I got introduced to 3D early in my bachelor’s of Industrial Design and I was one of the first ones in my class to get interested in it. Since the beginning, I found that I had a passion for 3D but at that time, it was just a tool for design and not the center of the equation. After working a few years in different design fields I felt that my 3D knowledge was not at the level that I would like to, so I joined Think Tank Traning Centre Online to get into the world of film and games.
After creating the Beduin Elf we had a conversation with the Substance 3D team to collaborate and create an artwork with a character who tells a story and transmits his feelings with his expression using the new Substance 3D toolset.
Inspiration for this Project
The ideation process took quite long, and I went through different options, from concepts, pictures from famous photographers and even just pictures of random people around the internet. But there was nothing convincing enough and something was missing in all of them…myself. For this project, I needed to have something a bit more personal, something related to my origins, my land, my country. An Argentinian gaucho…
While doing the research and when I thought I had something more or less defined to do, I went to my family’s farm in Entre Rios, Argentina and the idea came straight forward. Alejandro!
Alejandro is the capataz of the farm since before I was born but I’va always seen him as part of my family. He is one of the kindest and hardworking people I know. And apart from that, a real Gaucho.
When we were kids together with my brothers or cousins we used to wake up before the sunrise just to go by horse to help him (or think we were helping) with the cows and the work that needed to be done in the farm.
From one moment to another I realized that he was the perfect match for this project. The problem now being that my family needs to recognize him, so I put an extra big pressure on myself.
Planning out the project
The first steps of the plan changed as soon as I decided to do Alejandro. In any other project I would spend some days looking for pictures and references on the internet but, in this case, I have the main reference just in front of me. So, the first thing I did was to ask Alejandro if he would like to model for me, and I took a ton of pictures of him.
These pictures were key on the project, not only as a reference for sculpting the character but to capture all the texturing details that I ended creating in Substance. He has a really interesting skin.
After having the references on hand, the sculpting process started in ZBrush.
As I was in the middle of moving countries, I had to be the most efficient as possible, so I started the sculpt from a base mesh that I created in a previous project. For sure this base mesh looked nothing even close to Alejandro so I spend a really long time in the sculpting process. The goal of the project was to take Alejandro as an inspiration and not to do a likeness, but I couldn’t help myself and I tried to make it look like him as much as I could. This is why I used the pictures I took of him as plates in ZBrush to do the first block out.
At the same time as sculpting the face, I started creating the shirt in Marvelous Designer, imported the hat from an old project and modified it to match the reference. Also, I applied some Substance 3D Assets materials and imported everything in Maya to see how it was looking.
Not great right? Looking quite horrible at this point.
But well after some more days of sculpting and when I had the first and secondary shapes more or less defined, I used Zwrap to wrap the 8k texturing XYZ map to the face. For this, I needed to have proper UVS in the face and in 1 UDIM.
You can take a look at the workflow at this link.
As the plan was to go with the cam quite close to the face and work with 4K maps 1 UDIM was not going to be enough so I did a second texture set in Maya with 3 UDIMs for the face.
After this I imported the mesh with the 1 UDIM Uvs and the mesh with 3 UDIMS to Mudbox and transferred the texturing XYZ map from one to the other.
With the Displacement applied I spent some more time in ZBrush to add finer details like small wrinkles, pores and surface variations. Even if the texturing XYZ maps are great is always necessary to do a sculpting pass on top of it to give realism.
Here is the first test in Maya with the displacement on and a Subsurface material in Vray.
Even if the sculpting wouldn’t stop here I felt that I was ready to start the texturing process.
The texturing process
For the texturing process I used mainly Substance 3D Painter, Photoshop and I used for the first time Substance 3D Sampler what I realized it is a great tool!
As I did all the renders in Maya with Vray, the integration with Painter was super organic using the Substance in Maya plug-in and following the steps on the website.
With a couple of clicks, you can have all your maps already applied to your shader, this saved me a lot of time in the process.
To start texturing I imported my Subdiv 2 mesh with the 3 UDIMS in Substance 3D Painter and I used the Subdiv 5 from ZBrush to bake all the mesh maps and have a nice preview of the skin details.
The file was ready to start texturing but before this, I had to jump in Photoshop and create some tileable textures from my Texturing XYZ maps. For this, I used the offset tool and created 3 different tileables of the skin.
Now yes! All-in to Substance!
First step, I applied the tileable texture and the displacement maps and created a mask to merge both of them.
Once I got that quite clean, I used a Paint layer with Passthrough and an HSL (Hue, Saturation, and Lightness) to adjust the color and value to match the best as possible to the reference.
Next step was to define the color zones from the face, where we have the forehead area a bit more yellowish, cheeks and nose in the reddish side and the chin area and under the eyes more blue/green. All this is done again with an HSL defining the areas with masks and really low opacity.
Also, with the same technique, I added big veins and spider veins in blue and red/purple.
For the eyes, I used as a base the ones I did for the Beduin elf but to match his light blue color I used a water texture, and using an HSL tried to match as best as possible his color.
Last I reduced the opacity of this map to get again some of the directional lines from the eye texture I had below and added a darker circle around to match how it looks in his eye.
As I like to test constantly what I am doing in the sculpting and texturing process I imported all the maps in Maya and did some quick test renders with V-ray.
At this point, it was all exploration. Using again different Substance 3D Assets materials and HDRI’s from HDRI Heaven I started testing different designs.
Also while doing this I realized that I was not really happy with the sculpt so I did some modifications with the Maya sculpting tools to see if I could get a bit closer to Alejandro’s face.
To create quick blendshapes in Maya is great for this part of the process as you can modify the face, render, modify it again, etc in a much faster way.
Once I was more or less happy with the color of the clothes and the face I jumped back to Painter and started going more into the details to match his skin.
The first step was to define areas of discoloration on the face.
Important at this point to do this with a mask so later I could link this same mask with an Anchor Point to adjust the Roughness.
As I did some really close-up pictures of his skin I used this with the Projection tool in Painter to project some of the details.
As all these pictures were taken with different lighting and outdoors with really strong shadows, I found a big difference in color between different areas of the face.
This is when the HSL filters came again really handy to match the projections to the base skin.
After doing the projections, I wanted to test how these textures were looking with a subsurface material in Substance. This was just to have a closer preview of how to textures were going to look at the moment of rendering in V-Ray with the V-Ray AISurface material.
At this point, I decided to rework again some of the color variations and veins to match the reference in a better way.
Some of these were hand-painted with standard brushes and for some of them, I used for example the Vein generative brush to get some free details.
For sure, always reducing the intensity of these layers significantly.
I needed some rest from the face and I jumped to rework the clothing.
As I was not happy with the previous boina (hat) that I was using I decided to create a new one pretty quick in Marvelous Designer together with a handkerchief.
After this again to Maya to do the retopology and get all the final meshes ready.
I am a bit obsessed with a nice and clean topology so even if this project didn’t require it, I wanted to have a production-ready topology in case one day I want to animate this guy.
Also to have the UVs well organized helps a lot.
Substance 3D Sampler
As I decided that he was going to wear a light-blue shirt I went to my wardrobe and took some pics of one of my shirts. I couldn’t wait to test the new Substance 3D Sampler!
In Sampler just importing 1 flat image of the texture you want to convert, the software using AI creates different maps like the diffuse, roughness and normal maps for later importing this to Painter.
At the same time, my brother Nico sent me some pics of his Boina. With the image below you can see the power of Sampler. Unfortunately, as I chose to do it black and with groom at the end, I ended not using these maps.
With the Sampler maps done I jumped back to Painter and applied this to the shirt.
Using some masks and smart masks I added discoloration to the shirt to give a bit more personality to it and show that it was used for a lot of years on the farm.
And last I added some dirt and dust to it.
For the handkerchief I used a combination of a material from Substance 3D Assets and a texture from Shutterstock. It was a really quick process and with some happy accidents that gave me a nice result straight forward.
For the hair, I used XGen Core and used Adobe Photoshop to study the direction of the hair in different areas. This helped me to define where and how to place my guides.
After having my guides places I used modifiers to clump and add noise and strays to the hair.
In the link below you have a quick explanation of how to do stray hair that it helped me in the process.
Here are some tests trying to see if everything was going in the right direction.
Also I used XGen for the boina, but instead of placing the splines one by one, I used groomable splines to get this result.
An important note here! When I was trying to do the turntable I had some issues with XGen, it was not rotating with my character and getting weird results.
For this, I had to make sure that the ‘’Update Preview Automatically’’ was clicked and with this, it rendered without problems.
Now with most of the sculpt, models, textures and materials done. I tested again different HDRI and with some V-Ray lights to try to get the best lighting as possible.
But I was still not happy with how the renders were looking. There was something in the skin that was lacking.
So… again to Substance 3D Painter to add all the latest finer details to the diffuse.
Using the high res images I took as reference I handpainted some of the most finer details, trying to match as close as possible the position of each of those.
And to finalize de base color I did the teeth just giving some variation and a yellowish tone.
With the Base color done, now it was time to start working on the Roughness.
To start, I used an Anchor point to bring my base color desaturated and have some free variation.
On top of this using some masks I added a bigger and smaller break up and defined darker zones where the face should be glossier, like in the T zone, the lips and around the eyes.
Using the cavity map helped me to create a mask to define the area between the winkles a bit rougher.
After that I used the mask from the discoloration on the base color with an Anchor point to increase the roughness in those areas. This was one of the elements that gave more realism to the skin.
And last a bit of break up on the teeth.
After some levels adjustments, this was the final Roughness map.
One of the important maps that I didn’t touch until now is the Subsurface mask for areas with deeper subsurface like the ears. The face has 1 general Subsurface pass with an orange color and a deeper subsurface with a red/orange color where this mask takes place.
I created this mask by using the Thickness map and adjusting it slightly.
Final Maps with the material preview in Substance 3D Painter
As you can see below, the material used for the face is really simple. It is a VrayAISurface material with the Base color, Roughness, SSS mask and a tilable texturing XYZ micro displacement map for the bump.
For the Base color and the Roughness I used a color correction and remap value to adjust the maps on the go while testing them on the render.
After doing what I thought there were some final renders, I was still feeling that something was missing. His boina (hat) was looking too flat and with not the same number of details as the rest of the piece so I went into the new Substance 3D Assets and grabbed the Plant Springs set 02 model.
I did a quick texture in Painter.
And placed them in a random way but trying to make it look pleasing. I think these small details are some of the elements that gives that last 1% of realism.
Final Sculpting Pass
To add the latest finer details, I went back to ZBrush… well, during the entire process there was a back and forward adjusting the sculpt, but in particular this last pass was to better define some wrinkles that were not showing properly in the renders and giving a bit more personality to the teeth, a bit too soft until here.
Also I added some surface imperfections to the clothing using some alphas.
After a lot of days working on this character this was the final result.
Main challenges of this project
The main challenge was to get the likeness done, it was not an easy process and it could always be improved but I am really happy that my family recognized him straightforward when I showed them the render.
I think the key to getting likeness is observation, I spent a lot of time looking at the reference, taking measurements, and comparing them with the renders that I was doing in the process. Also trying to understand and simplify the shapes and volumes of his face helped a lot.
But to make it look like him was not enough with a good sculpt. Alejandro has such an interesting and particular skin that forced me to study really in detail each element of it.
To use software as Substance 3D Painter helped a lot in this part. Even if I consider myself more a modeler than a texturing artist, Substance 3D is allowing artists like myself, that are not so specialized in texturing, to jump to it and create textures in a more intuitive but also artistic way.
Main learning points of this project
One of the main learning points was how important the eyes are on a character. Also, how the skin and the variation of the skin texture plays such a big role on making a character look realistic.
Something that I would like to highlight to close this article is the importance of having a workflow that allows you to switch easily from software to software during the process. Don’t be afraid of it.
As you could see this was not a linear process, even if I tried to explain it as linear as possible, but it was a back and forth between ZBrush, Maya, and the Substance 3D tools.
I always try to get my topology and UVs done quite early to have the ability to apply my displacements and test textures from the beginning and keep polishing the sculpt, textures, and look dev while testing how it looks in the render. No need to wait until finishing one thing 100% to jump to the other one.
I would like to close this by saying a big thank you to Alejandro, to my family, and to the Substance 3D team for creating these amazing tools that are allowing us to be every day more creative!