Beneath the Waves Challenge: Game Character Winners Interview

For the Game Character Art portion of the Beneath the Waves Challenge, participants were given 4 weeks to create one character rendered in a real-time engine and some of the results will blow your mind!

See all the Game Character entries from the Beneath the Waves Challenge.  

In this interview,  winners Natalia P. Gutiérrez Joe Tolliday and Benjamin Retter share their challenge journey and they have some helpful advice for the next challenge!

How did you choose the concept for your submission?

Natalia: I decided to choose a concept from Phase 1 since it’s something I tend not to do and it could prove a bit of a challenge. There was a lot of variety to choose from and it was super entertaining to spend a few days just surfing the contest page, looking at lots of finished and unfinished entries and enjoying the art in general. I finally decided to model a concept by Mahea Rodrigues called ‘The Mother’. I mainly felt drawn to the character’s story and nature, evoking a sense of darkness but also fragility and sorrow. I really liked her physical appearance as well.

Joe: Initially, I was torn between two fantastic concepts from Phase 1 – one organic, the other hard-surface. I ultimately chose the hard-surface piece ‘Fathomless Nine’ by Lewis Jones as I don’t usually do hard-surface models. It being an ArtStation Challenge I wanted to, you know… challenge… myself.

Benjamin: I decided to chose a concept for this challenge. I wanted to focus on my ability to read a concept and translate it into a 3D space. I’ve worked from my own designs in the past and a lot of my time is spent second-guessing the design and constantly making changes to it. Choosing a concept (especially one as amazing as Mole Wang’s) allowed me to have a solid base from which I could confidently work and channel my energy into the 3D side of things. I chose Mole Wang’s concept specifically because it immediately stood out to me. It just had so much personality and I wanted to give myself the challenge of re-creating that personality in 3D.

Tell us about your strategy and process for creating your piece.

Natalia: I started by looking at Mahea’s reference board to have a general idea about the animals, colors and materials she used to base her characters on. After creating my own board, I started the sculpt in Zbrush, doing a first pass and blocking the main shapes with simple geometry. Then I detailed my sculpt filling those parts that weren’t so clear on the concept with a little bit of imagination/improvisation. Retopo was done in Topogun, and textures on Painter, using a polypaint pass done on Zbrush as diffuse base.


Joe: This was my 2nd ArtStation challenge, but my first time starting with the full allotted time. Hard surface modelling not being my forte, my strategy was to simply take things slow and prepare myself for failure. Mistakes were going to be made, and I would have to make some components multiple times to get them to a point I was happy with.


Benjamin: Before I had even selected a concept, I knew that I wanted to use this challenge as an excuse to develop my skills in Substance Painter. That was something I kept in mind throughout the modelling process, adding details and elements which I knew would be greatly enhanced with the texturing I could eventually do in Substance. I did hit a roadblock of sorts early on in the sculpting process where I wasn’t sure if I should stay 100% true to the concept or if I should change/add things based on how I believed it should be. Another challenger, Raul Garcia Latorre, had a similar issue around the same time and brought it up in his submission thread which lead to a fantastic discussion and gave me the confidence to move forward and add a lot of my own personality into the model.

I didn’t have too much experience in creating full characters so I wasn’t sure how to budget the 100k triangle limit and ended up being very conservative. Other than the initial roadblock I mentioned, the process was fairly smooth except for one little hiccup near the end where I realized that the naval mine he’s holding counts as part of the character and not a separate piece as I had initially thought. I had originally given the mine its own texture map so I ended up having to re-UV and re-bake Bob and the mine. Thankfully, Substance Painter is amazing and I didn’t have to do the textures again!

Were there any other submissions you were following? 

Natalia: Indeed, I love watching other submissions develop. Participating in this contest was an joint idea with my colleague Nic Frath, (who did another one of Mahea’s concepts), so I was of course following his. Quite a few entries stood out to me so it’s hard to name them all. Raul‘s sculpt was fantastic, Joe did an awesome work interpreting what I think was a difficult concept, and Benjamin kept all the appeal of his character and made a tidy model. Rodrigo made lots of tutorials and detailed process images along the way and that was remarkable.

Joe:  There were a ton of people using concepts that I loved from Phase 1 that I was following, but if I had to do a shout-out, it would have to go to Juras Rodionovas. His character stood out to me, not only because it was unique (his own design), but because of the rapport we developed during the challenge. We were both really receptive to each others feedback, and seeing that reflected in each others updates was really motivating and validating as an artist (yay, he did the thing I suggested – I know what I’m talking about). I also tend to take these challenges as an opportunity to find and follow fellow Melbournians/Australians – got to support the local industry!

Benjamin: Oh, man I was following so many submissions! I would constantly check out the latest updates tab and see what everyone was working on. Other than the other winners and honourable mentions, the submissions of Edgar Tudela, Maciej Mikolajczyk and Carlos Garcia all blew me away. They each chose the same concept (RD-10 by Giorgio Baroni), which was incredibly complex, and they each had slightly different takes on it. I felt they were all executed brilliantly.

What do you think was the hardest part specific to this challenge?

Natalia: It took me some days to find a concept that I both liked and thought that fit the contest’s theme well, especially having in mind the judging criteria of ‘telling a compelling story’ and ’embodying the aquatic setting they come from’. I also spent a while texturing the character’s skin and iridescent shader, going back and forth and testing options until the last week.


Joe: Oh, definitely having to get a sense of being underwater in the beauty shot: Fog, bloom, DOF (Depth Of Field) caustics, everything that I could use to achieve this effect washed out the details of my model – it was a tricky balance.In the end i was told (and had to remind myself repeatedly afterwards) that the competition was about the model, so I ultimately cut a lot of those effects back to sell the character, rather than the setting.

Benjamin: The hardest part for me was definitely during the initial stages of the sculpting process. When I first looked at the concept, I thought I had a good idea of how it would work in 3D but once I started blocking him out , that started to fall apart. I was starting to think I should pick another concept but I decided to push through and I’m so glad I did! I had to rethink how Bob would look, which took a while. But, with the help of a lot of reference images of space suits, Maschinen Krieger and puffer fish I was finally able to get the sculpt to a point I was happy with.

What’s your advice for future challengers?

Natalia: Since you have so much creative freedom on these contests, find a concept you really like or motivates you or create your own, and use that extra motivation to push yourself and try to produce the best result you can. Videos and documentaries make excellent references as well, and it’s easy to get inspiration or ideas from little facts you learn. Observation is key!

 Can we get a picture of Shia Labeouf here? Seriously: “Just DO IT!” It doesn’t matter if you don’t think you’re good enough or think you’re too busy to finish in time.That’s not the point. The point is that you will improve as an artist. If you get one bit of valuable feedback, the challenge will be worth it. Just. Do. It. Looking at you, artistic friends of mine!

Benjamin: Ask a lot of questions and interact with other challengers! That was one of my regrets during this contest, I felt that I was too focused on my own submission that I didn’t spend enough time giving feedback on other people’s work. Definitely have to take my own advice for the next challenge!

  • Share this article

About the author

Sierra is the Editor of ArtStation Magazine.