My name is Altaf Rahman, but my friends call me Ali! I currently work at Ubisoft Massive as a character artist. Unfortunately, N.D.A’s prevent me from discussing the current projects I am working on. Before coming to Massive, I worked at elite3d, where I had the privilege to work on Call of Duty®: Black Ops 4, and Crash™ Team Racing Nitro-Fueled.
I come from London, United Kingdom. Prior to working in the videogame industry, I worked as an engineer in the Mechanical Electrical and Plumbing sector, where I used 3D engineering modeling software such as Solidworks and AutoCAD to design mechanical components for ventilation systems, and it was from this discipline that my love for 3D grew. Whilst the other engineers used the software to design air conditioning units, I would use it in my free time to model AK-47’s and Metal Gear Solid style mechs!
I decided to leave the engineering field and enter the arena of Digital Arts by pursuing a career as a 3D artist in the video games industry.
My first gig came through Dekogon, where I worked alongside many other talented 3d artists on the company’s Kollab Project. I’d like to thank Clinton Crumpler for giving me the opportunity to work alongside him! Whilst the Dekogon gig was great, I never had the courage to apply to any game studio because I just never felt I was as good enough as the artists I would see on the internet. One day I saw elite3d’s Call of Duty™: Modern Warfare Remastered art dump on Artstation and commented on one of its pieces. Felix van den Berg, an artist at elite3d, (that I didn’t know or had never met) messaged me that he saw my comment and portfolio and that the company had some job openings and that I should apply for one of the companies art roles. And the rest is history! Big shout out to Felix for the initial message!
This year, I was fortunate enough to move to Sweden and work at my dream studio, Ubisoft Massive! I made Division 2 fan art prior to working here and would like to share some tips and advice on how the piece was created.
Gathering the Reference
Division 2 Fan Art was inspired by my roommate and good friend Valerio de Carolis, who also worked at elite3d. In the kitchen of our apartment, he would leave his backpack which he used for groceries. The backpack had some really interesting climbing clips attached to it and after playing the open beta for Division 2, Valerio’s backpack instantly reminded me of the game. I thought it would be a fun little project to exhibit some Marvelous Designer skills on. I’m not sure why….but for some reason, I have a “thing” for backpacks and bags overall! There’s something about backpacks that makes me enjoy looking at them. I know it’s weird but if you take a look at my portfolio on Artstation, you’ll see a few bags on there!
The goal was to create a backpack that looked and felt like it could exist in the world of Division 2, at the same time, I didn’t want to create a 1 for 1 replica. I wanted my backpack design to incorporate the main themes from The Division 2, however, it had to be original. I decided that the core aspects would remain the same as The Division Agent Beacon, which sits on the strap on the shoulder of the backpack and the yellow Dark Zone Extraction Bag, which hangs from the bottom. These 2 elements are very iconic to The Division franchise and cannot be altered. Anything in between was room to experiment and let the imagination run wild!
I looked at a variety of references for military backpacks but finally settled on this one as the main reference.
My final design slightly varies from this one as I made some deliberate artistic decisions to alter the dual straps for a single one. The single strap allows the bag to sit at an angle creating a more interesting silhouette and is also a closer representation to the backpacks in the first Division game, so I thought it would be a cool easter egg to include it. The reason why I choose to create this specific backpack was that this particular design allowed accessories to be easily attached to it and is also used to by the US military forces…perfect for a Dark Zone Division Agent!
It’s important to ensure that you have reference images of different angles of your prop. Having good reference images can greatly reduce the time guessing how an object is put together and assembled. For personal portfolio pieces, you can spend as long as you want on a piece of artwork, however in a professional working environment, timescales and deadlines are essential, and it’s important that you are utilizing your time allowance effectively.
After deciding which backpack to create, the next step was to decide which accessories to include on it. It was important that the bag wasn’t overloaded with accessories like in this example.
Well, perhaps, the example is a bit extreme but the point I want to highlight is, in my project, I wanted the backpack to be the center of attention and for the accessories to contribute to it and push the narrative forward. Having a large number of accessories does the opposite as it takes the attention away from the backpack and puts it on the accessories themselves, so I decided I would limit the number of items that would be featured on it. All the accessories had to have a consistent theme to avoid the feeling of randomness- they had to tell a story. Who owned the backpack? What was their profession? Where did they come from? Where were they going? I wanted to show the answers to all of these questions- so after much deliberation, I finally settled on the following references:
With all the references and concepts gathered, I could proceed to actually start building this thing. The main point to take away from here is that planning ahead can save you a lot of time in the future.
The Key to a Good In-Game Props
In video games, the quality of an asset is determined by its distance from the camera. A good example of this is in FPS shooters, where the back of the gun is more detailed than the front simply because it faces the player and directly in the player’s view. Since the player is going to see more of the back of the gun rather than the front, it’s important that a lot of time is invested in that area. The same principle applies to a third person/over the shoulder games where the back of the character is what players will see the most. Seeing as the backpack worn by the character takes center stage in a third-person shooter like The Division, it was vitally important that all the shapes and materials read correctly up close. There’s no hiding here, players can see where an artist goofed up, so the only way to approach it is to work on each piece with a lot of love and care.
The fabric elements such as the backpack, the Dark Zone Extraction Bag, the flag, and the gloves were all created in Marvelous Designer. The hard surface elements such as The Division Agent Beacon, carabiner clips, climbing latch, dog tags, and rope were all created in 3DS Max. Fabrics = Marvelous, Hard surface = Max.
The avatar used for the Marvelous Designer simulation is the property of Madina Chionidi. I imported the avatar into Marvelous Designer and created the straps and overall large shapes of the backpack. At this stage, I was ensuring that the proportions of the backpack were correct in comparison with the avatar.
At this early stage, I worked at lower particle distances to increase the simulation speed (see figure 1). Lowering the particle distance will give you higher resolution results, however, they come at a cost on your computer performance. I also like to work with Rendering Thickness switched on (see figure 2). I use it solely as a display option because I will add thickness to each garment later in 3DS Max. Here you can see I only add the thickness to the straps, as according to our reference images, they are a sturdier and stronger fabric than the main backpack itself. At the start of the project, I also just use the default fabric for simulation and switch it later on (see figure 3).
After the main shapes were created, it was time to add some volume to the backpack to make it appear full with Division Agent goodies. Here you can see the backpack looked limp and lifeless. It was time to breathe some air into it.
This was done by using the Pressure Function found in the Property Editor.
First, I froze the straps and areas I didn’t want to be affected by the simulation. To freeze patterns, select them and press CTRL + K. The patterns will turn a blue color when frozen.
I selected the fabric I wanted to add the pressure to, and adjusted the pressure slider, accordingly.
The pressure adds air and inflates the garment. This way the backpack appeared as though it was full. After playing with the pressure settings, I increased the particle distance to 10 to make sure I was getting some good looking wrinkles. I changed the material type to a “harder” fabric type such as “Fusible Rigid”. This helps to keep the shape of the backpack.
The details such as the mole fabric were then layered on top of the backpack. I put them on different layers in the Property Editor to help the fabric simulate properly.
After all the patterns were stitched together and simulated, I lowered the particle distance to 5 to increase the resolution. The same techniques highlighted thus far were used to create the cylindrical Extraction Bag, which hangs from the bottom of the backpack.
These were the final Marvelous Designer Patterns.
After the Marvelous Stage was complete, and I was satisfied with the results, I selected all my patterns and exported as an OBJ using the following settings:
After exporting the patterns as an OBJ, I took the mesh into 3DS Max to add thickness. You can add thickness in ZBrush, using Panel Loops but I prefer to do it in 3DS Max using the “Shell Modifier”. The main thing to remember is to ensure the thickness is going inwards and not outwards.
I imported the mesh into ZBrush where I subdivided it multiple times and sculpted any additional details that I see in the reference.
Working on the Details
The metallic accessories were all created in 3DS Max using traditional Catmull Clark subdivision modeling techniques. These are pretty simple hard-surface props and don’t require any sophisticated modeling procedures. The high/low polies were created in 3DS Max and baked in Marmoset Toolbag.
I decided to work on all the high polies at once and then move onto the low polies rather than 1 high poly, 1 low poly, etc. There’s no right or wrong way to approach this, you should do whatever works for you.
The rope was created in 3DS Max using splines. Make sure “enable in renderer” and “enable in viewport” are checked to turn the spline into geometry. The aim was to create a natural-looking rope rather than something that looks “floaty”. The objective was to make the rope appear as though it was affecting and pulling down on the bag. This was more difficult than it looked because the results always looked like the rope was floating and not impacting the fabric on which it rested but after a few tweaks, I finally got the result I was after.
Because it was my intention to create a tileable texture for the rope, it was important that the UV’s were layered out accordingly and occupied the entire 0-1 UV space. This way a texture could easily tile across it.
Moving on to the gloves…
Creating gloves in Marvelous Designer is not considered the standard workflow by a majority of character artists. Gloves are often sculpted directly in ZBrush, however as this was a Marvelous Designer showcase project, it made sense to me to create the gloves there. I also looked at it as a challenge, and it was one that I welcomed.
First, I simulated the glove on the hand of the avatar to make sure it fits correctly. Creating the glove was very tedious, but we got there in the end. After the glove was looking good on the hand, I deleted the avatar and simulated the gloves again to make them look like they were hanging.
This was the end result.
The loose bits of thread were created using alpha cards. This is a common technique used in video games to save on geometry. Less geo means faster rendering and loading times. Hair for characters is created the same way.
I created some geometry around the areas where the threads would be loose and mapped the UV islands to a diffuse and alpha texture I created in Photoshop. Here for the sake of demonstration, the loose threads have their own material- so you can see the textures more clearly for the explanation, but in the final submission, these UV’s where packed in with the UV’s from the rest of the glove.
Experimenting with Materials
The entire prop was textured in Substance Painter.
In my line of work, I have to follow references, however, I like to mix them whenever I texture. For example, I may like the shape of a certain object, but the materials of another. Here in this image, you can see how I used a different reference image for the texturing of the climbing latch. I felt like the golden color complimented the backpack better than the grey painted one.
A majority of the fabrics are created in Substance Painter. In the Procedural section on the Substance shelf, there are various textures, which can help you to develop realistic-looking fabrics. I mostly use the Fibers 2 node to create normal information (see figure 1). First, I create 2 fill layers, a vertical and horizontal with all channels disabled in the material except for the height (see figure 2). You can enter a height value depending on how intense you want the fibers to be. The fibers are then scaled up and tiled, accordingly, and in the vertical fill layer, rotated 90 degrees (see figure 3). I use the histogram to control the intensity of the height information (see figure 4). Finally, I add a warp filter on top of each fill layer to make some of the fibers appear distressed.
I experimented with Substance Designer when working on this project. The rope uses a 256 x 256 tileable material, which I created in Substance Designer using the following nodes:
After analyzing the reference, I decided that the best approach would be to use the weave one node when creating this material. In the above graph, the blue frames labeled weave and fiber direction contain the main instruments for generating this material, specifically the weave one node. It creates most of the material for you.
The weave one node is blurred and adjusted with a levels node, before being blended with the directional noise 2. The directional noise 2 adds some softer normal information to the surface.
The weave pattern is then blended with grunge map 005 to create the feel of slightly larger fibers.
The softer cushion surface on the other side of the backpack was also created using Substance Designer. I created the normal and height information there and layered the diffuse information on top in Substance Painter.
The material creation begins with a shape node, with the pattern set to Paraboloid.
The greyscale values from the shape node are then remapped using a gradient map node to create darker values in the center. These darker values will create a “pushed into the surface” type of effect.
I added blur to soften the transition before it entered the tile generator node. From there, I titled the X and Y amount to 10 and scaled up the size of the pattern.
I applied the material in Substance Painter and over-layered it with a grunge map to create variations in the surface and used the metal edge wear generator to add subtle knocks around the edges. Just because the generator is called metal edge wear doesn’t mean you can’t use it for non-metallic surfaces.
Most of the time, however, I tend to avoid using generators, whenever I texture my personal props. When working in a professional studio environment, timelines are important and to reduce the time spent on a prop, artists will use generators, however on a personal project I will hand-paint a majority of the masks.
The Biggest Lessons
This was a slightly bigger personal project than some of my other pieces. I wanted to demonstrate that I could work on multiple pieces at different times and then bring them to work together in the end. The material surfaces of some of the props allowed for the opportunity to further my understanding of Substance Designer, and I will continue on that avenue. It was challenging to try and nail down the look of the rope initially, but I learned that a few directional noise nodes can make a huge difference.
Finally, I would like to say a big thank you to everyone, who has helped me develop as an artist specifically the artists at elite3d. Whilst they all have contributed to my growth, there are those who have gone the extra mile to enlighten me with their knowledge. I would like to thank: Joshua Pears, Valerio de Carolis, Ivan Carvalho, Carlos Pado de Pablo, Samuel Flores, Mobo Boehme, Victor Merkulov, David Ferreria, Seth Nash, Till Marzahn, Ohle Mathiebe, Haris Habibovic, Joeri Vromman, Emmanuele Biondi, Felix van den Berg, Bart de Vries, Diogo Moniz, Leo Coto, Adrian Torres, Pablo Astor, Bjorn Seinstra, Oscar Ferrero & Jose Luis Queral. Apologies if I missed anyone out, but I ran out of characters.
Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to share with you my insights today.
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