Dr Fate: Digitally sculpt a superhero character
I am a digital sculptor working on collectibles. I am from Argentina but I'm living in Uruguay right now with my family. I've been in the 3D industry for the last ten years working for local films and video games, but decided to switch to collectibles two years ago to follow my passion for sculpting.
In this quick tutorial I will show my workflow for creating this piece. I used ZBrush for all the modeling, unwrapping, and texturing; 3ds Max and V-Ray for rendering, and Photoshop for final composition.
Step 01: Look for character references and concept
I usually start my fanart looking for a character who has never been done before as a collectible, or only a very few times. Once I find this character ' Dr Fate in this case - I start looking for references and reading about it so I can come up with an idea of his background and a nice way to present him. These are just a few of all the pictures I collected for this project.
Inspired by all this information and reference, I kitbashed and painted a quick concept in Photoshop.
I knew I wanted to use the golden spiral as my main compositional guide, so I tried to look for a pose that fulfilled this need. In my case the concept is just a guide for starting work, as you might see I adjusted it later to get a more dynamic and better pose.
Step 02: Pose exploration
Even though I had a concept as my main guide, I decided to try different poses to see if I could get a better and more appealing one. I used the 8 heads mannequin from ZBrush. It's a great tool for doing quick and fast poses explorations. I also blocked some quick props to get an idea of the base and the composition.
Step 03: Start sculpting
Now it was time to get my hands dirty! For sculpting, my advice is to move "from big to small." Block general shapes first, get your composition right, your silhouette, and the movement. This is very important to make your artwork appealing since this is the first thing you will notice... details come later.
I started sculpting using "Nickz_human" base mesh inside ZBrush. I adjusted the proportions a bit to make him more heroic. At this state I didn't want to get an extreme detailed mesh, only general forms and volumes. I also started blocking all the props for the main character.
Step 04: Posing
For posing I like to use the "Transpose Master plugin" inside ZBrush. One trick I learned is to save my posed mesh as a layer. You can do this by clicking the "layer" bottom in the "Transpose Master" menu. This is a great way to switch back to your T-pose for symmetrical adjustments, and also for doing your UVs (which I will later use for detailing). Since it is very easy to lose your proportions while posing the character, I like to have a base skeleton inside my mesh. This is a trick that I learned watching a tutorial made by Martin Canale.
Step 05: Detailing
Once I was satisfied with the composition and how the piece read, it was time to get into the details. Details, at least for me, are the most time consuming part of the process but not the most difficult. I make sure to have references of each detail and/or texture I want to mimic, since having references will base my piece on reality. Since I unwrapped the base mesh, now I was able to use the incredible "Noise Maker" option in the ZBrush Tool palette. It is great to add tillable textures to the mesh based on UVs.
Step 06: Creating textures
I painted some base color textures using Polypaint and extracted other maps like displacement, normal map, and cavity. I also hand-painted a very simple Ambient Occlusion map. Later on I combined them in Photoshop to get sharper details out of each texture.
Step 07: Exporting geometry
For presentation purposes I like to use V-Ray with 3ds Max. For this purpose, I had to decimate the model to lower the amount of polygons since 3ds Max doesn't support the high resolution model from ZBrush, which ended up having like 80 million polygons. After the decimation process I ended up having 4 to 5 million polygons in total. I decimated all my SubTools, keeping the UVs so I could use the textures inside 3ds Max, and then I exported each SubTool as an OBJ file.
Step 08: Lighting and materials
Now it's time to play with lighting and materials! I started with a three light set up which I then modified to get the lighting I like for this particular project. I usually look for a strong rim light with a soft fill light. As for materials, I used the basic Vray-Mtl with all the textures I extracted in ZBrush and custom values in the glossiness slot.
Step 09: Rendering and final composition
For further composition I rendered a few passes: ZDepth, Render ID, Specular, Reflection, Self illumination, and Raw Lighting. I then combined them inside Photoshop. I also hand-painted small details and corrected errors that appeared in the rendered pictures.