I shall do my best to explain how I approached the creation of “The Priest” based on the concept by ‘Changhong Lai’.
When choosing a project in 3D, I always want to test different styles and attempt unique & interesting concepts. When I came across this piece, I knew it was an excellent opportunity to explore both hard surface and cloth creation in a practical way and to also address my desire to make something with an Apex Legends and/or Overwatch theme.
The overall main focus here was to create a full character with somewhat realistic textures, with a focus on the waist up, then prioritizing the other aspects afterward, time permitting.
I had also been diving into the materials and effects area of Unreal Engine 5 over my last few projects. So it was also a great chance to create some cool accompanying stuff!
For this project, the cloth was manually sculpted, so I didn’t use Marvelous Designer. The following software was used:
- Substance Painter
- Marmoset Toolbag
- Unreal Engine 5
When making any project, it is wise to gather as many references as possible to help bridge the gap between what you see in the concept, your own imagination & real life.
While I attempted to source many references, a huge inspiration was Apex Legends and Overwatch. So I opted to use them as my primary inspiration.
In this project, I deviated from my usual approach, which would be to start from a base mesh or rough sketch and edit the proportions accordingly via head count.
The reason is that this started as a head sculpting exercise, and it grew from there, having enjoyed it so much. Once I’d made the head, I built him up stage by stage in blockout and began refinement in each area of importance. Mainly the head, arms, and chest.
Most of the cloth began as a sphere, which was then sculpted into a rough shape, just enough to fill the volume and generate the silhouette I was after. Satisfied with the look, the next steps were:
- Mask the outer surface and ‘Extract’ with zero thickness.
- Using ‘ZRemesh,’ clean up the topology in a quaded fashion to ensure a consistent density of topology for the high-resolution sculpting pass when further subdivided.
- (Also having a low poly SubDiv 1 makes for easier navigation in ZBrush and doesn’t slow it down)
- Having eliminated the volume inside, apply thickness via Dynamic Subdivision to procedurally generate the look I was after without committing to actual geometry in thickness until the end.
- The refinement pass included applying the thickness and then using ‘Slash2’ to make the worn and frayed edges and alphas to make memory folds.
- Most folds were manually created using the ‘Standard’ brush, taking reference from the Diaper, Pipe, Drop, Spiral, and Zigzag types.
When the overall proportions were met, it was time to go through each piece of armor and generate the refined piece. Using the head example below, these were the general steps in refining the metal blockout all over:
- ‘Mask,’ ‘Extract,’ ‘PolyGroup,’ ‘ZRemesh,’ & ‘Polish by Groups’ to get a clean zero-thickness mesh.
- Add thickness and edge definition using ‘ZModeler,’ Subdivide to add resolution.
- Use layers to add a buildup of detail with more defined control
- hPolish, DamStandard, Smooth Stronger, TrimDynamic, and OrbCracks brushes.
The first thing we are drawn to in characters, usually, are the face and then the hands to try to decipher their resemblance to a humanoid. Therefore, for the mechanical hand, I treated it like a hero prop and wanted to make it more detailed in the high poly to push the functionality and believability.
This was created with an initial blockout in Dynamesh of the whole hand. After the proportions were set, I then focused on one finger to get something that could realistically animate in a robotic manner. (Seeing if the joints allow flexibility). It was the same process as the armor using zModeler & Dynamic SubDiv.
Once one finger was established, these were then duplicated and scaled. The phalanx sections of each were edited to fit with human digit lengths. The thumb did require a slightly different design, so it was edited separately after following the same theme.
As a real-time character, I had to be conscious of the poly count, joint flexibility for animation, and optimization. Due to most of the armor being made using dynamic Subdivision, that meant I had a base for a low poly that could be taken further.
In other cases such as the cloth elements and the head, they had to be redone by hand from scratch. Maya quad draw was my main tool this project. Usually, I incorporate Topogun 3, but I decided to try and stick to Maya and see if the workflow was faster. Honestly, it was around the same!
UVs & Baking
Maya is my go-to software when creating and packing UVs. I’ve dabbled with RizomUV in the past but decided to stick with something familiar.
When processing 3D objects, it’s best to hide the seams of UVs where the viewer is likely not to notice them. More importantly, it allows tillable textures to pattern correctly in the texturing/rendering phase and not be visible.
So keeping that in mind, I made cuts and seams along every piece in select areas. 90-degree angles were made into hard edges thus splitting the vertex normal into two during baking. This meant no odd black shading would occur.
It is also important to maintain a constant Texel density across the character to ensure the same fidelity is consistent throughout the character. However, there are times such as the face, hands, and skin when we increase the density to allow for more information to be packed into the texture sets.
I used Marmoset Toolbag 4 for baking due to its fast bake times (even at 4/8k!) It also gives us great control over the bake cage. Multiple folders for each object/set baking group.
There are tools within the software that allow us to paint the cage larger or smaller in areas we need to fix baking errors due to back faces or colliding geometry. Exclude groups to fix AO and other artifact baking errors.
As this character was all cloth and metals, it was important to create enough variation in color, roughness, and damage/wear due to no stark contrast with organic skin. So I set out to make ~4 metals, a few plastics, and then 2 types of cloth with this in mind.
My process for all texturing begins with a focus on the Albedo pass. Color & Roughness variation is key to enough buildup and variation in surfaces and materials.
Items will tarnish, fade, bleach, and undergo a myriad of other degradations over the span of their existence. Each one contributes to the overall presentation, so layering these in stages is my main step.
Substance Painter has an excellent library of smart materials and textures straight out of the box, so it’s always great to pick one as a base and then start tweaking the layers I want/need & adding more on top for more buildup. I opted for some steel, aluminum and iron. All the metals had these layers:
- Color – Multiple layers with clouds/spot masks.
- Edge Wear – Using the ‘metal edge generator’ and ‘curvature map’.
- Anisotropic – an interesting brushed metal effect that adds some extra light detail effects.
- Scratches/Dents – Height/Roughness layers using built-in textures.
- Dirt/Dust – Additional breakup and dirt pass using the ‘cavity map’.
- Hand-Painted Layers – Uniqueness to all the above types.
Desiring overall material contrast, I made the decision to have a cotton robe with a synthetic hood. Luckily, there was an excellent base material with enough tillable controls to achieve the look I was after for both.
Afterward, it was a case of adding much the same as the metals before with these added extras:
- Dark and light patches are controlled by an HSL layer for blemishes, bleaching, and muddying. Tears, scrapes, and dirt/mud buildup are all hand-painted.
- Some small pattern noises over multiple passes with Overlay and Soft Light blends. Too much of this and becomes a mess of overall noise and blocks out much of the detail in previous passes, so use it carefully!
Weapons & Props
The Gun and Book, following the same full metal theme, reused the materials on the main body of the character.
I opted for a metal ‘digital tome’ to keep the robotic feel instead of a traditional leather and paper book.
This allowed the translation of the shield effects from the concept to be of a sci-fi nature instead of a magical one.
For the materials in Unreal Engine 5, I created a very basic master material to control all of the body and weapon materials. Having no skin or SSS, I could get away with not having any special parameters or calculations needed.
There are switch controls to overlay UVs in the ‘emissive’ section and texture set block colors in the ‘albedo’ section for the breakdown renders.
The VFX shield effect was something made before the character itself. The concept fascinated me, and I wanted to recreate it for some fun. If I couldn’t achieve this effect, I probably wouldn’t have made the full character!
For this master material, I used a surface, translucent, unlit material using only the opacity and the emissive inputs. It combines a hex patterning tiled and multiplied with a panner, which generates that holographic bottom-up band.
Overlaid on this is a Fresnel effect to get that edge color change. All of these are then multiplied with the shield pattern alpha for the final opacity output.
The color is also controlled by the shield pattern. I am using an ‘if’ node to generate color mapping using the grayscale values of the input pattern. In this case, black, gray, and white.
When A>B, it is the main color, when A<B, it is the border color. B is set as a 0.5 mid-value. This allows for more fine control and allows easy manipulation in an instanced material to edit the colors as well as many other aspects such as panner band size & speed, hex tiling type & size, etc.
Posing is always a fun task when finalizing a character. You model something in A or T-pose and then want to present it in a way that matches the mood and vibe of the character. In my case, the concept artist had thankfully provided many dynamic poses that made this part easier.
For this project, I used Advanced Skeleton in Maya and created a quick rig. I then had to paint the weights on the cloth and around the joint areas for better deformation. Once satisfied, I played around with his stance and found two poses that worked for me from the concept.
There were added blend shapes to have more fine control over some of the cloth collision and finger movements where the rig didn’t quite hold up. It isn’t one solution that fits all.
Being fairly new to rigging, I used this tutorial by Eric over on YouTube to help figure it out:
Posing your characters FAST with Maya Quick Rig!
Lighting & Rendering
For look dev, I set up a standard studio 3-point lighting against a grey-shaded ramp.
Key light, fill light, and a rim light. This brought out nice highlights and soft shadows.
I added a few extra lights after to highlight certain areas of interest.
The emissive of the character also gave a nice glow effect that aided in lighting.
The cameras were set to 16:9 Digital Film. There was also a post-process volume in effect where I manually clamped the exposure at a value of 10 to prevent any auto-exposure from messing with the lighting.
Due to the high-resolution screenshot feature being tricky at best, I used the movie render queue to output high-quality anti-aliased images and videos at 4K.
The poster shot background was created in Photoshop, and some final ‘Camera Raw’ touches were made to all images to make the details pop.
Videos were compiled in Blender after rendering out frames from UE5.
A quick head sculpt turned full character passion project in the end. Overall, I learned a fair bit and thoroughly enjoyed making it!
Finally able to fulfill that Apex/Overwatch itch. Getting feedback from friends and mentors really helped and when it came to rigging was invaluable; couldn’t have done it without them.
There were many new skills and techniques I picked up along the way, mostly technical, and hope to apply them to future projects soon.
If there is anything about the workflow you’re curious about, contact me at Artstation or LinkedIn.
Thanks for reading!