Design alien explorers in ZBrush

Discover how James Suret brought these alien archeologists and their enormous mech to life using ZBrush

Aspiring concept artist James Suret walks us through the ZBrush process for his Relic Seekers project, combining organic and mechanoid designs with a subtle narrative to draw the viewer in.

Creating the alien in ZBrush

In ZBrush I usually start creature models off using ZSpheres to create basic anatomy, unless I want them to look humanoid. Here, I started with ZSpheres and then turned them into a PolyMesh using the adaptive skin function. Using the Inflate and Clay brushes I built up the limbs and joints to rough out the form.

Next, I used DynaMesh to create an even mesh and the Move brush to pull out larger shapes, using the DamStandard brush to start cutting details into the torso and head area. At this point I started to decide what the aliens muscle and bone structure would look like.

By starting with ZSpheres you can quickly make unique anatomy

By starting with ZSpheres you can quickly make unique anatomy

Adding detail to the head

The body was almost done, so I moved on to refine the details on the head. I used DynaMesh again with an increased poly count.

The eyes were created from basic spheres and the large mandibles were sculpted into the jaw, pulling them down with the SnakeHook brush. I then decided to add more mandibles underneath, using ZSpheres to make a smaller set, duplicating and resizing them.

I also started to add some rough skin texture to the head using an alpha mask with the Standard brush. The current poly count of this model is 1.9mil.

Adding details to the head using ZSpheres and brushes combined with alpha masks

Adding details to the head using ZSpheres and brushes combined with alpha masks

Adding accessories

Next I turned off the symmetry and posed the limbs of the character using soft Masking and Transpose tools. I decided I wanted to make the alien look intelligent and perhaps an elder of its race so I added some accessories: a portable holographic tracking device and a cape. The cape was created from a basic plane, using DynaMesh and sculpting the shape with the Clay and Move brush. A chain was adding using a mesh insert with Curve mode.

I then divided the alien's mesh and added the surface details such as wrinkles and veins using alpha masks again.

Adding accessories to the alien gave him more character

Adding accessories to the alien gave him more character

Creating the mech

In order to make the mech look like it was created by the aliens, I made the design resemble the alien's anatomy. I started by creating a ZSphere skeleton and used the ZSketch feature to build up the mesh, adding layers of mass on top of the ZSpheres to rough out the form. After converting the ZSpheres and ZSketch in to PolyMesh I merged them together and used DynaMesh to create an even mesh layout to start sculpting.

At that point I was experimenting with the idea of the mech being bio-mechanical and working as a symbiont with the alien. But I later decided to change the flesh into hard surfaces and made it completely mechanical as well as adding a cockpit for the alien pilot.

The initial stages of the mech's development from ZSketch to high resolution mesh

The initial stages of the mech's development from ZSketch to high resolution mesh

Adding details to the mech

Using the DamStandard brush I carved out the interior details in the cockpit and using the Flatten brush I polished the surfaces down. Then I added more details to the exterior of the cockpit using the mesh inserts library that comes with ZBrush to create a viewfinder, handles and vents.

I also added vents and wiring to the back of the mech using the same method and ports for the tentacles to attach to. I shaped the outer shell of the legs using the Move, Pinch and Flatten brushes. The mechanical parts were created using several mesh inserts assembled together.

The leg and torso details were created with multiple insert meshes

The leg and torso details were created with multiple insert meshes

Creating the hands and tentacles

To create the probes, hands and fingers I used more of the mesh inserts that come with ZBrush. They were assembled together and split into Polygroups ready for posing later.

The tentacles' start, end and middle pieces were created as one SubTool split into three Polygroups, which was then turned into a tri-part insert mesh. With Curve Mode enabled, I drew out the line for the tentacle tri-part insert mesh to fill. I then added the fingers to the end of tentacles as a separate SubTool in order to pose them individually.

  The hands and tentacles were separated into multiple Polygroups to allow posing of individual parts

The hands and tentacles were separated into multiple Polygroups to allow posing of individual parts

Lighting and rendering in ZBrush

Initially I kept the default light on and changed the resolution of the BPR shadow to 8000 to sharpen the shadows. The focus for the first render was details and edges. To do this I set the material for the whole model to dj_zsketchsunup which is available from the Pixologic download center. The default settings for this material looked too strong so I turned down the cavity detection to 0.25 which creates a smoother look.

After saving the render I changed the material to BasicMaterial, turned off the default light and loaded a LightCap file consisting of lights with different intensities and angles. This render simulated Global Illumination giving a soft overall shade to the model. For this render I also turned on AO (Ambient Occlusion), set the Resolution to 8000 and the Blur to 2. I then saved the render, AO and mask layers.

I repeated this step from several different camera angles and distances in order to have options for the final image.

Lighting and material setup in ZBrush

Compositing the renders in Photoshop

Next I brought the renders in to Photoshop, starting with the LightCap render. Then I added the AO layer and set the blend mode to Pin Light at 50% which smoothes out the sharp shadows. Next the detail/edges layer was added and I set its mode to screen, which adds highlights and a bit of rim lighting. I duplicated the AO layer on top and set its mode to Multiply at 50% which darkens the shadows. Finally, I created a simple gradient background for each shot, applied a Noise filter and assembled them on to a larger canvas.

Render passes from ZBrush and the layer setup in Photoshop

<h5>The final image</h5>

The final image

Top Tip 1: Tell the viewer a story

If your aim is to create a character concept or illustration your final image will have much more impact if it tells a story in some way. You want the viewer to feel like they have caught the scene mid-action or that it is part of a larger story.

Top Tip 2: Alternate smoothing

If you're trying to smooth an area of the mesh out but not getting the results you want, try letting go of the Shift key whilst still holding down the mouse button - ZBrush will use an alternative smoothing method.

Standard smoothing (left), alternate smoothing (right)

Standard smoothing (left), alternate smoothing (right)

Top Tip 3: Softer masking

When posing organic characters you usually need to create smooth bends - for example, the elbow or knee. As well as blurring the mask by holding Ctrl and clicking on it several times, you can hold down the Ctrl key, lower the RGB opacity and draw out a softer mask.

Standard mask (left), mask with 20% RGB intensity (right)

Standard mask (left), mask with 20% RGB intensity (right)

Top Tip 4: Using a LightCap

When using LightCap lighting in your scene, be sure to switch your material to one of the standard materials such as BasicMaterial. MatCap materials won't render properly with a LightCap because MatCap materials have their own lighting baked in to them. Also, turn off the default light under the Light menu before rendering.

Related links

Have a look at more of James' work on his website
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