Ten years is a long time to be involved in the one franchise. How has it been for your team and yourself?
Kevin Lanning, Senior Character Artist: Wow… 10 years. Honestly, it’s hard to believe it’s been that long. Time flies by when you’re having fun, that’s for sure. It’s been an honor to work on the Gears franchise since its beginning, and an even larger honor to work amongst the Epic Games team for that long.
There is a crazy amount of talent within this studio, so you’re constantly growing here, as is the franchise. I couldn’t have asked for a better project to spend the last decade on or a better team to have worked with. The Gears universe and its art style alone is one that I could see myself having fun creating for many more years. It’s been a privilege, to say the least.
Pete Hayes, Senior Mechanical Artist: It’s been a dream come true for me. I’m a huge fan of the Gears style and the inspirational sources it draws from, so I’ve had an incredible time creating models for the games over the years. It's been amazing to see the series evolve, and I'm still just as excited to create art for the Gears universe as the day I started.
Mike Buck, Senior Character Artist: Working on the Gears of War franchise has been the opportunity of a lifetime. I have come to learn that the quality of our work is key with next-gen technology. Spending time on what you create versus quickly banging something out really shows in the end results. Epic, without a doubt, is the best place to work in this business!
Chris Wells, Senior Character Artist: For me, it has been a great experience to be part of such a successful and groundbreaking franchise. In my seven years here at Epic, it has been an honor making a contribution to a game franchise that so many people around the world enjoy playing, and it’s been the high point of my career to be part of such an exceptional group of guys.
Mike Kime, Senior Character Artist: The majority of my career at Epic has been spent on Gears of War 3, and I was already a fan of the franchise when I began working on it. It was cool to join during a time where it was about pushing it as hard as we could for that third game. There was quite a bit of history to work with, but at the same time the game was far from having run its course, so there was a lot of energy.
CGS: How did the characters change during production of “Gears of War 3?”
Kevin Lanning: Visually, we wanted the characters to appear more stripped down, almost vulnerable in comparison to the past two titles where they were engulfed with armor. The new designs exposed more under armor and raw body than we had ever shown before. We spent way more time building up the underlying bodies this round, making sure that the layered armor was functional and form-fitting, and allowing for good range of motion.
Production-wise, we became way more efficient in creating our content this go round. Character models were produced in half the time as before and with higher quality due to improved toolsets and streamlined workflows.
Chris Wells: My tasks were primarily the female characters. Because the story called for females in combat, the goal for me, aesthetically, was to strike the balance between beauty and strength, in addition to conveying a somewhat gritty look. Anya, for example, undergoes the dramatic change from a communications officer to joining the frontlines, so it was a different type of beauty that we set as a goal for Gears 3.
Mike Kime: By the time Gears 3 development commenced, the production of Xbox 360-generation games was well-established. That being said, there are always people pushing in different areas. For example, lots of objects were separated out within the character models. Explicit materials seemed to become more of a thing and the workflow for this became more streamlined.
People experimented and did great working in ZBrush more than ever before, including hard surface modeling. The new power of Core i7 machines and ZBrush enabled artist to push not just polys but how things were constructed in a way that helps texturing and kit bashing for the future. Characters started to show more anatomy, like their arms, and their armor became sleeker. Locust creatures became largely varied.
Mark Morgan, Senior Character Artist: Technically we approached gore differently in Gears 3 than in Gears 1 and 2. Previously we used three unique models: a game mesh, an LOD and a gore model. To save memory, the LOD and gore models were fused together into a single model that reduced both the memory footprint and the rigging workload.
Mike Buck: modelers are so great that most anything they do is spot on, so by the time they got to me, I had the awesome job of texturing the beautiful Gears 3 models. The textures underwent constant feedback, so I found that being flexible and not too attached to one thing helped drive the process, especially with regard to characters. At times this was difficult with an evolving game engine. One example would be the adjustment of lighting technology and having to go back and readjust or improve the textures to accommodate the change. Epic’s senior technical artist Jordan Walker was a huge help with this given his expertise in shader work.
CGS: The move from concept to the model can be tough. How was that journey in “Gears of War 3?”
Mike Kime: It’s a complex and organic process, and as I got to know people and especially as they got to know me, we developed a good feel for where people can take things on their own, where they excel, and where they need help. The process from concept to model has been great over the course of Gears of War 3. There is a large amount of trust and a great deal of approachability amongst everybody.
The biggest catch of all is being forward-thinking and running the character by the rigger. Our technical animator and rigger, Jeremy Ernst, always had a lot of useful feedback on how things should work and bend. That is the biggest translation a modeler faces, and it is a larger battle than the grey areas of a concept.
Mark Morgan: While we have a fairly small, tight staff iterating on concepts and models for many creatures and characters, there’s a certain degree of trust that has to be maintained between our art director and the team.
Various concepts arrive in different states of precision, so when it’s time to move into production, we can inject ourselves into everything from roughs to concise line work, though it is important to know when to ask how much liberty can be taken if the direction isn’t explicit.
Communication across the concept team and modeling team is key. Our modeling team is generally quick enough to iterate and respond in 3D, especially since we’ve all worked on Gears before and we know the universe.
Chris Wells: Depending on the character and design need, as well as artistic preference, we may have to stick close to the concept when we are modeling, while in other cases we use it as a jumping off point. My favorite concepts are the ones that were loose because they provide the basic idea and proportions, yet presented the challenge of filling in the rest or improvising a new idea for the model. It all depends on the task presented.
Kevin Lanning: It was rather straightforward. Most of the concepts we receive are pretty dead on as they’ve been roughed in with 3D prior to handoff. There’s that, coupled with the fact that most of us on the team have been working together for so long; everyone just knows what to expect from each other. And, of course, expectations are held pretty high here. J
CGS: What served as references for characters such as Bernie, Dizzy, Samantha and Barrick?
Wells: The characters are referenced from the Gears novels written by Karen Traviss, with Barrick originating from the Gears comic book series. My inspiration for Sam’s face came from Salli Richardson-Whitfield (see Wikipedia). I had always wanted to make a character with some passing resemblance to her. J
Mike Kime: Adding to that, we pull from as many places as possible for inspiration, and to be honest, the less you pull from video games, the better. Hollywood has done a really good job over the past century laying out archetypes. Many aspects are remixes of these ideas. You simply cannot get anything compelling from a vacuum.
Mark Morgan: I pulled Barrick from the Gears comic book series, with some added concept help from the monumental James Hawkins. Based on the comic book’s initial visual description I used Lemmy and Jesse Ventura as inspiration for Barrick’s face and persona.
Can you describe the creation of the Marcus Fenix character model? How many artists were involved in the low-poly model, the high-poly version and final optimized model?
Kevin Lanning: We’ve spent a very, very large amount of time creating, revising and polishing Marcus Fenix for all three games. Marcus has always been the first character we visit when in pre-production for any Gears title because we know that once we nail his look that every other character can then follow.
Our senior concept artist James Hawkins deals with any Marcus concepts and I take care of any modeling for Marcus. Epic’s art director, Chris Perna, originally handled all of the texture work, though that task along with all of the other Gears 3 character textures fell on Mike Buck’s shoulders.
Aaron Herzog, one of our senior animators, originally rigged Marcus back in the Gears 1 days, and since then Jeremy Ernst has taken over on all Gears 3-related rigging. Almost all of our animators have touched Marcus at one time or another, so he’s gotten around.
CGS: Those are just the humans. The Locust Drones are something else. What level of conceptual input did the modelers of these characters have?
Mike Kime: The level of modeler input is largely organic and so complex that I’m not sure where to begin. Over time, the input on the Locust population has been a nice two-way street. Quite often the modeler will have significant input on secondary and many tertiary elements of the character. Things that are not explicitly concepted will be filled in by the modeler. Depending on how impactful those features are, the modeler is l for making sure the proper people are on board.
It is a group effort and an organic process that leads to the best ideas rising to the top. It is impossible to detail a character in concept to the level that modelers take it and it is impossible to model cohesive original designs without a solid concept team. Most modelers strive to hit the concept as well as they can, and then use that to fill in the gaps where needed.
Mike Buck: The Berserker and Locust Drone are two of the most recognizable enemy characters, so having the task of maintaining the integrity of these guys and refining their textures was a major responsibility. Applying new technology to the shaders through texture work was simultaneously tedious and technical, but this was key in preserving the familiarity of the creatures.