Game of Thrones – Winter is Coming: Creating World Class Character Art

  • Film

The talented team at RealtimeUK honored Game of Thrones and fans of the famous series by nailing the recreation of our favorite characters… with only reference images! Check out how they managed to achieve this feat with Substance Painter.


Hi, my name is David Weaver and as a senior character artist at RealtimeUK I am responsible for creating some of the characters for our cinematics department. My responsibilities include modeling, texturing, look development and grooming hair and fur.


We’re a VFX and animation studio with a core team of 40, split over two locations in the UK and lots of extra space to scale up for bigger projects. Our foundations are cinematic trailers for games, such as SMITE, War Thunder, and Jurassic World. But we also have a world-leading Automotive Department and recently had a big break into TV, which should be on screens very soon. Basically, we love creating visually stunning content for all audiences.

Game of Thrones – Winter is Coming cinematic

We were approached by the game developer Yoozoo Games and it just so happens that they had acquired the use of the Game of Thrones IP. They needed a studio to create a truly authentic representation of the Game of Thrones universe, and they felt a UK studio would already have a grasp on the aesthetic. They wanted a studio that had experience working with a Chinese developer and had previously been trusted with a Hollywood IP. Since we’d just produced Jurassic World for Tencent it all kind of fell into place!

We’re all massive fans of the show, so this project was a dream to work on. That came with huge pressure, as we know how well-known and loved the characters are all over the world – so we had to nail the quality and create a truly authentic GoT experience for the viewer.

Still from the trailer

Our task was to introduce the viewers to the official HBO licensed game and create a trailer that was authentic to the TV show in every way. The message of the trailer is the impending threat of ‘winter is coming’ and how that links the key houses from the show as they prepare for what is to come. The trailer is split into two sections – one literal, showing the characters in real locations from the show, and the other more abstract, showing the sigils that represent the houses being overcome with the frost of winter. We decided internally that the raven was going to be the thread that wove through the two separate sections and illustrated the journey of the message of war. The trailer was designed to be a teaser for the epic battles that would follow!

This was the first time we’d been tasked with creating CG versions of well-known characters, and there’s nothing like jumping in at the deep end! And to top off the complexity of the task, we knew from the start that we would not have access to the actors or any scan data. So, the search for references began; the client provided some good onset photography which was especially helpful for the clothing, and apart from that the whole team scoured the web for any material we could find.

Character Art

As we were working on a well-known property, we wanted to match the look and feel of the show as closely as possible. Because we didn’t have access to scan data, there was a lot of back and forth between sculpting in ZBrush, doing some renders from different angles and comparing those to the onset photography that we’d received from the client. Once I was relatively happy with the facial proportions, I would do a quick head texture, a quick hair groom and move forward from there, tweaking all of the different areas as I went along.

Still from the trailer

Our Workflow

The characters were sculpted in ZBrush then rendered with VRay in 3ds Max with the hair and fur done with Ornatrix. Texturing was done in Mari and Substance Painter, with Mari tackling the heads and Substance Painter for everything else.

Jaime and Cersei Groom

Our use of Substance

Once modeling was finished we would go into Substance Painter and create the first pass of all the materials, export the textures and create a render in our look development scene. From there we would go back into Substance Painter and make changes as required until the asset was signed off. Occasionally, when an asset goes to Lighting it might require further fine-tuning, so we’d go back into Substance Painter, make the relevant changes and output the textures again which would then automatically filter down to the Lighting department so that they could continue with their shots.

Jaime and Cersei Look Dev

Cersei and Jaime Lannister Substance Breakdown

Cersei and Jaime were modeled using a combination of ZBrush and 3ds Max with the hard surface parts tackled in 3ds Max and the heads, hands and soft clothing parts sculpted in ZBrush. Once the base meshes were final, they were unwrapped into UDIMs and the various clothing parts were sent to Substance Painter along with any normal maps generated from ZBrush. Those normal maps were then loaded into each UDIM so that the curvature and world space normals could be calculated using the high res detail from the model without having to send the displaced high poly to Substance Painter.


Once the mesh maps are set up and baked and each UDIM has a description (This makes navigation and keeping track a lot easier… Jaime’s upper armor alone has 18 UDIMs) I created a folder for each material type and set up a base fill layer using only a solid color for the base colour and adjusting the sliders for the other properties. This base would then be instanced across the relevant UDIMs so that I could globally change the base values across each material type if needed.

Then I created individual folders for the material properties (color, height, rough, metal, normal) and added fill layers with procedurals and grunge textures. I like to separate my material properties per folder as it allows me to be able to turn off individual details or change the tiling on any particular aspect without it having any effect on the other properties. This also means that if I do a render and I’m not happy with a certain property – roughness, for example – I can quickly go to the roughness folder and all the layers I need to change are right there; I’m not having to go up and down the layer stack finding individual roughness layers nesting in with other properties. Then it’s a case of adding all of the details I want and exporting all of the textures as well as saving out the masks that are needed for blending the dust and dirt shaders on top of the whole armor.

UDIM and stack viewport

Tips & Tricks

At present when masking you can’t have layers only affect the next layer underneath, so if you add a Levels or a Filter, the whole mask stack is affected and this may not be the desired result. In this case, you can create a new folder and move the masked material into that. Now you can add a mask to that new folder and you are essentially masking your original mask. Any Filters you add to the Folder Mask will only affect the layers for the folder and won’t affect the layers in the Material Mask underneath.

Mask trick

Coming next in Substance

Being able to marquee select areas and warp them with a grid would be quite useful as well as having the same built-in balance and contrast controls when using imported textures.

Next Projects

I can’t actually say what we’re currently working on, but it most definitely uses Substance Painter as it has helped us create a lot of character variations in a short amount of time.

Final Words

Substance makes texturing and lookdev so much fun; it’s great being able to get that real-time feedback. So I’m always excited to see what new features are going to be added next.

All images courtesy of RealtimeUK.

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