Art Spotlight: Cuca

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About Me

Hello, my name is Luís Mesquita. I’m a Brazilian 3D artist, graduated in Animation Cinema and Digital Arts (UFMG – Brazil) and just finished my Master’s course in Media Art and Design (Bauhaus Universität Weimar – Germany). I’m now living in Germany and working as a 3D artist (mainly modeling) for some local studios focused on animation for children. Now with my Master’s course finished I’ll be able to search for game companies in bigger cities, which has always been my main focus. I’ve been a RPG lover driven by the Final Fantasy franchise since I was a kid, and nowadays my main influences are World of Warcraft, Diablo, League of Legends, Battle Chasers and other games featuring stylized and hand painted models.

I started messing with 3D and animation around 2010 back in my university in Brazil. Big shoutout to Álvaro Ribeiro, amazing artist now working for the collectibles industry, who was my colleague at that time and has inspired me ever since. Slowly climbing, I eventually got the hang of Blender, making it my main tool (also the one we used at the university). My formal studies never helped me that much with my 3D skills (which I’m mostly self-taught), but it gave me an invaluable overview of the creative industry in many different fields and with a variety of techniques (we went through stop-motion, sound design, programming, traditional 2D animation, photography, game design and lots of other cool stuff). I could then focus on 3D by myself while learning a bit of everything. Although the Brazilian game industry is developing pretty fast, I still saw in the Master’s degree in Germany a better possibility to make new contacts and expand my horizons in a more solid industry.

The Project

The work I’m about to present is part of my Master’s thesis at Bauhaus Universität Weimar, written together with my sister Thaís Mesquita. She’s the 2D artist who shaped the foundation of our work. Going a bit back to our Brazilian roots, the idea was to create an illustrated book similar to an encyclopedia where we showcase creatures from Brazilian mythology in augmented reality. The viewer can then point the phone or tablet camera to the symbols in the book and see those animated 3D creatures in front of them. The Cuca is one of the 5 creatures we created.

Another creature is also on Sketchfab (Bicho-Papão), and I’ll upload other two creatures soon.

But let’s focus on the development of Cuca for now!

Concept

The first thing was to develop a solid concept that could show what we never saw in our own culture. The creative industry in Brazil never really explored deeply our own mythology. You won’t find as much inspiring material as you can for Greek or Norse mythology, for example. So the plan was to come up with interesting designs that could inspire more people to try their own amazing vision of those creatures as well, and to spread a bit of our vast culture that remains unknown to the world (and even to many Brazilians).

Cuca is an old witch with a crocodile head. She kidnaps children that refuse to sleep, sneaking into their bedrooms at night, using her master key that can open any door, and dragging the children away inside her sack.

To make it more interesting, we thought about giving her a crocodile mask and a real crocodile tail, but also showing part of her old human face, making her kind of a magical hybrid. The ghost hands supports the idea that the children are dead inside of her backpack. The key was positioned in an accessible spot, hanging from her neck. A small Cthulhu doll was added on the side just as a funny easter egg. The green and blue tones supported by the lit parts helped portray her eerie atmosphere. Some elements help to break the body symmetry, like the staff on one hand and the sack on the other, the tail movement, the Cthulhu doll and the irregular backpack.

Legends of Brazil Cuca

Modeling and Texturing

As a model being used for realtime render in augmented reality, a traditional game pipeline was the way to go to ensure that it could run smoothly on standard cellphones and tablets. There’s no secret here since the concept was very clear. The low-poly model was made in Blender with no sculpting involved, and hand painted textures done in 3D-Coat.

In some cases a quick Ambient Occlusion bake was made to serve as a base. The choice to divide the main character into two UV sets helped maintain an even texel density and great amount of detail using two 2048x2048px textures. An extra 512×512 with alpha background was used for the emissive parts and Cthulhu wings (non-emissive). There’s also not much secret in here as it is a basic hand painted workflow using only diffuse maps, and emissive in the extra parts. Another 1024×1024 diffuse texture was used for the ground.

Keeping the Cuca’s bottom part darker and with the natural verticality of the character we could somewhat drag the focus to her head, where the only white part is the hair. The crocodile head is a bit more detailed than the tail, the shining eyes, the staff lights right beside, and also where the golden brighter yellow parts are (nose ring and key). Although I’m pretty happy with how the shapes read (mostly because of color boundaries), I would still retouch the head values somewhat to make it pop out more.

Rigging and Animation

This part was never even close to my main skill, but as a request from our thesis advisors we had to try it anyway. Since we only had 3 months to do the whole thesis, this part was left for last. I ended up making a very simple rigging just to support a basic idle animation. If we had had more time, I guess we could have tried something more appealing, but, well, you have to work with what you have.

AR Platform

With everything ready, time to throw it into Unity and see if it works. Due to my inexperience in animation, many things had to be reworked to function well with Unity after importing (oh, the headache to fix everything 2 days before the deadline!). We used the Vuforia engine inside Unity for the augmented reality, and I can say it was pretty easy to set up even for a newbie.

Sketchfab

After the thesis was done and approved, it was portfolio time! Sketchfab is an amazing tool for showcasing your pieces in the portfolio, especially for games, since it should run smoothly in real-time, and even better if there’s animation involved. All the model inspection options are so useful because anyone curious about your process (being a fan or a potential employer) can pretty much dissect your model with just a few clicks. I particularly love when people include it in their ArtStation because I learn so much just by messing with their Sketchfab model.

The best thing is when you try some post-processing effects and realize some obvious flaws, especially in your lighting, texture, or in the presentation itself. Most of the time I run into contrast and exposure issues or the background color—stuff that you will never notice by yourself after looking at your model for so many hours. The 3 point light system together with the ambient light can also completely change the atmosphere of a model, so I highly recommend playing with that even if you have a hand painted diffuse-only workflow. For Cuca I got some nice effects with a green light from below, vignette, small adjustments to tone mapping, SSAO (great if the transition between parts of your model is looking too flat) and bloom (I always use it when I have emissive parts, because it saves you from using crossed alpha planes or other tricks to simulate glow). Be careful to not overdo it, though.

Final thoughts

After all of this I might have some tips for you:

  1. Get feedback. I didn’t because the time was so short that iterations through internet feedback would mess up our tight schedule. Anyway, I’m pretty sure that the whole project could’ve been much better if we had time to gather professional feedback, and it’s something I always advise doing. No matter how hard the critics are, lower your head, listen to them even if you don’t agree, and learn from them.
  2. Develop a critical eye for art. This comes with time. The more you look at other people’s work, GET FEEDBACK and iterate accordingly, you start to see problems that you couldn’t see before. Aside from pure practice, for me this is the easiest way to make your work get better and better. Many times when your pieces start to be “good enough”, the small details are what could make it so much better. When you start to learn how to spot them, you will hardly make the same mistakes again.
  3. But don’t overdo it. Sometimes it’s a matter of fine-tuning sliders that change very little in the end. You might end up wasting precious hours adjusting small things and the result won’t be that different from before. Try to make it the best you can without wasting too much time on perfectionism (because perfectionists end up never being satisfied with anything, and I suffer with that a lot xD).

Thanks for reading 🙂

ArtStation

 

About the author

Luís Mesquita

Brazilian 3D modeler and texturer for games (mostly stylized), based in Germany.


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