CG Conversation: 3D Character Artist Harshdeep Borah

null“Life Drawing, Anatomical Sketching, Sculpting, Sketching and painting, and an eye for detail are very important things if you want to be a modeller”

Harshdeep Borah, a Senior 3D Character Artist has inspired one and many with his high quality models and renders. His artworks have been featured at the major CG forums. This is what he had to say to the readers of Animation Xpress in a CG conversation with Poonam Shah.

Could you tell us about yourself?
My name is Harshdeep Borah, I’m 25 years old and currently I’m working as a Senior 3D Character Artist for Redtribe Games in Melbourne, Australia. Since I can remember, I have been drawing, painting and reading comics – and professionally pursuing CG as a career for about 5 years. I was born and brought up in New Delhi, India. Moved to Vancouver, Canada few years back and now enjoying the Australian lifestyle.

Tell us something about how the 3d world fascinates you and how has the journey been so far?
It’s been a great journey so far and I have really enjoyed what I have been doing so far. Since I can remember, I have been drawing, reading comics, collecting Action Figures, watching movies and playing games. When I was studying at school, I was very much fascinated by special effects in Hollywood blockbusters like Terminator, Predator, Aliens and such movies, and always wondered how they produced them. My interest to explore those creatures/characters in the movies and games, made me choose this field as a career. So right after my schooling, I took a 3 year course in multimedia back in 2000 and used a few graphic software applications like Photoshop, 3dmax. I also did Advanced Studies in Game Arts recently at Vanarts Vancouver. Since then I’m hooked on this stuff.

What are your main sources of inspiration?
I am inspired by many things. As mainly I am a modeler and texture artist, my biggest source of inspirations are great traditional artists and their sculptures, such as drawings and paintings by Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci. Their epic artworks like David, Pieta, Hercules, Moses, Adam and others, are still the best sources for inspirations for me.

CG work in movies and games are always fascinating and inspiring as well. Real life (humans, everything) that I see and interact with around me has been also my biggest resource for inspiration – as they have so much beauty and detail in them, makes me wonder how they have been created.

Then there are these detailed action figures that I have been collecting for some time, they are also very helpful to see the form of art in real-life 3d. My character VLAD is very much inspired from a McFarlane series character.

Great cg artists around the world creating stunning artworks everyday, awesome talents I have worked with or known of, have been some of influences for me to get better in what I’m doing now.

One of the biggest inspirations have been my parents. Both of them being doctors, I have always lived with anatomy books, medical terms and all the resources I ever needed to understand human body. But in later time I realized those things came handy to me when I got more serious in 3d modeling. Also seeing them working so hard – has made my attitude to be serious and work harder to achieve better results.

What is the best way of getting started in 3D imaging?
I would say there is not just one way of getting into 3d. There are a lot of different ways to get inspired from and get into 3d. Get better at visualizing. Let it be through sketches or sculpting. Collect a lot of references from web and books. Read articles and collect useful information about CG. Nowadays the internet plays a big role as a resource. I started with a 3-year Diploma course in multimedia. But then there were not a lot of resources available before as there are now. So that doesn’t mean everyone has to join a cg course. I have many friends who are self-taught and are very successful in CG. It all depends on your drive and dedication and how fast you grasp things.

As a student, how many hours did you spend on modeling, texturing and lighting?
My student life when I was studying at Vanarts was very hectic and hard. Especially with Vancouver being one of the biggest hubs of CG studies, every year we used to see these amazing modeling reels coming out of various schools and great cg works in movies and games. So I had to work really hard to produce a quality reel through which I could get into the job market there.

Modeling comes by a lot of practice – and hours and hours of tweaking. So I had to spend numerous hours in making my models look as close as possible to the concepts. And then comes the texturing part, which I loved from the very start. As to me it is like painting on a canvas (“if the uv’s are laid out properly”). Sometimes I literally slept in my class in a sleeping bag and then wouyd get started the next morning. Also now after work, I dedicate some of my time to modeling and getting better at it – As there is always so much to learn and life is so short!

What do you suggest to the wannabe modellers?
Life Drawing, Anatomical Sketching, Sculpting, Sketching and painting, and an eye for detail are very important things if you want to be a modeller. Inspecting every day objects, how they react to environment, inspirations from real life, keep practising every day, getting inspired from great artists around the world, talking to your peers and respecting them.

Especially for character and creature modellers, I would advise to know the human body well. Do a lot of study in anatomy. Research as much you can, draw a lot and always be curious to get more details. Work it out from the bones, to the muscles and then to the skin. Sculpting can be a big help too, just like it was for me. If you can feel the form physically, expressing it digitally won’t be hard. There are lots of good books by great artists (Michelangelo, etc). Those can be a big help too.

And at last, practise, practise and practise is the key to be a good modeller.
Also another important advice would be, never be dependent on hardware or software. Tools are there to just help you and will keep on changing, but what matters most is your artistic sense and abilities. Making your fundamentals – of arts, colour theory, anatomy and composition – strong.

With a bunch of 3d packages available in the market, which one do u think is versatile. And what does an artist need to keep in mind while getting himself/herself 3d software?
I have used both 3dmax and Maya as my base modeling software. And did not find any bigger differences as a modeler. As per my experience they both are great pieces of software and fulfill my needs when it comes to character modeling, rigging, animation or more. There is always give and take in each software app, but thankfully I have never made myself dependant on any particular software app, and hence always been experimenting with a combination of them when it comes to the final product.

Also I would like to mention, Pixologic’s ZBrush is a great piece of software that has made my imagination able to be expressed in a very seamless way. It’s like a digital sculpting tool for me – and I almost use it every day at work and at home. Its very highly recommended software – especially for modeler and texture artists.

So again, research a lot, read reviews and consult industry peers and look for the best software that would fit your needs.

Do you have any special tricks in getting photorealism?
Photorealism is the hardest thing to achieve in CG. We humans are so similar – but there are these subtle changes in the face and body that make us different from each other. Our eyes are very much used to picking up these small changes, which makes us different from each other. Especially the face has got so much detail in it – that it’s very hard to achieve that amount of detail in cg model.

But these days new standards are being set and you can see it in some of the best photorealistic character and environment work. To name a few as good inspirations would be – characters from movie Final Fantasy Spirits Within, digital doubles from the Matrix movies, and recently cg models from King Kong.

If you are interested in photorealistic cg creation, collect as much real life reference as you can. Try to see human faces in a new way. Try to read all those subtleties in faces. Read from all angles and use reference images for front and side views. Get the silhouette shape right with flat color. Variation in skin color. Then comes another level of detail, skin wrinkles and pores. See where the skin folds and creates wrinkles. Read how light reacts to skin and scatters. There are a whole bunch of tricks for this subject, and I could fill the whole interview with it.

All your textures look fantastic, do you draw them yourself? Could you give us some tips on how to create such amazing textures?
Texturing for me is like painting on canvas. Painting has been natural to me, as I have always been playing with colors. I am very fond of exploring weird looking creatures and their skin colors. See how the skin reacts to light and emits different colors. My quest for exploring these beautiful natural creations made me more interested in creating textures for my characters.

I mostly hand-paint my textures just cause it gives so much freedom to control the way your final texture looks. I have huge collection of custom-made libraries of all the brushes I want to use. For e.g. Hair and fur strokes, skin pores and blemishes, scratches, dirt and stuff. It all depends on the observation and collection of resources that you will be painting your textures for. First thing I do whenever I start a new project is make a new folder named ‘Collect’, and put lots of reference, related or even unrelated images. Most of my texture ideas come from nature so I start collecting images of creatures and animal skins. Also one of my biggest inspirations are special effect and makeup artists. I have a whole bunch of images from special effects and makeup artist’s web sites. I usually check those links as well for texture resources.

These are few things that help me in creating realistic-looking textures:
-What’s the quality of object? Is it hard or soft?

-For how many years it has been there or living?

-How does it react to its surrounding environment? Like in rain, fire, or just normal climate?
-How many layers does it have? Like human skin is very complicated and usually I paint the skin’s top layer like pores, blemishes and roughness, then I paint epidermal or if needed sub dermal skin. If its metal, then how many layers does it have? Like paint layer, chip off color, real metal color etc.

-How shiny/specular the object or its particular layer is?

And recently I have started using SSS (Sub Surface Scattering) through which I am getting very realistic results. As human skin is not solid, so if an area is thin, light hits and scatters through it. Like your ears and figures put against the light, you can see the redness of blood through the other side.

How do you plan the lighting for your scenes?
Lighting plays a big role in my projects. It’s like imitating the real life into a 3d scene. It creates the whole mood and feel – like happiness, fear, sorrow, love etc. Especially being a modeler, showing those curves and shapes of human form and muscles, its important to know how to light your scene properly. Bad lighting can waste the hard efforts you have put in your model.

I usually plan out everything beforehand, like the mood and feel of my final scene. Most of the times – I do a rough sketch in Photoshop just to conceptualize – with very basic lighting that would hold my initial ideas. And then as I go further, I keep on building more ideas on top of that.

My basic light setup for a character would be – one main light source, one fill light and one rim light sometimes. According to the scene objects, I place various bounce lights also sometimes, imitating the light being bounced by that object to the character. Cause in real life, every object bounces light off main source, i.e. sun or bulb etc. This is when I am doing a Manual light setup without help of any Final Gather or Global Illumination, which can be very expensive in terms of rendering. But FG/GI creates more realistic looking renders, compared to manual setup.

So there is a trick which I have been using for all my renders to fake FG/GI. Its called Ambient Occlusion. It can be generated by using Mental Ray shader and generally named as Dirt Map in Maya or Max. This generates soft shadows where the objects are close, just like in real life, and is faster than GI renders.

Do you make the whole scenes in 3d or do you composite them?
I mostly render my scenes in different passes. Like diffuse pass, specular pass, reflection pass, shadow pass, ambient occlusion pass and so on – then merge these in a compositing software. It gives me more control on particular layer depending on the final look I am looking for.

How important are sketches, drawings, and research … to your artworks?
Drawing and sketches are always a great help to my projects. It helps me to pre-visualize my character or scene and to lock the ideas that I might forget otherwise. While working as a modeler – either I do rough concepts for my model, or at work I usually get character concept sheets to visualize in a better way.

I also do detailed research on the project I am working on. Collect heaps of images and references. If I am modeling a human model, I refer to anatomy books I have. I think research plays a big role in saving your time and mistakes you might do later.

Another part of my research includes sculpture references. I have personally realized that physical sculptures can be the biggest help to visualize your digital model better. I have been collecting some action figures from McFarlane series and found them very helpful while I am working on a 3d model.

You being from the gaming industry, can you tell something about the aspects in the production pipeline? Can you share some of your recent projects at Redtribe?
We at Redtribe are working on some very cool projects right now. A big aspect of the project includes pre planning – and we make sure everything goes through proper channel and is planned beforehand and that everyone is provided with required assets.

We are working on some Next-Gen projects, which has changed the modeling process and is fairly different from the current-Gen. For a finished asset, we have to model a high-resolution model first. It can be done in several ways. I usually model a lowpoly version of model which has rough definition, and then I take that model in zbrush and detail in different levels further subdividing the mesh. When I am satisfied with the detail, I export the normal map which is a texture, having all the details stored as light map. Then in 3d program like 3ds max or Maya, I use that normal map on same lowpoly model – which when rendered, gives detailed view imitating the details of highres model. Then I paint my color textures taking the normal map as reference where to paint detail, and where not. Then this model is exported in game to be tested with animations and if everything is working fine.

Few aspects while modeling I keep in mind are:
– Lowpoly model has proper definition and is using each and every vertex for shape.

-Model has proper loops for good rigging and animation.

– Its unwrapped properly so that you can paint out the textures with ease and also that normal maps generated from zbrush are good.

– For character faces, I exaggerate the details a bit more as when normal map is generated, some finer details are washed out.

– Keep checking the silhouette and see my model from angles if its good. Also keep changing the lighting to visualize my model better.

You already know how strict the rules are in this industry. Unfortunately, I cannot share much about our current projects, but that its very exciting and includes challenging models to be made. Both realistic and fantasy based. Though I could give a sneak peek of the models I am responsible for modeling and texturing.

Any artists you particularly admire?
There are lots of great artists who have inspired me and whose works have always kept me getting better at what I am doing now. As already mentioned, I love the sculptures and drawings of Michelangelo and Leonardo, and they are some of the biggest traditional inspirations to me. To name some more traditional and special fx artists – I would list these great names. Rick Baker, Jonathan Fuller, Paul Mejias, Steve Wang, Mark Alfrey, Henry Alvarez, and more.

To talk more of this time, there are some great 3d artists whom works I greatly admire. To name few, Franscisco Cortina’s and Steven Geisler’s – realistic looking characters have always kept me stunned and still inspires a lot. Aaron Sims, Jonas Thornqvist, Fausto De Martini, Kenneth Scott, Krishnamurti M Costa, Pascal Blanche, Rene Morel, and more.

What are your future plans?
I have always wanted to be part of challenging projects. And I am enjoying what I am doing now. I want to create quality of characters that has never been achieved till now in games thus setting new standards.

I have always wanted to work on some cool movie projects, which I recently got the opportunity to work with, and found great respect to the quality that is needed. I would love to be a part of challenging but exciting game or movie projects in future where I can satisfy my artistic abilities with relation to proper production.

I would also love to have my own studio at some point of time, so that I can pick and choose the projects that I like – resulting in the client’s satisfaction.
My last words to the readers would be “IF YOU CAN DREAM IT – YOU CAN ACHIEVE IT BUT YOU GOTTA WORK REALLY HARD” www.harshcg.com

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