Hard Surface Modeling for Characters | CG Master Academy

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Hard Surface Modeling for Characters

A 6-week course focused on designing and building complex hard surfaces for characters

Course overview Course overview

Course Overview

Build and design hard surfaces for characters

Throughout this course we are going to take a look at the techniques and challenges of designing and building hard surfaces for characters. This does not only include design, sculpting, and modeling, but especially the focus on creating character hard surfaces with animation in mind from the very beginning. The goal is to get students to look at the subject matter from a new perspective and to take away as much knowledge, tips, tricks, and techniques as possible for use in their own work.


Course Format:   Standard
Lecture Type:   Pre-recorded
Feedback:   Individually recorded
Duration:   6 weeks
Assignment:   Due each week. Expect to spend 10-20 hrs/wk viewing lectures, q&a, and time on assignments
Q&A:   Once a week
Materials:   Photoshop, ZBrush and 3D packages such as Maya, 3Dsmax, Modo, or else should be known to follow along
Skills level:   Intermediate
Prerequisites:   Knowledge of ZBrush and 3D packages such as Maya, 3Dsmax, Modo; | Some basic but solid anatomy knowledge is a plus for having a base body model to get started | Basic knowledge of Photoshop

Hard Surface Modeling for Characters WHAT YOU’LL LEARN

What you'll learn

The more you know, the better.

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Taking a look at the difference between hard surface modeling and organic modeling (deformation) | Design principles and challenges when building hard surfaces for characters | Have a look at the character concept (background story, design breakdown, reference used) | Evaluating design for required range of motion
Quick intro to ZBrush toolset and personal layout for the basic hard surface blockout | Blocking out the basic/primary shapes of the hard surface and clothing | Designing the back of the character during blockout (on the fly design without 2D concept) | Explaining ZBrush workflow, tools used and design decisions while sculpting the concept model
Using ZRemesher and Decimation Master to create a quick low res version of the base body | Building a simple rig inside of Maya for motion tests |Testing key poses of the character and talking about feedback from the Rigger | Evaluating and applying design changes to the model in order to meet requirements to range of motion and deformation | Testing design changes again on the rig
Building and using custom brushes for hard surface detail | Sculpting smaller shapes, details and bringing concept sculpt to final | Stage for cleanup and remodeling | Some rules and guidelines for adding detail to hard surfaces | Showing techniques of cleaning up hard surface parts for texture baking
Decimating the character and exporting him into another 3D package (here: Maya and Modo) | Setting up the scenes for retopo | Showing first of two ways of remodeling the character: Sub-D/Highres modeling for offline rendering or texture baking.
Showing second of two ways of remodeling the character: Low res modeling for real time rendering (games). | Topology guidelines for real time mesh (geometry examples, overpaints): polygon budget, technical requirements for the mesh such as LODs, Uvs, rigging, character variation etc.

Igniting your imagination

Arno is a Principal Character Artist at Guerrilla Games, located in the heart of Amsterdam. He contributed to the development of Killzone Shadow Fall, Horizon Zero Dawn, and its DLC the Frozen Wilds. Currently, he is working on an unannounced project. His work is influenced by the traditional arts education he attended at the Florence Academy of Art.

Student interviews


May 5th!

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Feb 10, 2020 - Apr 29, 2020




May 5th!

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Even though our courses are the most affordable for the quality of education.

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Employer Reimbursement

Animation Guild CSATTF

Payment Plan

Companies that hire our students

  • Naughty Dog
  • Luma Pictures
  • Google
  • EA Games
  • DreamWorks Animation
  • Blizzard Entertainment

environment design Benefits


What makes this learning experience unique?

Personal Feedback

Receive personal individual feedback on all submitted assignments from the industries best artist.

1+ Year Access

Enjoy over 365 days of full course access. This includes all lectures, feedback, and Live Q&A recordings.

Certificate of Completion

Earn a Certificate of Completion when you complete and turn in 80% of course assignments.

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Knight Production Guide

Interview with Joakim Hammarslätt

Joakim Hammarslätt discussed the approach to creating the character he worked on during the CGMA Hard-Surface Modeling for Characters course and shared his step-by-step modeling workflow in ZBrush

Knight Production Guide


My name is Joakim Hammarslätt, and I am currently attending FutureGames in Stockholm. In the following, I will discuss my approach to making armor, and some of the lessons I have learned since and during Ben Erdt's hard-surface modeling class at CGMA. 

Before joining the class, I had been planning on doing a project about a knight for some time. This class seemed like a great opportunity to do some research on historical armors, while also having my pipeline and technical skills pushed by a more senior artist. 

Some weeks before the beginning of the course, I had exchanged a few e-mails with Ben about the class. I proposed to make a knight instead of a sci-fi suit. He was quite enthusiastic about it and supported the idea.

Joakim H


Assuming a concept art is given (which the class did provide), the general workflow can be summarised as: 

  1. Break down the reference by dividing the character into larger forms, and separating the materials indicated in the concept. 
  2. Construct the major blocks using ZBrush and DynaMesh.
  3. Cut the forms into smaller parts, and export it into Maya for test rigging. Be mindful of geometry and articulation errors in your design. 

 3.1. If the character cannot perform key poses because his armour prevents him, make necessary adjustments.

  1. Bring the model back into ZBrush. Here you will also have to choose if you want to finalize the high poly using DynaMesh, or if you want to create a model suitable for SubD-modeling before finalizing the high poly. 
  2. Make the game-ready mesh. 

Working on the Details

Historically, putting pictures on armour would be done with etching, painting or engraving. In my research, I found a collection of decorative etching prints made by Daniel Hopfer (1470-1536). Hopfer's patterns were cut out and turned into a Trimsheet in Photoshop and later brought into Substance Painter to act as stencils & masks. 

The polygon strips are made by duplicating geometry from the armour and being offset slightly. Once duplicated, the strips' UVs are unitized, sewn and laid out horizontally in their own UV space, in order to utilize the trim sheets. 

A similar technique was used for the cylinders decorating some borders of the armour. However, a few more steps were taken. 

  1. Model the pipe
  2. Project onto a uniform cylinder with straight UVs
  3. Cut and paste the texture into the same texture as the leather straps (optional).
  4. Extrude the cylinders using your 3D package of choice
  5. Unwrap cylinders, and move UVs into place. 

Lastly, both the "squiggly buns" and the "brushstroke" decorations are stamped across the mesh using alphas painted in Photoshop. 

The Biggest Challenges

Perhaps, the major issue was related to the ambiguity of the project development - often, I was working on a number of things at the same time without a clear vision of where the path would lead. In moments like that, it was very helpful to talk to Ben, that was acting as an experienced and thoughtful supervisor and giving me valuable pieces of advice. Amongst them - "do one thing at a time", which turned to become one of the biggest takeaways from the project for me as well as - "keep it together". Don't split your mesh into several SubTools too early. Your shoulder pad might consist of 4 parts, but jumping between 4 SubTools and adjusting things is doubtful practise in the early stages. Work on them as a single SubTool until you are happy with the shape, then split it into 4, clean up and refine the individual parts. 4 Break the model into grayscale, and add contrast in material and specularity. When looking at character design, we can consider 3 levels of contrast, form, colour, and specularity. 

CGMA program is cleverly designed to help students to avoid such confusion and sidetracking - every week is dedicated to focusing on a specific task or skill development. My advice would be to implement this strategy and consider adding weekly themes or goals for your own projects. 

On a side note, I would also recommend to focus on your project and limit distractions when it comes to work, such as listening to GDC talks/podcasts or binging YouTube tutorials which are not directly related to your current work. Stay mindful, focused and do your research.

Working on Materials

There are a handful of armour smiths on YouTube who are willing to talk about their approach to traditional smithing, such as Jeffrey Wasson and Albert Collins. The process of shaping physical armour can be summarised as cutting patterns out of a sheet of steel and hammering it into shape. Think pattern sewing, but with metal. 

When it comes to game production, we need only to indicate the process of shaping the armour - we create the pieces using mesh extraction and moving things into place, instead of hammering flat metal surfaces. After the shaping is done in ZBrush, I will indicate hammer marks all over the armour, using a custom round brush, trying to mimic how a real smith would work their armour using a dome-shaped hammer. 

For instance, bowls and spherical pieces like the chest piece & the back of the helmet would be worked from the middle and out, similar to how a pizza baker would roll out the tomato sauce. 


Once this stage is completed, instead of the evening the surface by using the Smooth Brush, I will use a modified Trim or Polish brush using a square alpha, replicating the process of planishing, where the smith flattens the surface of the armor with a square or rectangular hammer. 

Finally, all edges of the mesh are given a bit of work in order to break up the smooth edges and give them a more authentic look. 


When discussing the render setup with Ben, we agreed that the most important part of a portfolio project is to highlight the work that has been done. That means the pose is fairly simple, and there is very little post-processing. 

Future Plans

I am still interested in medieval armors and their representation in games. The course at CGMA gave me a great inspiration to venture into more projects like that one. However, right now, I am focusing primarily on furthering artistic skills on small scale projects such as armor studies, trying to figure out how the different parts work from both artistic and mechanical points of view. I am considering to challenge myself once again with a knight figure in the nearest future to see how my perception and work have changed since the end of the course.


Joakim Hammarslätt, Character Artist

Interview conducted by Ellie Harisova