This tutorial was written by the amazing Jonathan Lampel and appeared in issue 96 of 3D Artist
This tutorial will provide an overview of the process of creating an armoured sci-fi character and rendering him out in an action pose. It is intended to show how to approach such a project, and how to get past the major obstacles that are typically encountered while doing so. There are shortcuts and tips mentioned along the way to help speed up your workflow and to reduce the time you spend on what could otherwise be very tedious tasks. We will be using Blender as the main 3D package, along with Substance Painter for texturing and Photoshop for extra colour correction at the end.
Step 01 – Define the idea
You have probably heard the Zig Ziglar quote “If you aim for nothing, you’ll hit it every time” often enough, but have you noticed how much it applies to art? If you do not have the skill of picturing images with absolute clarity in your head, your artwork will likely turn out a little messy if a little planning doesn’t happen first. Try to have a specific goal in mind before even opening a 3D program. In this case, that meant sketching out the armour design for a sci-fi soldier. The goal is for him to look both lean and strong, so use sharp angles to define the major anatomical features and smooth curves for the details. See if you can lay out the armour to reflect the human anatomy, so that it looks as natural as possible and allows for a wide range of motion. When sketching out rough concepts or storyboarding, try to keep things loose and fast rather than worry about them being perfect. After all, nobody else needs to see these, and you can always go back and clean them up later if you need to pitch an idea to a team. For this specific project, we are also taking inspiration from a piece that was done by Joe Chico, a concept artist at CG Cookie
Step 02 – Sculpt it out
The next step is to see how this idea translates into 3D. Start out with a simple stick figure with skin and subsurf modifiers in Blender. Then, apply the modifiers and go into sculpt mode to flesh out a basic human form. From there, we’ll use the Clay Strips brush with dynamic topology to get the basic shape of the armour. Once there is enough volume to work with, use the Polish and Crease brushes to define the flat surfaces and sharp lines of the armour. Always start big and work down to the details. If the overall shape looks off, adding detail is only going to solidify the problem and make it much harder to correct later. Just like with sketching, the first sculpting pass is loose with some gesture. One nice trick is to use the H key to hide parts of the mesh that you don’t want to work on at the moment.
Step 03 – Retopologise the sculpt
Just like it’s best to start with large forms when sketching and sculpting, the same principle applies to retopology. Start with the large armoured pieces first and work your way down to the smaller pieces. In Blender, the fastest way to retopologise is to turn on surface snapping and Cmd/Ctrl+click to extrude new vertices or edges. Turning on Hidden Wire in the viewport shading options lets you see the surface underneath very clearly if you need the extra guidance. The add-ons F2 and RetopoFlow are fantastic for making the process of retopology easier, but for the most part it works just fine to stick to the basics for hard-surface objects like this. When modelling, try to define the correct edge loops first around the major features and then fill the spaces in between after. That way you have a clear flow going before having to worry about the less important geometry that connects the edge loops.
Step 04 – Rig the body
Blender’s Rigify add-on works well for rigging all kinds of humanoid characters. If you use it as a starting point for the soldier, he is able to pose decently right away. You should also do a lot of tweaking, however, because his armour should be stiff and each piece should only move with one or two bones and not stretch like rubber. A quick way to do this without having to meticulously weight-paint each part is to select Linked with Cmd/Ctrl+L and limit by material, then assign the vertices to the corresponding bone’s vertex group.
Step 05 – Unwrap the mesh
Since we already had the major edge loops defined in the retopology process, unwrapping this model is a cinch. Simply create seams along the natural edges of where the armour meets the suit underneath. The most tedious part is selecting all the right vertices, but that can be done quickly by first selecting one vertex or edge at one end, and then Cmd/Ctrl+selecting another at the other end. Blender calculates the shortest path between the two points and adds that to the current selection.
Step 06 – Texture with Substance
For this project, we want to keep the texturing of this futuristic soldier simple, but we also want to add some scratches and grunge for an overall gritty look. For that, Substance Painter is the perfect tool. For the armour, you can use the Plastic Dirty Scratched smart material as a base, Tank Painted for some rough texture, and Machinery for the dirt and a little bit of gloss. The suit underneath is a hexagon pattern, with the same Machinery smart material on top for dirt on those areas as well. Baking the normal, AO, curvature, position and thickness maps allows the smart materials to place the weathered edges and grunge in just the right spots along the model. You only have to tweak the values to better match the scale and look of the soldier.
Step 07 – Shade with Cycles
Back in Blender, import the textures by dragging and dropping them right into the node editor. Our shader consists of a very basic PBR setup that approximates Substance’s metal/roughness workflow. If tweaking, the image texture’s values gives a better result in Cycles. You can use a colour ramp to adjust the texture along with a gradient.
Step 08 – Set the scene
With the character all ready to go, all that is left is to put him in context. We decided to go with a city skyline, so let’s build an extremely simple rooftop area for him to be jumping over. Originally it is just the one box, but adding a second level further down and angled to the side really helps to tie the scene together. Having a very distinct foreground and a very distinct background, without anything in the middle to bridge the two, almost always looks fake. The more you layer, the more natural it looks. We’ll also add some wires as a compositional element to add more visual motion, since we want to keep the camera level in this shot in order to make the image look solidly grounded. Take your time placing the camera. Nothing ruins a cool shot like a hasty composition! In this case, let’s bring the camera in close to cut the bottom of the feet off, so the soldier won’t look awkwardly boxed in by the frame. Be careful to put enough negative space in front of the soldier for him to look towards. Just these two decisions alone really help make it appear like he is moving quickly from one side of the frame and into the other.
Step 09 – Lighting and effects
Lighting sets the tone for the entire piece, and it can also help you to turn a flat scene into a dynamic one. Sometimes good lighting requires lots of lights, but for this scene a single HDR is sufficient. Let’s make use of a Creative Commons image of a city as a background and choose an HDR that has similar lighting. The Pro Lighting: Skies add-on makes the process of setting up the HDR sky take less than a minute. To get lighting that shows the true form and shape of the character, try to make sure that every major form has either a gradient of light or a shadow playing across it. The single HDR is rotated in such a way that the Sun acts as the key and rim lights, and the sky itself is the fill light. You can also add a slight depth of field to the camera at this stage, in order to direct the focus to the helmet and to add a bit of realism.
Step 10 – Put it all together
When placing a CG image on top of a photo background, it’s important to separate the compositing into two phases: before combining and after. Everything done before layering the foreground onto the background is only to get the two to match with colour correction. Adjusting the city’s highlights, midtones and shadows to match those of the character with a colour balance node does the trick for this scene. Everything after combining the two is about artistic stylisation.
Step 11 – Work on it in Photoshop
Adding very subtle amounts of additional motion blur, colour grading, vignetting, lens distortion and/or glare after the two are already combined helps to further tie the two together. Once we are finished compositing in Blender, we can use Photoshop’s Camera Raw filter (ie Lightroom inside of Photoshop) for a colour correction final polish. The same functions are technically available inside of Blender, but Camera Raw is so fast and easy to use that the extra step can actually save a lot of time tweaking. If you save your render as a smart object in Photoshop before using the filter, you can edit the settings later or replace the image with an updated render at any time.