Art Spotlight: Faceless Rex

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Hi! My name is Maxime Lebled—but just call me Max—and I’m a 3D animator from France. When I was a kid, I was always curious how computers and video games worked. I loved to mess around with them, sometimes poking around files to see what it’d do. I was also big into what you could call “media creation”; my sister and I would do a bunch of fake radio shows using a tape recorder. All that coalesced into making machinima videos in the early days of YouTube… but I eventually grew frustrated of the limitations of using only pre-made content. At the same time, I had friends who were making a Source engine mod about Care Bears shooting each other, and they were wondering if I could work on their first person models. I started looking into how to create my own animations for Half-Life 2 and Team Fortress 2 characters, and it snowballed from there. I’ve been working in a “professional capacity” since 2012, and I got to bring animation to a handful of games since then, and I’ve also been contributing to Valve’s Dota 2 since 2014, mostly animating cute creatures and objects!

This is a courier for Dota 2 that was based off of a joke concept that Valve did. You see, a few years ago, every so often, they asked the community to vote on which hero should be the next to receive fresh new re-made model and materials. Unfortunately for them, the majority of the community mostly voted on the hero they liked the most, instead of judging by whether or not they were in need of a new art pass. They complied with the results of the vote, but, seeing as the revamp didn’t really change much about the hero, they also wrote a humorous blog post which included “early concepts” which were all jokes, drawn by Valve artist Heather Campbell.

The community really liked this one and a lot of people said that they’d love to have a courier version of it. For context, in Dota 2, couriers are small creatures that bring the items to the players that purchase them; you can only buy items to enhance your damage, etc. from specific points in the map otherwise. Artists can also contribute cosmetic items to Dota 2 through Valve’s Steam Workshop: cosmetic sets for heroes (new sets of armors, clothes, weapons, etc), wards (immobile units that give strategic vision to each team, and usually have big saturated eyes in their designs), and, in this case, couriers.

I talked about it with a modeler friend of mine, Yuri Shust, and we decided we’d do it as an April Fools’ joke, not really expecting it to get accepted by Valve into the game. He used ZBrush for the high-poly sculpt, then we both used Photoshop and 3ds Max for everything else. At that time, we were only focusing on the ground version of the courier; in the game, couriers start flying after three minutes have passed. And even though slapping wings on the ground version is the unoriginal thing to do, we figured it didn’t really matter, for a joke.

Image in collaboration with Genevieve Tsai

However, the reception was positive enough with the community that, after a month, we decided to come back to the courier and not only give it a big polish pass, but a proper flying version as well, based on the hero’s signature ability, “Chronosphere”. The courier was then accepted by Valve and went on to become one of the best-selling items of the game! Valve then contacted us with very helpful art feedback, and our work was featured as part of the main treasure chest for The International, which is the huge Dota tournament they hold every summer. The treasure chest went on to become one of the best-selling bundles of the history of the game, and it contributed to the prize pool of the tournament!

I’ve been animating using 3ds Max 2014 (SP5) — the least buggy version that exists, to my knowledge, for animating with the integrated CAT system. CAT, which stands for Character Animation Toolkit, is a modular rig system, and can not only work with bipedal creatures of wildly varying shapes, but also four-legged and even six-legged creatures. Or one “leg”. (I’m working on a seal at the moment!) I really like that system because it allows you to do a lot of things in animation layers, which can be either absolute, or additive, either in local space or world space. Each layer can also have their own controller sets, which is great for achieving elaborate setups. On one of my other couriers, Coral the Furryfish, there are animation layers in which I manipulated hierarchy on the fly!

The Faceless Rex courier was not particularly complex, though. The animation that is featured on Sketchfab had me pretty much adding lots of “reactive” and secondary motion on top of a pelvis following the constant rotation of the sphere. Most people usually do very short loops for idles, but I like to go all the way up to 10-12 seconds… mostly because the community submission tool for Dota 2 only allows one idle and one rare idle, and you never know when the rare idle will blend in, and it will usually do so in a pretty harsh way, depending on what you’re doing with the regular idle… so I’d rather have one long idle and no sudden weirdness!

While this wasn’t for Sketchfab at first, uploading my animation work on the site has definitely made me reconsider some of my practices, e.g. consolidating more things into a single file so that I can show off multiple animations in a single timeline, and therefore, FBX file. Hopefully a limitation that will be lifted eventually? 😉

I did, however, have to replicate the “Chronosphere” particle effect that was handled by the game engine. I didn’t want to do something too fancy with a dozen layers and post-processing effects, so that mobile devices could keep playing the animation; one of the biggest appeals of Sketchfab is, for me, being able to effectively use it as a model viewer for phones… it’s great to be able to showcase your work anywhere, and manipulate it in real-time, especially to people who ask you “so, what do you do?” but don’t know what “working for video games” really entails. 

Anyway, I recreated the effect with two geospheres. One has outward-facing normals, the other has them facing inwards. I applied a simple texture I created in Photoshop; it’s a render-clouds-ish kind of deal. They both rotate differently across the animation loop, and are both set to a relatively low opacity, while being reflective. The Milky Way environment being reflected, and being warped by the sphere is my favourite part of this finishing touch.

I have a websitean ArtStation, my YouTube channel, and my Twitter and Facebook.

About the author

Maxime Lebled

Self-taught 3D animator.

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