Día de Muertos
Rendered in Marmoset Toolbag 4.
2022 was my last year at Gnomon. This here was the latest of two final projects that were finished for my graduating demo reel, and as it stands, it's the one I'm most proud of since I began my journey as a character artist. I was able to hit so many emotional and artistic marks with it -- I stepped out of my comfort zone with my creative liberties in interpreting it from the original concept (by Vanessa Morales), but I also got to lean into my growing strength in stylized art. It's the first of any of my projects that calls back to my own culture! Día de los Muertos is a holiday very dear to Mexicans & Mexican-Americans. It's a vibrant celebration of life, and a humble honoring of death. Vanessa Morales' illustration gave me an opportunity to use my skills to celebrate the concept of this holiday in a character diorama.
The journey in making Día, as I so chose to refer to her for brevity, began with conceptual prepwork. As stunning as the original concept is, my demo reel instructor, Damon Woods, and I, recognized its merit as an illustration versus an actual concept piece. Therefore I had to put in extra time deciding on how to interpret her model, textures, posing, rendering etc.
An idea Damon had for me was to do a black & white paintover to help decide how to texture everything! Doing this accomplished several things right off the bat: It helped me decide I wanted to lean into a Pixar-level quality of rendering/lighting, for one. It also helped me whittle down what I wanted to keep from the original, as well as eliminated the fear of texturing too soon and committing to a material read. I'd also come to terms that Día would be more of a storytelling piece than a production-pipeline character.
Inspiration/s (Art style)
I always knew that the 2014 animated film, The Book of Life, was going to inspire this project, as well as Disney-Pixar's Coco. What I hadn't anticipated was The Book of Life becoming the crux of the entire redesign! I've always been more comfortable with translating 2D concepts as seamlessly in 3D as possible, versus trying to tell my own story through a unique interpretation. However, I ended up deciding this piece would, in addition to being an honoring of the holiday, become a love letter to The Book of Life. While it ended up challenging my weaker points as an artist, doing this was the best decision I made for this project -- because it amplified my passion for it. And so The Book of Life became my art bible!
That said, I still wanted to use real-world reference to keep the project grounded. To fast-forward a bit -- Once I got past the conceptualizing phase, 3D blockouts, retopology, sculpting, texture blockouts & posing, I made an embarrassingly-late discovery: I'd modeled her to real-life scale out of habit. There was a point during an in-class crit with Damon where I asked for help with my Marmoset test-scene lighting. Something about it wasn't hitting the mark, and Damon helped me realize that, on the narrative and literal level, the texturing and lighting in The Book of Life reflects the fact that (spoilers?) the story is being told to a crowd of children, with wooden-puppet representations of the main characters. So Damon's suggestion to just scale the model down in Marmoset inspired me to rethink the entire texture/material game plan, or rather, rescale it. Instead of looking at large rolls of velvet and cotton to inspire the skirt textures, I looked at dolls and dioramas dressed in a similar manner. This helped me decide how far to scale up/down my normal maps, how thick to make the stitching look, etc.
After all the concepting, the 3D work itself was fairly straightforward! I tossed meshes back and forth between ZBrush and Maya. Keeping the blockout pieces tied to the high-poly models helped minimize re-UVing and with organizing my Marmoset baking scene. The curvature & AO maps from Marmoset set up the base for my hand-painting in Substance Painter. The lace pattern on her skirt was done in Designer, with lots of help from my second demo teacher, Anton Napierala! In particular, he showed me a neat trick with using a normal-map conversion of the border of my lace pattern, and feeding it into the vector map input of a Tile Sampler with a simple ellipse pattern to make stitching that follows the normals of my lace pattern!
I also followed Marmoset's tutorial for rendering realistic parallax eyes, and exaggerated the colors & specularity for stylization.
The question of how to make flesh meet metal on a grand character-scale presented itself very early on. As I was sculpting, I felt like I really needed to solve this before tackling the whole character. That resulted in me taking a chunk off the WIP high-poly sculpt and testing out the workflow. My Unreal shader knowledge is limited, but shaders are a world I've always been eager to tinker with! After wrangling with the SSS and pixel depth offset, I quickly realized that I wanted to keep my flesh and metal bits as separate meshes. At first I was discouraged, since I didn't think that floating geometry would look very convincing for the look of flesh literally melting into metal. But then! Damon reminded me that Dynameshing can respect Polygroups! By keeping the flesh and metal as separate Polygroups but one whole mesh, I could Dynamesh, ZRemesh based on groups, and bake down the normals from the Dynamesh copy and get a convincing look.
This, paired with hand-painting transitional materials (the blood, algae and barnacles) where the flesh/muscles met the panels/chains in the body, helped things blend together, in a way!
A lot of reference was taken from marine life in general! The blown-out metal panels reminded me of busted submarines, and choosing to interpret the flat blue of the skin as something like a dolphin's helped me further validate the Abyssal as a god of the deep sea. As for the muscles and human anatomy, it was a mix of reference from my favorite anatomy artbook, autopsy screengrabs, and musculature in general. I'm a big fan of the Body Worlds exhibits, and I loved looking towards that as reference for the fibrous quality of the muscles.
Rendering/post-processing isn't one of my strong suits, either, so it was very humbling to learn the ropes in UE5. After a lot of lighting troubleshooting, I settled on two sets, one for a more dramatic proof-of-concept-kinda composite, and a simple 3-point lighting render straight from Unreal to show off the model.
Shout out to Ethan Clark for showing me how to get basic chromatic aberration and movie grain going in Nuke!
Thank you for taking the time to look at my work!
And thank you once again to my instructors, classmates, friends and family for supporting the start of my journey. But it's just that -- the start!
Thank you to the Rookies for allowing me a last chance to reflect on my work as a student!