Sculpting concepts for film

Concept artist Ben Mauro is a master of ZBrush sketching! Here he shares how he uses ZBrush to develop his ideas for film...

Concept artist Ben Mauro is a master of ZBrush sketching! Here he shares how he uses ZBrush to develop his ideas for film...

Here is a small selection of early models and 3D sketches done for various personal works over the years. As I began working in the film industry at Weta Workshop, 3D began to play an important role in visualizing ideas for directors and any other clients that came along.

Previously, all my designs would have been visualized in 2D, which was a great way to establish the design direction (which I still use now) but once approved it would need to be built and interpreted by someone else down the line. With programs like ZBrush getting so user-friendly, it was very easy to make the jump and integrate ZBrush into my workflow and be able to show rough ideas of the entire design quickly from all angles to get it approved. Once approved, my design moves forward to model-makers and the VFX artist and there is very little interpretation needed on the design. This way the 3D design translates almost 1:1 to the final product, which is a very satisfying thing to see.

While I still think sketching out ideas in 2D is the fastest way to visualize them, the benefits of working in 3D pay off in the long term exponentially. This is especially true with rendering tools like KeyShot and others, which allow us to have our designs represented in a near photographic level from all angles very easily, whereas doing something similar in 2D would take a much longer time to accomplish.

A rough model Ben made for a much more polished illustration. He used the sketch to show functions that he was unable to illustrate in the final version.
© Ben Mauro

Inspiration and ideas

Most of my inspiration is from reading books, watching good films, looking at nature and the real world (robotics, science, technology etc), and finding interesting ways to mix and interpret what I see.

I usually start exploring designs in 3D, starting with a sphere or another basic primitive form, and then (if organic) begin pulling out forms with the SnakeHook tool and DynaMesh to allow me to quickly block out any form I desire.

One way I like to start on creature design (if I feel like I am getting stale or having trouble coming up with something different) is to make a reference page of a particular subject such as whales, sharks, ants and so on, and using that as my source, come up with 10-15 different ideas in around 10-15 minutes each. In 3D it is very easy to get attached to a sculpture, or sit there and detail something beyond whats necessary that isnt working very well; so if you are getting stuck, this is one way to come up with multiple solutions that might be more interesting than the design you were starting to finalize.

A primate demo done for one of Bens classes.
© Ben Mauro

Another in-class demo from one of Bens classes showing the students how to learn from nature, in this case: Orangutans.
© Ben Mauro


My main software used for 3D is ZBrush, KeyShot and Photoshop. I find them to be the most flexible and versatile in order to work quickly and generate as many ideas as possible to meet tight deadlines. I use ZBrush mainly for sculpting and rendering, but when there is a bit more time or the subject matter is more hard-surfaced I will also use KeyShot, as the program offers such fantastic rendering quality (though it can take some time to make it work sometimes).

Another class demo creating a creature inspired by nature. In this case the source insect was a trilobite beetle.
© Ben Mauro

This crab-inspired creature was created as a demo in a class that Ben was teaching.
© Ben Mauro

Sketching workflow

My main sketching workflow usually starts out with the SnakeHook brush and DynaMesh for blocking out the main forms I am after. Then I cut in with the DamStandard brush, in combination with the Inflate brush, Clay Buildup and H Polish occasionally to block out and refine most of the forms and design features.

Once the main form is blocked out, I will go in with Alphas and apply some simple surface textures/details to differentiate materials (bumpy skin, horns, scratches, smooth areas, etc) adding more interest to the design, and then going back in and integrating everything together, smoothing things out and sharpening where necessary.

This was a rough sculpt of the hero character for an aquatic-themed personal project that Ben later refined by adding costume/prop elements.
© Ben Mauro

A preliminary concept model. After adding materials and weathering in KeyShot and Photoshop, Ben was able to turn this into a highly polished piece of concept art in a very short time.
© Ben Mauro

Top tip 01: Keep clear goals

One thing I have come to learn is to always keep the end result in mind for the job you are working on. It is very easy to get caught up in a sculpture and waste time in 3D if you dont have a clear goal in mind. So my advice would always be to think about the final result.

For me, this is usually a finished piece of concept art, so while you are designing in 3D always think to yourself Am I going to see this area in the final painting? If not, then stop spending time on that area and move on to some other focal points that will be seen.

Another thing to consider is deciding whether it is better to sculpt certain details or let photographs or textures in Photoshop take care of the work for you. Always be very aware of what is or is not possible in each program and use the most efficient methods to achieve a polished final result to meet your deadlines.

Organic, mechanical creature inspired by old 1980s model kits by Japanese artists like Makoto Kobayashi and Kow Yokoyama.
© Ben Mauro

Top tip 02: Practice speed-sculpting

Another exercise I would recommend, sort of similar to doing 10-15 quick designs to shake things up when you are getting stale, is to try to sculpt/paint/render a design in 3 hours. I had to do this while I was preparing for a 3-hour demo I agreed to. At first I was worried that it wasnt possible under that time frame, as at the time I would spend all day thinking and working out a finished painting. But since I only had 3 hours for the demo I decided to start testing myself, so I set the timer on my phone for 3 hours and every night would see what was possible within the time limit. The first few nights were nothing special but after the third night I found I was able to achieve quite nice results/designs within that timeframe something I would not have thought possible had I not needed to prepare for this timed demo.

This is one of the early 3-hour timed warm-ups Ben created while preparing for the demo he was asked to do.
© Ben Mauro

Related links

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