Hey Chris, before we get started, can you introduce yourself to the world?
I’m Chris Nichols, a Texture Lead at Digital Domain Vancouver. I've been in the VFX industry for 13 years and worked at studios such as Double Negative, Method Studio and Spin VFX. I’ve worked as a Modeler/Texture painter and Lookdev Artist for most of that time.
What did you do on your latest project Avengers: Infinity War?
I was primarily responsible for Thanos and Red Skull textures on Avengers: Infinity War as well as overseeing the texture teams’ creation of Hulk, Ebony Maw and Corvus Glaive. Marvel was really after an advanced CG character that could emote and stand alongside the hero characters on film and look completely real and believable. There was no place to hide as they would put the camera over every pore and wrinkle of his skin over the course of the movie. This meant we had to give every element of Thanos special attention right down to the microstructure of the pores.
I was involved very early on during the initial test Digital Domain created for Marvel of Thanos working alongside Darren Hendler and his team to develop a fully fleshed out Thanos that incorporated Josh Brolin’s facial structure.
My job was to start doing paintovers in Photoshop exploring what direction we could take Thanos by trying different skin surface details like wrinkles and pores and also what kind of coloration treatment we would give the skin. This gave us great feedback from Marvel that we could start to incorporate into the character.
Early on in the tests I took over the sculpting/detailing process for Thanos. I didn't have any scan data to work with except Josh Brolin so I had to fabricate a skin surface from scratch. Much of the primary and secondary forms were sculpted in ZBrush using standard brushes but I needed the highest fidelity I could get for anything like pores and wrinkles.
I started incorporating a lot of the Texturingxyz face scans mostly of people in their 60s. Using a multi-channel face scan I was getting primary secondary and tertiary detail projected in Mari at the same time that I could separate out in the lookdev in V-Ray and dial into the displacement for the character. I found it very powerful and fast workflow that yielded superior results to standard sculpting or texturing techniques used in the past.
How long did it take to build Thanos and how many people were involved ?
Dev for Thanos took about a year, and many people were involved in his creation. We received a concept sculpt from Marvel that were surfaced and remodeled to incorporate more Josh Brolin into the structure. The team modeled and sculpted primary detail for the arms and hands and I did all of the fine sculpting, textures and lookdev.
The team did a lot of the fine tweaks in the lookdev, as Thanos needed to be sweatier at times, have more scatter in the nose and ears as well as other variations demanded by the sequences. On top of this there was hair and fur/stubble, facial setups, rigs and character fx.
What was the workflow used to build this character?
Once I had a medium-res sculpt from modeling I would take that over to ZBrush for putting in the fine details like wrinkle lines, crows feet and other more textural details in ZBrush. I would generally export out a high-res decimated mesh of the head and bring that into Mari to start the ‘xyz pass’.
We purchased a good number of the face scans and I would process them in Nuke to get the right grade and combine all three channels into one map that I would crop into face sections for ease of use. In Mari I would work very carefully to match Josh Brolin’s skin structure around the mouth, eyes and forehead, studying the provided scan data but also incorporating features explored in the concept paintover stage.
Having a range of xyz maps of older people really expedited the process but I would often use wrinkles of fingers and hands xyz maps in a creative way to get the detail I was after. When I was finished the xyz pass I would export the texture as three maps, red green and blue and take the primary displacement (Red) over to ZBrush to combine with my sculpted displacement.
This would allow me the opportunity to integrate the xyz detail better to the base sculpt by carefully tying in the details so it looked seamless and dimensional. This would be then baked as a 32bit float map and taken into V-Ray to combine with secondary(green) and tertiary(blue) displacements.
Why use Texturingxyz instead of manual sculpting for the details?
Although manual sculpting methods can be effective and generate realistic results, having a technique that provides such high fidelity realistic detail like xyz scans is much more effective as well as faster at getting a pleasing and realistic effect.
Also because the secondary, finer displacements align with the primary detail I can use that channel as a mask for creating pore and wrinkle detail in the diffuse maps as well as repurpose other parts of the scans for generating spec and roughness maps. This is much harder to do with standard sculpting methods and won’t give the same crisp results.
Any tips you could share regarding the Mari projection / zbrush / mudbox workflow for the details and the way you handled the albedo?
When creating the albedo I looked at a lot of great cross polarized reference, both of Josh Brolin’s scan data but also the xyz face photography to get a good idea of the coloration of skin.
Without this it's much harder to see where the light and darker tones of a face are with shadow and reflection obscuring those details. I built the albedo from raw projections of face photography and used the reference to create tonal variety in Thanos’ face. I used the green channel from the xyz projection as a mask for painting in some cavity detail that lined up perfectly with the wrinkles and pores to give it extra definition and contrast.
Regarding the lookdev, how did you work with the 3 layers (secondary, tertiary and micro) to deal with the roughness and skin feel ?
One of the greatest breakthroughs for me with the skin lookdev was using the blue channel to control the gloss and reflectivity of the skin surface. I could realistically control the roughness by using the blue channel in the displacement network and blending the intensity to get the blurred reflections I was after instead of painting a conventional gloss map. If some areas of the blue channel were too strong in traditionally smoother areas like the inner lips, eyelids and nose I could paint mid-grey over that area to tone down its effect in the displacement contribution.
Anything challenging you had to tackle?
Thanos had to work under multiple lighting environments and various camera angles giving a full range of facial performance. In addition, throughout the film he was often sweatier, burnt, wet, etc. so his lookdev had to incorporate those options in the shading network. Sometimes it was challenging to get Thanos’ skin to not look too slick from a distance but adjustments to the displacement settings would usually correct the breakup on the surface.
What was your typical day at digital domain while working on The Avengers?
Usually, a typical day would consist of shooting lookdev renders from the night before to be reviewed for dailies before the afternoon. At the height of our production we were working on 15 characters from hero characters like Hulk, Ebony Maw, Corvus Glaive and Red Skull to Chitauri guards, digi-doubles and various weapons, costumes and props was overseeing the team of texture painters doing all the amazing work, making sure they had direction and resources needed to get it done in the time scheduled.
I generally get working on my own tasks after lunch and attend any meetings I need to be in that might be anything from bidding and scheduling or creative discussions about what direction to take something in. I was on the project from November 2016 until we delivered in March 2018 so it was a very busy period but thoroughly enjoyable thanks to a great team of skilled artists and production crew.
Anything else you would like to say?
I would like to thank the amazing Digital Domain team on Avengers: Infinity War, including those who led the Thanos asset development early on and pushed us to create something truly realistic and memorable. And of course thanks to texturing xyz for such great skin maps that we used on all our characters.
The Texturingxyz team is extremely proud and honored to share this case study, we would like to thank everyone at Digital Domain that has been involved in this article, especially Chris Nichols and Darren Hendler.
Thanks also to Disney and Marvel for being so reactive. Congrats to everyone involved in this major blockbuster!
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