Hey guys! My name is Matthew Kean, and I’m a Lead character artist at Firaxis Games, located in the beautiful state of Maryland, USA.
I’ve worked on a number of different titles, probably most notably Civilization VI, and helping out on Xcom 2: War of the Chosen. I’m always working on personal projects though, as I hate sitting idle for too long at home. It’s important, I feel, as 3D artists to always be expanding and learning new software and techniques to improve the workflow.
One of those personal pieces I did was my spin on the character Popeye. The goal with this project was to explore forms and proportions that were playful and yet believable. I didn’t want to just jump off of an existing interpretation, so I went back to the source:
I really wasn’t going to do a full ref sheet on this guy, because most of the sculpt would be more of a stylized anatomy test than anything else. And that’s exactly where I started the sculpt in Zbrush.
My focus at this point was big and fleshy forms. Even on the pants, the folds are large and heavy. I wanted everything about him to feel strong, and in some cases brutalist. The choice to ditch the shirt was one I made early on, as this guy was started from a sphere and I initially blocked in his upper body only. It was that torso and face that in many ways sparked the sculpt and the direction for it, not the other way around.
I sculpted both eyes closed knowing later I would open them in the lowpoly. The expression though was sculpted in, as this was pivotal to the character overall. Most pieces outside of skin were done using a simple mesh extraction and manipulating from there.
At this point I thought I was done and posted the image, but a week later I came back to it wanting to do a color pass and thought that a Marmoset render was the way to go. I began to bake and work on the model there for a little while. Now I wasn’t super concerned with topology on this one, as it wasn’t going to be animated, but I still wanted to leave myself the option of doing so later on if I needed to, so a fairly clean topology was what I wanted to do, but without a need to keep it super low and optimized.
Once I had a rough topo to bake to, I began to work on the skin. I began focusing here because the skin had most of the real estate on the character, so nailing the feel of the skin was super important. One of the ways I got the skin to feel super fleshy was something I used in both Marmoset and Sketchfab: a subsurface map.
Actually tooling with the shader a bit and seeing what each color or gray value actually does in shader is super super important in milking everything out of that shader. At times a lot of artists blame shaders for not working correctly and sometimes they are correct, but more times than not, they never took the time to see how the thing was implemented in the first place.
Once I had a base for the skin, I started to look at hair. I knew I wanted to do something for it other than a textured solution painted on the skin. My workflow was a simple one: Fibermesh the curves onto the mesh and convert those curves into cards using paint effects in Maya. In Maya you can attach a paint effect to any existing curve and then tweak the settings to generate a card along that curve. Then it’s modify > paint effects to polygons and there you go. This method has now been replaced completely by xgen in Maya.
Having all of that in place I went through and textured the rest of the clothing using painter. The lighting in Marmoset, which was referenced for the Sketchfab version, was simply a three point lighting setup with a bright dominant key light.
Always always always check your materials in different lighting setups though, making sure that all of the materials are holding up physically to the light. Popeye used a metalness workflow akin to what most engines use today. I frequently tested his materials in a slew of different environments and lighting before settling on the final materials.
Once I had all of that, I reassembled the model in Sketchfab. One of the nice things about Sketchfab is just how easily all of this stuff transfers over. It’s a real complement to any portfolio piece. The lighting tools and shaders are nothing to scoff at, and it all being within a browser makes what you see what you get in the end, so you know exactly what it will look like and how people will see it.
Do follow as I usually post sketches daily! Thanks again!