Art Spotlight: Biomodem

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Hello! I am Stephanie Nieves, a 3D environment and prop artist from the Orlando area in Florida. My artistic background consists of illustration and web design, but for the past handful of years I’ve been participating in the game art community and industry. I was working for an indie studio for a couple of years but decided to return to school to learn Substance Designer and Painter, as PBR was growing in popularity at the time and grabbed my interest. However, during one of my classes I discovered my passion for the handpainted process! It was something that I could easily sink endless hours into and felt that it was personally rewarding. From that point, I decided to dedicate my skillset to creating handpainted assets.

The Reference

The concept that my object was based on was created by Simon Stalenhåg, who’s well known for his intriguing concepts that merge grounded 80/90’s technology with surreal sci-fi and horror concepts. I’ve been admiring his work for a while and thought it would be a fun challenge to translate one of his concepts into 3D.

Even when working with a clear concept, it’s important to also compile references for objects that share similar materials and/or structure to what’s being created. While it is part of the 3D artist’s job to help fill in the blanks to what exists underneath or behind the concepted object or environment, it never hurts to have help from real life. Having solid reference from reality can give you a better understanding on how to tackle a model, texture, or animation, and as a result save you from spending time with trial-error guesswork!

Thankfully the USRobotics modem that Stalenhåg painted actually existed! After a bit of Google hunting (just searching “80’s usrobotics modem” gave me a great starting point), I was able to find the exact model of modem that was referenced, with plenty of great photos taken from vendors on places like Ebay. This gave me a good look at how the back and bottom would be constructed, in addition to the dimensions of the item.

With my reference sheet put together, I went right into Maya to begin my blockout.

The Workflow – Blockout

Right next to gathering reference, the blockout stage is quite important as this is where I make sure all the proportions are correct. It’s best to take some time to get the object as close as possible as there’s nothing worse than realizing your object is looking proportionally off after you have already started texturing! With every project, I try to keep a good habit of making sure my blockout dimensions match what my object would likely be sized in real life. It keeps the object consistent in scale in case there were other assets to be made, or if it was going to be integrated to an in-game world in the future.

The Workflow – High Res

I wanted this asset to be a hero prop, so this called for a high-res model to be made. Even though this project won’t be using normal maps, I personally believe that making a high-res for an AO would help me a lot in finding my way around my prop during texturing.

For the organics, I decided to use Blender. As someone who’d dabbled only with Zbrush in the past, picking up Blender’s sculpting tools felt intuitive enough. After bringing in my blockout into Blender, I used MadMinstrel’s Blender Sculpt Tools addon to Union my spheres together, so that I’d be working with one mass instead of a bunch of intersecting spheres. Then the mass was subdivided so I’d have enough geometry to sculpt with (or at least as much geometry as my computer could handle!). From there, I started blocking out my large and medium shapes using Dyntopo. Whether the work is in 2D or 3D, it’s best to start with broad shapes and have the silhouette defined before jumping straight into the little details. With Dyntopo set to “Relative Detail” I can take a step back and control how much detail I’m working into my sculpt depending on how far away or close I am to the object. It helped me avoid staying stuck in the higher subdivisions where I could get lost working the finer shapes before everything else was taken care of.

Once I was done sculpting, I ran my work through Blender’s “Decimate” modifier to reduce the millions of tris to a stable amount so I can take it with me back to Maya for retopology and other adjustments.

Going back to my blockout in Maya, I created a more detailed “clean version” of the modem to have better control over my edgeflow and to make sure that the geometry was suitable enough for sub-dividing later. Then, using my initial blockout and my organic sculpt as a guide, I began to cut through and then shape my modem with soft select to give it its warped appearance. After some geometry clean-up, it was ready to be used for baking.

As a mini side project, I also wanted to create the embossed logo using geometry. Unfortunately, Maya’s SVG-to-geometry tool didn’t like any of the SVG files I had for the USRobotics logo (and I couldn’t make my own version as I had no access to Illustrator at the time), so instead I grabbed the bezier tool and traced over an image plane of the logo (or at least traced over the principle shapes used since the letters had shared similar curves), lofted the curves, cleaned up the geo, and used that in my bake.

The Workflow – Game Res, Retopo, & UVs

With the high res done, it was time to make the game res! For my hard surface part, I took my geometry prior to sub-dividing and deleted or tied off all of the unnecessary edges on the model; anything that didn’t support the silhouette or other important shapes. I used bezier curves and extruded some cylinders on those curves to create the wires poking through the flesh. For my organics, I made the high res mass a Live Surface and used the Quad Draw tool to retopologize the visible sections. I tried not to limit myself to a set tri count as I wanted to push for quality, but I was mindful not to waste geometry in areas where it wasn’t needed. The whole model at the end sat at about 17k tris, which isn’t bad considering that it’s a hero model and a portfolio piece.

I laid out my UVs in a way that would be easy to paint on while keeping everything of the same texel density. The modem had a few natural seams that I took advantage of, and overall was a relatively easy unwrapping job.

Baking out Maps

Ever since I’ve started baking maps, I’d use a combination of Maya Transfer Maps and XNormal with my geometry exploded, but now it’s 2018 and Substance Painter is my new favorite baking tool. By using Painter’s “Bake By Name”, I was able to make my maps with hardly any geo overlap baked on to them. I would also see the results on my mesh as soon as the bake was complete, so I’d be able to quickly tweak some settings if need be. I only needed the AO, but it’s good to have a Normal map baked out just in case I needed the blue channel. Plus, it looks nice when showing the yet-to-be-painted asset.

The Remaining 80% of the Work – Texturing

With every texture I work on, I start by taking a UV snapshot in Maya and bringing it into my painting software of choice. Normally I’d use Photoshop, but my old Macbook that had the license unfortunately died on me during the beginning of the project, so my copy of MangaStudio on my PC was a good backup. In the end, it didn’t really matter which program was being used, as long as it supported layers and had at least a brush tool that supported pressure sensitivity.

For the texture size, I prefer working one size up from what would be used in-game. A hero prop like this would likely use a 2k map in-game, so my work document was in 4k. Even if a scenario showed up later that would have the asset instead use a 1k or 512 map, I can always resize the texture down. (Because the asset is a portfolio piece, I did end up using the full 4k map in my presentation shot as I wanted to use this opportunity to show off the details!)

Once the UV snapshot was in, I created a set of folders organized by type of material. Metal, plastic, organics, etc. would be masked out in their own worlds, which made it easy for me to track down and make large edits (such as increasing the saturation of the plastic, for example) without affecting the rest of the texture. I brought in my AO and set both that map and my snapshot to multiply over my work layers. Using them as a guide, I blocked out my base colors for each material. When working with anything that involved with color, I have found that it helps to create a basic palette of frequently used colors to pick from, and to also create a Hue/Sat/Lum Correction Layer above everything so I can check to see how my values were reading.

I used to work solely in whatever painting software I was using, but there would always be that issue of painting out seams and sometimes it would just be easier to paint directly on the model for some of the trickier areas. I didn’t own a copy of 3DCoat, but thankfully, I was informed that Blender had a similar texture painting function, so I decided to check that out!

I brought in my game-res model and texture into Blender and became spoiled quite quickly with its painting tools. I still ended up bouncing back and forth between Blender and MangaStudio due to my painting software having better brush control, and that I also can utilize my organization setup there. Even then, the introduction to Blender in my painting workflow has helped me greatly!

During the actual painting process, my workflow tends to start with a color and shape blockout, then move on to my lighting blockout (establishing the direction of the main source of light; bouncelight and any applicable secondary sources would come in later), and then to further define the materials by adjusting how glossy/rough they are.

During this process, I like to share my work in progress with my peers, instructors, and fellow artists in online communities such as Polycount. I love critiques as it’s always an opportunity to learn something new and to further improve my skills. With their help, I was able to bring my prop to a greater level of quality!

As I was wrapping up the project for presentation, I thought taking a moment to add a bit of animation would really help bring this unusual asset to life. I wanted the eyes to look around and have one of the lights blink as if the modem was powered somehow. After some online searching, I came across for some information about the AnimAll addon for Blender and it seemed to be the perfect tool for what I had in mind. I spent a couple of days browsing through some tutorials and just plain experimenting around and ended up with the results that you can see now!

I like utilizing Sketchfab’s 3D viewer as an easy way to share my model in real-time. It certainly saves me the hassle of rendering out a turn-around video and provides other conveniences like being able to toggle the wireframe and view the texture map. It’s a great way to get into the model details and see how others have built their projects.

For my Sketchfab setup, I had my material set to shadeless, changed the background to be a flat color, and didn’t do too much with post-processing except for adding a very subtle grain and sharpness to give my texture a bit of a pop. Importing the animation was a bit trickier as the model wasn’t rigged and animated by the usual means; the AnimAll addon saves the animation information to the UVs and verts of the mesh. I was able to find that the best way to get the 3D viewer to read that information was through the Timeframe (Stop Motion) method, which essentially had each frame exported as its own .obj file and had me set up a text file to tell the 3D viewer to swap out each .obj file as if it was a flipbook.

Overall, this was one of the larger projects I’ve taken on and have learned plenty of new things to incorporate into my work. It was a fun journey, and I’m glad I was able to successfully translate one of my favorite artist’s concepts into 3D.

If you’d like to follow my work in other places, I do have an ArtStation and a Polycount thread, as well as a Portfolio Site.

Thank you to everyone who viewed my work and gave their feedback. I appreciate all of your critiques and kind words, and I’m looking forward to tackling the next challenge!

About the author

Stephanie Nieves

3D Environment and Prop Artist


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