Greetings! My name is Régis Goossens, a 20-year-old, 2nd year student following Game Graphics Production at Digital Arts and Entertainment in Kortrijk, Belgium.
For years now, I’ve had the passion to bring to life the many stories and concepts I came up with over the past years. I started drawing when I was little to try and visualize these ideas. During my middle- and high school days, I followed art school in my free time to practice my drawing skills and learn new techniques. I’ve always had a thing for creating crazy monsters and creepy creatures in epic, action-packed stories.
In the final months of my high school career, I heard about this school called Digital Arts & Entertainment (DAE in short) at Howest in Kortrijk. It didn’t take too long before I enrolled here, as I hoped to learn about 3D and refine my 2D skills. It is also here where I came to know about Sketchfab. A whole new world opened to me at that point. 3D made me discover there are whole new ways to bring the many characters and worlds I had in my imagination to life. However, in the beginning, I struggled a lot, as I had never given 3D art a shot before DAE.
In these past two years that I have been working with it, I have learned an insane amount of stuff. All of this experience has led up to my latest piece: Grand Space Opera: Light Age – Big Buggus.
The Big Buggus
I made this character for the Stylised Creation course, for which I was tasked with translating a 2D concept (either by myself or another artist) into 3D. I found an awesome concept made by Xu J, as I was not confident enough to use one of my own. Definitely check out his epic work!
The start of a journey
I started on this project by exploring the concept and getting to know its shapes and materials more. I did a draw-over and sketched out different angles of the concept to try and figure how to tackle unseen parts.
This sketch was very rough and, in hindsight, rather inaccurate. But visualizing these things helps to at least build an image in your head for how to tackle certain parts later on. It’s, in my own experience, better than eyeballing stuff later in the process.
After having planned out the shapes a bit, I started off with a blockout in ZBrush. I used simple shapes and deformed/moved them with a selected amount of brushes. From what I’ve learned, a solid starting blockout is key to a clean translation of the bigger shapes. It’s also a good way to test if your proportions are correct.
There’s one brush in here that isn’t standardly in ZBrush though—the ‘SO_IMM’ brush on the bottom is a custom brush by Shane Olson that I acquired through my course. It’s a brush that allows you to quickly create primitive shapes that can be used as starting points for parts of your sculpt. In my case, it was a particularly useful brush to quickly block out the limbs and smaller body parts. Afterward, I proceeded to move, smooth, and inflate the surface of the ‘building blocks’ to create the base of my sculpt.
After the blockout, I started refining and changing around what I had already made. Nothing is really set in stone at this point, so the work can still go in a lot of directions. At this point, I had changed the overall shape of the body from an orb to a more egg shape and the bug’s back to a hardened shell instead of the soft surface I was initially aiming for. Next, I refined the limbs and added detail in the grander body parts like damage and skin folds. Most of these details were done with the Clay brush.
Polish and paint
After finishing the detailing, I still made changes to proportions to try and get as close to the concept as possible. I also refined my edges and hard corners with the SO_Pinch Brush (another custom brush made by Shane Olson) that you can see in the next image. It’s an excellent brush that allowed me to make my high poly as sharp as I wanted and avoid a blubbery mess. In my case, having a sculpt with sharpened edges was crucial as I wanted to have a crisp bake later on.
After polishing the sculpt, I polypainted the mesh in ZBrush as well. This polypaint would lay the foundation for the colors and materials that I’d build later on in Substance Painter. Finally, I added a little friend for our big king bug. Well, friend isn’t exactly right, it seems more like an underpaid servant as you may notice in the final result.
Next up, it’s time to make the low-poly on which the high-poly sculpt’s detail will be baked. I chose to retopologize in 3ds Max 2020. This was a long and tiresome process, but just as important as the rest of the steps in the pipeline. Although I really don’t enjoy every single step equally, I did my best to give each step the necessary amount of love and attention.
For the retopo, I used a neat little trick that 3ds Max offers. You can select a high-poly object (or other geometry of your choice) and model polygons closely on top of that surface. This allows you to later on enjoy the powerful option of the relax tool, which can even out the polyflow of the low-poly over the high-poly’s surface. This allows for a very clean retopo in case you end up with very wonky, bad polyflow.
After the retopologizing, I arrived at the unwrap. I won’t deny that I am not a big fan of unwrapping. It can be as relaxing as it can be tedious and anger-inducing for me. The main trick that worked for me here was to upscale my unwrap in the editor viewport and make sure the checker pattern on my model has a square pattern as much as possible (which is ideally everywhere).
Finally, I fit my unwrap in the UV space and offset tiling islands to avoid baking artifacts. I double-checked that the high- and low-poly parts were in the same place and naming was correct. Making sure the naming matches between high- and low-poly pieces of the same part is crucial for the next step: baking.
My baking recipe
I exported my low-poly from 3ds Max, but kept my high-poly export from ZBrush (as it might lose the polypaint after being dragged through another modeling software). I baked my model in Substance; for me, this was the shortest part of the process. I had been very attentive and careful throughout the previous steps, which made me win time here. There are always important steps I keep in mind at this moment.
The high-poly and low-poly need to be in the exact same spot in 3ds Max and have the exact same scale—the baking won’t work if this is not the case.
I named every part of the mesh with their own suffixes, and made sure I baked ‘by mesh name’ to avoid the risk of baking artifacts in the normal map.
To get the color on the bake, which will end up in the ID map, it’s necessary to put the Colour Source option in the ID menu to ‘baking by vertex color’, as your polypaint is saved in there.
After baking that out, I added the resulting ID texture into a fill layer to create the first colors for the model.
A final thing that I try to stick to is that I always test bake on 1024×1024 texture size with no anti-aliasing. If a bake failed, I didn’t have to wait more than a minute for it.
When I was comfortable with how it looked, and I found little to no artifacts, I edited my settings to make my final bake. These were my final bake settings.
I included some images of how powerful baking is, and how much detail it can fake in a low poly model. Sketchfab can showcase this effect very nicely. The final resolution I settled on was 4K.
Now then, onto one of my favorite parts. The materials!
For my materials, I followed a very simple plan.
Firstly, I refined the colors where necessary. I added or edited gradients and filled in missing gaps or as-yet uncolored parts. It’s a good moment to take a second look at the colors and rethink what I (don’t) like and what (might not) work.
Secondly, I built my own smart roughness material. This is a combination of three layers with each the same grunge map with simply different scaling, different rotation, and varying roughness values. Once I found a combo that worked, I copied it over to other parts of the body and altered its values and scale according to the body part (e.g., the belly is less rough than the hardened shell on the back). I added some metalness on top afterward to insinuate the weight and strength of some parts.
Thirdly, I included extra ambient occlusions and highlights on top. These two steps followed the same recipe but opposite of one another. The AO layer uses a desaturated, dark color while the highlight layer uses a saturated, bright one. The AO has heavy, high roughness, contrasting to the highlight layer using a glossy, low roughness value.
Next up, I used Substance’s Generator tools to get the highlight and AO in the right places for their effects to show. At this step of the process, I exported my current textures and put everything I had at the time into Sketchfab to test the materials out with a quick light setup. In my experience, it was more practical and straightforward than trying to quickly render in Unreal or Substance.
After approving the base of the materials for the bugs, I went on to refine them. I added some more emissiveness effects to give a push to several parts of the body like the horns and the belly. I also played around with color gradients and opacity to give the wings a small iridescent effect like you’d see in real life with various bugs.
Finally, I went over everything I had previously done and made my final changes of things I didn’t like in hindsight. To close materials off, I exported my textures and started my presentation of the Big Buggus in Sketchfab and Unreal Engine.
Over the past two years that I have been studying at DAE, I learned one important thing: presentation is key. It can either make or break your work. So I took what I had and really tried to give it those final pushes to make the most of it. I started with making a circle-shaped object with base color, max metalness, and low roughness as a small add-on to the character. This was an idea that came from the concept as well. I had discovered that my initial polypaint from ZBrush had way more desaturated colors compared to the more vibrant concept. So I went on to give them a boost and amend other mistakes in this phase. Happily, I invested time into post-processing more than I had ever done before. Through Sketchfab, I discovered tone mapping. I decided to play around with it without it breaking my work. Finally, I added some other post-processing effects like sharpness, SSAO, and a vignette to try and drive the piece to a close.
I wrapped up the project in Unreal Engine, where I made my final renders to really try and get the maximum out of this model and its materials. I based my setup and tone mapping on how I handled it in Sketchfab. I used a simple 3-point light setup and did the necessary changes in Unreal’s own post-processing settings to give the final pushes to my work.
Overall this entire project stretched itself over a total work time of around 95 hours. It was an amazing, alas sometimes frustrating, journey with a rewarding result that I am proud of.
I was more than honored to write about it for the Sketchfab Blog.
I thank you for reading about my work and the process it went through. I also hope you are able to take something new away from it for your own journey in the future.
I hope you are doing well as you are reading this, and If you have any further questions or are interested to check out more of my work you can find me through my ArtStation.