Posed 3D miniature sculpt of Beowulf with chainmail
Author of this student project promoting his work

Meet Scott Sleeter

I’m Scott Sleeter and I enrolled in the GAI course Sculpting Miniatures for Production. I was a Paratrooper in the Army straight out of high school and later, I earned a B.F.A Degree in Art from the University of South Florida. For many years, I worked in commercial printing, but recently have fully devoted all my time and effort to 3D sculpting, and in particular, tabletop miniatures. I discovered digital sculpting after an accident in which I severely injured my shoulder and arm. There was a silver lining, however, in that the injury forced me to stop and evaluate my life, think about what I found important to me and reflect on how I wanted to live and work moving forward.
It’s been a tangled web to get to this point in my professional career with a ton of missteps and dead-ends. On the upside, my experiences have taught me how to conduct myself as a professional, the value of meeting deadlines, and the pursuit of excellence in every endeavor. Presently, I couldn’t be more pleased with my current path and have discovered a long sought after professional fulfillment.

Elaborating on my experience with 3D, I took courses in college that were sculptural in name only. There is an implicit emphasis in most university art departments towards teaching activism and conceptualism over fundamentals. Basic canons of art have been thrown overboard; and as a result of more than a generation of this practice, collegiate level instructors are not qualified to teach basic art foundation. I suspect a great majority would struggle to offer instruction of the required anatomical knowledge needed to succeed in today’s results-based work environment.

In general, art degrees from universities are next to worthless, which is why Game Art Institute provides such a valuable service. Here the courses cut right to what you will need to know, with a practical emphasis on a path to achieving the technical mastery needed to compete in the gaming industry. With on the ground instruction from Industry leaders, I felt this was the right choice for me to enhance my knowledge and assist in achieving my goal of technical mastery within 3d miniature production.

Experience At GAI

The class instruction came from Bob Plociennik, a sculptor with a decade of experience in 3d miniature print production and creation.

Bob put in a tremendous effort to ensure that all student questions were addressed and that everyone was given fair time and attention during class instruction. He brought a dynamic outlook to the class experience and his abilities as a traditional sculptor shone through in his class instruction.

His ability to handle the live online presentation was easy to follow, as he seamlessly transitioned through the sculpt with clear explanations of the process.

His generosity and caring vividly came across through the entirety of the course and his passion for sculpting was of tremendous value. At the end of the course, I had an understanding of the procedures and technical requirements to create a 3d miniature for the tabletop gaming industry.

Sculpting Miniatures for Production

Project: Beowulf Miniature

I chose to create the sculpt of Beowulf as a method with which to mirror what Bob was sculpting for the in-class presentation. As Bob had chosen a Viking, I thought that it would be nice to have a side-by-side comparison, in terms of subject matter, to better judge my progression as a sculptor.

Beowulf also provided a break from the cliché Viking, while in-keeping with the subject matter. Also, it would give me a chance to work on an established character concept without worrying about permission or copyright issues. I used reference for general concerns such as cloth folds, Viking helmet shapes, and symbolism.

The figure was cobbled together with a loose idea of my general impressions of a “potential” Beowulf. Generally, you won’t work like this for miniatures in production, as there will be a developed concept. Sculpting without an established idea can be full of pitfalls. It tends to be slow, as you spend valuable sculpting time working out ideas, which is not ideal. But, we press on.

This is an image representation of a viking warrior holding a shield and sword with a bird on his shoulder.

PROJECT BREAKDOWN

Mastery is not magic. It’s process.

Evolution #1: Using Primatives

I start all my sculpts using the object primitive method. I find this to be the fastest way to get a base mesh to work from, and the functionality is streamlined. Object primitives are simplified objects utilizing basic shape language with minimized topology. With relatively few object primitives and general sculpting tools, you can work an infinite variety of shapes, and each new primitive is kept in its polygroup.

This makes for convenient editing, and the best part is that the block-out is produced at a low polycount. I use Dynamic subdivisions to work with a smoothed version of the object before I apply “actual” subdivisions further into the sculpt.

If the polys get stretched in the block-out phase, I use ZRemesher in the geometry sub pallet to “retopologize” the mesh on the fly. The result is a quad based mesh that is more uniform and editable. Of course, this is general shape re-topology and not to be mistaken for final in-game topology.

As an aside, gaming miniatures do not require a final optimized animation or texturing ready topology as the final product is Dynameshed for 3d print production. One restriction is that each time Zremesher is used, the object being remeshed shrinks. This is a limitation within Zbrush’s Zremesh functionality, but it’s not an issue. If the object is shrinking too much, I go to the tool deformation sub-pallette and use the “Inflate Slider” to build the object volume back up. Usually, it’s trial and error to get the right value to achieve the desired result. In the block-out phase, using Zremesher with Inflate slider is super easy, minimally destructive, and convenient.

Breakdown of object primitives
Multiple angles of using primitive object method

Evolution #2: A System of Exaggeration

One consistent element of 3D printed miniatures is the requirement of feature exaggeration. The head, hands, connective joints such as ankles, knees, and wrists must be enlarged due to the pressures placed on them during printing, molding as well as by the handling post process.

These elements should be considered early in the process of sculpting, preferably in the block-out phase. This gives miniatures their distinct aesthetic, which is unique to tabletop gaming tropes. Inversely, as the forms scale up above 32mm, some of the rules of exaggeration can be altered, as the increased size reveals fewer physical limitations in production.

Representation of feature exaggeration used to sculpt 3D miniatures for production

Evolution #3: Accouterments

In terms of the equipment, I knew that there would be varying surface types. Once again, I employed object primitives with the addition of mesh extraction and masking to define the general shape. For hard surface objects, I would export an .obj file into Maya to give the form a more precise topology. Controlling the topology allowed for more control along hard surface edges. Here I would ensure that I had a well-defined poly loop along a surface edge to employ creasing or beveling options within ZBrush’s Zmoddeler brush.

For other forms, such as Beowulf’s belt pouch, I allowed Zremesher to handle the entirety of the topology formation. Although not entirely reliable, I would attempt to employ this method as often as possible to eliminate steps and increase speed.

Image showing how primitive object method and mesh extractions were used to create the helmet of the 3D miniature

Evolution #4: Posing

This is where I feel that the block-out method shines, as the object primitives are still separated and editable. As a result, I can combine the arms and shoulder in one subtool as well as the head and neck and torso in their own, respectively. This allows me to conduct large moves during the posing phase and then edit the blocked-out mesh to reflect the proper anatomy. This minimizes the stretching and compression of polygons during the rotation and twisting necessary to achieve the final form.

When distortion occurs, and it will, the low polycount makes for easier editing. On the Beowulf sculpt, I experimented with a more developed anatomical base before posing. The principle was the same though, as my subtools were still separated from the block-out phase. As a result, I had to fix the sculpt in terms of detailing more than I would have liked.

Taking from that experience, I think I would have produced a less detailed sculpt prior to posing. The result would have achieved a nice middle ground of detail versus simplicity. The tight wire is balanced between the need to take advantage of symmetrical sculpting for as long as possible versus a lower poly editable mesh.

Using block-out method to allow large moves during the posing phase

Evolution #5: Final Details

An important element of the character was the chainmail hauberk. I wanted to learn how to create repeating and interlinked patterns within the framework of 3d printing.

Chainmail, in particular, presents a specific set of issues in that it is both repeating, interlinked and porous. The chainmail effect is achieved by creating specific geometry that adheres to the rules of 3d printing; the combination of which is used to create an IMM brush. The chain links are created without holes to achieve a continuous “filled” mesh.

See my 80lv article chronicling how I achieved this chainmail effect:rticle for 80level, Sculpting a Beowulf Miniature in Zbrush.

In addition, hand-drawn elements brought into Adobe Illustrator to create vector-based outlines were used to create the knotwork patterns on the shield, as well as the crows. Once vectored, the illustrations were brought into Maya to create geometry that could be used within ZBrush.

Posed 3D miniature sculpt of Beowulf with chainmail

ADVICE TO FUTURE GAME ARTISTS

The creation of Beowulf was a gratifying journey. It offered me the opportunity to combine a variety of surface challenges within the limitations and possibilities of 3D miniature production. The Game Art Institute course was greatly beneficial in facilitating my growth as a miniatures sculptor. Be wary of committing time and money to universities that are incapable of providing students rudimentary art instruction. These institutions are staffed with people that exist in an environment that has little to no real-world consequences. Do the research and make sure that the place you put your time and money will give you the best chance to achieve your goals. There is no replacement for hard work and dedication. When properly focused within the framework of an authoritative source of experience and knowledge, such as the Game Art Institute, the limitations are only determined by the individual.

HIRE SCOTT SLEETER

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Image of a 3D miniature sculpt of Beowulf

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