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Mysterious monster designs with ZBrush

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Date Added: 15th December 2016
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Visual effects artist Aram Hakze reveals the process behind his towering Lovecraftian horror, Nautilus


In this making of Aram Hakze will take you through his ZBrush workflow for creating Nautilus, a gigantic creature straight out of your nightmares!

Step 01: Photographic inspiration

I tend to draw a lot of inspiration from my surroundings and took a couple of photos during a visit to the beach when inspiration struck. My idea was to create a Lovecraftian creature that would feel very alien and have some ambiguous features. I liked the idea of a giant creature lumbering over the beach and quickly combined a couple of photos to create a frame. I wanted the focus of the image to be the creature and use an interesting stage or narrative to present the design.

I like to keep a camera handy for when inspiration strikes

Step 02: Starting to sculpt

This was an exercise in design for me and I wanted to focus most of my attention on the creature. What made this stage fun was improvisation and being creative. I wanted to create something alien but also tried to think of functionality when creating new shapes. It's important to start working in broad strokes and make harsh decisions early on. As you progress you can add subdivisions and start to refine your model. I used ZBrush's UV Master to create the UVs.

I used the Move, Snakehook and Curve Tube brushes a lot in the beginning stages

Step 03: Skin texture

Even though MARI is my main tool for texture painting, mainly for of its non-destructive workflow and high-resolution texture capabilities, for efficiency purposes I decided to quickly lay in the base of the creature using Spotlight in ZBrush. When creating a color map it's important that values relate to the albedo of the object in real life. Albedo is essentially the reflective power of a surface; for example, something that's white reflects a lot of light and should have higher values than something that's dark. For physical accuracy it's important to keep values between 0 and 1.

The creature's skin is textured after the pattern found on a nautilus

Step 04: Different surfaces

I created various masks because I wanted to control the different surface aspects of the crevices. Dirt usually collects in crevices, making them more diffuse, whereas exposed parts may be glossier. This is also useful for layering on top of your initial color map. Subsurface scattering (SSS) can drown out a lot of the detail and I find it helpful to enhance that in my color map. For control purposes, this can also be of great help when using specular and displacement maps.

Isolation maps created using cavity masking in ZBrush

Step 05: Adding an HDRi

KeyShot's progressive render capabilities are perfect to make on the fly decisions regarding surface light interaction. I knew what the environment was like where I shot my plate so I chose one of KeyShot's out of the box HDRi's and used HDRi editor to crudely match the light direction. Because I had already established a specific look earlier I knew exactly which material attributes to render. I used a 35mm lens on my camera and made sure I rendered out ground reflections since the creature would be standing in the water.

Editing an HDRi using the HDRi editor

Step 06: Render passes

After loading my model and textures in KeyShot I created a couple of shaders; I rendered these out using various settings in passes. By layering the passes in Photoshop I established the final look of the creature. Because my final result would be presented as a still I didn't worry too much about the shader. In an asset production environment you would spend a lot more time on this because it needs to hold up in motion. By painting isolation masks to control different aspects in a shader or even layering shaders using masks to control material attributes.

Various material and lighting passes

Step 07: Bring everything together

When matching CG to a live action plate try to breakdown what's happening in real live as light travels through a camera. Mimicking effect like lens distortion, chromatic aberration, and matching grain will help sell the believability of your image. Always refer back to the original plate for focus and shadow values.

I duplicated the creature's alpha channel and set the top layer to dissolve, merged them and did a slight blur to get some edge breakup so that it matches better with the plate. I also added a bit of fog and graded the lighting passes.

Working on the integration of the creature with the background

Step 08: The final image

Even though this is a concept piece I wanted the image to have a certain believability. To create a narrative and to give the image a sense of scale, I placed a character and crash-landed space capsule in the frame using various photo references. The idea was that an astronaut had just returned to find Earth in a ravaged state and devoid of all modern communication, and managed to get to shore safely only to be left in a maddened state shortly after an encounter with one of Earth's new denizens.

Final steps

Related links

To see more of Aram's work check out his website
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