Athena Cole – CPP Live Brief
When I first approached this assignment, I thought of my favorite sci-fi properties, which generally had one thing in common: they all contain some fantasy elements. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is the game Horizon Zero Dawn, which has an aesthetic I’ve always been drawn to. Therefore, I sought to create a piece that could exist somewhere in that universe but still have original elements.
I chose a concept art piece by Whitney Lanier, a crossover between Daenerys from Game of Thrones and Aloy from Horizon Zero Dawn. It has both hard-surface and organic clothing elements, including an opportunity to do some complex patterning and fabric manipulation, and is based on two of my favorite series. After obtaining enthusiastic permission from the artist to use it as inspiration, I started with the garments in Marvelous Designer.
The MD stage went extremely well – I was able to create the basis of the clothing within the first week, and refined it more through the next. I’m especially proud of the textile work on the vest; it’s a clear match to one of the canonical Aloy designs, and I spent several days experimenting to recreate that effect. I ended up slicing up the vest pattern, making a replica copy of a hundred+ small pattern pieces, and stitching them together with pressure. This forced me to gain a really solid understanding of seam angles and seam length matching as I assembled such a complex garment.
Unfortunately, once I left Marvelous, the rest of the character work was far less straightforward. I wanted to really nail down the process for converting extremely high-poly MD simulations into clean quad topology while maintaining all the detail and the neat UV shapes of the original pattern pieces. This involves manual retopo of the flat pattern pieces and transferring attributes in Maya on a piece-by-piece basis (avoiding issues with underhangs and overlapping fabric that would occur if I simply used ZBrush’s projection tool). I had practiced this on previous projects, but my focus this time was a) becoming comfortable with Maya’s quad draw and b) keeping the polycount very low, both of which I achieved with moderate success. That said, retopo still takes me an enormous amount of time, and I struggled with time management for the last stretch of this assignment.
I did take a few days once I had good high-poly meshes in ZBrush to add as much sculpted detail as I could to the fabric parts. This included creases, seam lines, large wrinkles, stitching designs, and general cleanup. I have a fair amount of real-world knowledge about how fabric behaves, but felt I wasn’t deliberate or dramatic enough in adding detail previously (with much of it being lost in texturing). This turned out quite well – I’m getting much better at identifying where to add which type of detail and how ‘hard’ to go with it, and I think my piece ultimately looks best at the ZBrush stage.
In contrast, the armor pieces were an area where I really struggled. Having seen several live demos from artists that worked on the original Horizon Zero Dawn costumes, I knew that even the hard-surface pieces were done first in high-poly dynameshed sculpts and then retopologized, rather than starting low. However, I’m still working on my hard-surface skills; even seeing the exact brushes and settings used, I couldn’t quite replicate those crispy sharp edges. I also really wasn’t sure at which stage I should be adding in the details like panel lines and greebles, so I kept putting off working on the armor, and it ended up being quite rushed for the deadline. As opposed to my neatly retopoed fabric, most of the armor was simply decimated using ZBrush’s automatic tool into (incredibly messy) triangles, and then auto-unwrapped. I absolutely need to go back in and manually retopo, clean up my sculpts, and then add in the details after the fact to get the cleanest bakes. I did manage to make good use of the texture space in one regard: I noticed that the brown spike parts of the armor was replicated many times (shoulders, knees, feet, belt), so I created that piece with clean topology and replicated it so that every one of those pieces uses a single section of the texture sheet. I intend to repeat that process for any of the other replicated/mirrored armor pieces.
I tried to keep the textures somewhere between the extreme realism of HZD/GoT and the hand-painted concept artwork. Most of my textures were programmatically generated using curvature and gradientsin Substance Painter, with very little hand-painting at this stage while I consider the UVs still a work-in-progress. They have faint fabric textures overlaid on top, but only enough to add roughness without losing my carefully-created sculpted details. I also added some custom height maps for embroidery and other masked areas. In general, I feel like my baking and texturing process wasn’t very successful. I have many artifacts despite playing around with bake settings, and much of my detail is pixelated or blurred compared to the original sculpt. More experimentation is needed!
Apart from a bit more refining on the armor, I think this piece is quite successful as a costume showcase. However, it’s still missing a lot before I can consider it a finished character sculpt. I roughly sculpted a hairstyle in ZBrush, but decided it was obscuring much of my careful work on the collar and vest. I plan to explore hair card creation to make her hairstyle instead, which is a new skill for me. She also obviously needs a face and detailed body! If I’m able, I’d like to go in and add her dragon as an accessory, since it really defines the character (and is a clever nod to both reference properties), and I’d like to give her a more dynamic pose as well. Finally, I’m still working on my lighting setups within Marmoset; my current piece is quite flat and could use more dynamic lights and background contrast.