Kostas Chatzaropoulos has told us about the workflow behind The Evil Bard's Study project, shared how to speed up the texturing workflow, and spoke about what it was like to learn ZBrush from scratch.
My name is Kostas Chatzaropoulos, but people know me as KC. I am a former GM in 5-star and Michelin Star Hospitality, but I left my career to pursue my true passion, 3D game art. I enrolled and finished the MA Game Arts course in Escape Studios with distinction and I am now in the process of looking for a position within the industry.
I was the producer, prop and texture artist, and presenter for our MA team project, the Bioshock Infinite: London concept that was featured a while ago in 80 Level. I also contributed to set dressing, optimization, and final testing of the level itself, while also holding daily and weekly meetings, production notes, and deadlines.
My other personal projects are the "Jenova, a tribute to FFVII" scene and the "HALO, Passage to Infinite" scene which I created during my studies.
This was my final MA project, and the duration was roughly 16 weeks. Although I did have a final version, I continued to work on it after the MA deadline because I wanted to expand on my study and workflow knowledge.
The scene is based on my main personal D&D Character, an Evil Bard Tiefling named Emeritus. The thought of bringing to life the character's study room was especially intriguing and made it a passion project of mine.
I took various concepts from games such as Baldur's Gate III, Neverwinter Nights, TES: Skyrim, and many more from various artists around ArtStation, however, there was not a single one that I emulated or referred to. Thus, the layout and set dressing are mostly my own version, with a lot of trial and error.
For all my props and hero assets, I used various fantasy references: the books come straight from ideas in Baldur's Gate III, and the Double Axe guitar named Amarth (a tribute to the band and Tolkien) is a concept that existed online but was expanded by me, the banners are paying homage to my favorite game of all time, Baldur's Gate II: Throne of Bhaal. My references were organized in PureRef.
The main project target was to learn ZBrush. I started completely "green", knowing next to nothing in terms of the software, sculpting, or workflow. That required significant time learning, mainly by following the amazing tutorials from Dannie Carlone and Ivanna Liittschwager on how to sculpt realistic wood, metal, and stone surfaces.
About 90% of the assets in the scene are high-to-low poly models. I used Maya to blockout the meshes, then exported them to ZBrush for sculpting. I found out pretty quickly that the use of good alphas with the combination of different brushes (such as Dam Standard, Trim Smooth Normal, and Trim Dynamic) give the best-looking results. I started with dragging alphas and then reworked the assets, giving them a look that would be as unique as possible.
I then exported the ultra-high model on its own, decimated the mesh to about 30k polys, and exported it again as a mid poly mesh. That was done because Maya 2020 is not ideal for handling ultra-high poly meshes, even with a top-of-the-line workstation. So I did the retopology process on the mid poly meshes, something that speeded up my workflow in a very significant way.
Although I fined the tool, I found that the quad draws in Maya had some drawbacks even with Live Surface, such as verts were going underneath the high poly mesh or dropping orientation. So the way I retopo was manually starting with a simple plane and extruding the edge according to the mid poly mesh. This way, I could control both my poly flow and the orientation of the edges.
For the books, I used a modular workflow, creating individual pieces and then making combinations of them in order to have a variety of meshes in the scene. I analyze this workflow in detail here.
The same was applied to the desk, creating just the individual parts and combining them in Maya. There was a little bit of sculpting, but nothing major for this asset.
I then created all the complimentary meshes, such as the candle cap, hourglass, chair, and map frame.
As a final touch, I wanted to learn a bit more about cloth simulation in Maya and ZBrush. I created the "Bhaal" Banner and leather "Avernus" map by utilizing Maya's cloth simulation tools (such as gravity and shredding tools).
The rug was the last complimentary piece of the scene and was created using ZBrush via cloth simulation. I played around with various cloth brushes and used my tiling floor as the main collider. This created a nice, organic result which I pushed further in texturing, by painting opacity in the Alpha channel of my Base Color Texture, thus creating a tarnished, weathered look on the mesh.
In order to speed up my workflow, I created a bunch of smart materials in Substance 3D Painter, mainly wood, hammered metal, and stone material. I based most of my sculpted meshes on these, while trying different variations, ideas and individual painted touches for different meshes. This created consistency within the project, but enough variation to make everything coherent but not strikingly different.
The biggest challenge was by far the Double Axe guitar. That's because it uses all the different materials in a single mesh while having unique details such as the chords, the magnets and pickups, the blades, and the ornament intrusions. It was a very fun but challenging asset to create, especially since it was my first ever unique, high-to-low hero asset.
The most difficult surface to create correctly was the tiling floor. I did not want to create just a flat texture and put it on a plane and call it a day. Instead, I wanted my floor to have depth, weight, and significance within the scene. Thus, I followed Dannie Carlone's tutorial and created a tiling sculpted mesh, spend a lot of time doing a correct retopo for all sides of the mesh, and finished off with a clean bake and using SP with masks I exported from ZBrush (grout and rocks). I used some rock textures from Quixel Bridge but expanded much more within SP, in terms of detailing, blending, and height and normals correction.
Assembling the Scene
The composition was one of the main aspects that I wanted to become better at with this project. I've spent a lot of time in preproduction creating the blockout, utilizing leading lines and curves, and trying to focus on the main scene elements.
Since my scene is effectively two scenes in one (Weapon Altar and Study Desk), I set up four cameras in Unreal Engine: two of them framing the whole scene from a main and alternative angle and the other two focusing on the individual smaller scenes, showcasing the environment a bit better.
This allowed me to be able to focus on each individual aspect equally while creating a complete environment without having to spend too much time in trial and error in terms of angles, props placing, or tweaking. The whole process proved to be a huge time saver, so this is something I will be using a lot more in the future.
In terms of prop placing, I wanted to create little storytelling points, such as the magically floating weapon, the small dragon on the door, or the whole desk layout.
A lot of this also comes from my Bard character's background story: he originally comes from Avernus (the first of the Nine Levels of Hell in the Forgotten Realms setting), his music and spell books, his love of red wine, his passion for hard music and guitar tone setting – all of it comes together on the study desk with individual props such as the goblet and pitcher, the books and the tuning fork. Even the crimson hourglass is something that tells a small story.
Finally, a lot of attention was given to the "heavy metal" feel of the scene. I created a Blueprint Spline for my chains that controls the tangents, just so I am able to control the spline mesh and create individuality without breaking the geometry.
Lighting was one of the very first things I wanted to tackle through preproduction. I collected loads of references from games such as Diablo, Skyrim, Baldur's Gate III, and other dark fantasy projects and artwork, in order to be able to have the correct approach for the hazy, warm night feel I wanted for my scene.
One of the major decisions for the project was to use the RTXGI, NVIDIA Denoiser, and DLSS plugins for UE4.27, as I wanted to expand my understanding of ray tracing within a game engine environment.
My lighting setup went hand-in-hand with my composition, identifying the main light source (key light) which was the fire altar. The color palette of the scene is predominantly red, with a complimentary blue tone provided by the night light that's coming through the window. Finally, carefully placed candle lights finish off the environment with deep orange tones, giving attention and depth to individual parts of the scene, such as the books and the desk.
The God Ray material was borrowed from the famous "Infiltrator" UE4 demo and expanded upon with various tweaks in speed and color variation.
Finally, post-processing played a huge role in setting the mood, with a light bloom effect covering the scene, along with a touch of chromatic aberration. I controlled the overall coloring by reducing the saturation to 0.9 and setting the contrast to 1.1, thus pushing the fantasy tone a bit more. The shadows have a touch of a blue tint, with my mid-tones getting a little bit of orange. Finally, Ray Traced Ambient Occlusion is enabled in order to take advantage of the RTXGI.
A huge realization was the fact that correct PBR values are absolutely essential in order for the light to behave properly. One of the mistakes I did in the beginning was not taking into consideration the base materials and post-process for my scene lighting. Something that made me do a complete re-light of the scene mid-project. The help of my fellow classmate and friend Matthew Lamb proved invaluable, guiding me through ideas and tools that I will be able to use in future projects.
The main challenge of the scene was learning ZBrush on the fly, along with composition and light setup. As this was an original project, not based on any particular concept, It was quite hard to make sure that everything worked and that the scene was a complete and detailed project.
Time was also a challenge. Although I did stretch the duration of the project due to various reasons, I wanted to make sure that I hit my main goals, something which I am glad I did. Learning ZBrush from scratch is a challenge itself, not to mention utilizing high-to-low workflows and making sure that everything was created in a performant, high-quality way.
However, with all the help and feedback I had from sources such as DiNusty Empire Discord, the Beyond Extend Community, and The Club Discord, along with various individual professionals and friends through Twitter, I managed to create a scene that I am fairly proud of.
The main advice I can give to anyone that wants to follow this path is pretty simple: be hungry, be humble. Learning 3D for games is a monumental task that is constantly evolving. The most important aspect of this journey is goal setting and perseverance: consistency is absolutely key, even on a bad day. Make sure you set realistic goals, identify points of growth and strengths, follow your deadlines, and stay the course. I cannot tell you how many times I've thought to myself "You are not good enough", but that is fuel to the fire. Being a 3D artist is a passion first and foremost, and you have to be ready to do everything it takes to fulfill that passion.
And most of all, have fun! This is creativity at its finest, being able to put the work in to create an idea into a tangible, real result that people can look upon or play and immerse themselves into. It's the best feeling in the world!
As a final note, I want to thank the following people for helping me throughout my 3d journey: Chris Avigni (Escape Studios tutor) and Emanuele Celli (Double 11), Matt Lamb, Jeremy "DiNusty" Estrellado (Ubi Massive), Joe Hobbs (Ubi Annecy), Ioanna Oprisan, "Paulygonn", John Hannon and the rest of my Twitter artists and friends.
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