Ben Erdt is a Senior Character Artist at Guerrilla Games whose passion for creating CG characters developed into a successful career. Erdt’s innate skillsets enabled him to jump from style to style and his love for collaboration has generated projects in drawing, sculpting, modeling, texturing as well as rendering. Between 2001 and 2007, he created custom levels, for fun and for mods, for Quake 3, Quake4, Doom 3, and Prey. He then went on to work on eye-catching games such as Killzone: Shadow Fall as well as Horizon Zero Dawn. In 2011, Ben Erdt graduated from Meda Design High School (University of Applied Sciences) in Munich and received his Bachelor of Science in Game Design. In 2012, he graduated from Vancouver Film School with a Diploma with Honours in 3D Animation & Visual Effects. Ben Erdt is skilled in a variety of tools including Modo, Maya, XSI, 3Dsmax, Mari, Zbrush, and Photoshop as well as Quixel DDO, Topogun, Radiant based Editors (Doom3, Quake4, Prey, Call of Duty), and UnrealED basics. A quote from Carlos Huante, "A modeler who knows how to be creative is indispensable and will always have work," has stuck with Erdt over the years, and he continuously finds himself busy working on personal projects in between the professional ones. Ben Erdt’s work has been featured on various websites and magazines such as 3D Artist, 3D Creative and 3D World. To connect with Ben, visit his website and ArtStation.
GW: What inspired your fervor for digital sculpting and concept art? Did one inspire the other or did they spawn simultaneously?
BE: 3D Modeling came first. I worked on that a long time before I went back to drawing again. When I did resurrect the latter, I was able to do more serious concept art for personal projects and bolster my portfolio. Later, digital sculpting jumped right into my lap which made me pick up drawing and sketching again. I had always done drawing and sketching before, diligently keeping up on them, but digital sculpting forced me to improve on them both more seriously.
GW: What are the key differences between the daily demands on a character artist compared to the daily demands on a character modeler?
BE: Specific modeling tasks within the character pipeline such as making proxy models, high poly, game mesh, UV, LODs, geo optimization, giving feedback to modeling subcontractors etc. are mostly the task list for a character modeler. A character artist is usually responsible for more aspects in the process. So, next to the modeling part, the artist is also involved in textures, materials and shading, game engine integration, working with outsource vendors, fixing all sorts of character related bugs and even having some creative input on the initial character design.
GW: How does organic differ from hard-surface modeling?
BE: I think one of the major differences is deformation when it comes to both surface types. Organic surfaces, for instance, flesh or fabrics, need to squash, stretch, bend or twist. In order to ensure proper deformation, these need to be modeled quite carefully. So, clean and well flowing topology is key here. Clean geometry for hard surfaces is also an important goal. The difference to organic surfaces though is adding extra geo to keep the shapes while subdividing. For example, adding support edges to make corners stay sharp. This can increase the final polygon count quite a lot. Keeping an eye on polygon density while modeling hard surfaces for sub-d is a good idea.
GW: The intricate detail you achieved on Horizon Zero Dawn characters such as Sylens and Helis was extremely immersive and eye-catching. What helped you achieve that level of success?
BE: The characters for Horizon are the result of a large team effort and good art direction. When collaborating on that many levels, good communication is extremely important to make sure the original design intent and the quality of each character is kept from the first concept art to the final, in-game model. Building the 3D model purely from the concept art is okay, but knowing who the character is, his background and motivation helps a lot more to make the character visually stronger at the end. That includes shapes, details, and materials as well. So, I think knowing our characters from the very beginning helped us to achieve the final results.
GW: When bringing together your final render, you’ve mentioned your process that includes modeling manually in Maya, sculpting in ZBrush, texturing in Mari and rendering in Modo with touch ups in Photoshop thrown in. Has that evolved? Any new software you’re excited by?
BE: At the moment, there is this basic set of tools such as Maya, Modo, Zbrush, Mari and Photoshop that I use most of the time. But, if there is a program that can do certain things faster or visually better, I go for it. For instance, I do cloth in Marvelous Designer, and Quixel Suite for some basic material layers. I started messing around with Substance Designer and that has yielded good results as well.
Of course, evolution and being open-minded and adaptable is also always a great idea. For instance, my workflow kept changing a lot in the past. One of my main modeling tools used to be 3Dsmax before I moved over to Maya. A few years ago, I started to use Modo for modeling as well. Now, software like Fusion 360 or Moi3D are catching my interest for the design part. You never know which direction the latest technology will nudge you toward, so don’t be afraid to experiment even if you’re not at first totally comfortable.
GW: You’re a level designer to boot! You’ve designed levels for Quake, Doom and Prey. What kind of different demands does that type of design require?
BE: Hmm. If I think back to that time, I recall that it was not only about making the environment visually cool looking, but also about taking the player by the hand and keeping him or her busy with good gameplay.
For instance: thinking about when and where and how to introduce a new enemy type, and when to give the player ammo, and how much ammo, etc. All crucial elements. As you can see, there was some intricate game design involved as well.
The levels also had to make sense, be visually grounded, and fit into the common, given theme. If the action takes place in a clean and modern looking medical research facility, thick metal wall plating that is caked in rust and lots of dusty industry piping wouldn’t quite fit. I was heavily involved in the level design or “mapping” as we used to call it, and it was looked at as more of a hobby and as the first steps in being creative at the PC.
BE: I remember watching videos online where people were doing cool trick jumps with jump stilts. That sparked the initial idea of a character wearing a pair of the same, and I started drawing a set of rough sketches. That was the time when I was asked by The Gnomon Workshop if wanted to do a video tutorial for them about creature modeling for production. It was a great opportunity to produce the video tutorials and work on a character based on the jump stilt idea.
GW: Are there steps in an artist’s workflow that should not be skipped? For example, have you ever found yourself overwhelmed and realized going back to primary shapes, sculpt mesh, or gathering more reference photos was needed?
BE: I remember going back and changing some fundamental parts of the design for a personal project. The character I was working on had a too limited range of motion in some areas. So, the design had to be changed to make it work for rigging. That’s one of the things that should be considered carefully when building characters for later use in animation.
Something else I like to do: once I’m already quite far in the design process and preparing the 3d model / 3d sculpt for the first detail pass, I take a step back and check if the very basic shapes and forms still work. That’s more of a personal preference because I’m quite the detail-freak and don’t want to get lost in it too early. I started to make a habit of regularly checking to see if the original design intent was still there and that the basic shapes still work. I definitely recommend doing this as it really helps.
GW: How did you hone your affinity for sci-fi creature design? Are there other genres that also inspire you?
BE: As a kid, I was already very interested in space stories and space creatures. Most of my friends shared that interest as well. In fact, we used to draw massive top down space battles on huge blank sheets of paper that covered the entire kitchen table. Also, having older siblings who were already into computers and gaming consoles enabled us to grow up with technology and games at our fingertips. That, combined with the love of drawing monsters, is how I think I ended up with sci-fi creature design as my favorite, but, of course, not my only passionate genre. Most all the genres that revolve around technology really inspire me as well. For instance, cyberpunk and steampunk… I really love those.
GW: Do you foresee any interesting changes impacting 3D animation and visual effects in the future?
BE: For asset creation, something that is becoming more popular is photogrammetry or 3D scanning. Scanning a person’s head to capture his likeness can save much more time rather than sculpting it from scratch. Same goes for scanning other 3D objects. The artist mainly needs to retopo the scans, clean them up, and bake the texture information before they are integrated into the scene or game.
I foresee game engines finding their way more often into VFX for certain shot elements as things keep progressing and the quality becomes better and better.
And then, of course, there is VR which captures my personal interest a lot. Having a VR model viewer in which you can walk around your own creations and have them stand in front of you in life size, sounds quite cool!
GW: What advice do you have for students preparing for 3D animation and visual effects? Are there unforeseen challenges sometimes overlooked by up and coming creatives?
BE: I think one piece of advice I can offer is to work as cleanly as possible and to be far-seeing. Once you fine your place in the industry, you’re going to be part of a big production pipeline. Which means there will be colleagues down the road who must work with what you deliver, such as concepts, sculpts, models, feedback sheets, etc. Making games and movies is a team effort. Being a good team player is extremely important.
Something that is still a bit misunderstood is how being a character artist means staying in highpoly land during the entire job. There will be a point in production where all high res modeling has finished, and the time for polishing and bug fixing begins. So, you might end up fixing textures, shaders, geo, UVs and LODs for many months. High res sculpting/modeling is actually a rather small part of the character pipeline. It is a lot of fun though. However, bringing a character into a game is a process of many steps and that is an important thing to keep in mind.
GW: Are there annual events, conferences, or tutorials that you’d recommend to others?
BE: Events such as Siggraph, GDC, Zbrush Summit, FMX, THU are definitely a few to check out. You need to be aware of ticket and travel costs though. That being said, I still believe it is quite worth the effort. Meeting new talented people, or perhaps even your idols, plus sharing tips and tricks and having nice chats are all very beneficial. And networking is extremely important in this industry.
As for tutorials, I still love a lot of the earlier character modeling for production tutorial DVDs from Gnomon. One that’s still great for Sub-D character modeling today is Vitaly’s Character Modeling for Next Gen Games.
GW: You’ve created astounding fan art from the game Unreal. What was it about that game that stuck with you? And are there other favorite video games/music/movies that you use for reference or have also made an impact on you?
BE: On the one hand, it was the amazing graphics that Unreal brought to the PC in 1998. Back then, when you had a 3dfx Voodoo board, you could enjoy the game in all its visual glory. For a game, it was also pretty large with a long play time, a great setting, cool soundtrack and good gameplay. I remember that iconic scene where I met one of the main enemies (the Skaarj) for the first time. I loved those menacing guys. Later, they came back as hybrids in the first Unreal Tournament which was a must play at LAN parties back then. I have lots of good memories of those days.
As for other references and early inspirations that made me want to follow the scifi creature path, there are the classics like Giger’s Alien, the Predator, Gremlins, Monster Squad, and TV shows like Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, Farscape, and Firefly. Then, of course, movies such as District 9 (one of my all time favorites) and Pacific Rim… the list goes on and on!
Music can also be a huge inspiration. Most of the time I listen to a style that fits the mood of a current project. When I was working on the Leviathan, I listened to more pirate metal. And 1980’s hard rock filled my ears while working on the Smuggler :D
GW: Incredible points of thought with Ben Erdt. Thank you for taking the time to share your experiences, Ben. Cheers. We look forward to your future projects!