Making a Cel-Shaded Biker Girl in 3ds Max & ZBrush
Hi, my name is Louis-Philippe Desjardins. I’m a game artist from Montreal. I mainly work on the 3D aspect of games but I usually end up wearing multiple hats. The first game I worked on was “Rollercoaster Tycoon: World” which was interesting and served as a good introduction to what it’s like to work in a real studio. After this project, I decided to do the entirety of the visuals for the game “Cefore” as part of a two-man studio comprised of me and a friend. I also did a fair amount of freelance work for other indie games. I was always interested in art and videogames and we grew up with a computer in the house, so it kind of naturally made sense to me. At school, I studied digital arts for video games and learned a lot on my own as well. At the moment, I’m teaching 3D modeling at LaSalle college and doing some freelance.
Biker Girl: Inspiration
For the Biker Girl, Akira was obviously the main inspiration. My intention was to analyze and keep what’s iconic and recognizable about the universe of Akira but twist it in a way that is less serious and more playful. I also wanted to experiment with cel-shaded shaders during the process. The shape design was an important part that I did not want to lose when working on my version. I paid special attention to how the different pieces of the bike connect together, how the clothes fit on the body, how the wheels go under the body of the bike, etc. I also looked at some racing cars from the 90s, did some research on the colors, shapes, and sponsors and tried to figure out exactly what was appealing about it.
Sculpting the Bike
A lot of people think I sculpted the bike in ZBrush because of the rounded and “organic” shapes, but the bike was actually fully done in 3ds Max. I appreciate what subtle and clean shapes you can get while modeling curved surfaces. I used a couple of modifiers to make these shapes, the recurring ones being “taper”, “FFDs”, “bend”, “push” and “shell”. I also used chamfer in edit poly mode when I needed to create super-soft edges and I was careful when I did it since it’s a destructive workflow. As for the design itself, I got most of my references from Fernando Correa and kind of mixed and mashed parts of his designs together. I also got super inspired by the original “Dragon Ball” especially the bike that Bulma drives which had similar rounded features.
The girl started with a small moodboard.
By this point, I already had the bike completed and I wanted the girl to fit in the same style. Nurzhan Bekkaliyev was a huge reference for the proportions that I wanted to achieve. I started the sculpt by using Brice Laville St-Martin’s stylized basemesh which was a huge time-saver. Then I used the move brush, scale/move/rotate to try and match the proportions I was going for.
The hair was a challenge for me because I had a hard time establishing how much I could simplify it and how round it could be while still looking like hair. The facial features are very subtle and took a while to adjust properly. It’s surprising to what extent very small changes in the face affect the look. For the clothes, I used panel loops since it’s very close to the body and I don’t need to simulate anything. I also like to remove the back face polygons. The creases are made with the good old Orb crack brush.
I kept the sculpt fairly simple because I like to have the freedom to paint the surface details by hand. After the retopology in 3D Coat, I baked it in Substance Painter. Then I used the green channel of my world space normal map mixed with the curvature and ambient occlusion to create a grayscale image that I can use as a base for texturing. Once I’m back in Substance I can define the masks for each of the colors and then use the gradient filter to color each part.
That gives me a solid start to bring everything into 3D Coat and start hand-painting everything. My workflow in 3D Coat is less technical. I like to paint with a lot of layers adding a layer every time I do something new or major enough that I might want to remove it completely or adjust its opacity. It’s a time-consuming process but it’s also the most enjoyable part, at least for me. The logos and texts were done by making an alpha in Photoshop and using them as a brush.
Keeping the style consistent and not overdoing the details and textures were definitely a challenge. Something that helped me was taking small breaks often to refresh my eyes so I could spot mistakes easier when I came back.
A big part of this project for me was working with a cel-shaded shader. I used the cel-shaded shader by Xavier Coelho-Kostolny for my render in Marmoset Toolbag and that’s what gives the whole thing nice sharp shadows while retaining the (mostly) flat shading. There is an outline setting that comes with the shader but it wasn’t really behaving as I wanted it to so instead I duplicated my mesh, used a “push” modifier and then flipped the normals inside with the “normal” modifier. As for the sand/dust piles on the ground, these are just meshes that I roughly sculpted and retopoed in ZBrush. It was abstract enough as I was only concerned about the silhouette of the mesh.
My biggest challenge was probably posing the character. Since I’m not a very good rigger, I just used Mixamo as a quick solution and figured I would fix the weird deformations by hand. It ended up being more limiting and time-consuming than I anticipated.
By the time I was done writing this article, I actually published a new artwork on my Artstation, which is a fanart of Hollow Knight. I would love to experiment with translating 2D to 3D some more. Finding a good balance of modern real-time rendering techniques while retaining the charm and uniqueness of the original hand-drawn artwork is very interesting to me.