Creating a character’s look

The devil is in the details. Max Payne’s iconic leather jacket and Hawaii shirt combo didn’t seem that odd at the time, as we probably worried more about polygon and texture size limits than having fashion sense.

When we talk about the look of a character, we are not talking about just their face but what they wear. Clothing is a huge part of a characters look and personality. Just think about Barry in Alan Wake!

Nowadays the hardware has improved, the graphical fidelity is greater, and we finally have a full-time Costume Designer at Remedy. Heli Salomaa is responsible for designing the costumes for our characters based on the game’s script and creative direction.

Heli Salomaa, Costume Designer at Remedy

You are currently working on one of our games as a Costume Designer, which is a very specialized job. Can you talk us through your current daily routine: how do you work with the art director and character artists?

At the moment I’m doing mostly concept art and working directly with the Lead Character Artist. A few times a month we have a review of my latest work, and every now and then we go through the designs with the rest of the leads and directors.

There are also two characters that are getting their clothes made for 3D scanning so we can make them into digital models, so I supervise the manufacturing. I recently ran a short workshop for character artists about pattern making in Marvelous Designer. We are experimenting with it as a way of communicating the costume designs. I also use Marvelous for quick prototypes.

Before I start working on a character, I collect all the information I can find first about the world he/she lives in as well as the character’s personality, age and so on. Next, I go through tons of pictures for reference. When I start sketching, I draw a series of silhouettes first in black and white with some variations.

After picking the best options from the series with the Character Art Lead, I create my version of the character (face, body) and design the costumes in grey tones, concentrating mostly on the silhouette. During the next round of iteration I move on to defining the cuts on the clothes, the accessories and the colors. I collect texture options already when searching for reference material, but they go in last.

You mention the clothes are getting made, what exactly does that mean? Do we send plans to a tailor or seamstress?

I designed the clothes and made a research for material samples as I would in a traditional costume designing process. After the design was approved by the directors and leads, I proceeded into creating the outfits in Marvellous Designer. I imported the 3D scanned Remedy’s studio doll into the program and created the patterns for the costumes along the 3D model.

Marvellous has a related program CLO3D, which is developed more for fashion designers and concentrates on the patterning part of the cloth creation. Marvellous is more for animators and game designers, so even if I was able to draw the patterns and “sew” the outfit in the program onto the studio doll, it needed some twists and turns through several programs to get the patterns printed out for a seamstress.

The patterns and textiles were delivered for a seamstress of Sankariliiga, a Helsinki-based art department company who provide sewing services along with production and special props manufacturing. Some leather accessories were ordered from Nippanappa, a company specialized in leatherworks

Did you imagine you would be designing costumes for a video game back when you were studying?

I had been considering game character costuming for years already, first only as a wild dream when in the beginning of 2000 I got interested in visual adventure games. I drifted into theatre and performance costume designing, but the game characters always stayed in the back of my head.

The possibilities of depicting reality in games increase every year and some games can already simulate for example different fabric surfaces quite accurately. Jean Gillmore, a costume designer specialized in CGI, has said that the costume has to have more logic to it, seem more real, or it becomes a distraction to the acting of the virtual character. If not properly designed, textured, rigger and animated, the garments have a plastic quality, as if they’re made of rubber or plastic, or even of the same material as the characters themselves. This isn’t acceptable to the human eye/brain, causing a disconnection.

Looking into recently released games, many character teams have an excellent view on character costuming already, but costume designers can add to the process their knowledge of materials and costume construction. My background in costuming is very tangible and human related. I wish to bring the process a touch of reality through this experience.

When I started at Remedy, I had been working with performance arts for six years, and was curious to see the world where the construction of the designed costume would be very different. I wanted to find out how I can be useful for costume design in the game industry and what the different approaches to it are. Remedy was willing to explore the cooperation between game and costume designing with me and offered a four month internship, which lead to a permanent position as Costume Artist for the character team.

Please talk about your background, what did you study and have you always wanted to be a costume designer?

I have always loved storytelling. As a child, I often made my little siblings act in plays I directed for family events. During senior high school, I wrote stories and made my own clothes and eventually heard about a study programme that trains theatre costume designers. I applied, and graduated from Mikkeli University of Applied Sciences in 2010.
Costuming is a form of visual storytelling; you can make the character’s background, age, social status and personality readable with one glance. The costume of a character also reveals facts about the surroundings: society, climate and period. You can subtly steer the undercurrents of the storyline through the costumes.

After some years in the field, I began studying at Aalto University’s Master of Arts programme in Costume Design. During the studies I became interested in technical things like 3D printing and laser cutting, and started adding them to my costume art. Suddenly the thought of designing a game character’s costume didn’t seem so distant anymore, and I applied for an internship for Remedy.

After finding hardly any literature on the subject, I decided to write my master’s thesis about costume designing in the gaming industry, so I’m working on a handbook for future costume designers willing to step into more technical methods of working with costumes.

You’ve worked in movies and theatre. What kind of experiences were those compared to working in games?

When I first started working with games, I assumed the workflow would be similar to the one already familiar to me from theatre and film. At first, my approach was very tangible: I would search and suggest fabric materials and garments for 3D scanning and my sketches were very referential.

Now I have worked with games for a while and I would say my workflow is closer to that of a character artist than a traditional costume designer. I aim to combine the best sides of both worlds, and I do keep the materials and costume construction in mind when sketching the characters. The importance of the character’s silhouette is probably the biggest similarity in these two industries.

Game creation is not a linear process. The characters, the world and the story are built up parallel, and there is only little information about the characters when you start working on them. In performance arts you often get the script and analyze the characters carefully in the very early stages of the project.

One huge difference is the lack of the actor. I’m used to having a person with their own background and personality and complexes and body type to dress, and often it’s all about supporting the actor’s work. The final result can be a compromise between me, director and the actor.

Now my subjects don’t have an opinion on what they should be wearing. It’s delightful!

You would assume that costume design for movies and theatre is limited by budget more so than in games. But while games are virtual, there still are a number different budgets: memory, processing power, availability of artists who create your design… How have you found that?

I still have a lot to learn. When we will be moving into full production, then this topic will be on the table. I’m aware of these facts and restrictions when designing, but it hasn’t been an issue yet.