With only seven posts in the two years that Bernard Beneteau has been a member at ZBC, he's definitely what you'd call a "lurker". But sometimes it's the quiet types who can surprise you the most. That was certainly the case when Bernard shared his recent work on Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe. The characters were awesome! We then checked out his website and new right away that this was someone who needed to be interviewed. Enjoy!
Could you begin by telling us about yourself and your background?
I am a Character Artist working in the video game industry. I am currently working in the United States, but I am a Canadian citizen. More precisely, from the province of Quebec. (This is the place in Canada where people speak French, have a very colorful vocabulary and a god-like resistance to any types of alcohol.)
I have been working in the video game industry for over eight years now. Seven of those were in Montreal, working for different studios on varied projects. Montreal is an amazing place to work, considering that you have many big players like Ubisoft, EA and Eidos, all in the same city.
I come from a digital background, but these last few years I have spent almost as much time on the traditional side of art as the digital. I have a special interest in figurative art, whether it is with clay, oil paints, a pen or a computer. I spend a lot of time studying human anatomy; skeleton, muscles, where they attach on the bones, and so on. Building ecorches with clay and drawing underlying anatomy from a live model have been very beneficial to me, giving me a thorough understanding of what I really see when looking at another human being.
As a character artist, I sculpt high-resolution meshes, game meshes and also take care of the texturing process. I will be asked, from time to time, to do some concept work as well.
How did you land the job with Midway? How long have you been there?
Before getting to Midway, I was working at Ubisoft. (Great place, jam-packed with amazing artists. I have the utmost respect for that studio.) Since I have been working for almost 7 years in Montreal, I wanted a change and to get some work experience in a new city and/or country. Our industry is one of the few that give us this opportunity. A studio in Seattle contacted me and flew me there to meet them. The project was very interesting. Then after I flew back to Montreal, and during my negotiations with this studio, a recruiter came out of the blue and put me in contact with the manager of the Central Character Group at Midway. He liked my work and decided to fly me in the next day, before the negotiations with the Seattle studio were too far along. So after meeting the people at Midway, I was very interested by the Central Group structure. It seemed like a nice challenge. Plus, I had the opportunity to work with Joe Seigenthaler, an amazing traditional sculptor from which I knew I would learn a lot. So I accepted the offer they made me and moved from Montreal to Chicago 3 weeks later. That was a very “rock-and-roll” experience, dealing with the move, Visas and so on. I should not forget to mention that on top of that, during these 3 weeks, my wife gave birth to my baby girl; so imagine the stress! (Laughing) I can tell you that getting a two week old baby to pose for a passport picture is not an easy task! But in the end, it was all worth the trouble. I have been working for Midway for one and a half years now and am very happy here. I have recently transferred from the Central Character Group to the Mortal Kombat team.
What are the projects that you've worked on, and what did you do for each?
I have been working on a lot of different projects over the years for Playstation 2, Xbox, PC, Wii, Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. I even did two games on Nintendo DS. Some of those games saw the light of day while some of them got canned. I had the recurring luck of working on prototypes that were eventually getting cancelled. Heart-breaking, but still great to have the chance of exploring new, fresh ideas.
Since I am at Midway, I got to work on a lot of projects. We created over a hundred characters for cut-scenes in Blitz: The League 2. I had the opportunity to create two playable characters for MK vs. DC. I Art Directed outsourcers for the creation of nearly a hundred clothing assets and created clothing and character assets that were used in “The Wheelman” and “This is Vegas”. I also created template characters that were to be used by multiple new Intellectual Properties in development at the Chicago studio. I also got to model and texture some tortured-looking, bloody, nasty zombies. That was sweet.
So within 1.5 years, I had my hands on many projects, with many different pipelines. Most of them, due to the mandate of the Central Groups, were on very tight deadlines. I think I aged 10 years during that time! But it was a great experience and I am glad I had this opportunity.
You said you were under a really tight deadline with Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe. Could you talk more about that?
Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe was only a few months away from Alpha when they contracted the Central Character Group to help them. The project was very well structured, but there are always a few things here and there that don’t go as planned, and I think Raiden was one of them. (Laughing)
I had 2 weeks to create Baraka. It is a short amount of time for a task that was pretty big. Lots of detail to create, plus it was a 19,000 triangles mesh. A lot of polygons to play with, but that also means a lot of time required to use all of them in an efficient way. I did a lot of overtime on that one.
Raiden was a bit more hardcore. I was given 7 days total. So I worked around 14 hours a day to get it done. Some days were going up to 16 hours. That was physically a rough time, but I was glad to get the chance to work on one of my teenage years’ favorite characters.
It was definitely worth the effort (my wife and baby girl might not agree on this one) and now I can enjoy getting my ass kicked with Raiden while playing against my friends.
How did ZBrush help in overcoming those deadlines?
I would say that the ability to exchange SubTools from one character to another was a big time saver.
For example: I was able to share the pants I sculpted for Baraka and adjust them to Raiden’s physique. Baraka’s tabi were also re-used and heavily modified for Raiden. By re-using these SubTools, I was able to make those adjustments quite quickly and make the pants and tabis look unique without re-sculpting all the wrinkles from scratch.
The ability to quickly take some nice-looking screenshots was also very valuable. I couldn’t afford to go in the wrong direction. By being able to visually communicate the key steps of my sculpting process to my manager and art director it was helping to avoid bad surprises coming from miscommunication.
Could you go into detail about your workflow, and the particular ZBrush features that you use?
My workflow varies from project to project. I usually try to test out small variations from time to time, just in case I can improve my workflow. But let’s go with the most common one I use:
Create a base mesh in Maya or 3ds Max. As quick as possible, with a subdivision friendly topology. Usually following the skeleton rig that was provided to me.
When I build my base mesh, I keep track of the amount of polygons it has. And since I know the limit that my system can handle (without HD mode) in ZBrush, I make sure that I can get close to this amount after subdividing my mesh. For example, my office computer can handle a 6 million polygon SubTool. So I made a base mesh that had ~6000 triangles. A mesh with 1500 triangles would have worked too; I would just need to subdivide one more time to reach the limit. It is a bit of a math job, but it is definitely worth it. The last task I had was a full body, including the head. And if I got stuck at 1.8 million there are a lot of things I would not be able to bring to a fairly detailed level. On this task, for example, I also added a single extrusion at each toenail and fingernail to make sure that, once subdivided, I would have enough geometry in those areas to get sharp-looking nails. So I put in a lot of thought during this pre-ZBrush step. Preparing carefully can save you a lot of time in the end.
Once I jump in ZBrush, from the simple base mesh I will sculpt all my major masses, main muscle groups, study silhouette, and so on. I do not sculpt any details at this point.
Once I got the major masses locked down, I will work my way up, one subdivision level at a time, until I get all my details in. I shift constantly between different Subdiv levels.
I will use 3D layers for asymmetry, skin pores, veins, and all types of details that can benefit from being turned on/off.
I will also use layers to make various iterations of my sculpt, like using different muscle volumes, muscle definition, style and so on. I will do that to give a few more options to my art director. Those variations are quick to produce and are usually very welcomed by the decision makers.
Once the high-res sculpt is approved, I will create a 4K texture for my high-res model. I will send my lowest subdiv level to Maya (and/or Unfold 3D) and do a quick UV job on it. The important thing here is to have as little distortion as possible in the UV's. This will not be the UV's I will use for my final game mesh, so it is free of restrictions at this point. The reason why I like to texture my high-res object first is to have a solid “center point” to work the game mesh around. There is always a lot of surface sampling, mesh transferring, mesh modifications, etc. happening during a production, so it is good to have a high-res, undistorted source texture to work from. Once the texture is done, I get an approval on it. I will sometimes go back to the sculpt and make some minor tweaks (like sharpening some plane changes) based on how it looks with a texture.
I will build a game mesh, using the high-res mesh as a guide. I like to use 3dsMax and the PolyBoost plugin to do so. It allows me to focus solely on topology flow and triangle count, since I draw my polygons straight on the surface of the high-res mesh. So no need to worry about form.
Once the game mesh is done, following all technical requirements, I will create my UV's in Maya (and Unfold 3D). This UV set will be packed pretty clean and tight, trying to keep straight borders around my UV shells, so that it works fine with different L.O.D. meshes. Using the Unfold option while keeping the UV borders fixed in Maya is extremely useful to get rid of UV distortion quickly.
Once this is done, I just need to do a surface sample pass. Projecting Normals, Diffuse and Ambient Occlusion maps to my game mesh. I do so with xNormal. Very fast and efficient.
Once the game mesh is ready, along with its texture and a high-resolution mesh is done with its high-resolution maps as a source, I hand off the model to a setup artist. At this point, there might be some back and forth to adjust the game mesh, depending on the needs.
What are your preferred techniques for creating that initial high resolution mesh?
I like to work one subdivision level at a time. It gives me a better control over the forms this way. I make sure that I focus on the main masses at first and get into more refined and smaller shapes later on. I am not going to say that this is the one-and-only way to do things properly, but this is the way I like.
Once I reach my highest level I will start to work details, often using layers, in order to have the options of toggling them on and off if I need to.
While sculpting, I have shortcuts setup for the brushes I mainly use: Standard (playing with BrushMod very often), Inflat, Pinch, Flatten, Magnify, Move and Clay. These shortcuts are a huge time saver, since I cycle a lot through different brushes when I work. I also like to get rid of any unnecessary interruptions, even if little, that would break my creative flow.
The details –- especially after you went back to the models later -- are really insane. We'd love to hear more about how you create those details.
I must frankly say that I am not necessarily a huge fan of details. At least not details just for the sake of details. If a model’s foundation is not solid, no amount of detail will be able to cover that up.
The main reason why I use detailing is to try to give the surface a more natural look. I really enjoy looking at a digital sculpture that feels natural, even without a texture assigned to it.
I like to use details like folds and wrinkles on a human body to give it an increased sense of weight, especially in the human face.
If we take another example, like the rivets that are on the armors and costumes, I will create a half-sphere in Maya and place a bunch of duplicates where I want them on the mesh. I probably could have used the MeshInsertDot brush in ZBrush as well. But in this particular case, I didn’t. So I then grouped and exported all my rivets and used them as a SubTool. This way, I could go on my armor pieces and start creating that “pushed-in” effect that most riveted armors have.
So, again, ZBrush 3’s SubTools are extremely useful. It is, for me, one of the best improvement from version 2.
How about the chain mail? Uniformly repeating effects like that and Baraka's leathers are something that people often ask about.
Those can be tricky. It is always necessary to take a step back before tackling something like this. I spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out what was the most optimized way of doing so.
In the case of Baraka’s scales on his armor, I tried a quick Hair solution in Maya. Using scales as my hair strand, letting gravity pull them down, in a natural state, resting on each other. Failed! But at least I tried.
Since my ZTool (with all the SubTools) was getting pretty heavy (around 10 million polygons), I decided to model the scales in Maya and smooth them out in ZBrush. I could have tried to sculpt them by hand in ZBrush, but it would have required more time and a lot more polygons.
For Raiden’s chainmail, I created a ring pattern in Maya, making each ring fatter so that the subdivisions in ZBrush would bring them to a regular size.
So, in Maya, I placed this ring pattern around the spots where Raiden needed it. I deleted all the rings that were bleeding out of the armor area. I used deformers to adjust it a bit to the curves of his body. Then, In ZBrush, I imported the “low-res” chainmail as a SubTool and subdivided it twice, to get smooth-looking rings. I also used the Move tool to reshape it better to the forms of Raiden’s body, taking good care that the rings would not stretch.
The final ZTool stands at 20 million polygons. I am quite amazed at how great ZBrush is in handling such a huge amount of information. It was still workable, even with a 32-bit system that is far from being top-of-the-line.
What is the process that you use for texturing your models?
I like to sculpt in the details as much as time allows. Then I will use a Color map to get that extra touch of randomness that can make a surface look more natural. In the case of a character’s skin, I will use ZAppLink extensively. I will project textures taken from Midway’s model library or 3d.sk and align everything with my high-resolution mesh, not the other way around. I will remove any shadow and highlight information from the skin, keeping only the color variations and some smaller information like wrinkles and skin bumps, if needed. But, as I said, I usually prefer to sculpt those because I get more control over the final result this way.
Once the projection phase is done, I will do all the tonal adjustments in Photoshop and so on and so forth. Then, back to ZBrush. ZAppLink is an essential tool for fixing seams. I pay good attention to fixing all of them, especially in areas where it would be easy to say: “nobody is ever going to see that” like behind the ears and around the fingers. How many times do you end up in a cut scene, with a camera straight behind your dude’s head with an extra large view of his ears? Or another guy points his finger straight at the camera? Seams in these cases would be deadly. So that is why I love ZAppLink so much.
I also spend a lot of time working on the specular map. I consider this map to be as important as the normal map. This is the texture that will make your materials read the way they should. A few tricks can help fake some nice effects, like reflected light. For example, if my character is wearing a golden piece of armor on his forearm I will paint a yellowish color on the skin, right at the base of the armor in the Specular map. When the light hits that area, it will give the illusion of reflected light. A small detail that might be consciously unnoticeable, but it makes a subconscious difference in the overall result.
I try to create my source textures as high resolution as I can, depending on the time I have. Otherwise you often end up in a situation where a texture created at 1024x1024 doesn’t hold up very well in a cinematic close-up shot.
On a typical project, what percentage of your work would you say is done in ZBrush?
On a typical project, I would say around 60 to 70 percent. For the modeling and texturing, that is. Which is pretty big, considering all the steps necessary to create a game character.
What makes ZBrush stand out to you as an industry professional? Why is it such an important part of your arsenal?
I started my career when Nurbs modeling was still a strong player. Polygon modeling was just starting to gain in popularity. During these years, we were thinking “wouldn’t that be great if we could just sculpt without having to worry about “cutting/welding/cursing”? ZBrush 2 answered that call.
I also remember when NormalMap technology was starting to emerge. I was thinking that it was a great idea, but the production costs for a character would be way too high for the benefits. When ZBrush 2 came out, it changed everything. It was now possible to sculpt highly detailed characters without spending a tremendous amount of time on them. Plus, ZBrush dramatically reduced the technical restraints of traditional 3D modeling, giving more creative freedom to artists.
On a more specific note, I love ZBrush because it is a tool rich in features. And with a bit of creativity, you can use ZBrush in non-conventional ways to save a lot of time. For example, for Blitz: The League 2, I had to create multiple head variations. Since everything had to be done fast, I was able to re-use a head with a certain color map and get a few different sculpt iterations that were looking completely different without even creating a new texture map.
I also use ZBrush to quickly reshape some game character assets, without even adding any subdivision levels. It is way faster for me to use the soft-selection and symmetry features in ZBrush’s brushes than doing the same type of manipulation in Maya or 3dsMax.
Can you say anything about your current/next project?
I got drafted by the Mortal Kombat team soon after the release of Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe. So I am now working full time on the new MK installment. I don’t think that there are any official announcements for anything specific yet, so I’ll keep my lips sealed. But I can say that I am very excited about what is going on at the moment.
Where do you live, and how do you like to unwind when you're not working?
I am currently living in the city of Chicago. Huge city. And for those that think it is any warmer than Canada in winter, they are wrong! Other than the crazy drivers and the nasty winters, I like this city. It has a large traditional artist community. A lot of art studios and galleries, and very impressive museums. It is also a multi-cultural city, a bit the same as Montreal. Except that I think I am the only French Canadian around…
When I am not working, I spend a lot of time at the Vitruvian Fine Art Studio, where I refine my traditional art skills and perfect my knowledge of human anatomy under David Jamieson and Melinda Whitmore. They are both amazingly talented artists, and great instructors as well. There is something about traditional art that lets the steam out of my system. I prefer this to a seven foot-long metal pipe lodged through my chest. (That's a pun from Commando. Sorry!)
Through all that, I also try to spend some quality time with my wife and daughter. (She is 18 months now.) It is not easy with a very busy schedule, but I appreciate every single second that I can spend with them.
And since someone, somewhere, said that it is important to keep a sound mind inside a sound body, I try to hit the gym every weekday morning before work. Way better for waking up than coffee, that’s for sure.
Any other thoughts you'd like to share while you have our attention?
One of my mentors once told me, “Drive your passion to a point where it becomes an obsession”. Maybe not something a psychologist would agree with, but I do. I am what my art is, and every day is an opportunity to push myself and improve who I am. In this respect, a place like ZBrushCentral is essential to me. I am humbled every time I cycle through the threads. There is a tremendous number of great artists here, and it is a well-minded community. I get inspired and motivated to push myself even further when I see the quality of work displayed here. Sincere thanks to all of you for that.
Through my years as a character artist, I have walked many paths and tackled many projects. The thing that I always treasured the most was my day-to-day interaction with my colleagues. I’d like to take the opportunity to say hi and thanks to my friends from DC-Studios, Ubisoft and Midway.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share a bit of who I am, and what I do. Please feel free to comment or ask any questions you would have concerning this interview. For those who would like to contact me more personally, my e-mail is Bernard@beneto.ca. I read every e-mail that does not say “increase your … by X inches”. And will try to answer promptly.
And last, but not least, I want to thank my wife for her unflinching support. Being married to an artist is a constant struggle. None of what I do now would be possible, or even make any sense, without your love and support.
As for Pixologic, we'd really like to thank Bernard for such a great and detailed interview. Please feel free to comment in this thread. Hopefully we can all talk him into sharing more in the future!
Thanks so much for the ammount of information you gave us about your workflow and ways you tackle creating such amazing characters. This was helpful and inspirational. Appreciate the interview, thanks Zbrush Central and thanks Bernard!
This interview rocks! Very inspirational and informative! I am extremely happy for you! Can't wait to see what's next!
It's been a great pleasure and honor to work and study with you, my friend. (and kick your a$$ in MKvsDC!!!!!)