Bend it like… er… a Free Form Deformer

To avoid heading into extra time for the biennial alternative football sticker album, Swiss-based artist Neil Stubbings needed to work smarter, not harder…

Bend it like… er… a Free Form Deformer 1Every two years, coinciding with the UEFA European Championship and FIFA World Cup, Swiss-based non-profit organisation Tschutti Heftli releases an arty alternative to the popular Panini collectible sticker album. Rather than the usual photographic mug shots, players are represented by artists, illustrators and graphic designers, resulting in a wonderfully esoteric collection of stylised portraits.

Participants are determined by a public competition in which they are tasked with recreating a famous footballing celebrity. A jury decides on the best entries, and the chosen artists are invited to create a team of players plus their manager, a fictional coat of arms and a self-portrait.

The 2018 jury included Pussy Riot lead singer Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, former US defender Alexis Lalas and Austrian cartoonist Nicolas Mahler, and the subject was Argentine striker, Diego Maradona. Zurich-based artist Neil Stubbings decided to enter just for fun; "I actually completed my entry for the contest pretty quickly," he says. "I never expected to get picked."

But picked he was, which meant that Neil then had to embark on the full set of stickers, 14 images in all, for the England team – and do it all in just four weeks. His first thought after receiving the notification was, "How the hell should I build an entire team with this concept!?"

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Neil decided to represent the England team as armour-clad warriors, a nod back to the nation's long military heritage. To speed up and simplify the process, Neil tried using simple shapes in Cinema 4D to get a "reduced graphic style." But this led to another problem: how could he recreate an entire football team with identifiable characters, using just simple forms?

"Recognisability was a big issue," he admits. "Maradona's head was just a cylinder. I had to introduce more detailed head forms. So in the end, the form of the head and the hairstyle was the main tool to make the players recognisable."

The base mesh was just simple geometry built using traditional box modelling, then Neil applied Free Form Deformers (FFDs) to change the dimensions and generate the different shapes he needed for the various players.

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The eyes were created simply from rounded cubes, rearranged for each character. The mouth, however, proved problematic: "The mouth is done in After Effects with some bevel and emboss layer effects," reveals Neil.

"I was experimenting with Booleans to get the cavity of the mouth, but couldn't get any clean results because of the low-poly geometry. Modelling each mouth wasn't an option because this took too long. I experimented with shape layers and layer effects in After Effects and managed to get a result that matched the look of the render."

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To help differentiate the players, Neil went to the effort of creating individual hairstyles – although Cinema 4D's Hair system was left on the bench. "There wasn't a single Hair Object used: it was a bunch of Sweep Objects and lots of displacement with Cinema 4D noises."

"For Danny Rose, the curly spike was done with a helix and a Sweep Object and then cloned using MoGraph onto the head. The texture is mostly displacement and bump driven by Cinema 4D noise. I wanted the materials to have a more realistic look to contrast the very simple shapes. I used the Redshift renderer for this."

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Neil explains how he likes the photographic look that Redshift produces, plus all the advantages of a GPU-accelerated biased render engine, such as being able to exclude specific parts of the geometry from certain light sources. He's also a great fan of the variety of noises that Cinema 4D provides, which helped with the displacement maps and also for the skin material. "Luckily, the Cinema 4D noises are available in Redshift so I could build an entirely procedural skin shader with multiple layers of Cinema 4D noises."

The system Neil employed was based on Redshift's own skin shader, which provides a setup with shallow, mid and deep scattering. To get the right texture, he used an elaborate setup of multiple Cinema 4D noises coloured via a Ramp node within Redshift's layer shader, the RS Color Layer.

The players' beards are actually a separate mesh, based on the same geometry as the head. This was Normal scaled, so it sits behind the head, and then the vertices were moved manually so the relevant areas poked through. A displacement map adds the fine detail. The same technique was used for players with separate moustaches, but these meshes were built from scratch.

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For the team's leather and armour uniforms, Neil used Cinema 4D's Layer Shader with various dirt and scratch textures from his own library. The neat hammered metal look is derived from the Voronoi 1 noise in the material bump channel.

The leather texture was another that Neil already had, but he used Redshift's curvature node with some noise to generate a mask for the worn edges. It's a relatively simple technique, but adds a lot of realism. The chainmail was bought off TurboSquid – after all, why spend time remaking something that already exists?

Neil's self-portrait is a little more stately, sporting a rather smart ruffled scarf and epaulettes. "Those cords on the epaulettes are a helix in a Sweep Object," he explains. "I made the Sweep Object editable and used a Hair Object to distribute the cords and have them hang down realistically. The scarf around the neck is modelled from a simple cylinder and then squeezed in place via an FFD. The wavy part is made of two splines in a Loft Object. I added a Displacer deformer to get some variation, and the whole thing is inside a Cloth Surface to give it a slight thickness. Gareth Southgate's scarf is a variation of the one in the self-portrait."

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The team's coat of arms was first designed in Adobe Illustrator, and the resulting splines imported into Cinema 4D where they were extruded. The red cross of Saint George and three lions were then exported to Photohop to create the basic texture maps. The materials then used several Layer Shaders with those textures, along with dirt and scratch maps to add convincing wear and tear.

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Each image was rendered out at a resolution of 2480x3248 pixels, with depth-of-field achieved directly in Redshift. After Effects was used to add the mouths, as mentioned above, to add the background and do some basic grading.

By using a simple mesh and FFDs, some smart workarounds and clever use of shaders ("Three cheers for the Cinema 4D noises – once again"), Neil managed to get all 14 stickers completed before the final whistle. If you want your own alternative World Cup sticker album, head over to Mundial's online store. A proportion of the money raised goes to the humanitarian charity Terre des Hommes.

Steve Jarratt is a long-time CG enthusiast and technology journalist based in the UK.

All images courtesy of Neil Stubbings.

Neil Stubbings Website

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