Manuel Arjones talks about becoming a self-taught 3D artist, discusses the process of creating the Soulflame Cutlass, and explains how the mysterious turquoise ghostly glow effect was achieved.
My name is Manuel and I’m a self-taught artist focused on 3D. I’ve been always doing illustration and concept art and had never tried 3D before because I was afraid of the complexity around it. After 2020’s lockdown came into our lives, around past July, I decided to give it a try and I realized that I loved it! I’ve been really focused since I started, working hard, honing my skills, and learning new things every day with no exception.
I’m not working in the game industry right now, but I’d love to and that’s why I’m sending applications every day to every company around the world that has an open position that fits me. Meanwhile, I’m still doing my personal projects, now making a transition from props to environment art.
Working on the Sea Of Thieves Soulflame Cutlass
It all started with the E3 presentation of the new Sea of Thieves DLC in collaboration with Disney. It blew my mind because it was something that the community had been asking for for a long time. That night I was so excited that I decided to make my in-game sword, took some pictures from the game, and started to work on it!
The only concepts I used were in-game captures of the sword and the measures of a real cutlass. I didn’t want too many references, I wanted to recreate the sword as it is. I wanted to focus on a stylized and yet more realistic cutlass than the one that was in the game. Also, it was important to me to recreate the particle VFX to make it more believable and stunning.
Modeling the blockout was really easy. It took me around 1 hour since the model is quite simple. I only used primitives and the Knife tool. The most tricky part probably was the handle. I needed to prepare the blockout to work with it in ZBrush. So I used a spiral curve and made an extrude to create the basic bandage.
For the screws, I just modeled from a 6-sided cylinder and used the Volume Snap tool to align with the faces I wanted.
When I finished the main shape of the sword I went to Marvelous Designer to recreate the leather of the handguard. I exported the handguard piece to Marvelous and started to recreate the physics of leather falling into the object. When I was happy with the form of the falling leather I started to make some cuts and Booleans in Marvelous and started the simulation again. Then I exported it to Blender. Then I took the entire sword to ZBrush to make the high poly.
Making the high poly was really simple. I just took the parts from the sword and used DynaMesh or ZRemesh depending on the complexity of the piece. To make the smooth bevels I used the polish and polish crisp edges functions. Then, the fun part begins.
I wanted to make a very old sword with a glow effect coming from the inside irregularly. To achieve that, I had to make a lot of holes in the blade. For making the holes I used primarily the Mallet and Clay Buildup brushes from ZBrush. For the rest of the sword, I sued the Orb Brush Pack from Michael Vicente.
And here we are again with the handle. I started to deform the initial spiral to make it more stylized. I wanted to create a core for the handle with a glow effect, so I made apertures around the bandage to show some parts from the core.
When I finished it, I started to stylize both the handle and the leather from the handguard with the MAHcut_Mech brushes. They are already available through different links since the creator decided to remove them from his store. I really love the effect that those brushes create so I really encourage you to use them in your future projects.
OK, high poly done. It's time to make a retopology for the handle and the leather part. I used the RetopoFlow 3 addon for Blender. And I have to say that I’m quite impressed with how it works. Just to say that for a moment I had the idea to use Maya Quad Remesher, but RetopoFlow 3 works really well and has more functions than Maya for retopology. The leather piece was made by hand. And the handle was a mix of a spiral curve around a cylinder and a Skinwrap modifier with a hand touch to make it fit the piece perfectly. For the rest of the piece, I just used the same blockout, optimized it, and cleaned it a bit.
Then I made the UVs in Blender too using the UV Toolkit and UVPackmaster 2 addons. Really useful ones if you want to have a great and optimized workflow for perfect UVs. Also, the heuristic function from UVPackmaster 2 is amazing.
I used Marmoset Toolbag 4 for baking. This software has a very good tool for baking and it’s very easy to use.
For texturing, I used Substance Painter. I wanted something more or less stylized so I decided to eyeball the color palette from the original sword and use gradient and curve filters to simulate light bounces. For the emissive, I used an ID map for the handle and an Ambient Occlusion map for the blade. Also, the blade has a gradient from iron to pure green for getting close to that ghostly effect.
Also, I tend to render everything in Marmoset Toolbag so I never considered it in my previous projects while texturing because Marmoset can handle everything! But because I was going to complete that process in Unreal Engine 5 I had to change the way I used to texture to achieve a nice look in the Epic’s engine.
After finishing with the texture I imported the model with texture maps into Unreal. To achieve the Sea of Thieves color, I created a custom HDRI from one of the starter islands from the game.
For the VFX, I used Niagara. The ghostly fire is composed of two particles. One is made from a static mesh with a custom material made from a side image from its own blade. The other particle is a particle spawner that uses its own blade mesh as a point spawn.
In one of my last projects, I used blurred videogame screenshots as a background for the model, so I wanted to do the same here. Unlike Marmoset, Unreal doesn’t give you the option to take screenshots with a transparent background. Also, I had VFX with transparencies, so it would be quite difficult to tweak the photos for a good result.
So I created a plane behind the weapon with a simple shader that projects the screenshots on it. To get a better result I tell the shader to make a Screen Space projection of those images so there is no perspective deformation since the image will be always shown parallel to the camera.
Then I create a general light with some support lights here and there for the different shots, tweak the different cameras for greater contrast and make some fixes in Photoshop (VFX are great in motion but they are not that great as a static photo).