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Before Freelancer Hard Surface and Prop Artist Mauricio Llano was working for Ryzin Art and Dekogon Studios, he was a 3D Game Artist looking to polish his skills on single assets. So when he took on his first hard surface item, a XDM 9mm 4.5, he wrote an insightful breakdown including tips and common mistakes during every step of the process, including:

  1. Reference
  2. Blockout
  3. High Poly
  4. UVs
  5. Texturing
  6. Detailing
  7. Animation
  8. Rendering
  9. Final Product

Hi, my name is Mauricio Llano and I am a hard artist from Monterrey, Mexico. I’ve always been interested in the entertainment art industry. My first internship was with Lee Lanier for animation and VFX, then my second opportunity was with the amazing outsourcing company CGBot. During my time at CGBot, I fell in love with doing art for games. The pipeline and challenges resonated with me instantly. Now, I work as a freelancer at at Ryzin Art and Dekogon Studios.

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1. Reference

I think what makes your final product look different, even if everyone starts with the same model, are the references you use, also a bit of personal taste. That’s why it’s so important to find the right reference. I like to get a ton of images before I start modeling, especially high res shots for the side of the gun and perspective. I use those references to model 80% of the weapon.

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I also like to get the shots of the parts not everyone is familiar with. Especially from uncommon angles, like the exposed barrel when the slide is pulled back.

Another tip is to search on YouTube (for photos use Google, Pinterest, or sites where they sell the gun you’re modeling). Even if the video isn’t 4K, you will get a good understanding of how the fun actually works. But I’ve learned during my internships that you’re not always going to find a reference for each angle (Front, side, etc).

Enroll in CGMA’s Weapons and Props for Games course taught by Treyarch’s Senior Weapon Artist Ethan Hiley.

2. Blockout

For the blockout, the single most important thing is the silhouette from all angles. This includes width, primary and secondary shapes, and also understanding how it will be animated.

In my opinion, the process of modeling should be done in whatever way you feel most comfortable. For example, I like to combine poly modeling and box modeling. I use boxes, cut them in half, and use an instance to see the volume results without having to mirror anything manually.

*First blockout. You can see the gun is overall too thick and seems too clunky.

*First blockout. You can see the gun is overall too thick and seems too clunky.

In the spirit of making mistakes, I could have done better with the blockout. First, I went in and modeled the sections from inside the slide, which took a lot of time.

I then unsuccessfully tried to use Boolean shapes inside Maya. The result was super hit or miss, so in the end, I just went with traditional cutting and pulling verts to achieve what I wanted.

Boolean went wrong. Never forget to do them on closed geometry!

Boolean went wrong. Never forget to do them on closed geometry!

Still, don’t be afraid to try new things, because we learn from mistakes and become better!

3. High Poly

Here’s where the class really opened my eyes. Normally, I make a high poly entirely inside ZBrush, but this was my first hard surface item and this is where I made my biggest mistake.

Almost finalized blockout

Since I was too afraid to try ZBrush out, I relied on traditional edge loops and Maya’s smoothing preview to see how the high poly would look like. However, as the blockout was built with a lot of details like grooves on the slide, etc. they messed up my topology. Another mistake during the blockout was that I tried to save on tri-count. You can imagine the nightmare when I tried to fix the loops.

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So, I made the decision to re-do everything up to this point, taking closer note of the instructor’s workflow this time. That’s where DynaMesh and Booleans saved the day. I built simple geometry and subtracted / added them to create complex pieces. I also liked that in ZBrush you can easily polish or round up the edges, so can achieve even edge thickness without much difficulty like manually adding loops. Be sure to make your edges smoother than the real-life counterpart so your normal map doesn’t look too sharp.

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Master your Zbrush fears in CGMA’s ZBrush for Concept & Iteration course taught by Framestore Senior Character Artist Victor Maiorino Fernandes and 3D Concept Artist Michael Pavlovich.

4. UVs

A neat trick with UVs is to always begin with the biggest pieces first. Nightshade UV Editor is quite good and you should definitely try it out. It will speed up your workflow and also has a lot of tools easier compared to Maya’s default editor. As for the actual process, I use planar mapping almost entirely even with organic models.

Finished low poly with UVs. Using a 2K checker. Avoid stretching if you can. A minimal amount for non-vital parts is allowed, like the magazine which will only be seen for a short period of time.

Finished low poly with UVs. Using a 2K checker. Avoid stretching if you can. A minimal amount for non-vital parts is allowed, like the magazine which will only be seen for a short period of time.

For this specific gun, I first did a planar to the entire model, then started with big pieces, putting them into another quadrant rather than the main so I didn’t clutter the grid each time I did a new planar operation. I just kept doing this process until 80%-90% of the pieces were done. Then I start laying out the biggest pieces and finishing unwrapping the little ones. At this point, Ethan did tell me that some pieces wouldn’t ever be seen so I just deleted them. As artists, we must try to get the best texel density and be as consistent as possible. The only places where you can get away with lower density are inside pieces that would only be visible for a fraction of a second.

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UVs of the gun. Pink/Purple pieces are stacked UVs. Be sure to check if the baking program you are using requires you to move stacked shells to other quadrants.

As you can imagine, stacking UVs is crucial and here you can take the advantage of the gun’s symmetry. For my XDM model, I stacked the handle and the magazine since it’s not visible for a long period of time. On the other hand, if it is a First Person Shooter do not mirror UVs that are going to be directly in front of the player’s face.

5. Texturing

For texturing, Substance Painter is an amazing tool. I still recommend Marmoset Toolbag 3 for baking, as it has the skew paint tool and speed. Just remember to do your baking groups correctly or you will have projection errors. And finally when you do the AO baking make sure that moving parts are not baked with non-moving. For example, the slide and the barrel.

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Before I got started, I gathered more references so I wouldn’t miss impactful details.

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For the texturing inside Substance Painter, it’s important that you start with the material definition and hitting the Metallic and Roughness values first (or Spec / Gloss) because sometimes the albedo can distract you.

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Using simple fill layers you should be able to recreate the material. Here’s where the references with different lighting conditions will tell you how the material reacts to light. Also, remember to change the default parameters if you are using presets. It’s easy to tell when an artist leaves the settings by default.

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I like to work in Designer for tiling textures and that’s where I learned from the amazing Josh Lynch to work on Roughness first. As with PBR, this will sell your material work. Painter, on the other hand, is superb for doing assets like the gun. You have a ton of control over the whole process. What I like to do is to use fill layers, masks, and paint layers inside those masks. This way I can add or subtract details. You can do this a lot with the smart masks so they don’t look procedural.

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A small tip that sometimes can help is to change your 3D view/environment. The asset doesn’t have to look appealing in different environments but it should look physically correct if you are working with PBR shaders.

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Also as Ethan pointed out during the course, be sure to invest in high-quality textures. For example, a good photo scan of scratches like this can save your life! And they also help to add subtle changes to roughness.

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Check out CGMA’s Texturing and Surfacing for Films/Cinematics course taught by Lead Texture Artist and Modeler Chris Nichols.

6. Detailing

For details, namely emblems, I used Photoshop to create a b&w sheet that I could bring into Painter and use as a mask. Again, the use of fill layers is something I use every time. The text was created the same way. But for some emblems, I used Illustrator as it has some neat auto roundness options for corners.

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At this point, I noticed that some of the emblems were too detailed for the texel density I had and it made the projections look pixelated. A pro tip here is to add Blur filter to that layer so that it balances out the edges.

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7. Animation

It depends on the project whether you need to think about animation or not. When it comes to animation, here’s where details are crucial. If you are working on a game, make sure to get the asset into the engine ASAP to save time and compare the piece to other assets.

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And make sure the animator, rigger, and game programmer are on the same page. It takes some time to set the gun up, and if it turns out that the process has to be re-done, it’ll be quite unpleasant for everyone.

Watch Freelance Artist Cohen Brawley explain what steps you can take to push your hard surface weapon to the next level.

8. Rendering

For the rendering and presentation, I again like to look for references and inspiration. I collect ArtStation works that I love and analyze them looking for patterns and good compositions.

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The lighting reference is key. The mood I went for was neutral and realistic. I used a combination of subtle warm and cold lights. Another thing that sells gun photos is the use of backlights or rim lights shining at the corners or edges. This way you can give a sense of volume through light and show off your work with the low poly + normal map.

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I must admit that this process is probably as long as making the asset itself. I did around 3-4 scenes before the final one. By the way, when using Marmoset or any other package, take advantage of animating the lights and cameras. Thus you can take several approaches without having to CTRL+Z all the time plus it saves you from accidentally moving the camera.

9. Final Product

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Final Thoughts

  • When I decided to take a CGMA course to improve my work, I initially wanted to enroll in an environment art class. But then I realized that I needed to polish my skills on single assets first and found Weapons and Props with Ethan Hiley the best option. I’m so glad I did.
  • A lot of people say that any kind of knowledge can be acquired from online research alone. It is partially true, and you can totally go that road. However, it will take you a lot more time, mistakes, and energy.
  • At CGMA you are being taught real-life workflows, techniques and, – most importantly, – you have a chance to ask industry experts and get feedback from them. This alone will get your quality and speed up.
  • Finally, if you think that you already know the stuff that’s covered during the course, you should still consider signing up. There are always a few little tricks you can learn, and your quality will go up because the instructor will push you further.
  • If any one of you is thinking of taking any CGMA course, feel confident that it is worth it.

LEARN MORE

CGMA provides comprehensive instruction for Art, Games, and VFX industries in a variety of courses for a range of students, from 2D and 3D artists looking to supplement their college studies to industry professionals looking to stay up to date on emerging trends and techniques in the field.

RELATED LINKS

Be sure to check out the rest of Mauricio’s work on his ArtStation.

Enroll in CGMA’s Weapons and Props for Games course taught by Treyarch’s Senior Weapon Artist Ethan Hiley.

Master your Zbrush fears in CGMA’s ZBrush for Concept & Iteration course taught by Framestore Senior Character Artist Victor Maiorino Fernandes and 3D Concept Artist Michael Pavlovich.

Check out CGMA’s Texturing and Surfacing for Films/Cinematics course taught by Lead Texture Artist and Modeler Chris Nichols.

Watch Freelance Artist Cohen Brawley explain what steps you can take to push your hard surface weapon to the next level.