Paul Widelski talked about the Persian Guard project and shared how the character was created, explaining in detail modeling, texturing, and rendering pipelines, as well as giving some tips for aspiring artists.
I'm Paul Widelski, Lead Character Artist at Splash Damage. My interest in games started when I worked on some mods for the Сommand & Conquer games. My first skill was learning to UV, as no one else wanted to do it!
I made some weapons in 3ds Max for a while, as I'm sure that's how a lot of 3D artists started. My passion for character art was ignited by the Mass Effect series, the character and creature designs inspired me to try to make my own.
My first break was as an Asset Artist for a mobile game studio before moving on to Sony Cambridge. I was brought on as an Asset and Weapon Artist working on PlayStation VR titles. I then moved to Splash Damage as an Asset and Environment Artist. During this time, I was always working on personal character projects and sculpting during my lunchtimes. Splash Damage saw how dedicated I was to the field and gave me the opportunity to be a Character Artist on Gears Tactics. Since then, I have been working on Transformers Reactivate and several unannounced projects.
The Persian Guard Project
I have designed several historical characters, and I always enjoy creating intricate patterns from clothing and jewelry, as well as the challenge of making an appealing character within some limits of historical accuracy. I wanted to do a project in Unreal Engine where I could make full use of its material system and learn how to light and render in it.
I visited the Epic Iran exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which was full of beautiful jewelry, armor, and clothing, which got me interested in the subject. I had also been watching The Heroic Legend of Arslan, which is an anime set in a fictitious ancient Persia, so the inspiration came from a lot of sources!
Finding references was a tough part of this project. I started by gathering images of people in costume or paintings from Pinterest. I purchased a few books about this period, one of the most useful was Persian Designs and Motifs. I must give a shout-out to Eran ud Turan, a Patreon covering early medieval Iran and Central Asian history, for their assistance in finding an incredibly useful set of books on the topic, as well as their excellent recreations of clothing, armor, and weapons, which served as indispensable references.
Regarding the character herself, I had a few lines about her personality and story that would influence her pose, ornamentation, and facial features.
Creating the Character
I started by doing a concept sculpt in ZBrush. The first thing to do was to create a base female mesh. I wanted this woman to feel tough and capable – she is a guard, after all. After I had a rough body sculpt (I would come back to polish it once the final high poly was started), I started creating blockouts of her clothes and equipment. At this point, I don't take anything to final, just enough so that I can move on to concepting the next piece. Here I also experiment with different styles of clothing and placement of equipment. It's the time to try all sorts of approaches and let you chop and change anything that isn't working.
With the head, I like to have a few sets of references. I will have a set of character/personality references that I think best suit the character, someone who fits the character but I don't want to just do a straight copy of. I have a set of Anatomy references, which is a high-resolution turnaround of a model, usually from 3D.sk or PoseSspace. Finally, I have a set of Quality references, which are high-poly and in-game models from games that I feel are of very high quality that I use to give me a bar to try and hit.
I like to start my heads as a dynamesh sculpt, so that I am not limited by the topology and shape of a previous head. Later, I will project a mesh with the correct topology and UVs.
I will sculpt and tweak the head through the whole high model process, coming back to it as I go through until I feel like it will start talking to me. I will sculpt in pores and wrinkles with brushes as a separate layer as soon as I can, so I can get a preview of what the final model will look like.
The hair was created with hair cards, and most likely the last time I will do so since the industry seems to be moving in the direction of using real splines instead. The hair card textures were created in Substance 3D Designer using a modified scratches generator node as the main input. Then, they were tweaked using guang's ffd node and later, blended to make hair clumps.
The hair cards were placed in 3ds Max and moved into place using 3ds Max's Freeform Morph tool, which allowed for ZBrush-like sculpting of the hair cards.
Hair card placement can get very messy and confusing. What I found helped is that I created a "debug" texture that color-coded each hair card type. This allowed me to navigate between the different types of hair cards.
With any armor, I like to make as clean a sculpt as I can in ZBrush and then rebuild it in 3ds Max. This allows for a very clean high poly model and gives me a head start on the low poly.
The headpiece is where I push away from historical accuracy a bit. I wanted to keep the style of a Persian helmet but also wanted to showcase the hair and face, while still maintaining a sense of it being part of her armor rather than jewelry. Therefore, I created a type of armored headband. I concepted it in ZBrush and modeled it in 3ds Max.
I modeled the feathers in 3ds Max and then baked them down to alpha planes. It helped me buy a set of peacock feathers for some real-life reference!
At this point I don't add any engraving or damage to these meshes, this all comes at the texturing stage.
Even though Marvelous Designer is the main way to create clothing, I still love to sculpt folds where I can, so I decided to sculpt the boots in ZBrush. I used ZRemesher's smooth-by-groups functionality to create a sculptable topology from the concept sculpt.
Approaching the Topology and Unwrapping the Model
I use 3ds Max for all my retopology and unwrapping. I will use polydraw to create the low poly, piece by piece. The topology for the embroidery is created in a way that the UVs can be tiled along the topology.
I will then unwrap everything in as large UV islands as possible. Since everything can be triangulated by the FBX export format, there is a very small chance of any Normal Map issues when transitioning into Unreal Engine later. I created a secondary UV set where the embroidery is tiled and a third UV set for the stitches.
Since low poly and baking can be a bit grueling, I generally like to start texturing something fun, like the metal armor. I enjoy creating multiple layers of grunge and dirt with low opacity, which come together to create a realistic-looking surface.
I like to think: "How has this been handled? What environment has it been in? How old is it?", and so on. I consider what story the material tells about the character. This is how I approach all other materials such as silk, leather, and brass.
The engraving of the metal was first concepted in Photoshop. Then, a clean ID Map was compiled in Photoshop, which was later imported into Substance 3D Painter and used to create the engraving.
With this project I wanted as high resolution as possible for the embroidery, which meant it was going to be its own tiled material in Unreal Engine. Similar to how you would use trim sheets in environment art.
So each embroidery pattern is its own texture set, and it is blended with the clothing Normal Map with some dirt overlays added in the material in Unreal Engine.
As for the actual embroidery patterns themselves, I designed them in 2D first, then created a clean version as an ID Map. This ID Map was then fed into a Substance 3D Designer graph. The outputs of this graph were subsequently exported to Substance 3D Painter, where they were properly textured.
Setting Up the Final Render
During the concepting and research phase, I came across Guarding the Palace by Ludwig Deutsch. This painting served as a primary point of reference for posing and lighting. I aimed to capture the sense of heat hitting the palace's stone and the mood of the guard waiting on the steps, suspiciously eyeing the viewer as they approached. I believe it's always beneficial to have a target render, such as a painting or a still from a movie, to guide the lighting setup and make it more engaging.
Due to the complex shader required for the embroidery material, I had to render in Unreal Engine. I start by putting in my key light, which is a spotlight that I would use to imitate the sun.
I would then incorporate additional lights that I feel mimic the sun bouncing around the scene.
Unreal Engine's Sequencer allowed me to keyframe lights in different positions, giving me full control over each render. I utilized this feature to add, move, or adjust the brightness of lights depending on each shot.
The final image was then brought into Photoshop with a simple textured border to give a sort of vignette. I added a slight contrast/brightness adjustment on top with a tiny bit of sharpening.
Final Words and Pieces of Advice
This project took longer than usual, around a year and a half. I would mainly put that to having a baby last year though!
But I also should have prepared the concept better. I spent a lot of time balancing colors and creating patterns at the texturing stage, which should have been done at the concept stage. For my next character, I am going to make sure I have a complete 2D concept with everything fleshed out before I go into ZBrush.
The biggest challenge of this project was getting used to Unreal Engine's lighting and rendering system. There are a lot of little issues that Unreal Engine presents, which can take some time to understand. However, in the end, it was worth it. This software's material system allows for some interesting shaders, and Movie Render Queue gives you full control over the render.
My advice to beginners would be, if you are confident enough to do your own concepts, then make sure you do plenty of 2D sketching and exploration first. Spend time finding good references and ensure you have a concept you are happy with before starting. It will save you some headaches later down the road!
Paul Widelski, Lead Character Artist at Splash Damage
Interview conducted by Theodore McKenzie
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