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A Detailed Breakdown Of Making A Sci-Fi Ninja With ZBrush And Maya

Ida Faber has guided us through the creation process of the Stellar Rogue Project in a detailed manner. She also shared insightful tips on how to tailor models for use in different engines.


Hey! I'm Ida Faber, a Character 3D Artist from Latvia, now living in Thailand. I dove into 3D art back in 2019, during my first year at a university for Law and Diplomacy. I quickly realized that wasn't where I belonged.

Since childhood, I've been a huge fan of video games and dreamed of creating my own, particularly one about horse riding. In the middle of my final university submissions, rather than focusing on my papers, I found myself scouring the internet for information on game development.

I soon recognized the immense workload of creating a game by myself was too ambitious. However, this led me to discover my interest in making 3D models. I invested in an online course that covered the basics of 3D, not just character design but the whole spectrum.

That's when I decided to leave law school to pursue my passion for 3D, supported by my mom. 

Just three months into learning, I landed my first gig, creating cartoon animals for a children's YouTube channel, producing about 60 characters in a span of a year and a half. This job, initially challenging, soon became second nature to me. I kept studying that 3D course, but thanks to my work, I was already familiar with a lot of the material.

And whenever I faced a new challenge, like creating a blendshape, I accepted it, even if it meant searching on Google to understand what a blendshape really was. I learned to adapt as I went along. 

In my first two years with 3D, I was learning and also taking jobs from different clients. I was really interested in making human characters like the ones in games I loved, such as Perfect World, Archeage, Lost Ark, and modded Skyrim. My style is a lot influenced by Asian games and beauty standards.

Working for a studio or company never attracted me, nor did working with many clients, because I wanted to create my own projects without supervision. 

In the courses I was taking, my teacher brought in a 3D Character Artist who worked for himself. He sells his 3D models online and gave a talk about it. That talk made me realize that's how I wanted to work. I found an artist whose work I liked and asked him to be my mentor. He showed me how to set up characters in Unity and Unreal, how to do the rigging right, improve my sculpting and texturing, and how to present my characters well. All these were key lessons. 

My first character for stocks was the Swordsman Girl, and it didn't make much money, but I was really happy making her. I kept using what my mentor taught me and started making enough to support myself after about a year. I'm really thankful to my mom for all her support during this time.

Now, I'm three and a half years into selling on 3D stock platforms, working alongside a team, some of whom I've trained myself. My top student is my mom; I introduced her to Marvelous Designer. Now retired, she lives with me in Thailand and occasionally designs character clothing when she feels inspired.

About the Stellar Rogue Project

Currently, I'm focusing on creating game-ready characters for marketplaces like Unity and Unreal Engine. The Stellar Rogue character concludes my Stellar collection, which is themed around sci-fi. I don't have a fixed plan for what project comes next; it's more about catching the right inspiration at the right moment.

With Stellar Rogue, the aim was to design a sci-fi ninja, something I'd personally love to play. At that time, I played World of Warcraft a lot, so I had the idea of trying to make characters of different classes.

Work on Faces

As I mentioned before, Asian beauty standards heavily influence my design choices. I gather tons of references from Pinterest, focusing on beautiful faces and makeup techniques. For sculpting, ZBrush is my go-to tool. 

I start with the basic facial features, leaving skin details for later, which I add through masks and noise. It's crucial for me that all my models share the same topology and UVs for compatibility, so I use a plugin called ZWrap for face retopology.

Keeping the same body model for two years allows outfits to be interchangeable among models. Any alteration in body proportions could compromise this compatibility, something I work hard to maintain.

Sculpt in ZBrush

Outfits and Body Details

In my workflow, I use various software tools — Marvelous Designer for clothing, ZBrush for sculpting, Maya, Blender, Marmoset, Substance 3D Painter, Photoshop, Unity, and Unreal Engine.

For the Stellar Rogue project, everything began with sculpting in ZBrush. The first crucial step is the blockout, focusing on creating simple shapes to capture the essence of the design while keeping it low-poly for easy adjustments. 

I believe it's important not to get caught up in the details until you have a solid blockout. Once the blockout feels right, I move on to refining the silhouette and secondary shapes, focusing on making the design visually interesting and ensuring a good flow.

I follow tips from Overwatch artists for this part, avoiding complex details at bending points to simplify rigging and animation. Stellar Rogue was kept straightforward, with only extra bones added for cloth and belts to enhance movement.

Detailing is the final stage, adding noise and small details, along with the final touches such as folds, ornaments, etc. Success in this phase largely depends on the groundwork laid in earlier steps. A well-done blockout and silhouette make the detailing much smoother.

Interestingly, the Stellar Rogue character includes both male and female versions, though there was only the male version in ZBrush. I later adapted the male outfit in Maya to fit the female character model.

Retopology, UV Mapping and Baking

Clothes retopology and UV mapping for clothing are now handled by one of my team members. For this particular character, he was using Blender. He utilizes the UVPackmaster addon for efficient UV packing, and Marmoset Toolbag for baking the textures. Personally, when handling these tasks, I stick to Maya. 

My approach to retopology involves starting with a dense mesh to save on manual effort. I find it more efficient to refine a model by gradually adding loops and shaping complex forms. An essential rule I follow is to align the topology of tight-fitting clothes with the body's topology, ensuring that animations look natural. 

UV mapping is comparatively straightforward; I use a single set for clothes, focusing on tight packing without overlaps. Stellar Rogue comprises seven texture sets, including body, head, teeth, eyes, lashes, suit, and hair. This ensures a variety of different use cases, allowing the user to build up on the model. I think there is always left space for optimization.

Previously, I used Substance 3D Painter for baking, which presented challenges due to the lack of real-time feedback. Switching to Marmoset improved this process, allowing for an "explode" technique where mesh parts are separated to prevent baking errors.

I use the Mikk/xNormal tangent space and bake maps at 4K resolution, including normals, ambient occlusion, and curvature. If the baking results contain artifacts, I either adjust the cage in Marmoset or fix the issues directly in Photoshop, depending on what's more efficient.

Rig in Autodesk Maya


For the female character, I wanted a top-knot hairstyle, and for the male, a low ponytail with short hair. I created hair cards in FiberShop, a technique I detail in a tutorial on my YouTube channel, using the same method for Stellar Rogue.

Placing hair cards by hand in Maya allows me precise control over the hairstyle, ensuring the final model isn't overly heavy with polygons. Starting with a tight arrangement on the scalp prevents visible gaps. I then focus on defining the hairstyle's primary shape with thicker strands, adjusting and adding layers for volume and detail.

Texturing the suits was done in Substance 3D Painter, where there are even more details to the fabric and armor added. The texturing process involves layering colors, materials, and effects (such as blood and dirt) to achieve a realistic look that stands out in game environments. The sword is not included in the project, and used only in the renders. It is available on Sketchfab (for free).

Texturing in Substance 3D Painter

Stellar Rogue in Marmoset Toolbag 3

My approach to pack the project in Unity and Unreal Engine is tailored to optimize the models for user needs. Organizing files efficiently to minimize duplicate assets is my key priority there, especially when taking into consideration that the user might work with multiple of my models.

About the materials, there is a MatID that defines parts of my models' clothes. In the material editor, the distance node allows cherry-picking a color from the MatID Map. 

Using the material instance, the user can create custom color combinations, or even custom patterns on these parts. For example, adding a camouflage pattern to any cloth part takes almost no time thanks to that.

And here is how the MatID looks like:

The MatID works well if there are no overlaps. The character's skin and suit come with a dirt and blood mask to fit the character into any game scenario. However, dirt and blood cannot be cherry picked the same way as the MatID does. Packing textures into one is the key. It is also a good way of optimization!

This is done by combining multiple Grayscale Layers in one. The Unity MaskMap (used in HDRP) is also just a packed texture, where:
R is used for Metallic
G is used for Ambient Occlusion
B for the Detail Mask
A for the Smoothness

The Unreal OcclusionRoughnessMetallic Map is also packed accordingly (ORM -> RGB). 

Another useful example is the Normal Map, in which there is unused space in the Blue channel, which game developers like to utilize.

I use Adobe Photoshop for cases where manual packing is required.

The trick is simple. All you need is to select the Layer you want and assign it a channel.

Back to the Blood and Dirt Mask, they are also packed. 

In my case, each channel in the Blood Mask is multiplied by a color, and then added to each other. The same is done for the Dirt Mask. Then, both are added to the BaseColor texture.

For the Stellar Series, I multiply the Dirt and the Blood Masks with each other (before adding to the BaseColor), to have this cool effect of blue blood. With each new release, I tend to add new features that enhance the overall character detail. 

My latest changes include a new render scene setup:

And an advanced eye shader supporting custom pupil forms. On top of that, the skin shader is capable of layering textures for effects like scars or tattoos. 

The recent transition to using the UE5 Skeleton presents challenges, particularly in terms of compatibility with previous models rigged with the UE4 Skeleton. This requires updating older models to maintain compatibility across the models, and will take time until these updates are completed.

I'd like to add even more convenient features, and in the meantime, reduce the setup time. With custom scripts, I've streamlined the preparation process in Unity to under an hour, whereas setting up in Unreal Engine can take up to a few days, a duration I aim to reduce for efficiency. The video presentation and slides also take a good amount of time.


The whole process, from starting with a basic shape, sculpting, retopology, baking, adding textures, rigging, skinning, creating blendshapes, getting everything ready for the game engines, and the final steps, took around four weeks of full-time work.

It's important to learn each step one by one, splitting them into smaller parts. Having a supervisor, mentor, or just real production cases, like freelancing jobs, can also be incredibly valuable to understanding what's essential and getting straight to the point.

The key to getting good at it is to keep going and complete the model. There's a chance to make each part of the model better, but if you spend too long perfecting one part, you might lose the drive to continue, and finishing might become too hard. So, try not to get stuck on making everything perfect or placing every quad just right. Paying attention to the small details is important, but don't let it slow down your progress while you're learning.

Ida Faber, 3D Character Artist

Interview conducted by Theodore McKenzie

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