Toolbag

Telling Stories Through Character Art with Natalia P Gutiérrez

Interview conducted by Mira Karouta

Natalia P Gutiérrez is a phenomenal, narrative-driven character artist who weaves wonderfully intricate stories with her characters. We’ve had the utmost pleasure of talking to Natalia about how she approaches storytelling and her process for setting up the Toolbag 3 scene for “The Mother”, her winning entry for Artstation’s character art division of the ‘Beneath The Waves’ challenge.

Could you tell us a little about yourself and how you got involved in character art?

When I finished high school I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study or dedicate myself to. At that time, I used to mainly do 2D art, but video games intrigued me. I decided to study two one-year courses, each covering the basics of modeling, texturing, animation, etc. When I finished those I still hadn’t a clear idea of what I wanted to do, so I started sculpting characters at home. I used to play a lot of Dota 2 and saw they had a workshop on Steam where people could upload personal creations to be reviewed by Valve. If they were good enough, they would be included and sold ingame. I wanted to try my luck so I started sculpting sets of armor and characters, and I haven’t stopped doing character art ever since.

How do you approach storytelling as a character artist?

I think the most important thing is to recreate the character as faithfully as possible, not only physically but also their emotions and temper. If it’s an existing concept, a character artist should ask themselves many questions while using the character’s background as base. Where they’re from, what do they do, what’s their story, has something happened to them in the past, if so, how does that reflect on the character now? The more you get to know the character in your mind, the better you can represent it on 3D.

Art is a form of communication, so you’re trying to communicate a story with a character, and it will be successful if the audience can understand what you’re trying to portray. Apart from understanding the character from the inside, you’ll have to make use of strong anatomy foundations. Even if the character is a monster or stylized, having a solid knowledge of anatomy is a must so that you can deform or adapt it later.

Where do you draw your influences from?

My favourite style is realism, so artists like Adam Skutt or Frank Tzeng, among others. I also love dark fantasy and the traditional art of Forest Rogers. My main influence is reality itself, of course. The things I learn and observe that I later apply to my art.

Why did you choose Toolbag to present your work?

I probably first heard of it when I was doing art for Dota 2, since most of the workshop artists used it to make their presentations. It looked easy and intuitive to use and, above all, the best way to quickly visualize and test changes in real-time. It’s what I value the most about it; the ability to test models and textures on different lightning environments, quickly seeing if they work, and tweaking them accordingly.

How have you been coping with all the fame and glory since you’ve won Artstation’s Beneath the Waves challenge?

It’s been hard. I had to retire to a castle high in the mountains guarded by two dragons in order to get my peace back.

Could you give us a breakdown on your lighting and material setup for your piece, The Mother?

Sure! I’ve included some images showing my material settings and lighting setup.

Materials

For the body materials (body and shell), I just imported and set up my textures from Painter. I followed the metal/roughness workflow. I also added a bit of red scatter depth to both materials and translucency controlled by a translucency map.

For the bubbles, I created a new material using the ‘Glass Simple’ preset that comes with Toolbag. I changed the secondary reflections to ‘Newton’s Rings’, tweaked the strength a bit, and switched the Transparency mode to ‘Refraction’, setting the ‘index of Refraction’ slider completely to the left.

It was a matter of experimenting since I didn’t want scientifically accurate bubbles, only bubbles that looked artistically nice. The same case applied for the Iridescence. I experimented a lot until I got a result that I liked, achieved with a transparent material (Transparency mode is set to ‘Add’) with a purplish Albedo color.

Lighting

Regarding the lights, there is a total of 14 omni lights in my scene. I started by selecting one of the sky presets and significantly reducing the intensity of the light.

I then started placing omni lights by hand. My first step is adding the main omni light that will be on the focal point of the character, and then start building the rest around it. In this case, it was the upper middle part of her since it was a beauty shot.

I always try to achieve dramatic lighting. Lighting that won’t look flat with shadows that will help give the character better readability. In this step, I placed my omni light at the top. The character is slightly posed, so that helped create shadows and you can see her volumes much better. I also tweaked the size of every omni light so that the shadows are softer.

Instead of having one individual light as a fill or rim light, I create multiple smaller ones to help accentuate different areas of the character. Once they are all active together, I find the lighting to be much richer. Sometimes the omni lights can be really small, made just to accentuate a tiny area of the model, and that’s why I have a larger number of them.

The next step was creating rim lights. Rim lights help make the silhouette of the character pop. This was an underwater themed model, so all my lights have a blue or purplish tone. I have multiple rim lights as well, but they all concentrate on the upper middle left side of the model which was the area I wanted to bring the most attention to.

The fill lights were next. Fill lights are subtle lights that help illuminate darker areas so that no detail is lost.

These lights by themselves look flat and uninteresting, but when combined with the others, they really help bring out details that would be covered in shadow otherwise. These can be more or less subtle depending on the effect you want to achieve.

Here is a final shot of all the lights combined.

 

How do you plan and execute animations for your characters?

All my character’s animations are executed by Juan Cervilla. I just tell him my ideas and he does all the magic!

We asked Juan about his process and collaboration with Natalia. Here’s what he had to say.

Juan: First, I start building the rig for the character, using anatomy references for better joint positioning or to place them in the best spot. I usually do a first pass and a skinning test to see if the base rig is working the way I like. Then I proceed with the second pass which involves tweaking and polishing the rig. Since I work with the rig as a reference, I only really spot issues when I start animating. So it’s a bit of back and forth in the beginning, making tweaks in the original rig file while animating to refine the skinning.

Before jumping into animation, I always ask the artist (Natalia) how she thinks the character moves and we look at references to find the best way to bring them to life. We research locomotion, behavior and sometimes I also film myself for reference. Then I create a lot of different poses and try to find the perfect one for the character and show them to the character artist for feedback.

Once we are in the animation stage, I grab the references and start animating the character with a blocking pass, keeping the animation at just the main keys to see if the overall motion is solid and works the way we want. Then I start breaking down the animation with a couple of passes. When we are in a good stage, I start the refining phase, working on the root motion first until we have a good feeling. I move into the spine and then the limbs. After some tweaks, I finish with the facial animation (if applicable) and all the extra layers like clothes, tails, accessories. Now that we have our character animated, I finish my part with the import/export process into Toolbag.

What’s your advice for staying motivated when working on a personal piece?

If you’re struggling to finish a piece, my advice would first be to let it rest. Sometimes, we really pressure and force ourselves to continue working on a piece because we think that if we can’t make it work, it’s because we’re not trying hard enough. Even for someone with this mentality, it might seem like the wrong thing to do (although it’s actually the obvious step to take). It’s better to let it rest for a while and return to it with fresh eyes.

My second advice would be that, if stuck, try to concentrate on a single element at a time. If it’s a character with lots of components, try to focus on a single element, even if it’s simple. In fact it’s better if it’s simple: a leather bag, a gauntlet, even the handle of a sword. Focus on that, leave the rest, investigate it and try to represent it the best way you can. Don’t see being stuck as a problem, but as an opportunity to focus on other elements and learn in detail how they work.


Check out more of Natalia’s work on Artstation and learn how Toolbag 3 can help you create stories for your characters.

Free Update: Toolbag 3.04

We’re thrilled to announce the release of Marmoset Toolbag 3.04, a free update for all Toolbag 3 users. 3.04 brings a number of exciting new features and enhancements to both Toolbag and Viewer. New baker outputs and workflow improvements, animation support for Viewer, and improved shadows headline the release.

Download the installer from the Toolbag 3 product page, or by launching Toolbag 3 and clicking on the auto-update prompt. See the full change log on the Toolbag History section.

Baker Updates

Interface and Workflow Improvements

New Baker Interface

The baker UI has been updated with a focus on functionality. We’ve added a map configurator to customize which maps types are active. You can define the default maps (and their settings), as well as save and load presets for different projects. We’ve also added a master tangent space setting, a custom pixel padding size option and user definable map suffixes.

New Map Outputs



Toolbag 3.04 bakes all the maps, so you can do all the things! Here’s a list of the new map types:

  • Thickness
  • Concavity
  • Convexity
  • Bent Normals
  • Bent Normals (Object)
  • Complete Lighting
  • Diffuse Lighting
  • Specular Lighting
  • Albedo (Metalness)
  • Metalness
  • Roughness
  • UV ID
  • Group ID
  • Object ID
  • Wireframe
  • Alpha
  • Emissive
  • Transparency

Texture Set Support

Texture Set Support

Featured art by Charles Metze III.

Multiple texture/material sets are now supported. You can easily bake assets with more than one UV layout in a single Baker object. For instance, a character with a texture set for the body and clothes or a gun with additional sets for the attachments.

Texture sets work by reading the materials assigned to the low poly mesh(es). For each unique material, a new set of images will be baked. Resolution can be controlled per set as well.

Image Quality Improvements

A dithering option has been added for the Ambient Occlusion output, which reduces banding by a considerable amount. AO bakes look better with fewer rays now, which means faster bakes with similar or better quality in most cases when dithering is enabled.


Curvature maps have been updated with a new Normalize setting (which is enabled by default). The Normalize setting maximizes the value range, which makes curvature maps work better with applications such as Substance Painter.

Bake Normal Mapped Material from High to Low
Normal map detail from the high poly material now transfers to the baked normal map output. This can be useful if you’ve added additional high frequency detail to your high poly material or if you’re baking from one low poly mesh to another.


Shiny New Viewer Features


Viewer has received a facelift, sporting a host of new features. Headlining the additions is animation support. Now you can bring your artwork to life with the magic of motion. We’ve also added support for refractive materials, shadowed fog, and the shadow catcher object. Rounding out the update are reduced file sizes, high DPI support, and a high-resolution thumbnail option.

Stand Alone Viewer Application

Viewer Stand Alone Application

Featured art by Baj Singh.

In addition to the new features, we’ve developed an application for viewing .mview files. Now reviewing local content is much easier for you and your client. Simply double click an .mview file to launch the stand alone viewer. The new Viewer app is included with the Toolbag 3.04 installer, and can be downloaded independently as well and works on Mac and Windows.


Improved Shadows

Volumetric Fog

Add atmosphere to your scene with our updated fog effect. Direct lights now cast shadows through fog, creating a volumetric effect that adds depth and realism to your renders.

Cascaded Shadow Maps


Directional lights now have the option to use Cascaded Shadow Maps, which prioritize shadow detail for areas near to the camera. CSM is especially useful for environments and larger scenes.

Ludicrous Shadow Resolution

Ludicrous Shadow Resolution

If you’re looking for less pixelation, a new extra-high resolution shadow option can be found in the render settings. This setting can reduce performance significantly, so it’s best used in relatively simple scenes or by those who have high-end GPUs.

Better Shadow Quality

Reduced Shadow Acne

Shadow acne artifacts have been significantly reduced, and shadow coverage is improved as well.


Optimized Animations

Featured art by Peter Vechkasov.

Along with animation support in Viewer, we’ve improved and optimized the animation system. Animated meshes are now stored directly in the .tbscene file and animation performance is significantly improved in some cases. We’ve added support for the 2018 version of the FBX format as well, which means better compatibility with the latest 3D apps.


Speedy Viewport Mode

Featured art by Juan Manuel Cervilla and Natalia P. Gutiérrez.

We’ve added a new mode to the viewport which temporarily disables advanced rendering features to make navigating in Toolbag easier. Say goodbye to juggling render settings while you work, simply click the rocket ship icon to blast your frame rate to the moon! Speedy mode doesn’t affect the render settings for captured images, which means you can enable it for maximum responsiveness while rendering out high quality images with GPU hungry effects like Global Illumination, Local Reflections and Depth Of Field.


Image Quality Improvements

Smooth Depth of Field Transitions


We’ve updated the DOF effect. Now the transition from in to out of focus is smooth. The DOF shown in the viewport matches the rendered DOF much more accurately now as well, which means no more trial and error to get your DOF looking right. The new DOF can look slightly different in existing scenes, so you may need to adjust your settings.

Beautiful Bloom

Featured art by Jose Lázaro.

The bloom effect has gotten some love as well. We’ve improved the quality greatly when using size values over 0.05.


Try Today

Artwork by Blair Armitage

Featured art by Blair Armitage.

Give the latest and greatest version of Toolbag a spin by downloading the free 30-day trial. If you’ve previously had a trial but it ran out, good news! We’ve reset all trials, so download the installer and give it a go.

Toolbag Artist Highlight | Ep. 181

Enjoy a new set of real-time artwork rendered in Toolbag.

  1. Georgian Avasilcutei crafted a sublime render of his character, Vi.
  2. Jaco Herbst forged a fantastic football girl.
  3. Vlad Costin created a creepy post apocalyptic style rat for Warhammer Total War.
  4. Victor-Emmanuel Pancrazi developed a stylized character based on a concept by Max Kostenko.

Thanks for checking out the latest featured artwork rendered in Toolbag. Stay tuned for more next week.

Environment Design with Toolbag

Anthony Trujillo was kind to give a breakdown of his award-winning stylized environment. Great look at the sculpting, texturing and the beautiful lighting setup.

Introduction

Hello! My name is Anthony Trujillo and I am a 3D environment artist from Los Angeles, CA. I graduated from the Art Institute in Santa Monica in 2009. My passion for 3D art began in college and I have loved creating props and worlds ever since. One of my first jobs was at WayForward Technologies and I helped work on DuckTales: Remastered, which was awesome, as the original was very special to me. I’m currently at WhiteMoon Dreams where we just released StarBlood Arena on PSVR.

Pre-production


My main goal with the ArtStation Civilizations: Lost and Found challenge was to actually finish. I didn’t want be overly ambitious and not finish on time, so I focused on finding a relatively small scene that I knew I could finish with the polish that it needed. I decided on this awesome concept by Lena Doronina.

Overwatch and Heroes of the Storm were my main inspirations going into this challenge. I would always be referencing the Blizzard style throughout the process.

Blockout


For my blockouts, I like to get my models in engine as soon as possible so I can start setting up basic lighting and find some nice camera angles. This helps me visualize the scene better and I can start adjusting scale and proportions. As you can see, my initial scale of my scene was off. The shrine prop was too small on the platform.

Modeling and Sculpting


My main goal with modeling was to keep everything chunky and to try to avoid any straight lines. This meant tapering everything I could. I do a lot of the modeling in 3ds Max. Once the models are ready to Zbrush, I use the “double turbosmooth” method or Sub-D it to get a really clean, smooth model to sculpt on. Once in ZBrush, I apply an inflate 1 to the whole model, then a polish from the Deformation tab. I learned this from Michael “Orb” Vicente’s talk at a ZBrush summit–it helps smooth any sharp edges and keeps things chunky. From there, I use Trim Dynamic, Orb_Cracks, a slash brush, and clay tubes to add detail.

For the floor and the front plate, where it has an intricate flower pattern, I use another one of Orb’s techniques found here. I created the 2D design in Photoshop and convert it into an alpha to use in ZBrush. This method usually works really well.

The biggest challenge for me was trying to keep everything chunky and to really push the silhouettes.

Grass


The grass is fairly simple. I am not using any normal map for it. I start by painting two grass clumps in black and white, then add a gradient map adjustment layer to get my colors. In the alpha, I have the grass fade to transparent as it meets the floor to make the transition not so harsh.

Texturing


My texturing method for stylized work is very heavily influenced by Fanny Vergne‘s technique, which I first saw a couple of years ago in Vertex Magazine. I rely on my bake maps to get a really good base that I can then take into 3d coat and polish off. I use Knald or Marmoset 3 as my choice in Baker, and bake a Object space normal, Curvature, and AO. Sometimes I use a Heightmap depending on how much depth my sculpt has. Here is an example of my workflow. A lot of it comes down to playing with blending modes and opacity per asset.

Marmoset Toolbag

I have been a really big fan of Toolbag since it first came out; I love how user-friendly it is. When I saw Toolbag 3 had added Fog and Global Illumination, I wanted to use this challenge to test them out. One of my favorite features of Toolbag is being able to load in PSDs that auto update when I make changes. This makes for really quick experimenting and iterations.

For the lighting, I picked a random sky and set it to a really low brightness, just so everything wasn’t pitch black. I started adding spot and fill lights. I knew I wanted to have the god rays coming through the ceiling, but when I started the project I wasn’t sure how I would achieve them in Toolbag. My first thought was to have planes with alpha to fake the god rays. But after adding fog to the scene, I found it kind of just turned my spot lights into god rays, as well as adding some great atmosphere. This worked great for the camera angles I was using. The only problem I had with this method was when all the lights started overlapping in certain views. The result was an extremely blown-out light source. Another problem I had was that you could see the rays were cone-shaped. I solved this by duplicating the spotlights and staggering them further upward from the beam to force it to stay thicker.

Overall, I am really happy with this project. I wanted to create a beautiful scene with great shapes while keeping it simple. I tried to remember to always be checking my silhouettes, not overdoing the textures, and keep everything chunky.

Thanks!

Anthony Trujillo, 3d Environment Artist at WhiteMoon Dreams.

Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev for 80.lv.

Toolbag Artist Highlight | Ep. 180

Check out a new collection of 3D renders in this week’s Highlight!

  1. Andrew Ariza created a powerful render of a character, Mwezi.
  2. Andy Nelson constructed a stellar Pentax K1000.
  3. Daniel Thiger‘s material exploration continues with a super slimy parasitic growth infection.
  4. Karina Bastos crafted a fan art piece of Brigitte Lindholm from Overwatch.

Thanks for checking out the latest featured artwork rendered in Toolbag. Stay tuned for more next week.