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As we all know, references are the key to high quality results. As soon as I have an idea of the character in my head or even a concept art already made, I start to collect references based on the materials, for example, leather, armor, skin, fur, body type/anatomy, eye type, even fingernails if needed. Another thing that I used to do is to collect some images that I like to capture the mood for the character and kind like a reference for the quality that I want to achieve at the end of the project, when I’m finally done, I use PUREREF (free software) to display all my images in a mood board.
Starting the character
Most of the time I start from primitive geo in ZBrush building the body of the character, making sure to sculpt the parts equally to get the feeling of the subject always looking to references. Once I’m satisfied with the body I start to place a reference for the accessories, this could be done in Maya or straight in ZBrush, is your choice. There are no shortcuts here, so be patient if you are struggling with something, ask for feedback from people that you trust, I do this all the time.
To create the tunic, I exported a very low decimated version of the character from ZBrush to Marvelous Designer and then started to create the fabric from a very simple straight geo to simulate on top of the character. This step is not hard but requires some time to do it right. To create that rolled fabric detail on the shoulder, I placed some pins on each side of the marvelous cloth and started to roll by hand, pin by pin.
Quick tip: once you have a nice rolled detail, place some pins there to hold that detail, this will prevent any simulation issues or penetration as you move further. I did the same process for every other fabric that I wanted that rolled detail.
Retopology, Poly Modeling & UVs
For retopology, I used the Quad Draw Tool on Maya. I always try to keep a nice flow and density of polys on deformations areas such as eyes, shoulder, elbows, hand, and knee. At this point I also work on the accessories, sometimes I take the reference model that I sculpted before to clean it up or start from a primitive.
Once I’m done with the retopology and poly modeling of the other assets, I open the UVs straight in Maya. For this particular character, I decided to mirror all the UVs of the body except the head, this will help you a lot when the texture phase comes because you can mirror textures to save time instead of starting from nothing.
Once the topology and UVs are all done, I import those meshes to ZBrush to add more detail, refine the forms, and adjust anything else if needed. At this point sometimes I use Mari to project some displacements and import back to ZBrush to work a bit more on the modeling to blend those details better. I always keep a skin reference on my side to look at some subtle details, eye folds, skin compression on the hands, folds on the elbow… this kind of stuff.
If your details are not holding very well from close shots, you can split some parts of the model and work in a separate SubTool, this will allow you to subdivide even more and the details will have more resolution. In this case, I used created some polygroups by UV and used that to split some parts, just make sure to add a “breath” space between the split region, this will make you work easier to project the other parts and blend the details avoiding any seams on the displacement. I used this same detail method for all the other assets.
I used Mari to texture the body of the character using some maps from texturingXYZ website, once I finish the base projection, I create some seamless additional maps using Photoshop to help cover some areas and add more variation, dirt, etc. For the dry skin on his back, I used a seamless texture of bone and a grunge stencil, also projected in Mari.
For the other assets, I used Substance Painter. I start very simple, laying some base textures of each material and add details slowly based on the collected references, in the end, I create some layers with manual paintwork to break that feeling of smart material.
Substance is very easy to use and makes the process very fast, after that I export the textures with the Arnold Renderer preset.
Render in Arnold
In Maya, I used Arnold standard materials (AiStandar Surface) and assign a shader for each different material on the character (leather, fabric, metal, skin, hair) each one of them receives a different setting and since I planned this project with the UDIM workflow, it makes way easier because each shader will affect all their respective materials, which means that I don’t need to create a shader for each piece.
I always plug an adjustment layer in between the texture file and the shader, if I need to tweak the texture I can do it straight inside of Maya. For the Displacement, I exported them from ZBrush with the 32bits config with mid-value 0. In Maya, I selected the Geo that will receive the displacement, go into the mesh attributes tab, under Arnold, and used the following setup.
For lighting I used some HDRIs from HDRI Haven, it’s all free and it has a really nice quality, in addition to that, I placed some Arnold lights on each side of the character to make it more interesting.
There is a very nice lighting chart from the “Digital Camera World” website, that might be helpful if you get lost in this step.
To pose the character I used the Transpose Master inside ZBrush with a lot of masking and move tools. This step is very slow and requires some further adjustment on the model as you pose the limbs of the character, reference is the key to get a good pose, take your time to find something that relates to the attitude that you want for your character. For this one, I decided to go with a sneaking/mischievous vibe, who is ready to steal or stab someone who is not expecting that.
Hair in XGen
For the hair I used two different types of setup in XGen, the ones in the face were pretty much created with “placing and shaping guides”, the peachfuzz around the body were created with “groomable splines around the surface” since the peachfuzz is too small I can manage this fur easily with some broad brush strokes and a lot of hair effects later (noise, coil etc). Hair is a very complex subject to talk about, so if you want to dig deeper into this I highly recommend Jesus Fernandez Patreon page, he also has some free videos on YouTube talking about XGen.
TIP: Break the hair in different descriptions, this makes your work easier to manage.
This character took me a lot of time and hard work, it was a great challenge because I wanted to show something different in my portfolio but keeping that fantasy genre that I love so much, this is something that I highly recommend to anyone.