To celebrate Substance 3D becoming free for all students, The Rookies teamed up with Adobe Substance 3D to create a new, fun challenge. The brief was to take inspiration from robotic characters young and old, and create a lovable and cartoony robot that would capture the audience’s affection.
While scrolling through social media I saw that the Rookies were holding a Robot Challenge contest together with Adobe 3D. Since I mostly make organic creatures, I wasn’t interested at first. After thinking about it for a while I figured that a challenge would be the perfect time to learn how to make a hard surface character before my internship.
I went to ArtStation in search of inspiring concept art. I enjoy creating my own designs, but since attending PlaygroundSquad, a Game Development school here in Sweden, I’ve found it fun and challenging to interpret already existing character concepts. I searched ArtStation for inspiration and found the concept “Sheeba” by Logan Preshaw. I knew that if I were to participate in the challenge it would have to be this character.
It was colorful, cute, and felt organic for being a robot. One of the requirements for the challenge was to use one of Adobe Substance 3D apps. As I was planning on using Substance 3D Painter, the character fit perfectly with the theme of painting. While I waited for a response from the artist, I analyzed the concept, made a plan, and figured out the personality of the character. My goal was to make my model look as much as the original as possible, while still giving it my own touch.
The Assembly Procedure
I start out by blocking out the basic shapes of the character. I used to make block-outs in Maya, but now I find it much easier to do it directly in ZBrush. This way I don’t have to switch between software as much. When blocking out the shapes I use a great tool called MeshBallon, and combined with the use of the See-through slider at the top, I can make my reference visible behind the viewport.
The block-out stage is one of the most essential parts of sculpting, but it is also very hard. Throughout this phase the character will look pretty bad, and it can be rather uninspiring. When I first started out with 3D, it was much more difficult to get through this part, but now I see it as a challenge to make this weird-looking block-out blob look as good as possible.
When the blockout looks good from all angles, I start adding details. For this particular project I made it a personal challenge to use ZModeler as much as possible. Changes and adjustments were made at the lowest subdivision level and then more subdivisions were added to make sure the surface got nice and smooth.The stomach plates, eyelids, toes, etc were Extracted, ZRemeshed to a very low subdivision, and then made smooth using Dynamic Subdiv.
To keep myself motivated during the sculpting phase, I add basic color fills to the model. This also makes it easier to compare it to the reference, and later it doubles as an ID-map when texturing.
Usually, when I finish sculpting the highpoly, I use Maya’s Quad Draw Tool to do retopology. Since I didn’t have much time for this project, I instead exported a lower subdivision level from ZBrush and UV-mapped it. In the end, it did get a bit high-poly, but my highest priority was to get the model finished in time.
Next up, I brought the model into Painter for baking and texturing. To make sure I get a good result when baking, I give the same parts of the character the same name with the suffix “_high” for the highpoly and “_low” for the lowpoly (for example “HEAD_high” and “HEAD_low”). If Match is set to By Mesh Name under Common Bake Settings, Painter will match the parts with the same name together, and give a better bake result.
Before texturing, I make a masked folder for each material. Each folder mask is decided by the ID map to save time. It’s then easy to start adding base colors with some basic specular values to each folder and build materials from that (plus it keeps your scene nice and organized).
I like to create my own alphas in Photoshop to get the shapes and textures I want. To make the shape of the painting look like the reference, I put the original artwork into Photoshop and used the red channel to isolate all the pink in the background. This way I could easily turn it into a black and white alpha, which I used as a mask in Painter. The same was done for the stars and suns. I only had to make one of each and add some unique grain and rotation in Painter to make them look unique.
Before finishing the texture, I prepared a scene in Marmoset Toolbag. I tried mimicking the lighting in the original concept, but in the end I chose a warmer light to make the scene feel happier. I find it a good idea to start building the scene for the final render before finishing the texture. It makes it much easier to see what needs to be changed, fixed, or added. Finally I rigged and animated Sheeba in Maya and added the last few tweaks.
Imagination in Demand
I started learning 3D art in August 2021, and before that I created traditional 2D art. I always loved drawing creepy creatures from my own imagination, so when I was going to create my first game-ready 3D model in school, I of course wanted to make my own design. My teacher was the one who recommended that I try interpreting someone else’s art, both to practice what working in the industry is like, but also to challenge me as an artist. I chose an awesome looking 2D artwork depicting an Assassin Mole-Rat by Justin Gerard, even though it felt a bit complicated and advanced.
I would say in general that it is not easy to interpret 2D concepts and take them forward into 3D. This is because, when you look closely, a lot of information might be missing. Since I usually don’t have a turnaround for the character, I have to use my own imagination to figure out what the materials are supposed to be like, as well as what the backside of the character would look like. It’s like using your own imagination as glue, to stick all the visible pieces in the reference together.
The best part of interpreting a 2D character to 3D is to see it move. I feel like animation brings so much life and personality to the character, that’s why I like to rig and animate all my personal projects. Usually I figure out a story and personality for each character I create. It makes it much easier to sculpt, texture, and animate the character.
In Sheeba’s case, I imagined her being a very creative but shy robot. I imagined that she isn’t allowed to paint on the walls, but seeing the boring colors she couldn’t resist spicing things up a bit. To me, the final render depicts someone finding her in the act, and she’s trying to hide the brush and pretend she’s innocent. That is why I thought it’d be fun to add her signature to the wall. It shows that she’s so proud of the painting that she signed it, but still pretends she didn’t do it to get out of trouble.
Sheeba’s Shine and Smart Materials
At first, I was not going to make the metal on Sheeba’s body shiny, but in the end, I decided to go the opposite way – and I’m glad I did. Things change a lot during the texturing stage, but I think experimenting and trying different things is one of the best ways to learn.
I like to go through the Smart Materials in Painter and pick out the parts I like. Sometimes I’ll use ones just as they are, but sometimes I make my own materials by combining my favorite parts of two different Smart Materials. As I am still new to 3D art, I find that picking apart and analyzing smart materials helps me understand texturing better. That way I can pick out my favorite parts, figure out how to make those layers/maps myself, and then use that knowledge to make my own interesting Smart Materials. Even if I sometimes use Smart Materials as they are without altering them, I still try to learn from the material, and understand how it works.
One of my own Smart Materials that I often reuse is called “Extras”. It has a combination of ambient occlusion and an inverted curvature map with a levels filter. I find that it really makes the characters’ details pop.
(I made the effect a bit more exaggerated in the example below)
Advice for Artists
The best advice I can give to anyone, not just artists trying to learn 3D, is to have fun and to take every chance you get to learn new things!
Your time is valuable, so it should be spent doing what makes you happy. If your work isn’t fun and/or educational, you’re probably not in the right place. I find that when something interests me, I learn quicker. Most likely because it doesn’t feel like I’m working at all.
The worst thing you can do is to assume that you already know everything, because that will not take you anywhere. Even if you have lots of experience and a task seems simple, stay curious. Try a new software, try to model something hard-surface if you’re used to sculpting organic shapes, try spending some time on a personal project instead of just working on job related things. Maybe it’s even time to finally aim for that dream job?
I find that trying something new, without any previous experience at all, is the best basis to learn new things. There’s always something new to learn, so aim towards having fun and stay open to new experiences!