Brainstorming and creating a modern day Wizard in 3D


As a 3D generalist with zero drawing skills, sometimes I have the urge to create something exclusively from my imagination, which makes it hard to find fitting references. I’ll explain how I develop my ideas directly in 3D, make decisions, and deal with dead ends in a ZBrush/Arnold workflow using displacement maps.

character design model render skateboarding 3d

Gathering ideas

First I’ll list some personal requirements to narrow my process:

  • I want to tell a story
  • No generic poses
  • I want to avoid a scenario or background influence
  • Travelling or moving in some kind of vehicle

I decided to create a teenage student who is late for a school day. After some thoughts, I chose to focus on two keywords to build the scene’s atmosphere around: “hurry” and “clumsy.” The young wizard Presto from the D&D 80s cartoon has a nice design with easy gaps to fit modern references. About the traveling aspect, I decided to make him ride a skateboard, a modern day object related to his age, and being late for his school appointment.

photos references research visual imagery tips

Warming up

Here I did a two-day warming up to exercise some ideas, feelings, and to brainstorm in a more active way, always keeping the polycount as low as possible to focus on the blocking step and main curves. The face is an exception here and I can increase the polycount to capture the facial expressions more, which is relevant to the atmosphere of the scene.

Day 1 took me 2 hours, slowly pushing the volume, incubating ideas. Day 2 took me the whole day, I did him looking at the GPS for directions.

Self-critique and strategy

My previous sketch lost the meaning of clumsy/hurry. He was relaxed, comfy, and the scene felt static. I started over with him holding the skate tightly, holding his hat (I forgot that the wind would blow it away), trying to gain more speed, while looking for the correct direction. I changed the GPS idea for earphones. The GPS would be hard to make it visually understandable while earphones are an instant visual code for music. Besides that, the cable can be an extra element to build shapes pointing to our character’s face, adding more dynamism and composition emphasis.

I did a small bird helping him. An animal companion is commonly used with wizards and witches, such as owls, frogs, and cats.

3D modeling hints

As a base advice to ease all my modeling stage and future processes, I’ll always work with polygroups in strategic areas, such as nose, chin, ears, separate fingers, cloak sleeves, and intern/external cloak. Some decisions I took for this project:

  • I didn’t bother using symmetry in the clothes and body parts. My whole scene will be asymmetric and it’s a good exercise to force symmetry by hand sometimes. I distorted some shapes unrealistically to do some stretch-and-squash which I personally love. We gain more dynamism, better curves/shapes, and more flavor to the scene.
  • The whip-effect that the wind causes in the earphones, shoelaces, hair and cloth, are essential. Not just shaping it from our camera view, but in all axes.
  • I’ll make the speed force pull his back to give a feeling of pressure and create an empty space between the cloak and the bag to improve the silhouette readability.
Polygroups, distortion, and asymmetry; (2) Hat, hair, cables, tie, and shoelaces curved by the wind; (3) New silhouette

(1) Polygroups, distortion, and asymmetry; (2) Hat, hair, cables, tie, and shoelaces curved by the wind;
(3) New silhouette

ZBrush to Maya/Arnold setting the scene

Bringing it to Maya will help us feel the ambient/light better, as an extra verifier to our choices. It’s fundamental to be using the same camera framework and depth in ZBrush and Maya.

  1. For this , I’ll place the camera in Maya carefully, trying to copy my main work view from ZBrush, then export as a FBX file and import to ZBrush, selecting “Import camera only.” My camera view will be accessible in ZBrush Draw > Channels.
  2. Use the “Set Project” in Maya to keep the project perfectly organized (File>Project > Project Window). All files will be stored in its proper folders: Textures, renders, xGen file, and so on.
  3. For the lighting, only two lights are used to inspect the model and a skyDomeLight “overclouds” HDRI texture to set the mood for now.
zbrush maya arnold setting scenery modeling rendering

ZBrush to Maya/Arnold Displacement main workflow

Back at ZBrush, I’ll progress with the work, refining the main parts even more. I’ll duplicate a desired mesh, using zremesher to get access to a low-poly version, generating a provisory UV map by ZBrush plug-in UV Master, dividing it (Ctrl&D), and projecting the details from the previous mesh onto the divided level and following the displacement map. There’s a flawless tutorial that I use. From now on, I’ll bring all meshes (even the rough ones) to have an overall view with a better light set and decent shadows.

zbrush maya arnold displacement main  rendering

Back and forth

I’ll be dancing between modeling-texturing-shading with ZBrush, Maya, and Substance Painter for a while, but these principles are still:

  • Thinking from large to small
  • Self-critique and no over-attachment
  • Being strategic, picking changes with criteria

To avoid setbacks, some hints I follow:

  • Prioritize the important/bigger meshes
  • Improve UV maps by hand in Maya only when it’s necessary in further steps
  • Avoid using brushes by hand in Substance for now; instead, use color blocking and procedures with triplanar projection

We will be rendering many times. It’s important to keep the render samples (pixels density) low/medium to avoid pushing our computers unnecessarily because we’re not checking small parts yet. I’ll keep my resolution at 1k maximum for now.

zbrush maya substance rendering colour blocking rendering

Testing color blocking, improving the bird, and removing the plastic buckles from the bag to prioritize the buttons.

A step further

Now I’m comfortable to do some meshes, to finish the UV maps with extra care (bag, shoes, and skate) and to detail some textures by hand. Besides that, some more advanced and specific choices I made:

  • I had the eye mesh/shader ready from an old project, I just brought it in and adapted it for the owl. Similar/better results can be done using this guide
  • The hair is bigger than the one Presto has in the cartoon. I decided to keep it long because it works well with the whip effect and doesn’t mischaracterize him too much. I made a small keychain hanging in the bag to add some contrast with a discreet whip effect.
meshing shading rendering character design sky model

Checking small parts

Now we’ll dive from big/medium inspection to small. I’ll increase the render samples and the resolution to 2k to check the texture for adjustments that I want to test:

  • Reduce (depth and scale) fabric normal map
  • Improve the dirt and add some in the silvertape
  • Fix the normal map
  • Adjust the proportion of the wood texture
  • The colors in the creases are too dark
checking detailing inspection textures adjustments

Post-production: hair & masks

When I do hair with mesh, I like to render a bald version (just a portion to not render the whole scene again) and a hair mask to enable me to do smoother transitions of hair in Photoshop. The bald version comes in a layer below, above comes the normal one plus the mask. Inside the mask I’ll hide with a soft brush some hard-shaded hair and reveal some skin below. It’s a detail that sometimes can’t even be spotted, but it bothers me a lot letting it without an adjustment.

To create perfect masks in a displacement workflow, I enable the “matte” option in all Arnold materials and set the Opacity to 1 (attributes tab, scroll down). The hair material will be assigned white and the other components black. This can be used to control any aspect and any asset in Photoshop.

post production rendering displacement workflow matte options

Post-production: final

I like to leave some light adjustments for Photoshop, because it’s easier, faster, and I don’t overcharge my PC processing light intensity/position. Besides that, I can quickly mask parts I don’t want, allowing me to have more control. For that, I duplicate the final render, push level/contrast/exposure a bit and mask only the places I want it. Later I’ll adjust the opacity to not overdo it.

post production final photoshop rendering modeling

Check out 3dtotal's character design contest #2

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