I wanted to create a slightly stylised UN soldier of the not-so-distant future. I first visualised a concept in my head and then started to gather reference material. I think it's important that you always check photos or any real source material you can get your hands on. That way you don't end up with clichéd ideas or any replicated mistakes. On the other hand, if you hang on too much to reference material then you might get stuck and fixated on tiny or secondary things that don't really matter. So it might be good to first do a visual study of the subject to define what you want to see in the finished picture - not just a rough sketch which might leave too many questions open.
I wanted to make many details in the "old fashioned" way - modelling the hard body objects accurately, and not sculpting them, as is often done for game models, for example. I don't think this approach works too well for high resolution characters as you end up with smudgy, blobby parts that resemble more of a wax sculpture than an actual machined metal or plastic item.
When I had gathered parts that I thought looked good, I then started to mix and match, testing what parts and style of accessories and weapons would actually work together. I also had some sort of realism issues in mind; how the clothing would serve its purpose in use, and how weapons could be accessed and used, etc.
Modelling Body & Head
I worked on this model on and off during a long period when I had some spare time available. I started with a custom body mesh (Fig.01 - base mesh), later cutting the base mesh head out and replacing it with a separate head model so I could achieve more detail to the head without going into too high resolution (Fig.02 - head sculpting in progress). Note: I UV-mapped the base mesh in advance.
I decided to build the model into a pose that I could rig relatively easily, to allow some posing and basic movement without certain areas breaking up too much. I didn't spend too much time on modelling the body; I mainly tried to get the overall proportions and mass how I wanted them to be. After all, the body was going to be mostly covered by clothes, except for the arms and head. The body would provide an important template upon which I would build all the clothes and accessories.
The head went through a few stages of evolution until I ended up with the slightly stylised look that I wanted (Fig.03 - finished head sculpt). I wanted to avoid the use of a bump map and made the skin details directly on the sculpt, which were then baked into a displacement map.
Modelling the Combat Vest & Other Accessories
I started working on the details literally from the ground up; first the boot and then the trousers. It was probably not the most effective way of working, but this was my 'spare time' project and so I took the time that I wanted to give. I created base meshes for all of the clothing and accessories, modelling most of the seam creases, chamfers and bevels so that I wouldn't have to sculpt them in ZBrush. This way I could get a clean and neat end result (Fig.04 - actual mesh resolution). I built the hard body details like the plastic locks, rings and buttons with the same method.
In short, I used the same kind of methodology for all parts - trousers, shirt, gloves, combat vest, pockets and kneepads - just going through the initial draft meshes and building seams and details. You can find many tutorials on 3DTotal about how to do these kinds of details, so I don't want to go too much into that in this article.
Most of the accessory parts I built with solid 3D geometry, with thickness and backsides to avoid problems in the final render stage; however, some of the relatively thin details I made as 2D surfaces and used double-sided materials for them as they are 2-3mm thick in real life.
Many parts were modelled by acquiring the shape from the base surface, like the body. I took a copy of the mesh, then used cut or connect to extract a surface for straps, for example. Then I refined these surfaces with edit poly tools. This way I could easily build a shirt, combat vest, pockets, and most of the other details, saving the hassle of starting from some primitive shape, like a box.
I also spent quite a while moving and adjusting certain surface areas so that they didn't intersect much and would provide a realistic look of the layered clothing. When I had the base meshes ready, I checked them with a homemade tool made by my brother, Sami (a set of analysis tools for bad modelling). After this, I ended up with a neat tri- and quad-poly mesh that could be sculpted on with no worries in ZBrush.
I used standard 3ds Max UV mapping tools; I made all parts unique with no overlapping to enable artefact-free baking (Fig.05 - UV mapping layout example).
I spent quite a lot of time on hard body objects, creating the details and functional parts that would fit together neatly. I also built the seams and chamfers in real scale, not exaggerating them. They might not show up in these smaller renders, but I felt it would provide a bit more realism. I built most of the meshes to the actual resolution I'd render them in, so they would work without any subdivisions. And I designed the additional P90 weapon system modules myself, based loosely on real designs, and built all of them on an accessory rail where they were attached with bolts (Fig.06 - P90 wireframe; Fig.07 - P90 clay render; Fig.08 - P90 parts; Fig.09 & 10 - P90 finished).