Dan Roarty’s Realistic 3D Portraits

Dan Roarty’s Realistic 3D Portraits

Character artist Dan Roarty walks us through the process of creating one of his hyperrealistic 3D portraits, “Happy Birthday, Nana,” a tribute to his late grandmother.

Dan shows how he uses the sculpting tools in Mudbox and Maya to create the basic bust form and adds the layers upon layers of detail, texture, and tone with programs like Knald and Shave and a Haircut.

Finally, he lights the scene and composites the final render passes in Photoshop to create a realistic portrait that honors his grandmother’s memory. Dive in to find out how he does it.

Watch more documentaries like this at lynda.com/vimeo

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Our next interview with Dan Roarty, 3D artist who had the fortune of working as Lead Character Artist for LucasArts, Midway and Radical (Activision). His personal work “The Blue Project”, a 3D portrait of his wife Nicole, got a lot of attention lately. Not only it gave him a lot of credibility in the CG community, but I believe many flattering moments to Nicole as well 🙂

Tell us about yourself and why you chose to be a 3D artist?

Sure! Well, I was born in Vancouver Canada but lived most of my young adult life in Maple Ridge B.C. (about an hour outside of Vancouver). From a very early age I knew pretty quickly what I wanted to do. I got my first 3d software package ‘Truespace’ for my 13th birthday and from there I was hooked. I can still remember spending all weekend with my brothers Colin and Sean along with best friends Gary and Brent putting together small 3d movies, video games or anything creative in a interactive medium. Art has always been a huge part of my life. Both my Mom and Nana were fantastic artists and I think it rubbed off on me. I was very lucky to have supportive parents and long story short, I knew very quickly what I wanted to do. A HUGE dream of mine as a kid was to work at LucasFilm and to be able to work on a Star Wars project, which I have been extremely fortunate enough to be able to do that. Now its time to set new goals.

The Blue Project

“The Blue Project” by Dan Roarty

Where are you currently working and how you got there? Tell us about your career path from the beginning. What can you advise to those who want to get into 3D?

Currently I am working as a Lead Character Artist at Crystal Dynamics here in Northern California on a fantastic new IP. I moved to the states about 4 years ago to get a bit of a change of pace and scenery from Canada and since then have worked at 2K, LucasArts and now Crystal Dynamics/Square Enix. My career started off when I was still in school where I was approached by MTV to create a small animated movie based off of my demo reel that was currently in progress. I ended up getting a bunch of students at the time to help me put it together and was lucky enough to get some exposure while I was still in school. From there I worked at a couple small studios before I landed a gig at Radical Entertainment where I was able to work on projects like Scarface, Crash Bandicoot and Prototype. After 6 years of living in Canada it was time for a new adventure! My advice to anyone who is looking to get into 3D is you have to eat, breath and sleep 3D/art. There are so many amazing artists out there so you have work harder/smarter if you want to make a name for yourself out there. 8 hours a day will not cut it I am afraid.

What future do you see for the whole 3D industry? Where would you personally like to be in 5 – 10 years?

Right now 3d scans are becoming very big and relatively cheap. It’s a bit tough to say how the industry as a whole will be in the near future with outsourcing becoming more and more as a source of content creation. I do know that with next gen looming and a higher standard to hit higher bars studios will still need talented artist to help push the vision forward. within 5 years I really would love to start creating more personal projects on the side as well as create a short 3d film I have been wanting to do for some time. To be honest there is lots I still want to accomplish and the only thing holding me back at the moment is time.

Lets talk about your masterpiece “The Blue Project”. Your wife’s 3D portrait exceptionally real, not only in terms of photorealism, but also in her character. What would you advise to do to make a 3D character look more lifelike and less cg?

Thanks for that comment! I think sometimes artist tend to make things look slightly too ‘perfect’ on characters this could mean lack of blemishes, wrinkles, and symmetry in the face. All that being said, lighting and shaders play a huge role on how realistic something looks up close and from a distance.


What tools did you use in the modeling process? Could you tell us step by step about the workflow. Any difficult situations you got in and how did you solved them?

There wasn’t really anything special on the modeling side I must say. I didn’t rely on using any displacement maps only used bump maps extracted from Mudbox. Getting the skin shader to react the way I wanted it to was a bit difficult depending the lighting I was using but when I switched to HDRI setup it made it much easier to control. Getting her likeness and ensuring her expression was really basic took time. When you make your wife in 3D you really want to ensure she looks like your wife and shes happy overall with how she looks 🙂 there was definitely some back on forth with that.

The hair is beautiful and realistic, how did you make it?

The hair was created using ‘Shave and a Haircut’ from Joe Alter. The process was quite intense and took multiple attempts and setups to get the look I was after. I relied on photo reference of my wife Nicole and ensured I captured the way her hair style looked and portrayed it in 3d. If you go to Autodesk Area, there I give a full example of how I created the hair and steps in achieving the final look.

Textures and Shading

How did you made the textures? Any tips on how to get better control over textures and shading?

The textures were painted by hand and I didn’t rely on any photo reference projection. The problem with using photo reference as textures is that no matter how much you try to clean up the image you still have shadows and specular still in your image that doesn’t transfer well to 3d most of the time. I would recommend taking the time to texture the skin layer by layer and trying to ensure it looks both realistic and believable. Try to stay away from photo reference as a source if you can. The shaders definitely took time and I tested under multiple lighting conditions to ensure it was as accurate as I was able to make it. I actually created a tutorial for 3D Artist magazine that goes through the entire process of how I created the textures and maps for ‘The Blue Project’ I would recommend if anyone wants step by step on how I achieved the skin from both a shader and texture stand point to check out issue 37.


What rendering engine did you use? Why?

I used VRAY within Maya because of the ease of use and how fantastic other examples I saw on sites were. I was determined to try out VRAY and really loved it. I would recommend checking it out for sure.


Was the final image post processed in any way (retouching, color correction, etc.) or did you try to achieve realistic image straight from 3D rendering?

There were definitely color corrections and value shifts I needed to make to ensure the hair and skin reacted well together. That being said I didn’t really do much touch ups as I wanted to stay away from having to doctor it in order to achieve the final look. I also show all the layers and adjustments I make in Photoshop afterwards in the 3D Artist magazine tutorial.

Thank you, Dan for sharing your experience. Looking forward to see more of your works in the future!

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