
Sculpting – Props
To get a clean high poly mesh from the blockout, I first crease all sharp edges. Once creased, I add 3 to 4 subdivision levels.
Before adding the final subdivision level, I make sure to remove all creases and then add the final subdivision.
This will result in nicely beveled edges! Now that I have a clean high poly mesh, it is ready to sculpt on just like the character before!
The sculpt is done! Next step is retopology to achieve an optimized, game ready mesh.
Retopology & UV Unwrapping
Before starting the retopo process, I use the decimation master plugin in ZBrush to get a lighter version of the sculpt (around 1 million polygons). I then import the decimated mesh into Maya to have a base to work on.
Luckily, since I worked on relatively clean meshes from the start in ZBrush, I got to use some of the meshes as a good base, which saved me some time! I use the quad draw tool in Maya for drawing polygons on my decimated mesh.
I start by making loops wherever I can find hard edges. For example, around the eyes, mouth, and nose. Then I fill out the rest of the surface area and add poly loops where needed.
After that process, I optimize the mesh by deleting the faces that stick inside the mesh and are therefore not visible. This way I save UV space.
I split up the UV into 3 texture sets:
- Body 2048 x 2048
- Cloth & Assets 2048 x 2048
- Gun 2048 x 2048
For each set, I made sure to optimize the UV islands as well.
This includes straightening the borders of islands and mirroring symmetrical meshes such as the legs and arms.
Baking & Texturing
To prepare both high and low poly meshes for the baking process, I make sure that both files have correct naming conventions and the correct suffix.
Once the bake is done, I go back to ZBrush one more time to apply some poly paint. This step is technically not necessary, but I prefer baking the vertex paint as well to have a base to work on. I mostly do it to already have hand-painted colour variations on the skin and backplates.
Here, I start with a darker base colour for the cavities. Then, I add lighter colours to the more exposed areas such as the top of the dinosaur’s snout. I use a soft, standard brush to paint the gradients. I use a similar process for the backplates, but instead of using the standard brush to paint, I use the hPolish brush.
hPolish will ignore the cavities when painting over them, leaving them with the dark base colour.
I apply the backed map as the base colour and roughness as a base.
Now the actual texturing begins! Here’s a short step-by-step example of how I approach stylized textures:
- I first remove the ambient occlusion map from the Mesh Map channel and apply it as a fill layer instead. This way I have more control over the colour and strength of the AO map. Then I also add a slight gradient from top to bottom. Set the Layer to multiply.
- Push the shapes with curvature generators! I make cavities darker and rougher and the edges lighter. It is important to use hue shifts in the colours for that. For green skin, shadows should push more towards blue, while lighter colours push more towards yellow.
Generally, gradients are key. No need for high-detail texture maps. To break up some gradients I also paint in some darker spots for scales and skin patterns.
- Same process for teeth, backplates and hair. I start with gradients and curvature maps, then paint in details like the highlight on the hair or some stronger lines on the back plates.
- Roughness is important. Here, I use texture maps for higher-quality reflections. My rule of thumb is to go with the gradients. Cavities are rougher, lighter areas can be more shiny.
- Now to the clothes. Again, I started with laying out base color, base roughness and metalness. I use a mixture of different generators to achieve nice gradients. My favorite generators to use are the curvature, position, and light generators.
- The Stego Soldier is a rough guy, and that should also be represented in his clothes! I use the curvature generator for edge wear and paint in damaged spots in the same color and roughness. To give them more volume I also gave the damage some height information. Some rougher dirt spots are also a nice addition.
- For each unique detail, I had a slightly different approach. The stripes are simply hand-painted lines that I drew on the UV Island. The same goes for the patches on his arm. For the checker pattern on the bullets, I used a fill layer with a tile generator with some color and height information.
- The final touches were red emissive color on his eyes, around his eyes, and on his cigar.
The character is done, now to the gun! I textured the gun the same way I textured the Character. Base color, roughness, metallness, then gradients, and then final details.
Since my focus was on the character model, I gave my character a quick static pose instead of rigging and skinning the whole character. I used the Transpose Master inside ZBrush to pose.
The transpose master allows me to manipulate each subtool of my low poly mesh at the same time.I masked the parts that I want to move and place the gizmo on where a joint would be.
For the pose, I tried to stick to the concept as closely as possible.
Adding Final Details
To do the concept justice, I decided to also add the smoke and spark effects coming from the gun and the cigar. I recreated the smoke from the concept by painting it in the same style in Photoshop.
I then made an alpha mask out of it by coloring visible parts white and transparent parts black. Back in Maya I placed the texture on a plane, cut out the smoke effects and placed them where I needed. I did the same for the sparks around the cigar.
Last, but not least, I modelled some quick bullet shells, textured them in Substance Painter and scattered them around the floor.
Lighting & Rendering
All my beauty renders are real-time screenshots straight from Unreal Engine 5. This way I can prove that the character would look good in a real-time game as well. In my Unreal scene, I use a simple curved background plane as a ground for my character to stand on.
Once all materials are set up and applied to my model, it is time to set up the lighting.
Here is a quick rundown:
- First, I set up a Skylight with a basic HDRi. I keep the skylight relatively dim. All it is supposed to do is to slightly light the character from all sides and to create a soft occlusion shadow below him.
- Next, I use rect light to create the soft main light. The light is coming from the top left. The general idea is to create a 3-point light setup, but I personally tend to use multiple rect lights for more control.
- At this point, I try to get rid of all black shadows on the model to make it feel softer. Therefore, I have one rect light below the character and warm light from the right side.
- Last step: Rim lights make the character pop! Here, I also use multiple lights to illuminate the edges. Whenever I feel that a part character blends into the background, I add a rim light to separate it.
I do this for each render of the character and the props.
In the end, I do some slight color and contrast adjustments in Photoshop for the final product!
Now THIS was a fun project to work on and I am happy with how it turned out! It took me roughly 3 weeks and I learned a lot throughout the whole process.
I really hope that my little article helped someone pick up a few new tricks. Big shout out to my wonderful teachers at DAE for supporting me!
Thank you so much for reading!