Art by Luis Nieves

SOCOM Devil Dog: Photorealistic Character Art with Luis Nieves

Pierre Bosset on January 25 2019 | Stories, Game, Film/VFX

I’m a Colombian-American senior artist living and working in Los Angeles. I’ve been fortunate enough to move among industries, which is always challenging as each one requires a different set of skills. I’ve been more interested in Character art, and real-time asset development, in the last 3 or 4 years of my career; this time I wanted to work in a subject matter that’s always relevant to games, cinematics, and film: battlecraft.

Soldiers are some of the most complex characters out there. Not only do you have to get aspects such as anatomy, shape, and proportions right, but you then have to put a lot of soul into the amount of tiny detail that military gear has in its design.

People who know me will tell you about my obsession with detail. I don’t think it’s an obsession though, I just try to reproduce real-world objects as closely as I can in a digital medium. The sooner you understand devices, connections, locks, carabiners, and other props, the sooner you’ll get an army of tiny objects that together will make a great suit or plate carrier. You’ll also have the right foundation when conceptualizing gear for futuristic/sci-fi characters.

I’m going to show you some of the things I did in my Devil Dog. To understand my process, it helps if you’re already somewhat proficient with Substance Painter. Remember, your process is your own - there’s nothing set in stone, and when it comes to CG, 2+2=4, but 3+1=4 as well.

Everything I can do you can do too, with discipline and of course a lot of love. Hopefully, my way of attacking this asset will help you, inspire you to develop, or will be complementary to your own pipeline. To complete this project, I used Maya, Substance Painter, Vray, and Zbrush.

There are many objects in this character; one of the most challenging to achieve was the helmet and its gadgets. Each one pieces has a life on its own, created by teams of industrial designers who live and breathe to make 3D artists’ lives impossible. Whatever the reason, military designs always have to be intricate, and packed with curves and angles that won’t align side to side, or upside down, when modeling. Keeping a moderate edge flow, and unwrapping and painting these correctly, requires many hours, and a lot of patience.

For the helmet, I’m showing here the process for six parts: camera and strobe (Fig 2), mount and helmet base (Fig 3), and goggles and headset (Fig 4). I started color-coding my objects with physical materials in mind (top Fig 1). The naming conventions used in the Maya Lambert shaders will establish shading hierarchies and will help you to produce ID bakings within Substance Painter. The UV sets will define the order of your UDIM, as they do in Mari.

Depending on the specifications of your computer and your graphics card, you’ll more or less be able to add geometry. Test and check the feedback of your viewport in Substance Painter. Even if you’re working with a laptop, you’ll be able to take complete props and paint them separately. I love to isolate single objects at a time: this helps me focus on how much work the small pieces need, instead of getting overwhelmed with a complete torso or a complete character, where I don’t even know where to start.

To me, the success in the texture painting process lies in thinking of my character as a group of 300 props, where every single one deserves the same amount of attention.

Right after I import my models, I change the default Substance Painter HDRi (Environment) to the one I will use for rendering in Maya (bottom Fig 1). That way our Vray and Iray materials will match perfectly, as they are tuned under the same light conditions. Two birds with one stone: I used to make my look development and texture painting two separate processes. Now, thanks to Substance Painter, I can solve the look of my materials directly in my textures. This is very helpful when you need to share your work from program to program, switching between software such as Maya, Max or Modo. You’ll be using the same maps, in the same shader channels, as long as they share the same render outlet. Also, and very importantly, If you keep your models UDIM-consistent, you won’t have to render more than three shaders per character: hair, skin shader, and everything else. I’m using a six-map setup in this Devil Dog: diffuse, reflection, glossiness, IOR, normal and opacity.

To make a proper material, I like to think of it as an onion: you’ve got to peel through layers of stuff to get to the center. Now, think of the center as your base material - chrome, let’s say - and all the peeled layers are reflection breakers, such as use, scratches, dust, heavy dirt, and in some cases mud (see examples of layers tabs in Fig 2 to 6). One of the great things about Substance Painter is that it gives us masks to separate each of these overlapping layers, and blending modes like Photoshop’s, to make them react in an unlimited customized fashion.

I used to bake AO and normals in Maya or Toolbag, and tension in Max, in order to have the perfect template to paint over my textures. Now I have those and then some, with the complimentary passes created when baking maps inside SP (world space normal, ID, curvature, position and thickness).

After I lay out native Substance Painter masks, I draw over them using downloaded vector art and predesigned Illustrator logos (example in Fig 2 for strobe and Fig 3 for helmet number tag) when I need color/material separations (see the best example in the forearm tattoo in Fig 5). I also use masks I paint while sculpting in ZBrush (in most cases opacity masks extracted from cavity). Another feature I love from Substance Painter masks is the accurate ability to react to sculpting detail placed in your normal maps. A good example of this is dirt getting into the channels of clothes, depending on what patterns you sculpted in the fabric. The best example can be observed in the helmet net cover (Fig 3).

In general, I like to go from difficult to simple: from props (small-detail objects with different materials and masks such as in the helmet) to limbs, gloves and boots (medium-detail pieces, see Fig 5) and finally big area objects like the shirt or pants that share the same material, the same dirt, and the same scratches all over their surface (see Fig 6). Those big chunks are easier to revise and easier to take on, especially when the task of painting starts to take too long and it’s more difficult to maintain interest or motivation.

For the shirt, I used a seamless tiled texture previously made in Photoshop (see bottom Fig 6). I made the camo spots by hand, using references. The colors of the US Militia Camo are very specific.

For the rifle scope though, I started from the Woodland fabric, one of the native camo materials available in Substance Painter. You’ve got to try those!

I hope you liked my SOCOM Devil Dog piece, as well as its breakdown. I’ll keep posting a lot more Substance Painter work in the near future. Keep your eyes open!

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